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Purveyor of uncommon wine, spirits & beer.

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Not the Sea to Drink

woodlandwinemerchant

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

Neyers: All lined up

scott

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

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

Library Vintage: Château de Bellevue

scott

It's not often we find affordable wines that are a decade old, and it's even less often we find them from Bordeaux. But it's absolutely rare that we get older vintage Bordeaux that's been cellared in limestone caves beneath the very vineyards where the wines were made—and for less than 30 bucks, to boot. In fact, this whole situation is a bit of an anomaly. And for you, that means an opportunity to score big. André Chatenoud bought Château de Bellevue in 1971 and has been harvesting his vines by hand ever since. He farms organically, and he makes and bottles and cellars his wines right at the estate. This may not seem like much of a point, except that we're talking about Bordeaux, a land run primarily by multinational corporations and their middle managers. André does it the old way, a man of the land.

A friend of mine recently visited the estate. Upon arrival, André took him down into the caves, which are actually an old limestone quarry that's been built-out for cellaring purposes. Striations in the walls are still visible, marks left from the picks of the quarrymen who dug here hundreds of years ago. And the caves are literally beneath the chateau's vineyards—in some places one can see cracks along the ceiling and tendrils of life crawling in from above. They're vine roots that have pushed down through the layers of soil in search of moisture and broken through.

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Later in the evening, André prepared huge local duck breasts over an open flame and served them rare alongside several library vintages of his own wine ('98, '03, '05). He even made his own foie gras, which he served with, of course, a Sauternes that a friend of his had made.

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My point here is that this is an honest, handmade wine, unassuming but magnificent in character. This is a wine that's had time to come of age, which is rare in a market-driven world where a great majority of wines are opened much to young. Right now, the '03 Bellevue is really singing. If the terms "older Bordeaux" and "great value" give you cognitive dissonance, this one's for you.

Château de Bellevue Lussac St-Émilion 2003 — $28 (95% merlot, 5% cabernet franc)