Being a sales representative in the wine industry doesn’t come with the most creative job description. But Alexis Schwartz of Zev Rovine Selections, a natural wine distributor based in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, has turned her position into something fluid — and become an influential force in New York City’s wine scene in the process.
At 27 years old, Schwartz is the young gun bringing natural wine to hip, critically acclaimed restaurants like Atla, Cosme, and Estela. Her complex portfolio of producers spans France, Italy, Austria, and the Baltics.
When Schwartz first started working in restaurants more than five years ago, “the wine industry felt really transactional,” she says. “There was this idea of holding knowledge over customers’ heads. But on my end, it’s always been about transparency… Every question is a good question.”
Early in her career, Schwartz worked as an intern at NYC’s Momofuku and met then-beverage director Beth Lieberman. She credits Lieberman for being instrumental to carving out a non-linear space for herself in a field where sexism is rampant and only 16 percent of master sommeliers in the Americas identify as femme.
After a series of stints in restaurants like San Francisco’s RN74 and the Silkstone Hospitality Group, which opened The Fat Radish in NYC, Schwartz was connected to master sommeliers. She developed her palate working with industry luminary Dustin Wilson, now of Verve Wine and formerly of Eleven Madison Park and the documentary “Somm.”
Schwartz describes herself at this time as a “cellar rat intimidated by machismo on the floor.” She was uncomfortable with the sterility surrounding wine education in the United States.
In 2013, the San Francisco native moved to Lyon, France to work at a natural wine cave and bar à vins, O Vins d’Anges, under owner Sebastien Milleret. There, she became passionate about the people and places making wines.
“What I cared about was the soil and the winemaker,” she says. “It seemed the only place you could interact with those people and see the the real work behind the wine. These were the guardians of the winemakers and I realized my job was to be the conduit for that in some way.”
And so, back in NYC, she began cultivating an impressive community in the industry. Schwartz studied anthropology as an undergraduate, and it shows. She uses words like “holistic,” “generosity,” and “spiritual” to describe her duties as a purveyor of natural wine, but she’s quick to add that she doesn’t want her excitement to be seen as hippie-ish or insincere. She is enthusiastic about the stories of the producers she meets in her annual travels to Zev Rovine-affiliated vineyards, and equally fascinated by the ways geopolitics influence our abilities to access certain flavors, and the privilege that comes with terroir.
“Alexis is not only a dead-ringer for Beach House heartthrob chanteuse Victoria Legrand, she’s also one of the most immersing voices in our wine community — as perceptive and knowledgeable as she is soulful,” Sam Anderson, the wine and beverage director of NYC’s Wildair, Contra, and Una Napoletana, says. “And always to be counted on for creative perspective on wine-dining experiences.” Anderson formerly worked at Mission Chinese, where Schwartz also stocks a selection of natural wines.
By day, Schwartz goes door-to-door to specialty shops and restaurants with the wines she represents. After hours, she also runs ThirstyThirsty, a traveling wine series that holds events in restaurants like Dimes and Cafe Henrie, the now-defunct establishment run by artist Andre Saraiva, who also owns Hotel Grand Amour in Paris.
At these pop-ups, she engages with 20-somethings who aren’t necessarily part of the insular beverage community. She is eager to show how fun natural wine can be, and to communicate its link to such issues as climate change awareness and the importance of supporting local small businesses.
“Natural wine is about communication with our bodies, the land, the culture, our community, a real exchange of love and trust,” she says.
Her most recent ThirstyThirsty pop-up paired natural wines with takeout from Wu’s Wonton King in New York’s Chinatown.
“A lot people think that wines don’t do well with non-Western cuisine, and it’s completely false,” she says. “If you’re working with natural wines, in particular, this is an arsenal to pull from, because natural wines are so provocative and imperfect.”
At the beginning of her career, six years ago, Schwartz had to beg restaurants to do tastings with her. Today, she has full-circle moments, suddenly receiving responses to emails she’d sent out years ago. In her short tenure, she has created both an impressive community and momentum for the wines she represents.
As for the trend of natural wine nearing its peak, particularly in New York, Schwartz has mixed feelings. “There’s a lot of trepidation amongst producers and sellers with the way things transform when they’re [in the U.S.],” she says. “Messages get lost and people prioritize sales over what’s best for the wine. But authenticity equals longevity.”
Schwartz jokes that she’s “not a good sales person” because she cares more about interpersonal relationships and experiences with wine rather than her bottom line. In reality, it seems it’s this open approach that makes her such an essential voice to the future of drinking and dining in New York City and beyond.