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.

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When Home Is A Vineyard Somewhere And Everywhere

It’s a wonderful time to be in Europe. It’s a difficult time to be in Europe.

I have been traveling for the past month. Each day, I’ve been enthralled by the vibrancy of the cities I pass through, the exceptional wines and foods I’m tasting, the generous hospitality of the people I’m encountering along the way.

1701 Franciacorta, a small-production, zero dosage biodynamic project in Lombardia, Italy, which I visited last week

And yet: constant heaviness. The world feels perpetually uncertain, unsafe. The U.S. news cycle reads like a script for a soap opera, and it would almost beg laughter if it didn’t represent actual suffering, large steps backwards in terms of social progress, and the dismantling of environmental and political institutions that are so vital to society. 

What happened in Charlottesville also hits very close to home, and it was very hard to be away while it was going on. Not only did I live in this town for several years as an undergraduate student; my older brother is the mayor of Charlottesville, and while it’s been remarkable to watch him rise to the occasion, it’s also incredibly strange how the internet can superficially transport me to the events transpiring. Watching the video of the car barreling down the pedestrian road through Charlottesville’s downtown mall felt absolutely surreal; it’s a place I spent many afternoons drinking coffee, and some months waiting tables at a small Italian restaurant.

We are all processing, in our own ways. To those of you struggling to grapple with these events, or who feel unsafe and afraid, know that I’m thinking of you, even while far away.

Meanwhile, and despite the sense of angst, I’ve had some incredible encounters this past month, and have been in some of Europe’s great vineyards, wineries, and restaurants. Although my actual home is far away, I feel right at home when I’m in the company of people who are working to make something they are proud of, that represents the place they live. True hospitality is a rare find and I’m grateful to experience it.

Last Sunday, it was very special and comforting to be invited into the home of Angiolino Maule, a pioneering winemaker in the Veneto, to share lunch with his family. This was exactly the kind of warmth I needed on that day.

Angiolino Maule’s two sons, Alessandro and Giacomo, at their home in the Veneto

It was also heartening to visit the family at Slobodne Vinarstvo, in Slovakia, and spend an afternoon-into-evening absorbing their forward-thinking approach to winemaking. Walking the vineyards with their beautiful baby and discussing the fascinating history of post-Soviet Slovak winemaking, and tasting their skin contact wines full of energy under a sky full of stars, was at once calming and uplifting.

Agnes (and baby Viliam) of Slobodne Vinarsto, Slovakia

Over the next few weeks, I will begin properly writing up my notes and stories from this summer. Already, one report has come out: a write-up of Scotland’s first natural wine fair, in Edinburgh. You can read it on Sprudge Wine, link here

Claus Preisinger’s winery, Burgenland

I’ve returned to Paris after a week in Slovakia and Austria, where I convened with two wine bloggers for some very moving visits with natural winemakers. Pictured above is the winery of Claus Preisinger in Burgenland, Austria–one of the most impressive and thoughtful works of architecture I’ve ever seen, along with Christian Binner’s in Alsace.

I look forward to weaving the past month’s research into some insightful stories. At the moment I’m posted up in a quiet Paris café (the city is still away on vacation, which means I’ll hopefully get a lot of work done), a café crème and three full notebooks beside this laptop.

with love from Paris -RS

It’s All Greek To Me, But Only Some Of It Is Worth Drinking

What’s old is new, and what’s new is old, right?

Nowhere does that seem more true than within the culture of natural wine. After all the money spent on science and technology in the late 20th century, with the goal of creating a commercial wine industry, and thousands and thousands of wineries installing temperature-controlled, stainless steel tanks for a quick and consistent fermentation, people all over the world are now putting their grapes into clay amphorae, fermenting them without sulfites, and letting wine be just about as wild as it was back in the days of Dionysus. 

Crazy, right? Next thing you know, people will actually be talking to each other in cafés instead of perusing Instagram on their phones. Er, probably not . . .

In Greece, a country with 4000 years of documented viticultural history, modern winemaking dominates, and is strongly influenced by Bordeaux-style oenology. But there are a few people making really interesting, low-intervention or natural wines, and elevating the country’s fascinating indigenous grapes. My article about the producers leading the way for natural wines in Greece is up on Sprudge Wine, read here

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I had the pleasure of tasting many of these wines during a recent visit to the country. What’s important to mention here, too, is that the wines really shine especially with Greek food, which is rich in flavor and features lots of fresh Mediterranean vegetables, like eggplant and tomato, as well as plenty of meat, feta cheese, and dolmas. So, ideally, that would be the way to enjoy the wines; however, I did recently have a fantastic 2013 Xinomavro from a producer named Oenos at a restaurant here in Paris (cute place called Tannat, in the 11ème), and it was perfect with duck. (Although Xinomavro with moussaka, that’s just, like, boom.)

moussaka!!! so good!

If you live in New York, I really recommend the restaurant Molyvos, where I first tasted many of these wines a couple years back with the very knowledgable wine director, Kamal Kouiri; the food is really delicious and classic.

Thanks for reading!

 

Vasco Croft Recreates Traditional Portuguese Winemaking—And Channels The Cosmos—At His Biodynamic Estate Aphros

Aphros_Vasco and Amphorae_RSigner
Aphros winemaker Vasco Croft with his amphorae

A sense of the past, of the old Old World, is evidenced by the granite stone blocks, infiltrated with dark green moss, surrounding what was once known only as Quinta Casal do Paço, and which is now, thanks to a biodynamic conversion (and a mid-life crisis) also the estate where Aphros wine is produced.

Vasco Croft, a silver-haired man with piercing gray-blue eyes in his early 50s, greets us with the story of his estate. We are on a media tour of Vinho Verde, a wine region in northern Portugal’s Douro Valley known for spritzy, cheap white wines produced in cooperatives; Aphros will prove to be the extreme outlier in a region obsessed with modernization, mass exportation, and profit.

During summer vacations while growing up in Lisbon, Vasco visited his family’s quinta (estate) in the far north, in the region of Arcos de Valdevez, which had been in their possession since the early 17th century; he always loved these visits. He describes to us a bucolic scene of villagers who went barefoot and used bullcarts to work the land. “The vine was integrated into life, here was not monoculture,” Vasco says, illuminating how grape growing in Portugal was part of other kinds of agriculture, rather than being a commercial enterprise as it has recently become.

Village Pergola_Rsigner
Traditional village agriculture / viticulture in a village near the Minho River

All over the Vinho Verde region, one sees grapevines hung in the old Pergola style, draped high above where the cool breeze protects them from moisture and mold, arranged in a square around a family or neighborhood garden. It’s beautiful, and also very practical on a small scale. Before the recent focus on exportation, winemaking in Portugal was, and still is to an extent, a household or community operation, and drinking wine was a commonality in everyday life. Vasco’s family quinta was once a central place for converting the villagers’ grapes into wine, but by the time Vasco was visiting, as a child in the 1960s, its winery and vineyards had largely been abandoned.

As an adult, Vasco became an architect, but his attention was diverted when he began studying “anthroposophy,” a central tenet of Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic philosophy. Vasco’s entry to biodynamics came through Steiner’s teachings about education (I don’t think this is uncommon; I heard a similar story from the couple who run biodynamic estate Castello di Tassarollo in Piedmont, whom I visited last fall), and he began studying to become a Waldorf teacher. Meanwhile, Vasco developed an interest in wine—but only drinking it. When he decided to give up his career in architecture—and his marriage and children—he knew nothing about making wine, but nevertheless set out to restore the quinta to its former glory, and resurrect a more traditional, integral way of life. In fact, Vasco’s concept hearkens much, much further back than his family’s 17th century roots in the village; his winery is named “Aphros” after the foam from which Aphrodite was born, and whispers of Greek and Roman histories emerge in various aspects of Vasco’s winemaking. The first Aphros vintage was in either 2004 or ’05, and the estate now produces around 70,000 bottles annually.

“It’s coming back to simplicity—do less, but more meaningful actions,” explains Vasco, who speaks slowly and deliberately, his eyes at once intense and soft. “We’ve been in this trend of reductive methods, avoiding oxygen at all cost. The wines before were made oxidative, with less technology and more focus on soil work, but you can use this natural technology of oils and extracts.” Vasco laments what was lost in the rush to upgrade everything for commercial purposes: “Peasant knowledge, centuries of wisdom, was forgotten, and replaced with modern methods.”

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To get his estate up and running in biodynamic fashion, Vasco sought help. He first asked Anselmo Mendes, a renowned regional winemaker who has a very interesting, eponymous experimental label (the wines aren’t much exported, so you’ll have to look for them in Portugal) for help; Mendes gave him “a plan” for getting the 5 acres he had at the time of Loureiro (a floral, high acid white grape) and Vinhão (a sour, low-alcohol red grape that’s strangely seductive) into shape, and advised him to install a new winery with stainless steel tanks. Vasco also hired a vineyard manager from the village, and a French biodynamic consultant named Daniel Noel, whose successor still helps out with Aphros, to teach him about all the treatments as prescribed by Steiner’s method. Read more

The Intrigue of Mezcal

El Silencio Palenque_RSignerA few weeks ago, I had the incredible experience of traveling to Oaxaca with El Silencio, one of the newer mezcal brands on the scene. We visited their palenque in San Baltazar, drank a lot of Espadín, and held a fairly raucous cocktail competition with bartenders from all over. Wine press trips, by the way, pale in comparison to spirits trips. Bartenders are ten times crazier.

Mezcal is a fascinating, beguiling spirit, which I’ve written about previously for Esquire and Food Republic. Following the trip with El Silencio, I stayed for a few days on my own, and met with other mezcal producers, and wrote a story for Food Republic about the spiritual, cultural aspects of mezcal. Read it here.

I have another feature on mezcal coming out in a few weeks. I also had a feature published this week on Brooklyn Magazine’s site, which lists some of the best wine + spirits shops in Brooklyn. I wrote it because people always ask me where to shop, so now I can just send them the link! Check it out here. At the moment, I’m in northern Portugal, learning about the wines of Vinho Verde, which I’ll write about for my Vine Pair column next week. For now, all I’ll say is that there is definitely more to Vinho Verde than spritzy, “cheap + cheerful” wine, but it’s one of those cases where the market provides a barrier to winemaking. To come!

 

February update

I just wrote 38 bar reviews in 24 hours, it was crazy (and believe it or not, I’ve actually been to *most* of them) . . .

But what I really wanted to say is that I had some fiction published recently, which is great, because it’s nice to write about something besides food and drinking, check it out here! thanks for reading.

Also, I went to Amsterdam (!!!) to write a feature about Heineken.

And lastly, I updated the “about” section of this website, revealing never before told truths about myself! OK not so much but there is a bit more info there.

My feature on Heineken will be out in Tasting Panel magazine later this spring.

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Looking back on a good year in food and writing

Octopus tempura at Rebelot del Pont, Milan
Octopus tempura at Rebelot del Pont, Milan

So, there’s a lot of year-in-review going on. Maybe you’re getting sick of it all, but I think it’s really nice to see how people reflect on the past twelve months, and it’s also a way to let it all slip into the past with appreciation, as we gear up for the year to come.

Food Republic asked me to share a few of my favorite travel experiences from the year. Below are a few of those highlights. But also, I’ve been doing some personal writing, something I hope to make more of a focus in the next year. On Medium, I wrote about cleaning out my high school bedroom, and the memories I’ll hold onto as well as the things I let go.

Along with these travel highlights, I have to mention my week-long trip in Hungary, where I luxuriated at Budapest’s bath houses, ate way too much foie gras, and learned about how Communism impacted one of the world’s oldest wine appellations, Tokaj

From my Food Republic round-up:

Berlin
Berlin’s craft food and drink scene is exploding, and the best way to explore it is the weekly Thursday night artisanal food market called Markthalle Neun, which started up in 2013 in the central neighborhood of Kreuzberg. Read more