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Not the Sea to Drink

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The viewpoint behind the wines of Domaine du Possible is immediately apparent upon holding a bottle in your hands. Wine is enjoyment, an expression of culture, a taking pleasure in the vagaries of life. It's apparent in the name of the estate, the names of the wines, and no more clearly than in the wines themselves. Loïc Roure was planning to leave his job with Amnesty International to open a restaurant and wine bar when, in 2003, he decided instead to open his very own organic winery in the Pyrenees of southwestern France. This places him in the camp of the bona fide vigneron-philosopher, further enhanced by an internship in Cornas with the legendary Thierry Allemand. He started with only 2.5 hectares (about 6 acres) and has slowly built to a whopping 10 hectares—still tiny by any commercial standard.

I've been a fan of these wines for several years now, but have really been swept away by the current vintages, which seem to have hit their stride. We have two wines in the shop at the moment, C'est pas la mer à boire and Charivari. The former translates to something like "It's not the sea to drink," meaning basically don't sweat it, it's not such a big deal. The latter, Charivari, is a reference to an old folk tradition wherein villagers would bang pots and pans outside the marriage room on a couple's wedding night. Both names evoke a sense of playfulness truly appropriate for the wines.

Roure makes authentic wines that speak to place and time and that enliven the palate. They have a freshness and a subtle underlying funk that captures a startling energy and presents a paradox of sensations. And they complement each other well. Where the Charivari (carignan) is snappy and crisp and redolent of Christmas spices, the C'est pas la mer à boire (grenache, carignan, syrah) has a touch of dried red fruits and only a hint of peppery spice. Either way, these are wines perfectly made for the long, fun-loving days of June.


 

Domaine du Possible
Charivari ($22) carignan
C'est pas la mer à boire ($22) grenache, carignan, syrah

Toad Prince

scott

The dynamism of the wine world never ceases to amaze me. We often talk about "old vines" and "traditional methods" of farming and making wine, and maybe too easily forget that even in the harkening back to simpler agriculture it is the modern exchange of ideas that allows so much to change for the better in so little time. In today's global wine economy, American importers have a huge role to play in the shaping of trends and methods. How they play that role largely is a question of conscience. Many of the very large companies squeeze their producers into making wines that fit a projected market. Others push their producers to be as original as possible, and let the market come to them.

Enter Azienda Agricola Montesecondo, the small Tuscan winery owned by Silvio Messana, where innovation comes in spades. Silvio owns 8 hectares of vines that were once his parents'. He took over the vines after moving his family back to Italy from Manhattan. At first, Silvio did things the way he saw others doing them, letting the grapes get very ripe, aging them in wood for a very long time, and generally overdoing it. In 2005 he had a watershed year. It was a difficult vintage in which he was forced to harvest early. What he discovered was a knack for experimentation and a penchant for wines with more acidity and greater freshness.

bufoGrigioR

His relationship with Kevin McKenna of Louis/Dressner (importers of highly principled wines) flourished from then on. Silvio had already converted to biodynamic farming—a decision made at the behest of his wife who was concerned for the safety of her children—and now he had a taste for un-manipulated juice. McKenna encouraged Silvio to find his own personal expression of the land, and garnered enough US sales of Montesecondo to give Silvio the confidence to continue. The wines have gotten better every year, and amazingly, he continues pushing forward with innovations.

Being a fan of Elisbatta Foradori (another Louis/Dressner producer), Silvio has begun experimenting with the same amphora containers that she uses, creating anomalous Beaujolais-like wines that dazzle in their lightness. And where he saw his grapes not thriving, he has replanted new vines in a style not otherwise seen in Chianti. It is his relationship with his importer that has allowed these risks, and allowed Silvio to come into his own as a winemaker. And man, has he ever. In the shop yesterday we tasted Montesecondo beside some heavy-hitters, and it stood out as one of the best in show.

Now if we can only get to the bottom of this whole crowned toad thing. . . I'm going with the changeling nature of his once-forsaken vines.

Montesecondo Rosso Toscano ($20) Younger vines of Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino. Fresh, rustic tannins, gorgeous red fruit, lush finish.

Montesecondo DOCG Chianti Classico ($25) Older vines of Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino. Deep fruit profile with firm backbone of acidity and lingering savoriness.

Neyers: All lined up

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When Bruce Neyers joined the Army in the late 1960s, wine was no more on his mind than it was for the great majority of Americans at that time. But when he left the service in 1970, he had developed a taste for the trade while working as a cellar rat in his down time, and thought staying a couple years in Napa Valley (then merely a shade of what it is today) sounded better than returning to plastics engineering back east. Yeah. Good call, Bruce. And just in the nick of time. From there he traveled to Germany and then back to the West Coast, where he began working for California wine legend Joseph Phelps. In the intervening years, he learned the skills needed to grow, make and sell wine in a variety of settings. He left Phelps in 1992 and joined with an old friend and mentor, import magnate Kermit Lynch. It was with Kermit that he began to understand unflinching commitment to quality and immersion, the sensibilities of small vignerons in Europe, and wed his two passions: making California wine and selling French wine.

His story then, like all good stories, is one of convergence—hard work, some ethical maneuvering and a lot of dumb luck. "I married well," he says. No doubt, and so it appears his good taste extends beyond the rim of the glass.

From these confluences has sprung a line up of what I can only term straightforward excellence. The grapes are organically grown and the wine is (almost all) unfined and unfiltered. And the juice sings. These wines, taken generally, have a consistency of style that neither smacks you around with its own sense of itself, nor sits back stiffly and makes you do all the talking. Rather, they have an unaffected charm and ease of manner, like a good house guest who knows how make you laugh and keeps you up late two nights in a row but then cleans up after himself and leaves just in time to make you miss him. Oh, that Sage Canyon. . . I hope he comes back soon.

Like the man himself, these are joyous wines that hold no small touch of grace.

Neyers Vineyards - wines in stock
"Carneros" Chardonnay — $33 "304" Chardonnay (stainless steel-aged) — $25 "Vista Luna" Zinfandel — $25 "Sage Canyon" Red — $25 "Neyers Ranch" Merlot — $42 "Cuvee d'Honneur" Syrah — $50 "Neyers Ranch" Cabernet Sauvignon — $65

Hervé Souhat: Does Not Intervene

scott

It's little wonder why Hervé Souhaut of Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet has risen to stardom within the geeky world of natural wine. He's smart, unpretentious, and very good at what he does. Formerly trained as a biologist, Hervé takes great pains to know the science of vineyard management. Not the "better living through science" type of science, mind you, that ends again and again in a cul-de-sac of monoculture. But the basic, elemental geology and ecology of the vines. Where they come from, how they got here and what they need to keep on transcending.

In doing so, he allows for what I've heard termed a 'greater transparency.' It's this idea of the wine as a lens into its beginnings, but let me back up. I haven't met Souhaut and I think his English is about as good as my French, so if we did meet it would be a lot of smiling and nodding and probably me making an ass of myself using the three expletives I know en français. So I haven't asked, but my impression from those who know him is that he keeps his theorizing to a minimum and lets his wines speak for themselves. Rightly.

Hevré Souhaut courtesy Jenny & Francois Selections

I do know he makes wines that make me feel. It's a sensual experience. And while I like to peel back the layers of the wine and find out about his soil composition and even read that he owns a wine press used by one of his stylistic predecessors and heroes Jules Chauvet—after all, this is the kind of thing that makes the man himself charming and not only his wines—it matters not to my actual encounter with what's in the glass. That's between me and the glass. And to make me feel, the wine has to win my heart every time.

Through the meticulous management of his vineyards in Ardeche (the little sliver between the regions of Northern & Southern Rhone), Souhaut brings a purer version of the elements into his cellar. The land, its history and prehistory, the dynamic ecosystem it is today, the sun and rain and wind: all that we call terroir in this business, and more. Transparency as I understand it—and that's what I'm claiming Souhaut's wines achieve—means allowing the raw combination of those elements to ring out with clear voices in the end. And it has to happen in the vineyard, because once the grapes hits the press M. Souhaut does not intervene.

It takes an exceptional amount of control. He takes his hands away, lets the juice just be. Call it alchemy (I'll call it spontaneous fermentation) but the juice, as if filled with a divine breath, comes bubbling to life. And through it we get a clear sense of the particularity of that place at that time, the special combination of the elements of those grapes. Transparent, with no smudges or fingerprints clouding our view. What makes a Romaneaux-Destezet different than an average wine? He really doesn't muck about the way other winemakers do. Even less so than many who practice organic farming, or use native yeasts. These are pure vineyard, and it's amazing to taste what pure vineyard really is.

We only get these wines every so often. So if you like stuff, and think stuff should be done right, I suggest you come face to face with a wine that will challenge your very notions of itself.

Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet

Gamay "La Souteronne " — $25 delicate like you'd think of a gamay, but inky and floral with a touch of wild animal

Syrah — $29 bacon fat and black cherry with a modest curviness for the tooth

Ch. le Puy

scott

A lot gets made of the contemporary reform of grape farming, the move away from so-called conventional viticulture and toward organics and biodynamics. Of course, before the onslaught of chemo-industrial management technologies, folks just had to listen to the wisdom of their ancestors and give it their best. So what does it mean for a farm to have been biodynamic for more than 400 years? (The term biodynamic comes from the 1920s, inspired by the work of Rudolf Steiner, who championed a scientific approach to the investigation of the spiritual). For an answer, I turn to the claimants, Chateau le Puy. It's "a modern way of saying of saying we tend our vines the same way our grandfathers did: no chemical fertilizers, no herbicides and no artificial insecticides." Pretty much what I thought. The lunar cycle plays heavily into the timing of their decisions, for instance, when they bottle their wines, which are not filtered. And while the idea of them having been "biodynamic" for 400 years leads us into problems with the space-time continuum, no need to go there. Point taken.

The farm has been in the family since 1610, and because of the foresight of the estate, they never went for the leveling practices of the 20th Century that have since proven to be harmful, to the wine and the world. It's a great story, one of small-scale resistance, but also fortitude. I can't imagine what it must have been like in Bordeaux in 1960, saying, Nah, I'm not gonna spray that shit on my vines. You go ahead, make your millions, to me that seems dumb. Or something like that. I don't really know how it went down, but I'm sure glad to learn that it did.

What's the wine like? Classic. Structured. Expressive. Youthful. With no added sulphites in vinification, a painstaking by-hand de-stemming process, utter care in transportation of the grapes and moon-regulated stirring of the barrels, these wines give, and give, and give.

It's a great time of year to be exploring Bordeaux, even if that might seem passé. Because these days we're gaining access to a glut of wines from that region that have never before graced American soils. Nothing says cool like something old made new. And nothing says Cheer-up! on a gray February day like a bottle of sumptuous Right Bank claret.

Chateau Le Puy "Emilien" (red) — $45

85% merlot, 14% cabernet sauvignon, 1% carménère leads with currants, follows with forest floor earthiness, finishes long and leggy

Chateu Le Puy "Marie-Cécile" (white) — $45

100% semillon leads with supple orchard fruit, fills the palate with handles and curves, finishes with a kiss of minerality

Domaine Gramenon: Impressions

scott

Michèle Aubèry-Laurent embodies an abstract quality that I love about wine. I have not met her, and yet in tasting what she makes I feel a connection to the land she cultivates, the life she leads, the culture she inhabits. Over vast space and time I am transported by her wines, from where I sit and commune with friends to a place between my world and hers, a third dimension that, at its most artful, is also spiritual. But it's just booze, right? Why all the metaphysics? The thing is, Domaine Gramenon captures a realness of experience that is hard to put into words, and so I can only relate it to certain other encounters, a Cezanne painting or an Antonioni film. A bottle of L'Elementaire between friends creates an impressionistic affectation, a pathway through the senses into something altogether new. No, I'm not glasses deep in a bottle just now, as I write this, but I remember the last time I was and I look forward to the next time with a fondness and anticipation. Mostly, I hope to share one of these bottles with someone who has never had one, because like playing Leonard Cohen to someone for the first time, I know the look that will fall across her face and the sense of strangeness we will share, that we are traveling together in the world without moving.

Enough of all that. At some point it is just a bottle of wine, nothing more. But even then Gramenon is something special. Michèle and her husband Philippe bought the Gramenon property in 1978 and produced their first vintage in '79. They have farmed the same way since the beginning, what she says they used to call "normal work" but is now referred to as "natural methods." Philippe died tragically in 1999, at which point Michèle took over tending the vines and raising their three children. Her son Maxime has helped since 2006, and now makes two cuvees of his own. Their vines are all organic, some biodynamic, and their cellar strategy is one of minimal intervention. No fining, no filtration, no additives. Some new oak imparts a strength to the otherwise delicate character of the wine, and in this case subtracts absolutely nothing from the wine's integrity.

If you can't tell, I'm a little enamored. Forgive the nostalgia, it's just a little case of longing, wishing every bottle of wine were as good as these.

Domaine Gramenon
Côtes-du-Rhône "Poignée Raisins" (grenache) — $28

youngish vines, concrete-tank aging, fresh and vibrant nose opens into juicy palate, subtle meatiness for a firm finish

Côtes-du-Rhône "L'Elementaire" (grenache) — $33

45-y.o. vines, more grip and grain than her other cuvees, rich red color, sun-ripened sweet fruit balanced by firm tannins

Côtes-du-Rhône "Sierra du Sud" (syrah) — $38

young and old vines, darkly colored, meaty but fresh, peppery notes, strongly aromatic, rich palate

Dirty & Rowdy Semillon

scott

I'm too jaded about California wine. So much of it for so long became more homogenous and less spontaneous over time, with late-ripened grapes producing high-alcohol wines that are stamped out with industrial yeasts to fit some fast-food model ideal. But that's me drawing a caricature. Maybe it's time to check again. The reality is that the California wine world is home to a diverse set of projects, tastes and craftspersons.

A recent post on SeriousEats identified a trend referred to as the New Wave of California wine. I'm loathe to perpetuate a label like that, but at a time when small perturbations are creating significant change, it may help to group certain projects together and differentiate them as a group from the behemoth of the standard model. What is this group up to? They're farming (or sourcing) organic and biodynamic vines, turning away from irrigation, and using so-called natural methods in the cellar—adding nothing, taking nothing away (see my interview with Alice Feiring)—as opposed to the mechanized and inoculated destroyer approach of the Big Brands. We can include Broc Cellars in this newer, smaller set, as well as Scholium Project. Others like LIOCO and Copain, who make absolutely beautiful wines, float around the nebulous fringes of the cohort. All mainstays in this shop.

Enter Dirty & Rowdy, our latest acquisition from the CA vanguard. Hardy Wallace and Matt Richardson got together in 2010 after each creating his own popular blog. Wallace wrote about libations in Dirty South Wine, while Richardson talked eats in his blog Rowdy Food—thus the name of their collaboration, Dirty & Rowdy. The pairing has been nothing short of sensational.

In no time, the project has become a highlight on several of the best wine lists in the country, and written about everywhere from the SF Examiner to the New York Times. To share a little tidbit, or even boast a little, we cracked a bottle of their mourvedre in its first vintage. Our venerable Will Motley had (mysteriously) picked up a bottle from a friend and we all delighted with it over a mountain of southern fried chicken by Buttermilk Road. This was Christmas 2012 and we're still talking about it. The whole crew was blown away. Besides the Barolo Chinato we took down with dessert, the Dirty & Rowdy was the talk of the evening. It's the kind of wine that makes me believe again.

But not until this month have we been able to get hold of these wines for sale and distribution.

To start, we present their white. This is some crazy shit. 100% Napa semillon undergoing spontaneous fermentation in concrete on the skins, aged in wood, bottled under 12% alcohol. It's got this amazing texture, rich in fruit without losing any vitality, a vibrant acidity carrying notes of pineapple, peppers and almonds. Like nothing you've had before. This isn't just a find, it's a keeper.

Dirty & Rowdy Skin-and-Concrete-Egg Fermented Semillon — $26

Standing on Tradition

scott

Weingut Ökonomierat RebholzPfalz, Germany

I struggle with something in writing these posts: often I want to express how a particular wine or winemaker might go out of his or her way to make wine of integrity, starting in the vineyard and finishing in your glass, but I lack the shorthand to make it quick and clear. The plain truth is that too many wines today are manufactured, manipulated and otherwise put together in a way that is supposed to appeal to a certain market, maximize yields and minimize variation. In other words, made to please the bottom line and nothing else.

Wine of integrity, to me, means uncompromising methods of farming, fermenting and cellaring a wine. The best of the best don't bend their wine to meet expectations, they create a pure expression of climate, soil and culture and let the wines speak for themselves. It takes confidence, understanding and a lot of luck to make wines in this way.

Weingut Rebholz has been doing it for three consecutive generations. Even when the market trends veered in a nearly opposite direction (which was probably most of the time), the Rebholz family has stuck to their time-honored and traditional approach. Basically, get your hands dirty, don't fuss around too much in the cellar, and let the wine evolve. Everything here is done by hand. Nothing is added, nothing is taken away. (Seriously, you'd be shocked at what goes into that bottle of Mark West).

Currently, the estate is run by Hansjörg Rebholz, his wife Brigit and his mother Christine. They're craftspeople, farmers and leaders of what today we might call the 'natural wine' movement. That's probably too flaccid a term, too abstract a way to capture something ultimately simple. But the point is this: they make absolutely stunning wines that stand proudly on tradition.

The spätburgunder (pinot noir) smells really earthy and a touch smokey with little bits of red fruit hiding underneath. But the palate bursts with plump cherry and raspberry flavors, supported by lean but firm tannins, a hint of herbs and a kiss of spice. Resoundingly Old World in style, wearing its shell-limestone heart on its sleeves. ($30)

The pinot blanc is dry and crisp with flourishes of melon. One of the most mineral-driven pinot blancs out there, softened only by its lightly oily texture. Bristling with character. ($20)

Dom. de la Pépière Muscadet Clisson

scott

There's been a lot of recent hype about Marc Olivier's Muscadet Clisson. For good reason. His 2010 vintage is truly as good as it gets for Muscadet, combining the crisp and focused pleasantries of Melon de Bourgogne with the the hard-edged, mouth-ripping minerality of Clisson's low-lying granite soils. Clisson is a city just southwest of Nantes, around which the Muscadet appellations are centered. It's soils drain quickly, leaving too little water for thirsty grape vines, making the vines dig deeper and deeper into the subsoils and developing crazy complexities for the fruit in the process. If you've had the wines of Domaine de la Pépière in the past, you know to expect quality and refreshment. But even us seasoned veterans of these wines have been blown away by the potential of the 2010 Clisson. It's aged 2 years on lees, supplying ample richness to balance the puckering acidity. Salty, citrusy, lean, vivacious—you'll want to take this one to bed, or at least wake up next to it in the morning.

Wine Terroirs has a great lengthy article on Marc Olivier and the Pépière project in general. The NY retailer Crush recently wrote a love letter to the wine. Get it, hold it, build a shrine. 2010 Muscadet Clisson is a shining example of what real wine can be—thirst quenching, radiant & transportive.

Pepiere Clisson Muscadet

The Wines

Domaine de la Pépière "Clisson" Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine Clisson 750ml — $25 1.5L — $50

WWM Interviews: Alice Feiring

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Alice Feiring has become, over the last five years, one of the most important voices in American wine writing. After publishing her first book The Battle for Wine and Love in 2008, Alice found herself at the center of the most controversial topic to hit the wine world in a generation—what is commonly called 'natural wine.' She has gained passionate followers and critics alike for her outspoken support of wines with minimal intervention, wines she defines as having "nothing added, nothing taken away." She publishes regularly in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, New York Magazine, and more. She is the recipient of a James Beard Award and was named 2011 Louis Roederer International Wine Feature Writer of the Year. She is the author of two books, The Battle for Wine and Love (2008, Harcourt) and Naked Wine (2011, Perseus Books).

In October 2012 Alice launched her current project, The Feiring Line, a newsletter of exclusive wine stories and recommendations, which has once again grabbed the attention of critics and wine lovers nationwide. It is a great resource to anyone wanting to learn, read about or revel in the leading edge of wine.

Sign up for her newsletter here. Or read her articles and blog posts by visiting her website, alicefeiring.com.

I met Alice at the Jenny & Francois 2013 Winemakers Dinner in the basement of The Smith, in New York's East Village. We talked wine, writing, farming and mutual friends. The following interview is based on that meeting and a subsequent email conversation.

-Scott Lyon

Hi, Alice. So kind of you to agree to this interview, especially since I know you've been on the road a lot lately. What is the response like, traveling around, to your take on wine? Have you had any delightful surprises? 

Perhaps the biggest thrill was when the Champagne producer Francis Boulard asked for my autograph. I was so touched, and a little embarrassed because I should be asking him for his signature. It's been a deep honor to get the respect of vignerons of his caliber.

Wow! Francis Boulard asked for your autograph? What did you sign for him?

He apologized that he didn’t have Le Vin Nu with him, so he gave me his Renaissance des Appellations tasting book. (This was at the tasting in Angers, 2012).

Speaking of Boulard—ego boosts aside, in your worldview, what makes a great Champagne? Who are your favorite producers?

The same thing as everything else: great original material, an ideal location and soil, the lowest sulfur you can get away with and a talented winemaker. It seems as if I do like a natural first fermentation as well. Producers? Boulard, Bouchard, Prévost, Colin, Bereche, Larmandier, Lassaigne, Vouette et Sorbée, Bedel, Leclapart, Laval, Tarlant—it goes on and on, sorry for other favorites that I forgot to mention.

Since you wrote your first book the conversation surrounding real/authentic/natural wine has taken some unexpected turns and come under great scrutiny. Plenty of notable figures have weighed in. Do you ever fear ideology might get in the way? Or has this been a healthy debate?

The bickering is silly. People are so threatened by the wines and the fact that many people are loving them. The people who yell the loudest, like Michel Chapoutier or Michel Bettane, seem to have the most to lose in customers and credibility, so it makes sense they’ve been vocal. But it is indeed healthy. When it all shakes down, the public will be more aware of how much not-natural can be done to a wine. Now that people are clamoring for them, there will be more to choose from. The new generation will be making very different wines than their fathers. So while the debate can get dirty, the outcome will be terrific.

You seem to refer to a sort of end point where natural wine is more normative, or at least less embattled maybe. Do you see it that way? How close are we to that point?

Well, I don’t know about normative! For example, I’m in Proseccoland and yesterday had lunch at a restaurant that had a mostly ‘normal’ wine list, but when the word natural wine came up, he knew exactly what we were talking about. There wasn’t a whole lot but to see Kante on the list was amazing (and cheap too). Conventional wineries will stop fighting and eventually create a ‘natural’ line extension for their ‘brands.’ That has already begun to happen. I can’t forecast, but how long before we see 2 Buck Chuck sans souffre? Give it under five years.

Process and philosophy are at the heart of what you write about. How important is language?

Very! Often I get into trouble on Twitter because of language. So hard to avoid a dogmatic sounding message when you have to eliminate the frill and the nuance, but the nuance in talking about wine is so important. There are few absolutes.

You've said you came to the newsletter somewhat reluctantly, not being a fan of the "tasting notes format." And yet The Feiring Line has been well received. How do you approach recommendation that is different than other wine newsletters? Is story still a part of your process?

I realized many people just want to know what I like to drink, and so I gave in. But again, the narrative is essential. The newsletter has about 3-4 articles and 20 recommendations. I've selected a number of icons, you can see them for yourself here:

http://www.alicefeiring.com/newsletter/key-to-wine-recommendation-symbols.html

I give my tasting note, then plug in an assortment of symbols that suit the wine. In the collection of symbols, a story emerges. For example, if a wine has a hardcore, classic and cool stuff, you might be scratching your head for a while to see what I mean, but the clues will be in the words.

In that system, are you recreating experiences you've had personally, whether through talking to winemakers or reading? I mean, is that head-scratching or aha! moment something you feel is essential to loving wine?

I am trying to recreate an experience, yes. In the assortment of icons a sort of pastiche about the wine is formed. Is it easy to drink or does it take the 'geek' to know it? Is it a wine for everyone or does it presume a certain inclination to a kind of wine? Or at least a forewarning? Is it simply a wine I'm nuts about? A wine that is cool enough to warrant attention and thought? A classic example?

Your mission includes "hunting the Phillip Roths... of the wine world," but after his recent retirement announcement you wrote on your blog about a sort of intellectual break-up with the master novelist. Have you had any similar disillusionments in the wine world? 

I didn't see that as an intellectual breakup. I experienced more a feeling of being abandoned. His retirement had such a strange effect on me. I almost considered throwing in the towel as well. I went though a terrible time for a few months, swearing I’d not write another book and just devote myself to my new job and the newsletter. Then little by little, some stories took me over and there it is, I'm back thinking about the next books. It's a wonderful feeling. But disillusionments in the wine world? Yes. The attack on natural wine has been shameful. Last June a wine shop in Rome was fined and will be taken to court for offering ‘natural wine.’ Tom Wark’s Fermentation wine blog wrote a much publicized piece called Natural Wine: The Ugly Underbelly, accusing ‘them’ of unfair marketing practices (what marketing practices?). They are called brown, fizzy, unstable, with apple cider vinegar tastes. Is this kind of wine the enemy? I mean, come on, what could be indefensible about a wine that has, at it’s heart, nothing added or taken away?

I am also puzzled by natural wine being seen as stylish (since when is something that tastes good stylish?) but even worse—and this was expected—is industrial winemakers and firms using the word natural in advertisements, and companies like big prosecco makers trying to get my interest because they use a technology to avoid sulfur.

Outside of the natural wine world, I am constantly amazed by the self-importance of Bordeaux and amused by the Wine Advocate suing Antonio Galloni for his wine reviews and use of the 100-point system.

About that question of sulfur. I think there's a lot of misinformation about sulfites out there, and I'm constantly baffled as to where it all comes from. Like, "I get headaches from wine and someone told me it's because of the sulfites. Do you have any wine that doesn't have sulfites?" As a retailer, we get that question a lot. What's your take? Are sulfites an important part of the natural wine conversation? 

This is complicated. Sulfur is an element that binds with oxygen to become sulfite or Sulfur Dioxide (So2). This happens naturally as a byproduct of fermentation. This is very different than added sulfites, which most often are petrochemical derivates. It is also different than the addition of elemental (volcanic, for example) sulfur. And not all additions are created equal. Legal limits for white wine are around 220 parts per million. A natural wine might have some added to 20ppm. Also, there is a lot more to have a reaction to in conventional wine than sulfur. Tannin addition. Added acidity. Enzymes… for example.

Beaujolais took a big hit in 2012. As did much of France. How will the effects differ, in your estimation, between large industrial operations and the small-scale vignerons you know and love?

200 growers went out of biz in 2012 in Beaujolais. Those who really suffered are people growing grapes for negociants like Dubouef, working on volume, who don’t have bottle sales to rely on. Those are the folks who collapse. Those working organically, naturally and generally, well, they're surviving. Those are the people who are putting their names on the bottle. So someone like Dutraive whose domaine is in Fleurie, who suffered but was clearly not too concerned—he told me with a shrug, “It’s agriculture. I’m doing ok.” The key to these vintages (and there will be very little wine) is to stay away even more from large companies. The only hope for good wines was in rigorous selection, and you have to have very high standards to pull this off when most grapes would go straight into the garbage. In other words, stick to the small guys in the 2012 vintage and you’ll be okay. Let’s hope for better luck in 2013 and 2014.

If you could curl up with one book and one bottle of wine from your past, together, right now, what would they be? 

My "Desperately Seeking Scanavino" chapter in The Battle [for Wine and Love] and the 1968 Scanavino Barolo. Also, getting my hands on an early Martin Ray pinot (never had one) and reading Vineyards in the Sky wouldn’t be bad either.

Since you're now in the business of recommending: can you suggest a few places for our readers to visit, should they want to experience wine the way you have? 

I think it’s best, no matter where you're going, to call up or write the vignerons you really admire and tell them you love their wines and want to see their vines. There’s nothing like sincere flattery to get a door to open. Of course, if you can get an introduction through an importer or a wine store, that will go the extra mile as well. The best hospitality will be in places not overrun by tourists, such as in the Langeudoc, for example St. Chinian. And if the winemaker, like for example, Jean-Marie Rimbert, has a chambre d’hôte, what could be better?

 

Alex Gysler

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Alex Gysler abruptly assumed control of his family's Rheinhessen estate after the untimely death of his father, Gernot. Gernot liked and was known for softer, gentler wines, but his intrepid heir sought to differentiate himself from the start, as the heirs of strong fathers often do. Young Alex was determined to make wines of a nervy, edgy character. The heir envisioned a more pure expression of his land, his father's land, and being a man of his time, he turned to biodynamic agriculture for understanding.

Objectively, the first few years were little more than a curiosity. His most devoted supporters described the wines as "exotic," the way you might comment on a friend's experimental music as "interesting" or the way you smile when a cute stranger makes a particularly flaccid joke. "Ha. That's funny," you might say, knowing something special lay below the surface but not yet knowing how to mine such a precious thing.

Fast forward to the present where we're laughing in earnest about that awkward beginning, about the painful shyness of those first few encounters. Here we are reveling in the pure drinkability of Alex's wines.

This from Gysler's US importer (and kooky wine legend) Terry Theise:

Less recherché than ‘10, less exotic than ‘08, a simple drink-the-living-fuck-out-of-it quality... It goes to the party but is a little diffident, it hardly knows anyone, but when it sees you it bursts into an incandescent grin.

You may not have a lot of experience with the grapes Silvaner (Savagnin x Österreichisch) or Scheurebe (Silvaner x Riesling), but you honestly don't need it to enjoy these sensational, hand-crafted wines. They're simply made and yet almost ghastly in their elusiveness. Just a bit of residual sugars add to the complexity and couch the hard edges of the wines acids, creating one of the most refreshing wines you'll taste all year.

The Wines

Gysler Scheurebe 2011 (1L) — $18 Gysler Silvaner 2011 (1L) — $18

Looking on the Broadside

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No one seems to have harnessed the power of Paso Robles quite like the winemakers behind Broadside wines. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of powerful wine coming out of that part of California. But Broadside has a restrained quality that is missing in so many of the others. Never jammy, always poised. Attribute that finesse partly to the location of the Margarita Vineyard, which sits a little further south and is a little cooler than its neighbors. But also recognize that a light touch in the cellar (little to no oak treatment, all native yeasts) and a preference by the winemakers for lower ripeness of fruit makes for wine that is both bold and focused in its approach, lingering and earthy in its finish.

The Winemakers

Young gun Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars teamed up with fellow iconoclast Brian Terrizzi of Giornata to form this lineup of wallet-friendly California superstars. Terrizzi is known for working with Italian varietals that otherwise get little attention in California, like Vermentino and Aglianico, and for doing them justice. Brockway was named a "winemaker to watch" last year by the San Francisco Chronicle, and is known for producing deliciously drinkable wines that are on the low side of the alcohol content range.

The Wines

"Margarita Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon — $22 "Margarita Vineyard" Merlot — $20 "Printers Alley" Proprietary Red — $20 "Wild Ferment" Chardonnay — $17

Famille Peillot

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Imagine slopes so steep you're afraid to disturb the topsoil for fear of having the ground literally erode beneath your feet. Now imagine that same slope, what would otherwise be crumbling scree, planted with rows of pole-trained grape vines each six feet high. This is the property of Franck Peillot, a rugged, fifth-generation vigneron from Bugey-Montagnieu. Very few people in the world make a still wine that is 100% Altesse. I mean very few, like a handful. And those who do are all clustered in the Savoie (pronounced SAH-vwa), a little part of France near Switzerland, high in the shadow of the Alps. The grape, like the people of this region, has a distinct character not amenable to lower, warmer climates. Exposure to small amounts of humidity or any prolonged warmth and the fruit will rot on the vine.

Not so in the hands of Franck Peillot, who has made this grape his calling card. His white, known as Roussette du Bugey, is technically allowed to contain, well... anything really. But Franck is proud of this little grape, believes it's a part of his heritage and a signature for the region. Which is why the word Altesse is blazoned so prominently on the bottle. And why he goes to great lengths to produce a varietal wine where nearly no one else will.

But neither is Altesse the only strange beauty coming out of the cellars of M. Peillot. Where his Altesse is abstract and aloof, his Mondeuse (pronounced mon-DOES) is solid material. They're complimentary pairs. Two angles of a straight line. Together they make up the character of Savoie wine, especially in this corner of Bugey-Montagnieu, the village in which Peillot works. Both are rustic, both indigenous to the area, but differentiated too. The Mondeuse is a near-relative of Syrah, sturdy and textural, only lighter and later ripening than Syrah and better adapted to the altitude.

See, this is the core beauty of the wine world as I see it: beneath all the points ratings and million-dollar ad campaigns, the men and women who farm their land with pride and self-possession, who aren't afraid to take risks because they believe in the mechanics of the tradition. Farm some grapes that are naturally adapted to the land you're farming, make sure the weather doesn't get in the way too much, dump the ripened grapes in a tank, keep it clean and let the juice rest for a while. Voilà!

It's not exactly magic, but with Franck Peillot, it's pretty damn close.

La Pépière

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4 Things You Might Not Know About Muscadet

As proprietor and vigneron at La Pépière, Marc Olivier takes his time. He takes pride in the long history of Muscadet, the wines that have made him famous throughout the world. He harvests all his grapes by hand, uses only natural yeasts for fermentation, and waits until the wine becomes ready on its own before bottling. It's a rarity these days in a appellation where most producers have turned increasingly to mechanized and industrialized production.

To honor Mssr. Olivier, I thought I'd lay out a few broadstrokes about the people, places and wines of his homeland.

1.  It's a Wine, Not a Grape Although the word Muscadet sounds a little like Muscat or Moscato, it bears little resemblance to the two latter terms, which are wine grape varietals that tend to be made into sweet wines. Muscadet is the name of a wine from a growing region centered around the city of Nantes along the Atlantic coast of France. The wines there are made with a grape called Melon de Bourgogne and are typically very dry with a crisp minerality.

2.  Fish Out of Water The Muscadet appellation is part of the greater Loire Valley, a region better known for its Sauvignon Blanc (white) and Cabernet Franc (red). Muscadet is different for historical rather than geographical reasons: the old province of Brittany, where Muscadet is made, developed an early wine culture independently from its inland neighbors in Anjou, where Loire wine is at its most prominent.

3.  Pearly Whites Maybe it's a product of my upbringing on the Atlantic Coast, but cold weather months find me craving cold water oysters, and absolutely nothing washes down fresh oysters quite like a glass of Muscadet. It's one of those quintessential pairings, one that really shows off the potential of a flavor combination which, if done right, is much more than the sum of its parts.

4.  Boom Town Muscadet is a modern, commercial success story for French wine. From the 1970s to the current era, the appellation has more than doubled its production. That has led to some dubious practices though, which makes old-school vignerons like Marc Olivier all the more valuable for those of us who love these delicate wines.

These are two exemplars of the style from Domaine de la Pépière. We just got the new vintages and they're as beautiful as ever.

Domaine de la Pépière — $14

Pépière's base-level Muscadet offering is a shining light in the world of affordable, everyday wines. It's good all the time: on it's own, with a light meal, in summer and winter. Made from vines that are more than 40 years old and are original to the property—Olivier is the only farmer/producer in the region without clones from other estates.

La Pépière "Clos des Briords" — $16

This was the first cuvée Olivier made beyond the base-level Domaine wine. It is made from a single plot of vines, the oldest on his estate at 80+ years, where the topsoil is much deeper and contains a more clay than elsewhere. The terroir of this wine makes it one of the boldest, most robust Muscadets made today. Pure delight.

Tami: Natural wines from Sicily

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It's no secret I'm a huge fan of Ariana Occhipinti. She's a real dynamo in the wine world, a spokesperson for the natural wine movement, and her principles happen to fall right in line with my own. So when she started the TAMI project with a couple friends from neighboring districts, I was instantly on board. This is simple, everyday Sicilian wine priced as such, made naturally with organic fruit and minimal sulfite treatment. That means a modicum of manipulation in the vineyard, in the cellar, and in the bottle. All that to say this is great juice delivered to you with the least amount of processing possible. Just simple, solid wine, versatile at the table and absolutely delicious in the glass.

TAMI' Contrada, Sicily, Italy

Nero D'Avola 2011 Nero D'Avola is usually made in a dark and rustic style, but this offering is a little lighter and brighter than most. Big smooth tannins from the skins lend just enough weight to make this a perfect pair for grilled tuna steaks or stewy eggplant dishes. Limited availability: less than two cases in stock.

Frappato 2011 Some combination of the maturing vines and the ripeness of the fruit led this vintage to wear a little more flesh than former iterations. It's sturdier than years past, but still with its patent acidity. Excellent with salty cured meats and firm cheeses.