Friday, July 16, 2010

Here's to much more tasting, drinking and debate

[This is my contribution to 32 Days of Natural Wine. Please feel free to comment here or, even better on the saignee edition of this post]

One night last week I was drinking a glass of wine . At Terroir. Terroir Natural Wine Merchant in San Francisco. Terroir the muse, Terroir the young upstart professor, Terroir the hipster who just knows about all the cool shit before you do. Yes, I love Terroir and respect what they do immensely, if you couldn’t already tell. Anyway, back to that glass of wine. It was a 2006 Julien Courtois Originel, a blend of menu pineau and romorantin from Touraine. Oxidative, fleshy, but still with a degree of fruity freshness that made it an appealing enough drink to pour by the glass. It was a much cleaner, less flawed wine than the 2004 version of the same wine that Terroir poured by the glass a year and a half or so ago. Perhaps, though, they had just poured it to hear my thoughts on it.

A lot has happened in that year and a half. I am somewhat more familiar with many wines that many would identify as “natural.” I have gained a greater appreciation for natural wines that are well made: the precision and cut of a Tournelles savagnin, the generosity and intensity of an Occhipinti SP68, the texture and purity of a Foillard Morgon. In well made natural wines from distinctive terroirs, there are textures that are more lively, acidity that leaps, and flavors that reward the taster with experiences that are unique and singular in the wine world. However, it is important to remember the much larger world of wine that exists independently of natural wines. This is the world of wine most commonly experienced by the masses, and it is the world in which most of us begin our discovery of wine.

To give you a better sense of my background, here is a quick history of my wine consumption, or perhaps education, no…formation. That’s the word, formation. Most evenings my parents enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine with dinner . At my mom’s insistence, I enjoyed a tall glass of skim milk. Sounds terrific, huh? Anyway, I was and forever will be a dutiful son and mama’s boy. I drank the watery, vaguely milky milk, but eventually, I tasted the parents’ wine. It was typically a chardonnay or cabernet from California and they tasted fine. During good times, the real estate boom years, there might have been some bottles of Chalone purchased and some fancier Napa cab labels such as Robert Mondavi Oakville cab. When I was 9 years old, I remember particularly enjoying a 1986 Chalone Pinot Blanc. Then the real estate bust happened and magnums of Concha y Toro made appearances at the table. I was not a fan. I suspect that my parents weren’t into those wines either. Other sacrificies were made, both large and small (admittedly it was a fairly charmed existence beforehand). We moved to a smaller home, and I chose to forego continuing my private school education to enroll in public school. It was as much an economically driven decision as it was one for my happiness: I needed a break from blue blooded wasps, lacrosse, and manufactured prep school diversity. I longed for more hang time with my childhood Jewish friends. It was comfortable.
But I digress. Let’s flash forward to 2003. That’s when I started working with wine, paying closer attention to it, and mixing up cases to learn flavor profiles of different varietals and regions. I started to pick up on a few things. For example, Macon Villages was from Burgundy, composed of chardonnay grapes, tasted sort of like granny smith apples and was minerally. Bobby Kacher imported lots of Rhone and southern French wines, and people in the trade (granted, in his home base of Washington, DC, but respected professionals nonetheless) said that they were good values. I agreed.

Eventually I landed a job at a medium sized distributor with a real book of products that people could actually sell through. I sold from a diverse portfolio, including wines that people considered “must have” brands as well as some genuinely cool stuff that I enjoyed drinking. Part of the job requirement was studying intermediate level WSET material. I started learning a lot of factoid such as one stating that the best gamay was typically grown in granite soils located in Beaujolais, just north of the Northern Rhone and south of Burgundy.

My first wine trip was to Bordeaux in the spring of 2006 to taste the 2005 vintage out of barrel. For anyone who has been on a wine trip to Bordeaux, you will understand it when I say that my first wine trip was not really a wine trip at all. There was minimal time in the vineyards, hardly any face time with people responsible for tending vines or even working in the cellar. Instead, there was much more time in crowded rooms at UGC (Bordeaux’s communally organized Union des Grand Crus) tastings. In other words, though I had some book knowledge and a bit of tasting experience, I was just a wholesale wine rep: I did not know shit (I say this with all due respect for the .01% of wine reps who actually know their shit). Looking back on it now, I sometimes wonder why more serious sommeliers and retail buyers ever bought much from me. I guess that I was likeable enough and did enough of the important stuff, namely showing up and knowing when to shut up and listen. A retailer at one of my accounts said that the best way to extensively taste and learn wine was to either become a critic or to work retail. The latter option was much more realistic, so that’s the path I took.

OK, now that you know my life story, let’s return to the subject of natural wine. Three years ago, I walked into a store called Chambers Street Wines in New York City. Blogging celebrity, Lyle Fass, suggested a rarity, a 2002 Houillon/Overnoy Poulsard (alternately, ploussard) from the noted ploussard terroir of Pupillin. It cost $25, and was one of the more delicious and memorable bottles of wine I had ever drunk. Delicate and slightly savory, though still energetic with terrific fruit and acidity, and a lightness of texture that betrayed its sense of importance and seriousness. In short, I had never tasted anything like it. I was not aware of natural wines at the time, but within short order I started reading up a bit more on the subject and drinking a lot more of these types of wines.

I became part of a geeky online community. In addition to the blogs written by print media’s leading lights such as Eric Asimov and Jon Bonné, I read other wine blogs. I learned to love Brooklynguy’s unique, humble, witty voice and excellent cooking tips. I loved Lyle’s unfiltered, occasionally wrathful, but honest, writings on wine and wine industry happenings (not to mention the hip-hop videos). I devoured David McDuff’s top notch producer profiles. And I made sure to set aside time for Cory Cartwright’s unbelievably well developed and earnest philosophical musings on natural wine.

In wine, as in life, people are possessive. They love to make and lay claim to new discoveries. And then share them with people who are not familiar with such things. People are as passionate and protective of their favorite wines as they are their children, their pets, their favorite albums (just try to tell me, for example, that Husker Du’s Zen Arcade is not one of the greatest rock records of the past 25 years). One person’s wine favorite may not only be disliked by someone else, but could be lambasted as being flawed and simply not drinkable.

Speaking of wine you enjoy volatile acidity? I don’t mind it in some cases. Chateau Musar, for example? No shortage of volatile acidity here, but I do really enjoy their reds.

How about cidery flavors from long skin macerations? I find Radikon’s ribolla to be delicious. Over-maceration is a flaw according to Jules Chauvet, but when employed with grapes grown in the right terroir, and overseen by an experienced winemaker, it produces intriguing and tasty wines.

And how about the ‘S’ word? Sulphur. Do you enjoy that sort of nutty quality that minimally or unsulphured wines frequently show on the finish? This is an attribute that, when it begins to dominate, I can do without. I think it is a little bit too indicative of a winemaking choice, and that it distracts from a wine’s actual qualities given its grape variety (-ies) and terroir.

Overly oaked wines? I am sensitive to elevage in a portion of new French oak barriques. In most cases, I believe that this is a pursuit best left to the Burgundians, and few others. Even then, it is often too much for me. Long aging in older barrels though? Bring on the 1970’s Riojas. Love ‘em.

We all have a different tolerance of flaws – real, perceived, and those which lie somewhere in between. Perhaps my tolerance for flaws is a bit higher than that of many others.

Regardless of personal taste, there is always more to learn, more to taste, another producer to visit, a well written text to consult, and maybe even a winemaking project to initiate. In the pursuit of understanding wine, show a little bit of humility, but have enough confidence and guts to challenge prevailing perceptions. This is why the natural wine loving community is so dynamic and well informed; it is a passionate and opinionated, but humble and knowledge sharing lot. There are plenty of people to consult and learn from. Given an appropriate amount of tasting and research, you can feel free to draw your own conclusions about natural wines. However, expect to be challenged and be prepared to defend your positions.
Here’s to much more tasting, drinking and debate on the subject.