As is often the case after I’ve been shooting the breeze with Étienne Guérin, I found myself introspecting, not just during the conversations (two are referenced, one strolling through Williamsburg from Hotel Delmano to our respective homes, and one sitting at The Four Horsemen over an exquisite bottle of 2011 Courtois les Racines and plate of fine steak tartare), but long afterward as well. Walking home from Delmano, we were talking about what brings us joy in wine. It’s not the unicorns; it’s not the expensive bottles; it’s certainly not the bragging rights and social media opportunities that attend opening hard to come by and/or costly bottles. In fact it’s generally the company the wine keeps at the table in terms of both foods and humans that make a great wine experience. Étienne said, and doubtless most of us will agree, that there is no greater pleasure than sharing a tasty bottle with friends, or a lover, or both, over conversation and — usually but by no means always — food.
This type of statement can seem to imply that whether or not the wine is good, well-made, soulful doesn’t matter as long as the company’s up to snuff. But that’s not what I’m saying. It’s more that chances are — after a decade in the business (more in Étienne’s case) — it’s likely the wine is decent if it’s found its way into our glasses (if it’s not, simply open something else, or make a cup of tea), and then we are free to let the joy of drinking and dining with friends and loved ones wash over us. We’re free to stop analyzing the wine, to start griping about Donald Trump’s campaign, the epic failure of the Carolina Panthers in last week’s Super Bowl game, the bone chilling temperatures we’re presently experiencing in these parts, or — a favorite of mine — our f–ked up health care system!
In our conversation at The Four Horsemen, Étienne told me that, on the verge of a big birthday, he’d been assessing his tenure in wine and restaurants, trying to figure out what to make of it and where to go next, trying to figure out how better to seize the day. Étienne’s lack of complacency when it comes to life has inspired me since we got to know one another. I’d been feeling the same way, though professionally I’m not looking to go anywhere; I’m quite happy where I am, I’d been realizing that I’ve arrived at a certain place of relative confidence and comfort within the industry and am beginning to ask “what can I do to make this better, to improve my work life balance, to branch out and grow, to continue to learn?”
Lots of my close friends in New York who work in wine are sharing these sentiments, which is further proof that we’ve been kicking around the scene for quite awhile! Ariana mentioned that she’s retrieving her cello from her mom’s house in Wisconsin. I took this as a sure sign that she’s seeking aesthetic fulfillment beyond wine, going back to a pass time that fulfilled her before her very first sip of Grenache. Rosemary’s been reading extensively about religion and spirituality, and learning to concoct crazy teas and herbal remedies. Personally, I’m reviving my Clair de Lune, one of the most beautiful pieces ever written for the piano, challenging for an amateur, composed in an odd key and time signature, full of impressionist era chords and undulations that make it damn hard to learn (or in my case re-learn; I learned this piece for the first time when I was 14, and, in competition, received the highest accolades. “It floats” the judge wrote of my Clair de Lune; this piece is as dear to my heart as Lahaye’s Violaine, and it bothers me on a regular basis that they used it in the finale of that terrible Brad Pitt/George Cluny movie about the casino robbery). But I digress. The point is: when we first got into this, there was no life outside wine, and now we find ourselves crying out for a life outside wine.
Within the professional realm, since I started with MFW, learning about wines that aren’t French has been a huge source of enjoyment and personal growth. On Friday, at Ariana’s invitation, I went to dinner at Betony (this restaurant is incredible, by the way …) to drink wines from Priorat. I learned long ago that it’s wise to accept Ariana’s invitations and this was no exception. Made by a Bavarian ex-pat named Dominik Huber who moved to Torroja (population 102) in Priorat in the late 1990s, these wines were astonishingly good. The whites are blends of Pedro Ximenez, Grenache Blanc, with small portions of Macabeu and Muscat; the reds of Carignan and Grenache. The elevations are relatively high, up to 700 meters, I believe Dominik said, and the soils are slate, schist, gypsum.
Two white wines, Terra de Cuques and Pedra de Guix were served alongside a delicate poached tile fish atop celery and large grained tapioca with a froth of Fumet Blanc nestling in the nooks and crannies. Cuques (“land of the firefly”) is 10% Muscat and 90% PX, picked early and vinified whole cluster. It’s aromatic and immediately pleasurable, phenolic and honeyed and waxy in the way of Loire Valley Chenin or White Burgundy without tasting like either … Guix “Gypsum Stone” is Grenache Blanc and Macabeu from very old vines. Served in a Burgundy bowl, the wine was initially more closed than the Cuques, but opened to reveal aromas, flavors, and minerality on the finish the likes of which I’ve never tasted before. Cedar, balsam wood, preserved lemon, saline, the wine was surreal in its complexity and length on the palate. It was the bottle I kept dodging back to during our post prandial chatting to see if there was a drop more to be squeezed out.
Three reds were served with winter mushrooms and barley swimming in a sort of broth of mushroom and Sencha tea. All were excellent; my favorite was L’Arbossar from a steep, old vineyard of Carignan planted on slate, raised in Austrian Stockinger barrels.
We finished with two thought provoking heavy hitters: Les Manyes and Les Tosses. Manyes comes from red clay and gypsum soils, and is made of Grenache. This wine prompted Dominik’s importer Eric Solomon to refer to Grenache as “the Pinot Noir of the south”, a statement that at first gave me pause, but the more Manyes started to taste like Bonnes-Mares, the more I was convinced. Dominik commented that he’d been inspired by Chateau Rayas (I mean … aren’t we all?), and hoped to make something along those lines out of Grenache … This was very sensual wine, full of garrigue and sweet, ripe, succulent red fruit. Its foil in every way, Tosses is from 100 year old Carignan vines planted in a hot vineyard of black slate soil. Dark, brooding, impenetrable, the wine was perfectly at home with grilled short rib and broccoli rabe, a dish that brought out the wine’s compelling peppery bitterness and structure to perfection.
Several guests commented as the evening drew to a close that it was one of the best wine events they’d ever attended, and I agree. Who knows? Maybe next time you hear from me I’ll be learning to play jazz and drinking Touriga National … stranger things have happened …