Sophie's Glass

A few observations about the scene in Durham, North Carolina.

1) Durham has now completely surpassed Chapel Hill as the place to be in the Triangle (if you are over — say — 24 years old). When I was growing up in this area, it was easy as pie to get friends to drive the 20 minutes west to Chapel Hill. In Chapel Hill we had it all: coffee shops where you could smoke cigarettes inside (in Durham you had to go to Bojangles or Waffle House to enjoy this luxury), the coolest pizza place (Pepper’s), the best rock clubs (Local 506, Cat’s Cradle), the best hungover brunch venue (Breadman’s), the best off-the-main-drag frozen yogurt shop (I actually worked there for a hot second after college — not one of my finer moments), the best dive bars (Hell, Henry’s, Orange County Social Club), the list goes on … Durham was considered both boring, and dangerous. But things have changed, and especially for young professionals (read people around my age), Durham now offers a lot more of basically everything good from food to booze to coffee, you name it … I particularly like Durham because it’s not Chapel Hill, which allows me some distance from my recollections of the homeland. Durham is familiar, but not so familiar that I get swept up in a sea of unsavory and/or sad memories. Though I’ll never change my basketball allegiance, if I move back to the area, I’ll live in Durham, not Chapel Hill.

2) It’s really hot. It’s hot everywhere right now, but the heat down here is different. Sure it smells better than Hot Manhattan, but it’s intensely humid, and the air shimmers mirage-like with ambient moisture, everyday, in a way we rarely see or feel in New York. I love it: the din of cicadas at night, critters everywhere, live bluegrass outside in the shade, cold sweaty beer in hand, pools as warm as bathwater, afternoon thunderstorms instantly darkening and then shattering the sky because there’s just too much electricity up there … and on and on.

3) There are *tons* of new restaurants in Durham. This is a frequent topic of conversation amongst Durham-ites, and I’ve enjoyed being a fly on the wall. I normally hit my favorite two French joints: Rue Cler and Vin Rouge when here. This time I’ve only made it to Rue Cler, where my friend (and mentor) Nathan has put together a fun wine list with many gems (especially if you like Clos Rougeard, Baudry, or anything hip and allocated from “New California”). I was particularly wowed by two things at Rue Cler: gougère pork sandwich with pea shoots and hollandaise sauce, and Nathan’s Champagne offerings: Lilbert et Fils for Chardonnay, Lahaye for Pinot Noir, and a secret stash of Ledru in the cellar for those who know the password. (What more do you need in life, really?) The 2008 Lilbert et Fils we drank at dinner was outstanding, proper and powerful, a testament to the vintage and to the Grand Cru of Cramant. IMG_0877

This time I visited downtown Durham’s (relatively) new pizza place as well, called Pizzeria Toro. The pizza was good; the side dishes were even better: radicchio salad with capers and parmesan, ricotta dumplings with creamed fresh corn. (I’d have taken out my phone for a photo, but I was catching up with a very old friend, and chatting seemed more important than Instagram.) I’d encourage anyone visiting the area to check this place out for a casual meal. We drank Grignolino from my friend Jay Murrie’s Portfolio. Jay introduced me to Grignolino about ten years ago, so this seemed fitting, and the wine worked well with radicchio. I know nothing about this estate, but Jay told me afterwards that he decided to become a wine importer in their cellar, and that’s pretty special. (I may perhaps have come to the same conclusion in Jacques Puffeney’s cellar more than half a decade ago, though I doubt I realized it at the time.)  IMG_7354

It was interesting talking shop with Jay just generally. The dude who gave me my first job in the wine business ten years ago, he recently struck out on his own, and now imports a slew of tiny northern Italian Domaines. “I import one of about three Proseccos that actually taste good.” As the importer of one of three Crémants de Bourgogne that actually taste good, I could relate. (Jay gave me a bottle — traded for a bottle of Mondeuse — but I haven’t cracked it yet.) This area keeps people close, and I’m always happy to catch up on the adventures of some of my oldest friends in the wine trade.

4) The coffee scene is on point! Those who know me know that I am quite interested in coffee, and have at times distantly considered chucking in my career in wine for a career in coffee (don’t worry; I probably won’t do it). When I arrived at my grandma’s house in downtown Chapel Hill, where I normally stay when here, there were bags of coffee samples hanging on the door knob from another friend, Grant, who works for a local importer of primarily South American coffee. The first of the samples I tried was from Yemen. It was outstanding even brewed in a crude mini French press. With a nice balance of spice and fruit and herb, I’m conjecturing that this is a natural process coffee, but Grant has yet to confirm or deny. His comment on this coffee was: “The Yemen got some upturned noses at the office, but the Chinato lover in me is always up for some herby-ness amidst forthright fruit.” Well, Grant, the Pineau D’Aunis lover in me feels the same way. IMG_0903

5) The NC State station (88.1) is still the best thing going for radio around here. From afternoon butt rock to the late night hip hop, this is perfect college radio, not too avant garde, and (unlike the UNC station) the DJs don’t sound like they’re perpetually stoned on Xanax.

Y’all should check out Durham if you can. It’s smaller than Atlanta, and not as cool as New Orleans, but it’s a a fabulous southern enclave. People are nice; there’s lots of tasty local food; there’s lots of great imported wine, and like everywhere in the Dirty South, the AC is always cranked up high.

 

It’s a truism and a cliché (and I don’t blame you if you stop reading right now): life is kinda hard . No matter how many times I tell myself that I’m lucky (I really am !!) not to be a French aristocrat heading to the guillotine or a wrecked homeless person panhandling on the L train , there are still weeks that try body , brain , heart , and soul ; it couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be any other way ; hardship toughens our psyche the way exercise toughens our bodies . Of course the ideal is to balance hardship with good times , sadness with joy , to balance work with leisure , to balance the moments that make us feel like we can’t go on with moments that make us tingle with love of life . I think I’m pretty good at finding balance , and maybe that’s why it was only fitting that a hard week should be punctuated by something truly fun and gratifying on the most basic level : having friends over for dinner .

 

It occurred to me toward the end , in my overall examination of the week that — in my pure love of and enthusiasm for the work I’ve been doing these past seven months — I’d let it take over my brain , and that I needed to disconnect , to detach , to reclaim the person I was before I worked in wine , before I knew about Poulsard from the Jura , before I cared whether this or that winemaker ferments with native yeast or uses too much or too little sulfur , before I cared about what so-and-so is pouring by the glass , or who got a better price on what . I needed to go back to my roots . So I compiled a little mental list of things that are essential to who I am , the things I’ve loved since before I came to New York , before I embraced this trade , before I became Sophie from Astor or Chambers or Selection Massale , and I decided to take an afternoon to reconnect with those things .

 

One of them is cooking . Cooking is essential and elemental and one of my favorite things to do in the world . Even though cooking is never long off my mind , a chat with Ralf from Trestle on Tenth reminded me I hadn’t cooked much of anything recently . Out of the blue he asked “do you miss cooking?” Yes ! Yes I miss cooking ! I don’t miss the chaotic life , and I certainly don’t miss the hours , but I do miss the energy of the line , the breakneck multi-tasking , the dudes and their off-color senses of humor , the creativity , the immersion in something totally physical … Long story short : I decided to cook some shit . And not just some shit , but the kind of shit I like , which means soups , vegetables , fresh things , greens , salads , and all that rabbit food I’ve always been teased for loving so much . There was definitely a voice inside me whispering “what about your guests? They might require sausage and roast chicken” but I decided to push that voice to the back and just be myself in the kitchen . Fortunately it’s early summer , and my truly dear friend Ariana and I had a hang out session on the books that involved popping some bubbles . She had recently been ranting about how much she dislikes “big meals” , so there were multiple reasons to get out those freshly sharpened knives and tap into my super powers : making salads and chopping things . IMG_0768

 

But as I’m not much a recipe user , first I had to run , and think and clear my head for inspiration and the farmers market . It was one of those cool , misty , Montauk days , a light rain falling , the kind of day that feels so good during summer . I put on my headphones , went out into the world , and started running , around and around and around the track , listening to old hip hop from my youth , to NAS  and RZA , to Del , Jay-Z , Snoop , Big Boi ; I let in some Black Rebel Motorcycle Club , Spoon , and some Sonic Youth , I sprinted and danced ; my legs were elastic in my tattered old shoes ; when I was tired I stopped and did pushups , and with every lap I felt more like myself , immersed in the moment , in the sheer physicality of the experience , eyes just half open gazing at the foliage around the park , the delicious light rain on my face . As always with running , the care seemed to slip away , frustration , anxiety pounded into the track beneath …

 

At the market I bought lots of things with a sort of rough idea of what I wanted to make . There was no grocery list ; there was no plan to speak of except to indulge and be true to myself in the kitchen . IMG_0767

 

The basic idea was to do a chilled soup with avocado squash , inspired by a soup I ate years ago at an outdoor restaurant called “Le Tracteur” in the south of France . The original soup was a super fine velouté of zucchini garnished with aged goat cheese , mint , and toasted walnuts . Mine wound up garnished with tangy yogurt , mint , preserved lemon , and feta . Six of one and half a dozen of other other , right ? IMG_0771

 

I’d been heavily pondering the meat side of things . Champagne was on the horizon , and the kind of Champagnes we drink are dense and mineral laden , sappy , intense wines that are generally quite dry , wines that are aged in barrel , wines that cry out for roast chicken . There was no way that I was going to heat up the house by roasting a chicken or cooking sausages or any of that nonsense . I hearkened back — as one does — to that culinary genius, JBT : the man who microwaved buttered oysters to pair with Krug , the man who doesn’t blink at the prospect of making Coq au Vin Jaune in his tiny apartment in Murray Hill , and the man who told me beyond a shadow of doubt that BLTs and Champagne are perfect together . And there was the solution : sweet , summer tomatoes and high quality bacon , slow cooked to perfection . I’d tried this pairing before , and found it to be especially well suited to mature Champagne made in an older style , with lots of umami and a healthy dosage . IMG_0769

 

I’d planned on cozying up with a bottle of this 1997 Pinot/Chardo blend from our new friend Vincent Couche in the Aube . At this point I can’t speak about Couche as authoritatively as I can about some of my other friends who make wine in Champagne , because I don’t know him as well , but my sense is that he’s doing things right . His Domaine is in Buxeuil , which is about half an hour by car from Chablis ; he’s making Chablis out of Pinot Noir , and with bubbles . Amongst his obsessions are long , slow élèvage , integrating oxygen into the winemaking process , and lowering sulfur and dosage , which he can now do apropos of a better farming regime as of the late 2000s . And he occasionally wears gold body paint , but who am I to judge ? I occasionally wear red corduroy bell bottoms . With 8 grams dosage , and disgorged in October of last year , this is an ideal type of Champagne to pair with BLTs , though it’s not representative of the current wines Couche makes , which are zippier and drier with an emphasis on terroir expression and biodynamic farming  . Thank god there’s room in life for both ! This is an deep , yeasty , cheesy Champagne that is very long , nutty , and vinous , and hums alongside the sweet , salt , and fat of the BLT . Mature Champagne has its place , and that place is — apparently — at the table , with bacon .

 

The pièce de résistance (we actually polished it off long before the soup or the BLTs were on the table , the bottle we’d been planning to drink together for somewhere between one and two months was this magnum of Lahaye Naturessence . All in all we did a pretty good job not talking about wine , but this bottle was so beautiful that everyone kind of looked at each other with that “wow” look , and then of course we had dissect its virtues for a moment or two . IMG_0772

 

There are more of these magnums at Chambers Street , and if you can afford it , I’d encourage you to pop over there and grab one . I bought quite a few of them while I was working there , and the present regime of excellent Champagne buyers are perhaps not as obsessed with Benoït Lahaye’s wines as I am , with the result that some are still hanging out at the shop . As I was sipping my glass , one friend asked if I could tell her about the wine , and I realized that I’ve been drinking Benoït’s wines , and visiting him and his lovely wife Valérie for enough years now that (in my sleep) I could tell the story of every wine he makes . Lahaye has been — and doubtless always will be — a Domaine that speaks to every fiber of my being . I’ll be the first to admit to an absolutely irrational love for these wines . To me , these are perfect Champagnes . There’s a subtly that is uncommon for Bouzy , though it makes sense when you know Lahaye — an understated guy who likes to be in the vines with his horse , or in the cellar with his barrels (and now those two gorgeous Italian amphoras he’s using for the rosé). This wine is half and half Chardo and Pinot from old vines ; the base wine is aged in barrel , and the dosage — on the higher side for Lahaye — maybe around 5 grams — is seamlessly integrated .

 

We drank an excellent 2009 Marguet “Les Crayères.” IMG_0773

 

I waxed on about Benoït Marguet’s uncanny ability to produce stunning rosé Champagne in one of my recent posts , and he does a comparable job with this wine from the hallowed Ambonnay vineyard “Les Crayères”. What I chiefly found myself thinking as I drank this was how much more accessible it is than the 2008 . 2008 is one of those vintages in Champagne in which you basically had to be incompetent to make a bad wine ; even now — just a few years down the road — ’08 is becoming a legendary vintage . The result is that the riper , softer , 2009 vintage has been over shadowed , perhaps also because 2009 was sort of hot and fat in other regions we love . Do not let the hype surrounding 2008 prejudice you against 2009 ! 2009 produced some insanely good Champagnes (look at Aurélian Laherte’s 2009s , for example) , and I think this is one of them . Intensely sapid and chalky , with fine mouse , and clearly showing Benoït’s superb biodynamic work in the vines , my money is on the sexy 2009 over the powerful 2008 to drink now .

 

Then we drank some Agrapart . IMG_0774

 

We had briny, rustic east coast oysters on the table , and consequently the Agrapart was going fast . Having not gotten a chance to taste it , I grabbed the bottle with a few sips left and ran to the kitchen to plate and garnish the soup . I drank out of the bottle , a guilty pleasure that feels especially satisfying with Champagne , and kept me from getting preserved lemon all over my glass . “Terroirs” is a good way to get to know Pascal Agrapart . In my opinion it’s a big step up from the 7 Crus bottling , with more reserve wine in the bottle , and more wood used in the élèvage . Perhaps best of all , “Terroirs” has remained a price normal humans can afford , which can’t be said for the rest of Agrapart’s wines . What you get when you drink Agrapart is not the nuttiness of Couche , the subtly of Lahaye , or the intensity of Marguet . What you get when you drink Agrapart is the sheer skill of the vigneron farming top terroirs in the Côte des Blancs ; you get the Pascal Agrapart master-of-his-kingdom thing , and you get the shape of the wine : zesty and lemony and broad in the front , tapering to finish of chalk , citrus rind , and bitter almond .

 

I’d like to close this post in two ways , first with a picture of a rosé Champagne we drank last night that I know absolutely nothing about : IMG_0775

 

Someone please tell me about this Domaine in Cramant .

 

And second by saying that the last elemental thing along with running and cooking , entertaining friends over food and drink at a big table outside the way my parents did when I was a kid , is writing . Writing  — good or bad , sloppy or tightly knit — is a core principle .

 

 

 

 

Our distributor in Portland coined this phrase. What he said was “If you’re going to live in New York, you’ve got to sleep with other cities.” New York is a long-term, tortured, arduous relationship, which you’ve got to step away from to remain sane.

 

The other day I went to Racines to taste a couple of wines. While I waited for Arno, their beverage director, I greeted their cooks, whom I’m friendly with. Collin told me as he was disappearing down the stairs “my friend says you should post more often.” He was alluding to a buddy of his who reads the blog and wishes I would update it with the regularity that Bert Celce updates the great website “Wine Terroirs.” I immediately felt guilty. It’s been so long since I’ve posted! Why? I can’t use the typical excuse: “I’m too busy” because in fact I was lounging around all day on Memorial Day drinking kombucha and reading a Walker Percy novel when I could have been documenting to prose trenchant ruminations on wines and the wine business. Oh well. I guess sometimes you have to chill out. Plus I’ve been cheating on New York, and infidelity is exhausting!

 

My thoughts have been a jumble, bouncing back and forth between selling wine and buying it, trying to purchase what’s commercially viable, creating new waves of interest in things that are not yet commercially viable but soon will be. Does that make sense? The point is, I apologize in advance for these random musings that may not have thematic unity; they represent the present mush in my brain as it heats up like an egg scrambling on pavement in the summer sun.

 

I was showing Racines sous voile wines from Géraud and Pauline Fromont of Domaine des Marnes Blanches, wines that have become dear to my heart because they are very good, but also because of what they represent: vignerons of the younger generation (I’m sure these guys are younger than I am), who want to make sous voile wine. When I brought these to New York, folks warned me that they’d be hard to sell, that the market wants red wine and ouillé wine, that even at very good prices, these wines would not move quickly. I knew this to true. In my experience, the market looks to the Rosenthal portfolio for sous voile wine, with good reason, Rosenthal imports several of the best in this ultra-traditional style; Montbourgeau, Puffeney, Gahier. And Rosenthal typically ties the more commercially viable red wines from these producers to the harder to sell whites by requesting the buyer place “a balanced order,” which effectively gets the white wines out the door and onto shelves and lists. We do not have this luxury. Even faced with the challenge of selling them, I ordered the wines, and months later they arrived. IMG_0794

 

I feel like these wines are my responsibility, and that’s just fine! I love telling their story; I love drinking them, and at the end of the day, seated with a friend sipping Savagnin and eating thick chunks of 15 month comté, I’m very, very happy, my mind in the Jura, my body on the lower east side of Manhattan. These things are a labor of love. We show the growers that we want them to keep making these traditional Jura wines by continuing to order them and sing their praises. That said, the prospect of convincing retailers with a full shelf of Puffeney and Montbourgeau to buy these wines, not to mention restaurants whose desire for Jura white stops at an allocation of ouillé from Ganevat, is a little daunting.

 

A few days prior I was at Guilhaume’s place doing some work, talking about my recent trip to Atlanta and New Orleans and his pending trip to France and Swabia. He asked me if I’d had a good time, if I liked it. It was a new experience for me. In schnook terms, it’s called “working the market,” which means travelling to another city, spending several days visiting local accounts, getting to know the buyers and the restaurant scene, getting to know the sales reps and portfolio managers who work for your distributor in that area, and telling the story of your company. We jokingly called it “presenting the mannschaft.” Truth be told it was lots of work: seven or so appointments a day, followed by an in-store event, followed by dinner. But it was also fun, and replete with fresh observations (more to follow). What I said to Guilhaume was this: “at the end of the day, I’d probably rather be in France visiting wineries and getting to know producers, but the work is two parts. Once we have bought the wine, we need to sell it, and the job is doing both of those things.” And of course I did like “working the market;” it was a blast!

 

In New Orleans, where we have not yet begun selling due to epic compliance holdups, I showed 11 wines and a beer to our future Louisiana distributor. This was my moment to act as a dreaded “brand ambassador” not just for our wineries, but for our personality as an importer. We’d decided to say (and I think accurately) that we’re “redefining the modern classics.” Our generation of wine folks grew up loving the classic classics: Neal Rosenthal’s Burgundies, Champagne from the Terry Theise portfolio, etc … but we also grew up with carbonic maceration Gamay and no sulfur Pineau D’Aunis from the Loire, Pet Nat, Frappato, Biodynamic Champagne, wine from the Auvergne for Christ’s sake. It’s accurate to say that we’re bringing these more esoteric wines into the cannon and creating an idea of the “Modern Classics.” I gave my little sermon about the modern classics, and we began to talk and taste. After a moment of nervousness another feeling crept over me: pride. We passed Dominique Belluard’s “Perles du Mont Blanc” around the table, noses in the glass, the vivid, mellow aroma of pears and honey, the creamy, mouth-filling texture, lemon custard, and the long, sappy finish. Silence. My mind wandered to another evening in the recent past, driving from Dominque Lucas’ winery by Lac Léman to a roadside hotel outside Chambéry, listening to The Stone Roses in the dwindling evening light. This job requires both things, the lonely, reflective evening in Chambéry, and the raucous afternoon calling on restaurants on Bourbon Street at happy hour.

 

I should definitely give my review of drinking and eating in New Orleans, but the truth is I barely touched the tip of the iceberg. There was a superb dinner at Herbsainte, a memorable lunch at Shaya, a middle eastern restaurant on Magazine Street. This was the best middle eastern food I’ve ever tasted, with a slightly higher end flair than we’re used to, and better ingredients. The fresh pita bread the kitchen churned out every few minutes was enough to make any Paleo dieter revert to wheat based products. I ate crawfish, crawdads, crawdiddlers a couple of times; my favorite preparation of them was at a restaurant called The Franklin in the Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans. They were served in a rich, spicy sauce, inside what looked like an apple turnover. They taste like lobster, but sweeter.

 

There was the rosé party at Bacchanal, a NOLA institution in the Bywater neighborhood. Bacchanal is not unlike Roberta’s in Bushwick, a layered sprawling venue with ample outdoor space, jazz, and really good food. After a glass or two of rosé in the afternoon, tipsy and starving, I ordered this pasta with spring vegetables and anchovies, swimming in delicious juices and topped with breadcrumbs, and I sipped some Clos Cibonne Tibouren. IMG_0748

 

Atlanta was a completely different story. Where New Orleans is vibrant, drunken, alive, Atlanta is subdued, staid, and stately. New Orleans you can walk places (be careful at night; there’s a lot of armed robbery), but Atlanta is a driving town. My first evening in Atlanta, a couple who were customers of mine at Chambers Street, some of my all time favorites, took me dinner at a wonderful restaurant called Aria, where we drank these bottles of 2007 Chambolle Musigny, one from Ghislaine Barthod and one from Cecille Tremblay. FullSizeRender

 

(For the record, the Tremblay was more open, but the Barthod was more complex, with many more years of life ahead of it.) The meal at Aria rivaled if not surpassed anything I’ve eaten recently in New York, duck that melted in the mouth, octopus, and various other delights. IMG_0756 (1)

 

Our meal at Aria reminded me of the fact (a fact that I was reminded of many times during my stay in Atlanta) that people who live in New York tend to envision themselves as the keepers of all the culture, the cuisine, the great wine, etc … and it’s just not true. One of the things I love about Atlanta is their slew of small, homegrown restaurant groups. I heard that Mario Batali tried to get started in Atlanta and failed, which is awesome! In New York, restaurant groups are huge and corporate: Union Square Hospitality and Dinex, Carmellini, and what have you … Sure these restaurant groups have mastered the art of hospitality and fine dining, have made it a science, but I want to support the small and independently owned, and in Atlanta I could do that! Not to mention that if you want to drink a tasty glass and enjoy a casual meal, you can wander over to the neighboring town of Decateur and hit Paper Plane or Cakes and Ale. (Unrelated: while travelling in the south, I revisited Outkast’s first two albums; it was a good call.)

 

During my 2.5 days of “working the market” in Atlanta, we showed essentially the same lineup of wines with a few variations, and interestingly some were not wines I often show in New York, and this was great! I reconnected with things in the portfolio that I don’t spend enough time with. I likened it to putting my iPod on random and letting fate chose the next song; sometimes I discover deep cuts I had never taken the time to listen to. (This is how I discovered Roxy Music’s “Grey Lagoons;” this is how I re-fell in love with Marco Zani’s 2011 Nosiola.) In this case, it wasn’t fate, or iTunes, but rather Nick Montigelli from Avant Partir, but whatever … the fact remained that I wasn’t choosing what bottle came next in the lineup … FullSizeRender (1)

 

Nick had picked wines that demonstrate both the avant garde side of what we do, and the classic. Here we have carbonic Malbec from Cheverny, and we also have very old school Chablis. This photo is from the bar at Aria, site of my first fabulous meal in Atlanta. We were tasting with Andres, their charming beverage director. We arrived at 2006 Lenoir Chinon, which we’d been showing for several days using a coravin. Nick removed the coravin as this was our final stop on the sales route. The wine was absolutely stunning, peppery and soil-y on the nose, a bit of volatile acidity, petal soft on the palate, its fruit alive and youthful, the faintest hint of umami, oxidation, and old, old barrel. Again, the moment of silence and the sense of pride, the flashbacks to long evenings in the cellar with Jérôme, cobwebbed bottles of unknown vintage, a very late dinner at Chez Annie, an omelet the size of my arm filled with boudin blanc and  mushrooms … and then I was back in Aria’s cool, dark, immaculate bar.

 

On my last evening in Atlanta, I went to Le Caveau to see Eric Brown, a wine poet who has curated an incredibly geeky and excellent selection. This would have been an impressive selection in any city, in any market. The reality is that because Eric is in Atlanta rather than New York, San Francisco, Chicago, etc … he has to work a bit harder to obtain these geeky bottles, and he apparently takes pleasure in the work. Eric is on a mission, always, to put real wine on the shelf at Le Caveau. It struck me about Eric, and about many buyers I met in Atlanta, that they expressed gratitude for our efforts bringing in these wines. This is something that *never* happens in New York, where buyers feel entitled to the good shit, and have come to expect it, to demand it. These folks down south seemed to know that we didn’t have to bring these wines to their city, that we could sell all we buy in New York and California, and quite a few of them took a moment to thank us for our work. Of course it may have been that southern sweetness dripping from every word, but coming from the cut throat price battles, the allocation scrambling, and the intensely competitive nature of the New York business, I relished these kind, encouraging words.

 

The next morning I flew back to New York very early after a late night of eating and drinking with Eric and other new friends. After a few days of recovery (read: no wine, lots of vegetables and exercise) I decided to put something special in the fridge: a bottle I’d brought back from the last trip to France. It was a bottle of pink Champagne from Thomas Perseval in Chamery. IMG_0788

 

Thus far I haven’t spoken much about our exploits in Champagne because I don’t want to jinx them. When we met Thomas Perseval back in February thanks to Aurélian Laherte, we loved what we tasted. Thomas had the magic. About to disgorge his first release, tiny quantities of Extra Brut and Brut Rosé, he epitomized what we like in new wave Champagne: organic farming, native yeast and barrels for the base wine, low dosage, and not excessive levels of sulfur. We could tell from our tasting of his vins clairs that he was doing things right. Apparently he liked us too because he agreed to work with us and we were thrilled. I picked up this sample bottle at the domaine a few weeks ago after that wacky afternoon when my rental car was towed from beside the Reims cathedral.

 

As always there’s a moment of “is it going to be as good as I remember?” Happily it was: tangy with cranberry, sumac, hibiscus, and chalk, fine bubbles and that faint hint of bitter almond on the finish that we find so satisfying in Champagne. After it had been open for half an hour it revealed more soaring red fruit and mineral across the mid-palate, and I feel sure that it became even more expressive in the fridge over night. I leaned back in my chair on the deck, threw on my sunglasses, sighed, and smiled; life is pretty good. Maybe the next time I sleep with another city, I’ll be telling the story of Thomas Perserval …

I got to my roadside hotel in Chambery last Thursday evening in one of those sentimental states that come along every once in awhile in this business where you thank your lucky stars you do what you do. Exhausted, over wrought, elated and pensive, I sent a note to my bosses thanking them for letting me be a part of it. They began mocking me immediately, insisting I must be either 1) drunk (I was not) or 2) tired (I was). Recognizing it as the sort of tough love I’d come to know from other brotherly figures, and to which I’m particularly susceptible because I have no actual brothers and take teasing pretty hard, I put aside their messages, and lay down listening to the highway traffic through an open window to ponder the beauty I’d seem and tasted that day.

I’d started the morning driving up a twisty road to rescue a family heirloom my friend Ariana had left it in a hunting lodge outside Arbois several years ago. I was supposed to undertake this mission the last time I passed through the area, but failed. This time I was determined not to be that person who promises they’ll do things for their friends only not to do them. When I arrived at the Hotel Sequoia, an ancient stone building nestled away in the forest it seemed to be closed. But I saw Madame in the back working in the garden and thought it was worth a try. Sure enough within a few minutes she’d liberated my friend’s family heirloom, and I was descending the sunny hillside, a broad smile on my face at barely 10am. Mission accomplished.

From there I drove toward Switzerland, crossing the border at the top of a mountain and beginning my descent, both hands on the steering wheel, the right hand darting back and forth to the gearshift as it’s the kind of switchback driving that virtually requires three hands. Engaged in a little Rolling Stones retrospective, I casually wondered if Dominique Lucas would be home. We’d made a plan, but he hadn’t responded to my most recent email, and hadn’t picked up the phone. Worst case scenario: it’s still a pretty drive.IMG_0678

Just outside Geneva on the French side of the border I crawled up a country road toward Ballaisons, suburb of Crépy Marocens. Sun drenched the vines, which overlooked Lake Geneva, in France called Lac Léman. When I arrived at the winery “Les Vignes du Paradis” I stopped to marvel at this apt description of the Domaine. It’s possible I’ve never visited a more heavenly place.IMG_0689

Dominique Lucas strolled out with a couple of visiting merchants. They said their goodbyes, stuffed some wine in their trunk, and I scoped the place out, its oeufs bétons (concrete eggs), its barriques, and amphorae. He cleared away the remains of a lunch of bread, pâté, mustard, and cornichons resting casually on an upturned barrel, while asking some questions about myself, how I’d come to be there, how long I’d worked for Selection Massale, how was business, and how was Guilhaume? Those formalities dispatched I could listen to his story, a winemaker I knew virtually nothing about, from whom I had tasted one single wine: a Chasselas that was so good I needed to find its maker.

Dominique Lucas is a 5th generation Burgundy winemaker who started his Domaine in the Haut Savoie in 2008. Today he has 10 hectares of vines, 2.5 of which are in Burgundy in the Haute Côte de Beaune, and in Pommard across from the Chateau.

So the obvious question is “why did you leave Burgundy to make wine in the Haut Savoie?” Not many winemakers would have made that decision. The answer turned out to be twofold and simple. Dominique Lucas did not like working within the confines of the Burgundy appellation system; he didn’t like the watchful gaze of his neighbors; he didn’t like their chemicals in his vineyards; to this day he doesn’t like to make wine to fit anyone’s standards but his own (and perhaps those of his buddy Dominique Belluard, with whom he exchanges many ideas). Oh … and then he came to Lac Léman at the recommendation of a friend who tipped him off that there were great vineyards at reasonable prices. One look at vines overlooking the lake and he was sold. Hearing it expressed this way, and already sort of skeptical of Burgundy myself, his decision made sense! Who would want to make wine in Pommard that could make wine in Ballaisons?IMG_0679

Lucas works his soils biodynamically (certified by Ecocert, though not by Demeter), and he’s fairly obsessed with energy, the energy of every aspect of the production from vines to cellar. Like most biodynamic dudes, he’s got some kooky beliefs: the amphora is the reverse of the egg; here’s the first (ever) concrete pyramid shaped aging vessel. Let’s see what energy that shape gives the wine! The more people like this I meet, and the more I taste, the happier I am just to let them do their thing without really understanding. As my friend Zach and I were saying at the airport waiting to fly home, there is absolutely no guarantee at all that organic wine will be good. There’s so much opportunity to f—k up organic grapes in the cellar, but biodynamic wine stands a better chance. People who put so much effort into farming are less likely to throw it away by yeasting, over-sulfuring, and otherwise messing with their juice in the cellar.

Toward the beginning of our meeting, Lucas told me that harvest at Les Vignes du Paradis lasts 2.5 months. That is an insanely long time. Chasselas has to get ripe! He told me … He does five passes through each vineyard making sure that the grapes are ripe. Chasselas does not take the sun as easily as some other cépages, and most Chasselas is harvested grossly under ripe. We talked about how most Chasselas in the region is made: over-cropped and under-ripe, loaded up with sugar to attain a respectable degree of alcohol. I laughed when he commented: les camions du sucre sont infernaux! – spoken like a man who will never chaptalize.

The overall terroir of the area is limestone with yellow marl, granite, and glacial morasses; Lucas farms 27 different parcels on various soil types, which he separates and raises in egg, barrel, or a combination of the two depending on the desired result. Certainly there were marked differences between the cuvees depending on which aging vessel he’d used. There are four appellations by Lac Léman, and they are all for Chasselas. Knowing how Lucas feels about working within the appellation system, I wasn’t surprised when he told me that he really only makes one appellation wine from Chasselas, his Marin. And he plants Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Savagnin, and Petite Arvine, which are for the most part legal in IGP wines, but not in appellation wines.IMG_0681

Explaining that he’d just completed the mise en bouteille yesterday and that I should excuse the wines for being a little troubled, we began to taste through an array of wines in unmarked bottles. The first was Chasselas from a recently started négociant project. I knew of the existence of this wine because we’ll be getting some as soon as his label printer is fixed and he stickers the back of the bottles. Called “Quintessence,” fermented in cuve and partially aged in 600 liter barrels, it’s a lemony bright wine at a refreshing 11% alcohol, with the same over all character as Lucas’ other wines, but more light hearted and less serious.

Next we tasted three more serious cuvees of Chasselas, each building on its predecessor in complexity. “Petit Coin de Paradis” is from vines in Crépy, raised in demi-muids from a parcel at the base of the hill. It was round and exotic, with a texture I’ve come to associate with Les Vignes du Paradis, which is lush on the front palate and reigned in by citrus and stoniness on the finish. Chasselas “Un Matin Face au Lac” from vines planted on clay and glacial morasses, was raised in egg, and – I thought – delivered more layers on the palate, more of the succulent lemon and rock and cream pudding that marks these wines. Chasselas Marin was my favorite of the three, with deep, base-y aromas and yellow fruit. It seemed the most obviously mineral, and comes from glacial morasses and granite soils. All three wines had amazing finishes, but the Marin was the longest and most impressive.

Then there were four white wines from other grape varieties: Chardonnay raised half in barrel and half in egg, which showed more Savoie-ness than Chardonnay-ness. Lucas makes Savagnin sous voile (for two years) and topped up. This one was topped up. It has the distinct phenolics and bracing acidity of Savagnin, but was not the slightest bit Jurassic. I’d have loved to have one to blind taste my cronies at home. Pinot Gris was as elegant as I’ve known Pinot Gris to be. It was high toned with powdery blue fruits and purple flowers. The only 2013 wine we tasted, Lucas’ Petite Arvine “PMG” (pour ma gueule) was down right crazy. The malo wasn’t done, and the wine was very high acid and almost tannic. Wild stuff. Lucas planted the vines in 2009; my guess is he doesn’t quite know what the future holds for this wine.

We moved on to Burgundies. Lucas brings his Burgundy grapes to the winery in Haut Savoie to make the wine; they are clearly in the same phylum as the Chasselas, etc … if not the same family. Chardonnay “Grand Chardonnay” from argilo-calcaire on the edge of Pommard was big, broad, and ripe. Made in eggs, he commented that this is always the biggest of the Burgundies. I found Haute Côte de Beaune blanc from éboulis calcaire and western exposition to be more balanced with what Lucas described as a grosse mineralité. For me (unsurprisingly), the wine that stole the show was the Aligoté from 100 year old vines planted below Pommard. The nose was beautiful and ripe, with a sort of floral yet tart apple and honey character, harvested at 16-20 hectoliters per hectare, he makes just one egg. This one got the old “f—k me that’s great” in my tasting book. The only other Aligoté I’ve tasted of this vivid, succulence is from the De Moors in Chablis (also 100 + year old vines).IMG_0688

Lucas red wines were unlike any Burgundies I’d tried before. His Haute Côte de Beaune was saline with notes of roasting meat, coffee, and savory cassis. It was distinct, interesting, young. His 2014 Gamay made without sulfur and in amphora, à la Belluard’s Mondeuse, was deep, dark, and smoky, structured, with the faintest hint of yeastiness on the finish, but the kind that accompanies a recently finished fermentation and bottling and goes away (rather than the kind that sticks around to be come the dreaded goût de souris). Amongst the reds we tried, easily my favorite was the 2011 Burgundy “En Passent devant le Chateau” (passing in front of the castle). With its beautiful nose of rose petal, its suavity and silken texture, its cranberry and sumac on the palate, I imagine I’ll be carrying a torch for this wine for a long time.IMG_0694

If I had to hazard a guess I’d say Dominique Lucas liked me more than he thought he was going to. He struck me as not the warmest of characters, but by the end of our tasting we were bantering comfortably, and what I thought would be an hour or two, turned into three when he asked me if I wanted to drive him around to look at the vines. Of course I did. We looked at fledgling buds; we talked to the neighbor, a raspberry farmer riding a tiny, funny looking tractor with spike-y tines like teeth; we admired the view of Lac Léman.IMG_0693

Though I’d been spitting the whole time, I was not sober when I left, high on life, high on a new array of brilliant wines, inspired, a visit to paradise facing the lake.

It has never been a better time to be in Champagne. Spring is here; the sun is shining across a cloud-less blue sky; chickens are pecking and clucking around the tiny village of Champaubert; gentle breezes are cooling the courtyard of our massive, rustic gites, and even though my rental car was towed yesterday necessitating a trip to the Reims police station as well as a tow truck compound in some banlieu of Reims called Tinqeux, I can’t help but smile. Monday at the Terres et Vins, likely the area’s most important tasting for small grower producers who work the soil and make wines of terroir, I was fortunate to chat and taste with a handful of Champenois who I by now consider friends: the modest Benoït Lahaye, the confident yet understated Pascal Agrapart, the buoyant Tarlant, the young businessman-winemaker Aurélian Laherte, the incredibly generous Laval, the gentle, kind Doquet, the energetic, nutty Vincent Couche (who perfectly echoed my feelings about sulfur in Champagne) … The list goes on … In addition to these guys who have been around the block now a few times, who have honed their skills to become some of the best winemakers in the region, there are the new people …

Thanks to a combination of  efforts on the parts of: T. Perseval, A. Corbon, and P. Doquet who got me motivated to change my plans, I attended a tasting on Sunday called Des Pieds et des Vins, that offered so much hope for the future of Champagne. This was a tasting of twelve producers who had come together to organize what we normally call an “off” tasting, which seems like a misnomer as this tasting was definitely “on” in every sense of the word. Here I found winemakers with tiny, exquisite domaines, some with essentially only base wine to show, some with a Champagne or two still years from disgorgement, some with bottles freshly disgorged, a little troubled and shocked, but still very good. Exhausted from travel, I revived with writer John Gilman in the passenger seat on the way to the tasting regaling me with stories from Krug (which — though not my style — I recognize as great and important Champagne), tales of the Avize tennis clubs’ personal Champagne brand (this struck me as very Champenois), and an inspirational anecdote from Burgundy about the way that paying attention to the energy in a biodynamic wine can restore energy to an exhausted human. Why not ??

I’m here in Champagne right now thanks to my new bosses Cory and Guilhaume of Selection Massale for letting me escape the United States for a week in April, and thanks to the generosity of Mike Carleton and Jeff Hellman of Transatlantic Bubbles, who import quite a few of the finest Champagnes in the north east, and who’ve allowed me to tag along as a long-time friend. One of the attendant benefits of travelling with Mike and Jeff is that they tend to fill the house with delicious things in kind of ridiculous abundance, and often some of the best Champagnes tasted on the trip are drunk over the dinner table at the gites. Here are some the highlights so far: IMG_0675 (1)

I met Sebastian Mouzon last year, and he was well on his way to greatness, working (in French I’d use the verb “bosser” here, a casual counterpart to the formal “travailler”) with Vincent Laval, and others in organics and biodynamics. Sebastian had taken over his family’s domaine in the Pinot Noir – heavy village of Verzy; he’d started to work the soil, and as a result of the transition had barely any wine to sell. While I liked the first “L’atavique” I tried, this new version was outstanding, perhaps even more so because it’s based on the shitty 2011 vintage with 20% reserve wine from ’09 and ’10. The wine sees 20% wood in the cellar, and 3 grams dosage. It’s got the tell-tale leafy, floral aromas I love in Extra Brut and Brut Nature Champagne with a faint and pleasing smokiness I’ve come to associate with Sebastian’s wines. The palate is harmonious with forward fruit and the kind of long, lingering minerality that in fact comes from minerals rather than from sulfur (in places where most wine has lots of sulfur in it — in Champagne between 50 milligrams on the low end and 150 or more on the higher end, there’s this bizarre conflation of minerality and sulfur, where the flavor of sulfur gets mistakenly sited as “minerality”, but clearly if one pays attention, the two things do not taste like each other). Anyway, I found Sebastian’s wines to have improved by leaps and bounds, and I drank this “L’atavique” with the sense that I’d be seeking it out immediately upon return to the states to drink at my home and share with my friends. IMG_0674

I’ve written about Benoït Marguet before, and over the past year since our last visit, when an eerie Buddhist chant rang out (it was his phone) during a profound moment of silence in the tasting room causing many of us to — in our brains, reeling from Sapience — endow him with strange mystical powers, I’ve really started to pay attention. Benoït comes from an old family in Ambonnay, and sometime in the mid-90s (I think), he became obsessed with energy and biodynamics. To this day, he’s the only grower I’ve ever seen eat his own biodynamic preparations, and I think they act as some bizarre preservative because every time I see the guy he seems younger than the last time I saw him. It’s weird. At any rate, Benoït makes astonishingly good rosé, and as those who know me can attest, this is a category I love but am extremely skeptical of. The magnum pictured above is based on the 2010 vintage, with a little of 10% reserve wine going back to the 2004 vintage. It’s a rosé d’assemblage with beautiful, delicate red fruit aromas, and sort of strawberry and cream silkiness on the palate. I should add (because at the moment I’m apparently obsessed with sulfur in Champagne) that Benoït has been working sans soufre for the past few years, and — though his importer may be slightly nervous about this — his wines have incredibly purity and vivid-ness on the palate, and I am convinced that expert lowering or elimination of sulfur in Champagne produces a better wine *for short term drinking*; the kicker is that the grape selection and winemaking absolutely have to be done well, and that for long term Champagne you need sulfur, and you need sugar, so please don’t misinterpret me as some kind of no-sulfur Champagne freak. IMG_0673

This brings me to Agnès Corbon, a friendly, spritely woman who manages her family’s winery in Avize; she has one of those charming accents when speaking English that indicate she learned the language in Australia. The Corbon family make Champagnes for the cellar. They are quite classic, with blocked malo-lactic fermentation, and long lees aging in the bottle. Just to give an idea: she has not yet disgorged the ’96; I saw bottles in repose in the cellar last year. While I find her wines to be sort of baffling as young wines (it may be a sulfur thing, but it may just be the truism that typically wines that are great after 20 years are hard and stern young; c’est la life … ), I like them very much with age. This bottle of ’89 Corbon was absolutely singing with the umami of great ramen noodles and parmesan rinds, with the delicious mingling of acidity and oxidation that make me love the white wines of Jura, with a mouthful of chalk on the finish. IMG_0670

And then there’s this guy. Last spring Peter Liem and I went to see Vincent Charlot together. He’s in Mardeuil, a sort of bland suburb of Epernay, which sticks in my mind because it’s the site of my first French speeding ticket that got repeatedly sent to my 90 year old grandmother in North Carolina. I digress. Bouncing around in the back of his Jeep, stopping at every vineyard to look at insects and plant life, and then descending into his tiny, crazy cellar under the house full of impressionistically named base wines in lengthy fermentations, Peter gave me the look that says “Sophie how is it whenever I go visit a winemaker with you he always turns out to be a nut-job?” This said, Vincent Charlot has some of the most beautiful vineyards I’ve seen in Champagne. A year ago, I was a little bit scared by the richness and intensity of the vins clairs, and by the weight and breadth of the finished wines (maybe a dosage thing). At the end of the day, while I respect big, broad powerful Champagnes, Champagnes that are first and foremost Wines (capital W), I require pretty serious finesse. This year in February, Aline, who owns Au Bon Manger in Reims, poured me a taste of a more recent edition Charlot-Tanneux, and I liked it quite a bit. She told me that Vincent Charlot had been convinced to lighten up a bit. This is a bottle of 2006 Cuvée Micheline Tanneux, which John Gilman acquired at the winery. It was indeed very rich, from old (by Champagne standards) selection massale vines in Pierry, majority Chardonnay with some Pinot Noir, the base wines aged in barrel, and of course fermented long and slow with native yeast. With 5 grams dosage, this wine was indeed bordering on too rich for my blood, but also balanced, and expressive, with pretty, aromatic white orchard fruits, a bit like these yellow apples I buy at home called “Gold Rush” and a creamy, light sweetness that felt appropriate. Doug and Whitney at Polaner Selections have started to bring in Vincent Charlot’s wines; I bought a different cuvée called “L’expression” at Vine Wine, my local shop in Brooklyn with a great Champagne shelf and I liked it a lot as well. I’m glad someone is bringing these into New York; they are extremely interesting.IMG_0669

I’m going to end with a couple of notes about red wine from Champagne, which we always seem to drink a fair amount of with Jeff and Mike perhaps due to a basic need for red wine after a day of tasting bubbles. The first is from Georges Remy in Bouzy. I met Georges last year at Benoït Lahaye’s place. We had gone to eat lunch together in the town; I’d explained to Benoït that I was looking for new Champagne producers, and he said “why don’t you meet my neighbor Georges; right now he only makes red wine.” How could I refuse? Within about half an hour there was Georges, a few bottles of Bouzy Pinot from different vintages in tow. Georges studied in Bordeaux, and as usual I attributed his choice to age his Bouzy Pinot in barrels for 18 months to his Bordeaux education, but really who knows? The fact is that this Pinot is quite elegant, with fine structure, and the high acid, smoky profile of Pinot from Bouzy. Given its northern origin, it’s a gutsy, masculine wine, delicious and well-made, from the 2011 vintage, without added sulfur, which seems positively incidental as it doesn’t have any of the trappings of sans soufre wine. Benoït had, on previous visits, waxed at length about the red wines of Bouzy, how they are the best Coteaux Champenois Rouges; the only Coteaux Champenois Rouges that go by their village name. One year at Benoït’s I tasted Bouzy Rouge from the mid-70s that his father had shepherded into the bottle; another year I tasted a bottle from the ’50s. By all accounts they age very well, these wines, revealing their chalky terroir (and beginning to taste a bit like The Dark Crystal) as their tangy, crunchy red fruit slips away … It’s true that for at least a handful of people, Bouzy Rouge is a thing. IMG_0672

To finish, a wine I know absolutely nothing about. This bottle was absolutely the feminine counterpart to Remy’s masculine. With a flower petal texture, ethereally elegant, a touch herbal with notes of rose hip, with lively red berries, it was just beautiful. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this wine before, either in the states or in France, but I’d love to drink it again; it certainly had “the magic.”

There you have it: a quick trip to Champagne in the spring, an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and make new ones, and most of all a reaffirmation that there are truly exciting things happening in the region, right now.

A few nights ago I was indulging in one of those guilty pleasures: aimlessly scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed waiting for sleep to come (has anyone ever noticed it’s possible to do this for 30 minutes and it feels like 30 seconds?), getting caught up in the micro-dramas of people from my past and present. I noted with curiosity that a kid I went to high school with and hardly know, who is now a successful R&B session musician “liked” my photo of 2007 Caveau de Bacchus Arbois Blanc. Did he by some bizarre twist of fate know the wine, or did he “like” the font, the bottle shape, and the daffodils in the background? In any case it made me smile. (This is, by the way, an incredible bottle of traditional Jura wine from the Aviet family in Montigny-les-Arsures, who will never export, so if you see it in France, don’t hesitate.)  IMG_0647

I scrutinized and tried to make sense of a status update in French full of hashtags about the early stages of the 2015 Champagne vintage. I clicked on a link a college era friend from my hometown posted of a schizophrenic hip hop video made my Izzy Azalea (is that her name?) and … somebody. And then just as I was about to turn out the light full of self-hatred for wasting this time when I could have been finishing that New Yorker article about the president of China, I stumbled across Lauren Gitlin’s blog (linked in the sidebar), as though it was what I’d been looking for all along.

 

Lauren used to work in the New York wine business, and she moved to rural Vermont to make cheese. Her stories are about many things, notably her experience as a farmer, the glaring differences between life in rural Vermont and life in Brooklyn, and more. Her writing evokes compassion and laughter; as with everything Lauren does, it’s honest, funny, and balls-to-the-wall. I confess that when I read Lauren’s blog, it’s with deep appreciation and enjoyment, but also pangs of jealousy. Why?

 

After reading about the six month long winter, and sprouting of new life on the farm, I started to stack my own seasonal, spring experiences against Lauren’s. It went something like this: “Well today while Lauren was breaking up a goat fight, I wrote to some producers to check on their bottling process with a view toward making reservations for the year, then I spent a few minutes griping on g-chat with my colleagues about one problematic account or another, then I freaked out for a minute about ports, customs, and warehouses being backed up, then I freaked out for several minutes about having to allocate some Selection Massale wine that everyone wants but we don’t have enough of, then I went to a restaurant to have a drink at the bar and scope out their wine list, etc … Jesus Christ! I could be leading a bucolic life on a farm with baby goats all around me! What am I doing?” Of course the grass is always greener (truth be told, there are a few tufts in Brooklyn, but as yet none where Lauren lives; I’ve seen her photos; it’s all snow), and each time I have these thoughts I try to figure out whether they represent a genuine desire to have a different kind of life, or whether they are passing flights of fancy.

 

I wandered down memory lane for a little while, thinking about the various decisions that brought me where I am today, enmeshed in the wine business in a way that feels like either vocation or something that I can’t extricate myself from … maybe a little of both. The truth is that I grew up deep in the country, that I’m the child of parents who chopped wood to heat the house, that my father chopped the wood that made the damn house for that matter, that my mother planted things and harvested mint and lemon balm to make tea, that when she died she was in the midst of a plan to build her own pizza oven in the backyard. Yes these were the conditions of my childhood, and now here I am slinging a bag on the streets of New York. Yet when I think about moving back to North Carolina I invariably stumble upon the fact that I can’t take care of my childhood home, that I just don’t have those skills; my parents didn’t give them to me, or I didn’t want them, that for better or worse I’m a city person now; this is how it’s evolved and, while I’m not old, I’m not young enough to change course the way I did when I dropped out or grad school, the way I did when I moved to Bushwick seven years ago to pursue a childish love, and a dream of working in wine.

 

Then I remembered conversations with my grandmother trying to explain what I do in a way that doesn’t make it seem totally frivolous. My grandparents were involved in the civil rights movement in North Carolina; my grandfather was a physicist; they housed PhD students, and went to the community church on the weekend. I’m sure my grandmother has never been drunk, and has probably never spent more than about $10 on a bottle of wine. When my grandfather was alive, I bought a case for a family holiday one year and painstakingly scraped off all the price tags with a razor blade so that he wouldn’t be able to see that some of the bottles had cost $20. How can I possibly explain this life of travel, fancy restaurants and expensive bottles to someone in my grandmother’s shoes? It must sound so silly and luxurious; it must not sound like work ….

 

What I wound up saying is that what makes me want to work in wine is its connection to agriculture, far more than its connection to fancy restaurants and baller bottles. I’m not a farmer, but I support farmers; I’m intensely interested in farmers. Part of the vocation itself is seeking out people who farm well, people who respect the environment, small, family businesses rather than large corporate entities. At Chambers Street there was such a sense of pride in supporting Marc Ollivier of Domaine de la Pepière. In this new gig it’s Céline and Laurent Tripoz (to name just one), who make beautiful sparkling wine including this Aligoté, which has been one of the best new surprises in our book (and, incidentally, as our friend who writes the excellent blog “Not Drinking Poison in Paris” (linked in the side bar … ) pointed out, makes me think all Aligoté should be sparking!).  IMG_0651

 

Céline and Laurent’s house in Loché felt like my family’s house in Saxapahaw (only made of stones rather than wood), the stove and the cat with three legs named “Ficelle” but affectionately called “Chat-Chat,” the restorative warm soup on a freezing cold night in the Mâcon, Laurent’s wish to hang out late over the dregs of the bottles, chatting … These things felt very familiar, and they certainly replenished the sense of “this is what I do what I do.”

 

But what I started out to say, when I begin this post, is that something happened on the last trip to France that — possibly beyond all other things — made it seem worthwhile: this strange, superficial toiling in the wine business, this pounding of pavement in bad weather with a heavy bag, this choice to stare at restaurant wine lists rather than to milk baby goats, namely that we’re going to import some Champagne. It’s almost impossible to express how much pride and joy attends this statement. When I left Chambers Street, my eye on joining Selection Massale, one of my greatest regrets was that I’d lose my connection to Champagne. For most of the life of Selection Massale, they thought they’d never work in Champagne. One of my bosses lived there for a year when he was 19, working for a co-operative. I’m pretty sure it scarred him. And the other? Well let’s just say the collective sympathies have always lain with the small guy rather than the big corporation, which caused them to have reservations about Champagne. But for me, it’s always been very important because I love the wines, and because I know that there is great wine being made in Champagne in the style we prefer, organically farmed, made in the vineyard, treated with care in the cellar.

 

When I went back to Champagne in February with my colleagues, as an importer with no Champagne in their book, rather than as a buyer at an established shop, I didn’t know what I’d find, whether I’d find anything at all but a place where I used to be relevant and no longer was.  What I found were friends such as Vincent Laval, Pascal Doquet, Benoït and Valérie Lahaye, ready to help us look, ready to gather their peers and neighbors to taste, poised to receive us regardless of my new role in life. This was incredible. And at the end of our time there, we found some people who we think (we hope!) will work for us. On New Years Eve this year, at a small gathering at my house, we made some New Years resolutions. Mine was to import Champagne. If it happens; if it really does , I’ll probably tell my grandmother. Not sure what I’ll say exactly, but pretty sure she’ll hear the excitement in my voice and that’ll be enough to convince her that it’s a good thing.

 

(Due to the prevalence of what we in the wine business call “poaching” wherein a big, rich company swoops in and promises the world to your new producer that you’ve just found and can’t wait to work with, I’ll refrain from giving further detail until wine is on the water with a Selection Massale back label on the bottle; stay tuned … )

 

 

It’s f—ed up that most people in the wine business demand the “freshest” rosé on the market (meaning last year’s vintage). They want it to arrive in March and be sold out by September; they live in fear of rosé hanging around until Thanksgiving despite that pink wine is often recommended as a pairing for Thanksgiving food (this is a fairly transparent way for retailers to get rid of whatever rosé has had the audacity to hang out into the fall, also the deeper hued rosés that for some reason people think are sweeter than the salmon colored ones that are popular in the dog days of summer).

What we’re finding is that the way rosé is treated in our market has little to do with the customer, and everything to do with the industry and its marginalization of pink wine, its decision to allow pink wine commodity status, and to expect the poor quality of a shitty pair of socks from Old Navy or artificially sweetened Ciobani yogurt. Frankly customers rarely care, rarely even look at the vintage when picking out a bottle. Customers expect rosé to be pink and cheerful, and above all to taste good! And instead we give them yeasted rosé that is rushed through the fermentation process in order to be ready for release in February, smelling of plastic flowers, strawberries, and sulfur. Or we give them the quality rosés from Bandol, Tavel, Chinon, etc … thrust in their faces at the whiff of spring and guzzled bottle-shocked as though if they’re not drunk right away they might go bad and snow might start to fall again. It’s criminal the disservice done to rosé in the present era, by the wine business. We don’t ask our white wines to be as fresh as possible, always last year’s vintage as though they have some sort of expiry date after which they’ll give us food poisoning.

The irony is that if you talk to people in the wine business, they’ll tell you they understand that quality rosé is often better six months, a year, or more after release, but that the customer and the market demand the freshest releases. This is not true. Customers want good wine, and that’s not what we’re giving them. It suits us to act as though the consumer is the sheep or the lemming, grabbing their $15 provençal rosé with the pretty label off the seasonal table stocked with “this is what we’ve promised to buy 200 cases of over the next three months; we’ve even scheduled five case drops every two weeks because our sales rep demanded it.” This way we don’t actually have to think about rosé; we can just sell that same 200 cases of Peyrassol or Sulauze Pomponette, you name it, that we sell every year, and the few pedestal rosés we can horde for ourselves: the L’Anglores, the Pradeauxs and Tempiers. It’s like Cory wrote in a mailer the other day in criticism of our industry: “the flood of “rosé is so hot now; here are 4 we feature every year because they advertise with us, and one you can’t find anyway that we actually drink.” It’s an accurate summation. IMG_0623

The other irony is that wine industry people will often tell you they make an exception for rosé Champagne (“I don’t really drink rosé … except rosé Champagne, of course”) as though because the marketing geniuses of Champagne have made pink bubbles more expensive than their white counterparts, there must be something about them that’s more qualitative. This is utter bullshit, and if you ask top Champagne producers, which I have, quite a few times, they’ll tell you their rosé is made for the market, that they themselves don’t drink it, and that their white BSA (brut sans année) is superior. For the record, yes I’m saying it is hard to find good rosé Champagne, far, far harder, in fact, than to find good still rosé. I’m also dealing in mass generalizations as anyone who has drunk a bottle of Tarlant Rosé Zero, Lahaye Rosé de Maceration, of Bérèche Campania Remensis can attest.

With these thoughts in mind, and inspired by Étienne (our neighbor and sommelier at M. Wells in Long Island City), we decided to taste rosés with some age. Susannah and I had been ranting about the marginalization of rosé by the wine business for some time, and on a recent trip to M. Wells we observed that Étienne was more than happy to feature last year’s rosés, and we drank a beautiful 2013 Terrebrune, and an excellent 2013 Bermejos. To the guest list, we added our friend Jeremy who works for Rosenthal Wine Merchant, arguably the best purveyor of high quality rosé, and, fittingly, when he accepted to our invitation he said: “rosé a year or more after release? Read: bring some Château Simone.” IMG_0628

We started with a couple of Selection Massale rosés; this was largely my own curiosity; I wanted to know how they were showing. 2013 Beurer Trollinger rosé is a wine I tasted numerous times last summer (you know, back when it was “fresh”), and it always confounded me. Like all Jochen’s wines, it’s got riveting acidity, and a dense, pillar-like structure. Each time I drank it young, I was intrigued, but was never sure I quite liked it, though I’d find myself thinking about it hours if not days after the fact. Lee Campbell was pouring Beurer Trollinger rosé by the glass at Achilles Heel; I ordered it last summer and remember being filled with respect for Lee for not coddling people with boring, fruity rosé; this wine was ever-so-slightly punishing in its youth, though also complex and clearly native yeast fermented, which (after five years at Chambers Street) is something I always look for in rosé. Now the wine is gorgeous. The high-toned cranberry, tart cherry, and white-peppery spice remain, with added depth and richness on the palate. An additional year has softened the wine’s edges, and I found it to deliver everything I’d wanted it to deliver as a young wine. IMG_0626

Quentin Bourse from Le Sot de L’Ange makes his single parcel rosé from old vine Grolleau grown on alluvial clay, silex, and quartz. The wine’s aged in stainless steel and acacia. At the last record store tasting we did back in January, this was my wine of the night (out of about 30 wines). I kept it close to me over the course of the evening doling out little sips to people and asking them if I was crazy for thinking it was showing so well. I liked this wine when young; it was intensely crisp, low in alcohol (11%), with the light funk and pepper of Grolleau. Like the Beurer, this wine has now taken on some richness, but all the white stone and wild strawberry aromas remain, and the finish offers the same mouth-coating minerality as Quentin’s red Grolleau with a faint whisper of tannin. IMG_0627

The only rosé we tasted that wasn’t exactly en forme was Mas Jullien 2011, but certainly not because it was by any means too old. Olivier Jullien, arguably the best winemaker in the Languedoc, makes this rosé from the same blend of red grapes (Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Carignan, Mourvèdre) he uses for his age-worthy reds. This was often amongst my favorite rosés of the year at Chambers Street, which is surprising given that I barely drink anything from the Languedoc. The wine is always compellingly authentic, and by this I mean it’s a wine that is true to itself, comfortable in its skin so to speak; this is not a Languedoc rosé that has sold out and transformed itself into a crisp, pale wine (because apparently the market is terrified of gutsy, dark colored rosé, unless it says “Tavel” on the label). It hails from a warm, arid climate and packs a fair amount of alcohol (usually around 14% according to the label), but its power, structure, and sheer quality assure that it’ll be balanced and fresh nonetheless. It’s native yeast fermented, and the aromas are deeply earthy, sometimes verging on roasted in character. 2011 was a hot vintage in the Languedoc, and it’s the only vintage of this wine in recent years that I haven’t loved. Right now, it suffers from vintage more than from age. IMG_0624

Château Simone is a standard bearer for “serious” rosé. From a monopole close to Aix-en-Provence called “Palette” it’s a singular terroir marked by many pine trees, farmed by the Rougier family, who have long history in the area. Simone rosé, made from a wacky blend of grapes according to the Rosenthal website: Cinsault, Syrah, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Castet, Manosquin, Théoulier, Tibouren, Picpoul Noir, and Muscat de Hambourg, ages in barrel, and offers the resolved, integrated character of barrel aged rosé (see Clos Cibonne rosé for comparison). But this wine is far more than just a rich, serious rosé from the south of France. It’s utterly singular in its marriage of pine-y, spicy aromas that can be almost oak-y at times, with clear-as-a-bell notes of sour red plum, cassis, blackberry, and dark cherry. It’s a beautiful wine that opens up in the glass, and began to sing about halfway through the bottle.

We had several more rosés on deck to try including Gilbert Menetou-Salon and Crochet Sancerre rosés … both 2013, but we moved on to red and white wine. After all it was well below 40 degrees, and our guest of honor had brought Clos Rougeard and Joly.

It’s a little bit the chicken/egg situation with rosé, meaning it’s unclear which came first: lots of mediocre rosé, or the wine industry’s attitude. What is clear, though, is that if the wine industry asks more from its rosé, asks it to be real wine, asks it to live by the same standard as red and white wine, rosé wine will get better. And that’s all we’re really asking for, those of us who love rosé …

Quentin Bourse of Le Sot de L’Ange is the first winemaker I’ve encountered to preface his personal history with the statement “I am an autodidact.” He did a variety of things before he made wine, but he didn’t go into detail about what they were. Suffice it to say, he fell in love with wine and that was that. Quentin makes wine in Azay-le-Rideau, and I’ve come to think of him as the mayor of this town, close to Chinon, in the central Loire Valley. He’s not really the major, obviously, but he heads the group of ten-ish vignerons in Azay who are looking to put this appellation on the map (the group also includes the fabulous Marie Thibault). Quentin makes wine in the facility of Pascal Pibaleau, an old school producer of sparkling wine. I don’t recall how the two met, but Pascal is a calm and quiet counterpart to Quentin’s insatiable energy and constant steam of commentary.

Guilhaume must have known that Quentin was capable of great things. Talking to Quentin, I got the impression that he and Guilhaume had been pals for a long time, but when I asked Guilhaume he denied a friendship de longue date with Quentin. They met at Frantz Saumon’s place; they liked each other; Guilhaume told Quentin to get in touch when he had something to sell, and Quentin did. I’ve heard other stories like this, where the importer has a kind of sixth sense when it comes to winemaking prodigies. And maybe it’s a stretch to frame Quentin as a prodigy, but he’s had the best two first vintages I think I’ve ever tasted, and they weren’t easy vintages either. There’s something about the guy, and there’s something about the wines.IMG_0410

A quick word about the name of this Domaine: Le Sot de L’Ange. It translates to something like “The Idiot of the Angel,” which refers to Quentin’s decision to leave his previous life to begin the life of a vigneron in a tiny, unknown appellation. He frames himself as “the big idiot,” but hey, I’m sure he’s no more idiotic than I was when I dropped out of grad school to join the wine business. We relate to people who chuck it all in to pursue lives of passion and fulfillment in spite of risk and hard work.

I don’t have a note with the exact size of Quentin’s Domaine, but I know it’s growing little by little. When I visited him in October, he had nine parcels — all in Azay-le-Rideau; now he has slightly more. He’s certified by both Ecocert and Demeter. His vineyards are beautiful, and they are at times punctuated by forest, as well as other crops; there’s real biodiversity in Azay, something that can’t be said about many places in France where wine grape cultivation is a monoculture. We found a decaying butternut squash nourishing one of Quentin’s vineyards. The soil is clay, limestone, white silex, with chalk bedrock in some places. Azay is the home of Grolleau, and this grape finds great expression in Azay.

During his various internships, including one with Huet, Quentin developed quite particular ideas about how to do things in the vines and cellar. I was surprised both times I visited him by how particular his methods are during the following stages of the process: 1) Deciding when to pick. To decide when to pick, you can crush some grapes and splash the juice across a little sugar reader to tell you if they’re technically ripe, and/or you can go around tasting them to see if they’re delicious, which is what Quentin does. (I’m sure he does both, actually, but he was very insistent during my October visit that we taste grapes for maturity. 2) Picking. Quentin’s harvesting team goes through each parcel two and three times to select for ripeness. 2) Pressing. Standard press time is two or three hours; you turn on the machine; it presses the grapes. Quentin presses for five hours or more, and he hangs out at the press like a DJ manipulating the dials that control pressure and timing. It’s unusual, but when I drink Quentin’s Chenin Blanc, I wonder if he might be on to something … 4) Grapes Entiers. This means “whole cluster,” a way to make red wine that includes stems in the process. Quentin puts Gamay and Grolleau in the same inert tank, the Gamay on the top, the Grolleau on the bottom. This mediates the greenness of the Grolleau stems. He puts carbonic gas in the tank, and does not use sulfur. The list goes on.

Talking to Quentin, I soon realized that he is absolutely obsessed with quality, cuts no corners, thinks about everything, probably in some cases to a detrimental extent, and is very much his own man in the way he works, not influenced by fads or what others tell him. If he doesn’t use sulfur it’s because he doesn’t like the reduction it brings to Grolleau, not because he’s trying to make natural wine. Quentin is also of a playful disposition, and his space if full of accoutrements: stickers, tee-shirts, hats with his brand on them, a skateboard with his brand on it, embossed tech sheets for every wine, a sun screen for the window of his car with his brand on it. He told us that all this connerie (bullshit) helps him get bank loans and that’s part of why he does it. The bank takes him more seriously (even though his importer might take him less seriously) when he presents a boxed set with wine paraphernalia as well as his signature wooden-framed sunglasses? Sure. Why not?

This is only tangentially related, but I had an epiphany on this last trip to France regarding how winemakers express themselves, namely that I should not judge. We can easily find ourselves thinking that winemakers should be a certain type: rustic with dirt under the nails, humble but confident, country folks even at their most refined. My former boss at Chambers Street harbors a prejudice against wineries with flash websites; he thinks winemakers should be in the vines, not working on their damn websites. In Champagne, we visited a winemaker, who shall remain nameless for the moment, who poses entirely covered in gold body paint for photos. And guess what? His wines are good! Farmed well, fabricated well, biodynamically certified. Who are we to think that a man who wears hair gel and occasionally has himself painted gold can’t make good wine? This is just to say that behind Quentin’s self expression, the label word play and the branded bottle stoppers, there lies an extremely talented vigneron.

I was not exactly en forme when we arrived at Quentin’s winery a few weeks ago having stayed up late the night before with Dominique Belluard, Jean Philippe Padié, and some other folks. The jet lag plus the previous evening’s wine made for a queasy combination, and in the car I sent Quentin a couple of messages explaining that we’d be a few minutes late, while rubbing my temples and trying to get my brain working. “No worries. I’m going to get you guys some super oysters,” he replied. Quentin, a huge scar over one of his eyes, acquired in a tractor accident, was like an immediate tonic. We tasted some wine: grolleau rosé, exquisite Chenin Blancs aging in barrel and amphora, the Grolleau and Gamay that will go into his 2014 “Sot Rouge,” and more. The first wine we tasted, which we also drank and hour later with a lunch of incredibly fresh, salty oysters, brown bread, and beurre bordier, was a Pet Nat called “Red is Dead” made from the Chaulnay grape, an old indigenous variety that is red on the outside and red on the inside. Gingerly sipping the wine, slurping the salty oysters, spreading beurre bordier with a pocket knife, I felt like Bertie when he first meets Jeeves. Suddenly the world righted itself, the blue sky and crisp air, the snack that put all Brooklyn brunches to shame, and the precise, bracing, enlivening wine. IMG_0406 - Version 2

A week or so later I was in Arbois talking to my friend Pierre. He said “I noticed on Facebook that you drank a wine called “Red is Dead.” Do you understand the joke?” I did not. Pierre went on to explain. “Red is Dead” is a movie within a movie, a fictional horror film about — I think — communist zombies — that lives within in actual early ’90s French comedy called “La Cité de la Peur.” Of course! A film within a film, red juice within a red grape! Even though when “Red is Dead” arrives in the states in a few weeks, it’ll have a different label, I’ll still think of it this way … as a wine that epitomizes Quentin Bourse, his skills, his playfulness, his sense of humor.

Every time I go to France I come back a little bit wiser, and not just about wine, about myself and what defines me, what I want out of my work and my life. I get the thinkies real bad for the first few days I’m home, running across the Williamsburg bridge in the snow, riding the subway, participating in the wine community in New York, eating just vegetables for a few days. What does it mean to be French? What does it mean to be American? Would I move to France if I could? After this most recent trip I had a shocking epiphany, namely that I am probably more likely to move to France than I am to move back to North Carolina. I certainly spend more time there in the average year than I do in Chapel Hill where I grew up. The winemakers I’ve been meeting there for years, and sometimes in New York as well, have become friends. I know their children’s names and what they’re doing with their lives; I know their horses and dogs names for crying out loud. For all that I complain about France (smoking, rich, indigestible food featuring weird pig parts, crap wifi, total absence of speciality coffee, the list goes on … ) I feel more and more comfortable there, and this time, I wasn’t as happy as I expected to be to come home to Brooklyn.

Undoubtedly part of the reason is that we spent five days in the Jura, a place that is as dear to my heart as any, a place that stirs me to my core when I arrive, and again when I leave: shivers and deepest nostalgia, heart tight in the chest from either happiness or sadness it’s unclear which, like listening to Toots and the Maytals’ “Country Roads,” or ’70s French country singer Eddy Mitchell’s “Sur la route de Memphis,” in a word “love,” inexplicable, undeniable, and bizarre. I love this place.

Sigh. Anyway. Our first visit in the Jura was to a winemaker I’d never met before named Géraud Fromont of Domaine des Marnes Blanches. His 10 hectare Domaine is in Ste Agnès in the Sud Revermont sector of the southern Jura, just a few kilometers from Fan-fan Ganevat, Peggy Buronfosse, Kenjiro Kagami, L’Aigle a Deux Têtes, and Julien Labet. My experience is that white wine works better down here than red. Poulsard struggles; Chardonnay thrives. It’s possible to make very Burgundian white wine in the Sud Reverment; then again it’s possible to make pretty damn Burgundian white wine all over the Jura these days. Ostensibly it’s an ever-so-slightly warmer terroir than Arbois, yet when I was last there in very early October, it was chilly and foggy, while Arbois was warm and sunny. So who knows? There’s lots of marl, as well as éboulis calcaire, and other crunchy, delicious soil types, like this one from the Jensillard vineyard. IMG_0477

First we tasted some excellent wine out of barrel with Géraud: whole cluster Poulsard, Trousseau, and Pinot, with a bit of sulfur, made in a classic style, with several weeks of maceration, making me think of Poulsards of yore, like the way you felt when you first tasted red wines from Puffeney: elegant yet very structured. I say this because so much red wine from the Jura these days is made with a short maceration, partial carbonic, without sulfur, etc … It was nice to find these pleasantly tannic, clean wines; there’s a place in my heart for both styles, and Géraud succeeds well at an old school style of Jura red wine. It’s a bit hard to say what these wines will become since we tasted them out of barrel, but they weren’t horribly reduced (like pretty much everything we tasted in the Loire and Beaujolais), and they seemed extremely promising. IMG_0490

Next we tasted Chardonnay and Savagnin. As a general rule, these guys like to leave their white wines for at least two winters in barrel before bottling them, so these wines will not be released any time soon. Why? In some cases it’s because Pierre Overnoy and Manu Houillon told them to. (I’m only half kidding.) But the logic, which is 100% sound, is that the wines need that much time to stabilize, and that if you bottle in winter, unwanted oxygen will get trapped in the wine. This points to something very interesting and special about the Jura: namely that whether sous voile or ouillé, the white wines need time, whereas the reds? 2014 reds will be in the bottle as soon as it’s a fruit day and the temperature exceeds 50 degrees. Of the whites we tasted out of barrel, the most impressive according to my notes was a Chardonnay grown on marl, its malolactic fermentation not yet complete. They were all great, but it’s too soon to tell. IMG_0481

We went to look at the vines. It was very cold and windy, but of course Géraud was comfortable in a fleece, while we were shivering in our down/wool coats complete with hat and gloves. (Winemakers are impervious to cold.) The vineyard that gives us Géraud’s Chardonnay “Jensillard” is planted to both Chardonnay and Chardonnay “Muscaté” a subtle and natural permutation into aromatic, floral Chardonnay that has been inflected with Muscat. Made in a topped up style, the wine is absolutely beautiful. IMG_0475

Both Jensillard and En Levrette (yes it does mean “Doggystyle,” or as Géraud said “oui il y a un sens sexuel”) come from old vines on poor, iron rich soils. En Levrette, aged in neutral barrels and topped up, is unapologetically high acid and mineral driven. Both of these cuvées offered about as much as I could want from Burgundian style Jura Chardonnay, a dense pillar-like structure, a mingling of lemony and granny smith apple acidity with fleshy texture and a faint buttery sensation. I was sorry our most recent order from Géraud went entirely to the west coast. IMG_0479

After Jensillard and En Levrette, we went to see Géraud’s vineyard in Grusse, a neighboring town. Planted at the maximum elevation for the area: 350-400 meters above sea level, this is a frigid, blustery 4 hectare plot with many grape varieties co-planted. This is the vineyard that gave Marnes Blanches its name, and it’s a remote, craggy spot in middle earth. IMG_0482

Chilled to the bone, we returned to the Fromont homestead where we met the sheep, ate Coq au Vin Jaune for lunch, and tasted Géraud’s sensational sous voile wines. What charmed me the most about Domaine des Marnes Blanches is that the Fromonts give equal weight and opportunity to both styles of Jura white wine, and are equally enthusiastic about making both. If you’ve been following my writing, you know that I’m an enormous fan of sous voile wine, and I’m inspired when young winemakers do not abandon the traditional styles of the region in order to placate the trend for topped up Jura white wine. Géraud’s “Tradition” is 60% Savagnin, 40% Chardonnay, both raised sous voile, assembled two months before bottling. It’s one of those wines that provides a glorious entry into sous voile Jura wine, with riveting acidity and an unmistakable aromatic je ne sais quoi. Géraud’s Savagnin Empreinte garnered an emoticon in my tasting notes, but by that point I was most likely (okay certainly) eating Comte, perfectly happy, and had abandoned my notes for the sheer joy of being alive, and in the company of my fellow man, and in the Jura. The good news is that Tradition and Savagnin are coming to New York soon, as soon as Géraud’s label printer is fixed. I’ll be able to ponder and revel in them in more depth … and so will you, dear reader. IMG_0485

I can’t move to the Jura. I want it in the same way I want to bring my parents back to life. It’s just not realistic. I’m American, and very likely to stay that way, but I can, through my work, bring myself there as often as possible to bask in the glory of that bucolic country landscape, such a contrast to our own vast, concrete jungle.

A large part of the reason I left my job as assistant buyer at Astor Wines and Spirits (about 5.5 years ago), was that I wanted to be able to buy stuff just for being good, not all the time, bien sûr, but sometimes. I craved the simple interaction between vendor and buyer in which a wine is tasted, enjoyed, and purchased. For better or worse, the environment at Astor had become so political and “deal” driven that I was not free simply to order a three case drop of something because I loved it and wanted it on the shelf. I’d already apprehended that the act of buying wine in an important store was more than merely populating the shelves, but for my own sanity, I needed to be (and buy) somewhere freer and less corporate. I say this with the utmost respect for Astor. After 5.5 years, I’ve been back a few times recently, including to pour a Saturday afternoon tasting! There’s some really good wine in that store; I see familiar faces; I see unfamiliar sherries and pick one out. For a long time, I doubted I’d ever be okay walking into Astor, but it turns out I’m more than okay; I’m happy to be there.

This is not to imply that Chambers Street Wines is not a political or deal driven place. All stores are; it’s the nature of the beast. But one thing that drew me to Chambers, that still draws me to Chambers, is that the buyers have autonomy within the confines of the store’s philosophy, and the store’s philosophy isn’t a hindrance! Chances are if you land a buying job there it’s because you already subscribe to these ideals of organically farmed, small production, low intervention wine. Et voilà, you can usually put what you love on the shelf. For example, when I bought Champagne at Chambers, it needed to be organically farmed; it needed to be marked “RM” rather than “NM;” the list goes on. I took it seriously, and I did my best, sometimes to the exclusion of wines I liked, and the inclusion of wines I didn’t … It’s a fine balance between the store as an entity and the buyer’s palate, relationships, and personality.

In my new professional role, which is a combination of selling wine locally and nationally, with some added fun writing assignments for Selection Massale’s California-based mailing list, I’ve gotten to know lots of new buyers in both restaurants and stores, which is exciting, and offers ample fodder for observation. And certainly one of the things I’ve often had to remind myself of is that when you sign on to buy wine, the agenda of the place you’re buying for is part of the job. Ultimately, and probably because I came from Chambers Street, a place that has always identified with the small guy (as do I, personally), a place that staunchly refuses to sell out on the low end to acquire collectable wine on the high end, I struggle the most to remind myself of the confines of wine buying roles when I encounter allocation-driven establishments. (Yes, at one point, and for better or worse, Chambers lost its allocation of DRC because the store refused to case stack the requisite amount of cheap wine from the company that imports and distributes Domaine de la Romanée Conti — and as I recall they didn’t seem to mind that they’d lost their allocation!)

Last year, or it may have been the year before, a handful of us were polishing off some magnums of Ledru and Laval at Ten Bells, when Mr. Carleton of the small, Connecticut-based Champagne importer Transatlantic Bubbles suggested that we start a website called “Vinjustice” expressly to expose the allocation game. He began with the query: “do you think Aubert de Villaine knows that his customers in New York have to buy pallets worth of cheap New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in order to get La Tâche?” Well … who knows? He may be aware, and he may not care. What followed was a long, angry conversation amongst retail buyers (MC is also a retail buyer for a shop in Connecticut) about the injustice of the allocation game.

To be fair, everyone allocates; everyone plays this game. (I did it myself. Thursday and Saturday.) It is as knit into the fabric of our industry as dosage in a fine bottle of Roederer Crystal. However, in my opinion, when acquiring allocations of sought-after, expensive wine, and cultivating relationships with the companies that sell these wines become driving forces, the personality of the store or the wine list suffers. The shelf, or the list is a transparent representation of relationships. When you’ve been in the wine business long enough, as soon as you walk into a store, or peruse a wine list, you see exactly who is playing ball with whom. And chances are you also know exactly which allocations are at stake in the choice of $12 Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Sauvignon Blanc. It’s clear as day; there are no secrets.

For me, the best stores and lists show a certain amount of creativity and fearlessness in buying. I thought about this when I started to call on SB of The Spotted Pig, a guy relatively new to wine with a creative mind and a good palate. It was clear to me that he’d transformed the wine list at this restaurant to take into account what he loved and was curious about, rather than a series of entrenched relationships. I’m similarly impressed by RK of Trestle on Tenth, who has always put eclectic wines on his list that are true to his taste, and true to his food. Guests are rewarded for esoteric choices by fair prices; it’s awesome. As a restaurant buyer, it’s a pain in the ass to buy from lots of suppliers, and my hat is off to people who do because I think it shows willingness to work just a bit harder to make a great list. Believe me this is not meant to disparage restaurant buyers who chose to limit the suppliers they work with. There are many ways to get the job done, and I’m respectful of all of them. Also, I’m speaking from the perspective of a small company with distinct politics, geeky wine, and an intentional lack of fancy burgundy, so please take what I say with a grain of salt.

As to stores, going back to my departure from Astor, the reason retail buying should be at least partially free of the constraints of allocation and agenda is that genuine enthusiasm transmits to the customer. Here’s what happens when retail buyers have the freedom to pull the trigger on wines they love: schnook walks in, pours wine, tells story of wine, gives price (or writes it on the back of the bottle as I now do), buyer tastes, flips out and says “holy Jesus this is the best Sonoma Coast Malvasia I’ve ever tasted!” Buyer orders three cases, and the next day, before the tape has been stripped from the box, before the wine is created in the store’s POS, it’s in the hands of half a dozen customers who are thrilled by the enthusiasm of the buyer. This is an idyllic picture; it’s not going to be like this all the time, but in order to have a good store … at least sometimes it needs to be like this.

Here are a few bottles I’ve loved over the past few weeks as I’ve pondered wine politics and injustice:photo-48

1) Jochen Beurer’s 2009 Stettener Pulvermacher Kieselsandstein, a wine that is absolutely in the zone right now. To de-mystify the label: Stettener is the town, Pulvermacher the town’s best vineyard site. Kieselsandstein is a type of beige, chunky limestone. Riesling is the grape, though when this wine was young, it probably bore about as much resemblance to a standard issue Riesling as Jurassic Chardonnay does to Kistler or Rombauer. When these wines are young, they smell like limestone, but as they age they begin to show their varietal character. This wine is becoming slightly petrol-y on the nose, notes of honey, opulent yellow fruit on the palate, and a sapid finish of rocks and acid. The warm 2009 vintage had a lovely effect on this wine, rounding its edges and fleshing it out a bit. I drank this bottle with my good friend RSG who buys German wine and other things at the excellent Manhattan store Flatiron Wines and Spirits. RSG and I have different wine politics, and we have different taste, yet we manage to be friends nonetheless. We sipped this bottle with a butternut squash risotto I’d made, and the pairing was perfect. In a leaner year the wine would have been too austere for the dish. In general, these are Rieslings you can drink with oysters. However the honeyed, mellow ’09 Kiesel did wonders for the food. “This wine is really good. It reminds me of limestone soil Riesling from around Vienna.” RSG pointed out after half an hour of sipping, chewing, and gossiping. Shit. I didn’t know there was limestone based Riesling from Vienna. At any rate Jochen Beurer is the man; the more wines I drink from him, the more I’m blown away by his work. (As an aside I wish one of my retail buyer friends would snap this up, because people *need* to drink this wine.)

2) To continue the trend of long-lees, barrel-aged, winter white wines from limestone soils, Bruno Debize’s Beaujolais Blanc “Cépage Gris.”

photo-49This wine is Chardonnay with a percentage of old vine Pinot Gris. I’ve been impressed by a handful of Debize wines of late: 2011 Beaujolais “Cambertiers,” “Apinost,” an ethereal, high-toned Gamay with a touch of Pinot Noir, “Long Fleuve” a Chardonnay and Aligoté blend from Bugey, etc … I have one or two friends who have not had their come-to-Jesus moment with Debize, and I feel for them because these wines are outstanding. Cépage Gris has a beautiful floral nose that is compelling yet understated. If Beurer’s ’09 Kiesel is arresting and powerful, Debize ’11 Cépage Gris is mouth-filling yet restrained with layers of aromatic pear and apple atop a light frame (>12% alcohol) and a finish of well-integrated acidity and minerality. It’s a pretty wine, haunting, quiet, but resonant, and as elegant an expression of Pinot Gris as I’ve encountered.

3) This rather show-stopping bottle from Stéphane Tissot.

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En Barberon is from ancient Lias clay soil and éboulis calcaire: crumbly limestone that probably fell down from the Alps at the dawn of time. (Don’t quote me on that.) As always with Stéphane’s single terroir Chardonnays, the influence of wood is there, and the wine needs an hour or 24 open to reveal all it has to offer. It’s lightly piney on the nose, spicy; it’s reductive at first, and as Stéphane and Bénédicte tell us on the label “A carafe de préférance,” roughly translated as “decant this and don’t serve it too cold.” The palate is unapologetic in its structure. I immediately felt I was engaged in an act of infanticide drinking it, but I also couldn’t stop myself because the mid palate and finish completely coated my mouth with stony flavors, erased pretty much every thought in my head but the wine, and kept me coming back for more. (Really. The first night I drank this I had to put down my PG Wodehouse short stories at least three times because I couldn’t read and drink at the same time.) My mouth was watering after every sip as though I’d actually had rocks in there rather than fermented grape juice.

At the end of the day we’re all in this together, squabbling over allocations and placements is just one aspect of the endlessly amusing game we call The Wine Business. On that note, I’m going to France to collect some real material for the blog. Thanks for indulging my rant, and I’ll be back in a few weeks.