Zwann Grays & Loire Valley Wines
Sommelier and Founder of Zwann’s Wine Club Zwann Grays talks to us about the importance of language in wine, incredible Southern food pairings, and why she’ll always love the Loire Valley.
Zwann Grays is a wine industry dynamo based in New York City whose creative, no-holds-barred approach to wine has quickly made her a standout. In addition to curating a dynamic range of selections for her mailing list members, the Houston native serves as a sommelier at the Michelin-rated Pinch Chinese in New York’s vibrant SoHo neighborhood. An advocate for diversity and authenticity when it comes to wine, we sat down with Zwann to get a sense of what makes her tick, and how Loire Valley wines fit into dynamic wine lists that cross gastronomic boundaries.
Read on for Zwann’s take on Vouvray, why vocabulary matters, and the Loire’s unique selling points.
Loire Valley Wines (LV): How did you discover the Loire Valley and its wines?
Zwann Grays (ZG): I first discovered it when I was working in retail. The store had a very, very large inventory of Kermit Lynch wines, and it was one of the first natural-leaning stores in Brooklyn. This was many moons ago. There were a lot of Loire Valley wines on the shelf there. We were younger, and we wanted to buy a lot of bottles but didn't have a lot of money, especially on that retail paycheck. And so the Loire Valley was where we went to discover new producers and check-in on all different types of flavor profiles.
We would have dinner every Sunday, and the Loire Valley was very present on the table because we would purchase wine from the store, and there was a restaurant nearby we would go to or we would go to someone's house. And the Loire was on every one of those dinner tables, especially because of the diversity of flavor profiles. Because the Loire is so diverse, we were never really stuck on one thing. It was amazing because we were able to drink a great little rainbow, since the Loire provided all the value and all these different flavor profiles, and all these different styles.
(LV): The Loire Valley’s diversity is amazing. Do you think it sometimes gets forgotten, or is there another element to the Loire that you feel gets forgotten by professionals?
(ZG): I think just because it's in my wheelhouse, the naturalness of the wines being made there and how that's just been a tradition is what shouldn’t be forgotten when it comes to the Loire Valley. Natural winemaking or lower intervention winemaking is not a trend. You have a traditional and classic site, but the winemakers there were pushing the envelope, I think, ten, fifteen years ago, when they were changing over their soils or going to low-intervention winemaking or to using little to no sulfur.
Low intervention wines are still coming from the Loire because they can have a little bit of fun. In the Loire, vintners can play around, and I think they will continue to lead the way for interesting, beautiful-tasting, low-intervention wines because they've already been doing it. This practice is not an experiment. I mean, they still might like trying new things because winemakers are creative, but they're also not sticking to a certain formula. But as far as France goes and in terms of being traditional, the Loire Valley is just having so much fun. They're able to continue the narrative that you can have an unsulfured wine and it can be glorious for days. And those producers continue to excite me, especially today.
(LV): Like natural wines, the words we use to describe wine are getting more attention today than ever before and you’ve definitely taken an authentic and creative approach to talking about wines. How can we all use better language when it comes to describing wine? Why does it matter?
(ZG): Language is very much a thing. Our verbiage changes. Slang changes with the times, and I think definitely post-pandemic just in the breaking down of wine spaces and diversifying the verbiage, change is paramount.
The culture around wine is to speak in a certain way. Now, we're doing a lot of wine events where we've taken the wine and brought it to the streets, as opposed to having this fine dining establishment and asking clientele and guests to come to us. So in bringing it to the people, we have an opportunity to help people understand wine in non-intimidating environments. I think it's now our job to bring the language to the people as we brought and continue to bring the wine to the streets.
Even at work, we taste through wines and people come up with very accurate terminology all the time, just using words that might not be in the wheelhouse of typical classes about the Loire.
So changing verbiage just comes with being real, creative, and honest. People will get it. For the most part, wrong answers aren't really a thing when it comes to the flavors and aromas that people pick up in a wine. And so anyone has the ability to think for a hot second, and then speak in layman's terms about a wine which is why verbiage is very important.
LV: How does using better verbiage lead to a win for retailers or sommeliers? Do you think it translates?
ZW: Truth speaks, and people know when you put up a front or when you are straight-up lying. It’s happened to me at dinner where the sommelier is trying to present and come across as super-correct. And wine is just one of those tricky things where people don't want to be wrong, so they either won't speak about it or they're reluctant. But we all can taste things and we all have memories. We can all put together what we are experiencing.
So, you know, as long as that fear is gone, and we can jump in to speak truthfully and honestly, even if you don't have the answer or even if you don't know, you can just go find out. Most of the time people are cool with that and appreciate it. And that honesty translates, because now you've created a trustworthy space where people will continue to buy wine from you and talk to you because they know you're not going to try to trick them.
(LV): Growing up in the South and working at a Chinese restaurant now, you’ve seen a food pairing or two. Do you have a favorite food pairing with Loire Valley wines?
(ZG): Vouvray and gumbo! And Chenin Blanc with either crawfish or shrimp étouffée. I'm from Houston, so we have a lot of Louisiana Cajun influences in the cuisine, and these two dishes are perfect with Chenin Blanc.
Vouvray with gumbo works because there's a little bit more of a minerality there, but it's also fruit-forward and rich and round. And if you have a nice, medium-to-dark roux gumbo with all the things going on in there like spice, seafood, sausage, okra, and tomato, Vouvray works really well.