For all that natural wine trades upon a romantic vision of pastoral simplicity, its main centers of consumption are undeniably urban—London, Tokyo, Paris, New York. Better known for strip malls and Springsteen, the last place you’d typically associate with the movement is the New Jersey suburbs. But Chris Leo— founder of The Maritime Republic Imports, the state’s only natural wine import and distribution company—has made it his personal mission to change such stereotypes.
A Jersey-born native, Leo lived for 20 years in New York and played in a number of popular indie rock bands, like the Van Pelt and The Lapse. But it was only after he moved to Los Angeles and started hankering after the East Coast that it occurred to him to return to his native soil. Among the first-wave of professionals to cross the river in hope of bringing natural wine to his home state’s scene, he initially faced an uphill battle, citing a buying culture that still hews close to the same hegemonic network of corporate distributors.
Over time, however, with his small portfolio of artisan Italian wines and his license to distribute the portfolios of iconic natural importers, such as Jenny & Francois Selections, throughout the state, he’s played an instrumental role in spreading the “natural wine gospel” west of the Hudson—not just in NYC-adjacent areas like Jersey City and Hoboken, but as far afield as Asbury Park, where a young wave of industry talent has begun to forge a progressive local restaurant scene.
So, what does Leo do when he’s not slinging organic gaglioppo and sangiovese across New Jersey? Here, he tackles our Lookbook Questionnaire to share his thoughts on Malört, his strangest hobby and his go-to drink in a dive. —Zachary Sussman
Importer and distributor, The Maritime Republic Imports.
What do want to be when you grow up?
Roadie/merch guy for a band. I wanna get paid though.
Best thing you ever drank:
Emidio Pepe Montepulciano 1980.
Worst thing you ever drank:
Well Malört, of course, but by that point the spectrum starts to curve back towards totally incredible again.
First time you ever got drunk:
I was an exchange student studying in Germany when I went with a youth group to a Danish camp on the North Sea. I drank a million (or maybe three) Tuborg, sang “I Got The Power” by Snap and puked spätzle shortly thereafter.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
One Year by Colin Blunstone.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
When I was in junior high and even into college I used to follow the stock market… Oh how I wish that me was still inside here somewhere.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
KIDS LISTEN UP! If you’ve been drinking (every night) then don’t eat right before you go to bed (every night). The food gets the juices flowing, the booze loosens up your esophageal muscles and acid creeps up and does damage little by little. I had these dreams that once I passed 40 I’d start crooning, but when I opened my mouth to sing I realized I had no voice. Acid ate it away. It’s raspy or bust for me from this point forth. But kids, it could be worse. If you don’t nip it in the bud it can cause all sorts of other irreparable problems.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I had an idea once that it’d be cool if every drink you ordered was fermented in that very glass you’re drinking out of. So I attempted to start these micro-fermentations with all sorts of adjuncts. And though I am very good at harvesting all sorts of bacteria and yeasts, saccharomyces bowed out of my experiment.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
I’m a walker, a flâneur, a boulevardier sort of dude. When I was living in LA, I had a meltdown from not ever having the ability to stroll like I used to, so my wife and I hopped on a plane to Mexico City and just walked and walked for a few days before heading back.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
This isn’t so much a drink request but it’s evidence of a creative mind gone astray and hence I have a weak spot for it. While pouring a gaglioppo rosato that I import at an in-store, a girl said:
“So it’s made of moscato?”
Me: “No no, that’s gaglioppo.”
Her: “Then why does it say rosato?”
Me: “Because it’s a rosé. It would say rosado if it were Spanish maybe.”
Her: “Oh, I though rosato was when you mix rosé with moscato.”
Your favorite bar, and why:
At one end of Bologna, you have the great cocktail and wine bar Fermento, then as you cut through the city you have the great wine and beer bar L’Ortica, but my favorite bar comes at the other end: Miky e Max. It’s an Italian equivalent of a dive bar, but unlike our dive bars I think they might get offended if you told them so. Every time I go its filled with Sardinians for some reason and they get weird. Bright lights like Max Fish, too. I enjoy the paradox that getting drunk on wine made medievally in a medieval city doesn’t make me feel medieval, yet stumbling out of Miky e Max onto an ancient alley high on more modern fare does.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
Shortly after I met my wife she cooked me penne with tomato sauce and a side of baked asparagus and parmesan in a tiny apartment on the LES with no table or seats. We sat on the ledge to the window and ate it. Before then I knew nothing of the ways of anything vaguely domestic. I think she bought me a toothbrush, too.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
I don’t believe I’ll be breaking from form when I say Negroni.
Wine bar where I have little faith: I put my trust in the great equalizing power of carbonic maceration and go for any Beaujolais. Wine bar I have plenty of faith in: A sangiovese I don’t recognize.
In a dive bar?
Hey how about let’s you and I polish off that bottle of Monte Alban that I bet’s been sitting there for years?
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
Toasted sesame bagel, egg, cheese, tomato, fresh squeezed OJ or Tropicana with pulp.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Dolcetto. Tear it all up and plant grignolino.
The last text message you sent:
“Don’t thank me, thank Jaco Pastorius.”