Few things can satisfy, connect and inspire, yet remain as inexplicable, as a bottle of wine.
Few things carry with them such an encyclopedia of scientific knowledge that is invariably trumped by the simple power of nature’s almanac.
And for all of the things we love and write about, we are always a bit speechless to communicate the nuance of how a bottle of wine, uniquely special with all its details, is really only about our experience of it.
This strikes home when you have one of those serendipitous wine experiences that open up a stream of connected remembrances.
The other evening, this bottle of Grillo was the Proustian trigger that kicked this off.
I was at an impromptu family gathering at Taboon on 10th Ave in Hells Kitchen. Last minute call to celebrate a birthday.
Mediterranean food was piled high on the table. Plates of hummus, bowls of salsa, chopped salads, Baba Ganoush, Tabouli, grilled Octopus, Tuna, tomatoes, squash and pita to die for.
The big aha was discovering this almost-never-seen-in-New York bottle of Grillo from Nino Barraco, an obscure and quite wonderful natural winemaker,
I know this bottle well as five years ago this September, I had visited the winemaker with a group of friends and remember the jolting ride down a long, bumpy and soggy road to his vineyard where the salt marshes outside of Marsala, Sicily touch the steep cliffs above the sea.
There was literally nothing there but the Mediterranean in front of you, breezes rolling cross the sea from Africa and windswept untrellised Grillo vines everywhere. Unplanted almost nowhere else. Indigenous to this part of Sicily but still a rarity.
The group of us (see pic in this post) were hanging around a makeshift shack with Nino, the winemaker, in the warm afternoon Sicilian sun, drinking the very first vintage of Vignammare, 100% Grillo, grown in the tiny vineyard where we stood.
He laid out the feast on a wood plank along with fresh sea urchin and shrimp that the his family had harvested for us that morning.
Picture of a truly joyous and perfect day.
The sea, the grapes, the purity of fermented juice made with such passion and intent. As natural and non-interventionist as can be– organic, spontaneous fermentation. Unfiltered, unclarified, unsulphured.
And very special to me in retrospect, as this was still an early taste of skin-fermented white wine—somewhat new to me then, an obsession to me now–adding the minerality of the soil, the salt of the sea, the bouquet of the marsh and the bite on the palate as a pinch to memorialize all this together.
I shared this story with the table in the very noisy corner of the restaurant, heads shook with appreciation as they emptied glass after glass, after bottle.
I had them look at the richly golden color of the wine, held up against the candle light, appreciating that this was white wine, made like red.
They listened to my over zealous spin on why skin is the human touch of winemaking, where people meet the true depth of place, and somehow, it becomes the epitome of connection, perfect as the fingerprint of time, place, people, weather under the overarching shades of our own thoughts that color everything we do.
They literally drank it in.
My enthusiastic story of Marsala and my community of blogger friends by the sea wedded to this gathering of family in Hell’s Kitchen on a steamy, raucous and joyous New York evening.
This is the good stuff of wine and life to me.
Proust may have had his madeleine to spur a long and meditative tale.
We had our bottle of Grillo to celebrate the evening and ourselves.
This is my idea of perfect.
To experience my visit to Marsala, post here.
This is one delicious bottle of wine!
When I think of Pet-Nat, I think vivacious, fun and in the hands of most winemakers, gentle and soothing effervescence.
More something to accompany than to lead.
I think of easy afternoons and leaning back. I remember with a smile my friend Sophie Barret calling Pet-Nat some years back ‘a summer’s fling’ when comparing it to the perfection of Champagne.
This bottle is so much more.
It wraps the trifecta of an ancient plot of California Chenin Blanc, the simple methodology of Pétillant Nature with the light and minimalist touch of one of my favorite natural winemakers, Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars.
To the palate, this bottle of 2015 sparkling Chenin is alive and approachable, carrying a powerful balance of minerality and acidity.
To the nose, something floral in the oozing effervescence.
And to the body and soul, just satiation that wafts easily on a warm day, yet with the indelible mark of a unique place and specific winemaker.
To those who don’t know Chris’s work, consider yourself fortunate to have such discovery in front of you.
He is one of the new world natural winemakers who are all in on a non-interventionist approach, without being ostentatious or loud about it.
Just making wine naturally that carries his individual fingerprint as a winemaker be it this bottle, his Grenache, Syrah, white or red Zin.
He makes his wines in Berkeley, California sleuthing out the organic, the obscure, the said-they-couldn’t-be-found plots of grapes everywhere. His wines are by definition restrained, terroir-obsessed, naturally low in alcohol, residual sugar and SO2, yet strong and resilient in character.
His wine feels kindred in character to the remarkable Clairets from Domaine de la Tournelle in the Jura. Such a light yet studiously standoffish touch with such strength of conviction in the result.
Every bottle is unmistakably his.
From the often ethereal graphics on his labels to the undeniable take-away of satisfaction, this wine is not in your face, but in your head and on your palate in a memorable way.
I fell for Pétillant Naturel as a way of making sparkling wine years ago, from the very first time someone poured one. I think one from Philippe Bornard.
An ancient and simple method, basically bottling wine before it has finished fermenting. With the bubbles forming naturally as the wild yeasts digest sugar in the grape juice and release carbon dioxide that is trapped inside the bottle.
Often hand disgorged as the lots are small, and in this one, non-dosage (no added sugar) as well.
The conundrum here of course is that Chris made only 152 cases, and his wine disappears into the glasses of the community quickly.
Try and find it. At $30, it is a true afternoon delight. If you do, check out the technical notes as they will deepen the story and your enjoyment along with it.
If you can’t find this one, try something else of Chris’s.
More and more I believe that vintage or even grape is somehow less important. That the wine we love comes from an emotional affair between a unique place in time and the intent and skill of each individual winemaker themselves.
I’ll consider this post a success if it spurred you to uncork one of his bottles, Pet-Nat or no.
And a huge from-the-heart thanks to my friend Arianna Rolich at Chambers Street Wines, who always saves bottles of the very best and most interesting for me to try.
She was so right on with this one!
There was a quiet announcement this week that Alice Feiring has been chosen to chair a new award, Free Wine, at the annual Italian wine event Vinitaly.
Alice is a friend–all heart, smarts, passion and spunk. She has also been pioneering natural wine with unabashed frankness and tenacity for as long as I can remember.
One one level, I wanted to raise a glass and point to my post from 2012 where I imagined that the natural wine movement was indeed going mainstream.
That is naive of course.
Too simplistic a retort for a uniquely complex market with wildly nuanced relationships with a variety of consumer wine segments.
In the last 5-6 years the wine world has changed dramatically. We are in a renaissance reveling in innovation and excellence.
Small lot producers have populated the top of the wine lists and the top shelves at retailers the world over. Somms champion them, special events showcase them, the retail model pioneered by Chambers Street Wines here in New York has been innovated on everywhere.
It is certainly true that with winemaking innovation occurring everywhere I can buy an unsulfured bottle of amazing wine every day at below market prices 100 feet from my subway stop.
But something of far greater import is going on.
Beyond me certainly.
I believe that the process of aculturation that happened with organic food and ingredients, driven by stores like Whole Foods is just beginning to happen to the wine world.
Not everyone who shops at Whole Foods buys organic products. A very small percentage of consumers shop there at all, but from an awareness level of organic and farm to table produce, the explosion of green markets in urban centers and the scores of startups connecting farms to city residents, what they popularized has certainly trickled down.
Way down to the middle of the market. To every strata of generational uniqueness from the millennials to the baby boomers.
From what Alice Waters pioneered to the fortunate few in Berkeley back when to the Falafel stands in every neighborhood using organic produce and offering gluten free pita today.
This change has contributed to the rise of the wellness market where it touches how we view the world as consumers and what and where we buy with our expendable incomes.
Wine is not food of course.
And while many classify it as a luxury item they are missing the point.
Over the last two decades wine has slowly started to become part of the fabric of our culture.
It entered as a luxury item certainly, and in our unformed cultural state, our standards for taste were dictated by the unambiguity of the Parker point scale that kickstarted a movement that subsequently grew up and disowned it.
And by a host of pundits who aloof from the realities of the marketplace have defined excellence to their own standards. Not necessarily incorrect just increasingly more irrelevant and arcane.
This is why I’m excited about Alice’s work with Vinitaly.
Certainly there are many events and shops, blogs and tastings that are highlighting the changes in our wine world.
But what needs to happen now is—and I can’t believe I’m saying this honestly—not for natural wine to be known and adopted more widely but for a new era of wine as part of our culture to begin.
For new awareness by more people and a corresponding open language of appreciation to be created at a consumer level.
This will happen not only through the enthusiast wine community that I am very much a part of.
But through new communities and clubs that approach this in their own ways.
Smart groups who by understanding their markets and the unique way wine is part of their lives, will find a way to make it feel natural to them. New language to express what they like. New ways to buy and socialize it.
We are in the very primordial days where broader market segments are creating their own communities of interest and understanding about wine.
Where the consumer will internalize a vocabulary of appreciation of wine that is natural to their own speech. That is based on enjoyment and grounded in the curiosity that people naturally want to understand what satisfies them. To simply have fun.
That is what we do with food.
That is what we will do with wine. As part of our culture and part of how we interact with people.
So why is it important that Alice is chairing a new series of wine awards? Being given a microphone of influence to the market?
Alice is someone with very strong opinions, unique tastes but she approaches wine with openness, complete transparency and an understanding that it is about people and enjoyment.
She is simply completely unafraid to be different and that is what we need.
She may look at something obscure like the trend towards no sulfur added wines, but she will evaluate them, in her own words, for “emotional impact, liveliness and drinkability”.
She will bring the unique and the interesting to the many in language they can make their own. With approachability for people to learn from and enjoy.
This is why I applaud this.
A changing of the guard from the old generation to a new kind of expertise.
A new openness to change that speaks to enjoyment and the connection with a changing marketplace of people with a new set of beliefs.
A world where an ethos of taste can be a new criteria for excellence.
Big congrats Alice! Choosing you is the wise choice for all of us!
I’ve been a fan of Hank’s winemaking since I met him and Caroline at a Chambers Street Wines tasting a few years ago.
He’s part of a community of California winemakers scattered across the state that have collectively redefined what the craft of making natural wine means in the new world.
This group of first generation winemakers, many nomadically sleuthing out small plots of unique and organic vines, have shifted the idea of natural wine making as less of a passive stewardship of the land to an active and more deterministic approach to the craft.
What I like to think of as improvisational winemaking.
Highly skilled individuals throwing themselves into the process, trusting the outcome and making their own rules as they go along.
I had the good fortune to be given one of twelve seats at a special dinner with Hank and Caroline and the David Bowler wine crew at Racines a few weeks ago to taste through eight vintages of Hank’s Cedarville Mourvedre.
From its first vintage in 2007–in Hank’s words a science experiment- to the 2014 with its big bouquet and a sexy vibrancy that graced my Thanksgiving table this year.
I simply can’t separate the wine from the pleasures of the evening and getting to know this couple a lot better.
La Clarine Farm sits north of Sacramento at 2600 feet in the Sierra foothills.
On one hand this is Hank and Caroline living the Idyllic dream, producing 30 thousand bottles of wine a year surrounded by goats, bees and a gaggle of vineyard cats on their own hillside plot.
On the other hand, he is an astute oenologist, thinking way beyond organic agriculture as the endgame and mashing up pieces of Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic theories with the natural farming teachings of Masanobu Fukuoka.
Hank narrated the evolution of his winemaking on the Cedarville plot as we drank and ate. Diving into the foibles of the land, the vagaries of the weather, the nature of the Mourvedre grape itself.
Through the deep pours of each year, I was thinking about the evolution of the quite delicious wine but equally about the narrative. About how we are really talking about terroir and how winemakers themselves learn to trust the process and focus the results through their decisions.
How far this is from the romantic and bombastic ideas of some natural wine populists that the winemakers are simply riding the wave and tending the land.
How the winemaker by intent and by craft, by embracing the natural process is creating something very much their own. Where what they produce on one plot will be quite different from that made on an adjacent one by someone else.
And how what Hank is describing in an almost almanac-like vernacular, echoes very similar conversations I’ve had with Hardy Wallace of Dirty & Rowdy in Napa and Scott Frank from Bow & Arrow in Portland.
It was telling as well that sitting with this most wine geeky group for hours, we were talking about philosophy and music in the same breadths as natural approaches to wine.
This haphazard collection of random people–winemakers and trades people, me the tech guy, lawyers and bankers around the table were weaving this together effortlessly. Almost communally.
I came away thinking about how this ties into what I’ve called The Ethos of Taste that is getting ingrained into our very culture.
That while there is certainly a dramatic change in the wine world happening now, there is a true tectonic shifting of how we think about what we eat and our relationship to the world at large.
And a growing mass market comfort in pairing scientific knowledge and natural rhythms not dissimilar to what is occurring in functional medicine.
This is where the evening took me.
If it touched your fancy, I encourage you to look up Hank and Caroline’s wines.
They sell their wine priced to be fair. It is invariably a delight and sells out quickly.
Enjoy them, as they are truly delicious and interesting by any standards.
Big thanks to my friends David Lille and Ariana Rolich at Chambers Street Wines for saving a seat for me at this very special table.
To Chef Frederic Duca for a brilliant pairing menu and my buddy Arnaud Tronche ( Racine’s co-owner) Arnaud Troche for being the always generous host.
And to whomever deserves credit for the photo that I pulled off the web.
I first connected with wine in the early ‘90s living in the Bay Area.
It wasn’t a bottle or particular dinner that was the big aha for me.
It was the human touch that drew me in, bonding with artisanal winemakers and their families who brimmed over with their love of vines and the lore of making wine.
I fell hard for the storied iconoclasts in the early days of Napa.
It was story upon story, people, land, bottle and taste—an easy going banter, layered with beliefs and craft, personal philosophies and science, passions and humility all in one.
Twenty-five years later, I still have a visceral sense of driving down a funky dirt road in the hills north of Napa to hang at the kitchen table with Art & Bunny Finklestein from Judd’s Hill. Talking art and gravity feed systems, vines and the weather, drinking wine and eating cheese mid morning on an Autumn Sunday.
Sitting on lawn chairs outside the barn with my friend Kelly Smitten along with Todd Anderson of Conn Anderson Valley tasting his 4th vintage, chatting and bowled over by the litany of natural science he was sharing, mouthing words and learning an entirely new language.
Or knocking on the trailer door on the way back to the city to buy wine from Cathy Corison before her winery was complete.
It was a step into something completely new yet reminiscent and familiar. Something that felt right at first blush.
I’d never heard of natural wine, knew little about the craft but there was a confluence of life experiences that came together.
There was no wine culture in my family upbringing.
Not a rural bone in generations coming from shtetls in Europe to live in LES and Patterson NJ, working in the Garment District on my mother’s side, the silk mills on my fathers.
I was a city boy, 70s hippy who had spent a few years in the back-to-the-land thing in British Columbia. Gardens, root cellars and bee keeping steeped in a youthful zealousness for all things counter culture and the Farmer’s Almanac.
From street smart kid to drop out to tooling around Napa as a tech exec rediscovering a new sense of an earlier self.
Too odd but true.
I want to say there was a gravity that pulled me, but this is more subtle, more happenstance as Andre Breton would express it.
I woke up this morning intending to write a long neglected interview with Scott Frank at Bow & Arrow.
But sitting here at 4.30am, samthecat on my lap, looking at a bottle of Gonin Altesse on the table from last night, it was my own story that wafted over my thoughts. Like a Proustian nudge.
I kept thinking back to those days in the 90s and the 70s before them, realizing the binds that tie and the core beliefs that define me today.
No one loves a great bottle of natural wine more than myself.
I’ll travel to the outskirts of Marsala, Sicily to drink skin-fermented Grillo with freshly caught sea urchins from the hands of a winemaker to obscure and small to be imported to the states.
This is not about wine. Not about wine blogging. Not about new wine economies spurred on by the Etsy effect.
It’s about why something that has nothing to do with my work or life, how this connection and community, spur things more important than the wine itself.
Almost a palimpsest of something uncanny behind the realities of what we are tasting.
When we look at ourselves honestly we see a gaggle of oft disconnected things and passions, seemingly random.
If fortunate, we get to a moment of clarity that drive health issues to become companies we start to change how people eat to stay healthy. That drive the benefits of a great education to spending your time being a big brother and role model to lower income kids.
I’m looking at these pieces of myself hard and realizing the mess of influences have a theme and pattern that gets clearer as my memories reiterate themselves.
To my world and networks, I’m the wine guy. That marketer and businessperson who’s a geek and the one to hand the wine list to.
But it’s more than that, and that’s what bears thought.
I can weave a story about a bottle and winemaker with some skill. Hundreds of posts later are a case in point.
But the why of why I focus on the small and the obscure as the taste worth experiencing and the story worth telling is where the crux of this lies.
Why I’ve championed natural as a rewriting of the scale where interesting meets delicious in a new definition of perfection. Why I believe there is an ethos of taste that can change the world.
Why organic is truly an important idea beyond the certification? Why individuality in winemaking is worth exposing when almost no one can find the wines and artisans I lionize?
This is worthy of a great pause.
And pause is all I have this morning.
I realize that this post is a bit like a Neil Young song, all rhythm and poetry at the start then fizzling off into an emotive silence.
But this indulgent idea of why I—and many others in my community—grasp onto wine with such passion is an idea well worth surfacing.
It is a lens that we need to turn on ourselves.
Why we love what we do with such passion is a larger, more personal and more interesting idea than the craft of winemaking itself or the uncanny abilities of a professional taster.
It’s about ourselves and why this community–not others–is the icon we wave as what inspires us.
Share if you’d like from your own experience.
For myself, this meme is one I’m going to stick with.
As honestly–that line between a winemaker’s story and our drive to share it–is truly the story worth sharing.