Sophie's Glass

To avoid confusion, let the record state that I love crisp, dry, white wine. Many (if not the majority) of my favorite beverages on the planet are crisp, dry, white wines. At this very moment, for example, I’m tucking into a glass of 2015 Stein Blue Slate Riesling and it is divine. Smells like the most perfect green grapes, and tastes like the ripe, sun drenched yet miraculously high acid 2015 vintage in the Mosel. Did I mention that of all the acid/sugar balances possible in Rieslings from the Mosel, this is my favorite? Dry but not punishing, lean but with enough meat on the bones to be sexy. Ok cool. Now you know where I stand.

“crisp, dry, white” paradigm.

On May 12th at around 12:30pm, Chad Stock and I were sitting on a bench outside Everyman Espresso on 13th and 3rd. Chad makes the wine at Minimus, Omero Cellars, and Origin; he was talking about lots of things: Pinot Gris and its destiny as red wine, “flaws” and how they can be turned into virtues in the right context. Chad speaks about wine in a way that is mystic and unrestrained, by which I mean you get the sense he’s kind of a winemaking savant, also — not that he’s incapable of diplomatically censoring his views — rather that he often doesn’t see the point. What could possibly be wrong with speaking the truth as one sees it? Should we be ashamed of our opinions as long as we listen with respect to the opinions of others? Chad’s brand of radical honesty works wonders on clients; they get to spend a few minutes in his head, and so do I. It’s an interesting place to visit. His words tumble out at a breakneck pace; I go back and sort through them like a jumble of orders in my in-box 15 minutes before cutoff for next day delivery, trying to process the data before the next one arrives.

Chad Stock in his native land.

“I’m not interested in making simple wine; I don’t understand simple wine” Chad said (not quoting verbatim, but close). My gut reaction at this juncture was ‘woah hold on … there’s a place and a time for “simple” wine; sometimes I just want to drink wine, and I don’t want to think about.’ Let’s face it, most people out there don’t want to think about wine, or maybe once a year at Thanksgiving when they wonder what goes best with turkey and a jaded retailer sells them a bottle of Pinot Noir. But for the sake of our industry, whether or not they’re cognizant, we hope they continue to drink wine.

Minimus SM1 2016 with Spicy Scallion Ginger Porgy Ssäm at Momofuku Ssäm Bar.

Chad continued: “I think … you know … if you want to drink something after you mow the lawn, drink a fucking gin and tonic. That’s what gin and tonic is for.” A breeze of contradiction ruffled my shirt and dried the sweat on my brow: what I know of Chad versus the words coming out. These comments, spoken by another human, might have had the distinct ring of beverage elitism, but Chad isn’t a snob. He’s an artist, at times classical, at times avant-garde, protecting his art from crass imitation.

This post is an interpretive riff on what Chad was getting at, along with the trains of thought stirred up by my conversation with Chad. Wine is an alcoholic beverage with unique powers of expression: the soil, the grape, the weather, the oak, the bacteria, the yeasts, the hand of man … history, culture … all the things we gather under the umbrella of terroir, and more. The argument against “simple” wine is that wine is essentially complex; if you are looking for a “simple” experience with alcohol, have g and t, or a shot of Cuervo, or a nice, refreshing, ridiculously boring Grey Goose and soda. (Love to be able to say I won’t judge you if you drink vodka and soda, but I probably will … sorry!)

Is there an argument for simple wine? Probably. I’m not sure how to approach it. I genuinely believe that pretty much everyone I know — with a little bit of effort — can find well-made, every day wine with terroir and a sense of place, for not much money. Wine that can be consumed without much pomp and circumstance. Honestly it depends where you live. In America, it’s easier to find good wine were the cosmopolitan elites roam free. But I don’t consider this an argument for simple wine, rather for humble wine at an everyday price.

Pinot Grigio, a classic après law-mowing tipple.

The reason I initially rebelled against Chad’s anti-simple wine statement is that we who work in the business never want to imply: “Your time, place, way of drinking wine — not to mention what — is wrong, and I’m going to tell you why it’s wrong because I’m knowledgable and you’re ignorant.” (Unrelated: isn’t this the type of attitude that lost us liberals so much support amongst working class voters?? It’s an alienating attitude.) What we’d like to say is “Live and let live, and if you want to drink wine after mowing the lawn, go right ahead, just please make it my wine and not someone else’s because I need to make a living and we’ve got growers to support.” Our job is to make wine more accessible, and to do so we must try to avoid snobbery.

Every year the Webers make this dry kabinett Riesling from the Niedermenniger Herrenberg vineyard, a humble wine that is far from simple.

This issue I’d like to raise here is that “simple” wine, particularly simple “crisp, dry, white” has spoiled peoples’ palates for other styles of white wine, and that is unfortunate. I’m reminded of this almost every time I pour a tasting in a retail shop in New York. I can sell Gros Plant du Pays Nantais (which is essentially Muscadet made from a different grape) all night long, because Gros Plant has a flavor profile we’ve been taught is acceptable. But open up an even remotely rich or oxidative Chenin Blanc or Jura wine or Oregon Sauvignon Blanc, white Burgundy, you name it, and the response will all too often be: “it’s too sweet” (wrong) “it’s too oaky” (possibly oaked, yes, but by no means oaky) or a personal favorite “that’s just not for me”. It’s like nails on a chalkboard. Why is this not for you? It’s not for you because at some point down the line you were told that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that smells like grapefruit juice and factory yeast, and tastes like blocked malolactic fermentation and 150 parts per million sulfur dioxide is good. That is the kind of “wine” you’ve been conditioned to like, and its flavors have poisoned you against the glorious, unctuous, and above all interesting flavors that are now in your glass. The irony is that industrial wine is not really simple; it’s been doctored in complicated ways that — were they transparently listed — would make anyone who cares what they put in their body cringe. Just like fast food.

My theory is that the fashion for crisp, dry, white is at its roots a rebellion against the sweet, oaky Chardonnays of yore, which is legitimate. California did some disgusting things to Chardonnay, and some equally brutal things to its reputation. Oy vey the frequency with which people tell me they “don’t usually like Chardonnay.” You were taught to say that, weren’t you? The fact is Chardonnay is a blank slate. Chardonnay takes on the flavors it’s bequeathed by terroir and the hand of man. Yes that’s right, people: Chardonnay can taste like ANYTHING, and if you had some bad ones, it’s not the grape’s fault, but rather a wine factory that went a little crazy with the oak chips. I can’t negate your bad experiences, but I can ask you to be open minded regarding Chardonnay for it is one of the planet’s noble white varieties.

Part two of my theory on how crisp, dry white has wrecked our palates has to do with the way Americans drink alcohol, and of course every time I’m in Europe this is brought home to me yet again. Americans love wines that can be drunk on their own. We tend think of wine as a drug, whereas Europeans tend to think of wine as a food. Drinking wine after mowing the lawn is like saying “I just did something hard (questionable if you have a ride-on mower), I deserve to relax, let me now have some alcohol to help me do that.” There’s nothing wrong with this, but compare it to the French attitude: “On va manger du homard ce soir, donc je chercherai un bon Condrieu pour boire avec …” (“We’re having lobster tonight; I’m going to look for a good Condrieu to drink with it.”) The appeal of this attitude is that is treats the wine as part of the meal. It gives wine the respect it deserves as an art form and an expression of terroir by placing it at the dinner table rather than on the coffee table next to the remote control.

Roseau Condrieu with lobster bisque.

Condrieu is on my mind because I had one open last week, a beautiful bottle from Benoït Roseau. Given, this wine is expensive, as all Condrieu are, but regardless of price, this is a style of wine that is not exactly in vogue (for people under age 50-60) because it is the opposite of a “crisp, dry white.” It’s a big, broad, glorious white with a panoply of flavors ranging from peach and apricot and bitter orange, to the granite soils of the slope. But it’s not a convenient cocktail wine. It’s a food wine. So if you’re looking to take some bottles to the dome while gossiping with friends on the roof deck, Condrieu is not an ideal choice. I’d go so far as to say Condrieu is difficult to drink without food, a laudable quality in a wine.

Turning my attention to red wine for a moment. It seems to me that red has not met the same fate as white. Do others agree? While big reds may not be popular in some geek circles, and while palates that matured during the parker era may find Mondeuse or Loire Valley Gamay shrill (“it’s so sour“), for the most part there’s a drinking audience for both light and heavy, for both fruity and tannic, and for essentially the entire spectrum in between.

I don’t know why red wine hasn’t suffered the same blow at the hand of fashion as white, but I find it especially frustrating when thinking about Jura wine. The Jura is a great white wine region, and an interesting, quirky red wine region. The most profound wines of this place are white, and while the reds can be delicious and fun, they are relatively simple compared to the whites. And yet, it’s the reds everyone seems to be looking for. Jura whites languish on the retail shelf, while reds waltz out the door. It’s a shame. It’s time to bring rich, textured white wines back to prominence. It’s time — not to reject crisp, dry, white — but rather to bring back the context for rich white, which is the table. Let us embrace the complexity of full-bodied white wine; let us make it accessible; let us encourage contemplation, pairing, wine as an art and a companion rather than wine as mere alcohol.