Sophie's Glass

It’s f—ed up that most people in the wine business demand the “freshest” rosé on the market (meaning last year’s vintage). They want it to arrive in March and be sold out by September; they live in fear of rosé hanging around until Thanksgiving despite that pink wine is often recommended as a pairing for Thanksgiving food (this is a fairly transparent way for retailers to get rid of whatever rosé has had the audacity to hang out into the fall, also the deeper hued rosés that for some reason people think are sweeter than the salmon colored ones that are popular in the dog days of summer).

What we’re finding is that the way rosé is treated in our market has little to do with the customer, and everything to do with the industry and its marginalization of pink wine, its decision to allow pink wine commodity status, and to expect the poor quality of a shitty pair of socks from Old Navy or artificially sweetened Ciobani yogurt. Frankly customers rarely care, rarely even look at the vintage when picking out a bottle. Customers expect rosé to be pink and cheerful, and above all to taste good! And instead we give them yeasted rosé that is rushed through the fermentation process in order to be ready for release in February, smelling of plastic flowers, strawberries, and sulfur. Or we give them the quality rosés from Bandol, Tavel, Chinon, etc … thrust in their faces at the whiff of spring and guzzled bottle-shocked as though if they’re not drunk right away they might go bad and snow might start to fall again. It’s criminal the disservice done to rosé in the present era, by the wine business. We don’t ask our white wines to be as fresh as possible, always last year’s vintage as though they have some sort of expiry date after which they’ll give us food poisoning.

The irony is that if you talk to people in the wine business, they’ll tell you they understand that quality rosé is often better six months, a year, or more after release, but that the customer and the market demand the freshest releases. This is not true. Customers want good wine, and that’s not what we’re giving them. It suits us to act as though the consumer is the sheep or the lemming, grabbing their $15 provençal rosé with the pretty label off the seasonal table stocked with “this is what we’ve promised to buy 200 cases of over the next three months; we’ve even scheduled five case drops every two weeks because our sales rep demanded it.” This way we don’t actually have to think about rosé; we can just sell that same 200 cases of Peyrassol or Sulauze Pomponette, you name it, that we sell every year, and the few pedestal rosés we can horde for ourselves: the L’Anglores, the Pradeauxs and Tempiers. It’s like Cory wrote in a mailer the other day in criticism of our industry: “the flood of “rosé is so hot now; here are 4 we feature every year because they advertise with us, and one you can’t find anyway that we actually drink.” It’s an accurate summation. IMG_0623

The other irony is that wine industry people will often tell you they make an exception for rosé Champagne (“I don’t really drink rosé … except rosé Champagne, of course”) as though because the marketing geniuses of Champagne have made pink bubbles more expensive than their white counterparts, there must be something about them that’s more qualitative. This is utter bullshit, and if you ask top Champagne producers, which I have, quite a few times, they’ll tell you their rosé is made for the market, that they themselves don’t drink it, and that their white BSA (brut sans année) is superior. For the record, yes I’m saying it is hard to find good rosé Champagne, far, far harder, in fact, than to find good still rosé. I’m also dealing in mass generalizations as anyone who has drunk a bottle of Tarlant Rosé Zero, Lahaye Rosé de Maceration, of Bérèche Campania Remensis can attest.

With these thoughts in mind, and inspired by Étienne (our neighbor and sommelier at M. Wells in Long Island City), we decided to taste rosés with some age. Susannah and I had been ranting about the marginalization of rosé by the wine business for some time, and on a recent trip to M. Wells we observed that Étienne was more than happy to feature last year’s rosés, and we drank a beautiful 2013 Terrebrune, and an excellent 2013 Bermejos. To the guest list, we added our friend Jeremy who works for Rosenthal Wine Merchant, arguably the best purveyor of high quality rosé, and, fittingly, when he accepted to our invitation he said: “rosé a year or more after release? Read: bring some Château Simone.” IMG_0628

We started with a couple of Selection Massale rosés; this was largely my own curiosity; I wanted to know how they were showing. 2013 Beurer Trollinger rosé is a wine I tasted numerous times last summer (you know, back when it was “fresh”), and it always confounded me. Like all Jochen’s wines, it’s got riveting acidity, and a dense, pillar-like structure. Each time I drank it young, I was intrigued, but was never sure I quite liked it, though I’d find myself thinking about it hours if not days after the fact. Lee Campbell was pouring Beurer Trollinger rosé by the glass at Achilles Heel; I ordered it last summer and remember being filled with respect for Lee for not coddling people with boring, fruity rosé; this wine was ever-so-slightly punishing in its youth, though also complex and clearly native yeast fermented, which (after five years at Chambers Street) is something I always look for in rosé. Now the wine is gorgeous. The high-toned cranberry, tart cherry, and white-peppery spice remain, with added depth and richness on the palate. An additional year has softened the wine’s edges, and I found it to deliver everything I’d wanted it to deliver as a young wine. IMG_0626

Quentin Bourse from Le Sot de L’Ange makes his single parcel rosé from old vine Grolleau grown on alluvial clay, silex, and quartz. The wine’s aged in stainless steel and acacia. At the last record store tasting we did back in January, this was my wine of the night (out of about 30 wines). I kept it close to me over the course of the evening doling out little sips to people and asking them if I was crazy for thinking it was showing so well. I liked this wine when young; it was intensely crisp, low in alcohol (11%), with the light funk and pepper of Grolleau. Like the Beurer, this wine has now taken on some richness, but all the white stone and wild strawberry aromas remain, and the finish offers the same mouth-coating minerality as Quentin’s red Grolleau with a faint whisper of tannin. IMG_0627

The only rosé we tasted that wasn’t exactly en forme was Mas Jullien 2011, but certainly not because it was by any means too old. Olivier Jullien, arguably the best winemaker in the Languedoc, makes this rosé from the same blend of red grapes (Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Carignan, Mourvèdre) he uses for his age-worthy reds. This was often amongst my favorite rosés of the year at Chambers Street, which is surprising given that I barely drink anything from the Languedoc. The wine is always compellingly authentic, and by this I mean it’s a wine that is true to itself, comfortable in its skin so to speak; this is not a Languedoc rosé that has sold out and transformed itself into a crisp, pale wine (because apparently the market is terrified of gutsy, dark colored rosé, unless it says “Tavel” on the label). It hails from a warm, arid climate and packs a fair amount of alcohol (usually around 14% according to the label), but its power, structure, and sheer quality assure that it’ll be balanced and fresh nonetheless. It’s native yeast fermented, and the aromas are deeply earthy, sometimes verging on roasted in character. 2011 was a hot vintage in the Languedoc, and it’s the only vintage of this wine in recent years that I haven’t loved. Right now, it suffers from vintage more than from age. IMG_0624

Château Simone is a standard bearer for “serious” rosé. From a monopole close to Aix-en-Provence called “Palette” it’s a singular terroir marked by many pine trees, farmed by the Rougier family, who have long history in the area. Simone rosé, made from a wacky blend of grapes according to the Rosenthal website: Cinsault, Syrah, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Castet, Manosquin, Théoulier, Tibouren, Picpoul Noir, and Muscat de Hambourg, ages in barrel, and offers the resolved, integrated character of barrel aged rosé (see Clos Cibonne rosé for comparison). But this wine is far more than just a rich, serious rosé from the south of France. It’s utterly singular in its marriage of pine-y, spicy aromas that can be almost oak-y at times, with clear-as-a-bell notes of sour red plum, cassis, blackberry, and dark cherry. It’s a beautiful wine that opens up in the glass, and began to sing about halfway through the bottle.

We had several more rosés on deck to try including Gilbert Menetou-Salon and Crochet Sancerre rosés … both 2013, but we moved on to red and white wine. After all it was well below 40 degrees, and our guest of honor had brought Clos Rougeard and Joly.

It’s a little bit the chicken/egg situation with rosé, meaning it’s unclear which came first: lots of mediocre rosé, or the wine industry’s attitude. What is clear, though, is that if the wine industry asks more from its rosé, asks it to be real wine, asks it to live by the same standard as red and white wine, rosé wine will get better. And that’s all we’re really asking for, those of us who love rosé …

Quentin Bourse of Le Sot de L’Ange is the first winemaker I’ve encountered to preface his personal history with the statement “I am an autodidact.” He did a variety of things before he made wine, but he didn’t go into detail about what they were. Suffice it to say, he fell in love with wine and that was that. Quentin makes wine in Azay-le-Rideau, and I’ve come to think of him as the mayor of this town, close to Chinon, in the central Loire Valley. He’s not really the major, obviously, but he heads the group of ten-ish vignerons in Azay who are looking to put this appellation on the map (the group also includes the fabulous Marie Thibault). Quentin makes wine in the facility of Pascal Pibaleau, an old school producer of sparkling wine. I don’t recall how the two met, but Pascal is a calm and quiet counterpart to Quentin’s insatiable energy and constant steam of commentary.

Guilhaume must have known that Quentin was capable of great things. Talking to Quentin, I got the impression that he and Guilhaume had been pals for a long time, but when I asked Guilhaume he denied a friendship de longue date with Quentin. They met at Frantz Saumon’s place; they liked each other; Guilhaume told Quentin to get in touch when he had something to sell, and Quentin did. I’ve heard other stories like this, where the importer has a kind of sixth sense when it comes to winemaking prodigies. And maybe it’s a stretch to frame Quentin as a prodigy, but he’s had the best two first vintages I think I’ve ever tasted, and they weren’t easy vintages either. There’s something about the guy, and there’s something about the wines.IMG_0410

A quick word about the name of this Domaine: Le Sot de L’Ange. It translates to something like “The Idiot of the Angel,” which refers to Quentin’s decision to leave his previous life to begin the life of a vigneron in a tiny, unknown appellation. He frames himself as “the big idiot,” but hey, I’m sure he’s no more idiotic than I was when I dropped out of grad school to join the wine business. We relate to people who chuck it all in to pursue lives of passion and fulfillment in spite of risk and hard work.

I don’t have a note with the exact size of Quentin’s Domaine, but I know it’s growing little by little. When I visited him in October, he had nine parcels — all in Azay-le-Rideau; now he has slightly more. He’s certified by both Ecocert and Demeter. His vineyards are beautiful, and they are at times punctuated by forest, as well as other crops; there’s real biodiversity in Azay, something that can’t be said about many places in France where wine grape cultivation is a monoculture. We found a decaying butternut squash nourishing one of Quentin’s vineyards. The soil is clay, limestone, white silex, with chalk bedrock in some places. Azay is the home of Grolleau, and this grape finds great expression in Azay.

During his various internships, including one with Huet, Quentin developed quite particular ideas about how to do things in the vines and cellar. I was surprised both times I visited him by how particular his methods are during the following stages of the process: 1) Deciding when to pick. To decide when to pick, you can crush some grapes and splash the juice across a little sugar reader to tell you if they’re technically ripe, and/or you can go around tasting them to see if they’re delicious, which is what Quentin does. (I’m sure he does both, actually, but he was very insistent during my October visit that we taste grapes for maturity. 2) Picking. Quentin’s harvesting team goes through each parcel two and three times to select for ripeness. 2) Pressing. Standard press time is two or three hours; you turn on the machine; it presses the grapes. Quentin presses for five hours or more, and he hangs out at the press like a DJ manipulating the dials that control pressure and timing. It’s unusual, but when I drink Quentin’s Chenin Blanc, I wonder if he might be on to something … 4) Grapes Entiers. This means “whole cluster,” a way to make red wine that includes stems in the process. Quentin puts Gamay and Grolleau in the same inert tank, the Gamay on the top, the Grolleau on the bottom. This mediates the greenness of the Grolleau stems. He puts carbonic gas in the tank, and does not use sulfur. The list goes on.

Talking to Quentin, I soon realized that he is absolutely obsessed with quality, cuts no corners, thinks about everything, probably in some cases to a detrimental extent, and is very much his own man in the way he works, not influenced by fads or what others tell him. If he doesn’t use sulfur it’s because he doesn’t like the reduction it brings to Grolleau, not because he’s trying to make natural wine. Quentin is also of a playful disposition, and his space if full of accoutrements: stickers, tee-shirts, hats with his brand on them, a skateboard with his brand on it, embossed tech sheets for every wine, a sun screen for the window of his car with his brand on it. He told us that all this connerie (bullshit) helps him get bank loans and that’s part of why he does it. The bank takes him more seriously (even though his importer might take him less seriously) when he presents a boxed set with wine paraphernalia as well as his signature wooden-framed sunglasses? Sure. Why not?

This is only tangentially related, but I had an epiphany on this last trip to France regarding how winemakers express themselves, namely that I should not judge. We can easily find ourselves thinking that winemakers should be a certain type: rustic with dirt under the nails, humble but confident, country folks even at their most refined. My former boss at Chambers Street harbors a prejudice against wineries with flash websites; he thinks winemakers should be in the vines, not working on their damn websites. In Champagne, we visited a winemaker, who shall remain nameless for the moment, who poses entirely covered in gold body paint for photos. And guess what? His wines are good! Farmed well, fabricated well, biodynamically certified. Who are we to think that a man who wears hair gel and occasionally has himself painted gold can’t make good wine? This is just to say that behind Quentin’s self expression, the label word play and the branded bottle stoppers, there lies an extremely talented vigneron.

I was not exactly en forme when we arrived at Quentin’s winery a few weeks ago having stayed up late the night before with Dominique Belluard, Jean Philippe Padié, and some other folks. The jet lag plus the previous evening’s wine made for a queasy combination, and in the car I sent Quentin a couple of messages explaining that we’d be a few minutes late, while rubbing my temples and trying to get my brain working. “No worries. I’m going to get you guys some super oysters,” he replied. Quentin, a huge scar over one of his eyes, acquired in a tractor accident, was like an immediate tonic. We tasted some wine: grolleau rosé, exquisite Chenin Blancs aging in barrel and amphora, the Grolleau and Gamay that will go into his 2014 “Sot Rouge,” and more. The first wine we tasted, which we also drank and hour later with a lunch of incredibly fresh, salty oysters, brown bread, and beurre bordier, was a Pet Nat called “Red is Dead” made from the Chaulnay grape, an old indigenous variety that is red on the outside and red on the inside. Gingerly sipping the wine, slurping the salty oysters, spreading beurre bordier with a pocket knife, I felt like Bertie when he first meets Jeeves. Suddenly the world righted itself, the blue sky and crisp air, the snack that put all Brooklyn brunches to shame, and the precise, bracing, enlivening wine. IMG_0406 - Version 2

A week or so later I was in Arbois talking to my friend Pierre. He said “I noticed on Facebook that you drank a wine called “Red is Dead.” Do you understand the joke?” I did not. Pierre went on to explain. “Red is Dead” is a movie within a movie, a fictional horror film about — I think — communist zombies — that lives within in actual early ’90s French comedy called “La Cité de la Peur.” Of course! A film within a film, red juice within a red grape! Even though when “Red is Dead” arrives in the states in a few weeks, it’ll have a different label, I’ll still think of it this way … as a wine that epitomizes Quentin Bourse, his skills, his playfulness, his sense of humor.

Every time I go to France I come back a little bit wiser, and not just about wine, about myself and what defines me, what I want out of my work and my life. I get the thinkies real bad for the first few days I’m home, running across the Williamsburg bridge in the snow, riding the subway, participating in the wine community in New York, eating just vegetables for a few days. What does it mean to be French? What does it mean to be American? Would I move to France if I could? After this most recent trip I had a shocking epiphany, namely that I am probably more likely to move to France than I am to move back to North Carolina. I certainly spend more time there in the average year than I do in Chapel Hill where I grew up. The winemakers I’ve been meeting there for years, and sometimes in New York as well, have become friends. I know their children’s names and what they’re doing with their lives; I know their horses and dogs names for crying out loud. For all that I complain about France (smoking, rich, indigestible food featuring weird pig parts, crap wifi, total absence of speciality coffee, the list goes on … ) I feel more and more comfortable there, and this time, I wasn’t as happy as I expected to be to come home to Brooklyn.

Undoubtedly part of the reason is that we spent five days in the Jura, a place that is as dear to my heart as any, a place that stirs me to my core when I arrive, and again when I leave: shivers and deepest nostalgia, heart tight in the chest from either happiness or sadness it’s unclear which, like listening to Toots and the Maytals’ “Country Roads,” or ’70s French country singer Eddy Mitchell’s “Sur la route de Memphis,” in a word “love,” inexplicable, undeniable, and bizarre. I love this place.

Sigh. Anyway. Our first visit in the Jura was to a winemaker I’d never met before named Géraud Fromont of Domaine des Marnes Blanches. His 10 hectare Domaine is in Ste Agnès in the Sud Revermont sector of the southern Jura, just a few kilometers from Fan-fan Ganevat, Peggy Buronfosse, Kenjiro Kagami, L’Aigle a Deux Têtes, and Julien Labet. My experience is that white wine works better down here than red. Poulsard struggles; Chardonnay thrives. It’s possible to make very Burgundian white wine in the Sud Reverment; then again it’s possible to make pretty damn Burgundian white wine all over the Jura these days. Ostensibly it’s an ever-so-slightly warmer terroir than Arbois, yet when I was last there in very early October, it was chilly and foggy, while Arbois was warm and sunny. So who knows? There’s lots of marl, as well as éboulis calcaire, and other crunchy, delicious soil types, like this one from the Jensillard vineyard. IMG_0477

First we tasted some excellent wine out of barrel with Géraud: whole cluster Poulsard, Trousseau, and Pinot, with a bit of sulfur, made in a classic style, with several weeks of maceration, making me think of Poulsards of yore, like the way you felt when you first tasted red wines from Puffeney: elegant yet very structured. I say this because so much red wine from the Jura these days is made with a short maceration, partial carbonic, without sulfur, etc … It was nice to find these pleasantly tannic, clean wines; there’s a place in my heart for both styles, and Géraud succeeds well at an old school style of Jura red wine. It’s a bit hard to say what these wines will become since we tasted them out of barrel, but they weren’t horribly reduced (like pretty much everything we tasted in the Loire and Beaujolais), and they seemed extremely promising. IMG_0490

Next we tasted Chardonnay and Savagnin. As a general rule, these guys like to leave their white wines for at least two winters in barrel before bottling them, so these wines will not be released any time soon. Why? In some cases it’s because Pierre Overnoy and Manu Houillon told them to. (I’m only half kidding.) But the logic, which is 100% sound, is that the wines need that much time to stabilize, and that if you bottle in winter, unwanted oxygen will get trapped in the wine. This points to something very interesting and special about the Jura: namely that whether sous voile or ouillé, the white wines need time, whereas the reds? 2014 reds will be in the bottle as soon as it’s a fruit day and the temperature exceeds 50 degrees. Of the whites we tasted out of barrel, the most impressive according to my notes was a Chardonnay grown on marl, its malolactic fermentation not yet complete. They were all great, but it’s too soon to tell. IMG_0481

We went to look at the vines. It was very cold and windy, but of course Géraud was comfortable in a fleece, while we were shivering in our down/wool coats complete with hat and gloves. (Winemakers are impervious to cold.) The vineyard that gives us Géraud’s Chardonnay “Jensillard” is planted to both Chardonnay and Chardonnay “Muscaté” a subtle and natural permutation into aromatic, floral Chardonnay that has been inflected with Muscat. Made in a topped up style, the wine is absolutely beautiful. IMG_0475

Both Jensillard and En Levrette (yes it does mean “Doggystyle,” or as Géraud said “oui il y a un sens sexuel”) come from old vines on poor, iron rich soils. En Levrette, aged in neutral barrels and topped up, is unapologetically high acid and mineral driven. Both of these cuvées offered about as much as I could want from Burgundian style Jura Chardonnay, a dense pillar-like structure, a mingling of lemony and granny smith apple acidity with fleshy texture and a faint buttery sensation. I was sorry our most recent order from Géraud went entirely to the west coast. IMG_0479

After Jensillard and En Levrette, we went to see Géraud’s vineyard in Grusse, a neighboring town. Planted at the maximum elevation for the area: 350-400 meters above sea level, this is a frigid, blustery 4 hectare plot with many grape varieties co-planted. This is the vineyard that gave Marnes Blanches its name, and it’s a remote, craggy spot in middle earth. IMG_0482

Chilled to the bone, we returned to the Fromont homestead where we met the sheep, ate Coq au Vin Jaune for lunch, and tasted Géraud’s sensational sous voile wines. What charmed me the most about Domaine des Marnes Blanches is that the Fromonts give equal weight and opportunity to both styles of Jura white wine, and are equally enthusiastic about making both. If you’ve been following my writing, you know that I’m an enormous fan of sous voile wine, and I’m inspired when young winemakers do not abandon the traditional styles of the region in order to placate the trend for topped up Jura white wine. Géraud’s “Tradition” is 60% Savagnin, 40% Chardonnay, both raised sous voile, assembled two months before bottling. It’s one of those wines that provides a glorious entry into sous voile Jura wine, with riveting acidity and an unmistakable aromatic je ne sais quoi. Géraud’s Savagnin Empreinte garnered an emoticon in my tasting notes, but by that point I was most likely (okay certainly) eating Comte, perfectly happy, and had abandoned my notes for the sheer joy of being alive, and in the company of my fellow man, and in the Jura. The good news is that Tradition and Savagnin are coming to New York soon, as soon as Géraud’s label printer is fixed. I’ll be able to ponder and revel in them in more depth … and so will you, dear reader. IMG_0485

I can’t move to the Jura. I want it in the same way I want to bring my parents back to life. It’s just not realistic. I’m American, and very likely to stay that way, but I can, through my work, bring myself there as often as possible to bask in the glory of that bucolic country landscape, such a contrast to our own vast, concrete jungle.

A large part of the reason I left my job as assistant buyer at Astor Wines and Spirits (about 5.5 years ago), was that I wanted to be able to buy stuff just for being good, not all the time, bien sûr, but sometimes. I craved the simple interaction between vendor and buyer in which a wine is tasted, enjoyed, and purchased. For better or worse, the environment at Astor had become so political and “deal” driven that I was not free simply to order a three case drop of something because I loved it and wanted it on the shelf. I’d already apprehended that the act of buying wine in an important store was more than merely populating the shelves, but for my own sanity, I needed to be (and buy) somewhere freer and less corporate. I say this with the utmost respect for Astor. After 5.5 years, I’ve been back a few times recently, including to pour a Saturday afternoon tasting! There’s some really good wine in that store; I see familiar faces; I see unfamiliar sherries and pick one out. For a long time, I doubted I’d ever be okay walking into Astor, but it turns out I’m more than okay; I’m happy to be there.

This is not to imply that Chambers Street Wines is not a political or deal driven place. All stores are; it’s the nature of the beast. But one thing that drew me to Chambers, that still draws me to Chambers, is that the buyers have autonomy within the confines of the store’s philosophy, and the store’s philosophy isn’t a hindrance! Chances are if you land a buying job there it’s because you already subscribe to these ideals of organically farmed, small production, low intervention wine. Et voilà, you can usually put what you love on the shelf. For example, when I bought Champagne at Chambers, it needed to be organically farmed; it needed to be marked “RM” rather than “NM;” the list goes on. I took it seriously, and I did my best, sometimes to the exclusion of wines I liked, and the inclusion of wines I didn’t … It’s a fine balance between the store as an entity and the buyer’s palate, relationships, and personality.

In my new professional role, which is a combination of selling wine locally and nationally, with some added fun writing assignments for Selection Massale’s California-based mailing list, I’ve gotten to know lots of new buyers in both restaurants and stores, which is exciting, and offers ample fodder for observation. And certainly one of the things I’ve often had to remind myself of is that when you sign on to buy wine, the agenda of the place you’re buying for is part of the job. Ultimately, and probably because I came from Chambers Street, a place that has always identified with the small guy (as do I, personally), a place that staunchly refuses to sell out on the low end to acquire collectable wine on the high end, I struggle the most to remind myself of the confines of wine buying roles when I encounter allocation-driven establishments. (Yes, at one point, and for better or worse, Chambers lost its allocation of DRC because the store refused to case stack the requisite amount of cheap wine from the company that imports and distributes Domaine de la Romanée Conti — and as I recall they didn’t seem to mind that they’d lost their allocation!)

Last year, or it may have been the year before, a handful of us were polishing off some magnums of Ledru and Laval at Ten Bells, when Mr. Carleton of the small, Connecticut-based Champagne importer Transatlantic Bubbles suggested that we start a website called “Vinjustice” expressly to expose the allocation game. He began with the query: “do you think Aubert de Villaine knows that his customers in New York have to buy pallets worth of cheap New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in order to get La Tâche?” Well … who knows? He may be aware, and he may not care. What followed was a long, angry conversation amongst retail buyers (MC is also a retail buyer for a shop in Connecticut) about the injustice of the allocation game.

To be fair, everyone allocates; everyone plays this game. (I did it myself. Thursday and Saturday.) It is as knit into the fabric of our industry as dosage in a fine bottle of Roederer Crystal. However, in my opinion, when acquiring allocations of sought-after, expensive wine, and cultivating relationships with the companies that sell these wines become driving forces, the personality of the store or the wine list suffers. The shelf, or the list is a transparent representation of relationships. When you’ve been in the wine business long enough, as soon as you walk into a store, or peruse a wine list, you see exactly who is playing ball with whom. And chances are you also know exactly which allocations are at stake in the choice of $12 Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Sauvignon Blanc. It’s clear as day; there are no secrets.

For me, the best stores and lists show a certain amount of creativity and fearlessness in buying. I thought about this when I started to call on SB of The Spotted Pig, a guy relatively new to wine with a creative mind and a good palate. It was clear to me that he’d transformed the wine list at this restaurant to take into account what he loved and was curious about, rather than a series of entrenched relationships. I’m similarly impressed by RK of Trestle on Tenth, who has always put eclectic wines on his list that are true to his taste, and true to his food. Guests are rewarded for esoteric choices by fair prices; it’s awesome. As a restaurant buyer, it’s a pain in the ass to buy from lots of suppliers, and my hat is off to people who do because I think it shows willingness to work just a bit harder to make a great list. Believe me this is not meant to disparage restaurant buyers who chose to limit the suppliers they work with. There are many ways to get the job done, and I’m respectful of all of them. Also, I’m speaking from the perspective of a small company with distinct politics, geeky wine, and an intentional lack of fancy burgundy, so please take what I say with a grain of salt.

As to stores, going back to my departure from Astor, the reason retail buying should be at least partially free of the constraints of allocation and agenda is that genuine enthusiasm transmits to the customer. Here’s what happens when retail buyers have the freedom to pull the trigger on wines they love: schnook walks in, pours wine, tells story of wine, gives price (or writes it on the back of the bottle as I now do), buyer tastes, flips out and says “holy Jesus this is the best Sonoma Coast Malvasia I’ve ever tasted!” Buyer orders three cases, and the next day, before the tape has been stripped from the box, before the wine is created in the store’s POS, it’s in the hands of half a dozen customers who are thrilled by the enthusiasm of the buyer. This is an idyllic picture; it’s not going to be like this all the time, but in order to have a good store … at least sometimes it needs to be like this.

Here are a few bottles I’ve loved over the past few weeks as I’ve pondered wine politics and injustice:photo-48

1) Jochen Beurer’s 2009 Stettener Pulvermacher Kieselsandstein, a wine that is absolutely in the zone right now. To de-mystify the label: Stettener is the town, Pulvermacher the town’s best vineyard site. Kieselsandstein is a type of beige, chunky limestone. Riesling is the grape, though when this wine was young, it probably bore about as much resemblance to a standard issue Riesling as Jurassic Chardonnay does to Kistler or Rombauer. When these wines are young, they smell like limestone, but as they age they begin to show their varietal character. This wine is becoming slightly petrol-y on the nose, notes of honey, opulent yellow fruit on the palate, and a sapid finish of rocks and acid. The warm 2009 vintage had a lovely effect on this wine, rounding its edges and fleshing it out a bit. I drank this bottle with my good friend RSG who buys German wine and other things at the excellent Manhattan store Flatiron Wines and Spirits. RSG and I have different wine politics, and we have different taste, yet we manage to be friends nonetheless. We sipped this bottle with a butternut squash risotto I’d made, and the pairing was perfect. In a leaner year the wine would have been too austere for the dish. In general, these are Rieslings you can drink with oysters. However the honeyed, mellow ’09 Kiesel did wonders for the food. “This wine is really good. It reminds me of limestone soil Riesling from around Vienna.” RSG pointed out after half an hour of sipping, chewing, and gossiping. Shit. I didn’t know there was limestone based Riesling from Vienna. At any rate Jochen Beurer is the man; the more wines I drink from him, the more I’m blown away by his work. (As an aside I wish one of my retail buyer friends would snap this up, because people *need* to drink this wine.)

2) To continue the trend of long-lees, barrel-aged, winter white wines from limestone soils, Bruno Debize’s Beaujolais Blanc “Cépage Gris.”

photo-49This wine is Chardonnay with a percentage of old vine Pinot Gris. I’ve been impressed by a handful of Debize wines of late: 2011 Beaujolais “Cambertiers,” “Apinost,” an ethereal, high-toned Gamay with a touch of Pinot Noir, “Long Fleuve” a Chardonnay and Aligoté blend from Bugey, etc … I have one or two friends who have not had their come-to-Jesus moment with Debize, and I feel for them because these wines are outstanding. Cépage Gris has a beautiful floral nose that is compelling yet understated. If Beurer’s ’09 Kiesel is arresting and powerful, Debize ’11 Cépage Gris is mouth-filling yet restrained with layers of aromatic pear and apple atop a light frame (>12% alcohol) and a finish of well-integrated acidity and minerality. It’s a pretty wine, haunting, quiet, but resonant, and as elegant an expression of Pinot Gris as I’ve encountered.

3) This rather show-stopping bottle from Stéphane Tissot.

photo-50

En Barberon is from ancient Lias clay soil and éboulis calcaire: crumbly limestone that probably fell down from the Alps at the dawn of time. (Don’t quote me on that.) As always with Stéphane’s single terroir Chardonnays, the influence of wood is there, and the wine needs an hour or 24 open to reveal all it has to offer. It’s lightly piney on the nose, spicy; it’s reductive at first, and as Stéphane and Bénédicte tell us on the label “A carafe de préférance,” roughly translated as “decant this and don’t serve it too cold.” The palate is unapologetic in its structure. I immediately felt I was engaged in an act of infanticide drinking it, but I also couldn’t stop myself because the mid palate and finish completely coated my mouth with stony flavors, erased pretty much every thought in my head but the wine, and kept me coming back for more. (Really. The first night I drank this I had to put down my PG Wodehouse short stories at least three times because I couldn’t read and drink at the same time.) My mouth was watering after every sip as though I’d actually had rocks in there rather than fermented grape juice.

At the end of the day we’re all in this together, squabbling over allocations and placements is just one aspect of the endlessly amusing game we call The Wine Business. On that note, I’m going to France to collect some real material for the blog. Thanks for indulging my rant, and I’ll be back in a few weeks.

 

 

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

photo-46

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

This bottle came from my Tissot holiday collection: photo 4

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

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

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

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

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

And finally:photo 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

I’ll finish with this bottle: photo-40

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

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

 

Nov
9

The Hustle.

Be forewarned that this is going to be a discombobulated post, verging on steam of consciousness, about life in the fast lane of wine sales womanship. Before I get started, however, I’d like to give a shout out to a friend.

Of late I’ve been really enjoying Lauren Gitlin’s blog. (I’ve put a link in the right hand sidebar; take a look!) Lauren used to be a manager and buyer at Uva wines in Williamsburg, and she left New York at the same time I did. I left for two months to wander around Europe; she left indefinitely to make cheese in Vermont. We both looked to agriculture and the countryside to sooth a malaise brought about by long term habitation in New York. Yet I imagined Lauren would come back to the infectious energy of the city after a few months of roughing it. She’s not coming back. Sigh. It shows a lot of strength to embrace a totally new career in spite of various hardships: early mornings, bone-chilling weather, and the lack of local entertainment aside from contra dancing. I admire Lauren, and I miss her. She’s someone who puts a lot of joy into drinking and talking about wine among many things. Her writing is heartfelt and hilarious … and there are sweet goat photos.

Back to the fast lane. A friend who does not use Facebook recently gently complained that she didn’t know what I’d been doing since coming back from Europe. She’d heard I’d become a schnook (the local vernacular for a wine sales person), but I hadn’t posted an update on my blog about my professional life, and thus she didn’t know what I was up to. Well, the rumors are true. I am now a wholesale seller of wine, pending my alcohol solicitor’s license, which requires a longish stint at the department of motor vehicles to obtain a New York driver’s license. Oh and I’ve got to get finger printed.

Anyway, here’s how I arrived at schnookery:

Upon deciding I needed to try my hand at something other than retail, I thought extensively about what my ideal job would be, which aspects of the wine business I enjoy most, who I am as a person, as a professional, what my skills and strengths are, what I want the next few years of my life to be like. You know: all that soul searching that precedes any deliberate major decision. As a notorious waffler without a five-year plan, I was thrilled to discover that I could answer these internally posed questions. (Big ups to the head shrinker; she helped me a lot.)

At the end of the day, I knew that I could only sell a portfolio of wine that I truly loved, that my sympathies lay more with small companies than big ones, that I wanted to be involved in the creative process of importing wine, not just the selling of it … and that hands down my favorite aspect of this job is traveling to meet farmers in Europe. As luck and circumstance would have it, I started to talk to Guilhaume Gérard of Selection Massale, a growing company with an impeccable portfolio of wine that I’d loved since Guilhaume arrived in New York about three years ago. When I went to Europe, I had a sense I’d come back a member of Selection Massale, but I didn’t want to finalize the decision because I wanted to take my sabbatical, and I wanted to work with Stéphane, and Gernot, without feeling obligated to another employer. I needed respite from the New York wine business.

Now I’m back, and the head shrinker would doubtless have suggested taking more than a couple of days to digest the experience before diving into the next thing, but the truth is that I’m absolutely excited about working for this company in various capacities. According to my palate, the wines are outstanding, and I want to shout it to the world.

In reality, this means becoming a sales person, which I have mixed feelings about having always been on the other side of the wholesale buying arrangement. I’m fortunate that at Chambers Street I dealt with some top notch sales people, and I have them in mind as I delve into this new enterprise: Mike Foulk of MFW, Ryan Looper  of T. Edward Wines, Alex Miranda of David Bowler, the list goes on. I’ll probably never be a proper schnook; the expression “price point” makes me cringe, but I’ll give it my all … while trying not to sacrifice my integrity or annoy my friends, many of whom are buyers. (At Selection Massale, we like to deflect discussion of price points by wearing hot dog outfits. It’s very professional.) image

Yesterday I went out for my first day of attempting to sell wine on the street. Seems as though it should be perfectly easy to carry a bag of wine around pouring tastes for people and getting their feedback, hoping they’ll order something while trying not to take it personally if they don’t. However … Here are some observations:

1) What if a wine isn’t showing well? Channeling my ex-boyfriend Clarke Boehling, a highly talented schnook for Rosenthal, I opened my bottles in the morning, tasted them, and formulated my own opinions before taking them out. I wasn’t satisfied by one, so I left it at home. However I was thrilled by two, and I couldn’t wait to share them.

2) The bag is heavy, unwieldy, and a pain in the ass.

3) Sometimes the buyer isn’t there, and then you feel silly, and you leave her some tastes, which you hope she’ll actually taste.

4) No matter how much time you spend cramming, you are going to occasionally forget important details like the size of the Domaine and the cépage. If you forget the cépage, you feel very silly.

5) When the hell do you tell the buyer the prices of the wines? When there’s a lull in conversation? While he is contemplatively sucking and mulling over the wine while scribbling or typing away?

6) As the day goes on, the bag gets heavier, though in theory as you pour tastes the bag should be getting lighter, which leaves you both fatigued and mystified. (I chose this bag to begin my career as a schnook. My mom found it in Mexico; she was the first person to suggested that I work in the wine business. She died at the dawn of my career; the bag is a bit of an homage.) photo-36

7) It’s totally different, and inherently a bit humiliating walking into a shop where you know everyone … as a schnook, even if all you intended to do was to say “hello,” you have no intention of trying to sell them anything, and in truth *you’re more likely to buy something from them than they are to buy something from you* (this happened to me yesterday when Christy Frank sold me a bottle of L’Anglore Chemin de la Brune, which officially means that I’ve bought more wine than I’ve sold as a sales rep.)

8) Am I becoming a solider? I’ve always been put off by schnooks who became soldiers for their companies, sales reps who lost all objectivity, believing that their wines are hands down God’s gift to the wine drinking world. That said, as I tasted these wines over the course of the day, I became increasingly proud of them; I believed in what was in my make-shift shook bag.

There was much more that I observed yesterday, but I’ll end with one thing I kept coming back to as I meandered around lower Manhattan with my bag. It’s something I’ve been pondering heavily for the past few months. While it’s certainly true that the majority of people in our trade don’t actually know much about the reality of making wine, it’s also true that generally the people who make wine don’t understand the reality of selling it in a busy city with a million venues and ample competition. The wine business has myriad layers, and those layers make up the rich fabric of our industry. There were certainly moments yesterday when I hearkened back to Gernot Kollmann’s cellar at Immich-Batterieberg, its stark cleanliness and dank aromas, the constant, lush burbling of the fermentations, the cellar floor damp from sterilizing tanks, sensations of inner peace as the mind floated two thousand miles away while the hands reached for a hose and a nozzle … I know I can’t become a vigneron. My work is here, spreading the gospel of good wine in one way or another.

With the Germany chronicles, I’m going to start with a visit to Jochen Beurer in the town of Stetten, and work backwards in time to trailing behind prince-among-men Gernot Kollmann in the Immich-Batterieberg cellar. Anyone who’s obsessed with wine will tell you that at a certain point it’s rare to encounter anything truly new, much less *new* and exceptionally good. Well, it happened to me in Swabia. It sounds cheesy, but the Rieslings of Jochen Beurer in south western Germany made me want to live. They made me want to dive into an ad hoc picnic on a hill in the sunset, or go for a fast, chilly run on a fall morning. They made me want to come home and tell everyone about them; they made me think “this is why I do what I do.” Of course there was the sheen of novelty, also a distinct whiff of what I call “that which can’t be said,” a vague nod to the philosopher Wittgenstein, whose work I used to love to read as a younger and brighter person. And it’s funny because of the Swabian juice I’d tried in New York (Knauss, Holger Koch, and Beurer), I’d found Beurer’s the hardest to fathom … until going there when it all began to make sense. photo-31

I guess Swabia is normally defined as the area around Württemberg, however it’s clear that Swabians were present — in varying numbers and at various times in history — in Alsace, Hungary and Croatia, Switzerland, parts of Baden, parts of Bavaria, the list goes on. Charlemagne was apparently of Swabian descent. The salient point for wine lovers is that Swabia specializes in dry Riesling grown on predominantly limestone soil, and red wine: Spätburgunder, Trollinger, Lemberger, and a small slew of fabricated, crossed varieties that might be fun to chuck in the Tuesday night steak blend. In landscape, Swabia reminded me of the Jura: rolling hills with intermittently dramatic slopes, greenery and woodlands. Swabia is practically next to the Jura; all you’ve got to do is drive through the Black Forrest to reach one from the other. They were both geologically impacted by the slow shifting of the Alps pressing up against their surfaces to create patchwork-y crenelations. I believe that on Jochen’s website, which I’ve linked to in the right hand margin, the terraces that resulted from soft ground and hard limestone coming into contact are called “bear noses.” It’s questionable to attempt to make a connection between the wines of Jura and the wines of Swabia, which may only share Jurassic limestone; at the same time, Andi Knauss’s Trollinger is not unlike Poulsard from Fabrice Dodane of Domaine Saint-Pierre … I’m just saying. photo-32

But at Beurer I was smote by Riesling, and I thought back to a lengthy, drunken argument with my original New York wine friends about which white grape variety is the most terroir expressive. Historically I argued against Riesling because of obnoxious (in my mind — it’s a personal prejudice) residual sugar and added yeast. That was before I’d tasted the best renditions of the filigreed, tangy slate of the Mosel; “slate custard” I call it. I think the truth is that like all grapes that are conduits for great terroir, Riesling as Riesling is fairly neutral, obtaining its complexity from good vineyards worked well. Jochen’s were an entirely different species of Riesling from the Mosel Rieslings I was used to: broad and full-bodied even in their lightest expression, with base-y, stony flavors, and an almost total lack of fruitiness. They were ripe wines that ranged from the lees-y Muscadet-like Schilfsandstein to the sexy, lush, Alpine Junges Schwaben Grosses Gewächs. There are different types of soil here: the porous, chunky Gipskeuper, and the chalky Stubensandstein of the area’s best vineyards. In a way it’s downright unsettling for Riesling to taste like this, but as Jochen — a thick, strong, BMX cyclist — would say, smiling, resolute: “I like it.” Best just to heed the first responses of one’s own inner voice in this case murmuring “delicious.” There was something brilliant and alluring about these Rieslings that I couldn’t quite put my finger on or find words to describe. photo-33

Beurer farms ten hectares of vines, and he’s biodynamically certified. He farms some vines with a horse, and he uses homeopathic treatments in the vineyard, including a charming little innovation for fighting the dreaded drosophila suzukii, which plagued many European wine regions in 2014 from the Loire Valley to Swabia. Jochen burned and scattered the ashes of drosophila insects in the vineyards. In the cellar, Jochen works almost entirely with native yeast, very long, slow fermentations on lees, and barrels for most of the wines save the ones that are intended for young quaffing. The white wines see one light filtration. photo-34

First, there was 2013 Riesling “Gipskeuper” a name for the soil beneath the limestone in some of Jochen’s vineyards. The translation is “gypsum.” It’s a waxy, porous soil found at the lowest level of the terraces that gives a medium bodied, totally dry Riesling with a salty, mouth-watering finish. The exposition is southeast, with an elevation of around 300 meters. If you didn’t move on to the Riesling Schilfsandstein, you’d think you’d arrived at a very good dry Riesling with Gips, but the intensely linear, limestone-y, Schilf made Gips seem positively frivolous in comparison. Schilf comes from 35 year old vines planted in windy conditions on finely particled and mineral rich soil. Schilf was quite Muscadet-like, and, frankly, I’ve not encountered many Rieslings I’d like to drink with oysters, which I suddenly found myself craving. The 2013 Riesling Kieselsandstein has a half a degree more alcohol than Gips and Schilf at 12%, and it’s a fuller, more mouth-filling wine with mellow blue tones, yellow fruits, and hints of leaf and flower petal. The vines here are also 35 years old, and the soil is gravely and poor, with very little topsoil. Kiesel comes from the area’s most well-known vineyard called Pulvermächer. Made in foudre, the wine takes an exceptionally long time to ferment and has lovely phenolics. As I look at my notes on these wines, I see many scribbled details: tones and shades, impressions and expletives, but literally no fruit flavors. They were resoundingly ripe, extremely high acid from the zippy 2013 vintage, and yet I couldn’t conjure an accurate fruit salad description to save my life.

Jochen’s top wine highlights the Stubensandstein you can (sort of) see in the  lowest level of the box above: breakable chunks of white limestone (“sandstein” means limestone). The old vine cuvée of Stubensandstein is labelled Grosses Gewächs (I literally cannot go into detail about German wine labeling because I don’t understand it, and the more the Germans emulate the French in designating Villages, 1er, and Grand Cru wines, the more confused I become). At any rate, both the 2012 and the 2013 of this wine were exceptional. In 2013, the wine has a lighter frame, a 14 day maceration on skins and stems, and a racy, fennel-y profile. Bottled on September 12th, the 2013 was jubilantly open for business. 2012 Junges Schwaben was the subject of some dissension in our team ranks. Initially closed, it was a chunkier wine than the 2013, and wanting a bit of acid. After 20 minutes, it came resoundingly into its own, transformed into an animal, sexy wine with layer upon layer of flavor, and an exotic, creamy finish of coconut flesh and meadow flowers. photo-35

In the end, I paid this wine the ultimate compliment by asking to buy one to stuff into my suitcase. I put some money on the table and Jochen told a joke the punchline of which revolved around Swabians’ love of money. I recall it as: “How do you dig a hole in the ground?” “Tell a Swabian there’s a penny buried where you want the hole dug.” He made a digging gesture and grinned a friendly, toothy smile. It was approximately my 24th hour in Swabia; I was already smitten, and we’d barely gotten into the reds …

I met Renaud Bruyère at Le Nez Dans Le Vert in 2012. He and his wife, Adeline Houillon, had with them two bottles of excellent Arbois-Pupillin wine: one red and one white. After tasting, I asked them if they had some to sell, if they were excited by the prospect of representation in New York. Ha! No wine. Desolé!

Renaud is a dude I saw every day (except the week he was harvesting his own vines) while working for Stéphane Tissot. He’s the guy you’d most want to have in your cellar: laid back yet motivated, able to bestow order upon a team of able-bodied yet occasionally directionless cellar hands, at ease behind a forklift and a tractor, naturally inclined to see what needs to be done and to do it. He reminded me of the best sous chefs I’d known. I went to see him the day before I left Arbois: I didn’t take any pictures; it felt like stopping by a friend’s house. Renaud – in an apron – was kneading a lump of pizza dough.

A native of Tain-Hermitage, at the beginning (2004), Renaud worked for other people, for Overnoy, and for Tissot. He collected four hectares of vines around Arbois, Pupillin, and Montigny. His winemaking is completely natural, with organic certification, no chemicals in the vines, no added yeast, and no sulfur whatsoever. Renaud doesn’t strike me as particularly earnest or philosophically driven when it comes to winemaking; he just doesn’t need that shit.

Renaud likes barrels for his white wines, and he tops them up; the fermentations are long. He makes wonderful Montigny Savagnin; the 2013 balances on a tightrope of succulent white stone fruits and razor sharp acidity. Renaud’s astonishingly good 2013 Chardonnay/Savagnin blend from the higher altitude “Tourillon” vineyard has crunchy acidity, and more saline character than his pure Savagnin; the wine is 80% Chardonnay and 20% Savagnin blended before pressing. Another 2013 blend of 60% Savagnin and 40% Chardonnay comes from old vines in a clay-heavy vineyard in Pupillin. It’s fatter than Renaud’s Tourillon with sweet green fruit, and lush lemon cream on the nose. Even in the compromised state that followed our end of harvest party, it was virtually impossible to spit out this wine.

Renaud’s wines are coming to New York with my friend Zev, and Renaud thought there would be a shipment this fall. With this shipment will be Renaud’s 2013 Pupillin Trousseau/Ploussard blend. With equal parts the two grapes, this wine shows spicy, sanguine notes, animal character from Trousseau, and forward, red fruit from Ploussard. It’s superbly structured and bloody for a red wine from a catastrophic vintage. I mentioned to Renaud Pierre Overnoy’s childhood memory of a Poulsard and Trousseau blend, and he replied: “I don’t see the point of growing Pinot here. The best red wines of this region … they are not made from Pinot Noir.” D’accord.photo-30

Renaud is the dude in the green sweater, illustrating a point to our friend Gigi.