Maybe it's because Neptune and Saturn and Mars and Uranus are pulling their shots but after I came back from California, I thought someone was playing a joke on me. That person was Fred Dexheimer, past sommelier and present cocktail wine ambassador and he send me as message through facebook.
"I am w/ Dr Jay Miller in NYC. He is tasting thru 700 wines this week. He mentioned you yesterday and wanted to meet for a drink! I am not kidding! Would you like to meet him?"
I had been seeing Fred's updates telling of his tasting through Chilean wines with Wine Advocate critic, Dr. Jay Miller and when this note popped up I was positive Fred was kidding. If Jay Miller, one of Bob Parker's best friends wanted to meet me, he probably would pack a gun. I started to look for that flak jacket I bought after my anti-Californian wine editorial a couple of years back.
Several more emails later, I realized both Fred and Jay were serious.
'Ten Bells!' I threw down the challenge, thinking at least I'd have some defenders around me.
'Ten Bells it is!' Fred wrote back, then added, as long as there was meat there, Dr. Jay would be there with bells on, he promised.
I was intrigued. Like who wouldn't be? People think I view Parker as the 'enemy,' but this is far from the truth. But people have to see truth through plenty of projections, quite a difficult task. But what could Jay think of me, was I friend or foe or just the unknown?
What could be behind this. Just curiosity?
On a rainy Thursday night I headed south east to see Jay seated at the bar, sipping, purpled stained teeth from the hard day of work behind him. His glasses needed a serious cleaning and I almost offered to help out after we shook hands. When I asked him what he was drinking, he smiled and said, "I asked them for something you'd want. They gave me this cabernet franc."
The Guion Bourgueil. Oops. I thought. Not Bob's favorite grape and very definitely an anti-flavor wine. I decided not to ask him what he thought but he muscled through, meanwhile I ordered Calek's Blonde. I looked around to see if the Daily News had sent out the paparazzi. How could we not get busted in this moment.
As I waited for my Calek Blonde to arrive I asked, "Why did you want to meet me?"
First he told me that he follows me, which surprised me. While he didn't read my book, he did read two chapters of it in an Oregon book store and liked what he saw. The big bond was that he likes that I have written pleasantries about Cristophe Baron. He was surprised because Baron's Cayuse is definitely full flavor wine but still, we had something in common. Then he added "I felt badly for the beating you got on the Winebeserkers after you roasted my Pesus review."
While curiosity was probable, his stated motivation was empathy and I just about teetered off my stool. It was so sweet, I was unnerved.
He went on to say he could see I wasn't persecuting him with my posting, which was true. After all I was mostly poking holes at the press release he sourced much of his material from. I suppose other than Cayuse, we had that in common to--being taken to task and perhaps, sometimes unfairly. Then he said something that probably will forever endear him to me, "You stand for something."
Fred then joined us wearing a mischievous smile, like he really pulled off a good one this time! I imagine he did. True or not, the reason my name came up at all was while they were tasting the Airplane's White Rabbit came on and Grace sang, 'Go ask Alice.' The next obvious thing in the middle of Chilean merlot was, "So, do you know Alice Feiring?"
When off duty he tends to drink what he reviews, and these are mostly wines I'd have a terrible time quaffing. We tried to order another glass of wine. I very much wanted to get him a glass of a pure and natural wine that would let him see the wines that excite me, but that night I felt Ten Bells was like a dog who won't roll over and show off. The WBG selection failed me. No beaujo. Thank goodness for the Pecina rioja, that's all I have to say. The bar's true strength is in the bottle not the glass. Oh well. Jay was a good sport, but I don't think he was won over by the cabernet franc.
Could this man who lives and vines in Santa Cruz become the world's first modern natural wine maker?
He is certified organic, in a do nothing way. He picks when there's still acidity. He keeps the cap wet twice a day by bucketing over as well as punching.
down. He doesn't use sulphur until after malo is finished--which he neither blocks or initiates. He is pulling back on oak but he does like the taste. Okay. But what he thinks is oak is another's stainless. He racks to bottle, done. Yup, he mostly adds yeast, but all he has to do is go native and then...
But Benyamin has other concerns that conventional winemakers do not. What happens when the Jewish Holidays come along--as they always do--right in the middle of a ferment?
"Yom Tov comes during the harvest almost all the time," he said, " I think G-d designed it to be a communal event. It's part of the 'tallying up' the spirit of the season (RH&YK) as well
as zman simchatenu (Succos). Then, I just cover up the fermentation and go to shul, come back two
days later and continue where I left off. From time to time there is a three day event string of days where one is not allowed to work. In such a case,
It's a judgment call as to when to pick. If possible, I'll postpone. If not, I'll sulphur the must, cover it up,
go, and add yeast when I return. Did I ever leave an active fermentation for three days? I can't remember, but probably yes.
If the fermentation is sufficiently vigorous, it should be protected
from VA. Plus a little VA can be eaten up by the rest of the fermentation.
And as I mentioned to you, I'm sure my butt has been saved
by low pH's.
With Goldie gone to the porch, we sat down to taste.
In time for the tasting came a friend, David (hi David!) in from San Jose, a wine lover with a talmud under his arm and go know, a reader of this blog. He's a lanky man with an eager, almost goofy laugh and where Benyamin is laid back and comes off shy and thoughtful, David is extroverted, quick and kicks up the wind.
When I asked him if he too was a baal tshuvah (one who became orthodox after not) he laughed and said, "No! I'm FFB," which translates into Frum From Birth. (Which reminded me of one of the terms my mother taught me--PPG--Papa Has Gelt, but that's another story.)
"I don't know how it works" Benyamin said, opening up a bottle of 2006 cabernet franc, but the grapes ripen. Another thing he said he didn't know anything about was the star red grape of the Loire. Here is what is so wild. In front of me was a man who had never had any of the world's great wines and believe, me there are no world great kosher wines that I've had. There is no Mascarello, there is no DRC, and there is no CRB cot and no Clos Rougeard cabernet francs. Hell, I don't even think there is a kosher Loire cab franc, so he is totally shooting in the dark, making wine from grapes with low pH, high acidity. The wine had freshness, varietal typicity and a lovely florality along with just the touch of bell pepper. "There's a minty flavor here."
"You see!" David said to Benyamin, I guess I affirmed his perception. But whether it was eucalyptus or mint, it was there along with tobacco, coffee, and a nice tang. Had I just had the best cabernet franc I ever tasted from California?
Benyamin barely works with sulfur and unless he's dealing with the holidays--and has to delay fermentation--he only adds some after malolactic finishes (naturally.) We went on to a fifteen year old cabernet--still fresh!
And, frankly I don't know how he did it, but because a friend, Rabbi Levine is allergic to sulfur he made a special cuvee for him, sans. The 2007 Rabbi Levine (not for commercial sale) kicked ass. Then there was a 1996 Chardonnay, without sulfur. Fresh! Lemon and butter. Yes, way to oaky for me but I swear there was something alive in that bottle.
The man has talent! And the kosher wine world would be a better place if he'd increase production but was recently asked to make some Napa cabernet for a friend from purchased grapes. The results according to the winemaker wasn't pretty. "I now own acid, something I never needed to buy, just in case I encounter grapes like that again."
We had to go. We were starving. Poor Jose was about to pass out. We made apologies. "Oh my! But I made lunch!" He gave us kings portions of pasta. Then it was blind tasting time as he asked me, "What are you eating?"
"A very delicious pasta puttanesca!" I answered.
Jose ate two plates. Gratefully.
In the end the only thing that separates Benyamin from being the worlds first kosher natural winemaker is the fear about going native. However there are years when the fermentations happened spontaneously and he didn't get in their way. "It was G-d's wine," he said. "And it was delicious."
I'm hunting the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world. I want them natural and most of all, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue. With this messiah thing going on, I'm trying to swell the ranks of those who crave the differences in each vintage, celebrate nuance and desire wines that make them think, laugh, and feel. Welcome.
And, if you'd like a signed copy, feel free to contact me directly.