I learned to love wine in the early 90s, tasting in the kitchen of Art and Bunny Finklestein in their then tiny, hand-built Judd’s Hill Winery in Napa.
We would hang out at the table in the morning, wine, bread and cheese spread about. I knew immediately that I had found a connector through wine to passionate people who loved the land, the process, the grape and the perpetual reflection that making and loving wine brings to a community of people.
I was smitten.
Roll the clock way way forward. We are in Racines in TribeCa pre-opening Stephane Tissot dinner on Chambers Street, not down some windy dirt road east of Napa.
Seven or so years after pursuing wine as a passion through my travels and blog, theLocalSip project and a dedication towards a natural approach to wine, and to the environment and food in general.
This post is a hug to David Lillie, a friend, the co-owner of Chambers Street Wines (with Jamie Woolf), and Racines NYC (with Arnaud Tronche) which will open in a week.
It’s a heartfelt thank you for arriving at the pre-opening dinner to find a menu with my name on it, a seat waiting, and a sense of belonging to the beginning of something new.
It’s a sharing of my long affair with the Jura, a deep respect for Stephane Tissot and a thrill at finally meeting him.
I’ve blogged on Stephane’s wines numerous times.
Every year I take a bottle of either a Poulsard or Trousseau to Tulum, Mexico on vacation, take a picture of me drinking it in a hammock and post it. We bonded over this at the first handshake of the evening.
It’s a sense of real pleasure to see my good friend Wink Lorch have her book on Jura Wine out, highlighted at the event, and her stature as an expert in this area truly appreciated. And some satisfaction of my own little role in helping to get her Kickstarter campaign going and introducing her to my NY wine community. You can buy the book here.
And it’s a celebration of New York, of natural wine, of a community of people—many that I know and respect like Pascaline Lepeltier, Camille Riviere, Sev Perru, Chris Struck who were at the event and to co-owner Arnaud Tronche, and Frederic Duca, the chef, whom I trust will become friends..
Tribeca needed a place like this. Not a wine bar, but a restaurant with a core sense of wine as prime. I’m betting that Racines will be it.
I haven’t tasted the menu yet—I know it will be as crisp and natural and delicious as the wines will be.
I haven’t seen the wine list, but that is a slam dunk with David as the curator and a promise on the best selection of wines without sulfur added.
I don’t have a sense of the place although the attention to detail in the design is perfect, down to acoustical absorbing ceiling tiles. But when people like Pascaline from Rouge Tomate are working for the joy of it at the party, the community is already there.
It just feels right.
And to gloat a bit about the wine at the dinner!
The 1990 Vin Jaune was just amazing—nuts, and ginger, and a balance between acidity and fruit that time really enabled. The Trousseau in Amphora—never been tasted before in the states—was an unstressed, as naturally flavorful, as easy on the palate and alert on the senses as any Trousseau I’ve drunk.
And—a nudge to David and Arnaud—that no matter how popular Racines becomes, I’m hopeful that there is always a bar stool open for me at the corner. I’ve already moved a handful of meetings in May there before I know the schedule.
See many of you there.
David Lillie, c0-0wner Racines
Sev Perru, Stephane Tissot, Camille Riviere
Arnaud Tronche, co-owner Racines
Camille, Stephane, Sev, ‘The Book!’
Pascaline Lepeltier from Rouge Tomate
Chris Struck & Arnaud Tronche
Frederic Duca, Chef at Racines
Camille Riviere, Riviere Wine Selections
Geekiness has become a mainstream meme.
Across connected cultures everywhere.
In general, people are more random in their interests, more richly versed in the details and backstories around what they believe in and consume.
This is true for life; true for work.
Truly front and center around what we eat and drink.
We live at a time where we are inspired by categories of affinity—be they local or organic, raw or gluten free, artisanal, natural, indigenous or simply obscure.
We live at an exceptional time where we don’t eat things because they are organic, but we often refuse to eat them if they aren’t.
Equally, we live in a world that is backlashing after two decades of pushing everything up on the web and away from human touch. We are harnessing the web today not as a place but as a connector to people on the streets.
This has transfixed the behaviors of the consumer and redefined how we look at context and communications. This is very much evident in the wine world.
I’m not thinking about the top of the wine market that buys on brand and scarcity or the very bottom that buys solely on price. Neither the very fat middle where everyone from down-brand big names, the Club Ws, the flash sale sites, and even the US version of Naked Wines battle it out.
I’m thinking about the artisanal enthusiast segment. Loosely the top ten percent and growing chunk of a $41B US wine market.
The dynamics of this segment are a bit crazy.
Hundreds, maybe a few thousand producers, delivering wine and spirits through mostly small boutique distributors to vast number of shops, restaurants and bars. Alongside a growing direct to consumer, club and winery channel.
How all of these small producers find a channel for their products is a puzzle. How shops aggregate these dispersed communities of consumers into coherent businesses belies standard logic.
It’s happening though in the most counterintuitive and interesting way.
Not online at scale for the most part. But in small, real-world events with extended communities online and a network of micro brands that bubble up considerably larger than the sum of the parts.
There are two pieces meeting at the market middle:
A common language as consumer currency
This is the unbundling of information access. Geekish curiosity gobbling up details and domain expertise, creating a common vernacular for communications.
Of the hundreds of wine posts in my Instagram community, there are damn few (thankfully) sharing tasting notes. But there’s an infinite number of descriptors, check marks on how the fruit is grown, talks about sulfur, rambles about indigenous yeasts, pictures of rocks and soils, maps, the names of the winds from the South that impact fermentation in Marsala.
A layering in of terms about how, where and why wines are being made as the texture behind the story of winemaker and the place. As the means to express something beyond that we like it or we don’t.
It is the normalization of the obscure as a common language.
This is the natural context for communications and fodder for storytelling. Forging a language that is smart and interesting, dynamic and shared. It’s entertainment that teaches and fun that informs.
A decentralized marketplace without a common platform
This is the community and market side of the equation. A decentralized world with no one place, community or really a dominant network.
A loose confederation of bloggers, winemakers, exceptional shops, boutique importers. With a growing number of influential somms and in-shop experts, teaching and pouring the previously obscure and wonderful to an insatiably thirsty public.
It’s happening from the ground up.
Where I live in NY, at the best wine shops with deep communities of customers and strong neighborhood roots.
With winemaker dinners every week, partnering the producer, importer, retailer, restaurant with influencers, and through them, the broader market. A dinner with Frank Cornelissen for 40 driving a community of thousands on just how good his current vintage is.
There are endless informal, often impromptu tastings driven by street side signs and tweets. And a redefinition of educational events from restaurant/bar/schools like CorkBuzz, consumer festivals like SherryFest and the Natural Wine Week.
In Europe as well, where people like my buddy Andre Ribeirinho has created a family of Adegga Wine Markets. Celebrations that blend the curious, the enthusiast and the expert, food and wine, face-to-face human touch with seamless digital followup. And the rambling and quite wonderful, #winelovers community, created by my friend Luiz Alberto that spiderwebs across every wine region with enormous good will.
This is the golden age of wine for both the small producer and the enthusiast consumer. A time when geekiness is not nerdiness but simply the new normal to the interested and inspired. A time when on the ground connections are the very best way to create extended and online communities.
This is also a marketers and brand builders dream. Be they organizations, the merchants or in many cases the producer themselves.
It is not about hype or social buzz. Not about manufactured context.
This world is community driven, connected, common grounded with enormous potential to bring value to every piece of the commercial chain. To inspire, share knowledge and drive business in really simple and effective ways.
Few markets come together as perfectly and as palatably as this.
Lucky for us, this one is about wine.
Most people head to Mexico and drink Mojitas.
We mixed up a few, but for our annual family Spring Break in Tulum, it’s about wine and the natural best at that.
Tulum is all about being in the zone. Wonderful, refreshing and not-your-standard fare is the rule.
Hot and humid to the max. Hammocks under the palms. Fish and more fish on the grill. Tacos of every sort. Cerviche and guacamole every day.
Basically anything you can wrap in a banana leave and put in grilled flatbread.
Interesting is the rule. Delicious is the grade.
This year we nailed it. The most diverse and varied, the most economical and the most natural.
Best twelve beach pack ever.
I’ll recap with an eye towards choices over time. They are all winners.
–>Three choices from the Jura
Evelyne and Pascal Clairet from Domaine de la Tournelle in Arbois stole the show with their 2010 Terre de Gryphées Chardonnay ($27). Those who say that the Jura is an acquired taste are just plain wrong.
This chard is as unique and terroir-expressive as it is delicious. Wine geek or no, this is a head nodder with undeniable satisfaction.
Second year running on the Poulsard side was Ludwig Bindernagel’s 2010 Les Chais du Vieux Bourg ($34). This German newcomer to the Jura just nails it. Light with a rich body, layered and lovely, a larger than life bouquet for such a delicate wine.
Puffeney made the cut this trip. His 2011 Les Berangeres Trousseau ($35) was the third Jura bottle. The family loved it. I found it a bit austere with a hard edge but quaffable nonetheless.
–>A touch of Sicily and anfora with Giusto Occhipinti’s COS Pithos
COS makes the trek yearly. The 2012 COS Pithos IGT ($31) Cerrasuolo Frappato/Nero D’Avola blend was as expected–delicious and unassuming.
Lightly chilled, delicate and satisfying are its hallmarks. Giusto is the first winemaker I ever tasted that fermented in Anfora and a personal hero and friend. This wine nails it in just about every category
–>Gruner from Nikolaihof is as good as it gets
I love this vineyard. Natural. Bio-D. Ancient. As crisp and unique a Gruner Veltliner as you can find. This year (the third appearance of Nikolaihof) we switched to the 2012 Hefeabzug Gruner Veltliner ($25). A winner.
–>More bubbles make the cut
Bubbles are an occasion in their own right. Two bottles made the trip with us.
The first Cava to cross the border was the 2011 Raventos i Blanc de Nit Rose Brut Conca Del Riu Anoia ($22). Elegant, smokey citrus from the Monastrell grape. We had it with a breakfast/brunch on the first morning. Yum!
The Filaine NV Brut ler Cru Damery Cuvee Speciale ($49) was the priciest of the bottles and a special treat. Creamy and classical. A Pinot Noir/ Chardonnay/ Pinot Meunier blend of 2009 and 2010 grapes was oh so ripe and finely moused and bubbly crisp. This was brought for a birthday and it crushed expectations.
–>A bit of Alpine Savoie at the Mexican seaside
I’ve fallen hard to this region, the producers and varietals. I could have brought a half case of just these whites.
I tasted with Gonon recently and his 2012 Vin de France Chasselas Vieilles Vignes ($25) is well—a dream. Subtle and herbal with smacks of fruit. I so love this bottle. So did everyone.
I’m a long-term Belluard fan. His 2012 Grandes Jorasses Altesse ($34) is fresh, mineral, crips, light and delicious. I had sent this bottle as presents earlier in the year. It’s a family tradition already.
Next to the Jura–in fact Savoie is Jura adjacent–this is fast becoming my favorite region.
–>New world naturalists make the trip
A first for this vacations–an Oregon Pinot Noir and a California Grenache/Mourvedre blend.
I tasted the 2009 Montebruno Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir ($25) with the winemaker Joe Pedicini earlier in the year. Bio-D, a light effervescence and deep flavor are its traits. Served lightly chilled in water glasses on the terrace overlooking the sea was a crowd pleaser.
Hank Beckmyer from La Clarine Farms is a favorite of mine for the brilliance and ease of his wines. A Grenache and Morvedre blend at km 9.2 in Tulum? I say, hell yes!
The 2012 Sierra Josephine & Mariposa ($25) is a beautifully balanced and structured, tannin-laden bottle. I did chill it slightly and with some home made Quesadillas and Cerviche, it was a killer.
Not a hint of sulfur added in these. Not a touch of funk. Freaking lovely natural wines!
–>Wrapping up with a Cotes de Provence Rose
From the selections of my friend David Lillie was a Les Fouques 2012 Aubigue Rose ($13!).
This blend of Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, is almost pale white, shot with pepper, light on the palate, dreamy on the nose and perfect on the hammock.
Small producers all.
These wines are very small productions and go in and out of stock. Some are available at Chambers Street Wines and online through other small specialty shops. Shop the producer if not the vintage.
I will wager a free bottle on me for long-term readers that these will delight.
A thank you to my friends Sophie Barrett and Ariana Rolich of Chambers Street Wines for making the process of choosing almost equal to the drinking.
Some photos to capture the joy of this place along with the wine.
Playtime in between resting and sipping.
Hammock is up and to the right.
Tasting with Hardy Wallace, the front man (and winemaker) for the Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery is just plain joyful, with a healthy dose of wine geekiness thrown in.
You gotta love this guy.
A razor sharp, new world natural winemaker with an infectious love of wine, honest humility and a good dose of chutzpah.
We met a month or so ago online when I was ordering a Dirty & Rowdy T-shirt, which quickly morphed into a mutual email rant on what constitutes intent in natural wine making.
We connected in person last weekend at the Jenny & Francois’s Natural Wine Week workshop ‘Dirty & Rowdy Does Fermentation’. This was a wine geeks dream, a deep dive into whether you can taste the effects of where the wine was fermented, in their signature concrete egg or in steel.
We tasted samples of his Yountville Semillon (2011 to 2013), from barrel to bottle. Each a blend of single vineyard juice, some fermented in a concrete egg, some fermented on their skins in old barrels and stainless tanks.
The deck was kind of stacked on this one as the power of the skins and the subtlety of the egg are not really apples to apples, but it was a terrific hour of smart banter with the satisfying takeaway that I was tasting something very special.
And I came away a big fan.
Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery is entering their 5th vintage in Napa Valley, working with 10 different parcels of rented land, from Santa Barbara to Humboldt. With no land of their own, they sleuth out the curious and disparate plantings of Semillon and Mourvedre, then drive some 35,000 miles during the season, keeping tabs on the vines and working towards– what is to them– the key of winemaking: when to pick.
The Dirty & Rowdy approach to natural wine is a unique blend of non intervention with a strong sense of real engagement in the process. They are in no way non engaged bystanders or patient wine shepherds.
As Hardy told me: “I am sure fermentation may happen on its own, but even though seen as minimalists, we are active participants along the way.”
He is emphatic that when you pick is what you get in the glass. I agree to a point but Hardy is super creative and playful in how he ferments and blends, and that is part of what I’m drinking and part of their unique character.
Hardy as a winemaker is somewhere between the idea of a painter who starts with a blank canvas and an image in mind, and the sculpture who uses the least amount of chisel blows to unearth the hidden shape in the stone.
Some interesting factoids from the tasting.
Why use the concrete egg, and why a blend of egg and skin contact fermentation?
To Hardy, these blend together. The power, texture and aroma in the skins and the neutral roundness and temperature consistency in the concrete egg. Neutrality in the vessel, without tension or angles is why the egg is the shape of this wine to the mind’s eye..and at it’s best the shape of the taste as well.
Why an egg rather than an Anfora Qveri like vessel?
Besides cost and availability, he pointed out that the egg is an upside down version of a Georgian Qveri in shape. Small at the top creating more lees contact. The unique characteristic of the science of the shape naturally recirculating the juice is the same, but the emphasis is different.
Hardy is just downright likeable and Dirty & Rowdy has carved out something unique to themselves.
It’s in the grape choices partially as Mourvedre and Semillon are not standard fair for Napa. Neither are the terroir specific Chardonnays that he is working on now.
You should visit their site or better, taste with Hardy if you can.
This winery is all about the joy of wine, about finding the ‘happy spot’ in our palate. Beyond this, and beyond their geekiness, they seem to have a real Dirty & Rowdy balance in mind.
You can sense it in the intensity of how he presented fermentation as a process that you can nudge in different, yet natural ways. You can sense it when he isolated (my favorite winery in the Jura!), Domaine de la Tournelle as the epitome of a terroir driven Chardonnay that they are striving towards.
This is a guy onto something with a focus. His wines are in that sacred territory of being both interesting and delicious.
Hardy is riding the natural wave, he’s open and flexible, and he’s got a real sense of where his unique palate–and market– lies.
I’m bought in big time.
This is good stuff being made by good people who love what they are doing.
Do spend the time to search out the wines. They make little and it is gone as soon as they release. In New York, Jenny & Francois distributes and whenever there is local allocation available, Chambers Street Wines and Frankly Wines both get a healthy dose.
Marsala sits with its back towards Africa, shorelined against the Mediterranean on the northwesternmost tip of Sicily.
Magical as a metaphor for a place so ancient, and a wine craft with such a long tail of lore. Yet when you visit your local wine shop, search the web, the intrigue evaporates in a flash.
You are left with an image of boatloads of sweet dreck, commoditized cooking wine, and Marsala itself at the very bottom of the list of fortified wines.
Few of the most wine enthused know that the traditional regional wine, perpetuum, is still being made. Nor that unique and delicious natural expressions of the Grillo and Zibibbo grapes are available, albeit impossible to find.
Marsala as a region, as a brand, as a wine type is truly a mess in the wine market’s eyes. But well worth brushing off and reimagining.
I did so with a visit recently. Two winemakers, Renato De Bartoli and Antonino Barraco, were at the top of my discovery list, hinting at what Marsala is really about.
Marco De Bartoli
This huge cask is in the ‘perpetuum’ room, a 200-year old cellar on the vineyard where the De Bartoli family has been growing grapes for 6 generations. Marco, the patriarch and regional wine revivalist, started the winery that holds his name in 1978, fermenting a back-to-the-past-future of truly delicious and place-unique natural wines.
In these immense casks, Grillo, the chameleon-like indigenous grape of the region, is being transformed into Vecchio Samperi, the De Bartoli family perpetuum wine. An ancient wine that predates the creation of fortified Marsala in 1796, patiently aged using the Solera method, a blending style where new vintages of Grillo are added to old, year after year, decade after decade.
Take organic Grillo grapes, add the deepening power of time, natural oxidation and concentration. Open the cellar to atmospheric humidity, an air born terroir from Sicilian winds—the Scirocco from Africa, warm and wafting from the Southeast, the Tremonton, cooling from the North
What you get is Vecchio Samperi, 17-18% alcohol, unnervingly compelling and delicately rich on the palate. A ticket to taste hundreds of years old.
Renato De Bartoli, one of Marco’s three sons is the winemaker of the Samperi vineyard. He told us tales of the wine, this place, and Grillo with unbridled exuberance, a palpable disdain for what Marsala has become in the world’s eyes and a resolute focus on recreating the best of this regions tradition for today’s market.
I liked him instantly—even more so after we spent hours feasting on local fare, tasting bottles of Vecchio Samperi equal to my age, samples of Grappoli del Grillo, back to the mid 1900s, and Bukkuram, made from the Zibibbo grape, grown on their vineyards on Island of Pantelleria.
An astounding (and very long) evening. A deep stride into De Bartoli’s Marsala–in taste, in authenticity, steeped in the old and focused on recreating something uniquely their own.
This is the infectious smile of Antonino (Nino) Barraco, natural winemaker, holding court under the Sicilian sun, pouring Grillo, serving fresh caught shrimp and sea urchins at his tiny (8,000 sq. meters) Vignammare Vineyard.
We are in Riserva di Capo Feto nature preserve, a salt marsh with a dirt road, heading due west to the ocean. At the very end, ocean smack there, the Scirocco and the Tramontana winds in full force, is the vineyard.
Not a cellar in sight, just sea, sand, salt….and Grillo grapes.
Nino comes to winemaking through his father, a grape grower, and we are drinking their first vintage of Vignammare, 100% Grillo, grown where we stand. As natural and non-interventionist as can be– organic, spontaneous fermentation with long skin macerations. Unfiltered, unclarified and no added sulphur.
This is wine born of the love of land, the taste of the sea, and a trust in nature and the winemaker. This is bottled fruit, time, place and natural intent.
Salty to the tongue, a touch of iodine in the palate, spicy somehow, ocean fresh and just a pleasing clarity of taste with distinct minerality.
Perfect with the fresh sea urchins, the hot sun, feet in the sandy loam, surrounded by friends in a foreign place. Perfect just about anywhere really.
This is the Marsala I discovered.
I fell in love (hard!) with Grillo, and these winemaker’s expressions of this grape. But I never had the chance to spend much time with Zibibbo. Or Perricone, the local red variety, especially interesting in the care of Marilena Barbera of Cantine Barbera in Menfi.
There is just something very special here that I barely tapped.
The distinctive quality of the indigenous grapes. The hot sun tempered by a deep loamy limestone soil. The sea itself as important as the bordering lands. And the crisscrossing of winds, whipping up something unique in each and every glass.
These wines are really hard to locate. Marco De Bartoli is imported into New York by Louis Dressner, but near impossible to find with the exception of a few at Chambers Street Wines. Baracco is without distribution here at the moment.
Consider asking for wines from these producers when you are in a wine friendly place. Your local shop or wine bar, or when chatting with your favorite sommelier. With some luck, someone will eventually say, ‘Yes!’, we have it.
The pleasure will be all yours. I guarantee it.
Big thanks to Regione Siciliana – Istituto Regionale Vini e Oli, in collaboration with Fermenti Digitali / Proposta who sponsored me on this trip.
For those interested in excellent posts by my fellow wine bloggers, check them out here.
What a really fun time this was!