Sophie's Glass

To avoid confusion, let the record state that I love crisp, dry, white wine. Many (if not the majority) of my favorite beverages on the planet are crisp, dry, white wines. At this very moment, for example, I’m tucking into a glass of 2015 Stein Blue Slate Riesling and it is divine. Smells like the most perfect green grapes, and tastes like the ripe, sun drenched yet miraculously high acid 2015 vintage in the Mosel. Did I mention that of all the acid/sugar balances possible in Rieslings from the Mosel, this is my favorite? Dry but not punishing, lean but with enough meat on the bones to be sexy. Ok cool. Now you know where I stand.

“crisp, dry, white” paradigm.

On May 12th at around 12:30pm, Chad Stock and I were sitting on a bench outside Everyman Espresso on 13th and 3rd. Chad makes the wine at Minimus, Omero Cellars, and Origin; he was talking about lots of things: Pinot Gris and its destiny as red wine, “flaws” and how they can be turned into virtues in the right context. Chad speaks about wine in a way that is mystic and unrestrained, by which I mean you get the sense he’s kind of a winemaking savant, also — not that he’s incapable of diplomatically censoring his views — rather that he often doesn’t see the point. What could possibly be wrong with speaking the truth as one sees it? Should we be ashamed of our opinions as long as we listen with respect to the opinions of others? Chad’s brand of radical honesty works wonders on clients; they get to spend a few minutes in his head, and so do I. It’s an interesting place to visit. His words tumble out at a breakneck pace; I go back and sort through them like a jumble of orders in my in-box 15 minutes before cutoff for next day delivery, trying to process the data before the next one arrives.

Chad Stock in his native land.

“I’m not interested in making simple wine; I don’t understand simple wine” Chad said (not quoting verbatim, but close). My gut reaction at this juncture was ‘woah hold on … there’s a place and a time for “simple” wine; sometimes I just want to drink wine, and I don’t want to think about.’ Let’s face it, most people out there don’t want to think about wine, or maybe once a year at Thanksgiving when they wonder what goes best with turkey and a jaded retailer sells them a bottle of Pinot Noir. But for the sake of our industry, whether or not they’re cognizant, we hope they continue to drink wine.

Minimus SM1 2016 with Spicy Scallion Ginger Porgy Ssäm at Momofuku Ssäm Bar.

Chad continued: “I think … you know … if you want to drink something after you mow the lawn, drink a fucking gin and tonic. That’s what gin and tonic is for.” A breeze of contradiction ruffled my shirt and dried the sweat on my brow: what I know of Chad versus the words coming out. These comments, spoken by another human, might have had the distinct ring of beverage elitism, but Chad isn’t a snob. He’s an artist, at times classical, at times avant-garde, protecting his art from crass imitation.

This post is an interpretive riff on what Chad was getting at, along with the trains of thought stirred up by my conversation with Chad. Wine is an alcoholic beverage with unique powers of expression: the soil, the grape, the weather, the oak, the bacteria, the yeasts, the hand of man … history, culture … all the things we gather under the umbrella of terroir, and more. The argument against “simple” wine is that wine is essentially complex; if you are looking for a “simple” experience with alcohol, have g and t, or a shot of Cuervo, or a nice, refreshing, ridiculously boring Grey Goose and soda. (Love to be able to say I won’t judge you if you drink vodka and soda, but I probably will … sorry!)

Is there an argument for simple wine? Probably. I’m not sure how to approach it. I genuinely believe that pretty much everyone I know — with a little bit of effort — can find well-made, every day wine with terroir and a sense of place, for not much money. Wine that can be consumed without much pomp and circumstance. Honestly it depends where you live. In America, it’s easier to find good wine were the cosmopolitan elites roam free. But I don’t consider this an argument for simple wine, rather for humble wine at an everyday price.

Pinot Grigio, a classic après law-mowing tipple.

The reason I initially rebelled against Chad’s anti-simple wine statement is that we who work in the business never want to imply: “Your time, place, way of drinking wine — not to mention what — is wrong, and I’m going to tell you why it’s wrong because I’m knowledgable and you’re ignorant.” (Unrelated: isn’t this the type of attitude that lost us liberals so much support amongst working class voters?? It’s an alienating attitude.) What we’d like to say is “Live and let live, and if you want to drink wine after mowing the lawn, go right ahead, just please make it my wine and not someone else’s because I need to make a living and we’ve got growers to support.” Our job is to make wine more accessible, and to do so we must try to avoid snobbery.

Every year the Webers make this dry kabinett Riesling from the Niedermenniger Herrenberg vineyard, a humble wine that is far from simple.

This issue I’d like to raise here is that “simple” wine, particularly simple “crisp, dry, white” has spoiled peoples’ palates for other styles of white wine, and that is unfortunate. I’m reminded of this almost every time I pour a tasting in a retail shop in New York. I can sell Gros Plant du Pays Nantais (which is essentially Muscadet made from a different grape) all night long, because Gros Plant has a flavor profile we’ve been taught is acceptable. But open up an even remotely rich or oxidative Chenin Blanc or Jura wine or Oregon Sauvignon Blanc, white Burgundy, you name it, and the response will all too often be: “it’s too sweet” (wrong) “it’s too oaky” (possibly oaked, yes, but by no means oaky) or a personal favorite “that’s just not for me”. It’s like nails on a chalkboard. Why is this not for you? It’s not for you because at some point down the line you were told that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that smells like grapefruit juice and factory yeast, and tastes like blocked malolactic fermentation and 150 parts per million sulfur dioxide is good. That is the kind of “wine” you’ve been conditioned to like, and its flavors have poisoned you against the glorious, unctuous, and above all interesting flavors that are now in your glass. The irony is that industrial wine is not really simple; it’s been doctored in complicated ways that — were they transparently listed — would make anyone who cares what they put in their body cringe. Just like fast food.

My theory is that the fashion for crisp, dry, white is at its roots a rebellion against the sweet, oaky Chardonnays of yore, which is legitimate. California did some disgusting things to Chardonnay, and some equally brutal things to its reputation. Oy vey the frequency with which people tell me they “don’t usually like Chardonnay.” You were taught to say that, weren’t you? The fact is Chardonnay is a blank slate. Chardonnay takes on the flavors it’s bequeathed by terroir and the hand of man. Yes that’s right, people: Chardonnay can taste like ANYTHING, and if you had some bad ones, it’s not the grape’s fault, but rather a wine factory that went a little crazy with the oak chips. I can’t negate your bad experiences, but I can ask you to be open minded regarding Chardonnay for it is one of the planet’s noble white varieties.

Part two of my theory on how crisp, dry white has wrecked our palates has to do with the way Americans drink alcohol, and of course every time I’m in Europe this is brought home to me yet again. Americans love wines that can be drunk on their own. We tend think of wine as a drug, whereas Europeans tend to think of wine as a food. Drinking wine after mowing the lawn is like saying “I just did something hard (questionable if you have a ride-on mower), I deserve to relax, let me now have some alcohol to help me do that.” There’s nothing wrong with this, but compare it to the French attitude: “On va manger du homard ce soir, donc je chercherai un bon Condrieu pour boire avec …” (“We’re having lobster tonight; I’m going to look for a good Condrieu to drink with it.”) The appeal of this attitude is that is treats the wine as part of the meal. It gives wine the respect it deserves as an art form and an expression of terroir by placing it at the dinner table rather than on the coffee table next to the remote control.

Roseau Condrieu with lobster bisque.

Condrieu is on my mind because I had one open last week, a beautiful bottle from Benoït Roseau. Given, this wine is expensive, as all Condrieu are, but regardless of price, this is a style of wine that is not exactly in vogue (for people under age 50-60) because it is the opposite of a “crisp, dry white.” It’s a big, broad, glorious white with a panoply of flavors ranging from peach and apricot and bitter orange, to the granite soils of the slope. But it’s not a convenient cocktail wine. It’s a food wine. So if you’re looking to take some bottles to the dome while gossiping with friends on the roof deck, Condrieu is not an ideal choice. I’d go so far as to say Condrieu is difficult to drink without food, a laudable quality in a wine.

Turning my attention to red wine for a moment. It seems to me that red has not met the same fate as white. Do others agree? While big reds may not be popular in some geek circles, and while palates that matured during the parker era may find Mondeuse or Loire Valley Gamay shrill (“it’s so sour“), for the most part there’s a drinking audience for both light and heavy, for both fruity and tannic, and for essentially the entire spectrum in between.

I don’t know why red wine hasn’t suffered the same blow at the hand of fashion as white, but I find it especially frustrating when thinking about Jura wine. The Jura is a great white wine region, and an interesting, quirky red wine region. The most profound wines of this place are white, and while the reds can be delicious and fun, they are relatively simple compared to the whites. And yet, it’s the reds everyone seems to be looking for. Jura whites languish on the retail shelf, while reds waltz out the door. It’s a shame. It’s time to bring rich, textured white wines back to prominence. It’s time — not to reject crisp, dry, white — but rather to bring back the context for rich white, which is the table. Let us embrace the complexity of full-bodied white wine; let us make it accessible; let us encourage contemplation, pairing, wine as an art and a companion rather than wine as mere alcohol.

Knowing me as well as you do by now, dear reader, you can imagine how elated I was to return to Arbois. In addition to the bucolic beauty of the place, and its delicious wines, Arbois is the site of some of my fondest recent memories, many of which came flooding back as I neared this picturesque little village. Those last dozen kilometers between Poligny and Arbois make me tear up every time, just as the dozen miles from Carrboro to Saxapahaw. It’s nostalgia, but it’s also the sensation of drawing near to a very special place. 

 

There were lots of tourists in “downtown” Arbois. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, and a holiday weekend. I passed the church whose bells woke me up at dawn every morning for a month, Stéphane and Bénédicte Tissot’s shop, Hirsinger the chocolatier, the gendarmerie and Rue Tripet where Pierre used to live. I could barely find a spot to double park next to Les Messageries, my hotel of choice in Arbois, to collect the keys before rushing off to meet Fabrice Dodane of Domaine Saint Pierre. There were many weekenders sunning themselves on the Hotel terrace. “I know you! I know your face … English? ” said the owner of Les Messageries. He says that every time. Then I tell him “no, American,” and that I once worked a harvest here, chez Tissot, the great ambassador of Arbois to the rest of the world. In fact, I’ve been to Arbois once or twice or three times every year for the past half dozen years at least, but I didn’t visit in 2016, and I missed it.

 

“I’m waiting for some Japanese” Fabrice told me when I arrived in Mathenay at the winery (late, of course). I kissed Fabrice, patted the cat, scratched the old dog behind the ears. “They said they were coming at noon, then two, then four, now it’s five and they still aren’t here. They’re taking the train from Lons.” This made absolutely no sense to me. Lons-le-Saunier is a small city about an hour south by car. That anyone would spend an entire day waiting for a train from Lons to Arbois boggled the mind, but I immediately felt better about my own 1.5 hour tardiness for our meeting. Taking in this familiar room, I label-checked an array of dead soldiers making a frieze around the upper reaches, and gawked at two jeroboams of Chartreuse in yellow and green (as-yet-unopened). A magazine photo of a naked women with gigantic breasts and washboard flat abs rested against Fabrice’s computer. I imagined her giving him inspiration as he waded through customs paperwork. The phone rang. It was Fabrice’s tardy Japanese. He tried to put me on the phone, but more confusion ensued. “They won’t be here for at least another hour. Let’s go look at the vines?” I loaded into the passenger’s side, notebook in hand.

Looking at vineyards (on voit les vignes?) is a crucial aspect of what we do in the wine trade, and when a winemaker asks if you want do it, the answer should always be “yes.” Most of the magic happens in the vines. It’s here that we see what kind of farming the vigneron prefers (organic, biodynamic, herbicide free, plowed with tractor, plowed with horse, grass between the rows, no grass between the rows, pragmatic use of chemicals here and there when necessary, etc … there are a multitude of legitimate choices, and some illegitimate ones, such as loading the ground up with chemicals to make the work easier. When a vineyard is worked this way, there is no life between the rows, and vines stick out from dead earth like gnarled shoots on the face of the moon. If — while looking at a chemically farmed vineyard — you can’t imagine good wine being produced from it, that’s because good wine is rarely made from chemically farmed vineyards. Healthy soil makes healthy grapes, which make delicious wine.)

It’s in the vines that we see what kind of pruning the vigneron prefers: Chablis, Cordon du Royat, one cane, two canes, pergola, again a multitude of choices, all producing a calculated effect. It’s in the vines that we see the exposition and the soil type, the overall vibe of the vineyard, which (yes believe it or not) comes through in the wine provided the vigneron isn’t fucking it up in the cellar. All this to say that an important part of the job is bumping around in dirty farm vehicles, making small talk, and stopping here and there to jump out and survey the ground and the plants.

It’s in the vines that we see the damage done by frost and vine diseases, and to be honest, things were pretty bleak in the vines in Arbois that day. My first note from the visit says “3 hectares “foutu” (“fucked”). Late spring frosts burn the buds, and so rather than tiny green shoots along the branch, you see browned nubs where the bud once was (if I were really worth a shit, I’d have snapped a photo, but I’m terrible at photos, and prefer to paint the picture with words). Fabrice will be lucky if he gets 40% of a normal crop in 2017. He makes these early days calculations by counting the number of burnt buds versus the number of healthy ones along a branch. Everything between Arbois and Pupillin (Gaudrettes for example) was frost damaged to the extent there was hardly a green shoot to be found. It was the worst I saw the entire trip. But on a positive note, the Saint Pierre vineyard is higher up, on the other side of Arbois, and looked to be in pretty good shape. Frost descends the slope, and so upper slope parcels are generally less touched than lower slope ones. 

We returned to the cellar to taste — or rather to drink. It was apéro hour, and Fabrice has a dynamite slicer that allows him to make wafer thin shavings of saussiçon to snack on. Vegetarianism was out the window, at least for the evening. It was interesting to taste the 2015 Chardonnays Château Renard and Chapon next to each other. The Renard comes from more limestone heavy soils, versus marl for the Chapon. The Renard is made in tank, 12 months sur lie. The Chapon is made in barrel (both fermentation and élèvage). There’s more minerality and tension in the Chapon, but lots of immediate pleasure in the Renard, like a Maconnais wine with more cut. 

 

We tasted a new wine from Fabrice called Les Brûlées from a vineyard on the Montigny side of Arbois, with limestone heavy soil. It’s made in wood as well, and next to Chapon you also have a nice illustration of the two most important soil types of the region. Brûlées is a big, dense, powerful wine that veers in an oxidative direction and is distinctly redolent of Jura, the must in the cellars, the green, fragrant breezes, apples from wild apple trees, and the sweet, lactic, nuttiness of Comté.

 

The 2016 whites out of barrel were reductive on the nose, but fantastic on the palate. Fabrice hasn’t used any SO2 in the 2016 wines, though he might add some down the line if he thinks it’s necessary. As always, he is pragmatic. Right now the wines are taking advantage of the natural anti-oxidant properties of lees (hence the reduction). This will be a glorious white wine vintage across eastern France. Yields were low, and even though there was lots of rain and rot in the spring, warm dry weather came along toward harvest time to make for a great vintage in the end. One never wants to rejoice in suffering, but it seems that challenging vintages often produce the most glorious results. I was particularly impressed by the ouillé Savagnin bottling called “Autrement.”
Fabrice is changing things up a bit with the Pinot Cuvées Saint Pierre and Gaudrettes in 2016. Both are grappes entiers (whole cluster), and at least partial carbonic. There’s some Poulsard in the Gaudrettes, though it’s still mostly Pinot. As usual the Saint Pierre is lively and bright, while the Gaudrettes is darker fruited, more brooding and tannic. Even with some alterations in cépage and winemaking, the character of these vineyards comes through, and as with Fabrice’s whites, we can see the contrast between limestone (Saint Pierre) and marl (Gaudrettes) in the reds as well.

 

Fabrice and his lady friend Yannick took me to dinner at a classic French restaurant called “Le Bistronome”. I’d been there once before, and the setting brought back memories of a conversation I’d had about natural wine in the Jura. I believe that to be truly invested in wines of the Jura, one must be at least interested in and open to natural wine. Organic farming and natural winemaking (by which I mean minimal intervention in the vines and cellar) are a mindset and a way of life here. Wink Lorch will have to stop me if I’m wrong, but I have the impression that chemical farming and cellar spoofilation never really became the norm here as they did in other places. I find the local vignerons proud of this fact, proud of their respect for the earth and its bounty, engaged in conversation with one another about how best to let the wine make itself. It’s one thing to express (as I often do) a preference for the traditional styles of the region: sous voile whites and crunchy, crystaline, high-toned reds, but to be closed off to natural wine is to be closed off to the Jura. 

We drank 2015 Pinot Noir Saint Pierre, and 2014 Les Brûlées at dinner; both were absolutely singing. At the end of the evening, it was only us, the chef, his wife, and our waitress left in the restaurant. We sat together chatting and finishing the bottles. The chef’s wife who’d been working the floor all evening began to complain jovially about tourists who take pictures of their plates all night long rather than enjoying good company at the table. I was glad that I don’t often do that … certainly that I hadn’t done it this time. Then she began to tell a story of a conventional farmer who’d tried to sell her some wine recently. She told him “No I’m sorry. Your wines aren’t as good as the organic wines I buy …” 
After dinner I insisted on walking back to the hotel. I needed to soak up the ambiance, listen to the river babbling by, breath the clean, cool air. There were tears in my eyes once again, the tears that come when you wish for a different life, one you can’t ever have. Those kind are fairly self-indulgent, and they pass quickly.

Difficult to believe it’s been a full year since my last trip to France. For awhile I was on a roll making two and sometimes three visits a year, but 2016 was different. There was other business to attend to. Now I’m overwhelmed afresh by how much I love this country, by the nourishment my soul takes here. And I’m brimful of gratitude that my life’s work allows me to drive, hike, and run its beautiful landscapes while becoming intimate with its people, those characters who tap the potential of the earth, gathering disparate elements and funneling them into the bottle.

This time I honestly didn’t know what to expect upon arrival: A population terrified by its presidential election on the horizon? Vignerons somber and pessimistic having lost significant percentages of their annual volume due to a frost that swept western Europe at the end of April? Philosophical farmers pondering the effects of climate change: some chalking it up to the mercurial nature of the weather; most ready to admit that we humans have irrevocably altered nature? We in the wine trade have a unique relationship with climate change. We see firsthand how a precocious spring followed by nights of frost in April can wreck our friends’ livelihoods.

French political vibes.

I assumed that whatever awaited me in France this year, it wouldn’t be pretty. Then again, what I left behind in New York wasn’t pretty either: the loss of my home, the last minute move one day before flying to France, two weeks of life’s bombardment, no rest for the weary, too slammed to make anything pretty: not my work, not my new home, not my relationships, or my writing. I couldn’t even make my email inbox pretty at the end of each day. There was only work, and moving, and energy so frantic it kept me from processing the sensations of loss, and change upon the horizon. Well — I thought — when I get to Champagne, I’ll relax.

Before arriving in Champagne, however, I made a loop around the eastern part of France, stopping in the Mâcon, the Côte d’Or, Isère, and Arbois. In Burgundy, I visited two Domaines I’ve sipped from copiously at this point, but never visited: Domaine des Gandines, and Domaines des Rouges Queues.

Domaine des Gandines in a 13 hectare estate in Clessé. Florent is the winemaker now, and he installed himself there in 2015 after many stages abroad learning the ropes. Florent’s great grandfather started the domaine, and they’ve been growing a little bit each generation since then. Fortunately for Florent, his father enjoyed working the soil and thus continued to do so during the chemical era rather than switching to chemical products like many of his contemporaries. Right now Gandines is certified organic; they will go for Demeter certification this year. Florent is extremely talented and it will be interesting to see him leave his mark on the wines.

Sexy Mâcon Chardonnay from old vines grown on dark soils, aged in a 100 year old foudre, and sulfured only at bottling.

The Mâcon-Peronne and Viré-Clessé are blends of parcels, some on white limestone and some on heavier clay. In general, Viré-Clessé expresses more of the white limestone. Those wines are normally made in tank. Agathe (named after Florent’s niece, from darker, clay-heavy soil) and Terroir des Gandines are separate parcels of old vines. The Gandines vines are 90 years old. Those wines are fermented and aged in barrel with some percentage new.

2015 is a rich, powerful vintage showing lots of honey and orange confit. If you’re someone who prefers Chardonnay grown on the absolute fringes of ripeness, 2015 Mâcon may not be for you. But if you’re like me and there’s room in your heart for both austerity and opulence, there is much succulent, sexy deliciousness to be found in these wines. 2016 is more elegant and finessed. It was a difficult year due to rain and mildew in the spring, but Florent did an excellent job. This was the first day of the trip, and I didn’t yet know that for white wine from the east of France, 2016 was an absolutely brilliant vintage, marked by low yields, succulent balance, and a certain captivating floral note that was present at every domaine I visited from Clessé to Ambonnay. 2017 we’ll see, but Florent says proximity to the Saone river helped protect their vines against frost.

Domaine des Rouges Queues is a 5.5 hectare domaine that was started in 1998 by Isabelle and Jean-Yves Ventay with just one hectare of vines in Maranges, the most southerly village in the Côte de Beaune before one enters the Côte Chalonnaise. The soils here are crumbly limestone with a bit of granite, and produce salty, honest, delightfully rustic wines.

The Crus of Maranges.

In 2002 the couple began conversion to organic, and they were certified in 2007. They began using biodynamic preparations in 2015, with the goal of getting Demeter certified, but have abandoned the project temporarily because Demeter requires the growers to purchase biodynamic treatments, while Jean-Yves would prefer to make his own. (Or so Jean-Yves they told me; others have denied this and explained that in fact one can concoct one’s own preparations, but they must be heavily analyzed by Demeter.)

The ripeness of the 2015 vintage adds a little flesh to the bones, but the geek and the acid lover within rejoices equally in the crunchiness of the 2014s.

The Ventay’s Maranges Blanc comes from an 8 are parcel (that’s .08 hectares) of vines planted in 2005, and plowed with a horse. They are lucky if they make 500 bottles from this tiny plot. It’s made in the classic white Burgundy style: fermentation and élèvage in neutral barrel. This wine has always been marked by its cut, its rich texture and sharp angles, its lemon-y freshness and brisk minerality. It’s a wine of delightful contradiction.

From friable clay and limestone at the top of the slope, fermented with gentle extractions, this wine is a highlight in the lineup.

The reds come from a mixture of different soil types and expositions, and are treated differently in the cellar according to the discretion of the vigneron in each vintage. Many of the wines see a percentage of whole cluster fermentation, but, for example, the Bourgogne Rouge is completely de-stemmed. The higher level wines typically see more whole cluster, and the Ventays did more whole cluster in 2015 than in past years, consistent with the overall promise of this vintage in Burgundy. The Vignes Blanches bottling comes from steep white soils with western exposition, the Maranges VV (from their first hectare of vines, which are 85 years old) from a more clay heavy vineyard, which gives a richer, more concentrated wine.

The top wines are 1er Clos Roussots and the Fussières. Clos Roussots is a mid-slope parcel that is always sunny and ripe, with small grape bunches from 40 year old vines. The exposition is south-southwest, and as one might expect the wine is powerful and in riper vintages quite velvety and suave. Fussières, by contrast, is at the top of the slope, where the soil is crumbly limestone. The vines were planted in 1972. Fussières makes a more elegant, finessed wine in contrast to the broader Clos Roussots. Both parcels are plowed with a horse.

The Ventay’s Santenay is from 3 adjacent parcels, for a total of 36 ares (less than half a hectare). In keeping with the differences between the two villages in general, the Santenay is pretty, floral, and feminine, with pleasant salinity, but less powerful and rustic than Maranges. This wine is breathtakingly pretty in the 2015 vintage with sweet high toned red fruits, and a soif-y nature that puts one in mind of Gamay with no sacrifice of the wines’s pinosity.

Joyful 2015 Santenay.

It struck me at this recent visit that we rarely find Burgundy domaines that so skillfully straddle the fence between traditional and natural. And now a week after the visit, I believe that it’s taken a domaine such as this to rekindle my interest in Burgundy. My relationship with the region is fraught. Many of the traditional wine, while absolutely stunning, don’t excite me much intellectually. On the other hand, projects such as the Ventays: farming exquisitely, digging deep into the concept of  “laisser le vin de se faire” (let the wine make itself) tug at my heart and mind. Even from less exalted appellations, these are the Burgundies I want to drink. And frankly, Burgundies like this only come from off the beaten path appellations, because these are enclaves of freedom in the region.

More to come from Isère, Arbois, and Champagne, and let us pray for our French friends and their fraught political situation.

We’ve all been there, most of us many times. You wake up the morning after a wine event, exhausted regardless of how much sleep you got, the taste of wine rancid in your mouth, thirsty, a headache forming behind your eye sockets, wondering if you were too chatty, too flirty, or revealed too much to someone you have a professional relationship with, excoriating yourself for having talked shit about someone you actually really like for no apparent reason other than that you were drunk, drunker than you wanted to be, drunker than you meant to be.

How did this happen? You took it easy the previous night; you drank water all day, and ate to make sure your stomach was lined. The evening started off relatively calm, with some Champagne, which of course you went back for seconds of because it’s Champagne and the best thing in the world. All day you told yourself “I’m not getting drunk tonight.” And — I mean — how could you possibly have gotten drunk from wine-pro-sized-pours, which are usually around 2 ounces at most? (The logic here is somewhat like erroneous dieting logic that foods eaten standing up without a table, knife, and fork don’t contain calories. Yes, they do. And 2 ounce pours contain alcohol.) The point is: 2-4 wine professional sized pours equals a glass, and if there are 20 wines to be tasted, you’ll drink at least 3-4 glasses of wine, which these days is enough to make me hungover.

The wine-pro-sized-pour.

Back in the day (read as recently as 2012-ish), I was un-phased by wine dinners, so un-phased in fact that more often than not I’d head to the dive bar where my man-friend at the time worked to take shots and drink beer after the wine dinner. Though this was never a good idea, I always woke up the next day able to sweat it out in the morning with a run, able to go to work, not feeling great, but the hangover adequately balanced by warm fuzzy memories of the night before. This would be unthinkable now. I cannot remember the last time I hit the bar after dinner.

You hear it all the time: hangovers get worse as you get older. Here’s another thing: the less you drink generally, the worse the hangovers are. It’s a frustrating irony because if you love wine, drinking less of it, and many days not drinking at all, is a form of self denial. You’d think there would be a nice reward, and there is: you feel great when you haven’t been drinking. But when you do drink, you feel way worse — it’s like working out after taking a month off. Sometimes I wonder if I used to be mildly hungover to really hungover all the time, and now I’m experiencing a kind of sobriety that didn’t exist in my late 20s and early 30s. But the truth seems to be rather that — in terms of the way I feel the next day — there’s very little difference between no wine and 1-2 glass, but a huge and intolerable difference between no wine and 4-5 glasses.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been testing out ways to consume less at wine events, while still tasting as much as possible. On the subject of professionalism: we work in the booze business, but getting drunk while working is unprofessional, same as if we were nurses or journalists, or code-writers, etc … For me, swallowing wine during the work day is unprofessional. One of the best ways to create good work/life balance in the booze business — doing something for work that most people do for fun (namely boozing) — is to spit 100% of the time when at work, and wait until after hours to swallow. This keeps me sane, allows me to create clear boundaries between work and pleasure. This also allows me to distinguish between wines I taste for edification, wines I sell for my job, and wines I drink because I want to. It helps keep my vinous proclivities personal: the stuff I taste for work versus the stuff I drink for fun. Still, every week in this line of work there’s at least one event (usually more than one) that straddles the fence between work and play. For those countless events, here are some tips for drinking less, and feeling better the next day.

For every bottle of wine you bring to the party, bring one bottle of sparkling water, and match your wine consumption with sparkling water glass for glass. (You will pee a lot.) Every six months or so I get together with a group of Chambers Street employees and customers for a Champagne dinner. For every 750 of sparkling wine we drink, we drink one bottle of Pellegrino, and we line the dead soldiers up along with the hatcheted bottles of Laval and Agrapart to remind ourselves of the importance of interspersing the two. Clearly the one-to-one ratio of water to alcoholic beverages is a standard, but most people have a hard time sticking to it. In order to set yourself up for success adhering to the golden ratio, make the non-alcoholic beverage something delicious like lemon-lime seltzer, make it something you want to drink.

Maintain a one-to-one ratio of sparkling water to sparkling wine.

After a certain point in the evening, only drink birth year bottles. If you’re attending a large scale hatchet fest, pick and chose. Let’s face it, no one can maintain a fresh palate after several hours of drinking. Pick the small handful of bottles you can’t live without trying, and leave the rest alone. The past few summers, I’ve attended a day time bash in Connecticut with my friends from Transatlantic Bubbles. It’s becoming a legendary party, which starts at noon with magnums of Champagne and goes until there’s no on left standing. I’ve fallen asleep on metro north after this party; I’ve drunkenly contacted multiple ex-boyfriends after this party; I’ve swigged Champagne out of the bottle on metro north after this party; I experienced one of the worst hangovers in recent memory after this party. However last summer, I drank 2 Poland Springs over the course of the afternoon, and when the red wine started flowing, I stopped drinking, save for a bottle of birth year Barolo. I was sober enough by the time we left to act as navigator on the way home, and was shocked to find myself in fine form the next day.

Spit or dump 50% (or more). Over Rieslingfeier week, I attended a wine dinner at Rouge Tomate. There were spit cups next to every place setting. It was fantastic. We had between 10 and 15 wines to try over the course of our meal, and I made a point to spit every other sip thereby still enjoying the feeling of a light buzz, while cutting my alcohol consumption in half. Most restaurants will not put a spit cup by every set of glassware, but you can always ask for a dump bucket. In professional circles, this is totally acceptable, and others will probably happily join you in spitting and dumping.

BYO spit vessel. I experimented with this tactic at The Big Glou, which was a mélange of wine professionals and civilians. I had a suspicion that the event would be well attended (it was), and that the spit buckets would be hard to reach (they were). I brought a glass jar to spit into, and carried it with me throughout the tasting. This was a great idea, and I received lots of positive feedback from other tasters who told me they wished they’d done the same. I didn’t have to chose between swallowing and loitering next to the spittoon. Non-verbal communication consisting of hand gestures and grunting with a mouthful of wine was kept to a minimum. Later in the day when there were drunk people jostling me, I was glad I’d brought the lid, which kept my clothes, face, and hair free of spit bucket backsplash. (It’s gross, but that’s life in the wine business.)

BYI spittoon.

Discontinue consumption at least half an hour before you leave the event. Pick a wine, and tell yourself “this is the last thing I’m drinking tonight.” Of late, the biggest problem for me with wine events hasn’t been the hangover, it’s been the shitty sleep I get when I go to bed with booze in my system. I wake up at 5am; I can’t fall back to sleep. The wine in my body at bedtime wrecks my sleep and leaves me knackered and useless the next day. If I stop drinking well before I leave the dinner or the party, I’m sober by the time I arrive home, and I get good sleep.

Bizarrely, Invisalign has helped enormously with this because when I’m wearing the plastic in my mouth, I’m not supposed to drink anything but water. So once I’m through drinking, I sneak to the bathroom, quickly brush the tannins off my teeth, pop the liners in, and return to the soirée, where I’ll keep socializing, but with a glass of water rather than more wine. It sounds dumb, but works great, and I’ll probably keep doing it even when I’m through with the procedure.

A dental procedure that has unexpectedly benefited my drinking life.

In the ideal world, we’d be able to exercise self control all the time. We’d never over indulge and we’d never feel like shit the next day. But realistically, in this line of work, excess happens, hangovers happen. The best we can do as grownups in the booze industry is to find some sly tricks to reduce the alcohol’s wear and tear on our bodies.

If years 1-3 in the wine trade were years of tasting everything and learning the rules; 3-8 were years of increasingly specific delving into subjects dear to my heart; 9 was a rogue year, and 10 a year of exploration. As gratifying as it is to feel a certain mastery of a region or set of wines, to cull images of those places from memory, the timbre of a winemaker’s voice, the distinct tang of his or her style melding with the terroir, a proud face as the pipette is drawn from the cask, it’s also enlivening to discover new things, and there are psychological benefits to open-mindedness. Recently it’s felt like each day I let go of a smidgen of preconception to embrace something new. One of those new things has been cider.

At MFW Wine Co., the cider portfolio has grown robust and interesting thanks to the efforts of my colleague Jeff Russell. It’s a category of drink I know essentially nothing about, which makes formulating opinions easier (nothing harder for me these days than formulating an unbiased opinion about a bottle of Champagne), but also makes ambast-ing the brands more difficult. It’s clear that the moment to learn about cider has arrived. What better place to start than with a cider house that has compelled me from first sip: Eden. Two weeks ago, four of us piled in a rental car and headed north to a cider open house at Eden.

Prior to this trip, I’d met Eleanor Léger (proprietress of Eden Ciders) a handful of times. She and I worked together one day, planned a cider dinner at one of my accounts, exchanged many cordial emails. She’s an inspiring woman. Her approach to cider is extremely wine-driven (for lack of a better word), and her love of wine shows in the profile of her ciders. In general, cider conversations hang out somewhere between beer and wine. Discussions of fruit varieties reminds us of wine, but use of the term “bottle conditioning” inevitably takes us to beer. I’ve found that as a wine person who dabbles in beer, Eden Ciders strike the perfect vinous chord and, with their bracing apple tannins, have uncanny abilities at the table.

When we were an hour and a half or so from our destination, the WilloughVale Inn and Cottages in Westmore Vermont, Jeff picked up the phone to call Eleanor. We were worried about accommodations and dinner. “Snow? Slow down? Ok … Yep. I’ll be careful … thanks so much! Yes we’ll see you soon! Thanks again. Ok bye.” The temperature had been dropping steadily since Brooklyn, but not a whisper of precipitation. Jeff turned to us, “she says when we get to Saint Johnsbury, there will be snow.” A green road sign for Saint Johnsbury hove into view. “She also says she’ll meet us at the hotel with beer and pizza.” A murmur of approval from the backseat. “Sweet!”

Within ten minutes, snow was falling all around us, growing steadily more powdery and voluminous as we drove north. By the time we’d exited the highway, twisting and turning, climbing and descending rolling hills, we’d slowed from 90 miles an hour to under 40, and our headlights revealed nothing but white snow against black night. Eleanor pulled into the parking lot of WilloughVale Inn not more than 2 minutes behind us, and stepped from her vehicle with several flat, aromatic boxes, two cases of beer, and four booze reps from New Jersey. We let ourselves into the hotel (we were the only guests; there were no employees to be found), and settled in the living room with pizza, beer, and the Super Bowl.

View from the WilloughVale Inn and Cottages.

I woke up the next morning with the joyous sensation of being deep in country. We caught up on emails as well as the latest political news before heading to the orchards. Approximately eight miles from the Canadian border, the terroir Eleanor plays with is a unique microclimate. Married to a French Canadian, Eleanor decided when she settled in the area to make cidre de glace, the traditional Ice Cider most often associated with Québec. Her first order of business was to figure out which types of apples are best suited to the area, and through experiment she discovered that for the most part French varieties work best. (Eleanor does also use some English as well as New England Heirloom varieties.)

Apple Varieties.

To make ice cider, apples are pressed in the winter with frigid temperatures on the horizon. The juice is then left to freeze in containers outside. This process renders a tiny amount of incredibly concentrated, sweet juice (like something that you’d pour over ice cream), which is transferred to an indoor cellar to ferment. At Eden, fermentation is accomplished with a Riesling yeast, temperature sensitive and accustomed to high sugar content, a yeast that is easy to stop at exactly the right moment. To stop the fermentation, the juice goes back outside into the cold. Once I saw the pieces, the process, which takes 4 months start to finish, began to seem quite simple and natural.

The most concentrated and high sugar content juice goes into ice ciders, and there are three: Heirloom, Northern Spy, and Honey Crisp. Heirloom and Honey Crisp are aged for six months to a year in stainless steel tank, and then a year in bottle before release. Northern Spy sees a year of barrel aging in French oak. Though I don’t feel especially qualified to give in depth tasting notes on these, I’ll offer my impression of the differences. Heirloom is the most traditional in profile, intensely sweet with balanced acidity, and classic. Northern Spy offers the mellow and burnished caramel spice note of oak. Honey Crisp is bright and lively with the succulent character of that very popular apple. All ring in at 10% alcohol, 15% sugar (150 grams/liter).

After a short-lived but amusing crack at cross country skiing, we migrated to Newport Vermont to Eleanor’s tasting room, where we met David Biun, the head cider maker. This guy came to Eden from an upstate New York winery, and what an incredible score he’s been for Eleanor. He seemed to ooze information about cider apples and processes. We learned, for example, that culinary apples are harder to make cider out of because they have fewer phenols and flavonoid compounds (read: less flavor), also that they are less nutritious for the yeasts. Bittersweet and heritage apples are more nutritious, which results in a smoother fermentation.

As I understand it, at some point Eleanor decided she needed to do something with the juice that wasn’t quite at the concentration level for ice cider, and so she began to make traditional dry and off-dry ciders, but in her own, special way. We began the tasting with Juliette, a still, dry cider that resonates sort of like a bone dry Riesling. Made from early ripening apples varieties planted in Heath orchard in Canada, it’s 6.4% alcohol, tangy, delicate, and fresh. With 0.0% sugar, I’d think you could sub this in for pretty much any crisp dry white with success.

This cider was named after Juliette Pope, one of the industry’s most beloved wine luminaries.

Eden’s Dry and Semi-Dry sparkling ciders are densely carbonated and ridiculously food friendly in their structure and tannins. They finish their second fermentation in the bottle and are hand disgorged. While I like the Dry, which is 50% Kingston Black apples and 0.0% sugar, I’m particularly fond of the Semi-Dry, which comprises different apples and is topped up with ice cider to bring it up to 1% sugar. “Semi-dry” is almost a misnomer here because this cider would drink dry beside basically all other ciders. It has beautiful texture and very light bitterness.

Look out for this one. It’s sensational.

As Eleanor poured the next sparkling cider into our glasses, David explained that for this experiment, one of their Cellar Series called Guinevere’s Pearls, he’d used Northern Spy apples and concentrated the juice using the ice cider process. Apparently grapes have 3x the flavor precursors that apples do, and one of the ways to combat this unfavorable ratio is to concentrate the apple juice. At 11% alcohol and 2 grams of sugar, this cider is just insanely good. Creamy and aromatic, it made me think of a delicious, spiced apple sauce. A reservation for all the rest of the stock went in post haste, and I’m eagerly awaiting its arrival in New York.

One of Eleanor’s most popular ciders is her rosé, which is in fact more of a currant/apple wine. She loves French rosés, and wanted to make something to drink in the same context: on a warm day, for apéro, for refreshment. She searched long and hard for a native ingredient to make the cider pink, and finally settled on red currants. Originally she used the currants planted on her property, but as demand has grown she now uses a top quality currant concentrate from Germany with excellent results. She chose currants for their tangy properties, and it’s the perfect fit. At 11% alcohol and 1.2% sugar (once again, an ice cider dosage), it’s the most wine-like, and amongst the most satisfying products Eden makes. It’s also the only sparkling cider in their collection that sees forced carbonation (meaning the carbonation is added rather than taking place in the bottle à la Eden’s version of the Champagne method). I’d happily drink this over 99% of French rosé.

Meets all pink wine need, and surpasses 99% of its grape-based competition in quality.

We continued the tasting with hopped cider, experimental cider, brandy and bourbon barrel aged ice ciders, and more, however my notes begin to break down as it was close to order board cutoff and I had to keep running upstairs in search of cell phone reception.

After lunch a late and satisfying lunch, we commandeered our very own cabin at WilloughVale. Jeff invited the New Jersey reps to come over for dinner and an extensive tasting of ciders and beer with no spit cups. It was quite an ad hoc party, and as the blood alcohol level crept up, so did the decibel level. I made my escape down a frozen slope to the hotel amidst raging debate over who the five most influential people in cider are today. Eleanor Léger was at the top of the list.

It’s hard to get excited about wine writing in this political climate. Because what’s the point? The expression “Political Climate” takes on more irony and resonance as climate change becomes a greater and greater political issue. We wonder about the future of wine as the earth warms and the weather turns increasingly mercurial, as vignerons lose their crops to uncharacteristically early budding followed by late spring frosts, as torrential downpours make working the soil impossible, as the planet lashes out against us for the damages we’ve done. In short, we wonder if Burgundy will have turned into Châteauneuf-du-Pape by the time our children are our age. Meanwhile the snow falls and it’s winter in New York.

A tree grows on Ainslie Street.

A tree grows on Ainslie Street.

The optimists are terrified, and the realists? Well the realists have become hedonists. They’re living each day like it might be their last. The Statue of Liberty, drowning, grasps Barak Obama’s leg as Trump’s inauguration looms on the horizon. Post election anxiety, which waned temporarily, is back with full force as pundits on Face of the Nation rehash our future president’s late-night tweets while debating who will wag, the tail (Trump’s cabinet) or the dog? But our soon to be former president tells us he’s not viewing Trump’s presidency as the apocalypse, and I’ll try to do the same. What choice do we have?

Then there’s this bizarre glimmer of a notion that my health insurance might cost less if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. We’ll see. Presently, my experience with our health care system consists of hours spent researching, countless phone calls and online registration forms, estimates and fine print, all leading to the same conclusion, namely that for health care in America you pay .. and then you pay again … and then you pay some more, paying your insurance company for the right not be bankrupted by the medical machine if something goes wrong. Insurance is “the business of ensuring property against loss or harm in specified contingencies, a payment proportionate to the risks involved.” Someone has to foot the bill, and it’s a big one.

Exploring the oeuvre beyond Jeeves and Wooster.

Exploring the oeuvre beyond Jeeves and Wooster.

Personally I’m hiding out in a land of puppies, ’90s boy bands, and PG Wodehouse, everything wholesome and G rated. It’s a pretty straightforward approach to tough times ahead that consists of cultivating the worst possible expectations, while enjoying the simple pleasures of life, from cheesy lyrics and a four part harmony to hilarious prose from a by-gone era. In her 2nd to last month of life, my mom called with the following piece of advice: “pat your sweet kitty, Sophie”, and I did. Patting the cats and keeping a journal, the poor man’s therapy.

A pair of new wines from Bow and Arrow has been a bright spot in the gloom. These wines arrived during the busiest week of the holiday season, and so it wasn’t until after the madness that I got to crack them and see how they were tasting. The wines seemed to have benefited from settling at the warehouse for a couple of weeks. It’s always a good idea to let wines settle after travel, but excitement and cash flow prevent us from doing so. In the case of the Bow and Arrow wines, which are crafted with minimal intervention, it’s been especially true that they need a few weeks in New York to grow into themselves.

For those unfamiliar with Bow and Arrow, these wines are made by Scott Frank, who riffs on Loire Valley appellations, grapes, and terroirs, in Oregon. Scott works exclusively with Loire Valley varieties, fruit from cool sites, which he shepherds into the bottle in a Loire-ish manner, often using semi-carbonic maceration for the reds, minimal punchdowns, little to no racking, and small additions of SO2. Didier Barouillet of Close Roche Blanche, as well as Theirry Puzelat and Marc Ollivier consulted for Scott on this project. Do Bow and Arrow wines taste like Loire Valley wines? In my opinion, sometimes. You’ll have to seek a few out and see for yourself.

2015 was a hot, dry year for our friends in Oregon. It will not surprise you, dear reader, to learn that apropos of climate change, our friends in Oregon have been experiencing more and more hot, dry vintages. However, there’s a silver lining, namely vineyards and varieties that previously struggled for ripeness, get ripe, in this climate. Scott’s 2015 wines are riper than in previous vintages, and it suits the wines very, very well. In the case of Air Guitar, this manifests as a certain seriousness and density of tannins that suggests a long life, and in the case of Rhinestones, a sweet, sexy, red-fruited succulence.

A Pinot-heavy vintages for Rhinestones.

A Pinot-heavy vintages for Rhinestones.

It’s impossible to write in depth about Bow and Arrow without mentioning the Johan Vineyard in Willamette’s west valley, a vineyard that is farmed biodynamically. In Johan, the topsoil is poorer, but also more complex than in the “Hollywood Hills” of the Willamette: Chehalem, Dundee, Eola-Amity. There’s less cake-y volcanic clay, and lots of graphite. There are Loire Valley grapes planted in Johan: Cabernet Franc, Melon de Bourgogne, Gamay. One day, Johan will be within an AVA called Van Doozer Corridor, but for the moment it’s a spot that flies under the radar, which keeps the price of grapes relatively low.

"Only the French can make a diamond."

“Only the French can make a diamond.”

In 2015, all the fruit for Rhinestones came from the Johan Vineyard. The wine is 60/40 Pinot Noir and Gamay, though in past vintages it’s been Gamay heavy. My understanding is that Rhinestones is like a Cheverny wine, inspired by those gloriously gulp-able Clos de Tue-Boeuf bottles: La Gravotte and Les Caillères. Delicately colored and gleaming, the wine’s ripe, red pinosity is explosive and gorgeous, lifted still further by the high-toned aromatics and crunch of Gamay. There’s a deep sweetness to the fruit, with no sacrifice of balance or acidity. It’s the tart sweetness of cranberry and cherry that prevail, accompanied by the faintest whiff of funk that carries this wine across the palate and leaves the drinker thirsting for more.

Pairs well with King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

Pairs well with King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

Air Guitar is more mysterious. It’s Scott’s take on a red from the Anjou area, a blend of Cabernets, Franc and Sauvignon. In 2013, it was made sans soufre, but no longer. In 2015, it’s 60/40 Cabernet Sauvignon from a place called Borgo Pass, and Cabernet Franc from Johan. In my notes from our June trip, I have jotted that Borgo Pass is a “weird, Alpine site where Teutonic gets Pinot Meunier”, but further research reveals there’s a town in Oregon called “Alpine”, whence the Cabernet Sauvignon for this wild wine. Air Guitar is dark and sleek, with black and green pepper, dark fruit, earth and funk, with reduction that blows off in a decanter. The tannins are present at the beginning, ripe and persistent at the end. It’s more serious, less exuberant than Rhinestones, and ultimately, I found, more complex. “We’re quite pleased with that one, too” Scott said. “If it evolves like 2014, it should be a keeper.”

Information about the wine can feature on the back label as well.

Information about the wine can feature on the back label as well.

In closing, I’ll mention something I think about a lot in collection with Bow and Arrow, which is the overall coherence of the brand. The exterior is consistent with the interior, also with the statement the winemaker is trying to make. Using the word “brand” generally makes me ask myself “am I a connoisseur, or am I a hack?” But in the past year working in wholesale, I’ve concluded that a coherent brand (good packaging, a nice label with information about the wine on it, a good story, and a reasonable price) not only encourages sales, but shows respect to the customer. It says “your experience with my wine is more important than my ego.” From what I’ve seen, Scott is far more humble than egotistical, which is reflected in both his wines and his brand. I like that.

 

 

A couple of days ago the Davis family holiday letter plopped into my mailbox. I’ve come to look forward to this missive because I’m fond of the family, and because Brant, who pens the letter, is a superb writer. Like our esteemed president (the present one, not the future one, in case there was any doubt), Brant is a lawyer, and I’m coming to believe that lawyers master the language in a special way: heart felt, clear, and concise. This year’s Davis family letter left me even more moved than past year’s, because I knew from our email correspondence that Brant (like many of us) has not even begun to recover from the election, and confessed that he’d had a far more difficult time than usual finding messages of optimism with which to pepper his prose.  I was inspired by Brant’s efforts, and to that end offer my own “holiday letter.”

In spite of recent political events, I can’t help but look back on 2016 as a good year. 2015 was a year of turmoil and upheaval in my professional life, and I hoped that 2016 would prove more tranquil. It has. In January, I began working for MFW Wine Company, and am extremely fortunate to have landed this position as a New York sales rep. Many new people have come into my life thanks to this job: buyers, importers, winemakers, the list goes in. It’s only been a year, but already I find it hard to conceive of my life without Ernest from Portovino, wine lover and vintage motorcycle enthusiast in Tuscany, Kate Norris and Tom Monroe of Division Winemaking Company in Portland, Jeff Russell, Annika, and Tess Drumheller, my colleagues in sales, and then my customers who make me want to offer the best service I can. To my clients: you all inspire the hell out of me. Thank you for your support.

On Friday we had our holiday party and there was much poignant speechifying. I recalled that a major reason I took the job was that I wanted to learn how to be a schnook, and to learn it not just from Mike Foulk, who I deem one of the best in the trade, but also from Michael Wheeler, a legend in his own right, someone who took an interest in me when I was a junior buyer at Astor back in 2008, someone with an apparently inherent knack for this trade. (He also brought me Riesling from Clemens Busch for the first time, as well as Equipo Navazos Sherry. He’s prescient, that man.)

My business card. Feel free to get in touch ...

My business card. Feel free to get in touch …

If 2014 and 2015 were years of travel abroad, 2016 was a year of travel within the United States, a year to get better acquainted with this country, which strikes me as timely given how clearly divided we are as a nation. In the past, the only places I wanted to be outside of New York, were in Europe. That has changed as my knowledge of the United States has broadened, and I begin to fathom what a vast, diverse, and fascinating country we live in. And yes some of my favorite places in the America are in states that voted for Trump, and some of my least favorite places in states that voted for Hillary.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. As usual, a highlight of the year was my trip to France in April and May. I began in Champagne with Transatlantic Bubbles, and a group of fabulous  buyers hand selected by Mike Carleton and Jeff Hellman, who are some of the nicest guys in the business. From Champagne, I drove to the Loire Valley, where I spent five days getting to know growers in the MFW portfolio. I circle back often to the my visits with Michel Autran, a remarkable former doctor turned vigneron in Vouvray. There are many things to love about Michel, from his wines to his kind and spiritual demeanor. I shared a fantastic meal with Michel in Tours, where we spoke about many things both professional and personal, something I now consider to be vital, thanks to Scott Frank of Bow and Arrow Wines who first planted the seed of suggestion that a true rapport goes far beyond wine. Michel gave me a bottle of 2013 Les Enfers Tranquilles to take home with me, and I drank it in my family home, in North Carolina. It’s a glorious bottle of wine, and in that moment, sipped on a humid summer night listening to the cicadas, it seemed to give form to the notion of a current, a laser beam of acid and mineral, a narrative tying together past, present, and future.

Michel Autran.

Michel Autran.

In June, Jason Malumed and I headed to Portland to visit our sister company, PDX, to spend some time with Michael Wheeler, and to get to know the terroirs of Oregon (as well as the strip clubs and marijuana dispensaries). I’d never been to Portland, and had been curious to visit for years. Portland is a civilized place; it’s a nice size (read a hellova lot smaller than New York). The countryside is beautiful; the people are nice. There are urban wineries, made possible by the proximity of the wine regions to the city itself. Some of them have wine bars in them where you can sip a glass while scoping out the winemaking equipment and processes. (How awesome is that?!?) I love the wines we sell from Oregon, which are complex, fairly priced, humble, and most importantly delicious. Thanks to Scott Frank and Chad Stock I have an entirely new view of Sauvignon Blanc, and drank thirstily from a magnum of Union School at our holiday party. Folks who have known me as an old world, cool climate wine snob respond to these changes in my taste with looks that say “who is this imposter and what has she done with my Sophie?” To which I state that I heartily enjoy changing my mind, also that the wine trade would quickly lose its luster if there weren’t new regions to learn about and become smitten by.

One of my favorite wines of the year: SM1 Savvy B from Minimus.

One of my favorite wines of the year: SM1 Savvy B from Minimus.

As much as I enjoyed touring the wine regions, my most meaningful day in Oregon was spent with a very dear school friend, hiking along the Oregon coast, and stopping to picnic by the ocean. The Pacific is a little hard to get used to for me as an east coaster, like someone behind the checkout counter in the grocery store asking how my day’s going (that doesn’t happen in New York), it’s just different. I’m used to the warm, soft Atlantic along the North Carolina coast, with its large expanses of uncovered, Coors Light sipping, country music listening flesh.

Mira and Sophie.

Mira and my Sauvignon Blanc loving alter ego.

Which brings me to the most significant two weeks of the year, which were spent cleaning my family home in Saxapahaw and rescuing my patrimony. This was something I’d been putting off for years, until it couldn’t be put off any longer, until Flannery offered up a solution, which was to ask for help from my broad network of friends and loved ones. This was some of the most satisfying work I’ve ever done, and each day someone different came by to help, to chat, and to reconnect. These two weeks were life changing in their impact on my personal life and psyche. Even now as I listen through the wall between my room and Susannah’s to the dulcet tones of cheering, whistling, and rubber on hardwood floor that signal the beginning of Carolina basketball season, I find myself proud of my origins, and proud of those 30 acres of woods that are mine.

Front: Alex, Sophie. Back: Margaret, Bobby, Karl.

Front: Alex, Sophie.
Back: Margaret, Bobby, Karl.

Yes there was a lot of traveling in 2016, and very little of it in Europe. I’m at over 1k words and haven’t even mentioned Montreal (I went twice this year), or the North Fork, where a group of us toured wine country on bikes. However, I’m going to end my year in review with a long weekend spent in South Dakota in October. Last post, I started to write about this as part of the political diatribe, but stopped because it just didn’t make sense. I went into the heart of a very red state, skinny black jeans, quasi-New York accent and all, prepared to suppress my political views if necessary for the sake of getting along. There are many things I remember fondly about this trip, the image of Prairie Berry Winery along the highway between Rapid City and Custer, Mount Rushmore, a national monument as breath-taking as our new world trade center, touring the back woods on a Four Wheeler, shooting a rifle, two pistols, and a crossbow. But now, in hind site, I most frequently recall a conversation I had about gun control, a conversation that helped to make real all I’d been reading about the beliefs of Americans outside of the urban, liberal bastions.

'Merica.

‘Merica.

On a table in the garage, I found an issue of American Hunter. Inside there were pages of propaganda about Hillary Clinton, essentially saying she’s going to take your guns away. Then there were advertisements for Donald Trump, essentially saying he’d support the National Rifle Association, protect your second amendment rights, etc …  And so I started a conversation about gun laws; I couldn’t help it. My interlocutor was coming from a South Dakota place (“My neighbors all have guns, therefore I need a gun to protect myself in case one of them comes up my driveway in the middle of the night to take all my shit! Also: I like guns. I shoot deer, a species constantly on the verge of over population, and my family and I eat all the meat we harvest.”). I was coming from a New York place (“If we didn’t have strict gun laws in this incredibly populous place I call home, all it would take is someone having a bad day for there to be fifty people dead on the subway.”) We had a conversation, and each of us learned something.

Like Brant, I don’t have much of a message of optimism at the end of this year. It looks as though we are headed for dark times, and my heart remains broken by the notion of dignity passing from the White House, making room for indignity and hateration. However, I believe that the dialogue must remain open with people who think differently. My New Years resolution, along with becoming fully pescatarian, giving up meat and poultry for good, is to seek out some Trump-ists and talk to them.

Happy holidays, and thanks for reading!

-Sophie

The situation on Friday evening was this: Ernest was proposing to order a bottle of ’61 Huet Demi-Sec before we’re received the first round of appetizers. I spoke out: “Wait! Isn’t ’61 Huet a Vino da Meditazione? We can’t drink it now.” The Italians chuckled, seemingly tickled that I knew the expression.  Over this dinner, I realized the concept of Vino da Meditazione is real. The expression first entered my wine lexicon back in September when Portovino, our Italian importer, did a little presentation on Italian wine words. These guys from Portovino are sarcastic, and so when Ernest told us “Yeah Mark always has to have a Vino da Meditazione at the end of the meal” I figured he mostly joking, that the comment was part of their Car Talk routine, rather than … I dunno … a category of wine.

A Vino da Meditazione is something you sip at the end of a meal, not because you need anything else to drink or to eat, not because you should (although who is to say you shouldn’t?), but because you can. It’s a wine sipped purely for pleasure, on its own, or with a nut or a sliver of cheese merely to remind the drinker that it’s wine, and therefore inherently better with food. Madeira comes to mind, Marsala, Port. Dry red wine is possible as well, I’ve heard, but only if it’s old. A romp-y young red will never fit the bill, nor will a zesty, crisp white.

As someone with an interest in how wines pair with situations, I believe no time could be better than the present to reach for a wine of meditation. We’ve been dealt a blow so tough that words fail, and yet all we encounter are words: words of anger, frustration, fear, heart-break, words on Facebook, words in the news, words streaming out of the mouths of friends and loved ones, words atop signs protesting the election of Donald Trump. I’m not suggesting that the words should cease (obviously, I’m writing), but that it’s time to seek out that Vino da Meditazione, to spend some moments in silence, or in peaceful conversation with people whose opinions you value, reflecting on how this happened to our country, and … yes it sounds cliché … relishing the moment because it is all we have, now more than ever.

For the past few months, I — like many — read obsessively about the election. Most mornings I’d start with the New Yorker over coffee and breakfast, then tote it to the gym and get the pages all sweaty, immersed in articles about the alt-right, about Republican distaste for our president elect, about how the Democratic party alienated the White Working Class, and on and on. I’d finish my day this way, too, alone, with a hodgepodge of leftovers in front of me, maybe a glass of leftover sample wine in my hand, maybe just some water. Like many, I’ve never been as politically engaged as I was this election.

One of the most interesting and personally upsetting articles I read dealt with a group of people the New Yorker refers to as “cosmopolitan élite,” pitting them educationally, socio-economically, philosophically, against the “white working class.” Am I a cosmopolitan élite? I asked myself this question time and again, and am still asking it now, and I don’t enjoy the direction these mental peregrinations take me because they implicate me and almost everyone I know in this national crisis.

I grew up in rural North Carolina; my dad was a southern, white, working class man who had guns, mildly racist attitudes, and who I’m fairly sure would have gotten a kick out of Donald Trump, though my mom would never have allowed him to vote accordingly. My mom spent the majority of her life educating and providing social services to hispanic immigrants, helping them to have better lives in America. I grew up in a liberal, academic family. I went to Quaker school, where multiculturalism and tolerance were features of the education. My grandparents marched in the first Civil Rights demonstrations in Chapel Hill in the 1950s. A mixture of beliefs shaped my early life, but my father’s mild conservatism was far outweighed by my mother’s liberalism.

I’ve lived in Brooklyn for the past nine years; I travel to Europe regularly; I speak French, I have two useless college degrees. I wept with joy when Barak Obama was elected in both 2008 and in 2012, just as I wept on Tuesday night, and on Wednesday, and on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of this week, last night even. But as New York has become increasingly wealthy, a city of cosmopolitan élite, I’ve become increasingly alienated. Progressive, liberal attitudes hole up in this city, feeding off one another, fanning the flame of cultural and intellectual snobbery and superiority, and I believe this is where our downfall has been. It was staggering the number of times I heard, last Tuesday night, watching Trump make a clean sweep of virtually every “battleground state” including my own state of origin “why can’t New York be its own country?” or “I’m moving; I can’t live here”. Virtually every American with me that night was a battleground state ex-pat: Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, and I hate to say it, but we are part of the problem. We left our home states to come to a place where people think like us. It wasn’t until Thursday that I heard a single person say “nah we need to stay here and make it better.”

What does this have to do with wine? Essentially nothing; it’s a tenuous connection at best. I’m proposing that for every hour you spend cruising Facebook, either brawling with people who think differently, or engaged in large scale sympathy banter, you spend an hour away from the media, either thinking, or speaking to friends about why and what next. Break away from the screen, the newspaper, the talking heads, and find a meditative moment to be thankful for what you have. It’s easier said then done.

Columbu Malvasia di Bosa from Sardinia might be the ultimate Vino da Meditazione.

Columbu Malvasia di Bosa from Sardinia might be the ultimate Vino da Meditazione.

On a brighter note: it turns out MFW has lots of Vini da Meditazioni, and I would be more than happy to suggest one to accompany your election hangover. Malvasia di Bosa from Colombu and Silvio Carta Vernaccia di Oristano come to mind … But today I’m writing about one specific Vino da Meditazione: Golden Cluster Sémillon. I chose this wine because the place that gave birth to it, the David Hill Vineyard in Forrest Grove Oregon, is meditative, because when I went there in June, the vineyard itself evoked the fascinating, creative things humans do in pursuit of beauty and meaning. The David Hill Vineyard, a monopole of the David Hill Winery, which produces cheap grocery store wine, is simultaneously a place of striking ambiance, of peaceful breezes rustling the vine leaves as you meander between rows of different exotic grape varieties planted by ampelographer Charles Coury in the 1960s. There’s a bizarre duality to this place.ebdb5a7d-0494-4992-a604-c173b5e0b2f8

It’s an interesting story: Golden Cluster comes from three rows of vines planted in 1965 by Charles Coury, a graduate of UC Davis who, it is speculated, was looking to prove his masters thesis on growing grapes in cool climates. The rootstock came from the Wente vineyard in California, whence Kalin Sémillon, undoubtedly the most lauded domestic example of this grape. Grown at 550 meters altitude on laurel wood and basalt soils, these are some of the oldest vines in the state of Oregon. In fact, Coury planted the vineyard to many grape varieties from all over the world, notably Germany, Burgundy, and Alsace. Although grapes have been cultivated in Oregon since the 1840s, the 1960s mark the rebirth of the Oregon wine trade, and this vineyard was a sort of blank slate on which to paint the next stage.

e4914d49-a0d4-4c08-932e-ae208deec3d7

This is the Ode to Chuck bottling, which seems more new wood than the “regular” Sémillon, a 140 liter Chablis barrel charred long and slow.

Enter Jeff Vejr, a restaurateur and renaissance man who became fascinated by Charles Coury’s legacy. As we understand it, Jeff made an arrangement with the present owners of the vineyard to purchase three rows of Sémillon for this wine. He then brought back the brand Coury had created in the 1970s called “Golden Cluster.” The wine is raised in neutral French oak of which 5% is new. It is unfined and unfiltered, and Vejr waits an additional year after bottling to release the wine. He also recommends decanting for best results, and we can see why. As with many profound white wines, it’s best with air, and at cellar rather than refrigerator temperature.22a2a33e-0cdb-4197-8962-931ca090c7b0

Despite its texture, this is not a rich wine in terms of alcohol, weighing in at 12.5%. Redolent of the outside of a pineapple or mango, preserved lemon, beeswax, with notes of honey creeping in with air, it has mellow but persistent acidity, and a silken texture. The wine has glorious length and depth of flavor. I don’t have a ready comparison. Then again it’s been some years since I tasted Kalin Sémillon. I do know that I love this wine, that it’s one of the few this past year that takes me immediately to a time and place, to a couple of individuals: Charles Coury but also Jeff Vejr, who wanted to make something profound out of these vines that were going into cheap grocery store wine.

I drank this wine with Dafne Sanchez, a friend from North Carolina, a Mexican-American woman more than 10 years my junior, the daughter of one of my mother’s best friends. We talked about lots of things, but mostly we talked about the election, about people who think differently, about whether there’s a possibility she’ll be deported apropos of our new president (it seems unlikely — she’s too far into the immigration process), about her fear of hate crimes in Greensboro, where she’s a German language and literature student, about the lack of trust in her fellow man she now feels walking down the street. It’s comforting to live in the liberal bubble of New York, where you can be fairly certain everyone you know is grieving and/or pissed as hell, but it’s imperative now more than ever to connect with people in the rest of the country, to seek out some kind of unity in these divisive times.

Almost a year ago, around the time I tasted Ruppert-Leroy’s first sans soufre experiment called Fosse-Grely Autrement, I vowed not to do a full-on write up of the domaine, on the grounds that Bert Celce had pretty much said it all. This post isn’t so much about Ruppert-Leroy, as it is about selling Ruppert-Leroy in New York. Perhaps because we are so heavily inundated with election coverage and verbiage these days, my mission to put these wines in restaurants and shops has begun to feel like a campaign. I’ve campaigned more diligently for this producer than I’ve ever campaigned in my wholesale career, because I love the wines, because what they represent in the context of Champagne is fascinating, and because when I needed some righteous juice to bring me back to caring about Wine (rather than just working in Wine), Ruppert-Leroy was there for me. By this I mean only that any career, no matter how much one enjoys it, begins at some point to feel like just-a-job, and the perfect antidote is to take up the cause of something one believes in.

Ecstatic me with Emmanuel Ruppert after our April visit.

Ecstatic me with Emmanuel Ruppert after our April visit.

I began selling Champagne not as a rep, but as the manager of a retail store: Chambers Street Wines. Whether or not I was good at it, I certainly wasn’t very practical. I bought the wines that moved me, wrote about them for the newsletter, put them in people’s hands on the sales floor, and called it a day. From time to time, particularly looking down the barrel of the 4th Quarter, I put some effort into finding Champagnes that were farmed well and relatively inexpensive ($60 and under on the shelf), and came up with Laherte Ultradition, Tarlant Brut Zero, and sometimes more avant garde bottlings like Bulles de Comptoir from Charles Duffour. For the most part it was pretty easy; my enthusiasm was enough to sell some wine.

Wholesale is completely different. First you must convince the customer to taste Champagne with you when they may not be looking for it (and in my experience most wholesale customers are not looking for Champagne on a regular basis). Then you must convince the customer to spend their money on something relatively expensive and unknown on the grounds of an exceptional and unique flavor profile that is the polar opposite of what most people think of when they think of Champagne (more on this later). Finally you have to get them so excited about the wine that they don’t balk at the prospect of hand selling every bottle, because wines like this are a hand sell 95 out of 100 times. It’s not so easy.

In the vineyard.

In the vineyard.

It’s almost humorous how many Ruppert-Leroy samples I’ve ordered over the past two months. It’s certainly humorous — though not necessarily good — that restaurants looking for value reds for their by-the-glass programs are instead getting Ruppert-Leroy when I darken their doors for my appointments. I’ve taken these wines out on so many occasions of late that I can recite our sevenfifty entries virtually verbatim. How does this happen? Well for one thing, each time I take the wines out I miss somebody, another preferred customer or two, or three, who I feel can’t live another day, week, month, without experiencing the magic of Ruppert-Leroy. And so I plan another day, and order another set of samples. It’s a bit unusual to do this with Champagne because the samples are costly (so hopefully my bosses won’t be pissed if/when they read this post), but also because it’s rare to sell a lot of Champagne when you show it because Champagne is expensive, and it’s harder to sell expensive wine than to sell cheap wine unless the expensive wine is made by some fancy, extra-big-deal, allocated estate, in which case you’re not taking it out anyway because it’s all sold without “wasting” a sample. Whew. Make sense? Showing Champagne can be somewhat of a lost cause. After a day in the roll-y bag, the wine is warm and the bubbles gone, but fortunately if it’s vineyard-forward Champagne such as Ruppert-Leroy, even the still, warm juice tastes amazing.

Tiny sign, very un-Champenois.

Tiny sign, very un-Champenois.

My most useful observation about selling these wines in New York has been that they seem to fit better at restaurants than at most shops. I have a few theories about this. The first is that they are food wines: savory, sapid, unapologetically dry, prone to opening up gorgeously over a couple of hours (this doesn’t mean decant them; please don’t decant them), and so intense that to drink them as a casual aperitif would seem to do the wine and the drinker a disservice. But additionally, in the restaurant context, a conversation almost always takes place between the server or the sommelier, and the guest, which means that the opportunity to explain these wines — even if just a sentence or two — is built into the experience. In a shop, some of the bottles need to sell themselves, without conversation, solely on the grounds of label or reputation, which is why Veuve Cliquot and Moët et Chadon, Billecart Salmon and Laurent Perrier maintain their shelf spaces even when every employee of the shop understands that these are not particularly good wines. We can’t just sell great wine all the time, in any branch of the trade. Sometimes we have to be practical, and I don’t fault my retailers for allowing pragmatism to guide them. That said, my appreciation for those retailers who take a chance on Ruppert-Leroy knows no bounds.

Who is Ruppert-Leroy? Ruppert-Leroy is a small, organic estate located outside the village of Essoyes in the Aube, a region several hours by car south of Epernay. The Aube is known for its kimmeridgean limestone soils, and has over the past decade risen to hipster popularity thanks to the efforts of producers like Cédric Bouchard, Vouette et Sorbée, and Marie-Courtin, to name just a few. Ruppert-Leroy is the combined effort of Bénédicte Ruppert, and Emmanuel Leroy. Bénédicte Ruppert’s father Gérard started the domaine in the 1970s, and in the mid-2000s, Bénédicte and her husband Emmanuel Ruppert decided to leave their previous careers as gym teachers to take up the reigns at the estate. Though the vines (planted in the ’70s) had long been tended organically, there was no certification until Bénédicte and Emmanuel took over, harvesting for the first time in 2010.

View from the bridge in downtown Essoyes.

View from the bridge in downtown Essoyes.

Emmanuel and Bénédicte farm three vineyards, all more or less cordoned off by woods (this would never happen in the north of Champagne) called Fosse-Grely, Martin-Fontaine, and Les Cognaux. Lush with plant life and dandelions, which they incorporate into tisanes for treating mildew, each vineyard boasts a different varietal makeup and soil type. Fosse-Grely is limestone with red clay, co-planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Martin-Fontaine is white limestone planted to Chardonnay, and Les Cognaux is gray clay and tiny sea shells over limestone, planted to Pinot Noir. The domaine is about four hectares in total.

Fosse-Grely juice.

Fosse-Grely juice.

In the cellar, the processes are really very simple: the juice is pressed, then it is transferred to stainless steel vat, then it is transferred to neutral barrel to ferment with indigenous yeast where rests sur lie for some months before bottling, or returning to storage in tank. The second fermentation takes place over several years comme d’habitude, and then the wine is disgorged without dosage. (Quick note here: as is the case with many Champagnes from the Aube, there is no place for dosage. The grapes are harvested ripe, and the addition of sugar would be extraneous, like frosting on a pie.)

Breath-taking 2013 Martin-Fontaine.

Breath-taking 2013 Martin-Fontaine.

In 2013, Emmanuel and Bénédicte stopped using sulfur completely, and regardless of one’s feelings about Champagne without sulfur (mine are mixed), results in the case of Ruppert-Leroy have been excellent. The manifestations of sans soufre Champagne-making are (in my opinion) as follows: base wines virtually always undergo malolactic fermentation because preventing it and keeping it at bay requires a minimum of 60-70 milligrams of SO2. The finished wine is darker in the glass due to a faint oxidation that isn’t particularly apparent on the palate. There are incredibly expressive flavors on the nose, mid-palate, and finish, flavors that are clipped by sulfur in most Champagne. In the case of Fosse-Grely, it’s a succulent grape-iness; in the case of Martin-Fontaine, it’s broad Chablis-like apple, pêche des vignes, and sweet lime; in the case of Les Cognaux, it’s ripe raspberries and tart cherries, seeds, pits and all. And so what I mean when I say these wines have atypical flavors is that they are not toasty; they are not yeasty; they are not searingly acidic from blocked malo; they are not chalky; they are not sweet from dosage. The wines taste like limestone, earth, and fruit, and no matter how much I hate the expression “like Chablis with bubbles”, I find myself using it to describe these wines.

Having spent many paragraphs now on the domaine itself, which I vowed not to do, I’ll return to my statement that what Ruppert-Leroy represents in the context of Champagne is fascinating. We began calling Emmanuel Ruppert the “DIY King” of Essoyes because he built his house and winery out of hand-harvested logs. When we went to visit in April, Bénédicte was toiling in their large and impressive garden. There were sheep everywhere, and horses (one even joined us in the barrel room for our vin clair tasting). This is an sustainable farm. There are no fancy shoes; there’s no giant sign visible from the road advertising the domaine; there are no master blenders; there are no branding and marketing strategists, no export manager. These are the kind of people I’m used to meeting in the Loire Valley, or in the Jura, but rarely encounter in Champagne. They are farmers, and pretty much everything they’ve created from their humble abode to the wines themselves is a hand made extension of themselves and their philosophy. Now this is something worth campaigning for.

There are a couple of memories that linger from my first interview with Jamie Wolff of Chambers Street Wines. The sweaty late summer day having its way with some cheap maroon-ish fabrics from Anthropology. The sudden chill of the air conditioning. My overuse of the phrase “wealth of knowledge.” That Jamie asked if I sometimes wished wine didn’t have alcohol in it. What a bizarre question for the owner of the best wine shop in America to pose! The reply must be a truism “then it wouldn’t be wine!” Alcohol is an integral component; there would be no flavor of wine — not to mention far less conviviality — if wine didn’t contain booze.

I’ve been coming back to that moment with Jamie of late because I’m a little sick of alcohol, which for me means wine; hangovers have become intolerable both physically and psychologically, and — truth be told — I really like not drinking. Yeah. It’s a problem. But I still love wine! Not drinking wine makes drinking it even better, rarer, and therefore more delicious. Restraint and self-denial have their place heightening enjoyment like a judicious touch of volatile acidity. I usually console myself in these ponderings with some kick-ass ice cream and thoughts such as ‘meh. this is my fate, especially as a woman, to respect the necessity of calming down, cleansing, protecting my brain and my body, taking care of my health, consuming less booze, spitting more, swallowing less.’

It’s also the atmosphere. Serious wine drinking tends to come along with boisterous wine conversation and gossip, which is highly amusing (if you’re in on the joke), but when you talk about it all day long, sometimes at the end of the day it’s nice to chat about that local sports team or the latest New Yorker. And yet, cracking jokes about the Cul de Beaujeau, whole cluster, pyrazine struggles, what have you with fellow tipsy nerds is usually a side-splitting blast. We’ve gotten tons of mileage out of whether or not it’s acceptable to use having-one’s-hair-cut-by-a-relative-of-Christophe-Roumier as a selling point in an email blast. Getting animated about reduction, dosage, and sulfur is also pretty fun, but not in mixed company. In all things, balance must be found; Wine People (myself included) seem to forget that it’s healthy to cultivate interests outside of wine, also to drink things that aren’t wine.

It turns out that beverage geekery is hard to let go of, which is why as my drinking has decreased over the past few years I’ve gotten excited about some other liquids of terroir and process. The first is obviously coffee. Thus I present: “Coffee: A Wine Lover’s Guide”.

Coffee shares a lot with wine: a sense of place, the concept of varietal, the importance of high quality fruit, the difference processing makes, the rise of small importers, coffee cupping, which is sort of like wine tasting with little score sheets. Hell, coffee is even fermented! (The cherry around the bean.) There are also enormous differences between wine and coffee: coffee is produced in the third world; the economics are different; coffee commerce is contractual, often planned many months or years ahead. Crucially, much of coffee processing takes place on the state-side, at the roaster and cafe level, which radically changes the consumer’s experience. It’s not pulling a cork and busting out a casual carafe. (Incidentally, I cautiously recommend the movie “Barista” by the directors of “Somm” … if you enjoyed “Somm” that is.)

Coffee trends have evolved alongside wine trends, although I have the impression coffee is 5-10 years behind wine. In the golden era of Starbucks, the coffee was inky black and over-roasted. To make this sludge potable, you needed to add cream and sugar … or at least cream. This kind of coffee tastes good with pastries, doughnuts, sweet breakfast foods, the bitter cutting the sweet. (Incidentally the French also enjoy dark, bitter coffee, and what better pairing than the standard French breakfast of bread, butter, and jam? Unfortunately lots of French coffee is made from low quality robusta, rather than arabica beans. Robusta beans contain more caffeine, which accounts for that delightful jittery feeling you get at around 10 in the morning when all you’ve had is atrocious French coffee and sweet breakfast foods.) Coffees with this taste profile are like the wines that rose to prominence during Robert Parker’s era, when consumers bowed at the alter of Big Flavor. Analogously, big wines often have a convenient sense of sweetness that marries nicely with American food. We don’t actually go for foods that are 100% savory. We like our meats with some fruit, our pizza with some pineapple, our salad with a little sun-dried tomato. Wine that is totally dry doesn’t work with foods that are kissed by sweetness.

Fortunately for us consummate beverage snobs, styles have changed. Single origin coffees — like wines — have gotten considerably more elegant, and are readily available all over New York. Unfortunately, as wealthy a city as New York has become, consumers are rarely willing to pay for a very good cup of coffee, a geisha, a prized micro-lot. Geeks will seek out these unicorn coffees, but most will balk at paying in excess of $5 for a cup, and even $5 seems like a lot to most people. I’m not saying that coffee should be expensive, rather that I’d relish the opportunity to pay a few dollars more for something truly exquisite. Also unfortunately, cafe food trends are a little behind, and even cafes grinding up righteous beans and hiring experienced baristas, muddle along with their cold cases of muffins and danishes. (Let me tell you that a lively coffee from Yirgachefe pairs abysmally with a muffin; it’s like drinking Laval with sweet potatoes and a maple glazed pork loin.)

I’ll insert here a little note about the kinds of foods I like to eat with light roasted, terroir coffee: scrambled eggs with sriracha, avocado toast with feta, pastries with spinach or green vegetables inside, even a bagel with smoked salmon pair better with a cup of terroir coffee than a muffin. Back in the winter my roommate Susannah, who works in wine but used to manage a retailer specializing in both wine and coffee, got all up in arms about the fact that there are no cafes in New York offering chickpea samosas. It sounds like a lot to ask, but a chickpea samosa would be fantastic with an African coffee.

This brings me to my next point: Wine People love African coffee. It’s something about the bright, herbal, and fruit forward profile of Ethiopian coffee that channels our inner Pineau D’Aunis lover. And Kenya? Well that savory tomato thing is quite Sangiovese like, isn’t it? African coffee lends itself well to light roasting, which is obviously very popular these days. Light roasting aligns nicely with concepts of terroir and anti-spoof (No charred oak … or beans!). Many of the best natural process coffees are Ethiopian. (“Natural” in this contexts refers to the practice of leaving the whole cherry to dry around the bean, as opposed to washing or removing the (get ready for this fun coffee word) mucilage some other way. Natural process coffee and natural wine provide convenient comparison, and it’s uncanny how much the blueberry poop funk of natural Ethiopian coffee can resemble the reduction of natural Ardèche Syrah.)

Parlor has great packaging.

Parlor has great packaging.

While the roaster isn’t everything, the roaster has the power to make or break your experience with a cup of coffee. I recommend finding a roaster whose style you like, and drinking across the origins they work with. Parlor Coffee has been doing a great job in New York, and their African coffees are some of my favorites. They may be the epitome of a hipster roaster, but Parlor sources excellent beans and roasts them well. Their style is light-handed and acid-driven with an emphasis on purity. Even though I most often drink their African coffees, Parlor also has a line on some amazing Colombian micro-lots, which remind me of Burgundies in their ability to be densely packed with fruit flavor, deep, dark, and suave, yet never ponderous or heavy.

George Howell is taking the New York coffee scene by storm.

George Howell is taking the New York coffee scene by storm.

This is George Howell. Based in Boston, George Howell appears to be on the rise in in New York (I’ve seen Rouge Tomate posting Howell coffees, and we all know if there’s one Manhattan restaurant geeking out about bean sourcing it’s RT), and I’ve so far been impressed by the beans I’ve picked up at Marlow and Sons recently. Incidentally, Marlow is one of the best local places to shop for coffee, to drink coffee, and to eat savory snacks; their coffee counter is always laden with gougères, mini-quiches, and such. (They have yet to offer a chickpea samosa.) Posting up at Marlow is a unique delight because I don’t have to drink wine, which means it’s barely even work! They clearly take coffee seriously, and I trust their wine director John Connelly equally to pick me out good beans as to pick me out a tasty Gamay. My observation based on only a tiny sampling is that George Howell extracts more bass notes from their African coffees than Parlor, and gives less emphasis to the lean, ethereal, herbal notes these coffees often have.

Finally I’ll take a moment to talk about Spectrum. Spectrum was started earlier this year by my ex-boyfriend Jay Murdock, who is the primary reason I became interested in coffee, and was the early source of all my transcendental experiences with this beverage. When I started at Chambers Street many moons ago, Jay was managing Kaffe 1668, a once great coffee shop that has since slid off the quality coffee radar due to the greed and incompetence of its owners. As vivid as the memory of drinking Vincent Laval’s Cumières for the first time, is the recollection of my first Yirgachefe, its aromas of lemon grass and jasmine wafting from the paper cup as I walked down Greenwich Street on a crisp, fall day.

Over the course of his career, Jay has done pretty much everything in the coffee trade short of importing green coffee. He’s roasted, competed in barista competitions, opened multiple cafes, consulted for some of the busiest cafes in the city, and now he’s schnooking his own beans! I like to support Jay because of our history, but also because I believe he’s an inspired coffee professional who is doing a fantastic job. His first coffee was Indonesian — Sulawesi as I recall, which is surprising because we don’t actually see much Indonesian coffee in these parts. The processing in Indonesia is less clean than in Africa and South America, and finding high quality green coffees from these islands is challenging. Before Jay picked his first coffee, he solicited samples of “spot” coffees from all the green coffee importers he had relationships with, cupped them blind with his colleagues, and picked the Indonesian. (A “spot” coffee can be purchased immediately, without a contract.) The coffees are dark, funky, and earthy, like old school Châteauneuf-du-Pape with more than a hint of bret. They stand up well to dairy.

Some local guys roasting in Red Hook.

Some local guys roasting in Red Hook.

The coffee I’ve grown fond of recently from Spectrum is this Costa Rica. Jay seeks a darker style than Parlor, which works particularly well for this hazelnut-y and less-fruit forward coffee. It’s got Christmas spice notes, and reminds me of putting my nose in a cedar chest.

There are many other very good roasters to experiment with. These are merely three that have been on my mind (and in my Hario V60 dripper) recently. I’m sure I’ll circle back to wine before long, but in the meantime it’s nice to have another beverage to write about, one that pairs with my favorite time of day, which is morning.