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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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!

Support Raisin, The World’s Only Natural Wine App

Raisin is an app that supports the natural wine community by alerting wine lovers to places they can find organic, biodynamic, low-sulfite wines made on a small scale, all around the world. It’s a simple concept, meant to help make natural wine more transparent and approachable for everyday people who might be new to the idea of such wine. Essentially, the app helps you find a retailer or restaurant that features natural wines on at least 30 percent of their menu. And for anyone who loves natural wine and has had the experience of wandering around a foreign city, trying in vain to find a glass of something acceptable to drink, Raisin is going to come in handy.

Although Raisin launched last year, it’s now seeking crowdfunding in order to deliver an android version with some more sophisticated features. I urge you to support this project if you can. I have met one of the founders and I’ve seen the beautiful Raisin posters proudly on display in winemakers’ offices all around Europe. It’s a project that could be a great bolster to the natural wine community in a general sense.

Find out more about Raisin and support their campaign, here. As of now, 35 days are left to fund, but if you like the project it’s better to put your money down now, rather than later–it will encourage future donations. And if you’re new to my blog, and want to know more about natural wine, see my primer for Esquire magazine, here

And let’s all raise a glass to the great majority of France rejecting racism and anti-cosmopolitanism. That’s really something to celebrate.

Article + Photos From The Big Glou

I’m just back from two weeks in France, jet-lagged and writing at 5am. It turns out that an impassioned blog post I wrote in my hotel room, in Peripgnan (the Roussillon), was not actually published. Probably a good thing?

While I was away, my article about The Big Glou finally came out in Brooklyn Magazine (it also touches upon Vivent les Vins Libres, although not as much). It’s a look at who natural winemakers are, and why they are in a movement that cannot be defined. Read it here.

And here are some of my photos from that fantastic weekend event,

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at the end of February.

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Treat Yourself To Fancy Wines All Year Long!

IMG_7690Happy holidays! This Christmas gave me all the feels and also perhaps gout, because I’ve eaten so many ridiculous meals and had tons of amazing wine. Hopefully you’e done the same! To that end, I wrote about three kinds of splurgey, special-occasion wines for Vine Pair (read here). Now that Christmas has passed, perhaps you’ll find other ways to incorporate delicious bottles like these into your rotation. I hate to be all “life is short” because that’s maybe an overused saying but, put differently: why would you not enjoy special wine and food as much as possible?

And The Millennials Said, “Let There Be Wine Delivery . . .”

IMG_6880If you’ve ever posted on Facebook something about wine (maybe “dying for a glass of wine RN,” for example), then you’ve probably seen an ad pop up, for one of the many new wine delivery services vying for a slice of the market.

Wine delivery isn’t exactly new; for a long time wineries, especially smaller-production ones, have relied on customers subscribing to regular shipments of whatever they are sending out. These wine clubs have typically not been very cheap; they were more oriented toward connoisseurs than everyday drinkers. But in recent years, we’ve seen start-ups forming more updated, Millennial-focused versions of these wine clubs, offering consumers a confluence of good value, good wine, and something to satisfy everyone’s palate. These new delivery services exist on the basis of two important facts: one, that Millennials all over the country have an insatiable thirst for wine, and two, that those same Gen-Yers also love buying stuff online and having it show up in the mail, and have become accustomed to this lifestyle ever since the rise of Amazon and similar businesses.

Read the rest of my article on wine delivery subscriptions, on Vine Pair.

What To Do When You’re Given A Massive Wine List?

IMG_4300One of my main goals as a writer is to help people enjoy wine more. And you can’t do that so easily if you’re thrown into a state of confusion by the massive wine list — wine book, even — at some of today’s restaurants. A lot of people are intimidated by enlisting the sommelier’s help, and they also feel fatigued at the thought of navigating a list. So, I wrote for Vine Pair about how to tackle any list, with or without a somm by your side, with some tips from experts around the country. Read here!