Sophie's Glass

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.

photo-50

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.

 

 

I recently read a fun book. It’s called Sous Chef by Michael Gibney. I’m still not sure why this book spoke to me so much. It’s not a great literary work, but it captures the atmosphere of line cooking as it teaches about food and food-related vocabulary, and it’s entertaining as hell. I find books about cooking often take themselves too seriously, just as cooking often takes itself too seriously. As soon as Gibney begins to aggrandize the work or become carried away, he checks himself. One of the first passages that stood out for me was about fish cutting. He brings a sexiness to the act of knife sharpening: “The process is sensuous. They are obedient as you glide them across the smooth, wet surface of the stone.” But then he quickly comes back to reality with “you are ready to cut the fish.”  The knife is sharp; the sentence is blunt, enough of this romanticism, back to work.

photo-46

 

Gibney does an excellent job of capturing the personalities of his work place, and this is a major part of the book’s charm. I’m sure that basically every book written about line cooking since it became fashionable, beginning with Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which I read at the tender age of 19 when I had just entered the trade, recounts in detail the surly, macho, vice-driven, profane character of the cooks. It’s a cliche, but there’s truth in cliche. “By day we are craftsmen of military efficiency, by night we are scoundrels who need no greater excuse than a busy night of service to justify going headlong into the clutches of vice.” Well. This is certainly true of every line cook I ever knew. I had tingle-down-the-spine nostalgia for my culinary past as I got to know the characters in Sous Chef. I remembered Robbie, the Wittgenstein quoting Rochesterian I cooked saute with at 411 West. I remembered Danny the rotund marine who tore up the pasta station at Aurora, Owen who worked the grill and averaged one “that’s what she said” joke per hour, and Steve Kennedy who could crush ten veals with wild mushroom pan sauce at a time and barely break a sweat. I remembered Alex, the chef de cuisine at Magnolia Grill who protected me from the wrath of the chef one night when I almost ran out of a bacon garnish. This list goes on. Universality is part of the beauty of kitchens. The folks in Gibney’s book are distinct to Gibney’s restaurant (which, by the way, he never names), but they are also archetypes.

 

There are some laugh-out-loud moments in this memoir, but it’s a little hard for me to tell whether experience in the trade is a prerequisite for their funniness. For example, I cracked up reading the end-of-night exchange between Warren and VinDog over how much lime juice to call for on the next morning’s prep list: “Yeah, but how long has that shit been in there?” Vinny to Warren re: lime juice. “I like my acids to be bright and delicious, dog, don’t you get it? I’m not about to use your shit. It’s mad old. It’s a fucking chemistry experiment by now.” This exchange took me back to the last hour of every day on the line at Magnolia Grill when, a beer or a glass of wine in hand, we discussed and debated each item on the prep list looking for the perfect amount of mise en place to get us through the next night’s service.

 

Of course at the end of his 16 hour work day you hope and and pray that Michael Gibney will go home and pass out, but he goes to the bar with his fellow cooks, and begins to double fist beer and whisky, something I did most nights of my culinary career, which brought me back to why I left that world, why I entered the wine world, why I’ll never go back to the kitchen though it remains dear to my heart.

 

Part of the resonance of this book sprang from the fact that I’ve become incredibly dissatisfied with the dining scene in New York. Sure there are plenty of places where you can eat a very good meal, but at what price, in what atmosphere, where does your money go, and what does it get you? And this doesn’t even touch the ultimate question: is there anything exciting about the wine list? Dining and drinking are political statements. I don’t relish giving my hard earned salary to restaurant groups though I have many peers who are happily employed by them; I’m on the constant look out for relatively independent establishments making relatively simple, classic food at a high level at a price that makes sense. This echoes my sentiments about wine. In both cases it’s not so easy to find. I don’t try hard enough … I’m almost afraid to eat out in Manhattan because I’m so often disappointed. (You’ll probably notice I specified Manhattan. There’s plenty of bad, expensive food in Brooklyn too, but the scene is different, with more independent eateries, less pricey rents, a better fit for me politically.) I have to stop before this becomes a full-fledged rant. Let’s just say that in this day and time, there’s a reason so many of our wine dinners take place at someone’s apartment rather than at a restaurant. Reading Sous Chef made me re-examine my beef with New York restaurants while reclaiming the connection I’ve always felt to cooks and their craft. Cooking is fucking hard, and cooking at a high level is certainly an art, but preparing and consuming food is elemental. There’s this tendency to forget that expensive dishes in fancy restaurants are still just … well … food; Michael Gibney doesn’t forget it even as he tells his 24 hour tale of glamor and woe on the line.

 

I drank a couple of fun wines over the course of a few happy evenings reading Sous Chef. This Manzanilla Pasada from La Cigarerra was a special Christmas treat from Susannah: photo-47

It’s as suave and sleek a sherry as I could imagine with an intense, briny, salty note of flor, gorgeous marzipan character, and a velvet soft yet delicate palate that speaks to sherry’s total lack of glycerine. La Cigarerra made four barrels of this wine, and the average age of the wine is 20 years. I don’t think I’ve ever tried as miraculous a sherry, including the various cuvées Extra Big Deal from Equipo Navazos. If you have the chance, drink this.

This bottle came from my Tissot holiday collection: photo 4

Susannah thinks the acronym should stand for “Big, Black Female” or some such thing, but it in fact stands for Blanc de Blancs Fût. The base wines for this Crémant come from 2007 and 2008; they are aged in barrel. The wine was bottled in July of 2009, and has been resting on lees since then. This is always a deliciously oxidative Crémant that shows apply earth and mineral, the limestone tang of the Jura, a poise and elegance that’s quite Champenoise and a rusticity that is 100% Jurassic. Sometimes there’s bottle variation; not every bottle I’ve tasted state side has been pristine, but this one was!

I bought this sherry twice, once at Astor and once at Frankly: photo 3

It’s a flor-forward (can I say that?), gutsy En Rama sherry that happens to be one of the few unfiltered sherries that ages well. Given that I’ve been thinking a lot recently about flor and flor character as it influences yellow wine, I was particularly curious to read in Peter Liem’s book that Barbadillo bottles these half bottle beauties seasonally with the notion of showing the character of the flor at bottling. This is their autumn bottling. Is it enough that I went back for a second bottle?

This is Selection Massale’s declassified Muscadet from Joe Landron’s son: photo 1

I nicked one from the office because I hadn’t had it yet and wanted to taste. This wine sees some aging sur lie. There’s a certain deep comfort to be found in good Muscadet even if it’s not seasonally appropriate, and even if you don’t have a plate of oysters in front of you. This wine is full-textured and stony, ripe with faint hints of white flower, lemon curd, herbs, and freshly sliced fennel bulb. It strikes a fine middle ground between complexity and refreshment, by this I mean it’s not what I’ll impolitely call “big dick” Muscadet such as Marc Ollivier’s “3” (probably the only wine Marc has ever made that I don’t like). (As a brief aside, the sure fire way of spotting a “big dick” Muscadet is by the weight of the bottle; if the bottle is heavy, you’re bound to find long lees aging, and textures more reminiscent of white Burgundy than of classic Muscadet.) At any rate, this wine balanced perfectly between lees aging and crispness, and continued to improve over two days open in my fridge.

And finally:photo 2

After ogling this bottle at Astor, I received it as a gift from my friend EG in exchange for feeding his friendly orange cat. I arrived to feed the cat on a rainy Christmas Eve. I’d been intensely sick, weakened, and wallowing in a cloud of holiday-induced self-pity. On the table in EG’s apartment was this bottle, wrapped in Christmas lights, with a note attached. I was so touched. Pretty much every evening I’ve had a little glass of this before going to bed. It’s heavily spiced with clove and cinnamon; it’s tannic and acidic like Nebbiolo. Every sip is a joy; it’s warm like friendship during a cold, dark, lonely time of year when kindling the old holiday spirit seems almost epically impossible.

Friday night there was a young guy busking in the Metropolitan stop on the G line. He was by far the best subway musician I’ve ever listened to — a viola and a small keyboard on which he’d recorded an electronic track that provided the background. The melodies were baroque in their detail and mathematic crispness, but also romantic in their soaring, emotional bent; the overall effect reminded me of atmospheric, instrumental Radiohead circa “Ok Computer,” but also of Norwegian producer and musician Lindstrøm. His viola playing was virtuosic, his recorded backdrops creative. Virtually every person on both sides of the platform was transfixed. No one had headphones on, hardly anyone was composing a text or an email. The whole station resonated with this music. At the end of one piece, a tentative clap rang out, then another and another and another until the station was filled with applause. I’ve never experienced anything like it …

There’s no real connection to wine here, except that — although it’s rare — wine occasionally produces the same effect: chills down the spine, a shiver, and the obliteration of all other thought save the wine and its thought-provoking delivery of pleasure. I had these sensations as I drank Tissot’s 2007 Chateau-Chalon, which prompted the honest admission that I have a raging voile addiction.photo-42

Like most people, when I started drinking wine from the Jura, I preferred the reds, which are admittedly easier to stomach, also less expensive. When I drank the whites, I preferred them topped up, and I was a big fan of the ouillé Savagnin trend. I now feel completely the opposite. I like the reds; I really like topped up “Burgundian” Chardonnay from great producers, but I crave sous voile Savagnin with a frightening intensity. I also like sherry quite a bit, but I truly believe that Fino and Manzanilla don’t stack up well against yellow wine. Of course save the sherries of Equipo Navazos, sherry is a fraction of the price of yellow wine, and often strikes a similar chord, while not actually tasting the same. Let’s just say: if you have the two next to each other, expect the yellow wine to deliver more nuanced aromas and finer depth of fruit on the palate than the sherry. To me sherry tastes quite rustic next to Vin Jaune.

My raging voile addiction was born in the Jura. I didn’t realize it was happening, but many nights there were open bottles of Vin Jaune and Chateau-Chalon in our apartment, which we drank slowly and over the course of a week (okay let’s be honest: a few days), noting how oxygen rounded the wine’s edges and softened its fruit. Yellow wine was all around me, and I came to heavily associate its distinct aromas and flavors with the region. Yellow wines have a mustardy, mossy, dusty tang that quite simply smells like cellars in the Jura, such that I experience the most tangible nostalgia and connection to the place when I’m drinking yellow wine. But it’s not just memory and nostalgia, it’s genuine love of the wines (or addiction).

At our Tue Chat, the raucous party that follows every harvest (though only called “Tue Chat” in the Jura), there was more yellow wine open than I’ve sold in my entire career in the wine business. It was incredible. This is a picture of four of five members of the Tissot nuclear family opening Vin Jaune and Chateau-Chalon. For probably ten minutes, all they did was pop wax covered corks.photo-41

The young lady in the background is Mélodie Tissot, a precocious and bright little person who was regularly included in the tasting process. The elder is Americk; at seventeen, he’s better at cleaving open wax topped bottles than most people in New York. I asked Stef if we’d be drinking anything but yellow wine, and he said something like “oh you know … at the Tue Chat we drink Vin Jaune!” Not only did I not complain, I proceeded to drink my weight in yellow wine.photo-44

At one point, yellow wines from the Jura were basically all the same to me. They smelled like voile, were acidic, dense, nutty, and often showed their alcohol in a way I didn’t find especially pleasant. Drinking Tissot’s yellow wines, and before Tissot’s Gahier’s, left me with the notion that some Vins Jaunes are easier drinking, more fruit-forward than others. This in turn raised all sorts of nerdy questions about why that might be: the process, how much actual soil expression is possible in yellow wine, how much the cellar conditions impact there resultant wine, etc …

I’ll put it out there in advance that I’m not going to be solving any mysteries, but I do have some thoughts. In discussion chez Overnoy was the choice to leave Vin Jaune barrels in an above or below ground cellar. Some producers prefer the temperature fluctuations of an above ground cellar, which broaden the palate, soften the edges, and give the wine more apply and nutty qualities. Above ground cellars encourage the development of ethanol. In below ground cellars, voile takes far longer to develop, and the chemical compound Sotolon is more prevalent. Yellow wine from below ground cellars has more curry spice and finesse. Tissot’s yellow wines are made above ground, Overnoy’s below ground.

My boss Guilhaume recently made the point that there’s a connection between how much time it takes for the voile to develop, and how oxidative the resultant wine will be. Yellow wine is the product of a unique combination of oxidative and reductive processes. Savagnin juice goes into barrel; it hangs out until voile develops (this can take up to a few months), either with a small amount of ullage, or the barrel completely full. During the period between the juice going in, and the voile developing, the wine is oxidizing; the development of voile sees the beginning of the wine’s reductive phase as the layer of yeast keeps oxygen at bay. How much more oxidative are yellow wines with a slow developing voile versus yellow wines with a quick developing voile, and is there a connection to other vineyard and cellar practices? For example, if you work without chemicals in your winery, without sulfur, will your voile develop more quickly, and consequently will your wine be less oxidative? Or, if you inoculate for the first fermentation, will your voile develop more slowly, and your wine be more oxidative? As stated, I don’t have the answer, but I’m curious … and I think it’s an interesting conversation if you’re a geek and you love these wines.

The question of terroir expression in yellow wine is another beast entirely. To be honest, the thought of terroir and voile first entered my brain in connection with sherry, because I find my favorite Finos and Manzanillas to be deeply chalky. I knew that yellow wine from Chateau-Chalon presented itself differently than yellow wine from Arbois, and from southern Jura, but I didn’t know why, and I found the differences to be subtle and not particularly nuanced. This was before we tasted a lineup of single-terroir Vin Jaunes from Tissot. photo-43

Even though Stef is a master of Burgundian style Jura wine, he harbors an absolute conviction that vineyards sites impact the taste of yellow wine, even after years of sous voile aging. Left to right: En Spois is my favorite Tissot Jaune just to drink. It’s from an east facing site, and it’s a fruit-forward, aperitif style Jaune with lots of apple and mirabelle plum on the palate. If you like to have a little Manzanilla at apero hour, try this as an alternative. It’s delicious. La Vasée is the saltiest and most complex of these wines, with an Islay whisky-like smokiness, and an uncanny ability to pair well with oysters. This is a meditative wine … you’ll want to make it a moment when you sit down with a glass of La Vasée. Les Bruyères, from clay soils, is delicate and spicy, with a long, nutty finish. And Chateau-Chalon is of course slightly riper, with the full, sun-drenched, almost bombastic yellow fruit of Chateau-Chalon. It’s a very smooth, seamless wine, immediately pleasurable, mouth-filling and rich, integrated and more than the sum of its parts. (Tasting notes read “mmmmmmmm.”)

In order to feed this burgeoning addiction, I bought a bottle of Vin Jaune from Pont de Breux, the Domaine outside of Salins-les-Bains that Chambers Street is direct importing. This Vin Jaune is happily about 33% less expensive than most other yellow wines, and is excellent in its own right. photo-45

 

 

I’m trying to find out whether Pont de Breux’s Jaune is made in above or below ground cellars. It’ll be interesting to see which piece of information I gather more quickly, the identity of my viola-playing G train busker, or the location of Jean-Charles Maire’s Vin Jaune cellar relative to ground level. I’m betting they’re both going to be tough. The greater Arbois area in general prefers above ground, so that’s my guess. The wine doesn’t have the sexy yellow fruit of Tissot’s Chalon or En Spois, rather it has a saline and smoky nose that I imagine speaks to the salty terroir of Salins les Bains. There’s a walnut skin nuttiness to the wine, deep and resonant acidity, granny smith apple and preserved lemon. I enjoyed it in its similarity as well as its contrast to Tissot; it’s more voile-forward to Tissot’s fruit-forward. I went back and begged David Lillie for another.

It’s worth addressing yellow wine’s price tag, if only briefly. These wines are not cheap, and on some level the price tag certainly deters people from drinking them regularly, and perhaps trying them to begin with. For an experience that is yellow wine-like, there’s always sous voile Savagnin (and Chardonnay for that matter) that hasn’t spent the requisite six + years aging under surface yeast. These wines are often great, especially when they are made by Macle, Puffeney, Montbourgeau, the list goes on … in fact Pont de Breux makes a sensational one as well. However, these wines are not quite the same as true yellow wines. While most people can’t afford to make yellow wine drinking a daily experience, it’s well worth it for a special treat. That’s all I wanted to say … drink Vin Jaune! And if you need help picking one, send me a note and I’ll be happy to advise you … then invite me over to drink it; I’ll bring the Comte!

Aside from reminding me vaguely of a Talib Kweli album from the late nineties that I listened to over and over for about a month, this is a concept I’ve been thinking about in wine. I visualize it as a sort of mothership of deliciousness, a giant zeppelin with wines tapping into it at various frequencies (or not at all). It overarches all of our palates and unites us in collective, subconscious, gut-level knowledge of what tastes good. Does that make sense?

We tend to speak about taste as highly subjective, but informed by objective greatness (DRC, Selosse, Overnoy Vin Jaune?). We put lots of emphasis on the individual: tearing apart the wine, chambering it in the mouth’s holding cell, spitting it out after an interrogation of its assets and flaws. But I’m starting to believe that delicious wine is primal-y appealing, and in fact eludes this type of interrogation. I wrote a post a few months ago in which I encouraged wine pros to go back to answering the basic question: “do I like this,” which I feel can be more valuable than intense scrutiny and analysis.

One of the positive side effects of schnooking is that you get to taste the same few bottles of wine through out the day alongside different palates. I like to open my sample bottles in the morning to see how they’re showing and whether they need air; I like to formulate my own opinion before tasting with other humans. When something is showing well, I enjoy a little inner smile imagining how various buyers will receive it; if something is not showing well I leave it behind (because, frankly, there’s no point carrying a bottle around all day that has no hope of ever connecting to the mothership); if something is on the fence, deliberating whether to clam up or become more open over the course of the day, I look forward to following its progress.

I’ve observed that if I’ve got a really delicious bottle open, every person who tastes, likes it, which leads me to think that deliciousness isn’t as subjective as we sometimes construe. (My sense is that “on the fence” bottles call up deep subjectivity, but that delicious bottles tap into a greater objectivity: chocolate, sex, 18 month Comte … sure, occasionally someone will say they don’t like chocolate, but they’re lying.)

I’ve been out twice now with Bruno Debize 2011 Beaujolais Cambertiers, and watched every single taster descend into a moment of non-carbonic maceration, dark, brambly, granitic Gamay revery. When a wine stands out, a particular glaze comes over the eye of the taster, analysis fades to the background as the drinker is momentary transported to the mothership via the wine. You’re still with me?photo-37

I began to think about Universal Delicious while in Arbois. My Aussie flat-mate’s first glass of Jura white wine was 2011 Buronfosse Savagnin L’Hôpital. (I don’t have a picture of this bottle.) With no preparation for the style whatsoever, she dove straight into the wine with gusto and pleasure. With no background for the oxidative flavors of naturally made, virtually sulfur free, high-acid Savagnin, she loved the wine, its balance of rich, lactic flavors and succulent, mouth-watering green apple and quince. For a few hours, or however long it took us to drain the bottle, there was vocal and high-frequency connection to the mothership.

When I started this post I didn’t intent to speak about 1) the mothership 2) Debize Cambertiers, or 3) Buronfosse L’Hôpital. The original plan was to site several examples of deliciousness from the past couple of weeks, and leave it at that. I’ve been sacrificing my liver to this new portfolio of wines, so Selection Massale is certainly represented here. But there are also pleasant surprises that have nothing to do with (#?) schnook life.

This Trousseau for example, from Pont de Breux.photo-38

My former boss David Lillie had been trying to get these wines to New York for about 1.5 years. As those of us who have struggled with Jura growers know, there’s generally a gestation period of about a year and a half before wine arrives on our shores. It’s a great mystery why it takes these guys so long … but happily it’s almost always worth the wait. At any rate, David tasted these at a trade show in Colmar and loved them. While waiting for them, we spoke about P de B weekly, and I became very excited to try the wines. At long last, while I was in Europe, they turned up! I grabbed the Trousseau first, and one by one the topped up and sous voile white wines, and Vin Jaune. A number of my former customers and friends asked my opinion, which is that all were excellent.

Pont de Breux is a four hectare Domaine in Salins-les-Bains, which is a few kilometers from Arbois, and known for its salty, poor, Kimmeridgean soil. Historically Salins was a salt-mining town, and it’s known for the high quality of its Trousseau. Jean-Charles Maire of P de B has the same unfortunate last name as Henri Maire, the biggest négociant in the region. Jean-Charles is no relation, and P de B is minuscule, off the radar even by Jura standards. I asked Stéphane Tissot how he felt about P de B, and he said he wasn’t crazy about the style. Then again Stef’s a bit of a modernist in some ways, and Jean-Charles Maire’s wines are about as traditional as they come. Good thing we have room for both!

I drank Pont de Breux’s Trousseu with my friend Evan, who solves my tech problems as I bribe him with Jura wine and Champagne. (It’s a beautiful relationship.) At the onset the bottle was a bit tightly coiled and reductive, but the reduction departed almost immediately to reveal delicate, dark-fruited, floral and aromatic, crunchy, limestone-y Trousseau that was quintessentially Jurassic (and I should mention a fabulous deal at $21.99). A few weeks later, I found myself in Evan’s digs again (this time bribing him with Loirette), and he brought up Pont de Breux’s Trousseau. “You know, Sophie, after you left, I drank the last little bit in the bottle, and that is a Serious Wine!” He was right. It’s a wine that toys with delicacy and substantiality in a gorgeous way. I’m thrilled for David that the wines made it to New York safe, sound, and communicating with the mothership.

Another instance of “everyone who tasted it, loved it” was this Bordeaux:photo-39

 

I’ll spare the line about how I don’t drink Bordeaux. I’ve actually drunk a number of them over the past few months, and while it’s not my favorite kind of wine, being generally a little too “red” for my taste, I’m happy to say I’m more open to Bordeaux at this moment than I’ve been in years. I took out the Selection Massale Haut-Médoc because I needed something classic and high quality to taste with my friend Raj who buys the wine at restaurant Daniel. (For some reason Pet Nat just didn’t seem like the thing to show Raj.) Without food, after having pounded some green apple tictacs, and on an unfavorable day according to the biodynamic calendar, this bottle was outstanding. I’ll refer here to what Cory said in a mailer about Jaugueyron:

“Michel Theron isn’t a chateau owner, nor does he employ a cellar master and vineyard manager to actually make the wine, as most Chateau owners do.  He isn’t even from Bordeaux, having been transplanted from the Languedoc years before.  He owns a small house tucked away in the forest outside Margaux and makes wine in his big garage.  He isn’t however a new naturalist, he doesn’t believe in zero sulfur or cold carbonic maceration to tame the wines.  He is, as I learned tasting with him and driving through the vineyards, a great believer in the old style of Bordeaux.  Ageworthy, restrained, terroir driven neither the terroir obliterating modernism that has come to sadly typify the region, nor the wild naturalism that seeks immediacy and fruit in the bottle.  Just old school bordeaux.”

It’s worth going back and reading the mailer, which is heartfelt, informative, and funny. Anyway, after meeting with Raj, I took the wine home to find Susannah (friend, roommate, and Italian wine buyer at Flatiron) finishing a late dinner with another friend Theo (formerly of Milk and Honey, now the cocktail coordinator of all the New York airports). In its sixth hour open, the wine was in its element, showing graphite and a bit of barnyard, gravelly depth like the voice of singer/songwriter Mark Lanegan, firm yet well-inegrapted tannins on the finish, and a core of intense, ballsy dark fruit. Never ones to mince words and thus in polar opposition to yours truly, Raj and Susannah made identical utterances in response to this wine: “That’s delicious.” Did more need to be said? I’m not sure, we left it at that …

I’ll finish with this bottle: photo-40

Be forewarned, I’ll be getting cheesy. In my mind, this is always Puffeney’s top wine, but my first few sips of this bottle gave me pause. It showed the sweet, cherry cordial aromas that have marked some of The Pope’s recent releases. All the minerality and firmness and balance were there, but that hint of cherry cordial was off-putting. This is a wine that has historically been right up next to the mothership, but in this case I wasn’t sure. As I sipped my glass, however, I remembered a number of things: the fact that Puffeney harvests later than everyone else. He waits for the last days of fall sun to ripen his grapes. By extension I remembered running into Benoït and Valérie Lahaye at Hirsinger in downtown Arbois. They were there to pick with Puffeney because 2014 was his last harvest; it was a gesture of fondness and respect for this man whose wines have won the hearts of so many. I remembered going to the Jura for the first time years ago, with Clarke, leaning out of the car window in Montigny to ask a woman my grandmother’s age “Pardon madame; je cherche la maison de Jacques Puffeney … ” I remembered picking in the Bérangères vineyard, which is behind Stef’s winery, on a little side road. It’s a beautiful spot, a steep sun-drenched slope that is perfect for this dark, wild grape with its bizarre Iberian origin.  Most American Jura purists will tell you they prefer Poulsard, but Trousseau attains very high heights in the hands of Jacques Puffeney; there’s no denying it. All these thoughts crowded in as I was drinking, and at the end of the glass I loved the wine as one loves a classic, well-wrought thing soon to be no more.

When the glass was empty, I indulged in a last memory of wandering up a hill late at night in the midst of our raucous end of harvest party, standing on the edge of the Bérangères vineyard looking up at the stars, reveling in the absolute silence of the place, the thought looping cracked-vinyl-style “Sophie, when you get back to New York, when you get back to your life, you’ll think of this time, and it’ll seem so distant and magical, you’ll hardly believe it happened … ”