Sophie's Glass

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?”

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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.

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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.

Seated at a table across from Molly Madden, jazz vocalist and sales rep for MFW Wine Co, surveying a packed steakhouse, sipping Muscadet from Landron-Chartier, I wondered how on earth Étienne Guérin, wine director and classical guitarist, was planning to intersperse Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A Major, with blinis and trout quenelles. Appetizers materialized at the table, Muscadet flowed, and eventually Etienne took the make shift stage where a shiny grand Yamaha had been stationed for the occasion. He told us the history of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, a piece originally written for the 19th century “arpeggione” an instrument fretted like a guitar but played with a bow. Étienne had transposed the piece for guitar, and performed it alongside violist Kristina Giles (not, to my knowledge, a wine professional). The delicate bowing and plucking of fingers, dancing over strings held us captive. I (and the rest of the audience) became lost in the music.IMG_0137

After a thunderous round of applause, trout quenelles in a creamy pink sauce arrived at the table alongside glasses of Franken Silvaner from Von Schönborn. And then Truite Au Bleu: whole trout, rare in the middle and smothered in tartar sauce. Following the main courses, a group of chamber musicians called “The Colonials” performed Schubert’s Trout Quintet … with a few avant garde improvisations spicing up the Andantino-Allegretto movement. The music was revelatory, as was the meal. It was an unusual hybrid of concert and wine dinner, born out of Étienne’s passion. During the quintet, I meandered down synaptic highways and byways, coming back time and again to the same thought: there are so many musicians and musical types in the wine business. Why?IMG_0139

I was a musician once, long ago. For a few years in high school, I believed it was my destiny to be a classical pianist. Then I went to a summer session at the Oberlin Conservatory and realized I didn’t have the drive, the stuffing, the ambition, the talent. MFK Fisher begins The Gastronomical Me with a quotation from philosopher George Santayana: “To be happy you must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world.” I took the measure of my powers at age seventeen, and found I did not have the discipline to be a professional pianist, and thus began to learn my place in a world that thankfully includes wine. And now, years after the sad yearning and disappointment in myself for not fulfilling my potential as a musician has worn off, high quality of life means enough hours in the week to play my weighted keyboard, the closest thing to a piano I can fit in my home without having to get rid of my bed. Playing never fails to bring joy into my heart and beauty into my life, even if my only audience is the cats.IMG_0193

With these thoughts in mind, I set out to try to discover the greater, intangible connections between music and wine, running down a long list of people I know beyond casual acquaintanceship who are involved in music in one way or another: winemakers who DJ, sales reps who sing opera, wine shop clerks who play in bands, wine directors who pluck strings, sales reps who run record shops, the list goes on. The types of engagement are as various as the personalities, and I believe wine professionals whether or not they create it, are uniquely and strongly bonded to music. I decided to ask some questions of my community, and to try to get to the bottom of the synergy between wine and music.

I was unsurprised to hear a handful of rebirth narratives not unlike my own, wherein the musician discovers he or she can’t possibly make a living/enjoy a sane life as a professional musician, and turns to wine out of burgeoning interest tinged by desperation, only to be reborn as a new type of impassioned professional. As Ben Wood (67 Wine, Franglais) told me “stocking the cellar was better than washing dishes”.

At the heart of these stories is the notion that a life devoted first and foremost to music, no matter what genre, is a bloody hard life. Dan Weber of Schatzi Wine, long time guitarist and scholar of music in its relationship to politics, confessed that one of the reasons he opted for wine over music was that he saw fellow band mates’ lives wrecked by drug and alcohol abuse; he viewed the wine trade as a safer professional choice. Having decided not to get his masters at Cambridge, holding out for a gig as a session musician on Lauren Hill’s next album, wandering the streets of Williamsburg, Dan stumbled upon three long-haired band dudes listening to Led Zepplin and talking wine at Uva. They were Shane Smith, Justin Chearno, and Giancarlo Luigi. He was instantly smitten.

This brings me to another thrill, which comes from turning people on to new stuff, encouraging them to explore and dig deeper when they like something, harnessing that fledgling enthusiasm and keeping the momentum building.  My friend Eric Boyer, whom I met selling wine at Astor back in the day, worked in radio for years, before Napster, before iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify. In public radio, he enjoyed the educational aspects of DJ-ing; he could play what he wanted, outside the mainstream, and he forged connections with listeners who “enjoyed the unknown”. He found the same enjoyment working in wine retail, and of course befriended the same types of people. Eric writes “if you like Trousseau then you should check out Poulsard is no different to me than … if you like Parquet Courts, you should check out The Fall. Music was always such an infinite pool of discovery. And with wine, I’m certain that no matter what grape you like or country you’re partial too, I can find you something complementary that’s equally similar, and nothing like what you’re enjoying”. Ah what a happy picture of the retail experience; we hope that for every customer who makes a beeline straight for the Malbec they buy day in and day out, there will be someone who asks “what should I drink next”?

The sensory side of things was a recurring theme with virtually everyone I spoke to: the way music bypasses while engaging the intellect, defies language, goes to the heart, the soul, the gut, the parts of us that feel, defines the notion of “that which can’t be said”. Even as I was sure I was moving closer to an understanding of this tension, I felt further away, lost in the foggy mist of my mind. Dan, over omelets and fries at Reynard, lead me down a conversational path the end point of which was the sensuality of music. There are not many things in life that tap into our emotions in such a raw, unfettered way. Dan used the example of funk music’s ability to make us want to dance. “Bootsy Collins bass lines are directly connected to your ass”. On the surface, P-Funk has less than nothing to do with Schubert … beyond the ability to elicit a vivid, visceral, undeniable response in the listener.

Wine has this ability too. As Clarke Boehling, Metal DJ, and sales rep for Rosenthal Wine Merchant writes: “both at their best reach past language and our ability to characterize, and into the realm of pure aesthetic experience”. We are fortunate to drink very well in our line of work, and yet there are still moments, and they don’t come often, when wine is transcendent. Recently in Burgundy I had the pleasure to taste 1979 Hubert Lignier Clos de la Roche, a substance that attained such depth of flavor that I could scarcely fathom it as wine.

Grant Tennille, post rock guitarist and wine business moonlighter, describes experiences like this with both wine and music as “ecstatic”. Ecstasy, “a subjective experience of total involvement of the subject, with an object of his or her awareness” (thank you, Wikipedia), is outside consciousness, outside memory, as well as outside language. Grant links his transcendental encounters with both wine and music to an inability to conjure a sense memory: “I can remember what butter pecan ice cream tastes like, but that 2000 Echezeaux … ” he can no more remember than he can apply language to the elixir that took him to such an ecstatic place. In music as in wine, experiences like this are a jumping off point, into the abyss of addiction, to taste it again, to play it again, to hear it again, to drink it again. We are hedonists in search of the substance that takes us to that place of raw emotion, outside of ourselves.

To be honest, when I began this exploration, I thought I’d wind up disproving my thesis, showing that in fact there’s no occult connection between wine and music; they just attract similar types of personalities: people who are aesthetically driven, artsy types who live a little outside the mainstream, people who, as Clarke put it “enjoy digesting and cataloguing facts”. People who like learning and the unknown, yet who respect form and history; people perennially searching for authenticity. As Ben says: “learning about the history and tradition and ritual of jazz and acoustic music are relatively close to learning about the history ritual and tradition of wine.” Classroom nerds, who grew into insecure adults needing to “buttress their insecurities with opinionation”, Grant says, alluding to a tendency in both music and wine to insist on the objective supremacy of one’s own opinion, in an entirely subjective realm. I recall Clarke recounting how — as a college radio DJ — he’d inflicted a five hour long Steely Dan marathon on his listeners during finals week. (All the Madeiras in the New York market before noon at a Wines and Spirits tasting panel, anyone?) These exhaustive, almost fanatical events come from the same place, be they vinous or musical, the need to dive deep, with a certain spirit of recklessness.

Music theory (defined by wikipedia as “the study of the practices and the possibilities of music”) fascinated me as a young piano student. In classical music, theory teases out the structure of a given piece — like diagraming a sentence or translating an argument into symbolic logic — yet never seems to quite touch its je ne sais quoi, its filagrees and ornaments, its rubati and tempo changes, its life blood. I started to wonder if an analogy was possible. The key, the time signature, the structural skeleton of the piece are the soil, the grape vines, the press and the barrels. The variables, flourishes, improvisations are the elements that change year to year, the climate and specificity of the vintage; the vigneron, the creator, ties the whole thing together. In the finished product, we have glorious interplay between concrete and intangible. Isn’t this exactly what we musical types are ultimately in search of, a medium that makes structural sense, yet is — particularly in emotional impact — far more than the sum of its parts?IMG_0144

In the end, my findings more or less boiled down to three recurring themes: the cataloguer/digester of facts, the wine/music lover who is compelled by an obsession with obtaining information, synthesizing it and placing it in the right box, not to mention sharing it, and having more of it than his or her peers. (Listen to “Losing my Edge” from LCD Soundsystem’s 2005 self-titled album for a taste of this. The lyrical content of this song could be as neatly transposed to fit wine as Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata was transposed to fit the guitar.) Secondly, the rebirth narrative, the story of the musician who choses a life of vineyards and cellars, wine shops and restaurants, as an alternative to the grueling life of a professional musician. Lastly, the theme of out-and-out, balls-to-the-wall sensuality, the ability of these two mediums to transport us, to take us away, and our hunger for that ecstatic sensation, where ever and whenever we may find it.

Perhaps because it’s the holiday season (almost), perhaps because the weekend of November 6th, 7th, and 8th is the Fête du Champagne, perhaps because I keep seeing pictures on Instagram of Raphaël Bérèche and Alexandre Chartogne bopping around New York, perhaps because some phases of my professional life bring me closer to this region while others pull me away. Whatever the reasons, Champagne has been much on my mind, of late. To be fair, Champagne is never far from my mind, but recently, happily, Champagne has been often in my glass as well.

Last week I accepted a new job for next year working for MFW, which — for those unfamiliar — is a small importer specializing in lots of French regions I love; MFW is also the New York distributor of Portovino (great Italian wine), and Jose Pastor Selections (great Spanish wine). I didn’t proclaim or advertise this news; I didn’t discuss the decision ad nauseam. I just took the job, and, by degrees, began sharing my news with friends and acquaintances.

One friend, a sommelier at restaurant Daniel, asked me (apropos of my news) if I’d read the post on Wine Terroirs about Ruppert-Leroy. I promptly read the piece and was, as usual, blown away by Bert Celce’s tone, which finds an exquisite balance of humor and information. We feel that Bert is subjective, a reporter, but we also feel the subtle weight of his politics. When, for example, he tells us that due to various aspects of Champagne fabrication: barrels to malolactic fermentation to lees stirring to second fermentation to high acidity, “Champagne should have it easy to make wines without any added sulfur”, we feel that — from a technical standpoint — Champagne is as good a place (if not better!) than any to practice this style of winemaking.

I thought about this over and over, because some of the very best sans soufre wines I’ve tried have been from Champagne: Lahaye’s Violaine, Marie-Courtin’s Concordance, Couche’s Cuvée Chloe, the entire collection from Benoït Marguet, Sapience, Charles Dufour’s Bulles de Comptoir, and more. Conversely, some of the very best Champagnes I’ve tried have been sans soufre (see aforementioned list). Bert goes on to taste the lineup from Ruppert-Leroy, and when he gets to 2012 Fosse-Grély Autrement, the wine made without added sulfur, he tells us that “obviously there’s more complexity in this SO2-free wine”. While I don’t believe this is “obvious”, his statement does echo my own experience, namely that there is incredible energy and vivacity in sans soufre Champagne. I imagine that sloppy, messy, mousey sans soufre Champagne is out there, but I haven’t come across it. This is not the Languedoc, the Loire Valley, the Jura, or heaven forbid Italy, where flawed natural wines seem to be a dime a dozen these days. This is a region where the dollar value of the product is high; the CIVC regulates incredibly strictly. The region itself is a brand, and wines that risk tarnishing this brand identity simply aren’t permitted.IMG_0082

As luck would have it, our friendly neighborhood oyster and sea urchin merchant had this particular Ruppert-Leroy bottling on hand, and so we drank it. From the 2012 vintage, the wine is 100% Pinot Noir, grown on limestone soil, biodynamically farmed. This is my kind of wine: vivid and energetic in a way only sans soufre Champagne can be, with a layer of additional nuance across the mid-palate, round with the creamy texture of a wine bottled under fewer atmospheres of pressure, and with the particular, rocky, sea shell-y minerality of the Aube.

This brings me to my next rumination, which is about the Aube in general. In Bert’s article, one gets a taste of the relationship between the Aube and the Marne. The common narrative goes like this: the Aube was a sort of second class citizen to the Marne, and yet the Marne relied on the Aube to provide cheap grapes in difficult vintages. At times the Aube was allowed to make “Champagne”; at other times, the Aube was expected to sell grapes to the Marne, but not to make “Champagne” (again, concerns of brand identity). The gist is that the Aube has always been deemed inferior to the Marne … until about a decade ago, when the Aube began, miraculously, to be cool. Cédric Bouchard came along; people started drinking Vouette et Sorbé; Emmanuel Lassaigne gained recognition. Despite the fact that the Fleury family have been making beautiful, organic (and then biodynamic) Champagne in the Aube since the 1970s, it took a few hipsters with the right credentials to make these wines popular. It also took a certain climate within the market. Aube Champagne came into vogue at a time when consumers were seeking the kind of terroir specificity in their Champagnes that they found in their Burgundies. What better place to produce this kind of site-specific Champagne than a region that is, in fact, closer to Burgundy than to the heart of Champagne? Thus a taste for wines of the Aube was born.

At this point in time, I believe that wines of the Aube have been in fashion long enough that a backlash has also been born. I often hear comments such as “there’s no terroir in the Aube” or “that’s not real Champagne”. Regardless of the region’s decision to allow the Aube to make “Champagne”, it must be conceded that the Aube is not the Marne in terms of terroir, history, over all personality … and price! Aside from the handful of Aube poster children whose wines have escalated to (in my opinion) unconscionable prices and ludicrous scarcity, Aube Champagnes represent significant value.

I made my first solo pilgrimage to Champagne around half a decade ago, and was immediately struck by how different the Aube both feels and looks from the Marne. The two sub-regions are separated by 1.5-2 hours of agricultural land, and driving through Bar-sur-Seine could not be more unlike cruising the Grand Rue in Epernay. These places have nothing to do with one another. To make a sweeping generalization, there’s more experimental spirit in the Aube, though perhaps this is changing as more and more Marne growers let go their shackles and take flight.

To those who drink lots of Champagne, the wines also taste very different. We often say that Aube Champagnes taste like “Chablis with bubbles”, which sort of makes sense given how close many Aube producers are to Chablis, and how similar the soils, but Chablis is made from Chardonnay, while the majority of Aube Champagnes are made from Pinot Noir, which renders this statement somewhat suspect. Still, there’s an undercurrent of stony, seashell-iness in good Aube Champagne that bears family resemblance to Chablis; Aube Champagnes tend to be fuller and riper, which allows them to (perhaps, possibly …) find balance more naturally without dosage. Personally, I find more family resemblance between the red and rosé wines of Ricey, and the red wines of Vézélay and Irancy, than between Bouchard and Dauvissat. I like to taste great Aube Champagne next to great Marne Champagne, which allows me to 1) drink more Champagne, and 2) discover how different the wines really are …  IMG_0083

What actually got me pondering Aube versus Marne in Bert Celce’s Ruppert-Leroy article was the house, built by the vigneron, Emmanuel Leroy. It looks (from the photos) like my house in rural North Carolina, which my dad built over thirty years, out of excess lumber from various construction jobs. You know what I’ve never seen in the Marne? A handmade wood house built by the vigneron. This is a statement, not a judgement. I’m looking forward to meeting the Ruppert-Leroys. I have a feeling we’re going to get along.

Continuing my week of pondering (and drinking) Champagne, I watched this movie. It’s not the best documentary in the world, but it delivers an accurate step by step account of the way Champagne is made. If you watch its companion piece called “A year in Burgundy” you begin see that Champagne is truly unusual. For example, in Burgundy, harvest date is of paramount importance. Visiting Burgundy right after the harvest, which I did recently, it became second nature to ask every grower vous avez commencé la vendange quand, exactement? In Burgundy, the date of harvest is always a gamble, and the growers choose when they begin, after careful analysis of the grapes, and scrutiny of the weather. In Champagne, the CIVC dictates for every village when the harvest begins and ends, along with how much juice can be squeezed out of the grapes, and what percentage of that juice is cuvée (first pressed juice) and what percentage is taille (second pressed juice).

Two things leapt out at me watching “A Year in Champagne”. The first was that there was no mention whatsoever of the movement toward better farming, which probably stands to reason given it’s a microscopic percentage that farms organically. There were several depictions of vine treatments, including a comment about the outlawing of crop-dusting helicopters, which happened in (I think) 2012 or thereabouts. It seemed taken for granted that vines would be treated conventionally. An example: apparently, according to this film, one of the big problems with rain close to harvest is that it washes away the pesticides covering leaves and grapes. It didn’t bother me that the makers of this film passed over the wave of better farming taking place in the region. However, I do feel that not to mention those who make great Champagne through good farming (rather than through extensive blending), is not to touch what makes the region exciting today. Champagne is changing; in 2015 it’s a thrilling place to seek out new domaines because there are so many more growers than there were ten years ago who are working their soils and respecting their terroirs.

The second thing that leapt out at me was that there was absolutely no mention of the Aube; the camera focuses in on a map of the Champagne region, a map that conveniently ends a few inches below Vertus.

Dear Friends,

After an absence of some weeks, I’m back. It feels good to be writing again.

It’s been almost exactly ten years since I started working in the trade, and I’m in the throes of a ten year evaluation, a period of reflection, an overhaul. 2014 and 2015 have seen many changes in my professional world, many transitions, highs and lows, laughter and tears, a full spectrum of experience and emotion. I keep coming back to my love of the industry, but I’m in a quiet mood with respect to it. I don’t feel like proclaiming anything from the mountain top, nor do I feel like tasting through epic numbers of bottles in search of truth; I’d rather sit at home with a quiet glass of Dupasquier and Elena Ferrante’s most recent novel. So I thought I’d write a piece on French customs and manners, which has been burbling in my brain for the past little while.

One of the chief draws of our trade (at least for me) is its offer of travel: other languages, cultures, cuisines, and customs. I’d go so far as to say this stuff is so fascinating that I sometimes wonder if the accompaniments aren’t more appealing than the thing itself; I’m that person who’d happily take the sides without the steak, but they come together on the plate … Our industry is the vehicle that allows us to take in the rest, and it makes no sense to ask the question “is it really wine I love, or is it the other stuff?” A taste for one is an interest in the others …

In my travels especially, I find myself seizing moments to tune out wine in order to tune in to other harmonies. This is utilitarian as much as anything. Travel in the wine trade is work; I defy anyone who has taken a professional wine journey to frame it as a long vacation tippling in one quaint village after another. Across the board (and I say this having taken many wine trips in many capacities), it’s harrowing, exhausting, fraught with rich, rustic, meat-heavy cuisine, a total lack of personal time or days off, strange damage to the inside of the mouth from acid and tannin, bone-chilling cold, horrendous GPS directions, the list goes on … I’m not complaining! This is just to say that when one finds a tranquil moment in the cacophony of fermented grape juice to ponder something else, it’s a blessing.

For me it’s often language. I know enough French now to pick up large amounts of what is being said, to take part in conversation, and I get caught up in particularities of accent, or a certain choice of word or conjugation. What does the expression “du coup” signify? No one has yet adequately explained it to me. When is it better to use “on” versus “nous”? “On travail avec un vigneron dans la Loire”, but “nous allons au restaurant maintenant?” Is “nickel” used interchangeable with “cool”, and by what age group? I read online that it means “perfect” … Or, a perennially confounding topic for English speakers, when may I finally address this person as “tu” rather than “vous”? (Incidentally, I recently learned the Italian version of “tutoyer”, which is “dammi del tu” (give me the “tu” … ) Often even after I’ve been given the green like to “tu” someone, “vous” still comes out half the time.  I write new words in the margin of my tasting notebook: “vachement”, “franchement”, “forcément”, a reminder that I learned to value foreign language acquisition at the dawn of time, from my mom, long before wine was part of my life.

Other times I become fixated on custom, some little thing that is done differently in France. Last year I learned that French people don’t take their meals alone. We Americans have no fear of this, and most of us do it all the time! How many American lunches are spent hunched over the phone or computer, in our cubicles, real or metaphorical. When I’d mention taking a meal alone to a French person, they’d feel sorry for me, or interpret my remark as fishing for an invitation, as though unfathomable that I might relish the chance to eat food, alone, with a book, and exactly what I most want on my plate, with no one to talk to, and no obligation to politeness. Last year, I stayed alone in a bed and breakfast in Saumur for a week, and each day the proprietors hovered nervously around me as I drank my acrid morning coffee and ate my croissant so that I wouldn’t have to endure the ignominy of taking my petit déjeuner alone.

For all that the word “manners” puts us in mind of no-elbows-on-the-table, and sayings like “birdies in their nests agree!”, manners are a fabric that binds. And as repressive as they can feel when we are ten years old, as adults we come to value and appreciate them. Manners vary enormously across cultures, and in surprising ways.

At a restaurant in the Jura, for example, there were four or five bowls of delicious gougères on the table, well within reach of any guest. I observed that when someone wanted to eat a gougère, he would pick up the bowl and offer one to everyone before taking one for himself, as though reaching to grab one and popping it into his mouth be greedy. Everyone at the table observed this rule, and consequently I waited for the bowl that had been across the table to be passed to me, rather than taking from the bowl right in front of me.

In a similar vein, it’s possible, at a French table, to wait minutes at a time to begin eating because no one wants to take the first bite. While waiting for someone at the table to attack their plate of food, rapidly cooling, it’s perfectly fine to nibble a crust of bread.

A couple of years ago some friends informed me that the French do not go out in public (aside from sanctioned exercise zones) in workout clothes. I’m not sure if this is completely accurate, and I imagine it’s changing as American cultural norms (and words) spread like an ill-mannered ooze across western Europe, but I do know that I rarely encounter French people in workout gear outside of the park or the gym. Now, I’m not a proponent of sporting Lululemon to the restaurant. We Americans (myself included) wear way too much workout gear in public, and the abundance of expensive work out clothing roaming Manhattan on rail thin Terri Hatcher-esque women is scandalous. Yet I take issue with the French way of doing it too, which seems to imply I’m supposed to carry my shorts to the park, change, jog, and then change back again before going home! That’s absurd; I’d rather incur the strange looks invariably cast in my direction when I wear jogging clothes to the tabac. Actually, this happened in Epernay not long ago after my rental car was towed. Before departing for home, I had to purchase and mail in a timbre amend to pay the fine, and these are only available in a tabac. So, I popped in on my way back from a morning run along the Marne, meeting the steely gaze of the clerk, a small unlit cigar dangling from his lip at half past nine in the morning. He eyed me up and down, and I felt all the more foolish for my sweatband and shorts.

There are many, many more like this, fascinating little details that hover at the periphery of our experience as we travel. Yes they’re trivial, yet they’re symptomatic of a deeply embedded cultural identity that also, for example, protects patrimony. And this is crucial because it keeps vineyard holdings in the hands of the families who have farmed them for ages, because it keeps winemaking traditions alive, because it fosters the vocation of the vigneron. What I’m trying to say, ineloquently because the concept is complex and nebulous, is that everything is tied together: the wine we worship, customs, manners, language, and the underlying belief structures that carry our vignerons along …

Next time I’ll write about wine. Promise.

-Sophie