Sophie's Glass

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 …

In the spring of 2015 when I was national sales manager for Selection Massale, I wrote a post called “sleeping with other cities” about traveling to the southeast to promote the Massale brand. The journey stuck with me. It was the first time I’d visited Atlanta and New Orleans — iconic cities of the southeast! In retrospect, the reason this trip resonated so powerfully is that I loved the work. In retrospect, I’ve been trying to get back to this type of work since it escaped me in the fall of 2015. Happily, Division Winemaking Company came my way, and with them I have the opportunity to work markets across the U.S. again.

Going on tour with a wine company is not unlike going on tour with a band.

National selling differs from regional selling. National sales takes me to major cities, also off-the-beaten-path places in America, and allows me to dip into their wine and food scene for a couple of days. I meet the players and see how the game is played in those markets. I scope out what’s trending there, what portfolios are hot, what and where people are dining. I spend time with portfolio managers and sales reps, which is both taxing and fun. Since prohibition, the rules of the alcohol game have been 99% state determined, which means that every market has its own laws and customs. I learn about those and file them away to strengthen my chameleon abilities to sell to whomever, wherever, however (as long as it’s honest — guiding principle: no lying).

Regional sales made me a specialist: a specialist in New York booze laws and customs, New York restaurants and retail stores, New York distributor portfolios. I was relationship-rich. Rather than fleeting rapports with buyers, I had extensive ones; sometimes a buyer’d be so thoroughly ensconced in my brain that I’d dream about them … unlikely to happen in national sales.

I do not think one of these jobs is superior to the other. Both have major pros and cons. While I thoroughly enjoyed working a regional sales route for MFW (notably because MFW is a superb company with superb wine), I’m thrilled to be working a national route for Division. There are two things that draw me to national sales: the opportunity to travel the United States, and the consequent opportunity to celebrate small and burgeoning wine markets. It’s a given that the wine will be good in New York, L.A., Chicago. But an interesting wine market in Jackson Hole Wyoming, or Savannah, or Knoxville? Now that’s something …

On April 30th, I flew to Charleston to begin three weeks of market visits across the east coast followed by a week in Oregon for I Love Gamay, a festival I’d aided in the production and planning of. Looking down the barrel of this trip was daunting: a month of crashing in hotels, airbnbs, on friends’ air-mattresses and in their spare rooms, a month away from my home, my man and my cats, a month without routine, a month of living out of a suitcase. On the other hand: adventure! Life in Colorado is fairly staid and calm. I’m sleeping with a small town where people routinely wear pajama pants to the grocery store, where there’s virtually no grower Champagne, or black people, where I couldn’t buy a cocktail dress because shops don’t carry them. It was time to sleep with some cities — including the big mac-daddy of them all: New York, my former home.

Though I’d never been to Charleston, I was smote by powerful nostalgia when I touched down there. There were vivid green trees everywhere, moisture in the air, thick, soft light, southern voices speaking syrupy sentences dripping with irony, pimento cheese to feast upon, cicadas chirping loud as hell at night. It’s odd to experience a sense of home in a place you’ve never been, but that was my reaction to being reunited with the region of my birth and first 27 years of life, after four months in Colorado. Regional identity is real, and I didn’t know how strongly I identify as an east coaster, as a southerner, until I moved to the west.

superior pairing.

The food and wine scene in Charleston is poppin’ off right now. It’s clear that the city is going through a renaissance, or gentrification, or yuppi-fication if you will. There are quite a few buyers of New York origin in Charleston, which became a running joke between the sales rep and myself. Not that having New York wine buyers around is necessarily a good thing, or a sign of progress, but New York buyers do tend to push the envelope, to demand of their local reps the wines they used to buy in the metropolis. The sales rep, I should mention, is a gentleman named Kevin Kelley who is doing a smashing job not just for Division, but also for my former employer Selection Massale, for Portovino, for Jose Pastor Selections (these portfolios are all over Charleston), and more. Kevin is as good a rep as they come. He’s been in the Charleston food scene since the mid-80s; he knows everyone, and if buyer relationships were saturated fat, he’d be foie gras. He walks the streets of Charleston with a broken old schnook bag full of crazy good wine, seeing 10+ accounts a day, received with open arms by each one.

shelf-talker at Monarch Wine Merchants.

There were many excellent visits in Charleston, but I’ll highlight three spots. Graft is a new wine shop on King Street run by a couple of cool, young dudes named Miles and Femi. Miles worked as an assistant winemaker for Antica Terra in Oregon, and really knows his stuff. Femi, too. Apparently he’d shopped with me at Chambers Street back in the day. The booze laws in South Carolina allow these guys to have both and on and an off-premise licenses, so one can drink a delicious glass or bottle (with snacks!) at Graft. Their clientele is young and hip (like them!). I fielded quite a few questions about natural wine during my event there, and not one eye brow raised at the bottle of cold Gamay “Les Petits Fers” in my ice bucket.

Monarch Wine Merchants is a gorgeous shop further north on King Street run by a soulful guy named Justin who clearly has a hard-on for sparkling wine to equal my own. His sparkling selection reflects the give-zero-fucks-I’m-putting-amazing-Champange-on-the-shelf (even if I have to drink it all myself) attitude that imbued my Champagne shelf at Chambers Street. I could easily have spent a month’s rent at Monarch.

And finally Stems & Skins, a funky wine bar in north Charleston run by a genial, boisterous cat named Matt Tunstall. My wine bar takeover at Stems was followed by an opera performance during which I sat outside with Matt and Kevin, sipping a flight of Chenin (Division, Rochers des Violettes, Franz Saumon), enjoying the warm spring evening, getting tipsy and righteously eaten alive by mosquitos. Then we went to a dive bar that reminded me so much of the dive bars of my youth that an unbidden tear welled in my eye.

Dream car!

The next morning I set forth in the microscopic Toyota Yaris I’d rented for Savannah. Out of the city, I was in the rural southeast of my youth: crumby trailers with American flags in the yard alongside busted old hoopties with missing tires, swampy marshlands, Bojangles and Waffle House, poor and rich, black and white, living totally separately, yet right next to each other. I stopped to pee just outside Hilton Head at a dumpy junction where I was the only white person to be seen. Vestiges of slavery, segregation and racism still alive and well, an impoverished black community adjacent to a wealthy, white golfing town. But here’s the thing: rational awareness of how totally messed up the southeast is doesn’t stop me from feeling the visceral, palpably at home there.

Stay tuned for next week’s continuation of “working the market” (mid-Atlantic edition).