Sophie's Glass

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

Presently, I find myself recalling the adventure I was about to embark on last fall, as I look down the barrel of another adventure this September. I blame the weather for this particular nostalgia, the kind of hot, sticky weather in the thick of which you can’t remember not sweating, the kind of heat and humidity that cradles a thunderstorm in the making, and you beg for that thunderstorm to break up the oppressive monotony of sun on pavement. For me, this weather always feels pregnant with storms and possibility, a sense of change on the horizon.

I remember my last shift at Chambers Street, almost exactly a year ago, followed by a few days of freedom before the flight to Paris, the journey to Jura. My memory passes by the disaster of failing to get off the train at Lyon and having to hustle across the platform in Valence to go north again, and then east, east, east to Mouchard on the dinky local train with all the Jurassic teenagers gaping at me and my massive red suitcase. The crown jewel of that jet-lagged first evening in Arbois was the moment I stepped into the gîtes that would be my month-long home, whispering to myself “Holy shit. I’m going to love it here … ” The night air was cool and fresh, the sky starry, and my skylight looked out on the church steeple. I passed many blissful evenings in the garden below, overlooking the river, sipping glasses of Tissot’s single vineyard Chardonnays, or Crémant rosé from Domaine des Bodines, eating too much comté because I could buy an arm size tranche at the Fruitière for about seven euros, reading Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Taking that sabbatical, going to Arbois for harvest was one of the finest things I’ve ever done, and I still think it’s bizarre that the sound of my alarm carries me back to mornings that began at 5:45 am with a quick, foul-tasting coffee, and an ascent up the hill to Montigny-lès-Arsures.

But what I started out to write about is something that happened later, in October of last year, three days that have been much on my mind over the past few weeks since a bottle of Immich-Batterieberg at Trestle on Tenth reminded me of how truly glorious these wines can be. What impressed me most about the bottle Ralf brought to our table was the wine’s ability to pair with everything, with the sweaty evening, with the salad of white asparagus and egg, with sweet breads, with Ralf’s pork belly cured in the basement. The wine did wonders for every dish we ate, and its pronounced minerality coated our palates and then washed them clean like a baptism, making us want to eat and drink more. IMG_1161

I should insert a quick note here about how I came to know these Germans. I met Clemens Busch early in my New York career, when I was buying at Astor, and he is the winemaker who changed my mind about German wine, who made me realize Riesling didn’t have to be either sweet or forcedly dry. At that time, his wines were imported by a tiny, inspiring portfolio called Mosel Wine Merchant. Working with this portfolio was a treat in myriad ways: regular visits from Dan Melia, Clemens in tow if he was in town, the chance to employ the word “sponty” often and with gusto. Astonishingly, it’s not difficult even after almost seven years to describe exactly what snared me at my first tasting with Clemens: the wines felt natural (not in the sense of Natural Wine), but in the sense of Riesling to which very little had been added; there was an ease, and a lack of pretension about these wines that I loved. They were earthier and drier than I was used to; they didn’t have the succulent, flamboyant aromas I was used to from bottles of Dönnhoff, or that particular mouth-watering balance of sugar and acid that typifies classic German Riesling whether it’s Kabinett or Auslese. In some ways they were quieter wines, less showy and more subtle, and they weren’t always delicious! Sometimes Clemens’ wines were hot, sometimes they had awkward hints of botrytis; they were slaves to vintage and laissez-faire winemaking, but they left a profound impression on me, and in that era I drank as much from the Mosel Wine Merchant book as I could.IMG_0218

Then, Mosel Wine Merchant disbanded, the growers flung to other portfolios. Luckily for me, Clemens, along with Gernot Kollman of Immich-Batterieberg, and Matthias Knebel, washed up in the Dressner portfolio. And so I got to know Gernot while traveling in France. Each winter, bracketed by various tastings in the Loire, LDM stages a unique and wonderful event called Valaire, attended by the majority of their winemakers, and a select group of customers. The second time I went to Valaire, I felt more of a connection with LDM’s German growers than with their French or Italian ones. In my role at Chambers, it didn’t do me much good, but damn I loved those dry, and very lightly sweet, slate-y German Rieslings fermented with native yeast, and often aged in old, neutral barrel. I returned to them over and over, and found myself often at the table next to Gernot, Matthias, or Clemens, learning from them.IMG_0224

I’d been chatting with Gernot the whole time I was in Arbois and, truth be told, I was trying to get out of working while in Germany, but each time I tried to side step the work, I’d receive a note saying “you’ll be here just in time for harvest! I’ll find things for you to do!” There was no escaping it …

So I went to Enkirch, to Immich-Batterieberg, a mansion and cellar with a rich history dating back many centuries. The first night, Gernot and I ate perfectly cooked fish, and fresh spaetzle in garlic butter; we drank filigreed 2013 Riesling from the Zeppwingert vineyard, followed by Gernot’s electric 2010 Spätburgunder, a unicorn if there ever was one, and I slept the sleep of angels. The next morning, there was fog everywhere, and before I met Gernot in the cellar to begin helping him out, I took a short stroll through the town, past the Steffensberg vineyard, breathing the chilly morning air, the mist enveloping me.IMG_0225

Gernot was tearing his hair out when I arrived at the winery. Why? The 2014 harvest was a rough time in the Mosel. What was promising to be a beautiful, dry fall, with lots of sun, had devolved into a dank, warm, rainy mess. Grape clusters had been attacked by the vinegar fly, and were turning up rotten, even after copious sorting in the vines. I watched while the harvesters dumped grapes into what looked like a grinder perched on top of the press to be lightly ground before descending into the bowels of the press, and then, by gravity, into the waiting tanks underground. Gernot explained that the grinder extracted more phenolics from the bunches, and seemed surprised that we hadn’t used one chez Tissot.IMG_0222

The cave at Immich-Batterieberg is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been. It’s pristine, lined on one side with stainless steel tanks, and on the other with rows of barriques, and some large, old foudres. In the bung holes of the barrels are glass u-shaped tubes partially filled with water. When the water starts burbling, the yeast is active, and fermentation is happening. Cool and quiet but for the burble of fermentation, I very much enjoyed being down there, spraying the insides of the stainless steel tanks with a pressure hose, and steaming hot water. I quickly realized that Gernot did, in fact, need help. He’s a one man show, this guy, and having a side kick to clean a barrel, hold a hose, or flip the switch on a pump goes a long way when you’re doing everything yourself.

I received an assignment that rivaled scrubbing tartrates from the insides of barrels at Tissot’s: cleaning the filtration machine. Now, I don’t fully understand the technology of filtration, and the machines come in a range of styles, but I’m going to take a crack at explanation of this process. At Tissot’s we sent the “bourb,” which is essentially the very ass end of a tank of juice, murky and leesy, offsite to be filtered. Gernot has his own machine to do this. It’s a giant open bowl into which you rack this very lees-y juice. You then dump in part of a bag of clay, and drop a very large wand down into the mix to make a slurry of clay and juice. As this muddy, gray juice runs through the machine itself, which is a domino-like row of square plaques with tightly woven mesh in between, the lees and and clay adhere to one another and get stuck in mesh, while the juice emerges on the other side, clean and translucent. But after each use, it has to be rid of the cakes and slurry of sticky juice, lees, and clay that build up between the plaques. This is a great job for the stagiaire!

In the midst of my second cleaning of the filtration machine, Gernot approached me to propose a silver lining, namely that afternoon I could borrow one of his bikes and ride the 9 kilometers down the road to Pundereich to see Clemens and Rita Busch, who were, of course, also harvesting. I was thrilled! A change of pants later, I grabbed Gernot’s bike and in vain tried to adjust the seat to fit my lanky frame. Then I hopped on and started pedaling along the Mosel to Pundereich. Gernot had told me exactly how to find Clemens and Rita’s winery, but his directions had gone completely out of my head, and I just assumed I’d find it. I did, but not before I’d taken the tour of Pundereich at least three times.IMG_0230

Rita and Clemens were in the vines when I arrived, and their tasting room assistant who bears a French name beginning with “A”, took me over to see them on a barge that crosses the Mosel. They greeted me warmly, Clemens looking as always like a hero from the Arthurian legends, Rita with a kerchief around her head, secateurs and a bucket in her hand. Then their faces fell once more as they began to explain what a tough go of things they were having in 2014. The Busch’s 16 hectare estate has been farmed biodynamically for some time now, and I could conjecture that their choice to eschew chemicals in the vines made things harder in 2014, but truth be told I don’t think it mattered too much whether you were conventional or organic. The weather was so bad, so opposite of what it should have been that chemical treatments or not, Mosel growers would lose a large percentage of their crop in 2014 to rot, mildew, and Drosophilia Suzuki. Looking at the vines with both Gernot and Clemens, I had the same sinking, powerless, sad feeling of something really shitty happening to winemakers of whom I’m so fond, who strive to make great wine, who do not deserve to loose over half their crop to the capriciousness of weather in the era of climate change.

We returned to the tasting room for the 2013s, and left Clemens and Rita in the vines with their harvesters. I learned pretty quickly that 2013 had also been no easy vintage. There was lots of rot, lots of bad botrytis, and while the Busch’s terraced sites produced good grapes, the Marienburg, one of their signature parcels, did not. They sorted a lot, and they lost a lot. But incredibly, in spite of these adverse conditions, Clemens and Rita made some of the most beautiful wines I’ve ever tasted from this domaine. I was blown away by the over all quality of the 2013 wines, to the extent that I’ve been asking for them in New York for probably six months (now they’re here).IMG_0235

This is a photo of three of the Busch’s top wines, from 75-80 year old, ungrafted vines, grown on red slate (Marienburg Rothenpfad), blue slate (Fahrlay Terrassen), and gray slate (Marienburg Falkenlay). The wines are capsuled with red, blue, and gray foil, to let you know which terroir you’re experiencing. Clever. As a primarily French wine person (at least to date), I am skeptical of my own abilities to contextualize these wines, but I’ll give it a go. To my palate, the most “classic” wines from Busch are the blue slate wines. Fahrlay Terrassen has the most sugar of the lot (15 grams), and is exuberant and pretty aromatically, with a bit of petrol, and mouth-watering balance. The gray slate wines are surprising. Falkenlay, with it’s 9.2 grams of sugar and 13% alcohol, is an earthy, bass-y wine, round and creamy, fresh and high acid, but without the intense, steely cut of Fahrlay. As yet my favorite is the red slate collection. Rothenpfad is the lowest in sugar at 8.7 grams, with sour cherry and cranberry notes. And honestly, one of my favorite wines from this estate, hands down, is the basic Vom Roten Scheifer with its aromatic raspberry and flower petal nose and bracing, mouth-coating finish. This wine is a tour de force in 2013, and as yet the only one I’ve drunk state side. IMG_1095

Clemens and Rita made many more wonderful wines in 2013. They triumphed in a tough year, and it gave me hope that they’ll triumph again in 2014. At a certain point during our tasting, I stopped spitting because the wines were so good, which is highly unusual for me. Their Kabinetts and Spätlesen were nectary and sexy, and not normally my preferred style, but for just a sip they were perfect. Clemens and Rita came back from the vines, and we chatted some more, those crushed, baleful looks never long leaving their faces. It started to get dark and they offered to drive me back to Gernot’s, but I insisted on riding, and enjoyed an exciting, tipsy ride along the now dark path by the Mosel. There were no signs for Enkirch; I hopped off after what felt like about 9 kilometers, and asked an elderly gent if I was in the right place. I was just one turn from Gernot’s door, where he was patiently waiting to take me to dinner.IMG_0239

The next morning, I had the chance to render a favor. There were twelve British tourists coming to taste. Gernot had scheduled them months previously, not knowing where he’d be with the harvest, namely right in the middle of it. He asked me if I’d mind talking them through the wines while he continued to work in the winery and cellar. After 15 minutes of intense prep, Gernot lectured while packing a pallet for local delivery, I was ready. I learned many new things about Immich-Batterieberg. Since 2009 Gernot has not used a single gram of selected yeast, nor enzymes, etc. I learned that the Steffensberg vineyard is red slate soil, which perhaps explains why I’ve always been drawn to it. (Apparently I like red slate.) I learned about the history of the estate, which dates back to 911. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the dukes of Escheburg acquired it, and in the 14th century the Immich family settled in. They stayed until 1989. Gernot took over in 2007, and has been steadily building a reputation for himself, and for the estate. IMG_0240

I’m not sure why these three days in the Mosel some eleven months ago have come back to me now. I truly think the weather has something to do with it … Nothing quite pierces through the heat and humidity like a cool glass of Riesling …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Then we drank some Agrapart . IMG_0774

 

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

 

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

 

Someone please tell me about this Domaine in Cramant .

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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