Wine and food are naturally a pair.
As taste mates they play off of and bring out the best in each other.
It’s a damn celebration when they work perfectly together. In New York at least we love our sommeliers as much as the chefs at our favorite haunts.
Yet they live in separate worlds.
Food menus are like concrete poetry for the soul addressing food allergies and ethical eating beliefs all in one:
“A mix of organic baby lettuces lightly tossed with cold-pressed, biodynamic olive oil served with wild caught Icelandic salmon and hand-made gluten-free quinoa pasta.”
The wine, which often makes the dinner, is just well—for most everyone—a grape and place and price.
Even in the hands of the best wine writer—descriptions often feel like a stilted Tweet—smart, code like and holding back not by intent as much as by the narrowness of the language itself.
This post is about raising the issues of transparency and additives, about certificates and categories—about addressing wine from an ingredient perspective as we do with food as one part of its uniqueness.
About how by embracing the foodness quality of wine and market demands for disclosure, we bring into the discussion shared beliefs with the consumer on their own terms, and broaden, not narrow the conversations we can have.
Ground zero for this change are wine labels themselves.
Think about it.
When I pour something from Sandi Skerk in Carso with friends, I get effusive about the taste, about the pure organic nature of the vineyard, the uniqueness of that grape and the ungrafted nature of the vines. The ineffable balance of climate, soil, grape and the winemaker’s decisions.
I’ll talk about the why of skin contact and whether there is added SO2. And if my guests are vegan, whether something is used in fining or in the vineyard that would concern them.
If I read on a label that this was a Vitovska from Carso, classified Organic, Sulfites Added it tells me almost nothing. It’s a line on a pill bottle not a descriptor that carries the same information on a menu as above.
This is a huge opportunity to create shared language with the consumers and the market.
It’s also a bit of a loaded topic.
Categories like GMOs, Vegan, Gluten free are core to the food we eat at the very best restaurants but devoid from the wine world and the vernacular of talking with winelovers.
It’s interesting as there are no rules here to guide us. We are talking not about what is required on labels (DOC, alcohol %) but about what we can put there if we desire.
This is not at all simple.
A bottle of wine is not a Jersey tomato or a gluten free Bialy with sprouted sunflower seeds. It’s more but it is still an agricultural product.
Understandably people in the trade are nervous about this.
I’m fully aware that what you say implies who you are and what you say, shouts what you aren’t.
If you state that your wine is made from organic grapes, hand harvested with nothing added except nature and your stewardship—what are you saying to your customers?
If you decide as my friend Fabio of Vinos Ambiz did on his new label and lay out his entire philosophy of winemaking, what’s the message?
What if you put on the label what Sophie of Sophie’s Glass says about Renaud Bruyere that he doesn’t make natural wine because of a philosophical belief but because he simply doesn’t need to add all that shit?
What if a few thousand natural winemakers decided to simply list what they add to the juice other than their own decisions—which in many cases in nothing–what will happen?
The times are already changing.
And at least two impacts will ricochet across the wine world over time.
First, by respecting the intelligence of the consumer, people will get smarter by exposure.
Most people will look at facts like some winemakers add sugar to increase the alcohol percent as an aha piece of information. How about that winemakers can legally add any one of over a hundred additives without disclosing anything to the buyer? The consumer will get smarter faster and the more they understand, the broader the connections and conversations will become.
And second, this will turn on the spotlight brightly on those that don’t decide to disclose what they do add. It will also create clarity around certifications like Organic that discloses nothing to what is really done or added once the grapes are picked.
This is goodness for everyone. A gift in the form of a few square inches on the bottle to thousands of small wine producers selling millions dollars of wine to the enthusiast markets.
Wine is more than the sum of its parts certainly. And as food, more than the ingredients that compose it. Even more so of course.
But its overdue time for it to be seen at one level for what it is—an agricultural product–albeit a very special one.
This change is coming whether winemakers choose to drive it now, or forced on them later down the road in the form of government compromise, endless red tape and yet more certifications.
My thought–do it now.
Use it as an opportunity to give the consumer what they want in their language on your own terms.
In this instance, it is both the right thing and the smart thing to do.
People taste as much with their hearts and beliefs as they do with their palates.
I’ve been discovering this personally through my blog, around natural wine, for years.
Early on, it was just an attraction to the small producer. The artisan.
I remember hanging out with Bunny and Art Finklestein drinking wine and eating cheese while they were constructing their Howell Mountain vineyard 20+ years ago. Art talking about his gravity feed pump system and me understanding almost nothing.
But it connected these wonderful people, their stewardship of nature, their passion for the environment to the glass I was holding in my hand.
I used artisanal and natural as synonyms, rightly or wrongly.
I spent years thinking about why there was a magic connection between an approach to making wine naturally and a liveliness and effervescence in the glass? Why it was simply more interesting, more terroir forward in the best of bottles? Why this was palpable and delicious and damn inspiring for the heart, the head and the body?
Natural wine to me was akin to what Alberto Giacometti said about his stone sculptures—that the truest most perfect forms are discovered with the least chisel strokes. Simple in the process, powerful in its impact.
I typified industrialized wines as the opposite, more a painting, created on a blank canvass to a preordained market profile created with additives as paints and a neutralized fruit as the base.
Something has changed for me—maybe moved up an evolutionary notch along with our modern culture itself.
There is a global cultural change around food in general, around wellness and health that has made me look at wine not differently as much as more layered.
Less about an absolute pursuit of natural taste than about understanding the parameters of these tastes, within an ethos of belief about agriculture and even larger—around ecology and our cultural responsibility for it.
This is everywhere in the food world.
Endless quality artisanal brands categorically under an umbrella of designators—local, organic, gmo and gluten free, free range, wild caught.
We expect great taste, within an umbrella of our beliefs. Within our ethos of what we feel comfortable eating and consuming. We as a market support it and empower it to happen with our dollars.
I simply never thought about it with wine until recently.
Why does AmByth Estates dry farm in the heat of Paso Robles? Why do winemakers in climates like Virginia work to make wines organically against climatic odds? Why are winemakers, sometime prematurely, just saying no to any added sulfur at all.
I can only answer from my perspective.
This is less about simply returning to the past, to a traditional, pre-industrial agricultural approach. Although that is part of it.
This is about ethos. About stewardship of the land as a responsibility.
About a belief that in nature, informed by science and understanding, we can create great products, be they wine or food. That are delicious to the taste. That connects to our hearts. And that challenges our understandings and intellects.
Not easy but it can be done. And it is being done everywhere. And with a global market to support it.
There are farmers producing just great wine in centuries old ways on land owned for generations. Naturally. Think of Christian Ducroux as a example.
There are new age winemakers who are accomplishing similar things, very differently.
Producers like La Clarine Farms, Broc, Dirty & Rowdy in California who are making astoundingly high quality, truly delicious wine, completely naturally.
Just as these producers believe in nature, I think they also rely on human nature, to provide a market for them.
And it does. The best sell out all the time. The best are happily bought even though the prices can be high.
We are drinking something that connects us to the ethos of the winemaker and the delight—even a celebration—that it can be done and done so well.
So—what’s the change here?
Five or so years ago, I had to search hard for really excellent natural wine. It was a stretch at scale.
Today, there is an endless supply. I can’t possibly taste it all—from Istria and Armenia, Slovenia and the Canary Islands to Greenpoint and the Sacramento foothills.
The reason is that the market and its beliefs, and those of the producers, have coalesced.
And with that have created a new scale of excellence along with an economy to support it.
This is a rare instance when what the market wants is also best for the consumer and the producer both.
And while it is a seriously huge stretch, glass of natural wine in hand, I’m happily believing that it is equally best for the planet as well.
“The primary nutrient in life is joy.”
This is Stefano Bellotti, winemaker at Cascina Delgi Ulivi in Chianti speaking directly from his heart—to my own.
From the moment Stefano comes on frame in Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary, Natural Resistance, I was smitten. Seriously.
It was like listening to the last six years of my own blogging on natural wines, the endless arguments with others about what it means, encapsulated into a lazy afternoon’s conversation of why he and many others do what they do.
Why I and thousands of wine lovers and bloggers are changing the world a little bit at a time by redefining what food and wine is to our lives.
I knew of Jonathon’s work slightly but didn’t know him personally nor much about the film prior.
I need to thank David Lillie and Arnaud Tronche, the co-owners of Racines and hosts for the event for the invite and encouragement to attend. This small gathering for movie and a dinner with people who not only love natural wine as writers and geeks, but are responsible as restaurant and wine shop owners, as importers and distributors, as somms, for getting the best and most interesting of these wines in front of the public.
I seriously loved this film.
With its hand-held shaky noirishness, with its quirky juxtapositions of obscure images, this movie is—yes, I need to say this—about a love of what nature has given us. About following your heart, not ideology. How the bravest amongst us invoke the very core of tradition to innovate, not to follow.
I understand Italian not at all, yet I forgot I was reading subtitles, forgot that my chair was bumping the portable projector repeatedly. I just felt like I was at home in this conversation.
I kept thinking about the folksiness’ and profundity of Whitman and Hart Crane. I kept nodding my head like a student listening to this farmer talking, creating concrete poetry out of his land and wine.
The movie, while a documentary, was so sun drenched, so lazily paced as the winemakers walked through their vineyards. So crisp when Stefano held up the lively soil of his vineyard in one hand and contrasted it to the calcified clay of his neighbors in the other. So personal as they drank wine with their friends, hugged their children, played with their pets, that you forget—these individuals are considered radicals, almost subversive, by the Italian wine industry.
Yes, revolutionaries created by the stupid rigidity of the DOC systems under which they worked.
The ‘resistance’ part of ‘natural resistance’ almost gets lost unless you know the language or the back-story. How these intelligent and exuberant people were being castigated by the Italian DOC system. Having their wines banned from supermarket shelves, and fined possibly to the point of bankruptcy because they eschew, just refuse to use, chemicals or supplements, and just make wine in their own raw, natural way.
You need to do a double take honestly that these winemaker are being made revolutionaries by the wine establishment itself. Rebels who believe that there is no social history without agriculture and that to change agriculture is to change culture and the world.
The rub is that these winemakers are not defining themselves by what they are not, not against, but for something.
They believe that the DOC should, by its definition, be helpful, but is a lie. A caretaker of something that is simply not representative of the land, the place, the taste—their lives there.
During the Q & A with Jonathon, I got the sense that he believes that the world is on the brink of ecological disaster if change doesn’t happen. Agriculture subsumed by industrialized techniques and taste that carries with it a variant of cultural suicide.
Maybe it was the inebriation of the words, the buzz of the wine I was drinking and the conversations with friends that make me take the opposite view.
Maybe this example in Italy is an extreme. Or maybe I am hopelessly naïve and optimistic.
To me, change is definitely happening.
More and more agricultural products are being made with astounding quality. More and more importers are finding them and bringing them to market. And with community and network connections, there is an economy being created that will be supportive, even if the national systems themselves are not.
And just as important, there is a rising market of people who simply do care.
I seriously recommend this film.
If you are thoughtful about the relationship of agriculture to culture. Of natural techniques in winemaking to taste. If you believe that individuals collectively impact global change.
It’s a little film with a subtle and, I think, well-placed kick. There is something special and true here.
Congrats to Jonathan Nossiter for creating such a great film and for giving us all such a fine and inspiring evening.
I felt compelled to pass it along.
Jonathan Nossiter, Eben Lillie, Chris Struck
Thanks to Chris Struck for the photos I appropriated from his Facebook page.
Today is my friend Sophie Barrett’s last day at Chambers Street Wines.
She heads off to work the harvest with Stephane Tissot in the Jura. Trades an apartment in Brooklyn for a flat in Arbois
On one hand, I’m amazingly jealous.
Tissot, Poulsard, Trousseau, Savignon, the Jura–are a larger than life tag cloud of good taste painted in delicious colors.
Super happy for her.
On another, a bit sad and thinking only of myself.
I’m one of those wine customers who stops in 4 or so times a week, spends half an hour, buys a bottle. Then does it again and again.
Add up probably a hundred of these with Sophie over the last years, and you plum the depths of where my love affair with the Jura began, the foundations of my obsession with Savoie and Bugey, with Altesse and Gringet, Mondeuse and Alpine Pinot.
Sophie is also the person who made me understand bubbly as a wine.
I nudged her to write and blog early on.
Her posts on Sophie’s Glass have become musings of a unique type, steeped in geekiness, lightened by her personality and rhymed to her counter intuitive and surprising turns. Read her piece on Pet Nat as a case in point. She obviously loves words and language as she does wine.
Sophie and I are friends.
We connect around wine. I love to buy it, she to sell it. We make a great team in this exchange.
During those fun encounters of banter and decisions, we’ve gotten to know each other. Talking about love of our cats. Our lives. Losses of parents and and cycles of work and life. She collaborates with my son and yearly participates in choosing my birthday presents. None predictable I might add.
And back in the theLocalSip day, she was a huge supporter of the project.
So Sophie—have a great trip!
I trust you’ll stay part of my wine world.
Maybe back at the shop. Maybe opening your own. Maybe a unique importer under your own name or lucky someone elses, who gets to hire you.
Who knows. As a wine friend certainly.
Safe travels and have a great harvest Sophie.
And PLEASE, make certain that before you leave, that someone who loves the Jura and Savoie as we both do, will grab me and say‘ You must try this’ when I wander in the shop.
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