The First Barrels

Never did I think, even when I first got into wine writing — first stepped into an expansive vineyard with a notebook and pen and wondered how the plants I saw, budding in late spring, would eventually translate to the lovely drink in my glass — even in moments as beautiful as those, never did I think: I’ll make wine one day.

How could I, a writer, possibly dream to make wine? Friends I knew who had made wine had worked three, five, eight vintages around the world. I’ve worked harvest for two weeks in France, and done some picking here-and-there in Burgundy and Napa Valley.

But here I am, at the end of vintage (Aussies say “vintage,” versus harvest, and my English is quickly becoming Aussie-fied, you know, mate?) in the Basket Range of South Australia, with several barrels of wine tucked away in a shed, and one sparkling wine already in bottle. We just opened one the other day, and when the bubbles rose up in foam, I was kind of in shock. I made the wine, but the wine made itself sparkling. Isn’t that incredible? I know, I know — it’s all fairly straightforward, fermentation creating carbon dioxide as the yeasts consume sugar. Winemaking 101. But I was terrible at chemistry and physics and all that in high school and university. And yet, I can still make them work to my favor. I made bubbles?!?!? It’s truly awesome.

It’s funny, when you visit winemakers as a journalist, you ask certain questions that you think might help you communicate something, to future readers, about the wine: When did you start picking? Did you de-stem? Tank or barrel? But it’s impossible to really understand the reasons behind the answers to these questions, I think, unless you’ve made wine.

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Making my own wines was a meditation on the meaning of individualism, and of the concept of work itself. Nearly all of what we did, we did as a vintage team — up at dawn to get to the vineyards, all day picking and sorting, then processing the grapes. In the vineyard, we worked alongside a picking crew mostly from Laos and Thailand. Weeks after vintage has ended, I still dream about the incredible food they brought — every day, different dishes — for “smoko,” the Aussie word for the mid-day break.

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But when it came to making my own wines, it was all up to me. Each of my red wines were macerated in open-top, wooden fermenters that I climbed into and jumped on once each day for about two or three days; then, I did punchdowns (“plunging” in Aus) by hand, morning and night, to keep the cap wet. That was the first choice: whole cluster, non-carbonic fermentation. I liked this approach because I could always see and taste the grapes and evaluate whether they were ready to press.

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Next decision: when to press? With the Gamay, I wanted a light and pretty lunch wine, so five days of maceration was plenty. Cabernet Franc was about the same. Right away, I saw how different it was to press Cab Franc than Gamay. The juicy Gamay berries had been a breeze, oozing juice nonstop, whereas Cab Franc’s thicker skins were tougher to crack.

The press itself was also a choice. I opted not to use the modern pneumatic press, and rather chose to use an old-fashioned, small basket press that a friend of ours bought new from Italy. With the basket press, I didn’t require any forklift, no electricity was used, and I could literally do everything all by myself . . . OK, I did need help getting the free run juice out of the barrels, sometimes — we don’t have pumps at the Lucy Margaux winery, instead using gravity and our lungs to transfer wine via hoses, which is super super hard, the most difficult part of winemaking for me. Gravity is something you have to learn to trust and befriend, I think. It’s the same way in yoga, which I’ve practiced for thirteen years — if you feel fear, you’re not working with gravity, you’re fighting against it. My goal is to become at one with gravity — that’s when I’ll feel like a real winemaker. And a yogi, I guess . . .

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I loved the basket press because it was, by nature, a slow process. With each press, I loaded the grapes in bucket by bucket or shovel by shovel, after siphoning the free run into a barrel. This gave me time to think. With the Cabernet Franc and the Sangiovese, it occurred to me that the juice already tasted quite stemmy, from the whole-cluster fermentation. So, I took a pause to hand-destem about 50 percent of the fruit, standing there, beside the press. Why not? There was no rush — the point was to make something delicious that honored the beautiful, organic fruit the local growers had spent much time caring for.

I found the basket press empowering because, now, when I say that I made these wines, it really means that I made them. Nothing was added or taken away, and nothing will be. There’s no need; nothing has the scent of volatile acidity, and the barrels were cleaned well with hot water before being filled.

I don’t claim to be one of the greats just because I’ve made wine one time, thanks to the space provided me by someone very generous. But it was a beautiful experience doing it truly on my own terms, and I’m excited to see how the barrels look in a few months, how they’ll become in bottle, and how they’ll taste when they hopefully make their way around Australia and perhaps the world — who knows! I made the wine to share and be drunk. My hope is they will bring pleasure and transmit the energy of this amazing vintage in Australia — a hot, fast, intense, but also, really peaceful one overall, and a season of abundance, of more grapes than anybody expected, tons of people around from all over the world, and plenty of good wine and food on our communal table.

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Also, editing Terre Issue 2 while doing all of this has been both impossible and amazing. There were days when I’d be up at 5am to go pick, and then find myself editing three articles in the afternoon before going into the winery to help process grapes or clean up. Obviously, I would have preferred to be getting more sleep! But at the same time, there were moments when I’d be reading someone’s work and it struck me as really powerful, more than any other time I’d read or written about wine, because I was literally elbow-deep in the stuff right then. 

For example, in California vigneronne Martha Stoumen‘s interview in Issue 2, she talks about joy and patience in winemaking. She tells Miguel de Leon, “I am a firm believer that you can experience more joy in what you’re consuming when the person making it was joyful in the act of making it. The first time I made wine, I was like a little kid; I got to feel things and feel textures. When I work outside, I’m noticing how the sun hits things, how the smells hit me.”

This quote. How much it speaks to me. I am so happy to have her interview in the coming issue (out next month!). I’ve only met Martha once and tasted a few of her wines and I can say that she is definitely singular and has a message worth hearing.

And then there’s the memoir about harvest at Arianna Occhipinti‘s, by Ashley Ragovin. After ten years of admiring Arianna’s wines, having first been transfixed by them while working as a somm in a fancy Italian restaurant, Ashley finally went to Sicily for harvest in Vittoria. The experience was far beyond what she’d anticipated, and confirmed that wine heroes, or just heroes in general, are a real thing worth having. The connections we imagine between winemakers and ourselves aren’t false.

So much more is in Issue 2. I hope you’ll pre-order a copy soon (or grab one at a nearby stockist, or subscribe). And one day, in the not-too-distant future, you may even be reading Issue 3 while sipping on a glass of wine made by yours truly.

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Terre Issue 2 Pre-Sales Are On!

Only a year ago, Terre Magazine was just a glimmer of an idea.

And now, we’re nearly finished editing Issue 2, and moving onto the design phase! Please consider pre-ordering your copy; even if there’s a stockist near you, pre-ordering helps us finance production and pay our writers, artists, and photographers around the world, and every dollar counts. Also, you will get your magazine directly from the printer (I know some of you had to wait a few weeks last time — won’t happen again) if you pre-order.

We’ve been dropping some hints about Issue 2 in our newsletter, and on Instagram. Of course, we want to keep some of it a surprise. We’re really happy that the issue will not only feature several rising star winemakers and a few who are already quite well known, but also interviews with wine bar owners around the world, a visual essay from an Italian design collective, features on coffee/tea/spirits, and even a guide to buying cannabis. It’s a magazine for people who love natural, artisanal wine, but so much more.

Check out the options at this link. You may want to subscribe for the whole year, so as to also receive Issue 3, which comes out in November. 

We’re blown away by the incredible talent that’s come to us for Terre Issue 2. It’s really an honor to be publishing such great work. The magazine comes out in May and we’ll be hosting some events in Europe and New York. Stay tuned!Thank you — sorry to be brief, but it’s harvest here in Australia and I’ve got to get back to hand-plunging the Merlot . . .

In Toní Carbó’s Barrio: A Visit to Cellar La Salada in Penedès, Spain

Visit October 24, 2017

 When I first met Toní Carbó, a winemaker who went from virtually unknown to an instant cult classic—his wines are found at Bar Brutal in Barcelona; Maurice in Portland, Oregon; Bar Ordinaire in Oakland, California—at H20 Vegetal, during the heat of late summer in Spain, I was captivated by the energy of his wines, their attractive labels, and his humble attitude. A few months later, I was in Barcelona visiting some friends, and took a short train ride out to the Penedès, the heart of the Cava region, where Toní is the latest in his family lineage to grow grapes.

Toní greets me in a 4×4 wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. Since H20, he has cut his hair, which then was a bit shaggy, grown past his ears. He takes me directly to a vineyard in an area called “La Salada,” where we stand before gnarled bush vines (untrellised) in beige-brown clay soil, on a flat piece of land with mountains in the distance.

“My grandfather was a shareholder, from a familia muy humilda—a very humble family, says Toní in perfectly clear Castellano Spanish, even though Catalan is his first language. I appreciate the effort particularly in the current political climate—later, I will return to Barcelona to catch the tail end of the latest protest against Madrid’s crackdown on the independence movement, getting lost in crowd of flag-waving marchers after an afternoon of showing their regional pride.

In a bold move, Toní’s grandfather broke away from the señores feudeles (the feudal lords), and formed a bodega (winery) with other growers—a sort of cooperative. They purchased a few hectares of vines, specifically taking plots that were on poor soil, very difficult to cultivate, and made bulk wine, probably sold in barrels.

The past two years in Northern Spain have been very, very dry, and some vines didn’t produce even a single cluster of grapes—something he has never seen before, Toní tells me as we examine the 68-year-old vines. “You see how they respond to the heat and dryness—they are in survival mode,” he says. In this plot, Toní has Xarello and Macabeo—two of the grapes commonly found in Cava, that ubiquitous bubbly drink, Spain’s version of Prosecco, differing in that it’s made in the traditional method rather than Charmat.

The 1970s and 80s saw something of a “lost generation” in Penedès, because large houses paid tempting prices for grapes, so people didn’t bother to bottle their own wine—but this changed in the 90s with the formation of the Cava D.O. and, concomitantly. As small growers lost their best customers, many of them stopped operations, sold off their land, and moved away to urban areas to work in factories. Toní’s family also closed their bodega, called Cellar La Salada, for a time. “Every year, my father thought they would have to tear out these vines,” he tells me.

In the early Aughts, Toní decided to restart production in the bodega. He began, he tells me, by making “vinos muy Parker”—wines in the Robert Parker style, with high alcohol and corpulent palates, something that should be easy to do in this dry heat. He and his friend and neighbor, Ramón Jané, hired an oenologist to help them restart production at their bodegas—but when he recommended levels of various additives that seemed high to Toní and Ramón, they simply added half of those amounts. Then came a turning point: Toní found his way to La Dive Bouteille, a large natural wine salon in France’s Loire Valley held every winter for the past decade and a half.

“And there a world opened to us,” he recalls as we drive to another vineyard—Toní holds over 20 hectares. In 2005, Toní began reducing the use of pesticides in the vineyard, and in 2012, he converted his vines to organic and made his first natural wine for the market, without any sulfites or oenological products added.

We are now standing in the “Les Perellades” vineyard, looking at Malvasia, Sumoll, Montanaga, and Xarello. “This is my barrio,” says Toní, gazing toward the nearby forest. “I’m born here, grown up here.”

We make our way to the small winery, built in 1911, where Toní’s Cellar La Salada wines are made without any sulfites at all. Because the wines have such playful labels, I had prejudged them as simple blends, but I learn quickly that expression of terroir is definitely a goal here. The wine called “Bufarella,” for example, is a Xarello with skin contact, made from one hectare of vines planted in 1982 on a north-facing slope that matures slowly and therefore maintains freshness. There’s another single-vineyard wine called “Hermot,” made from old-vines Macabeo.

Toní’s winemaking maintains many of the area’s traditional techniques. “My family, historically, did wine with skin contact—we called it vino brisat,” he explains to me. They foot stomped the grapes, and did everything by hand, without additives—and that’s what the family drank at home, Toní says. The winery has recently been remodeled a bit, but Toní has kept and still uses the underground tanks where wine was fermented, and he has also held onto one barrel that dates back to 1955. “I want reminders of what was here,” he says.In this cellar, one of Toní’s most popular wines is made: Roig Boig (“crazy red”), a pink-hued pét-nat full of freshness and savory notes, made from numerous red and white heritage grapes of Catalunya, including Sumoll, Roigenc, Mandó, Cannonau, Monica, Torbat, Parellada, and Xarello. The label, drawn by Toní’s partner Ana’s cousin, depicts a slightly wonky-looking guy with sparse hair, panting with thirst. “Drink me everyday,” is the message behind that label. Which one could certainly do—yet, later, we’ll have the Roig Boig with a rich turkey dish at lunch, and the acidity and bubbles cut right through the fat—this isn’t just an aperitif wine.

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Next is a visit to Mas Candí, the winery run by Ramón Jané, Toní’s unofficial “associate.” Ramón, like Toní, also broke the cycle of selling his family’s grapes to the large Cava houses, and began bottling his own label in the mid-Aughts. Toní explains that he and Ramón have only a “handshake agreement,” rather than any formal contract—they work together because they like to help each other, like the “agricultores de antes,” the agriculturists of a previous time, Toní says. It’s about both of them succeeding.

In Toní’s cellar, all the wines are made completely without sulfites; in Ramón’s, they may occasionally have small amounts added—this allows the pair to diversify their portfolio, while keeping a completely sulfur-free winery for certain vinifications. It’s the first time I’ve heard of anyone doing this, and it seems really practical.

The other popular bubbly wine from Toní and Ramón is actually made here, at Mas Candí—the Tint Sec, which means,“I’m thirsty” in Catalan, and is a white wine made of Xarello and Parellada. We taste the 2017 from a tank; the nose is fruity, peachy, and the palate delivers a healthy burst of acidity. After tasting, we head to lunch, where we meet Toní’s partner Ana, who he says is fully involved in the winery.

Lunch at Cal Xim is amazing; we have traditional Catalan dishes like trinxat, a cabbage and potato “tortilla”; roasted red peppers with anchovies; rovellon mushroom caps roasted and dressed in rich olive oil; alongside, we drink the still version of Tint Sec, which Toní and Ramón plan to rename “Baldidi” to avoid confusion—it’s very aromatic, with fresh, soft fruit flavors, and some tropical notes—plus 2016 “Ovella Negra,” a saline, bright white wine made of Garnacha Blanca and Malvasia with two weeks on the skins; and 2015 “La Fusta,” a Xarello wine made from a vineyard Toní’s father planted in 1985, which is fermented in 1000-Liter chesnut barrels, and is mineral, with overtones of white flowers, and a lovely medium body.

To finish, we have the aforementioned pairing made in heaven: dark turkey meat with stewed prunes, with the savory Roig Boig pét-nat. It could not be more perfect. This is what Cellar La Salada and Mas Candí wines are about—relishing the products of agriculture and viticulture, in humble but artful settings. It’s a celebration of Catalunya, without employing the political system or waving any flags, but rather acknowledging the unique history of this region, and the role of small farmers in keeping that history alive.

If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider donating to me via my PayPay link, so I can continue to write about natural wine and provide notes to readers free-of-charge. It’s secure and there’s no fee. 

From Snowy Paris, Visions of Terre 2 And New Writing On Phylloxera

Greetings from freezing cold Paris! It has dumped snow here, which is very pretty, but I am chilled to the bone after a week of tasting in damp cellars in the Jura and the Auvergne, making my way toward La Dive and the other vin nature salons in the Loire. Expect an update from me soon on the highlights from those events!

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Tasting with François Saint-Lo at Les Anonymes in Angers

Meantime, I’m starting to edit Terre Issue 2, which will come out in May. It’s going to be really, really good; we’re building on our global support and bringing in new writers, artists, and photographers. Tomorrow, I head to Copenhagen to report on one of the world’s most exciting and experimental distilleries, for Issue 2. Announcements are coming soon about pre-ordering the issue and subscribing for the year, and don’t miss out, because we sold out last time and surely will again, even though we plan to double our production. (You can sign up for our newsletter to be the first to know about all this.)

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How to prevent the spreading of phylloxera

I also want to share a story I’ve really enjoyed working on, an updated explainer about the phylloxera pest, with recent reporting from Australia and elsewhere. Everyone who loves wine should understand the history of phylloxera, because it’s affected grapevines and wine production everywhere, and it’s also a really fascinating story of plant genetics that continues to impact winegrowing today. Link is here

Lastly: I’ve done something pretty unusual, and created a sort of “tip jar,” a link on Paypal where, at any point, you’re welcome to send me a bit of cash. When I left New York and started working on Terre, I had a tentative book deal and potential gig writing a magazine column. They both fell through, and then Terre became so time-consuming, that before I knew it I was living on credit cards and sleeping on friends’ couches to save money. Writing about wine isn’t lucrative but I do it because I love meeting growers and understanding the political-cultural histories of wine regions. I was inspired by this excellent piece on the New Worlder site to be more vocal and honest about how unglamorous this job can be. Here is the link to my “tip jar.” Even a five-dollar donation means a lot to me. Thank you!

Off to jump on a call with my Terre colleagues, to discuss artwork for the issue and launch events in May. Thanks for being with us on this journey!

Learning To Be Less Skeptical About Life In 2018

WHAT A YEAR. Several times, I wasn’t sure I would make it through the sludgy, awful, maddening mess that was 2017, whether the angst I felt was related to the surreal, dystopian political situation; or to the increasingly impossible lifestyle of New York City; or horrific environmental catastrophies that affected people I knew in some cases; or personal quandaries that seemed to mount on top of each other, one after another. Something tells me you probably know what I mean? It was not an easy year.

At some point, I’d simply had enough of it all, and I made some drastic changes in my life: I left New York and lived out of a suitcase for six months, squatting in Paris at regular intervals–that was a good start! And, thanks to SO MANY of you, I started a beautiful print magazine, alongside two women who inspire me endlessly and teach me new ways of thinking. In recent months, I’ve been focusing more on health and wellness–eating less bread and pasta, and consuming wine thoughtfully rather than excessively; have rekindled my love for the outdoors; put aside the often-too-dreary New York Times in exchange for serious poetry, novels, and essays. It’s about self-care, people–making time for being a well-rounded, happy person! Anyone have must-read recommendations? I’m all ears, please share! This novelistic reflection on falling in love, written decades ago by Alain de Botton, was one of the best things I read all year–I can’t believe I never got my hands on it until now. As well, I’ve been really into poetry by Ross Gay and Rupi Kaur, and catching up on Zadie Smith’s recent work. If I get really motivated, I may return to the Karl Ove Knausgaard series where I left off, mid-book-three. We’ll see about that.

this book is life-changing — written decades ago, but timeless! (awesome Chenin Blanc, too…)

Thanks to everyone who made 2017 so special: all of you who supported Terre from its inception; the people who hosted us for events and pop-ups in New York, Oregon, and Sydney (more to come in 2018!); those of you who bared your souls on social media rather than pretend that life is perfect amidst this shit we all experience; friends in Paris who let me sleep on their couches while I edited Terre and shepherded it to print. All of these people give me reason to be optimistic about 2018: we can stay real, we can stay strong, we can support each other so that we don’t lose track of our passions, even when everything seems up against us, and when things like wine, food, art, and other beauties can seem irrelevant in such a troubled world.

There’s much to be excited about heading into the New Year. I’m writing from South Australia, specifically a wonderful nook called the Basket Range, where I’ve been living the reality of natural wine, spending time with growers who have devoted themselves to it over the years; it’s a stark and meaningful change from simply dropping into vineyards for an afternoon, or drinking in urban wine bars. I mean, check out the beauty of this Pinot Noir vineyard at Lucy Margaux–incredible! It’s an experimental vineyard that’s never been sprayed or pruned.

And there are some AWESOME wines made here in the Basket Range, a cool climate, hilly region located in the Adelaide Hills, just above the city of Adelaide. The natural wine scene is strong! I’m slowly getting to know the different growers and winemakers here, and will share more stories as I can. Right now really into some of these:

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Before coming here, I was lucky enough to have a glimpse into some of the other wine regions around Australia, and I look forward to sharing those stories with you all soon! Visiting Mac Forbes in the Yarra was definitely one highlight, and it was also great to visit Tom Shobbrook, whom I’d met in Europe several times, in his home base in the Barossa.

Let’s stay optimistic and positive moving into the new year, as much as we can. That’s what Terre was founded upon: we were motivated to celebrate small producers of wine and food, as well as emerging and talented artists, photographers, and writers around the world–to make our network feel more international, and to strengthen it. We believe very much in critique, but we also want to create a fresh platform for such discussion. In the wine world, it seems that, again and again, we are asking the same, tired questions, and getting already-heard answers, rather than developing a wider range of topics to investigate. There’s no need to recycle points that have previously been made; let’s push forward and work together to challenge old ideas, and see what emerges from that. If Terre can do that, and also provide some enjoyment for people who like to read thoughtful work about wine, food, design, and the world’s most interesting entrepreneurs in these spaces, then I can’t imagine being any happier.

Already, Issue 1 of Terre has been more successful than we could’ve dreamed–retailers in Paris, Copenhagen, London, Sydney, and more, far beyond our home base of New York!–and we are gearing up now to take it further. Stay tuned for details about subscriptions and contributor’s guidelines–sign up for our occasional e-newsletter to be in-the-know!

Wishing you all a Happy New Year! Hopefully with a bad-ass bottle of Champagne. On that note, I’ve got some words up on the Wine Access blog about how to throw a wine-soaked dinner party, if you or some friends need any good party-hosting tips.

Hugs from Down Under.

Talking #SkinContact In The Gambellara Hills With Angiolino Maule

This summer, I spent a breezy August day with pioneering natural winemaker Angiolino Maule and his family and friends, exploring the vineyards of Gambellara (nearby a more famous region, that of Soave, in the Veneto, northern Italy); learning the backstory behind his foray into natural winemaking in the early days of the movement; hearing about his natural wine association VinNatur; and talking about skin contact winemaking, a topic that fascinates me endlessly. (“Skin contact” wine is also called “orange wine,” but I prefer the term “skin contact” because it’s more accurate and also because the wine can be a dark golden hue, rather than orange.)

Check out my write-up over on Sprudge Wine, here!

And if you love Italian natural wine, and happen to live in New York, consider swinging by the launch party for Terre, to be held at the fantastic wine bar Have & Meyer in Brooklyn, just before the start of RAW Wine Fair. Winemakers will be in attendance and we’ll be drinking their juice at special prices.

Terre has been printed, and is soon to be shipped out, to arrive your way shortly. (If you didn’t order a copy, see if there’s a stockist near you; I will also be selling copies at RAW in Brooklyn.) I really hope you enjoy the stories, artwork, and photography, and look forward to your feedback! I also REALLY look forward to taking a break in December for a few weeks, because these past five months of working on Terre while traveling have been incredibly enriching, but also exhausting.

But don’t worry: as soon as I’ve had a little vacation, I’ll get to work on Terre, Issue 2! Thanks to all of you who have supported the project; it’s still amazing to me that it went from an idea in our heads, to actual reality, something you’ll soon be holding in your hands.

The Key To Good Wine Writing Is Grapeskin-Blackened Hands

“Buckets! Secateurs! Allons-y!” It was 8:10am and there was a strong chill in the air, although the sun was beginning to glow behind a layer of fog that hung above  us, indicating that we’d be shedding layers even before lunch. At this familiar call-to-arms from Agnès, the matriarch of the family employing us in their vineyards, we diligently grabbed plastic buckets and garden shears, and with few words found ourselves in pairs, approaching a row of vines with one person on each side.

As I crouched in the dirt, the pain in my lower back pronounced itself, effectively asking: “Another day, really?” And as I’d been doing, every day for the last week, I shifted my weight to my knees, which creaked and groaned, but at least didn’t feel like a knife was being driven into them as I reached for a grape cluster.

Grape picking is incredibly hard work, the kind of physical labor that people supposedly go to college to avoid doing. But there is also so much romance in the vines, as I discovered during a two-week stage at Domaine Mosse, in the Anjou regoin of the Loire Valley. Living with the family, amongst the vines, and going out each day with the workers to collect grapes, or spending time in the cellar, was an immersion experience that every wine writer, I believe, should go through. By the end, my hands were blackened from grape skins and dirt; my body was exhausted and sore; but my soul was alight with the feeling of working in nature, and experiencing each vineyard’s uniqueness from within, through its fruits. Read more