Why I Wine Write

Most of the time, I hate being a “wine writer.”

What I mean is: I wish I could write anything but journalism about wine: a poem, a novel, might better convey the aspects of wine that I really want to talk about.

It’s extremely difficult, in today’s media climate, to do justice to truly great wine, as a writer. I get a lot of offers from well-funded wineries to travel to their properties, and I typically turn these down—yes, I reject free trips to Tuscany—because I know I won’t like the wine, and I’ll have marketing literally shoved down my throat. Meanwhile, many of the profoundly interesting and moving experiences I’ve had while visiting producers are rejected by editors as “too niche.” Often, it seems that the best approach to writing about the small producers I love actually might be to take really great photos of their bottles with me wearing some hot tiny outfit, saying funny shit, but, well, ha, that job is already taken (and done quite well).

Considering that wine is, in the grand scheme of things, relatively unimportant—the stakes are much lower when it comes to, say, discussing the merits of organic wine, versus reporting on cancer research or the war in Sudan or fill-in-the-blank with thousands of subjects—wine writers deal with disproportionate levels of criticism and pressure. We are, privately or publicly, slammed by strangers and people we know, when we write something people disagree with or if we’ve made a mistake in our description of a wine. (As well, I think wine writers in the natural wine scene are viewed with skepticism because we’re highlighting very small producers whose juice is quite limited.) It’s completely impossible to please everybody, and it’s also really hard, unless you’ve made wine before or you’re a goddamn whiz of a researcher, to get every detail right—especially considering that just about none of the wine publications out there employ fact-checkers (if they do, sometimes they know nothing about wine; these are typically college interns). Of course, I am not exempt from lashing out against other wine writers who pen stuff that I find offensive. And I am deeply respectful of people—like Alice Feiring and Peter Liem—who have figured out business models that work for them in order to write independently, and I’m trying to figure this out for myself.

The long-standing cliché that wine is “bottled poetry” bears some relevance here. It’s really hard to translate a vintner’s relationship with land, and thousands of years of history—or a few hundred years or decades, as in most New World scenarios—into something communicable to a general audience. (It is literally “lost in translation.”) I’m thinking now about a wine I tasted at Benoît Lahaye’s estate in Champagne, when I visited this past February. I adore the dry-as-a-bone, electric Champagnes of Lahaye, who farms just under 5 hectares in Bouzy with biodynamics (certified by Biodyvin).

“Violaine” is a vintage wine, consisting of 50/50 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, that Lahaye makes since 2008 completely without sulfites (sans soufre); it also receives no dosage. It is named for the village his grandfather and his wife’s grandfather came from; Lahaye’s grandfather, if I understood correctly (this was all discussed in French) was orphaned at a young age, and Benoît’s wife’s family actually took him in—so in other words, this couple’s grandparents were once living under the same roof. As I write this, I’m a bit worried that I’m not getting all the details right, but the point is: inextricable family histories, intangible connections, all these deeply personal things are put into a bottle and no matter how hard I try, I’ll never quite be able to replicate their essence in words. Nor do my tasting notes: “intense, pure chalkiness, rich texture, throughline of minerality but also a satisfying roundness” actually really convey the experience of tasting this wine, especially once Lahaye had explained the story behind its name.

But the fact that I’m not 100 percent sure of the details of the story is an excellent demonstration of how difficult it is to write about wine: to confirm, I would need to return to Lahaye’s home and re-interview him to make sure I understand every part of it correctly—which, obviously, would delight me—but to do all that I would need money and time, both of which are rare currency for wine writers. (This, of course, is related to my earlier point, that wine is not as vital as medicine or as impactful as politics.)

But this specific wine and this specific story are only one of many that make wine—true wine; “natural” wine; meaning wine that reflects small, specific places and does not attempt to mask the whims of climate—so incredibly difficult to explain and capture. There’s an element of mysticism. I’ve heard great winemakers stumble in trying to express it; I’ll never forget my first wine trip to France—I really lucked out and got to tag along for a few days with the Becky Wasserman crew in Burgundy, and they brought me to Frederic Mugnier’s cellar. I think I asked him some kind of prompt about the meaning of the word “terroir,” and he thought very carefully before responding: “We try, and we look at the soil, but we don’t really know exactly what it is.” That moment has come back to me many times in my wine research. I don’t think he meant, of course, that soil type doesn’t matter. But there are these oddities of life—an ancestor who shared a home with your spouse’s ancestor; a difficult vintage that turns out masterfully; a grape nearly lost to humanity that, somehow, persists in growing—which give wine its true magic. And, as much as I would like to try to communicate these things, I am often at a complete loss. 

Fortunately for every one of us, the simplest way to experience wine is without any mediation at all, by simply drinking it. Maybe the stories I want to tell about wine are best relegated to some kind of Proustian novel about all the incredible personalities I’ve encountered or befriended as I spend more time studying the culture of natural wine. Often, when I taste a really striking wine, or I meet a bold, renegade winemaker, I ask myself: how can I, as a writer, be more like this winemaker, or produce something as incredible as this wine? And I’m at a loss for an answer, most of the time. But I guess the reason I keep writing is that I hope, one day, that I will find the answer, and that I’ll deliver some work of writing that even comes close to the elegance I’ve found in so many bottles. And that I’ll be as strong-willed, proud of my labors, and, well, “unfiltered,” let’s say, as the winemakers I admire.

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The New Wave Of Oregon Natural Wine: Notes From Tastings

This summer, I tasted many exciting Oregon wines during a two-week trip that I pulled off with generous support from the Oregon Wine Board and Travel Oregon/Portland. I’m a little too amped up about some of these wines to wait for an editor to approve this story, so I’ll write briefly here about the naturally-working Oregon producers I’m most energized about. To keep things short, only one or two wines will be discussed, with the focus more on the overall project (if you’d like further tasting notes, please ask). Several of these producers have wines distributed nationally, and some are in New York as of just recently. Probably all of these producers are knee-deep in harvest right now! As of my trip to Oregon in July, it was looking to be a very “classic” growing season, so there are high hopes for the 2016 vintage. Note that all producers listed here are fermenting spontaneously, using low amounts of sulfur, and filtering minimally if at all. (For more on natural wines, please see my explainer on Esquire.com.)

Jackalope

Jackalope Cellars: I tasted Corey Schuster’s wines alongside those of Sterling Whitted, below, both at the recommendation of Brianne Day. Corey wound up in winemaking after moving on from his engineering career in 2008. He wanted to do something completely different, and therefore got a job at the SE Division Collective (more on that here), where he helped with harvest and managed the wine bar. He now makes wine out of Brianne’s facility in the Dundee Hills, and is distributed in New York through Avant-Garde.

Of note: The 2015 “White” is a blanc de Cabernet Franc, which seems to be a theme in Oregon (Leah Jorgenson makes one that Jon Bonné has written about; St. Reginald Parish—see below—makes a blanc de Pinot), and originally Corey was even getting it from the same grower as Leah, that being Herb Quady in Southern Oregon, but he’s now moving onto new sources. The nose on this very unique wine is herbaceous, lemony, and floral; it’s refreshing and deeply textured on the palate with a hint of tannin. As well, the 2014 Cabernet Franc was a wine that I would order in a restaurant in a heartbeat—it’s sultry and sumptuous, with herbal notes and rich fruits, but also that singing acid. Corey aged the wine in older barrels with one new barrel mixed in there, and the fruit for this wine also comes from Herb Quady. Others tasted: 2015 Viognier, 2014 Pinot Noir from Crowley Station.

Holden Chardo

Holden: After working as the wine buyer for several Whole Foods locations in Oregon, Sterling Whitted studied winemaking at Schemeceda in Chehalem, worked harvests around the Willamette and helped out at Teutonic Wine Co in Portland, and came out with his own label in 2011. He feels strongly connected to the winemaking cultures of Northern Italy, and made a trip there to visit producers in those appellations, which was a pivotal experience for him. Hence, Sterling works with Dolcetto, something of a rare bird in Oregon, and makes a skin fermented Sauvignon Blanc in homage to Friulian wine. With his non skin-contact whites, Sterling practices “hyperoxidation,” a process where the wine is oxidized in lieu of adding sulfur at the crush pad; it browns the wine in the short term yet prevents “the enzyme polyphenol oxidase from functioning, which is the component in fruit that turns phenolics brown,” as Sterling explains it. Sterling works out of Union Wine Co, where those super trendy Underwood canned wines are made. Holden wines are in New York through MFW. Both Holden and Jackalope have some of the coolest labels I’ve seen in a while, designed by local artists.

Of Note: The 2014 Sauvignon Blanc saw one month on the skins, and was finished in a combination of stainless steel and neutral barrels. It’s a charmingly straightforward wine full of stonefruits and black tea notes, with balanced texture. The 2014 Chardonnay is particularly flavorful, with 10 months in barrel on full lees, showing beautiful white peach notes and lemon zest. Others tasted: 2014 Johan Vineyards Gruner Veltliner; 2014 Dolcetto.

St Reginald Parish

St. Reginald Parish: I’ve still never met Andy Young, but after I tasted his single-vineyard Pinot Noir wines in the fall of 2015, I linked him up with a friend of mine at Communal Brands and his wines are now brought into New York through them. But while the single-vineyard Pinot wines are great, I’ve really been enjoying Andy’s more experimental juice. I don’t know too much about Andy’s winemaking, but I hear he’s a really good drummer who finally settled in Portland after many years of touring with My Bloody Valentine and others. Once in Portland, he got a job at a wine bar (seems to be a theme amongst upstart producers, no?), and after tasting his way through some ’06 Willamette Pinots, thought he would give it a try. I believe the winery’s name has to do with the fact that Andy was raised by a Baptist preacher in New Orleans.

Of note: St. Reginald Parish makes a refreshing and tasty carbonic Pinot Noir, which New Yorkers can drink by-the-glass at The Dutch until it runs out. It’s really a summer wine, to be drunk chilled on a hot evening. I think this is his most successful wine at the moment, although his rosé of Pinot is very, very pretty and gluggable, the kind of rosé you would have with oysters, and his blanc de Pinot is quite interesting and full of personality. Something tells me that good things would happen if Andy got his hands on some Gamay. Also tasted: 2015 old vines Pinot Gris.

Jasper Cisco alsatian blendJasper Cisco: I met Justin Paul Russell during an IPNC event, and realized that he was working out of the SE Division Collective, so I tasted with him there during my visit with Kate and Tom. (Again, see the Vogue article if you’re wondering what this place is.) These wines are really interesting and even somewhat challenging. A few of Justin’s wines are made in an oxidative style, and I believe all the wines we tasted were sulfur-free; there’s some skin contact on the whites. Really fun juice. Currently not distributed in NYC, which I’m sure will change soon.

Of note: The 2015 “Gratus Bynum,” a blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Muscat from vineyards way up in Washington, really captivated me. The small amount of residual sugar performed beautifully alongside the natural acidity from the grapes, which come from a 1400-foot-high site above the Columbia River. The smoky nose is followed by black tea compounds, married perfectly with that touch of sweetness.

Statera bottle

Statera Cellars: Another label coming out of SE Wine Collective. I requested some samples of Statera months back, after reading an article about their devotion to Oregon Chardonnay, something that is oft overlooked but, I think, on the rise as winemakers hone their approach to this grape and more is planted. Statera is a collaboration between two friends, Luke Matthews (assistant winemaker at Division Wine Co) and Meredith Bell (assistant winemaker at Omero Cellars, where Chad Stock is in charge). Their wines are in Jura bottles, on the basis that they retain the aromatics. 2014 was their first vintage. Zev Rovine is going to distribute Statera in New York.

Of note: I really like the 2014 Statera from Johan Vineyard Chardonnay. It was aged in only neutral barrels for 16 months, with sulfur only before bottling. The nose is very floral, and the wine boasts all the minerality and acidity that I think people are striving for with Oregon Chardo.

Hiyu Dave Ready_Rsigner

Hiyu Wine Farm: I was directed to Hiyu Farms, a biodynamic estate making some very unique wine that’s about to be released on the market, thanks to a publicist with a very good palate, Samantha Chulick. Nate Ready is a Master Sommelier who worked at The French Laundry and Frasca before intelligently deciding to make his own juice, which I am pretty sure is bound to become “the next big thing” because it lives in that sweet intersection of the artful, the intellectual, and the delicious. Nate is co-planting some very unusual grape varieties based on regional groupings, in effect creating a little map of the wine world (or at least, his favorite appellations) on the Hiyu property, located in the Columbia Gorge not too far from Portland. There’s Savoie, there’s the Rhone Valley, there are Iberian things happenings—it’s very cool. “Hiyu” is Chinook for “gathering” or “abundance.”

Of note: In bottle, I tried a very good skin-fermented Pinot Gris that seemed completely unfiltered—not sure of the vintage, as it was served during lunch and we didn’t get into details. In the cellar, I swooned for a 2013 Gewurtztraminer that saw a few days of skin contact before being tucked away into old barrels. (Nate seems to like letting his wine age in barrel for a long time.) It was smoky and full of stonefruits, not too weighty on the palate, lots of nervy acid. Other wines tasted: too many to note here.

I have more to write, in particular about my visits to Omero Cellars and Beckham Estate Vineyard, but these entail greater complexities than I’d like to delve into here, so please be on the lookout for these stories soon. OK, enough: go out and drink these fantastic wines!