My latest article for Newsweek, on the natural wine debate and its 'ugly underbelly.'
I'm not sure 'we' should. No one should except people who love them, but there's certainly no reason to 'hate' them, is there?
My latest article for Newsweek, on the natural wine debate and its 'ugly underbelly.'
I'm not sure 'we' should. No one should except people who love them, but there's certainly no reason to 'hate' them, is there?
Well, at least on a blog.
Some of you might have read an earlier version of my night at Rao's here on this very blog. However, wanting the piece to have a larger life and a larger readership, I pulled it down in a matter of days. Recently, I took it out of the box, reworked it and sent it off to New York Magazine's GrubStreet. I'm delighted it has a good home.
My latest wine story appeared recently in The Hollywood Reporter about people just saying no.
(errata, the 10,000 associated with the grower champagne should be cases and not bottles.)
If you have a story to pitch me for THR, please get in touch.
Is the cocktail sexier than wine or is it all smoke and mirrors. Maybe it's the word, cock-tail. Maybe it's the uniform; piercings or the tattoos or the little bar caps, or the unkempt historical beards. Maybe it's that tactile opportunity to hold a glass, or the sex-toy like bar tools. Perhaps its the flirtations with barkeeps, or the sultry whiskey voices. But in competitions --even in writing--the spirit (mixed or straight) is the victor. As I told Elin McCoy who lost the James Beard award to a spirit book a few years back, it's really tough for a wine book to win, the categories should be separated.
Not only is it for some reason sexier, but most consider spirit more accessible than wine. Geeking out about the history of the cocktail is seen as everyman while geeking out about pruning techniques or stems vs. destemming is seen as patrician.
I like a well-placed spirit. I delight in an Islay or Calva. But a mixed do? Concoctions are mostly too sweet and anything but refreshing. Mixologists, barchefs and bartenders rely too much on sugar the way chefs often fall back on fat, the cheap trick to carry flavor. I find the cocktail that can deliver what it promises is not unlike the politician who fails to deliver campaign platform when in office.
The roots for my discontent might go back to my early suburban days when all was well and Becky jumping over the fence
was enough to keep me cheerful. But on those afternoons, early sips of parental high-balls tasted insipid. Martinis tasted like shaving cream. I could never cotton to the vanilla candy affectation of the cigar dependent Manhattan.
With age and experience I added a few recipes to my quiver. I eventually warmed to the chilled martini, especially after Mr. Bowtie showed me the merits of drinking them wet, fifty/fifty, with aromatic vermouth. (One underappreciated drink if there ever was one.) My admiration of gin met my passion for champagne in the French 75. Love them. There was a time when I whipped up lip smacking margaritas . But ladies and gents, that's all.
While a little cocktail might be the perfect thing at the right time, I just don't want to sacrifice my liver to a potent (and caloric) cocktail when I want to save organs and calories for wine. So, if I have to bow to peer pressure, and start the meal with a cocktail, I stick with a low alcohol and bitter Campari and soda.
Sometimes fate has something else in store. That's when I met The Fall Classic at Gramercy Tavern.
There I was, drinking a big pile of crisp. burning leaves after dark. Drinking that adult cocktail, I was a kid kicking the dried leaves. Not a bad blowback for me, the cocktail denier. Not only that, but bourbon? Was this my gateway drug to the spirit?
After the second time I went back just to drink the Fall Classic I gave in to desire I emailed the Wine Director of Gramercy Tavern, the under-sung and uber-talented Juliette Pope, would she send me the recipe?
The Fall Classic. Juice and calvados. Where did this come from? Layering in the flavors. Made sense. I dug into cocktail books to find out its roots. My favorite cocktail guy, Gary Regan said, congratulations! You're writing about cocktails! He was so happy, I didn't want to tell him, no no, it's just a one off to see if it's sexier than writing about wine. (I've written about spirits, but never cocktails.) He sent me some pages from his essential tome, Joy of Mixology. While mixing calva and bourbon with citrus was common (he mentioned the Deauville from the '30's) the mixing with apple cider might have been a Gramercy T. original.
When looking at other similar recipes, like the Apple Sidecar, I realize that the GT version is far more sophisticated, the sweet flavors tempered by the dah or three of bitters.
Next step was shelling out the dough.
Gramercy recommended Bulleit for the bourbon. Looking for a good price I eyed the whiskeys at The Whorehouse (as The Owl Man used to call the Warehouse on Broadyway & Astor). I reached for the $34ish bottle and the guy next to me sneered, no.
Obviously he thought I had no taste. So much for the everyman of cocktail culture. But the Bulleit is less assertive, more about finesse than power, it was the right choice.
Over at Astor I was pointed to some dirt cheap calva but I thought, why not get something for ten dollars more that I want to drink after this cocktail flirtation.
Groult pays d'auge. ($38).
I needed Angustura. They had a huge bottle at $24. I was getting cheap. I'd hit the supermarket, that is if the shortage is over. I could not leave the store without pocketing the Domaine de la Chevalerie Bourgeuil, (Cassiopée) for under $14. So, you use it was my own fault that by the time I got the cider, the thyme, and the booze, I was nearing a $100 price tag and having a panic attack. When I got home there was a bottle of Angustra on my spice shelf! It was years old. But free. The price of the cocktail just came down by $20.
That was plenty elitist for an experiment and I felt extremely poor even if it was tax deductable. I tried not to fret or see myself homeless on the street, clutching my bottle of Bulleit and instead dusted off and scrubbed my shaker.
It's absolutely impossible for me to follow someone else's recipe, so I added more lime juice and cut back on the sugar. The thyme syrup is a lovely touch, and I topped with a dried apple. I liked it, my guests loved it. I dumped mine half way through it, (anyone know how long bitters stay fresh? That might have been my problem, after it all, it practically smelled like the tincture of gingko in my fridge.) and then reached for the bourgeuil, where fake it as I might, my passion really resides.
For me it was not as good as Gramercy's execution, theirs had more angles. Mine had more lushness. I prefer the angles. I added more lime juice, cut back the sugar. Hey maybe I didn't infuse my syprup with enough thyme. Maybe I underestimated the quantity of a bitter dash. My guests loved them, I dumped mine after drinking half. Then I pulled out my favorite bar tool, a corkscrew, and had myself an orgy.
The winemaker's new lust object. Qvevri
and the unplanted qvevri...
Georgia, the former Soviet republic of, is a land where autos share the road with pigs, sheep, and donkeys. The food pops with flavor, and wine is so knit into daily life that an extension devoted to its creation is as common in most homes as a kitchen. In these rooms, large amphorae called qvevri are planted into the soil and filled with fermenting grape juice. Often referred to as the originalwinemakers, Georgians have used the jugs in their vinification for eons, perhaps even as far back as 6000 B.C.
Yet it took an Italian to make qvevri chic.
The modern legend dates to the end of the last century. Friulian winemaker Josko Gravner had decided to pare back his own winemaking to the basics. His search for simplicity led him to Georgia. Qvevri—the Bentleys of the amphora family—seemed ideally suited to low-intervention winemaking. Burying them in the ground provided instant temperature control, perfect for natural fermentation. The point at the bottom of the vessel collected the grape crud, so no fining or filtering was necessary. And the ceramic material imparted little or no flavor to the juice.
Gravner first made his all-qvevri wine in 2000 and loved the results. The media treated his story as an oddity. Then he sold his wine for $120 a bottle. Other vintners in Italy, Slovenia, and Austria soon followed his example and snapped up the large ceramic containers. They also rubbed the Georgians the wrong way by referring to the jug as an amphora. Georgia would like the world to know, please, that qvevri refers to a specific citron-shaped clay vessel, lined protectively with molten beeswax and meant to be planted in the soil.
One of the new Italian converts to qvevri is Elisabetta Foradori. Pouring her rare white, floral wine made from the Nosiola grape, she explains why she loves the qvevri. “My wines find their identity in them so much sooner.” All her production is now in qvevri, even though—don’t tell the Georgians—she too calls them amphorae.
Others have added their own twist to the traditional style. Austrian Bernhard Ott makes a Grüner Veltliner labeled, simply, Qvevri. He picks his chemical-free grapes by hand. He crushes them without machinery. He pours the wine, complete with skins, seeds, and stems, into the qvevri, mimicking the way the Georgians vinify their reds. But instead of marinating his wine for a few weeks, he allows the juice to commingle with its parts for months, resulting in a slight orange color and some gritty tannin. After the wine is finished fermenting, he seals theqvevri hermetically with clay and dirt. He then forgets about the wine. Eight months later, he pries the lid open to find the crud sunk to the bottom. This is extreme hands-off winemaking. “The most pure, clear wine is left when the qvevriis opened up,” he says. David Schildnecht, who covers Austria for The Wine Advocate, calls Ott’s Qvevri “revelational.”
A qvevri curiosity has now touched down in the New World—not in Napa, where you might expect, but in Virginia. And not for wine, but for cider. Here, too, all roads lead back to Gravner. When John Rhett, general manager of Castle Hill Cider, and cider maker Stuart Madany (both former architects) tasted Gravner’s wine, they not only loved the flavor but were also attracted to the qvevri’s egg shape. “Whenever nature wants to preserve life energy, it uses the same form, and that is the egg,” Madney says. The two men persuaded Castle Hill’s owners to shell out a hefty sum to import the vessels. This year they planted eight qvevrion Castle Hill’s grounds. Perhaps the world’s first qvevri cider, called Levity, is now available. Whether it’s the egg shape or beginner’s luck, their brew has more complexity, with a deeper flavor and more nuance, than conventional cider offerings.
If the results of qvevri weren’t so impressive, one might write them off as a fad. But there is growing international interest, helped along by diehard qvevri devotees. Jonathan Wurdeman of Pheasant’s Tears winery is an American expat who lives in the Kakheti region of Georgia. He organized the world’s first international qvevri conference in September, with the help of the Alaverdi Monastery (making wine since 1011) and its qvevri-loving Bishop Davit. Two hundred people, from scientists and winemakers to archeologists, attended the conference. Wurdeman estimated that most qvevri wine is made for private consumption in Georgia. Only about nine wineries export bottles. There are a mere five artisans who manufacture the vessels, and all of them are older than 60. Wurdeman is hoping that the new international demand for qvevri will entice younger Georgians to keep the craft alive. Yet cost remains an impediment to qvevri becoming the hot new winemaking toy. The reach-in-and-clean size of qvevri sets a winemaker back about $8,000 (10 times the price of a barrique barrel), and the jump-in-and-clean size runs about $14,000. Even though the jugs don’t need to be replaced in a winemaker’s lifetime, the outlay is steep.
Still, some vintners are willing to make the investment. Pax Mahle of the Sonoma winery Wind Gap believes his desire for a qvevri will eventually overcome the price tag. “Wines fermented in terra cotta taste more complex and more ethereal” Others are making due with substitutes until they can afford a real one. Australian Tom Shobbrook, who works in the Barossa Valley, had friends build a kiln and fire some 650-liter clay “eggs” to mimic the urns, in which he ferments sémillon.
The do-it-yourself attitude is catching on. Californian Kenny Likitprakong of Hobo Wine Co. tagged a local potter to throw a 230-liter vessel. He lined it with local beeswax and buried it close to his vineyard. Ryan Glaab of Ryme Cellars also had a friend “make the biggest one he could.” He’s made two vintages in a 27-liter object, really more of a vase than a qvevri. In explaining why he wanted to use the qvevri style, he says, “I’m intrigued by fermenting in the ground and the notion of bringing the grapes back in direct contact with earth as a vessel for elevage, even if that earth came from another continent.”
If Texas-based potter Billy Ray Mangham has his way, there will be an American version of qvevri, made from U.S. clay, in time for the 2012 vintage. Mangham was one of the attendees at the monastery conference. After a request from a local winemaker, he traveled to Georgia to learn the secrets of the qvevricraftsmen. He came back energized by the connection between wine and pottery. Now back in the Longhorn State, he’s decided to make wine himself, with a 115-liter prototype vessel (the reach-in-and-clean type). Having fallen in love with Georgian culture and ceramics, there’s no doubt what he’ll call his creations. “Qvevri,” he says. “What else?”
Wondering if Daniel Johnnes' LaPaulée is worth your money this year. Maybe you want to consider this report of last year's event, which was published in the World of Fine Wine. Just click that blue and you'll be on your way.
I left the house in the peaceful and crystal morning at, 7:30 for a rare breakfast uptown at Michael's, so a publicist could pitch me ideas. The room was filled with stars, including Calvin Trillin, who could not know his wife Alice would die later that night after a long illness.
There was something wrong when I finally left near 10am. Outside a clutch of electrical workers were fixed to the truck radio. "What happened," I asked.
I walked towards the subway trying to digest this fact. Two planes. One building down.
Thrown out of the subway before it left the station, I joined the march downtown on 5th when the second tower disappeared, as if in a well oiled magic act. The gasp of horror, my voice with the rest, was at once hushed and deafening.
When I arrrived home, I ran to my rooftop to see the truth.
Ronny called, filled with a panic, fearing I had been at Century 21 or on my bike further downtown. “I’m leaving for you, now,” he said.
“But the bridges are closed!” I said.
He was sure he’d make it from Jersey City, up to the GWB and then back downtown. He was heroic, and if he said he’d make it to me, he would.
Then I sprinted to a friend who owned a TV. I needed to see what I would have seen had I been grinding my coffee at home that morning. After about ten minutes of the continuous loop of planes being absorbed by the towers, I said, that’s enough. I went home to pace all day and keep track of those I loved.
The night the Towers fell, my nearby close friends gathered on the rooftop of my tenement apartment, about a mile north of the devastation. We were close enough to feel the grit and smell the smoke, yet the direction of the wind kept us from being showered with debris. With us was a friend who worked for the Clicqout Champagne company. Thinking this might be the end of the world, and allowing for the possibility that this would be our last opportunity to drink whatever great wines we had lying about, she had brought over a few bottles of older vintages of La Grande Dame rosé. We drank them with thirst while breathing the toxic purple smoke still blowing from the site we couldn’t rip our gaze from. It was in this moment I thought: Steve. I grabbed my phone and called a man who would know.
“Has anyone heard from Jessica about Steve?” I asked though I knew what the answer would be. Steve’s new job as cellar rat for Windows had invigorated his life and revitalized his marriage.
John told me that they took a brush of his down to check for DNA. And Chris was in one of the planes,” he added.
Steve, Chris, Jessica, John and I have known each other for decades, part of an extended family of Morris dancers. We're family. The best family I ever had. What were the chances that two men, linked by love of dance, who were friends, who danced on the same team even, could be killed, one in the air and one in the building. Statistics are meaningless in the face of fact.
It was 7:00 and I still hadn’t heard from Ronny.
We all watched the smoke. I thought of what I could scavenge in my 'fridge for a last meal.
The irony of drinking Champagne—traditionally a celebratory wine—at such a time was not lost on us. Ronny showed up at 7:30 in the brilliant dusk. He had an amazing ride, he said, “Riding down 5th Avenue, hands free. In the silence.”
The silence and beauty of the day was diabolical.
In a while the bottles were gone, and I scrounged around for something more for us to drink on this last day on earth. I tried to choose wines bearing in mind our possible doom. Why save the good stuff? I started to pick out the bottles that I wanted to drink up in case I had to evacuate. The first bottle, a Sagrantino, tasted like sawdust; another Burgundy tasted like mud. It didn’t take a genius to see that sorrow had soured our taste buds. We collectively decided that nothing would taste great that night. And did the best we could. We stayed with the irony, and I pulled more bubbles out of the icebox.
Inside this is a full working Chinese winery. Do you know its name?
The news that Chateau Château Lafite Rothschild (aka Chateau Lafite), an exalted first growth Bordeaux woud be planting vines in the Shandong Peninsula of China, sent Tweets around the world. This announcement was effectively akin to a visit from the Pope or Karl Lagerfeld setting up a rural Chinese atelier, but what it signified in fact was a major boost for Chinese wine.
Since the passing of Chairman Mao and the opening of Chinese trade, western wine producers and sellers have been salivating over the potential--1.5 billion potential drinkers who hadn’t yet experienced the sensual delights of a glass or two a day.
The importers rushed to bring in brands, mostly French. Their work was done with missionary zeal. Now, the market is beginning to appreciate the efforts of a corkscrew. Yet, the idea of making wine in that vast land across the Pacific is not alien. There’s been evidence of fermenting grape juice since the Tang Dynasty and what’s more, China is currently the #6 producer in the world. But fine wine?
1980 was the year that Remy Martin became the first big foreign investor, developing their Dynasty brand into one of the country’s giants. Wine Spectator's ex-critic writer, James Suckling dates the beginning of the ‘fine wine revolution’ in China to 1987 when an English ex-patriot, Michael Parry brought over French vines and a vision. Parry died in 1991 when his adopted country was still known for mostly were thin, sweetened and fortified white plonk. Awful? Sure, but more suited to the Chinese palate than the ‘sour’ western wine. It is not all that surprising that as the China reached for a western notion of sophistication, they became infamous for blending the likes of Chateau Lafite with either Sprite or Coke to make the wine more palatable.
This is a country where 1000-acre vineyards are not uncommon, high yields of unripe grapes are status quo. One isn’t sure what’s in the bottle, as with no wine laws, much of what is bottled as Chinese wine is supplemented with Chilean or Australian product. The Changyu winery, said to be the world’s largest pumps out 80,000,000 bottles. In the past outside investors also focused on volume and hooked up with existing wineries.
Enter phase two. Ouside vinters are following in the steps of Grace Vineyards (started with French know-how in the vineyard) and Jade Valley both in the Province of Shanxi and recently highly touted by wine writer Jancis Robinson. The tactic is boutique and quality.
In light of those massive vineyards, Lafite is planting a practicaly petite sixty acres of vines on the peninsula of Shandong, home to about 140 wineries. A new neighbor Great River Hill, is being funded by Dr. Karl-Heinz Hauptmann, co-founder of Europe Capital Management, also the co-owner of Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere and Bulgaria’s Bessa Valley.
These two have long been importing their wines into China, so they weren’t surprised when in a March 26th Wine Spectator article reported, “Foreign businesses are complaining of increasing government interference.” But outside players aren’t the only ones. With over a decade in the business, native winery Grace Vineyards still has to deal with the level of bureaucracies, such as fighting off the chemical plant that was intended to set up shop next door. CEO Judy Leissner, (her father owns Grace) spoke to a reporter about the challenges, “We deal with 35 government departments regularly. Multiply that by five times – village, county, city, province and national. Each time they come with between five and twenty-five people. “ She said she has employed a team purely to deal with them.
Cristophe Salin, Lafite’s managing director explains that the Lafite Rothchild, that also owns other properties in Portugal, Argentina and Chile, went into China in the Lafite tried-and- true way, with a domestic, partner. Though their reasons for chosen the humid Shandong, they picked and wooed their mate wisely. CITIC, China's largest state-owned investment company agreed at the Pauillac Chateau over a bottle of 1949 Lafite (the year of the Chinese Republic). Concerend about China’s environmental record, Lafite took precaution. Salin said, “We have an agreement with the local government to ban any polluting industry in a zone of 1200 acres of the vineyard. It was the sine qua non condition before renting the land and committing to the project.”
An hour south of Lafite is the Great River Hill venture, at present is without partner, but thankfully, not without friends. The project manager and Bordelaise winemaker Marc Dworkin was in China to start the second planting of their 70-acre plot. The ten million dollar startup relies on the help of owner, Dr. Dr. Karl-Heinz Hauptmann’s local connections, without whom Dworkin, believes their effort would be impossible. “There are officials at every level and each one of them needs to feel important and that means a lot of money. “As if on cue, he divulged, “My 150,000 vines are lost somewhere between Laxi and Beijing. Nobody knows where they are.” Then he laughed, snickered, really. “Difficult is too light a term for this country. Welcome to China.”
Two days later, the vines were found in Beijing and a colleague was dispatched with some undisclosed amount of cash.
There are other problems. The natural environment of the Shandung peninsula, which lacks sufficient sun. The winters are frigid, necessitating burying the vines in the winter for frost protection. The summers are humid scorchers necessitating many treatments to keep the grapes from rotting. Machinery is rare, but there is ample man power. Dworkin, who makes wine in five countries including Bulgaria and Ukraine is excited, lost vines or not. “ I fee like Christophe Columbus,” he said.
So, with the current make -wine –can-be-made- anywhere –practice, what all serious geeks will want to know is if there’s any great terroir in China? “Maybe yes, maybe no. Ask me in forty years,” said Lafite’s Salin.
It might take forty vintages but a magical year is soon coming up. By 2013 the county is slated to be the 7th largest consumer of wine. Seven is no big deal, it’s the growth that captrues the attention--a 32% leap in four years. At that rate it will not be that long before all of that missionary work pays off and China turns into the #1 wine consumer, and just in time for the debut of Great River Hill Winery and Lafite to debut their Bordeaux-modeled wines extracted from Chinese soils. Dworkin reflects, “Things are changing. All around me I see people sniffing their wine first.”--Alice Feiring