TALKING NATURAL WINE WITH WINE DIRECTOR SIERRA ECHEGARAY
GrandLife sat down with wine director Sierra Echegaray of Leo in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Known for its sourdough and pizza, Leo also has an incredible natural wine program. We were drawn to speak to Sierra as she runs an eclectic program and features many small winemakers that you may not usually come across. She came from the program at Four Horsemen, which features a very Avant-Garde selection as well as many classical bottles that she was able to use as her library to learn more about wine over her course there. From finding a moody bottle of wine to suit you on a sullen day to a bright beautiful bottle to celebrate life with, Sierra has you covered. Wine is all for pleasure, from making to drinking to serving. Enjoy!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about how you came to New York and came to be doing what you’re doing?
Sierra Echegaray: I came to New York almost immediately after I graduated high school. I got into FIT for fine arts; the focus was going to be painting, but the program wasn’t as intensive and aspirational as I was hoping. At the same time, I had gotten a job at Marlow & Daughters, this was early 2012, and I was spending as much time there as I could away from school. It was so much more immersive getting to know local farmers, getting to know the people that worked there, the people that worked at Diner, Marlow & Sons, and Romans. The food that came out of that place was so awe-inspiring, and the relationships that I built were so deep. I just fell in love with it and dropped out of school.
Did you have much exposure to the food and wine scene before you moved to New York?
SE: I did because there was this place in the town where I grew up called The Fifth Season. It was a meshing of all four seasons into one. Most of their produce was local and they had a lot of seasonally driven menu items. I often forget about it, but that restaurant definitely shaped my understanding of agriculture and the availability of certain produce during certain periods of the year.
Would you say it was your interest in food that drew you towards wine?
SE: I got into wine largely due to my experience at Marlow & Daughters—going upstate and visiting produce farmers, visiting livestock farmers, and working with them in tandem to understand the process and to understand why it’s so important to experience everyday, basic farming practices, especially those rooted in sustainable agriculture. My path was unconventional in that I didn’t do any of the basic sommelier courses or classes or learn about conventional wine, I just went straight into natural wine. I started working at Wildair and it aligned so tightly with what I already knew. The ideas and the functionality behind not using pesticides and herbicides and not using preservatives was all in my core.
Let’s talk more about the trajectory of your path; What did you do after Wildair?
SE: It’s been a wonderful meandering of building relationships not only with farmers and winemakers but with the community here in New York, and California. After a while at Wildair, I applied to work in a farm-to-table restaurant in the middle of nowhere in south-central France. This place is called Auberge Des Chassignolles. It’s a seasonal hotel and they grow pretty much all of their own produce. I was hired for the summer season to be a bread baker and wine person….The Auberge is known for its relationships with farmers and winemakers all around France. The winemakers would come, share their wine, we would buy cases of it, cook dinner for them. We also put on a wine fair, that year it was about 15 producers, and it’s all the same people that I work with still to this day. After that, I came back to New York and started working with Four Horsemen, and at the same time, started working with a wine importer based out of San Francisco called Josh Eubank and the importing company is Percy Selections, which has winemakers with arguably some of the most dogmatic approaches to winemaking.
You’re now at Leo as the wine director. What I really like about Leo and about you is that you get to know the people who come here and it’s almost like you use your intuition to serve them a perfect bottle of wine that they may never have tried before. Is introducing people to new wines a big part of the excitement of the job for you?
SE: It’s the number one thing for me. I absolutely adore it….To serve a table a bottle of wine gives me so much pleasure….It’s about getting to know people, know who they are and what their moods are by asking the questions, “Hi, how are you? What do you want today? How do you want it and why?”
What are some recommendations for people who are interested in natural wine but perhaps don’t know where to begin?
SE: I think that first, you have to find people that you trust at a shop or restaurant; go there and speak to them about what you like, what you enjoy. People are so intrigued by orange wines—I think you need to give it to them soft rather than giving them stuff with a lot of volatile acidity or too many aromatics because you’re just going to polarize people. People can then develop an appreciation for how natural wine can be elegant, can be vertical, and composed, and still natural….It also helps to have a good friend who likes natural wine.
Can you give us a few recommendations for New York:
Best spot for a happy hour drink…
All the hours are happy for drinking but if we’re speaking time of day, I love a margarita at Atla before dinner time.
Most awe-inspiring farm-to-table dining experience…
There’s a farm in the Catskills called Lucky Dog Farm. They supply a lot of wholesale vegetables to many restaurants here in the city via the greenmarkets. I once had a friend invite me to a dinner he was cooking there, and they took us on a tour of the farm. We helped pick the vegetables we were to eat that evening, and I helped my friend make this very nourishing delicious simple meal for a few people in town and those who work on the farm with these incredible organic ingredients from upstate—so potent. It’s so nice to do something for people that work so hard for the produce you covet!
Most eclectic wine store…
My love for Henry’s in Bushwick knows no bounds. Easy place to feel the joy of discovery, scanning the whole room for the treasures there for an hour. And the staff are rad as well!
WORDS Illyse Singer