Sophie's Glass

In my mind, when I left for North Carolina two weeks ago, I was going to have at least one or two mornings of down time in which to collect and regurgitate to the page a few of my experiences in Portland. I even brought my little notebook with me in order to be prepared for this eventuality. I had all these ideas bouncing around about how free winemakers in Oregon are, images of Chad Stock and his epic grafting project, of Jeff Vejr and his intense study of the historic David Hill vineyard, of Kris and Steven from Analemma and their sparkling wine vocation, the list goes on … In my mind when I left for North Carolina, part of me was still out there helping Scott Frank bottle Bow and Arrow Gamay. I wanted to tell so many stories!

Nicked one of these labels from Scott's winery.

Nicked one of these labels from Scott’s winery.

It didn’t happen, or it hasn’t happened yet. What happened instead was that day after day for almost two weeks, beginning first thing in the morning, and ending when we were so totally spent and grimy that all we could do was pile into the back of the pickup truck, beers in hand, and head for a neighbor’s pool, a motley assortment of friends and loved ones and I worked on my parent’s house.

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View from the back.

In advance, I was incapable of being positive about this experience, and instead cultivated a train of thought learned from my dad along the lines of “create abysmal expectations, be pleasantly surprised.” My house in North Carolina was built over the course of 30 years out of repurposed lumber from my dad’s construction jobs. My parent’s never threw away anything, and in addition to the house proper, there’s a massive barn, a carport, a non functional hot tub, a play house turned goat shed; there’s even a catamaran up in the yard that has been totally subsumed by ivy and shrubbery such that it’s barely visible.

The house is on a country road outside the town of Saxapahaw. It is at the end of a long muddy driveway, and cannot be seen from the road. There’s no mailbox, and the directions I gave visitors as a young person (pre-Google) ended with “go a quarter of a mile past the intersection and turn left at the bent post.” This is my patrimony.

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Those shiny brass candlesticks were gray when we found them in the barn. They look nice with the batik table cloth …

My parents had lots of friends. I invited about 60 to my dad’s memorial and 100 came. They had parties all throughout my childhood, and my mom had no qualms about feeding 10, 20, 30 people of ages varying from 3 to 90. This is where I learned to love wine, in theory if not in practice: watching my parents eat and drink and laugh with their friends. We also had many house guests, squatters who stayed so long they became closer than family. Sometimes we called the place “Ramshackle”; other times we called it “Margaret and Bobby’s Home for Wayward Men”.

We filled a 30 yard long dumpster with junk and made a giant burn pile, which we torched on a 100 degree day, and kept slowly fizzling until it was a pile of embers, still warm and smoking three days later. There were new discoveries constantly: my dad’s gun collection, booklets of valuable old coins, cabinet after dusty cabinet of tiny coffee mugs — 10 sets in total if not more! (Be forewarned, New York friends: you’re all getting decorative platters from Saxapahaw for Christmas this year.) There were also things of mine: the letters and emails I wrote to my parents during my study abroad semester, reams of college papers and stories from when I was smart and creative, photos I’d forgotten about eons ago. One day I’ll make an album, or maybe a book of letters telling a story … the story of my young life as the only child of two gregarious, hippie intellectuals in rural North Carolina.

North Carolina beaches are awesome, by the way.

North Carolina beaches are awesome, by the way.

So many life lessons in such a short period of time. I learned — right away on the 4th of July when two friends I hadn’t seen in years pulled up the driveway totally unannounced to lend their hands and skills — that I am not as alone as I’d thought. The loneliness that inflected my last post faded away as I sank into the bosom of my greater North Carolina family. It’s a soft place full of kind, genuine people who seem to care unconditionally because they loved my parents, and I am what’s left. And yet it’s not a cloying place because sarcasm still drips from the leaves and branches, permeating the air with its tang. It’s a verdant, lush, green place, almost as rainy as the jungle and equally warm. It’s a comforting place I can be without pretense, without makeup, without adorning my sentences with lingo and bullshit, without the veneer New York has given me.

As always in North Carolina, I answered a lot of questions about what I do for a living. One friend had learned the word “schnook” from reading this blog, and had semi-successfully employed it in conversation! I was tickled. Over a table covered with pottery of various types, I realized what a sales person I’ve become as I pawned off sets of tableware on people: “I can’t even believe you’re contemplating starting a catering business without this massive salsa themed bowl with matching three tiered condiment insert!” Or: “You are the perfect person to inherit my Margaret Ellen’s favorite cake stand; we used this all the time when I was growing up.”

And then out of the blue came: “sometimes when I hear you talk about wine, I think you live in a fake world” from the lips of someone I’ve known for over half my life and love very much. Hmm. I mean … it is a fake world with its own rules and its own parlance, its own hierarchy and customs. I tried to explain that we tolerate a high level of fake-ness in the industry in order to engage with the real-ness, which is meeting farmers and winemakers and learning about what they do, supporting them economically, bringing their wares to the parched citizens of New York. I thought about Scott Frank and his perpetual search for real amongst the fake, his quasi-obsession with the topic. It’s a quest I’d like to take up.

I learned that I’m intensely, fiercely proud of who my parents were and what they created. Once the art and posters and postcards and cobwebbed shrines had been stripped from the walls we could see the bare bones of the house my dad built, and it’s beautiful! Well … some parts are more beautiful than others. There are a several decaying decks, one of which we demolished after someone fell through trying to wash windows. And speaking of windows, we had them professionally cleaned, and by the end they were gleaming, transparent in the daytime, and perfectly reflective at night.

"People who live in glass houses should enjoy washing windows."

“People who live in glass houses should enjoy washing windows.”

The whole affair was bathed in an aura of regeneration: birth, death, and rebirth. It sounds strange, but watching the dumpster being hauled off, and torching the fire were gloriously happy moments. I’d even go so far as to say I was giddy chucking random baby pictures, moldy books, and my dad’s backlog of Fine Home Builders Digest on the fire. It was like a pagan ritual; a sacrificial copper head lost its life, its body continue to squirm and wriggle after the head had been severed. Then we smeared some ash on our faces like warriors. I’m not kidding. And while I’d love to say we roasted and ate the copper head for dinner, in fact we cleaned up and went to a fancy restaurant in Durham where we drank 2009 Marie-Noelle Ledru Cuvée Goulte. (This was great, by the way.)

Towards the end — it might have been in Willmington where I took a couple of true vacation days — I looked out over the harbor, lights bouncing off the water, the air salty, muggy, and pregnant with a torrential downpour, and thought about dining with Scott and Dana Frank at their home in Portland less than three weeks previously. We’d liberated a couple of little hot air balloons and watched them bob and meander out into the cool twilight, visible far into the distance. Scott told us they were for good luck, friendship, for the future. And who knows? Maybe they brought me some. Lots of things in life are hard and shitty, or mediocre at best. But once in awhile something happens that is so purely good and right and wonderful that it makes the struggle worthwhile.

Arnold Waldstein came to my Champagne tasting at Chambers Street a few weeks ago. He told me I was starting to sound like Anaïs Nin. Not knowing who she was, I assumed he meant something along the lines of “negative and self-involved”. Then I looked up Anaïs Nin on wikipedia, and was pleasantly surprised to find that she was a bohemian diary-ist responsible for some of literary history’s finest female erotic writing! I’m quite flattered that Arnold thought I’d make a decent erotic writer. Perhaps I’ll give it a try! (Don’t worry, not on this blog).

This is my favorite French rosé from the 2015 MFW crop. It's Gamay from Bernard Vallette in Lachassagne, the deep south of Beaujolais, not far from our now retired friend Bruno Debize.

This is my favorite French rosé from the 2015 MFW crop, strategically positioned behind a particularly erotic sandwich featuring sublime bread from High Street on Hudson. The wine is Gamay rosé from Bernard Vallette in Lachassagne, the deep south of Beaujolais, not far from our now retired friend Bruno Debize. The wine is as zesty, pure-fruited, and thirst-quenching as they come.

I’ve been on the brink of a crisis of faith with the blog for some time, recalling the emotional turmoil surrounding my dear friend Brooklynguy when he decided to stop writing, and wondering if I’m experiencing the same, loving to write but not knowing why and for whom. For a minute it looked as though my website manager (intentional over-statement here) was gone, and that eventually I wouldn’t be able to perform the minor tasks required to maintain the site. And then five years worth of useless words would just disappear into the ether in a fittingly romantic end. But it turns out he’s still around and willing to help when something goes wrong, so I won’t be closing up shop for lack of a tech savvy friend.

A nice trio of Chenins: Bertin-Delatte in Rablay-sur-Layon and Melaric in Saumur-Puy-Notre-Dame. Chenin has so many faces! Look out for the Vignt-Neuf, from vines planted in '29.

A nice trio of Chenins: Bertin-Delatte in Rablay-sur-Layon and Melaric in Saumur-Puy-Notre-Dame. Chenin has so many faces! Look out for the Vignt-Neuf, from vines planted in ’29. It’s positively post-coital.

My self-esteem is in bizarre limbo right now. Schnook life is fantastic for its freedom, its sociability, its basis in relationships and networking, the opportunities it affords to eat and drink well, while getting an enormous amount of exercise, thus depleting the calories inherent in eating and drinking well. But it drains the self confidence, makes me feel small and insignificant, one of half a dozen smiling faces walking in the door with something to sell. Being a buyer elevates the ego; being a schnook topples it, the nature of the beast, and I’m not complaining. This is the best gig I’ve had since leaving Chambers Street, hands down.

"What is the malaise? you ask. The malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo's ghost."

“What is the malaise? you ask. The malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost.”

The malaise (to reference my new favorite novelist, Walker Percy) is not work-related. Beholding the lines on my face, I seem positively ancient; I stare at my crooked teeth in the mirror and feel hideously ugly, chastise the souls of my parents for not ponying up for braces so I could have a perfect smile like all the pretty ladies. It’s like I’m a teenager all over again, but additionally plagued by the sensation that these feelings are totally absurd for someone at the ripe age of 35 living a distinctly privileged existence! I think: let me go on a diet, or quit drinking; there must be something in my power to control. The problem with diets and tee-totaling is, of course, that eating and drinking is literally part of my job. Putain. Qu’est que je peux faire? 

Will Piper opened this bottle of 2009 Marsella Fiano for me at The Four Horsemen the other night. It was so perfectly smoky and saline, so rich, balanced, a wine that looked, smelled, and tasted half its age. I hope to mature like a fine Fiano.

Will Piper opened this bottle of 2009 Marsella Fiano for me at The Four Horsemen the other night. It was perfectly smoky and saline, rich and mouth-filling, a wine that looked, smelled, and tasted half its age. I hope to mature like a fine Fiano.

At the heart of the malaise (and this will be the most personal thing I’ve ever written on this blog) is the fact that I am now alone. I used to have a partner in crime, someone to drink Champagne and eat BLTs with (for example), and now I no longer do. And so I hearken back to a conversation with my oft-referenced Canadian friend Étienne, in the winter of this year. We were walking home from Hotel Delmano, kvetching about things that bother us in the wine world, unicorn wines, social media braggadocio, pretentiousness and snobbery; we concluded that most people have it all wrong. Happiness isn’t drinking an old Gentez, or Selosse rosé, or Vin Jaune from Pierre Overnoy, DRC, or even ’79 Clos de la Roche from Hubert Lignier (the best bottle of wine in my memory today). Vinous happiness is sharing a delicious bottle of something, over a meal, with someone you love. That’s as good as it gets (Étienne and I tipsily concluded that night). It’s going to sound preposterously cheesy, but if there’s no partner in wine-drinking crime, then there’s no point. I might as well drink water, and get up refreshed for a session of battle rap paired with senselessly competitive and scorching laps on the track. Does that make sense?

This wine instantaneously transported me to the Jura, and to happier times. It smells like cellars, the dark part of the comté cheese near the rind, the marl and clay over limestone, the tension between oxidation and purity that can only exist in the Jura. It took me through winding through memory, back years and years.

This wine instantaneously transported me to the Jura, to a malaise-free zone. It smells like cellars, the dark part of the comté cheese near the rind, the marl and clay over limestone, the tension between oxidation and purity that can only exist in this region. It took me winding through memory and back.

One thing I can do to combat the malaise is to travel, and travel I will, all the way to the west coast of the United States to learn something new about wine. I’m headed to Portland on Thursday morning to visit Scott Frank of Bow and Arrow, Kate and Tom from Division, Analemma, and more. And let me assure you that I cannot wait to digest those visits into prose. I can’t promise that I’ll bring the same bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, strong-ego-ed enthusiasm that I brought after Zev and I visited Jean-Marc Brignot, after my first stint in the cellar with Benoït Lahaye or Vincent Laval. (After all, at that time I believed people cared!) I can promise that I’ll find out what these Oregon folks are up to, and attempt to put it in the context of French winemakers and their practices.

Then I’m going to North Carolina to undertake a much harder task, a task that lingers in the back of my mind, doubtless contributing to the malaise, yet inescapable. I’ll be spending two weeks doing bricolage on my parent’s house, virtually unchanged since my father passed away almost 5 years ago, getting it ready for the next phase of its life, and in a parallel universe perhaps getting myself ready for the next phase of mine. House dealt with (wisdom teeth finally out), I’ll finally be ready to grow up! Just in time to make those numbers in the 4th quarter …

Yesterday I drank some Oregon Chardonnay; I wandered the sultry city in the first throes of summer; I poured a tasting for the rosé-thirsty inhabitants of Soho, and I took part in two rants about wine writing. Both of my interlocutors were smart women with a decade of experience in the industry who write well, who write for their jobs. These rants were different in character, yet both orbited the notion that there’s not much being written that is compelling to wine professionals, and this aggravates us. It’s an age old conversation, one that I’ve had many times with my dear friend Zach Sussman, who is a wine writer. When Zach and I started talking about the industry’s hostility toward wine writers, the idea was that he’d write about it for a widely read publication like Punch, and then finally there would be something out there of interest to the industry! But there was a sense that the topic would not be well received by his editors. (After all, it’s a bit self-undermining.) However, I’m still holding out hope that this piece gets written, because Zach would do justice to the topic.

I tell myself that the industry isn’t the audience, and confess that I don’t read about wine, with the exceptions of Bert Celce and Zach, and occasionally others when I have to for my job. My close friends in the trade rarely read this blog, and that’s fine, but apropos of this fact, if I’m becoming a hack, if I’m not saying anything of interest to my friends, I might as well either stop writing the damn thing, or try to change its identity … This was something I started thinking about at Rosenthal, and still find it’s not a bad idea. The Rosenthals weren’t too keen on me writing a wine blog while in their employment, and I toyed with the idea of changing it into a sort of lifestyle blog with occasional comments on wine. We’ll see.

The genesis of Sophie’s Glass was a car conversation with Zev Rovine, in atrocious traffic, on the outskirts of Paris about 5 years ago. Zev asked me what I ultimately wanted to do in wine, and I told him I wanted to be a writer. He responded that I should start with a blog. There was also an aspect of utility: whenever I visited a hyped producer like Ganevat, my customers at Chambers asked for my notes on the wines, and it was easier to document them in a blog that I could link to, than to rewrite the same email over and over. So those were the motivations. Now, I no longer want to be a wine writer, and notes from my winery visits circulate internally to give our company more robust and accurate information about domaines and producers. So why keep writing the blog? I like to write. It’s self indulgent, and feels good.

What I started to say pre long-digression-about-wine-writing is that these conversations with peers brought me back to questions I ask myself constantly these days: why am I doing this? After ten years in the business: what next? What is there to be excited about going forward? What is there to bring back the thrills wine brought me between the ages of 25 and 30? Tasting good juice, making sales, going to restaurants, enjoying exquisite pairings is wonderful, but it’s not enough for me; there has to be more intellectual sustenance. I say this partly because though the lifestyle looks glamorous, it’s taxing, and one has to make a concerted effort everyday to remain healthy, stable, and balanced. Drinking is exhausting; I’m sick of it and often don’t want to do it. Having to do something for work that most people do for pleasure is confusing. And frankly, though I’m okay with being a 35 year old woman in the wine business, the prospect of being a 50 year old woman in the wine business doesn’t thrill me. Being rational and pragmatic, I try to conjure an image of a future in the trade that would work for me, and plan to try to ensure it happens.

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Pouring Division-Villages Beton and Rosé “L’Aviron” on a hot night in Soho.

One sure fire way to remain engaged in the industry, coming up with positive responses to the questions “why” and “what next” is to learn about new winemaking places. Inspiration comes when you least expect it, and from the most unlikely sources. Just going to throw it out there that I am presently very excited about wines from the west coast of the United States. A couple of weeks ago I spent the day with Kate Norris of Division, a winery in Oregon, and it was blissfully enlivening. I love these wines. At one point, Kate said (and I don’t remember the context) “oh I HATE it when the wine’s not delicious”, which struck me as a perfect summation of the governing philosophy of this winery. It’s nice when wine is cerebral and complex, but absolutely essential that it be delicious. And the early release Division-Villages wines are just so damn delicious; they have roughly the fruit/acid balance of cool climate French wines, and feature those grapes: Gamay, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Côt, Pinot Noir. There’s a warmth to the fruit that lets us know we’re not in the Loire, yet a freshness, a juiciness to the acidity that lets us know the people who craft these wines (Kate and a guy named Tom who I look forward to meeting in a couple of weeks), are intimately and spiritually familiar with Loire Valley wine. If I had a favorite, I’d pick the Gamay “Les Petits Fers”, which is from four vineyards, fermented using a mixture of carbonic maceration, partial carbonic maceration, and traditional fermentation. Tasting this wine, I had one foot in Fleurie, and the other in some mystical Pacific Northwest landscape I have yet to experience. This wine is made of joy.

Two days ago, I stumbled upon a 2014 Chardonnay “Deux” in a local wine shop. The grapes for this bottling come from a vineyard called Strangeland, planted in 1978. It’s a white Burgundy style fermentation and élèvage with a few hours of skin contact, and long, slow, cool fermentation in barrel with minimal lees stirring. This wine is sleek, delicately lactic like fresh cream, with notes of pear and lemon curd, ripe and pleasurable. It does not taste like white Burgundy; it doesn’t have the dense earth and limestone backbone of white Burgundy, but it does have succulent balance, and is incredibly fun to drink.

Dreamy Chardonnay from Division Winemaking Company.

Dreamy Chardonnay from Division Winemaking Company.

The other place whence I recently drew inspiration to keep going was Corsica. At the end of a recent trip to Champagne and the Loire Valley, I went to Corsica for the weekend, like a sweet little coda at the end of a layered and fascinating piece. This place is fantastically beautiful, and my terrible camera and photography skills can’t possibly do it justice. As the plane tilted sideways in preparation to land in Ajaccio, I stared out the window, eyes like saucers resting upon the blue water and rugged coastline below. The mainland of this island is arid and mountainous, covered in a particular kind of brushy garrigue called “maquis”. The coast is alternately rocky and sandy with many little gulfs and inlets. There are some physical similarities to the Maritime Alps and the Côte d’Azur, the Mediterranean coasts of France and Italy. I’d have liked to stay there forever.

View from the bay of Ajaccio.

View from the bay of Ajaccio.

My vinous discovery of the weekend in Corsica was Sebastien Poly of Domaine U Stilicchionu. This is a 7 hectare, biodynimically farmed winery in the Ajaccio appellation. My friend Pierre from the Tissot era works full-time for Jean-Charles Abbatucci, a big name in the region (there’s a statue of one of Jean-Charles’ ancestors in the center of Ajaccio), but on the weekend for Sebastien Poly. Pierre essentially told me that he’d been surprised coming from Tissot (where most of the work is done in the vines, and little manipulation in the cellar) to find that at Abbatucci there’s tons of work in the cellar, racking, and other kinds of manipulations that contribute to the generally polished character of the wines. In search of something perhaps more like Tissot, he’d found Poly, and happily installed himself there on the weekends.

At dinner one evening in Corsica, Pierre opened a label-less bottle from a box of samples Poly had given him, and it turned out to be a cuvée called “Damianu” of Sciaccarellu made entirely without sulfur. This is a beautiful and expressive wine, amply garrigue-y on the nose, light to medium bodied with forrest floor and some slight and appealing funkiness. After an hour open, the wine becomes rose-y with flower-petal soft texture. I found a bottle at Chambers Street, and was happy to fall in love with it all over again once back in the states.

Sciaccarellu sans soufre.

Sciaccarellu sans soufre.

Once back in the states, I also tracked down the only white wine Sebastien Poly makes, which is Vermentino, and this (for me) is the real show-stopper. It’s full and lemon-y, suave, with a lingering finish, the rusticity of Italian white wine and the elegance of French … I don’t have a photo, but you can find the wine at Manhattan Wine Company, where the staff has created an extensive collection of Corsican gems.

To write or not to write is certainly a question, but to experience and become excited about new wines from new places is of the essence.

The second half of my recent trip to France was spent in the Loire Valley. I’d never travelled from Champagne to the Loire before. It was an interesting peregrination, full of contrast. Champagne is my spiritual home, but I’m fond of the Loire Valley as well. The people are laid back and kind, the vigneron culture is open-minded and open-hearted. The landscapes are subtly beautiful, the green woodsy, continental hills of Touraine, the misty plain of Saumur with its stark castle rising up from the river, the feeling — driving east to west — of nearing the Atlantic ocean, the city of Angers, so civilized, the bustling streets in the city center and the immense stone facade of the ancient castle. Yes it’s a nice place, the Loire Valley.

I imagine most of my peers prefer the Loire Valley to Champagne, and for valid reasons: it’s objectively prettier, with more organic farming, more biodiversity, more opportunity for outsiders and/or young people to move in and get started because the land is not excessively expensive; the vignerons are not business people the way most Champenois are; even the best wines are a hell of a lot cheaper than most Champagne. The vibe is different. There are fewer swank tasting rooms, and more dégustationat the kitchen counter with the kids running around, or in caves cut out of the rock with fuzzy molds carpeting the walls. There are fewer fancy clothes, more messed up teeth, a lazy eye here and there, more vignerons reaching like clockwork for a tobacco pouch. This is a less wealthy, and a more humble place than Champagne. Yes there are so many reasons to love the Loire Valley, before one has even nosed a glass of luscious Chenin Blanc.

Each time I visit the Loire I tell myself I’m going to plan better so as not to have to spend 2-4 hours a day in the car. The truth is that the Loire Valley, while relatively small in actual hectares planted to vine, is 170 miles long start to finish, which makes for a lot of driving. The vineyards follow the rivers, not just the Loire, itself, but the Indre, the Loir, the Cher, the smaller rivières that spider out from the major fleuve. Thinking I wouldn’t repeat my mistakes of the last 5 day stint in the Loire in 2014, I sat down with the map, a list of producers I’d be visiting, and tried to formulate a game plan that would save time, gas, and tolls.

Having decided to stay 3 days in Tours, and 2 days in Angers, I was relatively confident I could see 3 vignerons a day if need be. I was thwarted on the first day, when I misguidedly scheduled the morning in Montlouis, the early afternoon in Saumur Puy Notre Dame, and the evening in Vouvray (the reason I was kicking myself is that Vouvray and Montlouis are right next to each other; Saumur is 2 hours away, to drive from Montlouis to Saumur, and back to Vouvray is lunacy). And then, I allowed Hervé Grenier of Vallée Moray to talk me into staying for lunch. What was I thinking?!? I was late to my afternoon appointment, missed my later afternoon appointment, and spent 5 hours in the car that day. Getting off to a great start!

Lunch with Jean-Daniel, Hervé, Vincent, and their tractor.

Lunch with Jean-Daniel, Hervé, Vincent, and their tractor.

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Gamay in the fore and background.

On the other hand, I had a delicious outdoor lunch with the team from Vallée Moray, with 30 ares of Gamay behind me, a hectare of old vine Pinot planted on tuffeau off to my right, and a tractor in my peripheral vision. We drank a crystalline Gamay from the vineyard behind, crunchy, expressive, redolent of tiny berries.

The second day got off to a more auspicious start. I was on time to my meeting in Bourgeuil, in spite of a wasted 15 minutes in the morning trying to get the gas pump to take one of my credit cards, and Stéphane Guion took me through a vertical of delicious wines from Bourgeuil, culminating in a 1990, which we tasted in the cellar, spitting on the gravel floor, speaking about our friends in New York, David and Eben Lillie, the success of Racines NYC, Eben’s upcoming wine bar project. Thanks to David Lillie, I’ve been drinking these wines for years, and they deliver much pleasure and complexity. My heart goes out to Stéphane, whose crop suffered terribly the next morning due to a frost that swept the Loire Valley, hitting Chinon and Bourgeuil particularly hard.

A dozen Bourgeuils before lunch.

A dozen Bourgeuils before lunch.

That evening I went to Michel Autran’s home in Noizay (Vouvray appellation). This is a spiritual place, seemingly alive with everything that grows in the verdant Loire Valley, lilacs, wisteria draped over a pergola outside the door. We wandered around the garden for a few minutes looking at plants, the dusk heavy and sweet. In his previous life, Michel was a doctor. When I asked him why he changed professions after 20 years in medicine, he told me that being so close to death was very hard for him; it wore him down, and he decided to make a change.

Discussing the movement of the sap.

Discussing the movement of the sap.

Michel has 3.5 hectares of Chenin Blanc, which he began farming around 2010 after working for many top producers of Chenin including Saumon, Jousset, and François Pinon. Intensely thoughtful regarding every aspect of the operation from farming to bottling, he sings to his barrels; he makes at least 3 passes in the vines to ensure the grapes are ripe; he tastes constantly to follow the progress of his wines. He leaves the wines for nine months in cuve between barrel and bottling to erase any traces of woodiness from the handful of new barrels mixed in with the slightly older ones. In the cellar with Michel and a stagiaire from Jousset, we tasted almost every barrel of 2015, most just finishing their alcoholic fermentations, in succulent limbo between sweet and deeply rich and mineral.

You can't see him, but there was a friendly black cat warming my lap during our tasting.

You can’t see him, but there was a friendly black cat warming my lap during our tasting.

At the table in Michel’s kitchen, we migrated back and forth from 2013 to 2014 Les Enfers and Ciel Rouge, making observations about the wines, changing the subject, and back again. I came away with the impression of Les Enfers as a feminine wine, and Ciel Rouge as a masculine wine. Michel didn’t agree, but nodded as though he grasped why I might say such a thing. Enfers is silex; Ciel is clay. And yet each sip was different, and even as I formulated opinions of these wines, I changed them again. In general, Michel’s wines have incredible precision and clarity; they are wines that have a shape, beginning fine and subtle, with aromas of honeysuckle, middle broad, singing with tart apple and tangerine, and then tapering again to a finish of mouth-watering acidity and deliciously bitter agrumes. I’m not someone who can conjure up a nice fruit salad in describing wine, and I’ve never liked that style of pontificating anyway, finding myself — by the year — increasingly French in my lexicon. Fine, précis, mais rond au même temps, avec une belle fraîcheur en bouche, on gout le bois, mais pas trop. The French words come as easily as the English ones, and sometimes more easily.

I had the third day all figured out. After my morning tasting with Simon Tardieux in Thésée, I was going to drive to Saumur, run two quick laps around the island, change back into my pants in the car, and arrive on time to Bertin-Delatte at 4pm. I had only two visits that day, and Geneviève had told me not to come before 4 because the kids would be asleep. Wondering whether I’d get funny looks if I changed into my jogging shorts at a rest stop, I pulled up Simon’s email, surmising that I was close, but had gotten the house number wrong. “We’ll take a tour of the vines, and then we’ll taste the wines with lunch.” There it was, the dreaded word lunch. My heart sank. There would be no run; I’d likely be late to Bertin-Delatte, and my body and brain would be sluggish with food and wine for the rest of the day. But there was nothing to be done. While I could theoretically turn down a last minute lunch invitation under some creative pretext, an email invitation weeks previously was not to be trifled with.

Simon and I had a lovely long walk in the vines. He brought along his soil sampler and we took soil cross sections from all his vineyards, mixtures of clay, silex, limestone, and sand in varying ratios. He told me about the new plantations of Pineau D’Aunis, which made my heart sing. Our market is suffering a lack of D’Aunis these days, and, having worked with Catherine and Didier at Clos Roche Blanche, I felt confident Simon Tardieux could make a good one. We tasted the new wines outside the winery, and then packed up the bottles to bring with us to lunch at Simon’s house.

Looking at dirt.

Looking at dirt.

You probably know where this is going. Lunch with Simon and his girlfriend (Julienne?) turned out to be one of my fondest memories of the trip. We ate white asparagus from a local field in a sauce of creme fraîche with spring onions and lemon, followed by a tightly packed ball of game bird meat wrapped around the outside with fat, rice with lardons, and butter beans.

White asparagus, black plate, Pineau D'Aunis rosé.

White asparagus, black plate, Pineau D’Aunis rosé.

Then, of course: cheese. And finally, several stiff black coffees (and for Simon and Julienne, a chain of rollies). We talked about many things at lunch, tapping into something the French seem to value almost as much as the extended meal itself, namely the chance to speak animatedly and extensively about a variety of subjects. Topics ranged from Julienne’s desire to visit Hoboken, to my notion that the French have a stronger sense of patrimony than Americans, to Simon’s inability to talk to his neighbors about organic farming. It was almost impossible to pull myself away, and had Simon not had to go back to work, I might still be there now, listening to tales of their early days in social work before Simon became a vigneron and Julienne a local government administrator.

I arrived in Muscadet territory the next afternoon, at the end of my rope steering and shifting gears while searching google maps for addresses the gps wouldn’t find, mentally exhausted from speaking French day in and out, and ready to take a break from winery interiors. Yet when I met the kind, languid, and lanky Stéphane Orieux of Domaine Bregeonette, my brain revived.

Beach vines!

Beach vines!

Muscadet is not like the rest of the Loire. It feels much more coastal, warmer; the earth drier and sandier, the grass brushier; the houses are different, pale facades with brick red tiled roofs rather than ancient, gray rock. The sun was shining, thick, cotton-y clouds filling the sky as Stéphane and I walked around in his old vine, granite-soiled vineyard the Clos de Coudray. We talked about the new Crus of Muscadet, about how in a few years he’ll be able to make a Cru “Vallet” (the cluster of towns that make up his micro-terroir), but he must use vines planted on mica-schist as stipulated by the new AOC. While this movement is essential for elevating the region, there are some drawbacks: the long lees aging, the heavy bottles, and ugly modern labels so many classic producers are now adopting for their cuvées Extra Big Deal. These are interesting questions: how to elevate Muscadet, how to make Muscadet “serious” wine, how to make slightly more money for the farmers of Muscadet in order to keep the next generation invested in making wine here.

Stéphane with a magnum of 2012 Clos de Coudray.

Stéphane with a magnum of 2012 Clos de Coudray.

As beat as I was that afternoon, Stéphane’s seamless and invigorating wines, his pragmatic approach, his calm demeanor, made our hours together fly by.

 

It’s a welcome sensation that no matter how many times I come to Champagne and how many wines I taste, there is still so much to learn about this place, new farmers to meet, new terroirs to discover, new revelations to relish. Each time I visit, I’m struck by what an exciting time it is for the region. There’s much more organic farming happening than ever before (up from 1% when I started in the trade to 3-4% now; Roederer is working something like 1/4 of their land organically and soon their Tête de Cuvée ‘Crystal’ will be sourced entirely from biodynamic vineyards). A group clustered around long-time organic farmer Vincent Laval are adamantly petitioning the CIVC to outlaw herbicides. They hope to succeed by 2020. Climate change has brought riper vintages, but no lack of acidity for those who work their soils, which means balance at lower dosage.

This year's Terres et Vins t-shirt, concept by Raphaël Bérèche. Rough translation: "I put herbicides in my vineyard." "Asshole!'

This year’s Terres et Vins t-shirt, concept by Raphaël Bérèche. Rough translation: “I put herbicides in my vineyard.” “Asshole!’

If I had one criticism of Champagne, it would of course be the prices. There’s a disconnect between what my market wants to buy (something decent they can put on the retail shelf for $50 or under), and what the Champenois want to make (intense, single parcel wines made from their oldest wines, vinified in barrel, and aged on lees for twice as long as the requisite costing $100 and often much more on the retail shelf). When I think about Burgundy, how much those wines cost, how weird and corrupt it’s becoming there due to big money interests, I’m inclined to forgive the Champenois their wish to make something great out of their prestigious soils. We sometimes find ourselves trying to frame Champagne as a “value” wine in relation to Burgundy. This is in some sense valid given that the top of the line in Burgundy costs far more than a great bottle from Marguet or Laval, but Champagne remains a luxury product that people with humble salaries cannot afford to drink on a regular basis. We will keep trying to find value in Champagne; we promise.

But I didn’t start this post to comment on the price of Champagne. My first major revelation of the trip is that I’m back on board with rosé Champagne. I loved rosé Champagne about 8 years ago; then I gave up because so much rosé Champagne is less good and pricier than its white counterpart. I gave up because Champagne vignerons were telling me they make rosé for the market not for themselves, its own brand, like the crap people guzzle summer-long in New York. However, a few people I met this trip are making exquisite, authentic rosé.

Benoït used to call his brut non-vintage bottlings "Elements", but has recently changed the name to "Shaman".

Benoït used to call his brut non-vintage bottlings “Elements”, but has recently changed the name to “Shaman”.

Benoït Marguet has always made great rosé, and his 2012 Shaman is no exception. The wine is 2/3rds Chardonnay, and 1/3 Pinot, a blend that gives the rosé plenty of verve and vivacity from chalky Chardonnay, with richness and intensity from Pinot grown in the brawny Grand Cru of Ambonnay. Benoït uses 5-8% still red wine, and 3 grams of dosage because for him its psychologically challenging to make a Brut Zero Champagne. He does not use sulfur during any stage of the process, and the result is pure as the driven snow, onion skin color, like wild strawberries swimming in fresh cream with a rigid backbone of chalk, texturally stunning. This wine is usually obtainable for between $50 and $60 on a retail shelf, which is certainly a fair price for the wine.

Sébastian showing us the soil composition of his vineyards in Verzy.

Sébastian showing us the soil composition of his vineyards in Verzy.

Sébastian is the 9th generation Mouzon to farm vines in Verzy, and the 4th to bottle his own wine. He farms 7.5 hectares divided between roughly 50 plots, organically with biodynamic treatments. He is a lovely and talented young man whose wines get better every vintage; when we spend time with Sébastian, we feel that he’s incredibly passionate, but also kind and subtle, someone who loves to be in the vines, hands caked in dirt, sharing his love of what he does with those around him. My cohorts on the trip were kind enough to offer to chip in on some ares in Verzenay for a dowry if I wanted to marry him; I was touched.

"Incandescent" means to be aglow with ardor or purpose.

“Incandescent” means to be aglow with ardor or purpose.

In general the wines of Verzy are more delicate and elegant than those of Ambonnay. The vineyards face north and east rather than south, and the most mineral, acid-driven parcel Sébastian farms called “Les Coumaines” goes into his rosé “L’Incandescent”, which is a saignée of Pinot Noir from the 2012 vintage. It’s made 50% in barrel with an 18 hour maceration, giving it pale, luminous color, and ethereal whispers of aromatic red berries melding with the cashew note I typically find in Sébastian’s wines. The texture is suave, fine, and creamy. At 3.5 grams dosage, it’s a pretty, easy going wine, a wine made of joy, inviting the drinker to take another sip, and another, and another.

Moving south the Coteaux Sud d’Epernay, Aurélian Laherte has consistently made gorgeous saignée rosé from a plot of 80 year old Meunier called “Les Beaudiers”. This is a terroir of soft clay, sand, and chalk, fertile, warm, giving a meaty, fruity, savory wine, vinous, smelling sometimes of sausages and cheese (in the best possible way), always quite vinous with deep, ripe cherry fruit.

Aurélian's 2015 "Les Beaudiers" clearly expresses the fertility of this rich soil in the Coteaux Sud d'Epernay.

Aurélian’s 2015 “Les Beaudiers” clearly expresses the fertility of this rich soil in the Coteaux Sud d’Epernay.

Aurélian has recently crafted a new rosé of Pinot Meunier. Having been discontent for some time with his rosé “Tradition”, looking to make a wine he can be proud of, he did many experiments, and finally found a recipe that works. For the new rosé de Meunier, based on the 2012 and 2013 vintages, he used primarily grapes from Boursault in the Vallée de la Marne, the south side of the river. He did 30% maceration, used 10% still red wine, and 60% Meunier vinified white. This wine is vivid magenta in color with some of the sweet, bright cherry of Beaudiers, but less vinous and fruit forward on the palate, with more tangy sour fruit such as sumac and cranberry on the palate, a wine that is digeste as the French say … drinkable as Americans say. Words like “digestible” and “drinkable” may not sound like compliments, but they are. We mean that we keep coming back for more, the wines are energizing rather than exhausting, and amongst wine professionals, this is the greatest compliment one can pay; it’s like saying “instead of making a beeline for the nearest refreshing pilsner to renew my palate and soothe my teeth after countless tastes of enamel-stripping wine, I kept sipping the contents of my glass because it refreshed me”. Needless to say this new rosé from Aurélian is far better than the old.

Aurélian recently commissioned new labels for two of his wines and they are dead sexy.

Aurélian recently commissioned new labels for two of his wines and they are dead sexy.

Moving still further south, 2 hours by car, we come to a place so radically different from the Vallée de la Marne that it’s tough to think of it as “Champagne.” Historically, and I suppose financially, it makes sense that the Aube and the Marne are part of the same larger region, but the Aube has its own character, and feels utterly singular and distinct from its chic, wealthy neighbor to the north. The landscape is marked by green rolling hills; the parcels are bigger and it’s easier to farm organically; the soil is kimmeridgean limestone rather than chalk; grapes get riper; the list goes on.

Ruppert-Leroy is a remarkable domaine that deserves its own post, but since Bert Celce has recently written about them on Wine Terroirs, I’ll refrain for the moment. I’ve never met anyone in Champagne like Emmanuel Leroy, and I’m extremely proud and excited that MFW (“MF-double-V” as Emmanuel pronounced it) carries his wines in New York. This was the kind of gratifying visit that makes all the schmoozing and schlepping, the sacrifice of one’s liver and teeth, the pavement pounding and agonizing over sales worthwhile, the kind of visit you leave marveling, smiling wide, thinking “this is why I do what I do”.

A place full of life.

A place full of life.

Ruppert-Leroy’s Saignée de Cognaux is the most unusual cuvée in the lineup. Cognaux is a Pinot Noir vineyard with lots of gray clay and tiny sea shells, or coquillages. The soil here is very fertile and dotted all over with daffodils, which Emmanuel makes into a tisane to treat mildew. The vineyard is about 70 ares, certified biodynamic as of 2014. As in all the Essoyes plots we saw, there are patches of forrest cordoning off larger slopes and chunks of vineyard land, creating true biodiversity, something sensitive Marne growers crave but will never have.

Unlike most producers of rosé Champagne, Ruppert-Leroy has chosen to use a dark bottle rather than a clear one.

Unlike most producers of rosé Champagne, Ruppert-Leroy has chosen to use a dark bottle rather than a clear one.

The 2013 rosé macerated for four days with pumpovers; the grapes are de-stemmed only 25%, and fermentation is partial carbonic, which (as I learned from Olivier Horiot) is obligatory for Rosé de Ricey, not far from Essoyes. We nicknamed this wine “Cuvée Buck Wild” for its rustic, almost horse-y aromatic note, mingling with flavors of kirsch, amaro-like bitterness, spice, forest floor, and perfectly stunning, juicy red fruit that satisfies like a Gamay or very light Bourgogne Rouge. As of 2013, Emmanuel has stopped using sulfur completely, and so this wine has incredible vibrancy on the palate and finish. We took a bottle back to the gîtes to drink with our comrades, and they loved it.

I’ll try to write some more posts soon about the fantastic new treats this trip to Champagne has brought. A special thanks to my dear friends at Transatlantic Bubbles for allowing me, a second year in a row, to moonlight on their trip.

Interspersed within this post, which is essentially an update about my life (feel free to stop here; I won’t be offended), you’ll find photos of wines that have impressed me recently. There’s no theme, and no coherency; it’s a laundry list of wines that have blown my mind in the past few weeks. I’m cogitating over a more ambitious post having to do with branding, marketing, and the use of fat bottles with wax caps, increasingly ubiquitous in our world today, harmful to the environment, harmful to my body, adding nothing to the wine, but always something to its price … but I’ll save this for when I’ve gathered the data to make it an interesting piece.

A stunning dry Vouvray from former doctor turned winemaker Michel Autran. This is as mineral-driven and swoon-worthy a Chenin Blanc as I've tasted to date.

A stunning dry Vouvray from former doctor turned winemaker Michel Autran. This is as mineral-driven and swoon-worthy a Chenin Blanc as I’ve tasted to date.

It’s been a shamefully long time since my last post. I’d love to site lack of time as the reason, but it’s not. I’ve had pockets of free time, but have chosen to fill them with other activities: playing the piano, binge listening to an incredibly addictive podcast I’m sure most of you know called ‘Serial’ by the producers of ‘This American Life.’ My friends in Québec recommended this series, and it’s truly worth checking out. Season One tells the story of a high school murder that took place in Baltimore in 1999; Season Two tells the story of Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who was captured by the Taliban, and held in captivity for five years. The narratives are as different as the caste of characters, yet each series is powerful, and feels surprisingly germane to issues that flutter in the background of our experience of the world today, as Americans, as sentient, political creatures, etc … IMG_0881

I’ve also been reading a lot, as always. The New Yorker recommended High Dive, by Jonathan Lee, a British author living in Brooklyn. It’s a quasi-fictional rendering of an attempted assassination of Margaret Thatcher in 1984. The writing is exquisite: at times serious, at times funny, at times complex and at others deliciously simple. One rides waves of both sympathy for, and frustration with the characters, wishing the dad would bloody well stop smoking, also hoping he’ll get laid, wishing the daughter would go to college, while relating intimately to her desire not to, getting to know the handsome, sullen, young IRA bomb technician. I highly recommend this book.

Brouilly-esque Mencía from the granite soils of Riax Baixes. The wine is made by Albariño "wunderkind" Nanclares, partial whole-cluster, 100% astonishingly delicious.

Brouilly-esque Mencía from the granite soils of Riax Baixes. The wine is made by Albariño “wunderkind” Nanclares, partial whole-cluster, 100% astonishingly delicious.

 

Another reason I haven’t been writing is that I haven’t been traveling to distant lands to visit vineyards, and tell the stories of winemakers. Travel always inspires the most exciting posts; the posts that I imagine people actually want to read. The good news is that I’m leaving for France a week from tomorrow for the rest of the month: Champagne and Loire. So, there will be more writing to come, once I’ve got something to write about.

Rich méthode champenoise Chardonnay from 2012 meets lean Pinot Noir from the Columbia Gorge. These are my two favorite American sparkling wines to date.

Rich méthode champenoise Chardonnay from 2012 meets lean 2010 Pinot Noir from the Columbia Gorge. These are my two favorite American sparkling wines to date.

 

The final reason I haven’t been writing is sort of abstract and psychologically complex, but I’m going to delve into it anyhow.

I used to be a buyer at Chambers Street Wines; I bought there for a long time, and I loved it, sending email blasts, curating a section. As many of you know, I loved my Champagne section as though it were my child (that’s extreme, maybe more like a pet … ). I say this from experience: being a wine buyer (shop or restaurant) is all about ego. This isn’t to say buyers are egotistical, rather that the act of curation of a shelf or a list, requires that one say “my palate is informed; my palate is good; you, dear customer, should trust me to steer you to something great, something you’ll like.” (Incidentally, being a wine importer is also about ego, and for some of the same reasons, but I won’t say more on that score today.) Being a sales rep, however, involves large scale sublimation of ego. This role entails putting one’s own tastes on the way back burner in order to discover what the buyer wants and needs. It’s not so much that reps don’t have egos as that those egos often stay bottled up and buried in order to get the job done. One doesn’t always feel the buyer is right, but one realizes that the buyer is always the buyer.

Bottle fermented Lambrusco di Sorbara, pale pink, frothy, and unapologetically acidic, salty, and made to pierce through the humidity of August, or the fat of salumi.

Bottle fermented Lambrusco di Sorbara, pale pink, frothy, and unapologetically acidic, salty, and made to pierce through the humidity of August, or the fat of salumi.

Anecdotally, yesterday I arrived at an appointment to find a Martin Scott rep and an Argentine brand ambassador tasting with the buyer. We shook hands, and the Martin Scott rep, tall, well-dressed, in his late 40s maybe, old school, asked me if I’d worked with the previous buyer at this shop. I replied in the negative; Martin Scott went on to tell me that the previous buyer had switched to wholesale: “bet he’s having quite a time — hahahaha — on the other side now, right? The tables have turned — hahahaha — you ever been a buyer? Pretty different working the streets, right?” The Argentine Brand Ambassador interrogated me about MFW, and pressed a card into my hand, telling me she’s always looking to “place new brands” with good people. I smiled — tight-lipped — and told her I’d “reach out” (yeah right).

The point here is merely that being a buyer and being a sales person require radically different relationships to one’s own ego. And I feel I’ve internalized this a bit over the past few months, to the extent that I less often feel like expressing an opinion, asserting my palate; my default mode is becoming to let my opinion sink into the background, to see given wines literally as their utility to buyers, rather than as objects of scrutiny to be labelled “great”, “terrible”, or — most often — somewhere in the middle.

Perhaps unfortunately, but maybe not, wine blogging is also all about ego, and as long as my ego is in remission — practicing a new skill — a runner learning to do yoga — there’s a good chance I’ll be writing less, and playing the piano more, listening to podcasts and reading books.

Mar
12

Medici.

The other day I chucked a bottle in my bag at the last minute from an Oregon estate I know nothing about by the name of Holden. It was a sample Molly left with me before she took flight, from the Medici vineyard, with an odd, twee label, the kind that says nothing about the contents of the bottle, at a standard price point for Oregon Pinot, far from cheap, but hardly expensive either. I was headed out to see one of my top American wine customers, and threw the bottle in for fun thinking “when else will I crack this?”IMG_0802

I uncorked the bottle and rinsed two glasses with wine to get rid of the dishwasher taint. The sun was shining, the weather warm for the first time in months. My customer had just received his New York Times review, and was in a sparkly good mood. I’d slept the sleep of angels, and the West Village streets were bathed in the soft glow of spring sunlight.

I poured the wine. It was Poulsard pale; “Woah” my customer and I uttered simultaneously. “Do you think there’s something wrong?” I wondered aloud. “Look at the alcohol” my customer pointed to the back label. 10.9%. Okay, there’s probably nothing wrong; it’s just an unusual expression of Oregon Pinot. We swirled, sniffed, swished, spat, looked at one another. “This is — like — something I would drink … but I’m just not sure I can serve it.” I nodded in agreement. “I just feel like people expect something different when they order Oregon Pinot.” For sure … more color, more structure, more extraction, not necessarily more fruit, but fruit of a darker hue, and more obvious character. It’d be like expecting Bad Company, and instead getting Steely Dan, intricate and subtle sounds, just not the anticipated ones. Returning the bottle to its padded slot, I went about my day.

At home a few hours later I popped the open Medici into my fridge. An hour or two passed, glued to the computer screen, before I pulled her out and poured a taste. The aromatics were explosive: sumac and tarragon, thyme, ripe raspberry. “Holy shit” I murmured aloud to the black cat, Toro, gazing at me, head-cocked inquisitive, “I love this wine.” (Yes, I talk to the cats.) On the palate, the wine was sweet-toned with the warmth of Oregon, but the body of Jura. There was something so immanently gulp-able about this juice, so charming, so spring-like, virtually without tannins, but not lacking its own unique complexity. Even the color, which I’d initially found anemic, now gleamed … comme une jolie verre de Poulsard I thought, and then chastised myself for trying to put it in a familiar box without giving the wine a proper chance to stand on its own merits.  

Referring back to Michael Wheeler’s email about this juice, I thought about what was at play in the bottle. First email: “They went for … LIGHT” Yeah. No shit. Second email “It’s cool if it sells!” Well, yes. Embedded in the second email were the clues to what makes this wine magical. The grapes were planted in 1976, at a steep 1,000 feet elevation. And crucially, they are not the standard issue Dijon clone widely planted across Oregon. This is the Pommard clone of Pinot. I’d been talking to Scott Frank of Bow and Arrow about this clone (his superb Pinot “Hughes Hollow” is also the Pommard clone). Apparently most growers in Oregon chose (or perhaps still choose) the Dijon clone because it promotes ripeness. In 2016, however, we have climate change, which has begotten some hot, dry vintages, vintages in which promoting ripeness may be less important than preserving acidity. In 2016, our thirst for delicate red wine that we can serve chilled and guzzle remorselessly is insatiable, and exactly what this bottle delivered.

I cobbled together the typical Tuesday night repast: cheese toast and salad, beginning with the best bread of all time: the roasted potato loaf from High Street on Hudson. I slathered some pesto, and then applied a thin layer of ham followed by Prairie Breeze cheddar. While cheddar was melting under the broiler, I put my hands in a bowl of salad: greens and purple carrot simply dressed with olive oil and ramp vinegar. Picking up a book (after washing my hands), shooing the cat from my lap for the umpteenth time, “all’s right with the world,” I thought.IMG_0805

The next morning, I’d begin to ponder how to sell it, how to push people beyond their Oregon Pinot comfort zone, how to convince my customers of its myriad charms, but for the moment, I was merely happy to be drinking the wine … and at the end of the day (literally and figuratively) that’s the best compliment one can pay to a bottle of fermented grape juice.

 

As is often the case after I’ve been shooting the breeze with Étienne Guérin, I found myself introspecting, not just during the conversations (two are referenced, one strolling through Williamsburg from Hotel Delmano to our respective homes, and one sitting at The Four Horsemen over an exquisite bottle of 2011 Courtois les Racines and plate of fine steak tartare), but long afterward as well. Walking home from Delmano, we were talking about what brings us joy in wine. It’s not the unicorns; it’s not the expensive bottles; it’s certainly not the bragging rights and social media opportunities that attend opening hard to come by and/or costly bottles. In fact it’s generally the company the wine keeps at the table in terms of both foods and humans that make a great wine experience. Étienne said, and doubtless most of us will agree, that there is no greater pleasure than sharing a tasty bottle with friends, or a lover, or both, over conversation and — usually but by no means always — food.

This type of statement can seem to imply that whether or not the wine is good, well-made, soulful doesn’t matter as long as the company’s up to snuff. But that’s not what I’m saying. It’s more that chances are — after a decade in the business (more in Étienne’s case) — it’s likely the wine is decent if it’s found its way into our glasses (if it’s not, simply open something else, or make a cup of tea), and then we are free to let the joy of drinking and dining with friends and loved ones wash over us. We’re free to stop analyzing the wine, to start griping about Donald Trump’s campaign, the epic failure of the Carolina Panthers in last week’s Super Bowl game, the bone chilling temperatures we’re presently experiencing in these parts, or — a favorite of mine — our f–ked up health care system!

McCarren Park during our 3 feet of snow a few weeks ago.

McCarren Park during our 3 feet of snow a few weeks ago.

In our conversation at The Four Horsemen, Étienne told me that, on the verge of a big birthday, he’d been assessing his tenure in wine and restaurants, trying to figure out what to make of it and where to go next, trying to figure out how better to seize the day. Étienne’s lack of complacency when it comes to life has inspired me since we got to know one another. I’d been feeling the same way, though professionally I’m not looking to go anywhere; I’m quite happy where I am, I’d been realizing that I’ve arrived at a certain place of relative confidence and comfort within the industry and am beginning to ask “what can I do to make this better, to improve my work life balance, to branch out and grow, to continue to learn?”

IMG_0574

An ideal way to spend a few cold, winter evenings.

Lots of my close friends in New York who work in wine are sharing these sentiments, which is further proof that we’ve been kicking around the scene for quite awhile! Ariana mentioned that she’s retrieving her cello from her mom’s house in Wisconsin. I took this as a sure sign that she’s seeking aesthetic fulfillment beyond wine, going back to a pass time that fulfilled her before her very first sip of Grenache. Rosemary’s been reading extensively about religion and spirituality, and learning to concoct crazy teas and herbal remedies. Personally, I’m reviving my Clair de Lune, one of the most beautiful pieces ever written for the piano, challenging for an amateur, composed in an odd key and time signature, full of impressionist era chords and undulations that make it damn hard to learn (or in my case re-learn; I learned this piece for the first time when I was 14, and, in competition, received the highest accolades. “It floats” the judge wrote of my Clair de Lune; this piece is as dear to my heart as Lahaye’s Violaine, and it bothers me on a regular basis that they used it in the finale of that terrible Brad Pitt/George Cluny movie about the casino robbery). But I digress. The point is: when we first got into this, there was no life outside wine, and now we find ourselves crying out for a life outside wine.

IMG_0567

Skillful wine and food harmonies courtesy of Dean Fuerth, wine director at Betony.

Within the professional realm, since I started with MFW, learning about wines that aren’t French has been a huge source of enjoyment and personal growth. On Friday, at Ariana’s invitation, I went to dinner at Betony (this restaurant is incredible, by the way …) to drink wines from Priorat. I learned long ago that it’s wise to accept Ariana’s invitations and this was no exception. Made by a Bavarian ex-pat named Dominik Huber who moved to Torroja (population 102) in Priorat in the late 1990s, these wines were astonishingly good. The whites are blends of Pedro Ximenez, Grenache Blanc, with small portions of Macabeu and Muscat; the reds of Carignan and Grenache. The elevations are relatively high, up to 700 meters, I believe Dominik said, and the soils are slate, schist, gypsum.

Two white wines, Terra de Cuques and Pedra de Guix were served alongside a delicate poached tile fish atop celery and large grained tapioca with a froth of Fumet Blanc nestling in the nooks and crannies. Cuques (“land of the firefly”) is 10% Muscat and 90% PX, picked early and vinified whole cluster. It’s aromatic and immediately pleasurable, phenolic and honeyed and waxy in the way of  Loire Valley Chenin or White Burgundy without tasting like either … Guix “Gypsum Stone” is Grenache Blanc and Macabeu from very old vines. Served in a Burgundy bowl, the wine was initially more closed than the Cuques, but opened to reveal aromas, flavors, and minerality on the finish the likes of which I’ve never tasted before. Cedar, balsam wood, preserved lemon, saline, the wine was surreal in its complexity and length on the palate. It was the bottle I kept dodging back to during our post prandial chatting to see if there was a drop more to be squeezed out.

Three reds were served with winter mushrooms and barley swimming in a sort of broth of mushroom and Sencha tea. All were excellent; my favorite was L’Arbossar from a steep, old vineyard of Carignan planted on slate, raised in Austrian Stockinger barrels.

I would eat this every day of my life if I could.

I would eat this every day of my life if I could.

We finished with two thought provoking heavy hitters: Les Manyes and Les Tosses. Manyes comes from red clay and gypsum soils, and is made of Grenache. This wine prompted Dominik’s importer Eric Solomon to refer to Grenache as “the Pinot Noir of the south”, a statement that at first gave me pause, but the more Manyes started to taste like Bonnes-Mares, the more I was convinced. Dominik commented that he’d been inspired by Chateau Rayas (I mean … aren’t we all?), and hoped to make something along those lines out of Grenache … This was very sensual wine, full of garrigue and sweet, ripe, succulent red fruit. Its foil in every way, Tosses is from 100 year old Carignan vines planted in a hot vineyard of black slate soil. Dark, brooding, impenetrable, the wine was perfectly at home with grilled short rib and broccoli rabe, a dish that brought out the wine’s compelling peppery bitterness and structure to perfection.

Who knew short rib could take this format?

Who knew short rib could take this format?

Several guests commented as the evening drew to a close that it was one of the best wine events they’d ever attended, and I agree. Who knows? Maybe next time you hear from me I’ll be learning to play jazz and drinking Touriga National … stranger things have happened …

 

January 4th of 2016 brought the start of a new job as sales person for MFW Wine Co. There’s a certain rightness to this. MF and I have been friends since my Astor days when he used to stop by to pick up bottles. We’ve been collaborating since my Chambers Street days when hushed conversations in the rain outside the store allowed us to share the blame for a reduced Agrapart allocation. When I crashed MF’s portfolio tasting in August of last year, I found myself thinking he’d built, in a relatively short period of time, one of the best books in the city. We have a long-standing professional relationship coming to fruition this year. He’s a talented, straight-shooting guy who, while he’ll talk your ear off, never minces words when it comes to the things that matter. I have much respect for, and much to learn from this person.

My new business card.

My new business card.

That said, the past two weeks have been tough. Maybe partly because I was in North Carolina over Christmas, where the weather was unseasonably warm and languorous, where we sat outside drinking Clos Roche Sauvignon well into the night, where I lay in my childhood bed in the loft, listening to the rain, surrounded by trees, not a truck engine to be heard, where the most involved daily task was making dinner for my grandma, where life seems infinitely more tranquil. I came back to New York just before New Years, and winter had arrived. Suddenly life became incredibly busy, full of new wines, new buyers, days of walking 5 miles or more, in the cold, with a bag of wine and an aching back, new data forcing its way in, in a constant stream via email, phone, text message … chaos encroaching with only a spreadsheet and a frigid run to keep it at bay …

On day 2, I realized that picking up the thread of my predecessors’ relationships was going to be hard as hell. “A business of relationships” is a stock phrase in our trade, and it couldn’t be more true. If a buyer had a great relationship with the previous rep, I’d be, in comparison, less amusing, less timely, less familiar with their tastes, less likely to protect them on stock, more likely to botch their orders. Yet if the buyer had a terrible relationship with the previous rep, I’d never get my foot in the door. These thoughts stampeded through my brain, mainly in the middle of the night when I should have been sleeping but couldn’t.

On day 3, I realized that MF in his infinite wisdom had given me an account list of incredible buyers, kind, professional, respectful people who know how to state their needs clearly, buyers who seem willing, even excited to work with me, buyers who would help me help them. I still couldn’t sleep through the night, but I breathed a little easier. Things didn’t calm down, but the future seemed brighter.

Round about day 5 I started to get really excited about the wines. The excitement had been building all week, starting when we cracked Scott Frank’s Melon de Bourgogne from the Johan Vineyard in Oregon, lemony fresh and sheer, not like a Muscadet, but like Melon in all its varietal glory, a pretty wine with a great finish, a wine that spoke of its place and its maker in all the right ways.

Scott's Melon.

Scott’s Melon.

One of the reasons I took this job was to learn about wines that aren’t French. For the past half dozen years I’ve been more or less myopic (and snobby) about French wine, specializing, traveling, meeting the vignerons, learning the language, and I plan to keep doing those things … But what about Italy, Spain, Austria, and even the US, my own country whose wines I’ve historically rejected on the grounds of being too hot, too jammy, too expensive, etc … ? It turns out these things aren’t true anymore. It turns out there are many wines from other countries that I’d like to drink and to know like the back of my hand, the way I know Champagnes from Benoït Lahaye, and Chardonnays from Stéphane Tissot.

Molly Madden and I were out roaming the streets on day 5. Mauro Franchino Gattinara 2009 was in the bag. This wine is incredible. From a tiny, old school domaine of (I think) 3 hectares, made of 100% Spanna, unusual for Gattinara, which normally comprises Croatina and Vespolina as well, this wine was so elegant, so totally without spoof, just gorgeous old school Nebbiolo that left a wash of mouth-coating tannins in its wake with each sip.

Molly Fuckin' Madden

Molly Fuckin’ Madden

Week 2 has brought a fresh slew of surprises. A few nights ago I drank a glass of Bobal from the Jose Pastor portfolio, from a domaine called Vera de Estenas. This wine comes from D.O. Utiel-Requena, the hot soil of Valencia, yet it maintained remarkably fresh acidity, had a touch of lactic, caramel-y wood that felt soulfully Spanish, a rusty, ironic edge. This inexpensive little Spanish wine took me completely out of my vinous comfort zone, and I loved it.

The one on the right's the Bobal; the other is Gregory Perez's Mencia from Bierzo.

The one on the right’s the Bobal; the other is Gregory Perez’s Mencia from Bierzo.

And so, yes, it’s been a trying two weeks, but I pride myself on expectation management. The start of a new job is always tough, and this is no exception. Fortunately, I love challenges, as any human who has ever relocated to New York City from a smaller place can attest. There’s a brutality and masochism to life here that resonates with certain types of people … until they (we?) decide they (we?) have had enough, and make a bee line for calmer pastures, and a more relaxed lifestyle. There’s addictive, infectious energy and vast possibility here. Our lifestyle caters to the ambitious. Ever since I moved here, I’ve entertained the notion of going home to North Carolina, but every time I tell myself “not ’til I’ve made it to the top,” whatever that means …

Two disclaimers: 1) Grand Jury is a “secret proceeding” therefore I won’t speak about any of the specifics of the cases, 2) there is nothing about wine in this post.

In late August I was summoned to 320 Jay Street, the Supreme Court of King’s County (that’s Brooklyn), for Grand Jury. The back of the summons stated that failure to appear is punishable by a month in jail or a $1,000 fine. So I went. On the appointed morning, I passed through metal detectors and up a flight of stairs to a giant room filled about 1/8th with other humans of various colors, shapes, sizes, and ages. At around 9am, the head bailiff began his spiel: Grand Jury is not the same as Trial Jury. Trial jury is 12 people, listening to testimony on one case, and deciding whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. Grand jury is 23 people at most, 16 people at the least (this is called a “quorum”), deciding whether there’s enough evidence for the defendant to be indicted. A Grand Jury panel can last from two weeks to a year. On the day I was summoned, the casting directors were auditioning for several two week Grand Juries, and one four week Grand Jury. That is: all day, Monday through Friday, 9:30am until testimony is done for the day. He warned us that basically nothing would get us out of serving on the Grand Jury, so there was no point in citing our jobs, our travel plans, our school work, etc., as reasons for exemption. The good news is: if your job won’t pay you while you’re on Jury Duty, the state of New York will … at the rate of $40/day. The only way to get out of Grand Jury is to prove you are the primary caretaker of a child or an elderly person.

In late August, I was about to begin working at Rosenthal Wine Merchant, and Grand Jury service was going to royally mess things up. So, I took a deferral. I showed the bailiff my plane ticket to France, begged and pleaded. He asked if there was another time I could serve, and I told him December, when wine schnooks are basically supposed to sit back, pajama-clad, with a cup of tea in hand, raking in the cash. If I had to serve, might as well do it in December.

Mid-November I received a second Grand Jury summons, requesting my appearance on Friday December 4th. In mid-November, I was living the dream, on a two month sabbatical. I’d left Rosenthal, and was working part time at Vine Wine, selling bottles to people for their dinners and parties, getting back to the satisfying basics of wine retail, doing some casual brand ambast-ing for my friends at Transatlantic Bubbles, flipping great grower Champagne, running, pouring tastings for my friends, riding my bike, going to as many pilates classes as I could. For two short months before beginning at MFW Wine Co. in 2016, I was chilling, and, selfishly, I really did not want to do Jury Duty. And yet I couldn’t come up with a way out of it, save not to show up for the summons, which felt like the wrong solution.

So, there I was a second time at the Supreme Court of King’s Country. I arrived late, intentionally, thinking there was no need to listen to the bailiff, once again, perform his rudimentary language test of the candidates who try to get out of Grand Jury by claiming not to speak English. (Bailiff asks non English speakers to form a line in front of the desk, and then barks at them “if you don’t speak English, do you mind telling me HOW IN THE HELL YOU KNEW WHAT I WAS SAYING WHEN I TOLD YOU TO COME UP HERE?” Audience titters, cowering and confused Asian and Hispanic Americans return to their seats like children after a visit to the principal’s office.)

Predictably, I was chosen for a two week long Grand Jury panel, December 7th through December 18th. My heart sank, but then I began, perversely, to look forward to it. Sure it would mean I’d be up at 6am every morning to run, and some days I’d head directly to the wine shop from the court house, finally arriving home at 10:30 at night, a 13 hour day. Sure it would mean over two weeks with no days off, but I would also see and experience something totally new and different, and, frankly, that’s rare in life.

Bright and early the following Monday I reported to the court house, juror badge in hand, lunch packed, bike neatly locked in full view of at least three police officers.The first morning was largely devoted to learning the rules and the format of our task for the next two weeks. (The weather was gorgeous that day, and I found this view of lower Manhattan.) IMG_0326

Grand Jury proceedings follow roughly the same format: an ADA (“assistant district attorney”) presents evidence in the form of witness testimony, lab reports, police testimony, etc … often over a period of several days. At the end of each presentation, the ADA asks that the members of the Grand Jury not deliberate yet because more evidence will be forthcoming as well as “charges on the law”.  For each case (“the people of New York versus (defendant’s name)”), the ADA acts as a legal advisor, informing the jurors about legal terms that apply, presenting any questions the jurors may have to the witnesses, helping the jurors keep the cases straight. There’s a lot of evidence “marshaling”. This is when the ADA reminds the jurors of previous testimony. Each instance of marshaling is prefaced by the same curative “before I marshal the evidence, let me remind the Grand Jury that nothing I say constitutes evidence or has any probative value; you must rely on your own recollection because it is your recollection, and not mine, that controls.” I heard this piece of legalese so many times that it is etched in my brain. When all evidence has been presented, the ADA reads out the charges, and the Grand Jury begins its deliberation.

Unlike in Trial Jury, where the jurors have to come to consensus, Grand Jury requires only a vote of 12 for either a “true bill” (indictment), or dismissal of each count. The caveat here is that the 12 who vote must have heard all the testimony; if you were out a day, or were late coming back from lunch, and missed a presentation, you couldn’t vote on that case. So that’s 23 on the Grand Jury, a quorum (16) to hear testimony and charges on the law, and a vote of 12 or more for either indictment or dismissal.

Another major difference between Grand Jury and Trial Jury is the legal standard applied. In Grand Jury, the standard is “legally sufficient evidence, and reasonable cause to believe” the person committed the crime, which is far more relaxed than the standard applied in Trial Jury. In other words, it was not our job to decide whether defendant X in fact held up witness Y at gun point and took her phone and pocket book, rather to decide whether a combination of (for example) evidence from the officer who arrested the defendant, evidence from the victim, a police lineup in which she picked him out, plus a lab proving the gun was loaded and operable, is enough to return a true bill on various charges of robbery and weapons possession. I observed that it was difficult for many of the jurors (including myself) to wrap our heads around the fact that we were not supposed to determine guilt or innocence.

It’s rare for a defendant to testify in front of the Grand Jury. If a defendant does testify, he or she must have their defense attorney present, but silent. In the few cases we saw in which a defendant testified, he made a statement, and was then cross examined by the ADA, verbally bullying and beating him up a bit, looking for holes in his story that might expose him as an untrustworthy narrator of the events. (I use “he/him” because out of 35 cases, we had 2 female defendants, and neither testified.) It was exciting when a defendant testified, and defendant testimony seemed to be highly effective in swaying us from our original intentions. As I recall, our most heated deliberations took place over cases in which a defendant had testified.

And what about the cases themselves (non-specifically)? All were felonies: assault, weapons, robbery, burglary, DUI, drugs, and a handful of random outliers such as arson and driving on sidewalks. The highest volume were weapons related. It’s my understanding that, in New York, unless you’re an officer of the law, it is illegal to carry a loaded firearm outside of one’s own home or place of business. This is a relief. It’s so easy to get guns in this country, and New York is such a massive, angry place. It would be the wild west if people were legally allowed to carry loaded handguns in New York. I began to appreciate what a colossal effort it must be to keep guns off the street in our city.

Most of the cases were not too terribly serious, but a couple of them were extremely disturbing. Exactly halfway through our two week session, at 5:15 on a Friday afternoon, we heard testimony in a domestic violence case that made my skin crawl, and left virtually single juror speechless with sadness. In a daze going home, I stopped at my local sundries shop in east Williamsburg and bought a beer, which I drank as I walked home from the train, without even a paper bag, shoveling some chips in my mouth every couple of blocks.IMG_0349

Once home and settled, I tried to sip a glass of what would on another night have been a delicious bottle of wine, but the wine tasted empty, and brought me down rather than up. It had the taste of privilege and bourgeois life, in such stark contrast to the violence, the misery I’d seen at the court house that evening. Perhaps I should have felt lucky, and I did, but there was a pall, a blueness that lingered and made it virtually impossible for me to throw my heart into selling wine.

We heard numerous testimonies from people who had been held up at gun point (or what they thought was gun point; there are separate terms and charges for pretending to have a gun. The legal concept for faking a gun is called “Baskerville”.) I found all of these testimonies frightening, and was amazed at the witnesses who kept their cool in the face of a potentially loaded Smith and Wesson. (I got a lot more conversant with gun brands and terminology.) We heard testimony from many, many Brooklyn police officers, a slice of the population I would have been hard pressed to say good things about prior to Jury Duty. For the past couple of years my experience with police officers has consisted of them giving me tickets on my bike, and them failing to respond to noise complaints against the motorcycle gang that operates out of a roll down on our street. Let’s just say I was not in a cordial place regarding the NYPD when I began this gig. And yet, I warmed to the cops, their thick Brooklyn drawl, their particular way of drawing out the “o” in “officer” while leaving off the “r” entirely (“Ima a police Wuoh-ffice-uh” ina 72nd precinct”). I found myself thankful for their protection, and respectful of their efforts.

The single most disturbing thing about Jury Duty was the racial composition of the defendant pool. I’ve been keeping up with a series of articles in the New Yorker about racial bias in our justice system, how many young men with dark skin we prosecute and incarcerate annually. I found these stories and statistics shocking, and yet here they were being born out! Almost all our defendants were hispanic or black, as though white people don’t commit crimes, or don’t get prosecuted when they do. It’s tough to know what to do with this information, because the ADAs do a rollicking good job convincing you that these guys should be indicted. We want a safe city; we don’t want guns and heroin, and drunk drivers roaming the street, and yet, bleeding heart liberal that I am, I voted to dismiss lesser charges more regularly than most of my follow jurors, pretty much any time I didn’t feel the ADA had presented sufficient evidence for a case, and even occasionally when I straight up thought the ADA was a tool.

(A few words about the ADAs we came to know: Most of them were about 25 years old. Presentations to the Grand Jury are one of the first rungs on the DA ladder, and thus sixty or more bright-eyed, young lawyers were swarming about the 16th floor of the courthouse, attending the same holiday parties, flirting with court recorders, tagging along at one another’s presentations, complaining about the same hangovers, and coming in one at a time to present, reading their scripts to the Grand Jury from well-thumbed law text books in a disinterested monotone. Some ADAs were better than others. Then again, the same could be said for us jurors.)

The second week of Grand Jury, a juror who had been quite vocal throughout, told us he’d been dining the previous night with a lawyer friend, and had learned that the vast majority of the cases we were seeing would never go to trial. There’d be an extensive plea bargaining phase, the book would be thrown, and most of these defendants would never have the chance to demonstrate innocence in front of a Trial Jury. They’d do time, and be spit out on the other side, no less likely to commit a crime than before they’d entered the penal system. In fact, many of our 35 defendants already had criminal records. This made me want, with every fiber of my being, to dismiss charges. Our system is clearly messed up; there’s racial bias left, right, and center. In many cases, police officers seemed to have pulled people over in their cars with basically no cause or provocation, save that the people inside had dark skin, and were cruising through a rough neighborhood late at night. We were not allowed to raise questions of police procedure, and every time a juror attempted to, he or she was silenced on the grounds that only judges have this right.

I was intensely proud of us the handful of times we dismissed charges: against a junkie being charged with intent to sell, against a high school girl for a robbery there was essentially no evidence she’d committed. There was pride in making some small statement against this messed up system. These instances were rare; we indicted almost everyone.

The work day for a Grand Juror begins at 9:30. However, often the first testimony of the day isn’t heard until around 10:30, which leaves an hour of sitting around the court room, sipping coffee, reading the New Yorker, and chatting. We were a motley assortment, and I enjoyed getting to know my fellow jurors. I’d been elected as “assistant foreperson”, which meant that on the day our head foreperson was out, I got to sit in the big, judge’s chair and swear in the witnesses. That was exciting! But for the most part I sat at a separate desk along side our secretary, a quick-witted, sarcastic female journalist about my age. At 1pm or so, the Grand Jury breaks for lunch. Having totally abandoned the idea that I’d find good coffee around the supreme court, I took to wandering the Fulton Street mall, a heinous array of factory stores, shoe shops, fake pashmina scarf vendors, etc. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, it was a mob scene every day. I found myself more than once driven out of a store after thirty seconds by The Jackson Five’s rendition of ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’. My best find was the Nieman Marcus Last Call Studio.IMG_0353

The music was tolerable, and there were many good deals to be found. I almost bought myself a fake fur vest and a pair of high heeled booties, but chickened out at the last minute.

My last afternoon wandering around, I found Consolidated Edison erecting a large menorah: IMG_0331

To a soundtrack of electro-klezmer music, with a young inspirational speaker out front trying (without success) to drum up interest in the proceedings. That day I was feeling quite proud to live in Brooklyn, as though having done my time at the Supreme Court I could finally think of myself as an inhabitant of this place, so different than where I’m from in rural North Carolina. I stopped to look at the menorah; I took a few shoddy pictures, and then went back to the 16th floor for the last time.

If you get summoned, I suggest you go. It was an edifying experience that took me out of my comfort zone, brought perspective to my reality, brought me in contact with slices of the Brooklyn population beyond the 20, 30, and 40 something year-old professional people, transplanted from other parts of the US, who make up my standard sphere, jerked me out of my myopia, made me want to participate a little more fully and actively in society and politics, not to mention this strange, vast city in which I’ve been vacationing, tuned out, for the past eight years of my life.