Meet Shawn Mead, co-owner of Vif Wine|Coffee nestled in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, a self-assured but unpretentious advocate for honesty in wine.
Although Vif opened 5 years ago, the concept had been fermenting for 15 years, when Vif cofounders Mead and Lauren Feldman first met. “If we had started something 15 years ago, it would have been really good, but what we started here is a much more elevated version, because we’re older and smarter,” says Mead. Her résumé is impressive, ranging from the defunct Campagne, to Louis/Dressner Selections, The Walrus and the Carpenter, and McCarthy & Schiering Wine Merchants.
“It was more gradual than ‘a-ha,’ ” she says, referring to her discovery of natural wines. “I found myself being attracted to the wines, but didn’t think of them as being natural. I just thought, Wow, I’m really enjoying these, they go really well with food.” Paramount to this was Louis/Dressner, an exclusively natural wine importer, though she professes being slightly uneasy with “natural wine” as a term. “Eric Asimov called it ‘live wine,' and I liked that,” says Mead.
Mead is knowledgeable and yet notably down-to-earth when recommending wines to her customers: “They’re not stupid—they don’t need me to tell them what they like and what they don’t like,” she says, warning against industry snobbism. “The thing that I find offensive is when wine professionals say, ‘Well, I like this but my customer would never get it.’ ”
“We start with native yeast fermentations,” says Mead about choosing the wine at Vif. “I call that our date-breaking question.” While understanding of her customers, she is uncompromising when it comes to a producer's transparency: “You should really step up to the plate and put on the label what you’re putting in—that way people can read the back label and understand what they’re getting in the bottle,” she says. “There’s beauty in honesty.”
When she expresses her excitement “to tell the stories and connect them back to the farms,” she exudes a passion for wine as a holistic activity. For her, everything is interrelated. “You find your way back to agriculture and farming, essentially you find your way back to soil, and the continued health of the vineyard, the lifestyle of the planet,” says Mead. “I mean, it does become a philosophy.”
When the subject turns to gender parity within the industry, she sees an evolution taking place. “I feel like there’s been a lot of change since I was a wine director back at Campagne,” she says. “There have been many times when I was one of the only women in the room, if not the only woman in the room.” These days, she sees many female friends in the industry. But despite the positive shift toward more inclusion, the situation is turbulent. “Lauren and I sometimes just don’t even consider that we’re coming from the space of gender, maybe until the 2016 election, and then everyone felt gendered,” says Mead. “At that point, it was the first time that I actually felt my gender so specifically, in a way that could be perceived as negative.”
As Vif celebrates its fifth year, Mead is energized by a strong desire to grow the wine program with a web presence and develop online sales. Also on the agenda is growing La Petite Soif (Seattle’s first natural wine fair) into a bigger event as part of their “parking lot events” series at Vif. “Seattle is maybe a little behind the curve when it comes to getting onboard [with importing natural wine],” she concedes, but Mead is out in front of pushing for change in this city. Natural wine drinkers in Seattle owe her a vinous debt—and certainly a cheers.
4401 Fremont Avenue North
Seattle, WA 98103
Luc Revel trained as an architect and is a self-professed advocate for real wine. He works in the fields of building, photography, and writing.