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Talking Shop: Natural Wine in Rural Montana with Jessi Trauth
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Talking Shop: Natural Wine in Rural Montana with Jessi Trauth

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It's definitely cliché at this point to bring up the many ways in which COVID and the year 2020 has changed our lives, but it did. I bring this up because Hubbard and I (my partner in life and business here at Housework) like so many others last year decided to uproot ourselves from Northern California where we'd started to establish ourselves and take an extended pause elsewhere. We ended up staying with family in Montana's Bitterroot Valley, an epically gorgeous part of the country with a growing craft food and regenerative agricultural scene.

Over the course of our time there, we stumbled into Jessi's Wine & Goods, admittedly with our initial intrigue being her cute signage out front. The space we walked into was unpretentious, warm and exceedingly inviting – much of this, of course, due to the three painfully sweet resident shop dogs Emmi, Wally, and Jessi's assistant's pup Delilah. With an impeccably curated selection of some of our new hyper-local food favorites like Tucker Family Farms' sheep cheeses, Fifth Season pasture-raised charcuterie, and Ducrey craft chocolate, as well as an eclectic and well-selected mix of beers, wines, and ciders coming from all over the globe, Jessi's pretty quickly became a little haven for us in Hamilton.


After perusing the shop's selection a few times, chatting a bit about food and wine and agriculture, and trying some of her killer wine and cider recommendations (we're still kicking ourselves that we never got around to trying any wines she mentioned from Hiyu Wine Farm in Oregon who sound so amazing you should just look them up yourself), we realized just how valuable her work with this wine shop really was. We managed after months of scheduling and rescheduling (small business owner life!) to hang out as she closed up shop one July evening, eventually making our way over to her place afterwards – fresh baked loaf of sourdough, rhubarb pie, and random salad ingredients in tow – for a casual dinner, dessert, and wine tasting.

Like any good conversation, things meandered. As birds flew overhead and our little one wandered around her yard picking raspberries, we discussed everything from the culture of toxic masculinity and public perceptions of breastfeeding to the so-called French paradox and how life lived simply but to the fullest might just be the closest thing we have to a key to happiness.

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Jessi started us off by pouring an orange wine, a 2018 Greco Musc from Cantina Giardino, that her assistant Stephen referred to throughout the evening as 'angel tears'. It was so delicious that it was hard to actually sit with and sip rather than just guzzle it down. It tasted like an orange cream soda if said orange cream soda were a wine.

So how long have you been in business at this point?

I opened November 20th, so about 8 months.

Was the shop already in the works before COVID hit or was it an idea that came to you during COVID?

Well, I've been toying with the idea of doing something professional with wine since I left my performing life in New York. Towards the end of my time there I started giving private wine tastings to my cast and crew for fun. I got really tired of everyone talking about who they knew, and what audition they were going to, and the lack of connection between the cast, the community, the tech, the sound, the costume. I just felt like we all needed a more inclusive, less competitive space in which to loosen up, get to know each other, and start connecting with our humanity a little bit more. And my thought was what better way than tasting wine? So I just started hosting wine tastings.

And how did that bring you from New York back to Montana? We want to hear the whole thing.

So that's a really long and convoluted story, but basically I came back home for health reasons. Growing up, I couldn't wait to get out of here. I went to NYU for theater and did the performance thing full time for 8 years, which was great, and I had a lot of beautiful experiences, but after a while things started to feel too heavy. I was getting way too serious about life, and it was having a physical impact on me – my digestion wasn't right, I wasn't eating enough to account for all the dancing I was doing, I started feeling anxious all the time, and it kept ramping up and up.

I came home to be here for my sister's wedding, and when I got back to the city, all of a sudden I'd walk into an audition and I couldn't pick up the choreography. I was getting dizzy, feeling numb in my limbs, all sorts of stuff that should have indicated that I really needed to take a big step back but I didn't. Simultaneously I found out that the building I was living in was being sold and I needed to find a new place to live. I was stressed out financially. A relationship I was in was falling apart. All of these things came toppling down on me at once. And then, it kind of dawned on me that I wasn't even excited about all these shows I was spending so much time auditioning for.

I decided I had to get out of New York City, and I just so happened to have been in San Francisco for a bit not that long ago, so I decided to go there. I had met these chefs at this restaurant when I was there...

What restaurant?

Hillside Supper Club. Unfortunately, they ended up closing over COVID, but they were really fantastic.

Anyway, I was feeling like the whole theater thing that I was a part of at the moment was so disconnected, whereas when I was having dinner with those random people who are now good friends of mine but were strangers at the time – I felt like that was real live, intimate art. We were laughing and connecting, everyone there was partaking. The energy, the lighting, the glassware, the food, the wine. I'll never forget that glass of wine. It was just magic.

So reflecting on that, I decided to just call one of those guys up and tell them that I was going to design them this fantastical intimate live theater supper club where people come in costume and there's music that pairs with the wine and hidden messages inside the cake. I was desperate to get people out of this linear way of looking at consumption that commercial consumerism has normalized. When I called he was surprised I'd even saved his number. He was like "Jessi, how's New York?" And I was like "New York's awful. I want to move to San Francisco and work for you." And he was like "You're hired!" I'd never even worked as a waitress, let alone in fine dining.

So after a brief stint back home in Montana, I moved to San Francisco thinking that this new crazy thing with these people that I barely even knew would be the fix to my problem, which it wasn't, but it was an incredible learning experience. I really needed to heal though, and at some point my parents were like "Jessi, you need to come home. You're going totally crazy."

It sounds just like extreme burnout.

That's really what it was, yeah.

So I came home finally for an actual rest, but while I was living in San Francisco I really developed a deeper relationship to wine and food. I started hearing texture and music and rhythm in the wines I was drinking and serving, and I met winemakers who were making wine in a
 way that was so much more honest and connected to the earth. It was all very inspiring.

And then after a much-needed pause, essentially, you opened up shop. Over the course of several of our conversations, you've made it clear that a large part of your goal with the shop is to create space for community. How do you see Jessi's fitting in in the greater Western Montana community?

There's a lot of really exciting food things happening in the Bitterroot and in Western Montana in general, but there still aren't enough spaces for people to gather and experience them together. More than the flavors of the wines or cheeses or ciders, that's the aspect of this whole project that I find really exciting. The wine club and private tastings are an integral part of the business for that reason.


Something we've been interested in is how you navigate the conflict between your personal investment in natural wines, etc., the varying interests of your customers, and the sustainability of the business itself. How do you strike that balance?

Well, I think it's really hard. If I decided to be extreme in all regards, I would lose a lot of people and not be able to run a successful business. And if I can't run a successful business and be able to afford to pay Stephen and keep food on the table for myself, then the whole thing falls apart and we don't even have access to natural wines in this valley.

I think, though, that by having a range and sacrificing some of my personal preferences I'm more enabled to meet people where they are, and can gradually bring them into a sphere of appreciation for wines that aren't so manipulated. If someone comes in and there's nothing for them to connect to, they're going to feel unwelcome and left out of the scene, and we'd lose them. In a town this small – one, we literally can't afford to do that, but also it's counterproductive to just flaunt our own beliefs and walk around feeling self-righteous about it. I'd rather invite people into what I believe is a better way of eating and drinking than judge them for where they're coming from.

That said, I do feel conflicted about it every day. It's hard buying and selling wines that I'm not passionate about. But remember, we're in Hamilton, Montana! If I were in New York or San Francisco trying to open a boutique natural wine shop, it would be a different story. The expectations and the demographics of here vs. there, population density... 
it's a totally different game, and being from here I feel like it's one I'm better tailored to.

You're hard on yourself, but your natural wine selection seems like it makes up at least 1/3 of the shop.

Oh, at least! It might be closer to half. I am definitely hard on myself about it, but truthfully you'd be amazed at how much natural wine we sell and the positive feedback we get on it. The community on the whole has been incredibly welcoming and supportive of the whole project, and for that I'm very grateful.

Would you say part of it is just normalization?

Yes, and that's why there's no natural wine section in the shop. Because depending on how someone has interacted with that word or concept before can really change the way they perceive it in the shop. They might have dramatic misconceptions of what 'natural wine' can mean, or perhaps they tried it once and ended up with a mousy bottle of wine that really wasn't made well but happened to be sulfite-free.
It seems like price or even just perception of price would be a factor, too. The word 'natural' for a lot of folks in the context of food and wine I think ends up connoting a higher price tag.

Oh, totally. What's crazy though is that we've got $17 bottles of red wine that are super clean and great. That being said, I have yet to find an $11 bottle that's very good. There are a few I've found from France and Italy that are decent, though they do use sulfites and there's not a lot of transparency with much of their process.

How do you feel about sulfites?

I don't think there's anything wrong with sulfites, but I do have a problem with them used in great quantities.

Just like in charcuterie.

Exactly. I mean, they are naturally occurring, but leaning too hard on them is just laziness. It's a crutch that takes away from the dynamic qualities of the wine. You're just preserving it in a more lifeless, more dull state at that point.

Sulfites, though, are the least of my concerns. There's a whole lot of other shady stuff going on in the wine world.

Spoofing, farm laborers' rights...

Amongst other things. It's a lot.

There's also the people that are marketing natural wine now as a sort of gimmicky superfood. 'Drink this wine and you'll have a six-pack. Or drink this wine for clearer, more radiant skin.' They're taking these clean wines from Penedès, claiming that they discovered them, and then trying to convince consumers that their wines are somehow purer or cleaner than others', and it's just really upsetting. They're not only misleading people, they're cheapening the whole movement and taking away the legitimacy hard-earned by actually respectable vintners.


That reminds me of a conversation Hubbard and I have had a few times that was originally sparked by a podcast we were listening to. I apologize - I don't remember the name of the show or the interviewee. But they were talking about how backwards it is that we label foods 'non-GMO' or that a farmer or food producer has to pay to get organic certification when it so obviously should be the other way around. People should have to pay up when they want to use toxic chemical fertilizers or synthetic pesticides, not be taxed for taking the more responsible, ecological route. Natural foods shouldn't need a marketing gimmick.

Oh, I agree completely! You should have to let people know when their food or wine is anything less than natural. It's crazy.

It's tricky too because of course nowadays there are also plenty of wines that are being made in a traditional, natural way that wouldn't be considered a 'natural wine' because of how that's been angled. A lot of the certifications in food and wine can muddy the waters, and instead of being about celebrating and supporting all of these wonderful different ways that people make wine it turns into a finger pointing match over added sulfites or some other interventions someone made in their winemaking process.

The way I see it – the proof is in the pudding. Wine that is made with integrity, by people who are thoughtful in their growing, harvesting, and fermenting practices – that almost always translates into really good wine.

Thinking back to the $17 bottles of wine you mentioned earlier, I think you've told us before that price factors largely into your curation. What are your specific limitations?

I basically try to have the majority of my wines be under $50 a bottle, with maybe 1/6th of the shop right now going over that for some particularly special bottles.

Wow! That must be an interesting curatorial challenge for you.

It is! Again, it's really important to me that my wines are accessible. I'm always aiming to have something for everyone at every price tier. This whole money piece of our existence... I know how it is.

I have customers come in all the time and say things like, "Oh, we just visited such and such winery. Have you been?" And "Oh, when you were in New York, did you eat at these restaurants?" And I'm always like...

"I was a starving artist."

Exactly! I haven't been to any of the fancy restaurants in New York! I remember going to ABC Kitchen on a date, and that was how I ended up at that place and that was it, you know? I got into wine the last few years that I was there, but I could never afford to go out and drink by the glass.

How are we doing on time? Shall we have some pie and get the little guy to sleep?

Let's do it.
Man, maybe this is just me, but I swear once I lightened up on my diet and started eating whatever as long as it was good stuff, all my problems went away. The nausea, the fogginess. Sometimes I wonder if we all don't just need to stop taking supplements and stressing out so much about the food we're eating and start just listening to our bodies.

That sounds like what the book Nourishment is all about. Especially as Americans, we've somehow made it normal to over-rationalize eating, which is designed to be an intuitive process. The food we have in our spread right here in front of us – the bread, the jam, the triple cream cheese – these are all foods which have been sort of demonized by health culture in their own ways, but I honestly couldn't feel more alive and well.

Before we wrap up, do you have any particular wine or winery, cider, beer, etc. that you're particularly excited about at the moment? Anyone you want to give a shoutout to?

I'm really excited about a lot of the artisan wines coming out of Australia right now. Winemakers like Sam Vinciullo and Commune of Buttons who are using very minimal intervention, are very hands on, and have great respect for the land. Their work is true artistry.

And then in general, I’m very grateful for the people in the industry that care so deeply about this level of detail, harmony, and honesty within wine, and work so hard to create these wines and make them available to us in Montana.

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Times are certainly changing. We've been in gas stations throughout the Big Sky state that offer kombucha alongside Red Bull and Pepsi, and the local grocery store in Hamilton carries a locally brewed one on tap. Food is a powerful agent of cultural change. It changes minds and creates movements, if only we let it. What's that expression? The way to a man's heart is through his stomach? Let's feed him.

We left our conversation with Jessi feeling well nourished, both in stomach and in spirit. It was about 10:00 or so by the time we made it home, with just enough Summer light left in the sky to see the herd of elk crossing our dirt road – one last reminder for the evening to slow down.

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"A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life." – Folco Portinari, from the Official Slow Food Manifesto as published in “Slow Food: A Case for Taste” in 2001