25 Wines in 25 Years: 1996 – Giacomo Conterno

Compared to ’95, 1996 is an easy one. Larry Stone and Traci des Jardins gave me a bottle of the ‘85 Giacomo Conterno “Cascina Francia” Barolo for my birthday. Twenty years later it still wears a crown as one of my all time top wines.

Here’s a little back-story. Rubicon, which in its heyday was the best restaurant I ever went to in SF, opened in 1994.[1] The pastry chef, Elizabeth Falkner, was one of the first people I met when I moved to SF and she was an early supporter of the bar. She often came by after work with her colleagues and soon enough we became their watering hole.

That’s how I got to know Traci and Larry as well as Alison Richman, aka Squab, who became my roommate, Sara Floyd, who was Larry’s assistant, Christine Mullen, our first chef at CAV, Mary Frances Egan and Michelle Collins, all who have become old friends. More often than not, Saturday nights turned into a Hayes & Vine/ Rubicon post-closing drink fest, with bottles of Chave, Domaine de L’Arlot, Müller-Catoir and the like coming up from the cellar faster than you could have said, “President Clinton.” Larry, Sara and I were usually the last ones standing, often finding ourselves perched on a bar stool at the wee hours, listening to Hendrix or the Dead, and talking about politics and religion, the only subjects fit for 4 a.m. conversation.

When they gave me the Conterno in November 1995, I stashed it away in the cellar, thinking I’d open it on the perfect occasion. That came in the spring of 1996 when I celebrated my six-month anniversary with my girlfriend, which at the time seemed like a long-term relationship. We went to Woodward’s Garden, one of our favorite spots.

Though still super young, the wine was extraordinary. Giovanni Conterno’s face should be sculpted into Mount Rushmore. One of the most traditional producers of Barolo, Conterno never gave into the trend to make more fruit forward, younger drinking wines. Starting in the 80’s, the modern camp became all the rage but a few basically said, “fuck that,” and history has borne them out as the traditionally made wines have aged much better.

The only problem, which really was not a problem, was the food pairing. I ordered fish (my dirty not so little secret is that I stopped eating meat when I was a child) and while the combination wasn’t bad, it wasn’t ideal. Joanna Karlinsky, another talented chef/restaurateur from that period, once said that when you have a well-balanced wine and an equally balanced dish, it doesn’t matter that much if the two are perfectly suited. There is something to be said for this but even if the dish was awful, which it most definitely was not, nothing, not even a hellacious argument (hypothetically speaking, we did not have one) could have ruined the wine. Do I wish I held onto it longer? Maybe, but it was what I wanted to drink at the time, with someone who I knew would also appreciate as much as I did so no regrets. And six months…well, that was big! 

 

[1] With Traci as the Executive Chef, Elizabeth as the Pastry Chef and Larry as the Wine Director, it was the all-time, all-star line-up.

A Few Words with Giovanni Pagano, Scuola di Vino

My first impression of Giovanni Pagano was through one of the wines he imports, Cantina Giardino’s “Adam,” a skin-fermented Greco from Campania. It was miraculous and I mean this literally as it had a soulfulness that made me wonder if God is camped out not in a cannabis plant but somewhere in the hills of Campania. There is a lot of great wine made throughout the world but few that are metaphysical. After this initial meeting, I ran into Giovanni a few times in San Francisco and then, he moved back to Modena, where he grew up and now runs his business.

Giovanni Pagano of Scuola di Vino

Giovanni Pagano of Scuola di Vino

When he was 19, Pagano left Italy for New York City to work for his uncle who had several restaurants. He did just about every and anything needed in the front of the house, wearing the hats of busboy, runner, waiter and bartender. After graduating from the school of hard family knocks, he became the “bar guy” at Esca[i] where “he fell in love with wine.” From there, he went to Abboccato starting as a Maître D before taking over the wine program. Three years later, Esca hired him back, this time as the wine director.

In 2008, he moved to San Francisco continuing to work with Italian wines at Sociale and Uva. His last stop before starting Scuola di Vino was helping Anthony Mangieri open Una Pizza Napoletana, which many consider the best pizza place in the Bay Area.

Even though he is based in Italy, Gio spends a lot of time in California. At present, he is a one-man show and feels that staying in touch with his customers and having face time is just as crucial as spending time with his producers. This says something about his old fashion and old world ideas about business. He was in town in March and we spoke a then and have been in touch a few times since about his work and the current state of natural wine in Italy.

 

PSB: What made you want to import wine?

GP: I worked in the wine business for a long time in New York and San Francisco as a sommelier and also wine buyer. I’ve always been very attracted by wine. The restaurant (business) was a little tough on the body. I felt that wine was a little more my personality. The idea was to open a wine company with international wine. Now little by little I’ve sharpened it up. The goal is to become the best natural wine importer for Italian wines.  

PSB: Which wineries did you sign first when you started out?

GP: My first two wineries were Cantina Giardino and Ferdinando Principiano. Both outstanding producers and very well regarded in the natural wine world. 

PSB: Did you want to work exclusively with natural wines from the beginning?

GP: I started out with the idea to do natural wines. I’ve been learning as I go. To me at first, natural was if you worked organically. If you did a good job, if you used a little sulfur, you were natural. Along the way I’ve realized certain wines are really not natural.

View of Mt Vesuvius from Poggio delle Baccanti's Gragnano vineyard

View of Mt Vesuvius from Poggio delle Baccanti’s Gragnano vineyard

PSB: At this point what would you say makes a wine natural?

GP: Real natural wine is made without anything besides maybe a little sulfur or copper in the vineyard, but don’t use chemicals and basically in the winery, just use grapes. Ideally, you work without sulfur, 30, 40 parts (parts per million) at the most. Some wineries are semi-natural so they start filtering their wines and use sulfur where they have maybe 80 parts. I still have some wineries like that. In Italy, there are 15 – 20 that are made without sulfur.[ii] You get used to drinking these wines without sulfur added and there’s no going back.

You need to go and see sulfur. It’s like this white powder. If you’re this person who wants to drink a bottle of wine a day with food I think you’re poisoning yourself. Real natural wine is just made with grapes. Of course, if you have wines that are just made with grapes you may have some VA (volatile acidity) and some reduction but that’s fine as long as the wine is very good. What I’m trying to do is find these wineries that work this way that are good. I’ve found some but the wines are not good and I can’t bring them in.

But also being honest with you, being here for a month and a half it’s amazing to see how much ignorance there is of natural wines. They (wine buyers) think you work organically and you’re natural. There is a misconception, even of what natural wine is. There is a long way to go and a lot to learn. I think it is good for people who import natural wine to go and train the staff and show what natural wine is. A lot of restaurants try to have natural wine and there is a lot of confusion.

PSB: At least some are making efforts.

GP: I don’t understand why so many restaurants go out of the way to buy organic produce and organic meat and they serve conventional wine.

PSB: How has your business changed since you moved back to Modena?

GP: When you’re there, you cut a lot of deals. You’re with the producers all the time. They trust you. It really creates a solid connection. I just found a new winery outside of Bologna. I found a guy in Sardinia. I keep finding these small wineries that work really well. The goal is to find things no one else has ever seen, to keep finding these up and coming natural wineries and introduce them to San Francisco and little by little New York.

I was in Lazio in a restaurant that specializes in natural wines and they already told me about three or four wineries that are specializing in natural wine. In Sicily, I found young guys they are my age that got the vineyard from their grandfather.

Giovanni Pagano's office view from his family's home on the Amalfi coast.

Giovanni Pagano’s office view from his family’s home on the Amalfi coast.

PSB: Some of your wineries have been imported before and have a following. How do you offer something different or better than other importers?

GP: You need strong producers to build your list around but you also need to do your homework and always find new things that nobody else has. Cantina Giardino was imported before but only the Le Fole and the Paski was brought in. I believed in everything they produced like Greco Adam, Greco Tarara’, Fiano Gaia, Fiano Sophia, Coda di Vole “Volpe Rosa”, Aglianico Drogone, Aglianico Nude, Aglianico Clown, and all of their mags. I think I saw immediately something strong in perspective that the previous importer maybe didn’t. It’s like having Maradona playing for your team, and you keep him on the bench.

PSB: Fuck Maradona. Messi! Messi!

GP: I grew up watching Maradona. I was a Naples fan as a kid. What a player. Very strong and charismatic. Messi is faster than Maradona; the ball is glued to Messi’s feet. Unbelievable. 

OK, back to wine.

GP: The same will be for Le Coste. Le Coste makes 26 wines!! And little by little, I will bring them all in. Ca’ de Noci makes ten wines and so on, so these wineries were brought in before but I am trying to promote everything they do since these wines are delicious. My strength is that I am small and I only do natural Italian wines, so I can invest in all of their wines.

I try to develop a real strong relationship and friendship with all my producers. I also visit them as much as I can and try to grow with them. The perfect example is Carolina Gatti. Her first Prosecco brought to the US was almost undrinkable because of reduction. Her second year was much better but lacked a bit of a pop and bubbles. We are working hard to get it in a magic spot and I can guarantee you that the Prosecco Gatti will be a huge hit in NYC and SF in the future. Most of the colfondo[iii] that are out there are “fake” with re-fermentations done in stainless containers and then bottled. Carolina’s is the real thing and she has a terroir that is very hard to find.[iv]

To finish on this topic, if you have a fantastic winery, make them feel like stars (as they should) and bring in everything they make. If you have an up-and-coming winery bring in what’s good and leave out the wines that still need work. But if you see talent continue to roll with them because they’ll get better. Living in Italy makes this easy. I can be in most places in less than two hours.

PSB: How did you end up working with Le Coste? 

GP: Le Coste and Dressner decided not to work together anymore almost a year ago. I was contacted by Gianmarco himself who asked me if I wanted to pick up his wines and bring them to the US. I went to visit them for 3 weekends in a row. On my first visit, it was friendship at first sight. We went to Rome and spent a day together drinking wine and eating pizza. Their wines are amazing and Gianmarco is super direct. He’ll tell you to go F## yourself in no time if you say something that pisses him off. Marco Buratti and Fulvio Bressan are the same. Daniela from CG[v] always laughs at me and jokes around, “How can you deal with the three of them?” Well, I just do and I like them all a lot. To go back to Le Coste, these are delicious natural wines. Extremely drinkable and pure. I think that we’ll do very well. I am bringing them to NYC as well.

PSB: There has been a lot of controversy over Bressan. Why have you decided to import them?[vi]

GP: The wines are outstanding. It’s a delicate situation. He makes inappropriate comments and people are upset about it. Hopefully, Fulvio won’t make any more crazy statements. I met him personally and don’t think he’s a bad guy. I think he messed up. A few years have gone by and I think he deserves a second chance. It’s the only winery in Friuli that has 30-35 quintali per hectare. It’s like a grand cru. They have 17 hectares of land and make barely 30,000 bottles. I went to visit the vineyards. The Schioppettino is 150 years old. One wine is better than the next. I’m willing to work with it and give it a second chance.

My strategy is if I know if it’s a very liberal wine bar or if people are very sensitive I’m going to be delicate about it. I’m not going to try to push it on people. I’m trying to be sensitive.

Taking what he said and translating it into English, it is a very difficult for someone in San Francisco to understand Bressan. It’s a different context over there.

From left, Giovanni, Fulvio Bressan, Nerio Bressan

From left, Giovanni, Fulvio Bressan, Nerio Bressan

PSB: Can you explain that a bit more?

GP: I’ll give you the perfect example. A very common blasphemy in Italian is to compare God or the Virgin Mary to different kind of animals. I think that we are the only country in the world that does this. Sometimes, I visit some old contadinos who makes wine and every four words they say, they repeat the same blasphemy over again comparing God to a pig. This is how they talk and in most case scenarios they speak a strong dialect and blend this blasphemy in. As an Italian, I don’t pay too much attention to it because I grew up hearing them all the time. Now, my question is, how do you translate this and explain it to a foreigner? Why would anyone in the world compare God to a pig? It makes absolutely no sense and taken to a religious context, it’s as bad as it gets. 

This is why in Italy the Bressan’s wines are doing great and in the US or England, some people are still pissed. Those words were too strong, too much.

I also don’t agree with the way that this story was handled. It’s easy to point the finger and say, “that’s the bad guy there, fuck him.” But, what makes me sad is that the pure-moralist blogger who translated those words is well known in Italy for getting paid by producers to write about them. What makes him better than Fulvio Bressan? I just don’t get it. 

We all make mistakes at a certain point in life, we pay for it, but we do deserve a second chance. And this is exactly what I am doing with his wines. Not to forget, that his wines are a work of art. The most elegant wines I bring in. 

PSB: People talk a lot about poaching. What are your thoughts on it?

GP: Times have changed. Thanks to TEI Imports and Fruit of the Vines we now have a bunch of kick-ass small importers that aren’t afraid and in most case scenario want to dig deep into wine-knowledge. Producers are tired of big importers and now prefer smaller importers for many obvious reasons. “Poaching” is bad. A lot of my producers are approached all the times by other importers. I think that a smarter question to ask is, “Why does a winery want to leave an importer?” If importers perform well, then, wineries won’t leave you.

PSB: Have you lost any wineries since you started Scuola di Vino?

GP: I have opened in 2012 and I haven’t lost one winery. A winery has never left SDV to phrase it better. But I am planning on dropping at least 3-4 wineries within the next few months. I pick very carefully who I bring in. If they are too big their expectations will be too high and I don’t want that kind of stress. There needs to be a strong connection and a friendship. I can’t work with assholes.

If I see that the wines are getting worse and the producer doesn’t care, they eventually will need to go. I always tell my producers that if for whatever reason I won’t be able to do well with their wines, I will be the first to admit it and try to help them find someone else. Luckily, this hasn’t happened yet.

PSB: Would you say that natural wine has gone beyond the fringe in Italy, to the mainstream, as far as consumers and taste are concerned?

GP: People got so used to drinking conventional wine and now they call natural wine extreme. What’s extreme is when you take an unnatural ingredient and put it in your wine. I feel like the perception of people is a little upside down. Sometimes you taste with a young chef and they say this is the wine my grandfather used to give me. It’s changing, it’s evolving. It’s bigger, it’s not just a trend. It’s definitely happening. You can see it when you can taste with someone who has been drinking a lot of conventional wine and they taste something natural and are blown away.

PSB: Which regions are exciting you these days?

Old Spergola vines at Ca' de Noci

Old Spergola vines at Ca’ de Noci in Emilia

GP: The lesser-known areas where they don’t have as many traditions. There is a lot in Marche that is happening. In Emilia, you have the best homeopathic doctors. That’s an area that is growing really fast. In the province of Padua, real estate is still cheap. You see a lot of abandoned land and vineyards. A little is happening in Montalcino. There is a lot who I would say works semi-naturally. There are some that truly push it.

If you think of Piemonte you want to go away from Barolo and Barbaresco. They don’t care so much so you want to go north to Alta Piemonte. These are areas that are naturally and geographically more suited for it. You can’t make natural wine in Barolo because of the monoculture. In the Monferrato, you see a lot more natural wine being made there.

PSB: Where do you sell your wines?

GP: San Francisco and a little in Los Angeles. I’m going to start in New York in June. After a few years in NY maybe some distribution in other states will start. All of these wineries I’ve been finding don’t have representation. It’s a no brainer to go to NY. We’ll see. The goal is to stay small, 20 – 25 producers, that’s it. If you get larger you have to get into larger distribution like Whole Foods and K&L. If in NY things go really, really great we’ll see. Maybe it’s 30 but no bigger than that. The reason why Cantina Giardino likes to work with me so much is because I give them a lot of attention.

 

Bringing this full circle, I had a talk and tasting with Daniela and Antonio di Gruttola of Cantina Giardino, and Giovanni several months ago. While “Adam” may forever have a special place in my heart, the wines, across the board, are special (in a good way). They are one of the standouts in the Scuola di Vino portfolio for me but also represent the spirit of the entire selection. No doubt, Pagano is not afraid to take risks and while this might alienate some, it is a sign of dedication and points to an exciting future for his company and those of us who love his wines. 

 

 

[i] A Southern Italian restaurant created by the culinary supergroup of Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich and Dave Pasternak in 2000.

[ii] Currently, Scuola di Vino has seven producers that do not use any sulfur during vinification: Cantina Giardino, Il Folicello, Podere Pradarolo, Le Coste, Ca’ de Noci, Mario Macciocca, and Marco Buratti.

[iii] Traditional Prosecco, before pressurized tanks became commonplace in the 70’s, was double-fermented in bottle on the lees so they were cloudy and served with sediment. While most Prosecco is made in tank, a number of producers have returned to the colfondo method.

[iv] The vineyard has clay, lime and rocks called Carnato, a yellow rock composed of calcium carbonate. Pagano feels it gives “minerality and sapidity, almost a saltiness.”

[v] Cantina Giardino.

[vi] Fulvio Bressan came under a lot of fire when he called Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s Minister of Integration, a “dirty Black MONKEY.” Here are articles from the Huffington Post and Forbes written shortly after afterward. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/12/fulvio-bressan_n_3914296.html

http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeswineclub/2013/09/05/would-you-buy-a-wine-made-by-a-racist/#5e1cd3d7f606

When Pagano decided to start working with Bressan this year, Jeremy Parzen, who writes the blog, Do Bianchi, openly criticized him.

 

 

25 Wines in 25 Years: The Dark Side

I’ve been wrestling with 1995 for a few weeks. This is why I haven’t been able to write about it. While there was a lot of drinking that went on, I can’t think of one specific bottle that stands out. Instead, what I remember best is realizing, starkly, that alcoholism was a bigger problem than I had been aware of in the wine industry.

I’m not saying that everyone who works with wine has a drinking problem, or even most, and there is a line between partying a lot and addiction. Yet, after running a wine bar six nights a week and spending a lot of time with people in the biz, I started to pick up on more signs – rapid personality changes, belligerent behavior, inability to control one’s drinking and continuous drunk driving – to name a few.

The restaurant business, in general, is notorious for substance abuse, especially cocaine. It requires physical labor and more people than you can imagine find that a line or two throughout the night helps them keep up. However, I really want to stick to wine here and how its potential for addiction is overlooked.

In 1995, I noticed that various people I knew believed that because they drank wine – often very good or expensive wine – they did not have a problem. One person went through a case of Coulée de Serrant in about a week. No doubt, it is special juice and if I had to choose something to guzzle, it might be at the top the list (though for practical purposes, I’d be more likely to select a bottle that had 11% alcohol). A few years later someone else basically drank through the profits of his venture and had to sell it.

Whether you work in a restaurant, bar or shop, make, sell wine or buy wine, the opportunities to taste are all around. This is why professionals learn the art of spitting. Even with this rather gross practice, you’ll get a buzz if you taste enough wine so you have to be careful. Besides tastings, there are wine dinners, lunches and informal gatherings where no one spits. I had a motorcycle during the 90’s and there were plenty of times when I left it on the sidewalk or street in front of restaurants because I didn’t think I should ride. I’m amazed it was never stolen, especially considering how many nights and early mornings it spent at Zuni.

Why do some people have a problem and others don’t? My guess is that some have a predisposition toward addiction but genuinely enjoy wine while others find that working with wine is a convenient way to enable their habit. 

Is drinking two bottles of wine every day as bad as downing a quart of vodka? Not being a doctor or an addiction specialist, I can’t weigh in on that. I don’t know if there is even an answer. There are plenty of functional alcoholics. Not everyone with a substance abuse problem gets behind the wheel inebriated. However, over the years, I’ve witnessed how people who work in the wine or restaurant industries have seriously abused wine. Granted, I don’t spend nearly as much time socializing with people in the industry as I did 21 years ago but I still see folks drink to the point of oblivion and hear stories. We all enjoy a good buzz but for most of us, that is not what wine is about, especially as we get older.

So, it seems that the recollection from 1995 that sticks out most is not one particular wine – well maybe Coulée de Serrant but not for the reason why it should – but the dark side. Then as now, alcoholism among wine professionals is rarely discussed. With all of the changes that have occurred over the last 21 years, it is a shame that this is not one.
PSB

The Wine List Disconnect

Let’s say you went to a friend’s house and were served homemade chocolate chip cookies made with organic ingredients. What are you going to drink with it? Milk, of course. So your host brings out a carton from an industrial dairy where the cows are fed a steady diet of anti-biotics, hormones and grass sprayed with Roundup. What would you think? There’s a bit of a disconnect, no?

That’s how I often feel when I go out to eat. Many restaurants make a point of writing on the menu that only local, organic and otherwise precious ingredients are used in their dishes. Great. That doesn’t mean the food is tasty, but still, “A” for making an effort. However, so many of these places get a big old “F” – as in, for fuck’s sake – when it comes to applying the same standards to their wine lists.

As you might expect, I heavily judge a restaurant by the wine it serves. It’s at least 50% of the equation. If the selection is, on the whole, composed of wines from environmentally conscious, non-interventionist and equally important, talented producers, I assume I can expect the same from the kitchen. I’ve only been to one place over the last year that had a terrific wine list but meh food so I’d say this is a pretty reliable litmus test.

As for the spots that have good food, but virtually nothing worth drinking, I’ve made peace with bringing my own wine. Perhaps if enough people do this it will send a message? You can also make your views known by contacting the owner or manager. Or, just not frequent these spots though being direct is a much more effective way to get your point across.

I’ve had this discussion with numerous people both in and out of the wine industry, so don’t think I’m the only one kvetching. And, since it is just as bad in New York as it is on the West Coast I’m going to guess that this is a national problem.

We all have different taste. Also, let’s not be under the illusion that mediocrity is limited to conventionally made wines. Yet is it not hypocritical to take great pains to serve food that is responsibly made but not apply the same standard to the wine list? 

Just a thought…

PSB

A Few Words with Alice Feiring

Somewhere along the way I met Alice Feiring, but she was as much of an admired stranger to me as she is to her thousands of readers until fairly recently. We have mutual friends and have been in some of the same places at the same time but I never really sat down and had a conversation with her outside of email until last month at Ten Bells.[i]

An American Mecca for natural wine drinkers, TB was a little overrun by the California contingent who were in New York for The Big Glou and Vivent les Vins Libres [ii], two natural wine tastings that weekend. In spite of Alice’s larger than life stature in the natural wine world, she actually gives off a rather shy air – not aloof or timid but shy – and the noise coming from my polluted left coast friends at the bar drowned out the possibility of meaningful conversation. So, having had a few minutes to chat, I asked her if I could interview her for The Vinguard. When she said “yes,” I felt like popping some petnat.

Alice Feiring

Alice Feiring

There is not a more prominent voice for natural wine in the United States than Alice Feiring. I almost want to say she is the Robert Parker of natural wine but 1) considering she wrote a book titled The Battle for Love and Wine: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, 2) thankfully, she doesn’t rate wine and, 3) the wines she champions could not be more different from “Parker wines,” I shall refrain from this comparison.

Her bio on the Feiring Line starts off, “Having survived a Long Island upbringing, I ended up a writer.” She grew up in Baldwin, I grew up in Roslyn, two towns in Long Island that have similar demographics and, as is true of most suburbs, many residents who lead insulated lives. Needless to say, I know exactly what Alice is talking about when she says, “survived.” Only the lucky escape and the refugees have a uniquely enlightened appreciation for the world that lies beyond shopping centers, $100,000 Bar Mitzvahs, and Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco.[iii]

Alice wrote her first novel at seven. She was raised in an orthodox Jewish household and attended yeshivas. As expected, she went to college, Stony Brook, one of the top SUNY schools but instead of getting married, the prescribed path for orthodox Jewish women in their early 20’s, moved to Cambridge to study dance therapy at Lesley University. It was during this time that she started going to wine tastings and thinking about writing as a profession.

We talked a couple of times before she left for Verona last week to lead “Free Grapes, Wine Without Walls,” a new natural wine event at Vin Italy.

PSB: How did you get into wine writing?

AF: I was going to dance therapy because I didn’t think I could be a writer. In the culture of my family, it seemed just too self-aggrandizing to believe I could ever make it as a writer. That was for other people. Me? I had to be a schlep.

There you have it, the title of Alice Feiring’s autobiography, How I Became a Natty Wine Schlep. Anyway, back to Cambridge.

AF: I wrote, I danced. I was not trained enough to be a professional. When I was working on my masters thesis (Therapeutic Aspects of Modern Dancing) I went back to writing. I started writing fiction and built clips. After tasting seriously in Boston for ten years I started writing about wine, food and design. Then in New York I started pitching stories. My first major feature was about Long Island wine in Connoisseur Magazine.

PSB: How did the transition to writing about natural wines come about?

AF: It was when I was tasting for the Food and Wine Magazine Wine Guide that I realized how fucked up the wine world had gotten. I had seen the new modern way of making wine had become a disease. Everything I blamed on new oak was a lot more complicated.FullSizeRender

PSB: How has natural wine changed since you started writing about it and where do you see it going?

AF: In some ways it hasn’t changed at all except that there is more. There’s good natural wine and bad natural wine. For people who’ve been making natural wine for a long time it’s getting better and better. When I started there was virtually nothing (outside of France) except a handful in Italy, less in Spain. Now, every place that’s making wine has natural wine. There’s more orange wine. Natural wine has shown that color is not important. It’s made people reconsider what is wine and that is probably its biggest contribution.

There are more radical factions now. There’s an over emphasis on sulfur and while low SO2 is important it is not always the devil. Some people are making natural wine and not thinking about the delicious component. More and more I think vin soif[iv] has taken over. That has become people’s idea of what natural is about. More often I’m looking for a wine with bones and a tremendous amount of complexity. That aspect has been lost on a new generation of natural wine drinkers. But there is also more phenomenal natural wine now than there was 16 years ago.

The idea of an industrial natural wine was ridiculous to think about 16 years ago. Now, it’s what’s going to be happening next.

PSB: How so?

AF: Because that’s where the market is going. The big guns are not going to want to lose any market share so they will produce their no additive line. I’m in Vin Italy next week and I’ll bet money I see this over there. On another note, with Vin Italy having me chair a natural wine award (Wine Without Walls) you can see that the establishment is taking note.

PSB: As someone who has written about wine for several decades, how has it changed for women over time?

AF: It’s not so much that I’m a woman but that I’m a short woman. Sometimes I think that you have to work harder to be taken seriously if you are short. It’s hard to get out of the cute phase.

I was surprised that her height was the first thing that came to mind when I asked Alice this question. With carrot red hair, spectacles that give her a professorial look and a dancer’s slight build she is noticeable, but that she is especially short did not register with me. At any rate, this is a form of discrimination that I never really thought about. She continued…

AF: The old boys club even in wine writing does exist. Back in the early days, Michael Pollan could easily talk about stuff when it came to food but I was pretty much a crackpot. I think if I was a guy I would have been taken a lot more seriously. Wine writing has always been about men. I don’t know if that is presently changing but I still don’t see a woman who has clout. Why is that? For a long time, people in power hired the people they knew.

PSB: It’s hard for me to imagine anyone not taking you seriously.

AF: I’m taken seriously, but I’m not exactly given good assignments. I’m taken seriously because of my books. If you’re a guy you don’t have to do that. Twice I’ve been passed over, once for a spirits writer who was a well-known guy and another was a food guy who was one of the biggest hacks in the business. Was it because I was a woman?

There are people who took shots at me. I had my share after the Battle for Love and Wine was published. One guy insinuated in a column that I didn’t get laid enough. People attack me without ever having read my work and knowing what I write. It’s not worthy of a response.

Alice in tasting. Photo by James Robinson

Alice in tasting. Photo by James Robinson

PSB: Your latest book, For the Love of Wine, is about your experiences in Georgia. What is it about Georgia you find so compelling?

AF: When I went to Georgia, I realized there were a whole lot of people with a philosophy of making wine but they were being preyed upon by international consultants. The government was putting pressure on them to take their wine internationally and I thought the wines were just fine the way they were. Their whole metaphor of living and life was about wine. Those two things made a profound combination and I wanted to give them what I could so they would see there was a market for their wines. They have a post Soviet story that is so much worth telling. It was a romantic story about the desire to be winemakers for so long.

Comparing their journey to her own, she said, “I just realized I had to pursue writing or a I couldn’t exist so their story resonated with my personal story.”

PSB: How conscious are the Georgian farmers of the environment and climate change?

AF: In the last couple of years it’s been extremely hot and they’re bemoaning the fact that they don’t have irrigation which I hope never gets in there. The old saying “you plant grapes where nothing else can grow.”

PSB: How prevalent is organic farming and natural winemaking in Georgia?

AF: The government organic leg is pretty strong. They’re realizing that since they have so much organic produce, Georgia is strong. That flavor hasn’t been bled out of the food yet. They’re getting popular about the right things quick enough so they don’t have to worry about yields.

It’s important to note that all Georgian wine is not natural or organic. But, most of the big companies are coming out with a quervi[v] line, most people have an organic line.

PSB: It sounds as if ritual is something that is important for you in your life, such as your observance during Yom Kippur. Is there something about Georgian winemaking that appeals to you in the same way?

AF: What I’m taken with is that their belief in god and religion is such that they take it to their making of wine. I don’t need a religious excuse. It seems to me that is a wonderful interpretation of religion.

PSB: How would you say that going to yeshiva influenced your intellectual development and has influenced the way your write about wine?

AF: I think going to yeshiva has informed the way I look at everything where the question is more important than the answer. You get rewarded for the question. When you just focus on the answer you open the door to radicalism. You’re missing the whole journey. In that way the training has informed the way I look at wine.

Obviously, we can apply this last statement towards so much of what is going on in the world today, from religious fundamentalism to extreme political positions to natural wine. With the radicalism people are focusing on the answer without asking the right question.

People always thought I’m more radical than I am. I have no tolerance for high sulfur but more and more I’m looking for a beautiful wine first.

PSB: You wrote a book subtitled How I Save the World from Parkerization yet you are probably the most influential wine writer since his star rose 25 years ago. Do you realize this?

AF: I don’t even know how to respond. It’s odd because I don’t have a platform. Someone said years ago that my footprint is very small but my influence is very large. I think it’s because I have the temerity to speak up. I’m happy I have an influence. It’s not like Robert Parker and his minions have been wiped out. It’s that there is more room for more opinions. I probably have earned an obit from the Times.”

PSB: Now you know you made it.

AF: I have my newsletter but I don’t have Parker’s numbers. Maybe it’s just the wrong time because of social media and people go to Instagram. Instagram is the new score. If you read my newsletter you’re going to have to read. It’s a quick read but you will have to read.

PSB: You mentioned that people who don’t want to spend more than $7 on a bottle of wine should be able to have wine made without chemicals. Are there any specific regions where you would suggest to look for inexpensive natural wines?

AF: At this point probably Spain or Italy, but they really aren’t natural, just focused on no sulfur. But from the south west of France there’s quite a bit of stuff in the under $12 category. The stuff that is coming from Faugères is stunning.

PSB: When I see what La Garagista is doing in Vermont I wonder if 50 years from now, there will be multiple states with thriving wine industries, thanks to the emergence of natural producers who are working in areas that are not known for viticulture. I know you’ve been more focused on Europe as that is where the bulk of natural winemaking has occurred but what are your thoughts on the progression of natural winemaking in the United States?

AF: Well there are multiple states (making natural wine). Evan Lewandowski is planting vines in Utah. But what Deidre (La Garagista) did was revolutionary and I’m not sure how many will follow her lead in supporting hybrids that make sense in Vermont. People are still hooked on vinifera.

Serious wine regions are making serious natural wine. Where it has always been more tourism based – like Long Island or the Finger Lakes, it’s been slower but there too it’s budding, and let’s not forget eastern Canada! Basically. We’re well on our way.

Alice Feiring is the author of Naked Wine: Letting Grapes do What Comes Naturally, The Battle for Love and Wine, or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, and For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture. You can read her blog posts and other articles on the Feiring Line, www.AliceFeiring.com.

 

[i] http://tenbellsnyc.com/

[ii] http://www.bigglounyc.com/, http://www.viventlesvinslibres.com/

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JW6NbI6dSx0

[iv] AKA “glou glou,” vin soif literally means “wine thirst” but refers to lighter, low alcohol and usually high acid, simple wines that are easy to chug, in quantity.

[v] Quervi are amphora vessels that have been used for fermenting and aging wines in Georgia for thousands of years.

25 Year in 25 Wines: 1994 – Finding the Unholy Grail

Nineteen ninety-four was exciting. The US hosted the World Cup, Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa and not least, both Four Weddings and Funeral and Muriel’s Wedding came out. On the darker side, there was the OJ drama, Kurt Cobain’s suicide and Tonya Harding.

It was also a pivotal year for my career as Hayes and Vines, my first wine bar, opened. We signed the lease at 377 Hayes Street in May and were hoping to be in business by September. As anyone who has ever opened a bricks and mortar business will tell you, it is going to take a lot longer than you think. We popped our first corks on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1994.

In the interim, I tried thousands of wines. We had 300 at first and it grew from there, reaching 600 at one point. These days, I’m all about smaller list. Beyond being easier for customers to navigate they are actually more challenging to assemble. But, the goal at H&V was to showcase the entire world of wine and choose the best we could find from a myriad of grapes and regions.

While I remember a lot of the wines that were initially chosen, the one that has stayed with me the longest from 1994 was a 1990 Jean-Noel Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru “Les Caillerets” that Deborah, my business partner, and I shared one night at The Flying Saucer. Let me back up here. This is the same Deborah who was part of the debauched evening when I killed the magnum of ’89 Beaucastel over the holidays in 1993. Long story short, she had been considering opening a wine bar in NY around the same time I was thinking to do it in San Francisco. We decided to put our resources and skill sets together and create Hayes and Vine in San Francisco.Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet

Anyway, the Flying Saucer, which had staked out ground on 22nd and Guerrero in 1990, was one of the most innovative restaurants in San Francisco during that era. The menu incorporated a slough of global influences and the dishes were often quite spicy. (Here’s a link to a 2013 article with one of the menus from 1994). The food was absolutely delicious and it was always a fun place to go, even just for a glass of wine and an appetizer. I’m sure some of you remember it and for those who never had a chance to go, I’m sorry to say but you missed out. I never saw Hendrix live…you can’t have everything.

At any rate, the food that night was as splendid as always and the wine was absolutely amazing. Even though it was still pretty young, I distinctly remember experiencing a lasting explosion of minerality, nuts and acidity in my mouth. It wasn’t over the top yet had immense depth. The problem though, which we discussed as we drank it, was that it was not the perfect match for the food, at least what we order that night. A Riesling Kabinett or Spätlese would have probably been best but sometimes you just have to say fuck it, this wine is so good nothing can bring it down. Or, vice versa.

When wine is extremely well balanced and the accompanying food is on point, you don’t need to have a Holy Grail pairing. It’s great when it happens but since those moments of gastronomical perfection are rare, there is a lot to be said for just enjoying the moment and finding the beauty in the less than holy things that are right in front of you. To this day, I would say that Gagnard Chassagne was one of best white Burgundies I’ve been lucky enough to drink.

Cheers,

PSB

A Few Words with Shelley Lindgren

Since March is Women’s History Month I was thinking I should interview and write about women in the wine industry who I especially revere. But then as I ruminated on it, decided that as women make up half the planet (a little less these days but who’s counting), why limit it to a designated 30 day period (and March is almost over anyway). As I made the list, I came down on the side of full equality and found myself adding several men, as is only fair. People are people and if they are worthy of mention, I really don’t care if they go to the restroom sitting down or standing up. However, it only seemed natural, as we are honoring women this month, to begin with one of the San Francisco’s finest, and someone who I think is as good a person as she is a sommelier, Shelley Lindgren, the Wine Director and owner of A16 and SPQR.

Shelley LindgrenI don’t remember the first time I met Shelley Lindgren but can recall the first time she caught my attention. I was having dinner at Bacar, which was near the ballpark with my friend Rich Schlackman (and in case you are wondering, I am referring to the only ball park west of Citi Field that counts, AT&T Park). We ordered a bottle of what I think was Chave Hermitage from Shelley, who was a sommelier/manager. Though I’m not 100% certain it was Chave, it was northern Rhône and I’d bet a year of my cat’s life it was Hermitage. Saying it was Chave makes the story better, even if it might be an embellishment.

This was some time in 2003. What struck me was her genuine warmth. Lots of front of the house people can be superficial but she had the sincerity of a good shrink. She knew what she was talking about but wasn’t trying to one up us, listened and made sure we got the wine we wanted. You will hear people who have worked for Shelley say this all the time and it’s true. She is all about hospitality and making sure her customers have a good experience.

It was when she opened A16 in 2004 that I realized this exquisite knockout, who could be the lovechild of Kate Hudson and Drew Barrymore, was not just kind, but also smart. We became buds and even though life has shortened the Fernet intervals from weeks to years, I still consider her a friend.

Deservedly, Shelley has become a very famous person in wine circles. She made her mark with the Southern Italian, Campania focused wine list at A16 and sealed her place in the Bay Area restaurant history with SPQR, which was originally focused on Roman cuisine. We spoke a couple of times recently about her thoughts on wine and the wine business. Here are a few excerpts:

 

PSB: How do you choose wines for the lists at your restaurants?

SL: We look at the way a wine is farmed. It doesn’t matter what the name of the grape is. We want to have a range of price, quality and weight. Primarily our wines are really small production.

Caveat here, since A16 and SPQR are A16 and SPQR, they get most of the wines they want, to which Shelley graciously admits, “I feel very spoiled and fortunate.”

PSB: What do you mean when you say you look for the way wine is farmed?

SL: We look for everything that is organic or biodynamic. I can’t think of a wine on our list that isn’t organic. I believe there is a strong connection between farming and health. If you’re using pesticides it’s poison.

Beyond viticulture practices, Shelley and her sommeliers feel pretty strongly that wines should be made with native yeast.

SL: I don’t understand why people don’t use native yeast. I asked Angelo Gaja and he sent me the coolest response. Especially in Europe, yeast is everywhere in the air. Maybe they do it (producers who inoculate) for flavor.

PSB: What’s been the reception to natural wines at A16?

SL: When I ask Italians about natural wine they’re like, “What’s natural wine.” They’re not doing it to be in fashion. They believe in the philosophy. We pair it with food and its magic.

Yet, she admits not everyone is an easy sell.

SL: We had a table last night that ordered a Fiano and they said, “Its too high acid.” We were like, “We love it, we’ll drink it.”

In case you’re wondering, the table ordered a Radio Coteau Pinot Noir and it was a win-win for all.

 

In an earlier conversation we talked a little about how men and women sommeliers are or are not treated differently and what really stayed with me was what she had to say about body image, “Women get more self conscious about their bodies or the way they appear.” So I brought it up again.

SL: The weight thing is a big deal.

A mother of two who worked on the floor late into pregnancy both times, she felt this most profoundly after childbirth.

SL: You want to look and feel great but all of the sudden when you’re a mom and it’s hard to juggle. The post pregnancy thing was emotional. It’s hard for people because you’re in the public. You do the best you can do and to feel good about yourself and have a good attitude. But it is hard to be scrutinized. I wish I had a few more hours in the day to work on myself. It’s something I think about every day.

As for the self consciousness, she says she “got over it really fast.”

SL: You can’t really worry about so many things. You have to be there for hospitality and service.

PSB: Do you think women are judged on the floor based on what they wear?

SL: I still wear a jacket every day. It’s a habit for me but I also feel more professional. Everybody has their own path in wine and mine came from a more formal background. I’m a modest person and I like to make it about the job.

Yet…

SL: There’s nothing wrong with a women wanting to feel sexy but you shouldn’t have to feel you have to dress a certain way to make a sale. There’s no dress code. A couple of times women have worn tube tops and we’ve asked them not to wear them for hygiene. We say everyone has their own expression. Today all dress codes are off the table.

And if anyone has a problem with this, let me quote Cubs Manager, Joe Maddon, the best in baseball not named Bochy, who said earlier this week about his team’s dress policy, “If you think you look hot, wear it.”

PSB: Do women have to dress a certain way to be taken more seriously?

SL: I think men are taken more seriously a lot of time but I try not to over generalize. I think it’s less and less. It has definitely changed in our generation.

This of course, drew a comparison to the current presidential election.

SL: Nobody really talks about the bad fashion of the male candidates.

PSB: Have you faced gender discrimination, personally?

SL: I remember not getting a job as a sommelier once because they didn’t think I could carry a case of wine.

I’m sure this fool has been kicking himself (or perhaps herself) over the last decade.

SL: I feel like women are having a good moment. I feel like there are more women who are interested in becoming sommeliers. Maybe because I’m a woman there are more women who want to come and work for me.

OK, she’s being modest. Aspiring sommeliers both male and female would off their own mothers to work for her.

 

Getting back to wine, while Shelley is known for her vast knowledge of Italian wines, she does not limit her drinking or exposure to the regions she carries in her restaurants.

SL: I feel like the quality is up everywhere. It’s more like an artisan product. I think that customers are more savvy and there are more options. I think the generation ahead of us is even more conscientious about the things that they eat. Being able to eat and drink is part of life.

 PSB: OK, dream region?

 A little hemming and hawing.

SL: Campania.

PSB: Of course. What advice would you give an aspiring sommelier or someone who wants to get into the industry?

SL:I think to follow your heart and palate, work hard and be open to learning always. There is no clear path on where your are going in the wine business as a sommelier.  

PSB: Thanks!