Weekly Apéro Hour: The Magician of Verdejo, Serbian Natural Wine, A New Indie Wine Mag

Here’s Your Weekly Apéro Hour!

DRINKING. When people list the so-called “noble grape” varieties, you’ll notice the predominance of one language: French. There are a few Italian varieties, a few German; the only Spanish grape in that list is Tempranillo. I cannot think of a stupider list at the moment except that horrible 50 Best Restaurants thing. Why would you ever want to limit your experience of wine to a few high-priced and finicky French grape varieties? How boring. (To be fair, technically the list is based on the quantity of each grape variety planted worldwide, but I mean, if you use a word like “noble,” it’s clear what is meant.)

Case in point: two recent experiences with non noble grape varieties that were pretty mind blowing.

The other day, after a long spree of drinking Aussie and French wine quite intensely, I rummaged around for something different and came out with a Verdejo from MicroBio Wines, a project from winemaker Ismael Gozalo in the Ruedo D.O. of northern Spain.

This bottle was just exactly what I was looking for: a fresh but flavorful and round white, ideal for winter. We crushed it alongside a few bites of salami. About halfway through the bottle, I noticed the alcohol percentage and was shocked.

“What is the ABV of this wine, would you guess?” I asked my lovely drinking partner.

He chewed a piece of salami and took another sip of wine, thinking. “11.5 percent?”

That’s what I had also thought — but it was 13.5! The aromatics of the wine, which was made without any sulfites, seemed to mask the alcohol content beautifully.

Reading up on Ismael’s website, I learned that he makes this wine in an old-fashioned vertical press, sort of like the old-fashioned basket press but in this case outfitted with inox to allow just a hint of oxidation to touch the grapes (many winemakers would frown upon this, but Ismael trusts that his fruit can withstand a bit of air). I think this oxidation shows in the wine in an incredibly pleasant way.

I also learned that his vines are ungrafted (on their own rootstock) and as much as 200 years old! And that he’s known as the “Magician of Verdejo” locally. OK, so I am officially on a mission to get over to Ismael’s vineyard. Soon! 

(If you’re looking for another awesome natural Verdejo, try Santyuste, by Esmeralda Garcia in Segovia. It’s delicious!)

Again looking outside the usual suspects: recently, I tried a Serbian red wine, from a French couple, Estelle & Cyrille Bongiraud. As you can probably imagine, Serbia has been producing wine for many many centuries, but there isn’t necessarily what you’d call a natural wine scene there, and generally the country’s exports are rather low, which certainly would have to do with the political-economic situation there in the past few decades. But the Bongirauds have installed themselves in the Timok Valley of Eastern Serbia (bordering Romania), which apparently is full of limestone bedrock — ideal for winegrowing.

Cyrille being a renowned soil scientist and Estelle being a Burgundian grower, they never meant to end up in Serbia but apparently were simply traveling through when their car broke down and they were stunned by the terroir: “Beautifully maintained, old vineyards with deep root systems on limestone soils. Artisanal, organic methods of cultivation and winemaking that had been passed down from generation to generation for centuries,” according to the website of their Australian importer.

Over time, they gave up their work in Franc and founded this winery, called Francuska Vinarija, about ten years ago by renting seven hectares, mostly of red grapes, from local growers. They have also planted a vineyard with indigenous grape varieties.

The 2011 “Obecanje” (translation: “Promise,” in Serbian) wine I tasted is, to my incredible surprise, made from an older clone of Gamay à petit grain (small berries).

“What is the grape variety of this wine, would you guess?” I now asked my lovely drinking partner.

He replied, “Something in the Syrah family?”

It’s fun to be surprised by a wine. Per the importer website, again: “This small berry, thinner skinned version of Gamay is believed to have arrived from France during the Phylloxera era, as French vignerons sought solace in Serbia’s sandy and chalky soils that were resisting the nasty aphid’s advance.”

The wine was much higher in alcohol than you’d expect from most Gamays — 14.5%, although, as with the MicroBio wine, it held the alcohol quite well. The palate was very expressive, full of ripe plums and black cherries and prunes, with a garnet hue, and an overall juiciness flattered by soft chewy tannins. If this is an old version of Gamay, well, that’s amazing. I would have thought something more closely related to Plavac, the Croatian ancestor of Zinfandel!

Well, I loved the wine and will seek out more from the Bongirauds.

READING. Yes, it’s another indie mag. About wine. We’re not going away, us indie mag publishers, with our devotion to excellent journalism and creative design. We’re proliferating! It’s an invasion! Make room on your bookshelves and coffee tables! (OK, not that much room, these are biannual publications, we can’t afford to come out more often, don’t worry.)

It’s a pleasure to discover Above Sea Level via their inaugural issue, which is focused on California wines. In these pages, I found some very original approaches to wine, like the collaboration between art duo Lazy Mom and natural wine bar owner Bradford Taylor (Ordinaire in Oakland; Diversey in Chicago) that pokes fun at typical tasting notes through wacky sculptural illustrations and commentary. A new take on the Michel Tolmer school of wine humor, I might say. And there is a really great feature on label art, as well as a review of a temporary museum exhibition focused on wine in the modern age, at the San Francisco MoMa.

There’s also an incredible photo essay feature on California’s persistent fog — what a cool way to approach terroir. And a brief interview with legendary importer Kermit Lynch. And some winemaker-written pieces. It’s been a while since I’ve drunk some California wine of visited the state, and it was nice to briefly transport there such a beautiful magazine. (Time for a visit, soon, perhaps?)

OK, time for a confession: I’ve officially developed a minor obsession with indie magazines. I love how different they all are and how much effort and thought goes into them! So I am thinking about trying to do an indie mag pop-up somewhere. Just an idea at this point. But if I keep thinking it and talking about it, eventually it will manifest! That’s how life works, right? For me, anyway.

More soon…


Immigrants Make American Wine Great

Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 9.14.46 PMThere was a moment after Trump’s election when food and drink writers stopped working for a few weeks, frozen–does our work even matter? Aren’t these topics so petty that we should now cease to scribble our hard-researched sentences on so-and-so chef, or this ancient grape, and just crawl under a rock and let the political writers do their work? Someone tweeted: “We are all covering politics now, no matter what your beat.” I haven’t forgotten that statement.

For Vice MUNCHIES, I reported on recent raids on immigrant communities across the Northwest, through the lens of wine. The lens also could have been agriculture more broadly, but of course, wine is my strongest beat. I’m glad I was able to shed some light on the injustices happening in our country right now through a subject I’m knowledgable about. It’s atrocious that (at least) three Dreamers–people whose status was protected under Obama in a program known as DACA, established in 2012. Read my article on MUNCHIES here. If any of you reading this live in the Northwest, I would strongly suggest calling your local elected officials who may have some sway in those individuals’ fates.

Orange Wine in L.A. (And Many Other Places); Fancy Holiday Wines

img_8145After following the orange wine trail around L.A. last month, I wrote about some of the highlights of that city’s wine scene, as well as about orange wine in general, for MUNCHIES. Read here.

And over on Vogue.com, I share some recommendations for special, delicious, but not extremely expensive wines that will definitely impress whatever company you’re keeping over the holidays. Read here

The wine pictured here is not mentioned in the story (and this photo was taken at June Bar in Brooklyn, not in L.A.), but it is a very delicious orange wine made of Sauvignon Blanc, from Sepp Muster in Austria.

Thanks for reading, cheers!

Of Grain Bowls, Chopsticks, Hidden Gems, and L.A.

the longganisa sausage at Rice Bar, photo mine

For a New Yorker, visiting L.A. conjures up cultural references from Woody Allen films, visions of Hollywood galas, and clichés about grain bowls at sidewalk cafés. Well, the latter, at least, rings one hundred percent true in my recent experience–but the grain bowls these days are not so plain, as I found out during a culinary journey through L.A.

During these few days in the city of angels, I experienced some meals that I can only describe as moving–and some of these were at hole-in-the-wall spots where no dish cost more than $10. The meals were moving not because of extravagance, but because they originated from a deeply personal source, connected to the chefs’ families or home countries, or a journey abroad. But on top of the personal layer, there was also technical prowess, and powerful creativity.

Find my story here about the tiny, hidden-away, new wave of chef-driven Asian restaurants in L.A. Thanks for reading!

Who Is The Napa Valley Falcon Whisperer, And How Did She Help Make Your Cabernet?

Generally speaking, most wine coverage focuses on two kinds of people in the industry: winemakers themselves, and sommeliers. Logical, yes! But a whole slew of characters are involved in the production of wine, of course. 

rachel-and-falconA few months ago, I was in Napa Valley on a sustainability-themed media trip, and I met the woman whose job it is to use trained falcons to deter berry-eating birds. Stirred by the unconventional nature of her career, I took a deeper dive and profiled her for MUNCHIES. Read here. And next time you’re enjoying a wonderful glass of licorice-and-leather-inflected Smith-Madrone Cabernet from Napa’s Spring Mountain, well, first of all please call me because I would like a glass, too, but also perhaps consider the complexity of the ecosystem–humans, animals, and insects together–that allowed that wine to come into existence. 

Tasting With Michael Cruse + Hardy Wallace, The Laurel and Hardy of California Wine

During a brief trip to Sonoma over the summer, I swung by the Cruse Wine Co custom crush facility in Petaluma. It was full-on harvest, so I felt lucky to be able to steal some time from Hardy Wallace of Dirty and Rowdy, and Michael Cruse of Cruse Wine and Ultramarine. I’ve admired their respective wines for some time, and it was fascinating to glimpse these very different projects side-by-side.

I’ve written before about how Dirty and Rowdy came to be, and about their devotion to the Mourvèdre grape. Cruse, I was less familiar with until sometime last spring, when I had a Cruse Pinot Gris at Rebelle one night; it wooed me with its boisterous aromas and notes of lemons, white peaches. That wine is no longer be part of the Cruse Wines line-up, as the vineyard changed ownership. But that’s the way things go, for winemakers who purchase fruit; Dirty and Rowdy will no longer make Semillion, one of their most beloved wines, because the vineyard has been sprayed with Round-Up, a poisonous weed killer. Along with the fact that both of these winemakers purchase fruit from various vineyards around Northern and Central California, they also both work in a very natural manner—indigenous fermentations, very low levels of sulfites, no bullshit additions at all. Those are the main unifying factors between them.


Despite the fact that Hardy and Michael both buy fruit and both make fantastic natural wine, I had never considered them together, in any way. Their wines are quite different stylistically; as Michael put it: “maybe Hardy’s wines are more of a terroir investigation and mine are more of a, I don’t know, drinking investigation, [but] they’re still two sides of the same coin.” (There’s a bit of humor there, but I think Michael really means that his wines are about drinkability.) Michael emphasizes that his project is to make “wine like California used to make wine,” something he also phrased as making “table wine” when I interviewed him last spring, in New York, over a drink at The Dutch. Michael gives the impression of wanting to represent or emulate a time when California wine was a little more humble, maybe a time when wine in general was more humble—less hyped up by somms, and maybe writers like me, oops.

Meanwhile, the Dirty and Rowdy wines are born of an obsession with dry-farmed, high-elevation, old vines, particularly the Provençal grape variety Mourvèdre. The fact that all of these Mourvèdre wines are made in a relatively similar fashion (100 percent whole cluster, no destemming, old barrels) is a nod to—or even a direct replication of—a fairly Old World style of examining and working with terroir. There are also Dirty and Rowdy blends, of course, and white wines and a pét-nat, but the label is generally known for the rustic, earthy, and complex Mourvèdres.


Despite having such different projects, the two have found themselves working side-by-side, as Hardy recently moved into the Cruse winery in Petaluma. The famous slapstick comedy duo Laurel and Hardy met in 1921; six years later they became a team and proceeded to make 107 films together, allowing their approaches to comedy to play off each other. Cruse and this Hardy weren’t exactly kicking each other in the butts and slipping on banana peels during our tasting, but they do have a friendly, spitfire humor going on, amidst a strong conversation about what California wine is and what it could be. I would also bet you that their winemaking styles are going to influence each other over time, if they aren’t already (there is a “DRC” wine in the works—“Dirty, Rowdy, Cruse,” a Furmint from Mendocino, but I didn’t taste it). And I think it goes without saying, but as a writer it’s still my duty to say it here, that Cruse Wine, Ultramarine, and Dirty and Rowdy represent an incredibly thoughtful, almost obsessive effort to discover the ultimate potential of California wine, by sourcing from the most unique sites, and exploring forgotten varieties. In a sense, this post should be about the vineyards these wines come from, rather than the bottlings themselves. But that will have to be my next trip.

I’ll let the tasting notes speak for the rest of the visit.

Cruse, 2012 Ultramarine Blanc de Noir

The Ultramarine wines, which have varied from year-to-year between blanc de noir, blanc de blancs, and rosé, are culty, very limited production traditional method sparkling wines that have become something of an Instagram phenomenon. It’s not without reason. Michael’s approach is inspired by the growers of Champagne, particularly those who have experience working in the oxidative tradition spearheaded by Anselme Selosse; Michael names Alexandre Chartogne and Jerome Prévost as two examples. The idea is that Ultramarine wines are single-vintage, and single-vineyard, single-varietal wines—terroir in bubbles, autremente dit. For our tasting, Michael disgorged his 2012 Ultramarine of Heintz Pinot Noir, of which fewer than 500 cases total were made; it will be riddled and racked this fall, then disgorged, and out to his list over the winter, then distribution in spring. The wine had no sulfur or dosage added; it displayed gorgeous, ripe stonefruits and candied lemon on the nose; the palate was rich and supple, followed by pure acidity. Such a beautiful wine now, it will be incredibly good once it’s been properly disgorged, although I imagine it would be even better were it laid down for at least a year, and there’s no question that cellaring a few bottles of these would be brilliant. (Please share one with me, if you do that.)

Dirty and Rowdy, 2014 Melon de Bourgogne Antle Vineyard:

This is a high elevation site (1700 feet above sea level) in the Chalone appellation, with subterranean limestone, and a rare planting of Melon de Bourgogne. Despite the elevation, Hardy finds that the grapes don’t have high enough acidity, so he aims for minerality in this wine. To achieve this, he leaves the juice macerating on the skins for 40 days in a one-ton bin fermenter; the juice is then moved to barrel, where it stays for about 18 months. The wine showed notes of freshly grated orange zest and delicate white flowers, and had a nice, round texture, followed by soft, wispy tannins. Hardy recommends decanting this wine.

Dirty and Rowdy, 2015 Antle Mourvèdre

Hardy makes eight Mourvèdre wines, and he broke them down for us like this: “Antle, Shake Ridge and Evangelho are at the darker-fruit end of the spectrum. Santa Barbara Highlands, Skinner Oak Flats, Skinner Stony Creek, are on the redder-fruit side of the spectrum.” This Antle Vineyard Mourvèdre is from as slightly higher plot than the Melon—as much as 2000 feet. Hardy always does 100 percent whole cluster with Mourvèdre, lending the wines that brambly, rustic character often ascribed to Bandol. The nose on this wine was a bit reduced at first, then opened up to lush red and blue berries; on the palate, the wine traveled quickly from fruit to intense acidity that made my mouth water, and then to a strong, stony minerality. I was very moved by this wine and thought it was one of the best examples of Dirty and Rowdy that I can remember tasting.

Cruse, 2015 Saint-Laurent pét-nat

Michael is very passionate about pét-nat; he sees is as a “slightly more transparent way to make wine,” he told us, and believes strongly that good pét-nat requires technical expertise. For this reason, he is of the opinion that proper sparkling wines need disgorgement—because it makes the wines more precise and revealing of variety and terroir. “I think pet-nat’s interesting from the point of view that maybe, as we get better at it, because this is just grape juice, because we don’t add any sulfur or sugar or yeast, maybe in the right vineyard with the right variety, this could be a more transparent way to make wine. But if it’s cloudy and foaming and tastes like old saison, I can’t imagine that being the case,” Michael remarked as we tasted his pét-nat. It was completely dry, with a fruity, flowery nose, and a refreshing and savory character that would make it a wonderful food wine.

Cruse, 2015 Monkey Jacket

This is a red blend, made from about 50 percent Valdigué; 40 percent “Mendocino blend”; and 15 percent Tannat from Alder. It has lovely fruit—fresh strawberries and cherries—and great acidity. I would drink this at lunch, any day. The Valdigué is from a 60-year-old block in Calistoga, and Michael explained that Robert Mondavi once believed that this work-horse grape would be the hallmark variety of California; in the early 70s (pre-Judgment of Paris), it was more expensive than Cabernet. To me, Michael’s use of Valdigué is an affirmation of his sense of California history, and a look back to a time before the rise of Napa Valley and its expensive, cult wineries and their big, bold reds.

Cruse, 2015 Heintz Syrah

From a small plot of Syrah in the iconic Heintz Vineyard, a cold site located five miles from the ocean in the Russian River Valley growing region, is this incredible wine. If you ever come across it, drink it without hesitation. The nose provides all the black olives, blue and black fruits that you could hope for from cool-climate Syrah; it’s light and full of fresh, nervy acidity on the palate, and finishes with intense, tingly tannins and still a bit of fruit. I love Syrah in this pure, bright form. Michael makes it with 100 percent whole cluster, adds no sulfur, and ferments in concrete before aging in concrete and large used barrels.

Dirty and Rowdy, 2015 Merlot/Cab blend

This was a barrel sample, showing lots of brambly, blue and black fruit, balanced by excellent freshness, and soft tannins. Hardy is probably blending these two barrels now. A very promising wine that I’m sure will need time in bottle. I can’t wait to drink it.

OK, enough. Go out and drink these fantastic wines, and picture their very different makers guffawing at their own jokes as they foot-stomp Furmint.


Latest Writings + Travels From Oregon + California

Finally, this hot, humid mess of a summer is nearing its end. Despite not having AC in my apartment, traveling excessively, breaking my laptop, and living out of suitcase across continents and coasts, I’ve had a very productive past few months, and I’m really excited about what the fall will bring. I know already that it will mean larger writing projects, travel to Champagne and South Africa, a food-and-drink crawl in L.A., and a new collaboration with a talented illustrator.

I’m still coming down from the high of a week in Napa and Sonoma during harvest. I’ve been in wine country during harvest before, but for some reason this trip was particularly enthralling. I think those California gold hills, with their rugged stature and sprawling woods, got into my soul a little. My heart was captured by the vineyards of Sonoma in particular, where the cool air kissed my skin and the sun warmed my back as I rode on a tractor through rows of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Gamay. 


Before that, there was Oregon, where I spent a fascinating week visiting producers all over the state, leading up to the International Pinot Noir Celebration. I wrote about some exciting aspects of Oregon wine on Vine Pair, which you can read here; I also have a freshly published piece up on Vogue.com about the killer urban winery scene in Portland. Read that one here. I’m looking forward to writing some more detailed features on the bustling wine culture of Oregon, so be on the lookout for that in the near future.

Scholium Project bottles

As I go through my notes from Napa, Sonoma, and the Central Valley, where I spent a day helping the team at Scholium Project (read my 2015 profile of Abe Schoener here), I’m enthralled to know that American wine is so diverse, so forward-thinking in many aspects, and so, so delicious. And speaking of delicious, I should also mention that Food Republic published my round-up of San Francisco’s best new spots to eat and drink (based on research from an earlier trip), read that here.

Before I left California last week, I spent a day in San Francisco. Walking around the Mission, I came across the “Free Box” outside Dog Eared Books, and there was a copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s Gastronomical Me. How perfect, I thought, to have a collection of essays from one of our country’s pioneering literary food writers, to read on the plane back to New York. I opened it up and read the first sentence of the prologue: “People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?” 

I laughed and held the book to my chest, reassured to know that, back in the 40s, Fisher was grappling with the same question that often occupies me. I believe she wrote this forward in the middle of WWII, and while we aren’t in exactly that situation on a global scale, it’s unquestionable that conflict and suffering dominate great swaths of our planet, near and far. Knowing that so many issues in my city, our country, and this world are deserving of the power of the pen, I do sometimes wonder why I dedicate myself to writing about food and wine, something which seems on occasion quite petty, self-serving, and limited to a small, well-heeled population. But I knew right away where Fisher was going with that question. I think my answer, today, is not too different from hers: “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” And I would add that it’s about beauty. If you’ve ever stood in a vineyard with the late afternoon sun setting over ripe grapes, as a farmer details each soil type on every hill on his property, and looked out onto the fog rolling in from the mountains, you’ll understand what I mean.