I first fell for Lettie' Teague's new book, Wine in Words: Notes for Better Drinking (Rizzoli Ex Libris. $29.95) because of its looks. Was I that shallow, I wondered.
With its vintage typeface, it's sturdy dust-jacket free, embossed cover in butter-yellow, the feel of the book in hand felt like a legacy. So, I started to fan through this collection of essays, and then sat right down and started to read the 40+ short pieces.
I am fond of my colleague, Lettie, the wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal. It's true that she and I often don't exactly see wine through the same lens. We often have agreed to disagree. This was reinforced several times over in the book, and I have come to understand that is just the way we are built. She is a natural ectomorf. I'm, to my dismay, an endo.
Turns out her book is neither memoir nor wine guide, but a selection of thoughts and whims Teague believes the wine drinker should know.
The book is organized capriciously enough. With no particular arc, it's sectioned off into three parts. +Fun to Know. +Need to Know. +Who Knows. But even if I feel some fun to knows are need to knows and vice versa, the more I jumped into it, the more I appreciated how her prose sat on the juncture of, let's say, A.J. Liebling meets Judith Martin. It's when Lettie effortlessly steps into a Miss Manners role she is most charming and even sage.
Each entry is no longer than a blog post. For today's texting attention span these are measured spoonfuls for those who have not yet worked up to reading the full meal of wine encyclopedias for sport. I imagine that she really could guide reader and a drinker through blunders that no one wading into the wine swamp wants to make, especially the beginner who fears looking like one.
For example, in her discourse on the wine glass, she professes her love for the Zalto (check!) and artfully dismisses the notion that a glass is needed for every country and variety.
We all have tried to fake it at one time or another, like the time I truly had no idea who Pierre Overnoy was and sensed I couldn't admit it. Likewise, Lettie confessed in the Pitfalls of Pretending, about the time she claimed to have tasting knowledge of a wine in a certain vintage. Turns out the wine was not made in that year. She also recounted the tale of a misguided sommelier who when confronted with a customer request for the sold out gewürztraminer, offered a 'similar' wine. The replacement was an ill-advised sauvignon blanc. The grapes bear no similarity to each other except perhaps they are both aromatic, even if they boast different aromas. Moral of the story, there's no humiliation factor in learning. Or as she penned, "Better to be an ignoramus than a fraud."
It's these little stories, told with no artifice, with old-fashioned advice that I find fresh.
There are still the moments when I shake my head, "Oh, Lettie!" Such as her entry on orange wines, Orange is the Old Black. There she address skin contact wine as a fad ( of 8,000 years? That's more a rediscovery than a fad, methinks.) though I did learn from it that a few "oeniphiles" believe orange mean that the wine has been infused with the citrus fruit.
But when reading one of her final pieces, Worst Wine Word, I had another revelation. Lettie, believes the worst wine descriptor to be 'smooth.' As it turns out smooth is a bit of a bête noire for me, and its use annoys me almost irrationally. And as she wrote, "A wine--like a person--requires a bit of friction to be interesting."
It was then I understood that Lettie and I actually do agree more than I had ever given us credit for.
My story on new natural wine power in an old Georgian city, Sighnaghi is up now on Punch. While wine tourism has reached that hilltop town, do not expect Napa, do not expect Rioja. Humility is part of the DNA in this town and in the Georgian wine world. May it always stay that way.
So, go have a look, then come back here for the details, of places to visit and the faces behind the wines.
John Wurdeman, the man who many point to as fueling the Sighnaghi wine and spirits think tank. Here is is, above the fog. Photo by Vjera Babić.
Where to Eat & Drink
Not only can one drink the best of Georgia at the PT wine bar (and eat some of the best food in the country, but get a load of the line up of non-Georgian.)
City Wineries to Visit
Paul and Alexander Rodzianko
41 Baratashvili Street
tel: +995 355 23 19 29
7 Chavchavadze str, Sighnaghi, Georgia
tel: +995 551 622 228
That's Archil in the vines and this is him opening the q.
tel: +995 599 408 414
And that new protégé, Nathan? Watch for his crazy cider. I have high hopes.
So it goes. Just will leave you with a couple of back labels. This is what's going on there, in Georgia for some reason they're not afraid of the term, natural wine. Afterall, they're Georgians, they started this whole thing. No?
Where to eat? Drink?
18 Baratashvili Street
Walking down the street I was shocked to find a new wine bar, of course started by an alum of PT, as well as a great chacha maker (chacha? that's the direct path to heaven, John's wife Ketevan says of the Georgian grappa).
VinoFactura wine bar and shop
Nikoloz Nadirashvili's the owner.
5 Kostava street
Hotel Crown Restaurant
Tel.: (+995 355) 23 13 93;
Nettle or mushroom kinkali for about .35 each, or a plate of brains. Food is yummy.
This week I opened up a 2011 Bartolo Mascarello with Pascaline, we loved it.
We both agreed that it was so very pretty, but somewhat tight and could use some age. There was cherry and tannin, and depth but it needed to have a window opened. I said it needed ten years, would love to see it in twenty.
When I woke up this morning, I saw that quite the tweet fest started and debate about its agebility.
They were in good company. Even in Piemonte its debated. Last year, when I talked to MT last year about the wine, she told me she wasn't as much of a believer in its long-aging as are others in the 'hood--such as her cousin, Marta Rinaldi or more profoundly, Trinchero down in Asti. But of course how it's made, how long the maceration, stainless or wood, all decisions in winemaking will have an effect on the aging.
But the question could well be, why lay down at all? After all, the Bartolo Mascarello is so delicious, it's difficult to summon the self-control to stop drinking. On the other hand, those tannins sure could turn into something interesting over a little time. So why will I keep back a bottle a few years (maybe five, I doubt ten per my tweet.) I'm simply curious.
So, if you're lucky to have two of these, try one tonight. True to Maria Teresa's words, the wine had plenty of sediment, decantation is not a bad idea. Drink, think, make your own decision on what to do with the second bottle. And what to do if you only have one? Get the corkscrew. You should experience the wine in its youth.
In the spirit of freisa curiosity and exploration, I offer you this article I ran this December in The Feiring Line Newsletter. (Hope you consider subscribing. Also, as below, clicking on the images should enlarge them.)
The first time I heard the name Alex Podolinsky I was in Bordeaux. It was in 2008m with Michel Favard of Chateau Meylet.
"You don't know Alex?" he asked, incredulously.
I admitted I did not. As far as famed Biodynamic consultants, of course I knew Joly and Armenier, but Podolinksy? Alex, who worked out of Australia, had been his initial consultant and Favard was in awe. How could I not know one of the most influential people working in Biodynamics in the world?
Alex was born in the Ukraine and raised in in Germany. He was there during the war. Post-war, the poet, musician, architect, philosopher ended up in Freiburg (Hello, Martin Heidegger).
Already a student of Steiner, he emmigrated to Australia either in 1947 or 1949 as a Biodynamic teacher. With uncanny foresight, he bought the name Demeter. He owns Biodynamics in his continent. His version is a somewhat different interpretation and this can prove polarizing.
One main point of departure is Alex's view of the iconic preparation 500-- that's the famed dung buried in the cow horn trick.
Over the months dung ferments and transforms into a superior sweet smelling and potent fertilizer to be used in farming. But Alex made a tweak. Wanting to make sure the preparations were useful for large scale Australian farming, he sells it ready made. He fine tuned this soil enhancer to the strong Australian sun. Its following as a magic potion is a devoted one, even among those who like Bindi, is not hooked on the Demeter certification or its dogma, but is hooked on the prep.
Throughout my visits through Australia, I met many who poked fun of Alex , even held him in some derision, meglomaniacal and all of that, as well as looking askance at his hightailing off with the Demeter name, but many view him with the same starry eyes that Favard had. They see him as an agrarian prophet of the truth, a guru. However all I met in Australia seem to agree on the prep.
The intensity of those devoted to him was driven home on the way to Barry Morey's place in Beechworth (read about this excellent producer from Victoria in this month's The Feiring Line) when Max Allen stopped us off off at Pennyweight Winery, a picture perfect example of the biodiversity of Alex's teaching. (The high intervention here might raise an eyebrow or two elsewhere, but the passion is electric.)
Morey is a little more hands off, but still he is fiercely respectful of the man, and so were dinner guests that evening, retired biodynamic wheat farmers.
The couple started down their path to soil spirituality when they saw a documentary on Alex on the news series A Big Country. They quickly got in touch.
Then they waited.
Alex wouldn't work with just anyone, you had to be worthy.
One day the phone rang. The consultant was nearby and could visit and see for himself if they would be candidates. They were thrilled. They met. It began.
This February when I was in the state of Victoria, driving about with Max Allen, I asked if we could go to the throne of Australia's Demeter, and see Alex in his Powelltown compound. "Are you sure?" Max asked.
There was no way I could be near someone this controversial and this influential and not meet him if I had the chance.
We headed from Beechworth to Yarra in the morning and as we pulled up the drive, the growth was bursting with spring -like fertility instead of the approaching harvest time slumber. It was a dramatic, lush contrast to the smell of bush fires burning.
We entered his cabin, something like a rustic Flatiron building in its angularity.
The house is bordered by windows on all sides, and even in the overcast day was flooded with light. Inside there were piles of books and papers, yet the feel was spartan and cerebral. Frail, in that abstemious way, Alex is also one of the few consultants I've met, who enjoy drinking and liked to talk of wine. Soon, just like Nicolas Joly, he was talking, channeling whatever.
He tested me to see if I was worth giving answers to.
He waved his wrist at me, flop, flop. "What does life say?" he asked, and I wanted to say a floppy wrist, I knew I was failing the test, and it was an awful feeling.
"It is the unending of life. It is endlessness."
I could have told him that, but I flunked the wrist test.
I first met fellow shrimp, Jenny Lefcourt, at the Dive Bouteille in 2002. Since then I’ve traveled with her, tasted, drank and danced with her.
Above, Jenny at 2011 Dive Bouteille, trying to get some sustenance.
Jenny Lefcourt, a woman blessed with twinkly eyes, a musical giggle and positive outlook, based her wine importing business on ethic and taste, not by what she could sell, way before it was fashionable.
But back at the turn of this century, in 2000 when she was just starting, Jenny & Francois, it was after having completed her doctorate in French Film. She and Francois were living in Paris, drank and loved the wine, the people, the philosophy, so they thought, why not let other people in the states drink them too? She started to commute back and forth then returned and settled back in New York City. She slowly went from couch to office, growing one step at a time. It was as simple as that.
The wines found a thirsty home with New York City drinkers and then with the rest of the States. Thanks to her work, and Francois (who now has a lesser role in the company) we drink and know Hervé Souhaut, Olivier Cousin, Claude Courtois, Eric Pfifferling, and other wine deities who are inscribed in the firmament of natural wine super-stars.
And what about the woman thing? "When we started," Jenny reflected, "most of the buyers were men. Now, its more than half women I would say. That has been a huge shift. There are certainly more women winemakers in France than there used to be. Certainly more women importers, the first major shift was in retail and restaurants. Its a huge revolution."
When I asked Jenny what were some of stickier things for her about being a woman, she was at first reluctant. She cited certain problems were more because of being short than her sex, but then she warmed up a bit. "There's this macho think about tasting all day until you drop and then following it up with more drinking, and personally, I can't keep up," she said. "Also, some people have a physical capacity to stand in cold cellars, and drink. I don't have that capacity. Whether it's a gender or a size issue, there's this macho thing in wine tasting. There's not a place for a woman to say, "I need to go inside. I need food. I'm cold. I need to pee. (A guy can just go to the nearest tree.) I've had enough to taste. Maybe I just need to speak up more but I never felt comfortable saying I'm done! If I were a man and I was done, would it be seen in the same light? I don't know.
But, what if women dominated the winemaking scene, would the culture be different?
A cogent question from the daughter of Carol Lefcourt, a prominent, celebrated activist and woman's rights lawyer. Jenny's mom died far too young, at 47 years of age, in 1991. Having such a powerful mother, one to be proud of, was one of the strongest influences on Jenny's life. It's no wonder that Jenny grew up equipped with the skills to navigate a man's world based on the foundation of equality. "I'm very much like my mother; soft spoken with strong opinions, and I'll fight for what I believed in."
These days Jenny is juggling being a mother and running a business, more skills from mom. She's having a hard time leaving her blue-eyes Zoe behind as she makes sure we all have enough Binner and Souhaut in our glasses, but she's finding her way. " There is a boys club out there for sure. But I don’t need to be in it. If people think I'm a wimp for getting cold, or being tasted out, that's okay." She adds, even though she is hard pressed to find overt evicence of sexism, she believes wine importing is a field in which it is still important to talk about women importers. There are stillnot a whole lot of us. We have to stick together.”
A very memorable, night in the Loire with two of my favorites--and Jenny proved she can indeed keep up and stay up, when she wants to!
Jeanne Marie is the Madame de Champs who created the exporting house, Domaine et Saveurs Collection, consisting of a slew of very fine estates, mostly but not exclusively in Burgundy. Through the years she has been a constant presence at tastings and stays off the radar as far as print. So, I thought it was time to change that a little.
Years ago when I wanted to visit two terrific domaines in Burgundy, Domaine Bart in Marsannay and Domaine Lafouge in Auxey, I asked David Lillie of Chambers Street Wines, who to contact. He smiled a strange smile, and said, “Ah, Jeanne Marie!” (I am still trying to get out of him what David meant.--but this just in from him. " I don't know if this is a male/female difference, but I would say that she has less "ego" involved with her selections that most. If you don't like one of her producers, OK that's not your style. How do old, skinny, balding retailers differ from young, skinny jean, beany-wearing retailers?")
Jeanne Marie de Champs, grew up with her three brothers in the farmlands of the Loire, not far from the vines of Sancerre. She studied business in Paris. She knew wine was in her future and planned for it, tasting along with Stephen Spurrier. After marrying, as it happens a Burgundian négoce, she headed down to Burgundy where she started her exporting company, Domaines et Saveurs Collection in 1994.
She never sought vigneron through a dogma but through instinct. Examples of those she worked and works with? Bernard Michelot, André Cournut, Monsieur L Gouroux, Mr Porcheret at Hospices de Beaune, Paul Pernot, Francois Lamarche, Guy Amiot, S. Pitiot, Jean Meo, R.Rapet, more recently P. Frick in Alsace. P.Savoye in Beaujolais, Piat in Bordeaux as well as the organic and biodynamic Chateau Couronneau. She learned from them all, especially having had the experience of magical tastings with J. Lardière. For Jeanne Marie, gravitates towards those who eye wine more naturally. Indicative of what she looks for is having rejected wines made according to the Accad -mania.*
Being a woman never posed any difficulties for her. From my standpoint, she has height going for her, with about a foot or more over me. Height does make a difference in the way the world perceives you. She also believes that being brought up in a male environment--three brothers, many male cousins and male colleagues--she had to be a tom boy, learn how to fight and to play with men. “If some winemakers spent time with me because I was a woman, it might be so,” she wrote to me. She also added that she was not afraid to pull on boots and go into the vines during rain. Nothing like not being afraid of the mud to demonstrate one's seriousness.
Still, she says there are international differences. “In France being a woman might be more challenging than America. China, and some countries which have not yet fully accepted women having an opinion and expressing it because of their know-how it's still an issue. But it will be changing soon. But," she added, "no matter where we are, women have to be better than good.
She admits she might have benefitted from those who came befor her. “Not too long ago a woman in a wine cellar in Burgundy was a woman on a boat. It brought bad luck. But women like Martine Saunier and Becky Wasserman have opened the doors for that change.You have now a women wine maker association on each region of France (Anne Parent, was the starting point in Burgundy). You have father who gave their responsabilities to their daughters sometimes not because they had no son, but because they believe in them ;Veronique Drouhin, Claire Naudin, Nathalie Lamarche, Elodie Michelot, CL. Jobard, B. Dubois.
Jeanne Marie leaves us with this advice: "Always taste through every wine no matter how tired you are! ” She learned this after a while back, organizing a newspaper tasting. She was so tired she didn’t taste 108. Of course that one was corked. It still bugs her. Finally, she says, "Be happy, be passionate, listen and respect the experiences of growers. This is not industrial work. Wine as a final product is like like a Lego between terroir, vineyard work, weather, decision at harvest, risk of wine-making, risk during the élevage. It’s all connected by timing.”
“Sorry Alice,” she wrote to me, “I am sure I am conventional, (no Jeanne Marie, you are not!) but we have to find a equilibrium between our work which could be day (selling/ tasting) and night,( dinner, receptions… and family) and our children. 2 jobs? That’s nothing, multi-tasking is also our woman’s nature!
** Guy Accad was a controversial consultant who worked in the late eighties and nineties and was quite the fashion at the time. As Jeanne Marie said, his system pushed ripeness, and long-cold soaks for extraction and color. "The system worked fine in warm and dry years like 1989 and 1990 but in years like 1991, it was a disaster."
Last week I was called to give quote to ABC news for their story on the Morgan Stanley report on the topic. "Could this be really true?" the reporter Alan was in a panic, his beloved Great Western sparkling wine might be in danger, and what would he do then when he wanted his favorite kind of "champagne" cocktail.
I suspected a Chicken Little approach to news --press releases that go out on the wire primed to painc. I tried to get the original MS report before the interview but could not (and still cannot.) And, anyway, didn't anyone remember that just in 2004 the world was drowning in the Euopean Wine lake? Wasn't that a relevant part of the story?
In response to that horror, the wise EU offered financial incentive for landowners: pull out their old vines in exchange for money.
The ruse worked and acreage is down in Italy, Spain and France. It was heartbreaking to see old vines go out and housing go in. In all, according to a WineSearcher article "98,244 acres of vines were ripped out of the ground between 2008 and 2011, equivalent to 10 percent of the European vineyard area. An additional 275,186 acres were grubbed up without any financial incentive. None of the articles I found on the subject even mentioned this short-sighted EU approach. I suppose in the new world where a single vineyard could be 1,000 acres, under 400,000 of lost acres is a whisper, not a shout.
Manipulation of data and the market has always been a mosquito dive bombing me--it bugs me. Where's the truth? First a lake and then a desert? Who's twisting the data for their own purposes. The Morgan Stanely report, it seems, is oddly positioned against odds another, the OIV's. There it is stated that the world wine production has increased and consumption is stabilizing.
I started to wonder what MS had to gain in this study. The savvy blogger for Reuters, Felix Salmon had this to say,
“It was simply trying to present the idea that demand for Australian wine exports is likely to rise, and to justify the fact that a company called Treasury Wine Estates is the bank’s ‘top Australian consumer pick."
But readers of this blog should have real concerns.
Two devastating devastating vintages have ravaged some of the most important (and favorite) European vineyards in the past two years.
2012/2013 were not only backbreaking but puny in (to name a few) Burgundy and the Loire and Champagne. Austria didn't do so well either. Some smaller winemakers simply cannot afford to continue. Those that survive will show fewer and more expensive bottles. This is bad.
If people are looking for industrial strength wine--as most are-- trust me, there will be no scarcity any time soon. In time, China with technology and vast acreage possibility will come on board, they will hire marketers, they will have lovely labels --some critter some not--and out do Australia and Chile in their ability to crank out cheaper wine for the masses. What we have to worry about theare the great wines. Of those there is just not enough to go around. And yes, that is going to get worse.
That Americans and Chinese are drinking more wine and in a few years the demand will outpace the supply, is not groundbreaking news. As I told ABC, don't worry, there will be no shortage of crap around to drink, there certainly isn't now.
The great master of Malvasia, (Listan ain't so bad either, and I'm nuts for the negramoll too.) Eliseo Carballo holds forth on how volcanic ask ministers to his vines. In the near distance? The Atlantic. For readers of The Feiring Line, listen up. There will be a test in the next newsletter, out in a few days.
Catch me with Mike Colemeco on Heritage Radio today at 4pm EST. Talking orange, Georgia , The Feiring Line and who knows what else.
Okay, I'll tell you what else. I pimped for The Feiring Line, and I live tasted Pheasant's Tears 2011 Rkatsitelli. I hadn't tasted this since Georgia and it could have bombed. I'm only saying that 'cause I'm insecure. I was really pumped because the wine shone in its honeysuckle, beeswaxy, juicy, sandy beauty.