For at least the third year in a row, I told myself THIS would be my year of Southern Hemisphere wines. I would shift away from my Euro/California preferences and discover all kinds of new delights from Australia, New Zealand, Chile. Carmenere and Central Otago, here I come!
Well, we’re more than halfway through the year and so far it’s been a mixed bag. A quick look at my Delectable profile shows that only 10% of my wines hail from down South. But. One of my favorite meals of the year so far was at the Musket Room, an homage to all things New Zealand with a menu and wine list that punch way above their prices. One of my few southern Westchester wine refuges is Bar Lees, an Australian joint in Mamaroneck. And a few months ago I met Ross Toombs, a fellow Pelhamite who imports wine from his native South Africa. He started his import business, Meridian Prime, 3 years ago, and works with a number of up-and-coming South African producers. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work and what’s new with South African wines (which, really — did I mention this already? — I need to drink more of.)
Being in the wine industry is obviously a fantasy career for many people. What do you love most about what you do?
I love being responsible for ensuring that the passion of the all the people making the wines (not just the winemaker) are transferred to everyone we interact with. I also love seeing the look of surprise and joy on the face of someone trying one of our wines for the first time. That is a gift that we keep getting and it makes it all worthwhile.
What is the biggest misconception about your job?
The biggest misconception is that it is quick and easy to bring another wine into the portfolio. The work to get a new wine to market is immense — but rewarding in itself. Another misconception is that the startup importer/distributor can’t take on the big guys head on and win. It is possible to act big without being big.
Why should people drink more South African wine?
The South African wine industry — and the country itself — is so unique in so many ways. These characteristics are captured in the wines themselves which are, like the country and the people, complex, beautiful and bold without being overbearing. South African winemakers have found an amazing balance between New and Old World wine styles (most often in the same glass).
Aside from your own, what wines are you most excited about drinking now?
I am most excited about drinking other South African wine producers that are hoping to be in the US market. There are some truly outstanding wines which American consumers would be lucky to have on their tables. For the wine adventurer South African wines provide an oasis of untapped gems.
What’s the most remarkable wine experience you’ve ever had?
Starting an import and distribution business has been that remarkable experience. For me it has been about meeting the amazing people in the industry as much as the wines themselves. With the wines I never anticipated the incredible experience that comes from drinking a glass of wine that captures the passion of the people you’ve met who made the wine. I wish everyone could meet the people that toiled in the vineyards, the cellars and the offices to get the wine all the way to your table. When you know these people and how much effort and skill goes into the process, every glass becomes a celebration of the collective achievement in getting a wine into the market.
Wouldn’t you know it, the very week I wrote a post about how great it is to engage with winemakers through social media, I had the chance to spend some time with a vintner in person…and the evening reminded me that there’s nothing quite like getting to know winemakers face-to-face. The occasion was a dinner at Rouge Tomate devoted to the wines of Gigondas. I lucked into sitting right next to Louis Barruol, the winemaker of Château Saint-Cosme.
Barruol is a native of Gigondas, an appellation of the southern Rhône, and Saint-Cosme has been in his family since 1570. Credit his ancestry, his work ethic and the quality of his holdings — Barruol has somehow managed to thread the needle between mass appeal (his 2010 Gigondas was #2 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2012) and insider credibility. (At decent prices no less.)
As an icebreaker, I showed him a picture on my phone of his 2007 white Côte-du-Rhône, which I had drunk only a few weeks ago. “But no, it’s too old!” He exclaimed.
“Well, my friends and I really enjoyed it,” I said. (Thus marking the first time I’ve ever felt bad telling a winemaker I liked his wine.)
Fortunately, as the evening wore on — and the 12 different Gigondas cuvées began to flow — we overcame this rocky patch. Barruol comes from the plain-spoken but passionate school of winemaking, which always makes for entertaining company. A few highlights from our conversation:
On Gigondas’ second-fiddle status to Châteauneuf-du-Pape: “We want to be loved for what we are. Not because we are cheaper than Châteauneuf-du-Pape.“ He extolled the benefits of Gigondas’ higher altitude vineyards, which help to mitigate the hot Southern summers.
What Gigondas lacks in heft or depth, it makes up for in freshness. “Not acidity,” insisted Barruol. “Freshness.” He attributes this characteristic to the limestone soils prevalent in the region.
As the night wore on, our conversation turned to the northern Rhône. While Barruol is from Gigondas, it’s clear that Syrah has a special place in his heart. Saint-Cosme produces wines from Saint-Joseph, Condrieu, Crozes-Hermitage and Côte Rôtie. The latter appellation is clearly his favorite. When a tablemate asked him why, Barruol started talking about the terroir, his love of schist soils, the elevation…and then paused. He leaned in conspiratorially. “Really, because it’s a very sexy wine.”
Barruol also joked that he and his friends want to publish a book of all the “conneries” (bullshit) he’s overheard in cellars during his career. In the meantime, you’ll have to settle for the lovely Gigondas: Its Wines, Its Lands, Its People, which you can buy here. (Note: I received a copy of the book for free.) The tome includes contributions from Barruol and Kermit Lynch, as well as Jonathan Livingstone-Learmonth and Andrew Jefford — two British wine writers whose works deserve a lot more play in the U.S. market.
So much of the “social media has forever changed the wine landscape!” cheerleading (and hand-wringing) has focused on the critic and the consumer. A multitude of voices and tastes have replaced what used to be a much more top-down schematic. Which I’m all for, of course. But an equally welcome — and relatively unheralded — consequence of social media is access to actual winemakers. Whether it’s following producers on Twitter, seeing what they’re drinking thanks to Delectable, or hearing them hold forth on podcasts like I’ll Drink to That, there are unprecedented opportunities to learn about winemaking straight from the source. Along with pulling corks and cracking books, talking to winemakers is a great way to deepen your wine knowledge. A few things I’ve learned:
1. Winemakers drink a lot of Riesling.
2. As a group, they are probably the least full-of-shit people in the wine industry. I could make some dumb assumptions about working the land, knowing the value of hard work, etc., etc. accounting for this, but the truth is, I don’t know why. In any case, they’re mostly a likeable bunch.
3. “Winemaking” as one studies it in, say, a WSET class, bears very little resemblance to actual winemaking. The academic version of winemaking is an abstraction that doesn’t take into account a number of very important things, like what a winemaker does to make decent wine in a crappy vintage in order to remain solvent.
4. Winemaking is really hard work. This isn’t breaking news, but there’s something about seeing Tweeted pics of sorting tables and bottling lines early on a Sunday morning that really brings this lesson home.
But what I love most about following interesting winemakers on social is what they don’t say: their conversation is devoid of buzzwords and euphemisms–no “passion for the land” or “hand-crafted vintages” here. The phony wine mystique foisted on consumers by mediocre copywriters and flacks is stripped away. What remains is the real intrigue, a glimpse into the everyday magic of making wine for a living.
VinExpo, one of the world’s largest wine trade shows, welcomed nearly 50,000 visitors last month — including yours truly. See below for a list, in no particular order, of what I learned from my whirlwind trip.
Warm climate wine producers have the coolest booths.
While the Piedmontese and the Burgundians took a low-key approach to their stands, not so the Corsicans:
or the Brazilians:
Gamay is full of surprises.
I know my way around a cru Beaujolais, but I was still (very pleasantly) surprised to taste the wines of Joseph Burrier. The wines are subtle and focused, and Burrier — a 6th generation winemaker — was chock-full of quotable observations. One of my favorites: “the key with Gamay is to avoid vulgarity.” There was nothing remotely vulgar about these wines. They’re the Audrey Hepburn of cru Beaujolais. Graceful, elegant and unadorned. My favorites were the 2011 Saint-Amour “Côte de Besset,” refined and delicate, and, at the other end of the spectrum the 2001 Fleurie les Colonies de Rochegrès. Here it is, on the right, next to one of its younger compatriots. (You know the tasting starts getting real when the winemaker pulls out the unlabeled bottles.)
The very name Fleurie puts these wines at a disadvantage, says Burrier, as it inevitably prompts drinkers and even writers (ahem) to call these wines floral, charming, and unserious. He uses older vintages like this one to prove that Fleurie has a serious side. The wine is indeed drinking nicely now, and falls into what I think of as “October” wines.
Marketing can’t beat Mother Nature.
The boosterism that pervades events like this was no match for the cold (literally) hard reality of the weather. It was raining cats and dogs — or perhaps just cats if this whimsical sculpture installation was any indication:
In all seriousness, the horrible weather blanketing western France cast a pall on things. It remains to be seen how much the deluge will end up affecting the vintage, but, as they say in PR, “the optics were not good.”
The children are our future.
Tasting and drinking a lot of wine was great, but the best part of my trip was meeting the next generation of France’s wine professionals, from sommeliers to winemakers and everything in between. A young couple who had abandoned their life in Paris to start a winery in Savoie focusing on indigenous grapes. One sommelier with the extremely quixotic, and extremely worthy, pursuit of introducing French people to wines from around the world. (Not an easy task. One Parisian diner, upon seeing Vega Sicilia on his wine list, asked, “they make wine is Spain?”) A Bordeaux winemaker who took as much pride in his Bordeaux Supérieur as his Pomerol. France’s obsession with rules and bureaucracy has a way of sucking the life out of its brightest young people, so it’s beyond encouraging to see all this dynamism and creativity.
I was running late and feeling desperate. My friend’s dinner party had started 20 minutes ago, and here I was in an unremarkable wine store on an unremarkable corner of the Upper East Side scanning the shelves for a palatable wine at a palatable price. Next to the Chiantis was an under-$20 bottle of Morellino di Scansano, a name that was then unfamiliar to me. Good enough. It ended up being a happy gamble, a delicious, affable wine that everyone liked. Since then, I’ve always felt like Morellino was my trusty little friend and special secret.
Well, the cat’s out of the bag. A lot of investment has poured into Morellino di Scansano, situated in the Tuscan coastal region of the Maremma, and it earned DOCG status in 2007. The promotional machine is very much up and running, and a delegation of winemakers and local representatives were on hand for several events in New York this past week.
They were emissaries of quiet Italian elegance, where one tosses a Loro Piana sweater over one’s shoulder just so, and the winemakers speak of organic farming in perfect, British-accented English. (Although they’re not afraid to let down their guard. When I asked one winemaker what he thought of Italian food in New York, he admitted that “if I cooked pasta this way at home, I would be — how you say? — shot.”)
The wines are similarly mellow. They’re required to be at least 85% Morellino (that’s Sangiovese to you and me), but the remainder can be any number of varieties, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or local faves like Ciliegiolo. You won’t find the bright assertiveness of Chianti or stately grace of Brunello di Montalcino here: Morellino is their kinder, gentler cousin. From the lineup of 8 wines offered, my favorites were the 2010 Poggio Argentiera Capatosta and the 2008 Fattoria Mantellassi Riserva Le Sentinelle. The former has the liveliness and structure that lesser Morellinos lack, while the latter makes a case for the wine’s darker, more brooding side. Both were exceedingly food friendly, and it would be tough to think of a tomato-based pasta sauce/burger/grilled pork chop they wouldn’t work well with. While the prices have climbed since my first encounter with Morellino — the wines are now in the $20-$30 range — their accommodating, up-for-anything nature has not.
My almost two-year-old twin boys have entered the chatterbox phase. They are overflowing with words to describe their environment: two shoes, mommy’s cup, big shark book. Their vocabulary and their thinking are anchored in the concrete. It will be a little while before they understand abstract concepts completely, and acquire the words to express them.
Watching this process has me thinking differently about the language we use to describe wine. The current state of the tasting note is, well, not good. Eric Asimov cites a number of howlers in his recent book, How to Love Wine. (Check out my favorite chapter, Tyranny of the Tasting Note.) To my mind, the biggest problem with notes today is this: they are chock full of nouns. They’re a hodge-podge of names of things — roasted plums, dried thyme, Maduro tobacco — that remind me of how my toddlers see the world. Just like my little guys aren’t demonstrating a capacity for abstract thought yet, or an understanding of associations and comparisons, most tasting notes are stuck firmly in the world of things. As in, “here’s something that tastes like some other stuff, let me list them out. 92 points.” If, as writers and readers, we think of wine only in these concrete terms, we miss out on subtlety and sophistication. It’s infantilizing. Concepts like balance or terroir will elude us. Consciously or not, we give more weight to wines that taste like things, and less weight to wine that taste of a place. I’m not a terroir absolutist, and I understand that tasting notes are convenient and practical shorthand, but we do ourselves a disservice if we rely on these notes, and the wines they benefit most, to the exclusion of all else.
Back when I had time to teach wine classes (pre-chatterbox toddlers) I loved to pour cru Beaujolais for my students, if only to show them the world beyond Duboeuf. Once, after asking a group to talk about the Morgon in front of us, a student said that “nothing about the wine stuck out.” She spoke reluctantly, certain she had said something stupid. I asked her to elaborate, and gradually I understood what she meant, and why she felt so sheepish about it. There was no “flavor” that jumped out at her, no raspberry jam or flambéed cherries or whatever it was she thought an ” expert” would identify. It just tasted like wine to her, wine that she liked. in fact, it was exactly the kind of wine she preferred. But she didn’t know how to ask for it, because she didn’t have the vocabulary she needed. “Nothing sticking out” was her way to explain that it was balanced. That it tasted of fruit, but wasn’t exactly fruity. that it had just as much alcohol as she wanted. That it was refreshing, even, not something she usually thought of in red wine. (And the more she drank, the more she wanted something delicious to eat with it.) How can we provide someone like her with a wine vocabulary that’s ample, descriptive and nuanced?
We spend a lot of ink and pixels criticizing winemakers who produce simplistic, overblown wines and the people who drink these wines. But if we want more people to appreciate different kinds of wine, we need to give them different language to understand and express their experience.
If I had to draw up my list of wine buying rules, these would be at the top:
1. Avoid any Pinot Noir under $25.
2. Avoid California Pinot Noir, unless someone I like and trust has recommended it — and is paying.
3. Avoid drinking anything with the word “Project” in the name.
And yet. One of the nicest bottles I’ve had this month was the inauspiciously named “The Pinot Project,” a wine made from Pinot grapes bought in across the state of California. It’s a well-made, well-balanced wine (no syrupy stuff here, although don’t expect Burgundian complexity) that would go with more or less anything you’d want to eat alongside a bottle of red wine. For $14 no less! The price-quality ratio goes down very easy — particularly if you overlook any long-held assumptions about cheap California Pinot.
If you’re an avid reader of lady magazines and blogs, you will recognize this frequent piece of shopping advice: don’t wait until the last minute before a big event to buy your super-special outfit. Desperation shopping rarely leads to good decision-making.
The same holds true for wine. One of the biggest differences I notice between the JV and the varsity wine drinker is that the former is much more likely to buy a wine just for a specific meal or occasion, whereas the latter picks up a bottle that interests her, whether or not she knows when or how or with whom she’ll drink it. To continue the fashion analogy, the same thinking that prompts someone to buy, say, a pair of crystal-studded pair of Giuseppe Zanotti platforms
with no clear idea of where she’ll wear them is what compels someone like me to buy a bottle of late-harvest Gewurztraminer here, a half case of Lambrusco there, and why not some Poire William while I’m at it? Just like the most fashionable person you know has the perfect outfit for everything from a summer BBQ to a night out with Beyoncé, the hard-core wine lover has just the right thing to serve her finicky mother-in-law, as well as the ideal bottle for her too-cool-for-Cab sommelier friend. If you’re looking for New Year’s wine resolution guidance, I’d suggest you adopt a similar stance and do as the fashion mags dictate: if you love it and can afford it, buy it.
While STBNY remains resolutely apolitical, I have to admit the run-up to the elections have me in a patriotic, bombastic, speechifying mood. To that end, I thought now was the right time to unload some of my thoughts on the State of Wine in America…so here goes:
Ignore the wine list naysayers, the natural wine warring factions or the 100-point-scale haters — the state of the American wine union is strong. Never have so many been able to procure so much good wine at such good prices. Wine is now less of a Fancy Event thing and more of a “drinking a glass of red on a Tuesday night” thing, which is most definitely progress.
And yet. While all these developments hearten me, I’ve still been feeling like something’s missing. And, then the other day, as I pored over my latest batch of Restoration Pottery Crate & Elm hi-lo aspirational-yet-affordable home catalogues, it hit me: there is no great universal American wine retail experience. There is no coast-to-coast chain that offers consistent product and pricing. No cheery, recognizable logo à la Target’s red bullseye. No Gap-esque “buy the second case at half-off” discounts. You can’t swing a cat at any mall in America without hitting a Sunglass Hut or a GNC — and yet there’s nary a wine store to be found.
It’s not just that the 21st amendment makes buying wine more difficult, or more expensive, for many of us: it’s that the 21st amendment actively impedes the development of a native wine culture. Because while Europeans may come to wine through the dinner table, that’s not really a viable approach for us. We’re not great at long, leisurely meals. But you know what we’re awesome at? Buying stuff. We are awesome, awesome consumers. I say this with fondness and respect. Have you never felt that fluttery sense of excitement and possibility upon walking into a Home Depot Superstore? (“This is the year I turn our decrepit shed into the woodworking shop about which I have always dreamed — and where I will teach my sons all the skills of handy, manly self-reliance I wish my father had imparted upon me!”) Do you not know the deep sense of community that comes from seeing a woman in front of you at Starbucks who is wearing the same top you’re wearing, also scored from the latest, greatest, and now sold-out designer capsule collection from H+M — and from knowing that you have each styled it in completely different ways, as befitting your age, height, weight and overall lifestyle considerations — and yet it looks equally cute on both of you?
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, brands like Target and H+M and Starbucks have made home design and fashion and fancy coffee more accessible to more people. Would a robust national wine store chain bring grower champagne and orange wine to the masses? Probably not. (And they’ll never be enough to go around, anyway.) But it could make wine fun, relevant, affordable, approachable and convenient to many more Americans. And that is, as they say, something we can all get behind.
I love sweet wines — especially paired with something savory or unexpected. Here’s me holding forth on two of my favorites: a Samos Muscat (that’s Greek to you) and a Rivesaltes from Roussillon, in Southern France. Both are unusual, delicious, and more-affordable-than-champagne ways to begin or end a meal.