Through his beverage company, Abu Nawas, Boudouani is an unlikely champion for natural wine in the Midwest.

By Nabil Ayers
September 23, 2020
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Credit: Rachelle Baker

Although the natural wine movement has swept the country, it still remains largely concentrated in metropolitan areas like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. That there’s a natural wine distributor in Elkader—a tiny town in Iowa—feels as unlikely as the journey that landed its owner, Algerian-born Frederique Boudouani, the founder of Abu Nawas Beverage Company, in Elkader in the first place.

“Honestly, I came here to live my American dream,” explains Boudouani. He was attending graduate school in Boston when 9/11 transpired. In the surge of Islamophobia that followed, he started feeling ostracized from his community and began to study the history of Islam in America. He was surprised to learn that one of the very first mosques in America was built in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and that Iowa is the only state that has a town named after an Arab Muslim: Elkader, after Emir Abdelkader, an Algerian religious and military leader who resisted French colonial rule in the 19th century.

After several visits, Boudouani and his life partner, Iowa native Brian Bruening, moved to Elkader­ in 2006 and opened Schera’s, the town’s first Algerian restaurant. But they didn’t feel immediately welcomed by Elkader’s 1,400 residents.

“At first, people had a problem with a gay Muslim coming to their town,” Boudouani says.

As the restaurant’s fame grew, new customers began traveling from out of town, shopping at the antiques mall and staying at bed-and-breakfasts in town. Soon enough, Schera’s catalyzed a miniature economic boom for Elkader.

“I remember an Algerian group that visited here,” Boudouani says. “They were asking, ‘How big is the Algerian community in Elkader?’ and I was like, ‘You’re looking at it.’” (Elkader is 98% white.)

Schera’s opened with what Boudouani describes as an “epic wine list,” for which he had to travel several hours each week to pick up a particularly interesting case of wine or a cool keg of beer. “I’m not going to be a good ambassador for anything I don’t enjoy,” he says. Growing increasingly frustrated with having no local source to access the products he coveted, Boudouani took matters into his own hands and opened Abu Nawas in 2011.

Over time, Boudouani has built Abu Nawas into a hub of small, unique makers and distributes not only natural wine but also craft beer and artisanal foods. He now sells many sought-after labels that were previously unavailable in the region, such as MicroBio Wines, from Segovia, Spain; the Rhône Valley’s Eric Texier; eastern Austria’s Meinklang; and Sonoma County’s Coturri Winery, a pioneer of the natural and organic wine movement in the U.S.

“When I started doing natural wine, people looked at me like I had four heads,” says Boudouani. But now Iowans are drinking more natural wine than ever. Tony Coturri even cites Abu Nawas as one of his top distributors.

When Boudouani left Boston in 2006, Iowa seemed an unlikely place to seek acceptance, to establish roots and ingrain himself in the local culture. As much as Elkader’s residents had misconceptions about him, he says, he realized he had held similar stereotypes about them. But he has found success and happiness in Elkader.

“We’re all full of stereotypes.” Boudouani pauses, considering his neighbors. “And I think it’s really beautiful when we’re proven wrong.”