The Key To Good Wine Writing Is Grapeskin-Blackened Hands

“Buckets! Secateurs! Allons-y!” It was 8:10am and there was a strong chill in the air, although the sun was beginning to glow behind a layer of fog that hung above  us, indicating that we’d be shedding layers even before lunch. At this familiar call-to-arms from Agnès, the matriarch of the family employing us in their vineyards, we diligently grabbed plastic buckets and garden shears, and with few words found ourselves in pairs, approaching a row of vines with one person on each side.

As I crouched in the dirt, the pain in my lower back pronounced itself, effectively asking: “Another day, really?” And as I’d been doing, every day for the last week, I shifted my weight to my knees, which creaked and groaned, but at least didn’t feel like a knife was being driven into them as I reached for a grape cluster.

Grape picking is incredibly hard work, the kind of physical labor that people supposedly go to college to avoid doing. But there is also so much romance in the vines, as I discovered during a two-week stage at Domaine Mosse, in the Anjou regoin of the Loire Valley. Living with the family, amongst the vines, and going out each day with the workers to collect grapes, or spending time in the cellar, was an immersion experience that every wine writer, I believe, should go through. By the end, my hands were blackened from grape skins and dirt; my body was exhausted and sore; but my soul was alight with the feeling of working in nature, and experiencing each vineyard’s uniqueness from within, through its fruits. Read more

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What Does One Drink During A Heat Wave In Paris?

The answer: anything and everything. Lots of water, cold cold beer, and soooo much vin de soif.

Paris, and most of Europe, is just emerging from a terrible heatwave. This past week, an energy-zapping, torturous, four-day cloud of brutally strong sunshine and 37 degree Celsius temperatures made the entire city into a greenhouse. My brain felt cooked. I tried to get work done, but it was really difficult to sit still and concentrate.

That said, I did have an article come out on Monday, ruminating on the phenomenon of “hipster celebrity natural winemaking,” in this case with the launch of Action Bronson’s wine, made in collaboration with a French grower and micronégociant Patrick Bouju. Read the story for Sprudge Wine, here

Other than that, I spent the week working on Terre Magazine; we’re assigning stories to writers around the world, plotting the corresponding artwork, and delving into the massive task of layout design. It’s interesting working with Erika and Katie across the sea, but actually it’s not so hard to communicate. We have some really compelling and unique stories in the works, and I’ll be editing throughout July and August. (For those interested in writing, see these pitching guidelines.)

Due to the heat, I really had no choice but to drink quite a bit this week. Here’s what I’ve gotten into (some of these are from the previous week; my liver’s not THAT hardcore):

Collaborative Septime x Vouette et Sorbée Champagne 

Not your average house wine! The restaurant Septime partnered up with biodynamic Champagne grower Vouette et Sorbée to make a killer special cuvée; it’s effectively the producer’s signature Fidéle blanc de noirs, made from Pinot Noir grown on Kimmeridgian soils in the Aube, but in this case élevage and tirage go a bit longer, according to the woman working at Septime Cave, where I purchased it. The juice is from vintage 2014; disgorgement was in December 2016. All of the V&S wines are rich in texture, vinous, and deeply mineral, and this one is no exception; it had notes of bitter almond, tree barks, and preserved lemons.

Cidrerie du Vulcain, cuvée “Trois Pepins”

I am smitten by the Swiss ciders from garagiste Jacques Perritaz, a former biologist who works with nearly-extinct heritage apple varieties, “remnants of a bygone polyculture,” as written on the Becky Wasserman site. This cuvée blends apples with quince and pear; it’s only 5 percent alcohol and refreshing without being sweet, loaded with mouth-puckering acidity and complex flavors; a perfect drink for aperitif at the charming caves-a-vins La Buvette in the 11ème.

Cancelli “Vini Rabasco” bianco
Trebbiano from a small estate in Abruzzo, niente chimica added, showing the true potential of this grape; the wine has luscious mouthfeel and a healthy dose of salinity layered with good concentration of fruit. Truly a pleasant wine to drink with small plates at La Buvette. I’d drunk the red several times in the U.S. but I actually think this one is more interesting. Not a wine to age, but wonderful for enjoying in a casual setting, and fantastic with pâté.

Etienne Courtois, Romorantin, 2011

If any of you out there have money and want to plant vines in a cool climate wine region, please please find a pépinière (vine gardener, essentially) who has Romorantin and grow it! It’s one of my favorite varieties on the planet, a mouth-puckering combination of lemon drops, white peaches, and stony minerality, and only about 60ha are left in the Loire Valley. The barrel-fermented and -aged Romorantin of Etienne Courtois is one of my favorite wines; it could age for another few years but right now it’s drinking marvelously and it tamed my thirst perfectly the other night at Aux Des Amis.

Luici Tecce, Taurasi, 2011

A bold, ripe Taurasi on a sweltering summer night? Might seem counterintuitive, but I’d been invited by a friend to hang out at a newish spot selling Italian natural wines called Vino Nostrum in the 11ème, and when the owners told us they had only one bottle left of this extremely limited-production, culty Taurasi… we obviously had to buy it and open it on the spot. The DOCG appellation of Taurasi features the Aglianico grape grown on volcanic soils about 500m above sea level, and the wines receive extensive aging in barrel (minimum of three years prior to release, at least one year in wood). Luigi Tecce, who is considered something of a wizard in the region, inherited the family estate in the late 90s when his father passed away; it has 5ha of vines, including some that are over 80 years old. Licorice, smoked meats, tobacco, and ripe raspberries made this a contemplative, complex wine.

La Ferme de Sept Lunes, Viognier/Roussanne, 2015

Rhone whites are under-appreciated. True, they can be flabby and sweet-tasting, but in the hands of certain producers, the unique white varieties of this region really do shine through. La Ferme de Sept Lunes, in Saint Joseph, came onto my radar during a salon I attended a few months back, called Découvertes en Vallée du Rhone. I drank this Voignier/Roussanne blend at La Buvette, and it was the perfect balance of ripe fruit and fresh acidity. In true biodynamic fashion, the estate is polycultural, working with grains and stonefruits. You can purchase their apricot, pear, and grape juices at La Buvette right alongside their wines.

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.

Alexandre Bain And The Fight For Pouilly-Fumé: A vigneron literally stands his ground


alexandre-bainAlexandre Bain makes controversial wines. Often, people think his wines are “orange,” meaning that their amber-brown hue is derived from the Sauvignon Blanc grape juice staying in contact with their skins—but in fact, the hue is from botrytized grapes, and an oxidative winemaking process, both of which are extremely uncommon for the region of Pouilly-Fumé, where Bain makes wine. Since launching his own label in 2007, Bain now makes about 50,000 bottles per year from 11 hectares that he rents.

In 2015, the French entity INAO, who is tasked with regulating appellations all around the country, effectively kicked Bain out of the Pouilly-Fumé AOC. This interview, conducted in the New York office of his importer, Zev Rovine, outlines Bain’s approach to winemaking, and why he is fighting back against the INAO.

What’s the history of winemaking in your family?

My grandparents were farmers; they had cows and goats, and grew wheat. But nobody in my family was vigneron. I was interested in wine, so I studied at the viticultural school of Beaune, and then worked for Domaine Henri Poulet in Menetou-Salon; Flowers in Sonoma; also in Ventoux in the South of France. I also worked for Louis Latour, a big chemical producer [laughs], but it was interesting for me because it was my first job and I learned there how to prune and work with the tractor.

Somewhere along the way, you became interested in natural wine.

I became aware of organics through my mother, because all the time she cared for us with homeopathic medicine, and we ate organic food. When I was at school in Beaune, I also learned there about organics. I had jobs on the weekends, doing pruning, and I always tried to do it at organic estates just to get to know the philosophy. After that, I met [natural winemaker] Sebastian Riffault [in Sancerre] and told him I would start my own winery soon, and said I wanted to work with horses, rather than plowing with tractors. It’s very different working with a plow versus horses. I went to train with Olivier Cousin [who also works with horses] and I met other people like Benoit Courault, Jerome Saurigny, Réne Mosse—and I decided to work organically or biodynamically. To me, biodynamics help regenerate the soil faster. To make natural wine, you must work organic. Biodynamic for me is the best—especially when there is no life before you start.

Tell me about getting expelled from the Pouilly-Fumé appellation.

Puilly-Fumé, it’s a kind of brand. If you are at the limit of the border, or if you harvest by hand but ripened fruit [as opposed to underripe,] green Sauvignon Blanc, [you can be expelled]. When you have a little botrytis you have jammy fruits; to me this is more interesting to drink, more drinkable—in French, we say it is appetànt. It means if you smell it, you want to drink it. To make this kind of wine, you must make it with yellow fruit, pink fruit—not green fruit. But you cannot harvest this quality of fruit with a machine. Why? Because the machine moves the row. All of our vines are on still wires. If the machine moves, if the berries are ripened, whole berries will fall on the ground. So most people, when they use the machine, they harvest grapes still green. When they use this kind of berry, and sulfur is used in the fields and during fermentation, and they use yeasts, sugar, enzyme, tartaric acid, to me they make technological wine, and it’s a kind of brand. Everybody uses the same brand of harvest machine and sugar and yeast—so at the end, it’s a kind of brand. To me, if you do not use all of this, you make wine, terroir wine.

The official panel tasted your wine and told you it didn’t fit into Pouilly-Fumé?

They said, you mustn’t sell this wine, it’s not a Pouilly-Fumé because it’s oxidative.

What did you first feel or think when you got that phone call?

Fighting! I like all of my wines; they are not perfect but I work hard and try to do my best, and it’s a risk. The problem is, to me, I make a Pouilly-Fumé because I make a Sauvignon Blanc within the boundaries. I do not use fertilizer or yeast, I do not use sugar, I do not use yeast from Copenhagen. So, I make a Pouilly-Fumé. For French people, for vignerons, appellations mean something. Of course, it’s 2016, and we know that sometimes vin de france is better than appellation—but I care, so I’m fighting.

Where are you in the fight?

At this moment, I am fighting with the INAO. I’m waiting now for the trial to take place.

A Very Special, Soul-Lifting Week In France

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Olivier Cousin in his cellar in Martigné-Briand, Angers

Something that’s kept me going through this extremely disheartening and terrifying political situation we’ve found ourselves in, over the past few months, has been the knowledge that I had an upcoming trip to France. France, of course, has its own challenges and is now also in the midst of a corruption-inflected election cycle—but exploring the wine regions is a direct affirmation of the power of culture to persist, even in these times.

While the world seems to be crumbling under its own weight, small-production winemakers are managing to find better and better ways to work with terroir and deliver the most beautiful, purest juice. It’s inspiring to see people do something very well, with all the care they can muster, simply because it brings joy to them and others.

I started the trip in Champagne, and while my time there was short, it was also very productive—thanks to my friend the Champagne expert Peter Liem, who arranged some very special visits with growers. My appreciation of terroir-driven Champagne has grown enormously over the last six months, and I’m eager to learn more and more. Next, I took at 7:30am train out of Champagne to meet the Jenny & François crew in the Loire Valley, where a series of large wine fairs—La Dive Bouteille, famously held in the dramatic underground caves of Saumur; the biodynamic-focused Renaissance that Nicolas Joly organizes; Thierry Puzelat’s Les Penitentes; and Les Anonymes, which we didn’t make it to—took place over the course of three days. We visited a few producers around Angers—the legendary Olivier Cousin; and young Etienne Courtois—plus Renaud Guettier in the Coteaux du Loir further up north.

Some people in the industry have been attending these wine fairs for many years, and they complain about how big and difficult to navigate they’ve become, but for me as a first-timer, the whole experience was completely magical. It was especially satisfying to see that the 2016 Loire Valley wines, after an extremely difficult growing season resulting in drastically low yields, are wonderful—very nice concentration, flavor and acidity—despite being scarce.

After the tastings, I spent a few days in Paris, dropping too much money in restaurants seeing friends who live there, and stumbling around the beautiful pharmacies, shops, and cafés on the Rue de Martyrs.

I feel very privileged to be able to do all this, given that certain populations of the world are arbitrarily having their mobility restricted. In recent months, I’ve found myself wishing that I wrote about something besides wine and food and cocktails, so that I could feel like my words could form part of the resistance. But on this recent trip in France, I remembered that joy and pleasure are also vital parts of human existence; and I reflected on how the fight for terroir—to keep land healthy and chemical-free, and to discover the possibilities of soil and viticulture—is also a political act. A small one, yes—but small, in a world where lust and greed have gotten completely out of control, is exceptionally beautiful.

At the moment, I’m fighting off jet-lag with the help of some very good French melatonin, and sorting through material and thinking about stories to pitch and blog posts to write based on this trip. More to come soon.

Support French Vignerons At Racines NY + Chambers Street This Month

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-4-00-34-pmIt’s not easy to be a small wine producer anywhere in the world, but it has been particularly hard in France these past few years, with each vintage suffering from devastating frosts, hailstorms, and drought. Some of the producers I visited in the Loire Valley over the summer were anticipating that about 70 percent, or more, of their harvest was lost because of spring frosts. The French government does provide some insurance compensation, but not much.

New York City wine lovers have an easy way to provide support to these growers, over the next two weeks: Racines NY and Chambers Street Wines are participating in Vendanges Solidaires, an initiative from the French wine community to aid vignerons affected by extreme weather. In a show of solidarity and support, Racines NY and Chambers Street Wine are joining a number of restaurants and wine shops in France to help raise money to aid the most vulnerable and affected winemakers.

Financial aid collected via Vendanges Solidaires will go to those most in need – winemakers who have been established for less than ten years and who suffered 75% losses or more. The restaurant Racines NY will donate $2 from every bottle of French wine sold from October 24th through November 5th. And down the street, retailer Chambers Street Wines will donate $1 from every bottle of French wine sold at the store on October 29th and 30th. As if you needed another good reason to go out and drink some excellent French wine, here you have it.

 

What To Drink This Fall, My Latest In Vogue

Fall’s crisp weather makes me thirsty for really great wine–and I don’t mean expensive, fancy wine. Just drinkable, tasty juice that I know will pair well with excellent food and company. 

I’m sure you feel the same way. That’s why I asked the good people of San Francisco and New York’s sommelier worlds to chime in on my latest piece for Vogue.com, sharing the wines they are most excited to drink this fall–in their own words. It’s a pretty stellar list, and nothing is too expensive or difficult to find. So read the story here, and get drinking! Cheers.