Spritzes, Birthdays, Knowing Thyself

This week, I turned one year older. (I’m not going to hide my age from you: 34.)

On my birthday, I was staying in a little house outside Rome, surrounded by olive groves and vineyards growing the red grape Cesanese. My boyfriend and I took a walk in the nearby town, which seemed straight out of an old Sophia Loren film, and where we shopped for veggies and cheeses and a cut of steak to cook for dinner, and then had spritzes in the piazza; after, we went back to the house we were staying in, to drink more spritzes and watch the sunset.

Often, people comment on my social media or in e-mails that my travels “look amazing” or that I’m really “living the dream.” I never quite know what to say in response. Should I deny that Italy is beautiful and I just had some spaghetti alla carbonara to die for at a little neighborhood trattoria in central Rome, or that spring wildflowers have surrounded us everywhere we’ve gone for the past few weeks, and that I spent an entire afternoon observing people and sketching in one of Copenhagen’s new coffee shops Andersen & Maillard because the energy in that space was just so nice? Should I not admit that I’m incredibly excited to return to Australia and taste the wine I made a few months back, and consider when it will be ready for bottling?

Or, should I reply mentioning how much my stomach hurts from the lack of exercise and stress of traveling, that it’s really hard to run a small indie magazine while living on the go, that my entire family had a gathering with all my nieces and nephews there and I kind of wish I’d magically teleported over to give them all hugs, or that on certain days, I would trade this transient existence for whatever their full time jobs are?

Well, this has gotten heavy, quick! This post started out as a way of introducing myself to many of you who have, for whatever reason, started following me in recent weeks. Whomever you are — whether you’re a seasoned magazine editor, a mother of five who enjoys reading, a winemaker, a friend of a friend who followed out of curiosity — I welcome you here very much, because without you I’d be writing into the void.

But I hope you’re not here hoping that I’ll only blog about wine! I do like to write about wine, of course, but sometimes I wish I could be a sort of superhuman Renaissance Woman, writing about wine, literature, modern art, and even politics with expertise and flair. I feel like the world we live in wants us to market one side of ourselves to the world, rather than confessing our multi-faceted natures. Some people manage to escape this monotony, I think — either they jump swiftly and surely from one project to the next, or they gracefully merge their interests into one place. For the latter, I’d note the newsletter from the California wine delivery service “Pour This.” Not being a California resident, I cannot order any of the wines, but I absolutely love the way the company’s founder Ashley Ragovin weaves personal stories and cultural topics into her wine updates. It was an obvious “yes” when she approached me wanting to write for Terre, and if you haven’t yet cracked open your copy of Issue 2, do it now and go straight to Ashley’s story about getting to know Sicilian winemaker Arianna Occhipinti. I love that I can work with such talented and unconventional writers!

But I’m meandering severely. What I wish I could somehow know, is who all of you out there are! Some of my readers, I’ve met and know well. There’s the natural wine fanatic in New York (hello, Andrew, glad you enjoyed Greece!). There’s my mom — and my mom’s lovely ex-boyfriend. There’s the aforementioned editor of an established magazine (you still out there?). Writerly types, I assume, are on the roster. Give me a shout on email sometime, or wherever really, if you feel like it. Let me know if you liked a recent post, if it made you laugh or prompted a question.

Et moi? Well, you already know my age. You may also know that I’m originally from the U.S. but left a year ago, two suitcases in hand, to let the wind carry me. You possibly know that I love wine, only natural wine, made from grapes with no preservatives added. I’m a long-term yoga practitioner, I love modern art, I have seven (or is it eight now?) tattoos. Currently, I am writing this in a hotel room outside Rome, wearing a towel and sitting on the floor. I’m staying up all night because we have an early morning flight and I can’t sleep when I know I have to be at the airport in three hours. I’d rather write.

I’ll have more to say soon, when I’m back in Australia, and I’ve processed the past few weeks. It’s honestly been an incredibly inspiring trip. I’ve learned a lot about myself and my own relationship to natural wine, and I’ve also — sort of unexpectedly — learned a bit about spring pruning, since that’s what people have been busy with in the vineyards we’ve visited. (That’s the vineyard of Le Coste in Italy, up there — one of my favorite natural wine producers.) Vines are really amazing and quirky plants — their instinct is to grow wild, but they have to be tamed to make decent wine. (Metaphor for humans? Hm…) The work of spring pruning involves trimming off the unnecessary shoots that come in all over the branches, and it is a massive job for any small grower to undertake. So much love and care is going into vineyards, all over the Northern Hemisphere right now, as berries begin to flower and turn into actual grapes. Here’s wishing a wonderful growing season to all of you.

And to those of you who have recently joined me here, stay tuned for a new project, which I’ll announce soon. It’s a project for dreamers and risk-takers and those who are fed up with life’s mundane routines, those who thirst for something new, even if they don’t know yet what that is. I’m guessing some of you out there are a bit like that. More to come. I think I’ll tackle a few emails before it’s time to rev up the rental car one more time and do the airport song-and-dance I know so well.

I’ll leave you all with a quote from the Surrealist intellectual Andre Breton:

“I have no desire to know myself. (Basta! I shall always know myself!)”

. . . Um, wow, if this little birthday is this existential, what will 35 be like???

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Modern-Day Vikings In Copenhagen

Many of us dream of living on the edge—giving up our jobs, letting the wind blow us from one place to another, no possessions or responsibilities to weigh us down. Sometimes people need to completely shake up their worlds in order to find a new direction. For me, the past year has been about living nomadically, and I’ve definitely discovered its bonuses as well as its limitations.

Recently, I spent one week in Copenhagen, a city of waterways and bike paths, and of many notable, delicious places to eat and drink. The weather was stunning—sunshine and light breeze—and everybody was out, cycling and relaxing in the city’s many parks, drinking beer on terraces, walking in the botanical gardens. Some friends, who were also in town for a big natural wine tasting called Fri Vin, asked me to join them on a boat ride along the canals. Obviously, my answer was yes!

I rode my rental bicycle to the other side of the bridge, parked, and waited alongside the sparkling blue water. Soon, my friends arrived in a ramshackle sailboat that was missing its sail, with a bucket of Belgian beers. All aboard . . .

“Let’s head toward the pirate cove,” said our captain. We rode along the calm water, checking out various architectural marvels like the opera house.

Fifteen minutes later, some of us were ready for a swim, so our captain slowed down the boat. Two of the guys stripped their shirts off and jumped in, immediately howling at the frigidness of the water.

Then we noticed a woman standing on the deck of a boat, which was part of a cluster of boats looking even more ramshackle than ours—and even a shipping container of sorts, parked atop a raft. “Hey there,” she said calmly.She was wearing a bra, a sarong, and eyeglasses, and her long brown hair flowed down her back. We hollered back: “Just stopped here for a swim.” We come in peace.

“Just let me know if you need anything,” she said in a friendly tone before disappearing into her boat house. Clearly, this was her territory. I saw now that this collection of boats was a squat. We were on the waters just outside the Copenhagen district known as Cristiana, which was established in the 1960s as a “free state,” and today is sort of a tourist attraction (and an open market for marijuana), although many people also actually live there, governing themselves according to their own principles.

Two minutes later, the woman reappeared. “Actually, you got an extra beer?” Of course we did! Quickly, she was standing atop a raft, using a plastic oar to make her way toward us, her brown hair blowing around her shoulders. Her raft parked besides us and just as she was coming aboard, my arm outstretched a plastic cup of beer already poured to welcome her, we heard a call from back on her home base:

“Check this ouuuuuut!”

There was a young woman on deck, jumping up and down and smiling wildly. She had pixie-cut, bleached blonde hair. Beside her was a guy with his shirt off, soft wavy brown hair hanging down his back, and a calmly poised woman wearing a flowered skirt and striped t-shirt. The blonde woman was holding up a box of wine in one hand, and a six pack of beer in the other.

“Whoa,” said our friend who’d first greeted us, looking back over her shoulder. “How’d you get all that?”

The guy replied proudly, with a shrug, “Just walked in and out of the store a few times.” Their looted bounty was ample: a few boxes of wine, and many beers. Soon, the modern-day Vikings had all rowed over to us, eager to meet the visitors and share their appropriated booze. They were from Latvia, Denmark, Sweden. They’d found their boats in different ways—one was half-sunken near shore and they managed, somehow, to dig it out of the mud. To get into the city limits without a boat license, they’d snuck through by night, keeping a watch for any coast guard. They mostly didn’t speak to their families, except for the Danish woman, who said she saw her parents from “time to time.” They lived by their wits on the canals of Copenhagen, and planned to sail the Nordic waters once the weather was fully warm. The pixie blonde clinked her plastic cup of beer with my wine, and told me I was welcome to live on her boat, anytime.

After half an hour of sharing beers and stories, we had to go, and the pirates retreated on their rafts—one was a canoe, actually. After the boat ride, I hopped back on my rental bike and rode back to my AirBnb in the hipster neighborhood Nørrebro. Suddenly, my nomadic life of freelance writing felt very bourgeois, very tame, compared to the Vikings we’d met, who survived thanks to illegality, cunning, and the strength of a group.

I keep thinking of those Vikings. Their story shows that a city can be experienced in so many ways. In Copenhagen, I visited many of the cool restaurants and coffee shops and wine bars, discovering their beauty or critiquing their food, collecting material for an upcoming article (and I also rode around on a bike, distributing copies of Terre to shops all over the city!). But the encounter with the pirates was something that will stay with me forever, even if I can’t show it on Instagram—it wasn’t a consumable experience. It was an encounter, out on the open waters, a reminder that there are no real limits or boundaries to how we live.

I’m not suggesting that you join a squat and drink shoplifted boxed wine! (Ugh.) But I think there are ways to be a modern-day pirate, in every day life—to sneak outside of the boundaries of what’s expected, live with fewer things and a greater sense of freedom, enjoy a city for its hidden forms of livability rather than seeing it as an object of desire, a furnace that stokes our constant need to consume.

Often, when visiting a new place, we feel compelled to use up every minute of our time at cool restaurants or shopping. That’s fine—my best memories of that week in Copenhagen include the soft, sweet warmth of the kardammomme I had at Juno bakery, as well as the long lunch I had at Relae, enjoying some of the most creative dishes I’ve seen in a while. I feel transformed by walking along the paths outside the Louisiana Museum, where works by sculptors such as Richard Serra and Alexander Calder are installed amongst forest and scraggly rocks with a view overlooking the water toward Sweden. But the everyday encounters are what humanize the city and make it more than just a collection of experiences; they make it a place where people achieve their dreams of freedom, however humble or impossible-seeming they may be.

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.

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!