Weekly Apéro Hour: Luxuriating in Sangiovese and Rachel Cusk’s World of Dialogue

Sometimes, I make a list in my head of the living people whom I’d give anything to have dinner with. Novelist Rachel Cusk is at the top of that list. She is a writer who has reinvented the genre of the novel, by giving it new form, seemingly without effort.

Reading Cusk’s critically acclaimed trilogy, of which I’m now on the last segment, feels simultaneously like you have become witness to an act of genius, and like there’s nothing simpler, more comforting, more enjoyable, than this simple book in your hands. This tension between ingenuity of form and bare bones writing is what I love about Cusk’s work. 

The plot of each of these books revolves around a narrator who is doing not much more than living her life, as a writer — it’s very hard to write a book about writing that isn’t super annoying, but she has mastered this — while having conversations with people who are deeply entrenched in the throes of emotional maelstroms. To quote critic Dwight Garner, these dialogues “branch out like broccoli florets.”

Kudos is the latest in Cusk’s series, and I treated myself to it after finally launching the Kickstarter for my book Nomad — which is off to a good start! Please check it out if you haven’t yet. If you know me, whether from following me on social media or IRL, you’re surely aware that I’ve long wanted to write a book. Ultimately, I have plans to write something more complex than Nomad, which is more like a long essay than a full book, but I see this attempt as a crucial step in breaking through the obstacles I feel are between me and that future book.

If you are thinking about going out to grab Kudos, you definitely can jump right into it, although it will probably make you want to go back and start the trilogy from scratch. I highly recommend it — the whole series is a meditation on the contemporary world and how it makes us feel at an individual level, with close examinations of relationships, both romantic and familial, and deep studies of femininity and masculinity and artistic creativity.

I also treated myself this week to a very special wine, a beautiful red from Pacina, an organic estate in Tuscany that consists of grapevines, olive trees, grain and vegetable farming, and a monastery dating back to 900 A.D. Having spent the week bottling Sangiovese (including my own, for my forthcoming label, Persephone Wines), I was ready to sit back and drink a fine example.

You’ll note that this is a wine from 2013. In the world of natural wines, it’s not very common to be able to enjoy a wine that has undergone extensive ageing like this. Many natural wines are made in a “fresher” style, meant to be light and low in alcohol, and there’s also the unfortunate truth that quite a few natural winemakers who would prefer to age their wines for longer simply can’t afford to do so, as anything held in stock represents potential immediate cash income.

Pacina makes this wine, comprised of nearly all Sangiovese, with a bit of the local blending grape Canaiolo/Cilliegiolo mixed in (two local red varieties traditionally used for blending with Sangio), with extreme care and respect for Tuscan tradition. The grapes are first macerated for six weeks in concrete, and then fermentation continues also in concrete for six months. Then there’s ageing in old oak barrels of different sizes, followed by one year of resting and integrating in bottle. No sulfites (or anything else) were added.

The result is an extraordinarily elegant wine that delivers the satisfaction of experiencing a vintage several years later. Although the wine is somewhat high in alcohol (14% — normal for a wine of the sunny Tuscan hills), this is only one component of its profile, as the ageing helps the alcohol to integrate with the other flavors. On the very aromatic nose, I found ripe cherry and pickled plums. The palate had a totally smooth texture, featuring musky sandalwood and charred rhubarb. The wine was such a treat to drink, and despite its complexity and meditative aspects went down very quickly — it wasn’t weighted down in any way. A serious red wine doesn’t have to be overly tannic and massively heavy on the palate, if the maker is artful enough. Surely, the Pacina wines are aided by the fact that Giovanna, who along with her husband Stefano run the estate and the winemaking cellar, is the third generation to do so — the knowledge must have been passed down to her from previous members of her family, and so she can rely on the older ways to some extent.

Have a great start to your week, everyone! Thanks for reading this edition of #apérohourweekly and feel free to subscribe to the blog via the homepage if you want to receive this in your inbox each week. Around mid-August I’ll be headed to Europe, to visit vineyards in Slovenia and Spain, and check out the wine scene in Berlin and London, and I’ll be continuing to write as a I travel — it would be great to have you along with me. (Of course, I also blog as I go on my persona Instagram, so hop over there if you don’t already follow.)

cheers! xxRachel

 

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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…

xRachel

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.

I Can Only Confirm That I Wrote This Story (But Not Which Parts Are True)

Most of you who follow this blog probably don’t know that wine and food journalism is only part of my overall writing repertoire. Fiction, as well, is a large part of my life, and it’s actually because of my desire to learn fiction writing that I fell into this whole wine thing: I was writing a novel, and taking a really engrossing workshop called the Writers Institute, at the City University of New York. Having hostessed and served in restaurants throughout high school and college, I figured that working in a restaurant would be the logical way to support these unprofitable habits. Just a few tastes of the vin nature at Reynard, and as soon as the manuscript was finished I cast it aside–the proverbial first novel in the drawer; I’m glad I wrote the whole book but I don’t think anyone needs to read it–and I promptly delved into wine study.

But today, I am really happy to share a published short story, that I wrote back when I was studying fiction at the Writers Institute, on the Daily Beast. I hope you’ll find a moment to sit back with a glass of wine (or two? It’s a fairly long piece) and read it–link here. And if any of you out there are fiction writers, I’d love to hear what literary publications you’re into at the moment. I might start polishing up some more of these old workshop stories to send out!

Only one request . . . if you do read my story, “Dancer,” which takes place in Costa Rica, please don’t try to get me to divulge what parts of it are true. I’m sure it’s tempting, but don’t even bother; I am a seasoned writer and I know when to zip my lips, only offering the phrase, “I can neither confirm nor deny.” (OK, I can confirm that I’ve been to Costa Rica. But that’s all! No more concessions.)

Written from a quiet hillside in Italy, where I’m on the Franciacorta trail at the moment. Stay tuned.

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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Sheila Heti on Writing Outside of the Academy

From Page Turner:

“SH: Well, if you’re working on a book, the book poses a bunch of questions. Maybe it’s (in the case of my second book, Ticknor) “What were the early birth control pioneers like?” or “What was Florence Nightingale all about?” Most of your curiosities don’t even make it into the book, but you think they will. Moments come where you have to find out about something or you can’t go on. So you start reading in that area (Havelock Ellis, Marie Stopes) and you take in the stuff at a really deep level because your need to know it is at once mysterious (why is Marie Stopes so important to you right now?) and really practical (it might help you finish a scene). I guess the main difference is that you are led down reading paths as you go, rather than coming up with a reading list at the start. Read more