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Living on the edge

Vivant Table“He’s played us. Don’t you think he’s played us beautifully?”

The setting was a Paris apartment. The “us” referred to a small gathering of folks who, mostly, work in or around the alcohol and media worlds. And the “he” of debate was natural wine evangelist and (at the time) object of intense media scrutiny over then-current events, Pierre Jancou.

Here’s the if-you-missed-it summary: a muckety-muck at a fashion mag hit up Jancou for a free meal at his restaurant Vivant Table. The dangled carrot was positive mention in Mr. Muckety-Muck’s publication. This sort of gross pay-for-play quasi-blackmail happens all the time, and most restaurants just bend over and take it, figuring the publicity is worth the cost. Jancou’s restaurant is tiny, perpetually overbooked (well in advance, too), and has zero need of such publicity. Given this freedom, Jancou said no. Hard words were exchanged over email.

Now, the tale could have ended there. Except that Jancou passed the story, complete with email proof, to a bunch of writers who were naturally inclined to be sympathetic to Jancou’s objection, and likely to spread the story. Which they did. And did. And did again. I arrived in Paris the day after the hullabaloo hulla-ballooned, and everyone (“everyone” being a self-selected cohort of folks, many of whom I count as friends, acquaintances, or trusted sources) was talking about it.

Naturally, the backlash – not much of one in comparison to the pro-Jancou outrage, but it was there – arrived soon after. Motives were examined. The question that seemed most prevalent was the most obvious: didn’t Jancou end up turning this into a giant PR victory by his own savvy use of the media?

A few months earlier, I’d seen this debate play out in different context. On two different wine fora, a drinker with a bit of a reputation for contrarianism-without-justification went after winemaker Eric Texier, essentially calling his participation on those and other fora no more than transparent publicity-seeking, and going on to suggest that anyone who fell for it was brainwashed. The issue, apparently, began with the drinker’s dislike of Texier’s wines, but from there, the conclusions – each darker and stranger than the previous – followed.

So what are Texier’s motives for participating on wine fora? He says, among other things, that they’re to provide information, often corrective, in discussions of wines and winemaking. Occasionally regarding his own work, much more often not. Since he very pointedly does not shill, openly or otherwise, for his own product, and in fact posts as his claimed motivation would suggest, I’ve no reason to think he’s lying.

So what about the accusation that Texier gets a publicity boost from this participation? Well, of course he does. If it damaged his brand, he’d be an idiot to keep doing it. I’ve seen winemakers, restaurateurs, retailers, and others damage – even destroy – their reputations through ham-fisted use of technology and social media. And Texier is no idiot. He uses his participation well. And yes, his reputation benefits as a result.

To suggest that this should not be is to suggest that either Texier can’t use the internet because he might gain from such use, or that he must use it less well. These are ludicrous positions to take, though that didn’t stop one finger-wagger from taking them. If Texier’s participation in a discussion works to his benefit because he adds value, and he in turn receives value from that participation, where is the damage? I see none. If Texier’s wines are bad (which, in my opinion, they most certainly are not), then disappointed consumers will sort that out for themselves, irrespective of Texier’s online musings.

The benefits stemming from Jancou’s media firestorm are somewhat more indirect. As noted, it’s not like he has empty seats to fill; perhaps a few more people could stuff themselves into his shoebox-sized wine bar, but only at tourist hours. Yes, there’s theoretical benefit to “Brand Jancou,” but since he’s not shown much inclination towards franchising or Vivant-logo mugs and t-shirts, all it really gets him is more regular quoting in the media…a mixed blessing to an evangelist for a category of which many remain skeptical. One thing that the attention does bring, however, is corollary illumination for the natural wines that Jancou promotes. Since his only direct financial interest in promoting these wines is if you drink them at one of Jancou’s establishments, which as I’ve noted isn’t all that likely unless you’ve planned well ahead, I again think it’s reasonable to take him at his word.

Instead, I submit that to the extent that there was promotional intent behind Jancou’s actions, it was less numerical than it was qualitative. Anyone who follows Parisian restaurant buzz knows that, especially since the installation of a new chef and a corollary upgrading of the kitchen’s ambitions (see below), Vivant Table is a “hot” reservation. In fact, there are few hotter. By getting his side of the story into the press, Jancou doesn’t do much to increase the number of potential diners – in fact, if anything he probably holds off some portion of the available pool by resisting those who want in simply to say they’ve been – but instead increases the likelihood that diners are there because they are sympathetic to his restaurant’s philosophy. Vivant is as much a statement as it is a restaurant, and that’s not the sort of thing everyone enjoys. Those who don’t now have reason to stay away, clearing the field for a few more of those who do.

Here’s another reason to take Jancou at his word. A few nights after the imbroglio, I was standing outside his wine bar with a mutual acquaintance, chatting with the man himself. Naturally, this was one of the subjects. He grew increasingly animated, and what seemed to enrage him most was when his free-meal-seeking correspondent suggested that Jancou was well-known as some sort of skinflint, as stingy, as someone who’d refuse a simple request due neither to principle or practicality, but basic meanness. (Needless to say he did not agree with this interpretation.) His agitation and animation while recounting this were quite obvious and I don’t for a second believe they were feigned.

So did Jancou take an irritating encounter and turn it, via a willing media, to his benefit? Sure, but I submit that it doesn’t really matter. Yes, his case was amplified and abetted by interlocutors. But it’s a good case, or at least it’s the case he wishes to make for his restaurant and his passion. He has other methods of publicizing what he does, but why should he fail to make the best use of the sort of gift publicity provided by this incident? If he’s being duplicitous or is, as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle…well, as with Eric Texier and his wines, disappointed diners will sort that out for themselves. And I haven’t noticed reservations at Vivant Table getting any easier.

For instance…

blood sausageSecuring a table at Vivant Table is far from the hardest thing I’ve ever done, restaurant-wise, but it’s no destination for last-minute deciders. In my case, five weeks of advance notice are required for a late seating, the hour of which is changed several times by the restaurant as the night approaches (though at the restaurant I can’t tell if the time-shifting has accomplished anything…maybe a very late third seating for someone?) I do note that more than a few people are turned away during the first hour of my meal, even a few who claim to have reservations, though I’m not eavesdroppy enough to assess the details.

In any case, it’s a tiny room in which one can be sure that most everyone who’s there wants to be there, or at least is accompanying someone who does. And it doesn’t offer much in the way of negotiation: the choices are a set menu, or a set menu with matched wines. This sort of restaurant-dominated approach, which I think many places would like to try but don’t, has been given a healthy lungful of oxygen by the ideologically-driven natural wine movement, and such places now litter Paris and are popping up in other cities, in Europe and elsewhere. There’s been follow-on benefit to non-natural places who, given tiny kitchens and limited seating, would like to shift the point-of-view to that of the kitchen rather than of the table, and I’m enthusiastically behind the movement.

Of course, I can say that because I’m an omnivore. Consecutive courses of sweetbreads, blood sausage, and multiple takes on venison do require somewhat of an open palate. This is aggressive, frequently brilliant food that takes the ingredient-focused cooking for which the restaurant was previously known and enlivens it through some very accomplished, almost swaggering cooking. There are some chances taken, and not everything succeeds (the blood sausage, for instance, is easily the most brilliant version thereof I’ve ever tasted, and finds a sweet counterpoint in an autumnal squash purée, but is paired with an utterly pointless bit of octopus…perfectly cooked, yet akin to a tuba player joining an in-progress violin quintet). But more than enough does succeed to make this one of the more interesting menus in Paris. Love it or not, if anyone is bored here, they are jaded beyond repair. It’s also extremely rich food, of course, and one will want to arrive with not only an open palate, but an open belly.

Despite a pretty good familiarity with natural wines as they exist on American shores, and many visits to other French covens of naturalia, Jancou’s explorations litter his shelves and his lists with a fair number wines I’ve either never tasted or have never even heard of. Not wanting to miss out on the latest and quirkiest, I do something I rarely choose to do and give myself over to the restaurant’s suggestions. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control (and no fault of the restaurant’s, either), the evening comes to an end before I can get a written version of the wines – almost all unfamiliar to me – so what follow are the only two names of which I’m certain. But there’s also a dark orange “white Burgundy” that’s not, as far as I can tell, actually an orange wine, several spiky reds (including one from sangiovese), and other highly individualistic offerings that sometimes range far beyond the borders of “mainstream” natural wines.

Do some of them taste like cider, white ale, lambic, distant cousins to vin jaune, or really almost anything but what one conceives of as “normal” wine? Yes. (Some don’t, and in fact taste quite familiar.) Some of them are good matches for the food and others are far too demanding of attention to coexist. I wouldn’t want an unending diet of such experiments, even the good ones. But to have one’s assumptions so aggressively challenged is both an intellectual and an emotional thrill-ride, and this is why I don’t choose between natural and traditional wines, but instead drink both. Yes, sometimes, one wonders why anyone would let certain fates befall otherwise defenseless grapes. But that’s exactly the point of natural wine as a philosophy, isn’t it? Risk is inherent in the genre. Universal pleasure is not.

Georges Laval Champagne Cumières 1er Cru Brut Nature (Champagne) – Foam, intensity, and the stench of brettanomyces. Not so much that it’s invalidating, but it’s there, so be warned. Otherwise, I like the wine a great deal, but this is a bit past my personal twitchiness point. (11/12)

Le Coste “Litrozzo” (Veneto) – Like drinking fizz without the usual trappings of wine that the fizz delivers. It’s pretty interesting, actually; if one considers bubbles or the sensation thereof to be a structural element, then this wine is all structure. What it really is, though, is all texture. (11/12)

Vivant Table’s room is somewhat uncomfortable, despite the quirky retro brilliance of the décor (rescued from the room’s previous incarnation), yet the slightly edgy discomfort matches the culinary and vinous experience on offer, and thus makes a certain amount of sense. Service is brusque in the very familiar French manner, which means you’ll get careful attention when someone’s at your side, but it’s best to not wish for things while they’re not. That said, at the end of our meal there’s an issue that requires a bunch of staff attention – again, nothing that’s the fault of the restaurant – in the face of which they couldn’t be kinder or more briskly attentive.

I read back over this review and see far more ambiguity and hedging than I really feel. There’s a perpetual debate amongst those who assign ratings to things and those who don’t, into which someone inevitably drops the cliché that the only rating that matters being whether or not one would repeat the experience. I don’t rate things, but I’ll answer the cliché: I’d go back to Vivant Table in a second. No matter how many weeks it takes to get in. Moreover, I love the restaurant, and part of that love is accepting that I will not love everything at the restaurant.

No, not accepting. Embracing.

wine & stairs at vivant caveI’ve a friend who complains that almost none of the wine bars that litter Paris are actually wine bars, but instead are restaurants with a lot of wine by the glass. I don’t really grasp the rigor of his definition, which seems to preclude either everything-but-charcuterie or seats (I forget which, possibly because I’m making fun of him), but I’d be tempted to draw the dividing line between places that feel like restaurants – sit, chat, graze in your own space – vs. places that feel like bars, in which one elbows up, through, and away, maintaining near-constant physical contact with one’s neighbors, or if seated feeling like a passel of them are hovering overhead and wishing you’d give up your seat. By that definition, Vivant Cave is very nearly a true wine bar; there are seats at the bar and a few around teetering tables at the back, but it’s…let’s call it physically convivial. The food – a few products-on-plates, a constantly-changing short list of quick assemblages – is inconsistent, though locals tell me the menu has gone through a fair number of changes since the bar’s (recent) opening. On two occasions, an octopus salad is vibrant and perfect, a stenchy andouillette is fine, blood sausage – which I’d find hard to believe is the same as served next door, though if it is they’re capable of mistreating it – is just OK. Two different preparations of burrata are magnificent.

Wines come from a short list of open bottles (though I suspect there’s almost always something else open, whim to whim), or from an elaborately-stocked case right at the wine bar’s narrowest point, the location of which makes for a lot of shoulder-jostling browsing. And unless one is completely steeped in the arcane nether-realms of natural wine, there’s going to be a lot here that’s unfamiliar, even to people who think they know the genre. As in: I’m offered a patently oxidized Loire gewurztraminer. (I pass.)

Fleury Champagne “Fleur de l’Europe” (Champagne) – Vibrant and lavishly present, with a tinge of oxygen-derived fullness and an ever-expanding sphere of sun-infused pastry. This is a wine for which the overused term “mouthfilling” might have been invented, even though that word is rarely applied to Champagne. Incredibly good. (10/12)

Courtois 2008 “Lard du Vin” (Loire) – Brett, check. Volatility, check. Sweaty naturalia, check. Structurally, it speaks of sauvignon blanc, but aromatically it’s on a different planet. I’ll say this for Courtois’ wines: they’re never boring. (10/12)

Piccinin 2009 “Bianco dei Muni” (Veneto) – Chardonnay & durella. This is the most tannic orange wine I’ve ever tasted, with a fierce chomp from sharp, razored incisors. Fruit-wise, I’m thinking blood orange and raspberry, but it’s that tannic saber-whip that truly marks the wine. (10/12)

Blanchard “Le Grand Cléré” (Loire) – Sauvignon blanc. Salted honeydew melon, pit sweat, and the bitterness of underripe almonds. It leaps and hops for attention, but it’s not great at holding same. (10/12)

Ducroux 2011 Régnié (Beaujolais) – Pomegranate. Vividly acidic, with a diagonal hack-slash of thin tannin and a long, crisp tail. I’m not entirely certain it has anything to do with Régnié, though as it airs the more muscular aspects of the cru do begin to peer from dark corners, but it’s pretty delicious anyway. (10/12)

Sénat 2011 Minervois “Mais où est donc Ornicar” (Languedoc) – Tasting this in an ultra-naturalista wine outpost is a bit strange for me. The wine, which I first tasted years ago (obviously from a different vintage) in Sénat’s cellar, seems almost shockingly conventional in this setting, surrounded as it is by the whimsical, the ideological, even the downright insane. In the context of its appellation it’s strikingly approachable, yet it retains the structural baggage and density of its source. Meaty, herbal, somewhat dark-fruited, but largely about muscularity and the weight of long-eroded, sun-drenched history. What sets this apart from other wines of the appellation, and the rest of Sénat’s wines, is a sense of space and air that can be penetrated by a palate unassisted by animal flesh or its analogues. I don’t always love this wine, finding it somewhat imbalanced in certain contexts, but either the vintage or the setting are very much working for me in this one. (11/12)

Henri Milan 2011 Vin de France “Le Papillon” Rouge (Provence) – Brittle, its acids volatile in the physical rather than chemical sense (though it has those too). It’s an old TV on which someone is twiddling the hue knob between red and violet, with no lack of static and that tactile electrical-field hum. Or perhaps it’s like a nouveau with structure. Or one of those push-up fruit-syrup freezer candies. It’s all those things, and it’s wine as well. (11/12)

Disclosure: in conversation with Pierre Jancou, I inquire about the availability of an older Overnoy Vin Jaune, an expensive and very difficult to obtain wine. It’s made clear that the deciding factor is not money so much as an understanding that the purchaser will properly appreciate the result. I am eventually able to buy the wine (not at a discount), so to the extent that this is special access deserving disclosure, I’ve now done so.

This and other travelogues encompass multiple temporalities, for the blog format does not easily accommodate imposition of timeframes other than its own rigid sequentiality. That is to say: if I’ve visited a place on three separate occasions, posts arising from those visits will not be kept separate. All future travelogues will thus be undated, with only the dates that always follow wine notes indicating when they took place. Travelogues from the past are in the process of being unshackled from their own temporal moorings.

The stars, like dust

dinner paintingWhile the world’s culinary landscape flows swiftly on to unknown horizons, the lords of French cuisine laze enthroned in their mountaintop fortresses, trapped by tradition and (at times) arrogance, kings of only that which their ancestors surveyed.

At least, that’s the conventional narrative. Like any such narrative, there’s some truth to it. An awful lot of French restaurants are more than content to rest on laurels that have long dried into aromatic irrelevancy. Meanwhile, the center of culinary gravity darts about the globe: Cataluña, Sydney, Hong Kong, Osaka, Chicago, the Basque lands, Copenhagen…even London, for heaven’s sake.

But there’s falsehood, as well. Yes, effortless diners will eat a lot of effortless cooking (I don’t mean that in a good way), and there’s a truly depressing conformity even among places that should know better. But, especially in the cities, there’s life, too. Starting with a return to ingredient-based cuisine – and France, though sometimes it seems to have forgotten, is laden and lardered with incredible ingredients to fill the famished – and moving on from there to the same sort of multiple-input experimentation that has energized dining all over the world.

One category of French restaurant, however, is unusually hobbled by resistance to change: the Michelin-starred. What should, by one standard, be the pinnacle of a nation’s deservedly famous edible narrative is, far too often, merely a vastly more expensive way to eat the same dishes available everywhere else, though with better knife-work and brilliantly-gilded tableware. Only infrequently are dishes less than exceptional works of craft (though it does happen, and it most certainly shouldn’t at those prices), but often that’s all they are. The time when French chefs’ creations were regularly on the tip of diners’ postprandial tongues is now decades in the past. And even when they’re referred to, it’s either a tribute band plodding its way through a hoary classic of yesteryear (like Alinea’s tournedos Rossini, painstakingly authentic and retro by design) or a well-worn yet affectionate quote from a literary master (like Manresa’s “Arpège egg”).

I feel little sympathy for French restaurants who care so little that they coast through mindless repetition of their alleged hits, even if that repetition is reasonably edible. But I do feel some sympathy for the starred, for their temples must sometimes feel an awful lot like prisons. A constant flow of well-heeled tourists and internationalites (as for better or worse, that’s who fills the seats) expecting the pinnacle of French dining, but also expecting it to be French and classic through whatever preconceptions they view those terms. Further, the cost of culinary risk-taking is higher than elsewhere; no one who’s traveled all the way to France and laid down a well-fed AMEX platinum wants the chef’s mid-afternoon dalliances and fleeting notions on the plate. They want the tried and true, but they want it better…well, actually, they want it perfected. That’s a tall order for any restaurant, and unfortunately it’s also the same order, over and over again.

There are several paths out of the trap. One is to give up the yoke of the system, and some chefs have done that…abandoning their stars, toques, and so forth to run focused places with limited menus (and limited seating). That is, in fact, where much of the most exciting French dining is to be found these days, and as a concept it sits comfortably aside the other trendlet: return-to-the-roots caves à manger, which offer the foundational traditions from which so many hidebound restaurants have strayed, but free of trappings and expense, and letting those great French ingredients speak for themselves.

Another is to reject the system on its merits (or lack thereof). Like a winemaker dropping an appellation to which they’re entitled working with strange grapes or techniques, giving up both the help and the restraint of guidebook or critical approval can be the first step on the path to the fullest expression of a chef’s passion. Michelin has learned some lessons outside France (and failed to learn those lessons elsewhere), but in France it remains a rigid defender of Michelin’s France.

The third is to cultivate a reputation for risk-taking from the very start. This is how Adrià, Redzepi, Aduriz, Achatz, and all the rest get away with their high-wire acts of culinary adventurousness, in which only the unwary and unprepared actually expect every dish to be a success. One attends their restaurants knowing one is paying for the performance, not just the script.

But here the French are at a disadvantage, because given their rigorously formalized path of advancement within kitchens, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone could rise to the top of the system without many years of predictable tasks, churning out the classics in very familiar trenches; tasks and classics that would suck the energy from even the most determined. French chefs simply don’t move from the line at Momofuku Ko straight to the top job at Le Grand Véfour, whereas talented risk-takers could easily make the jump from latter to the former. And to attempt to stay the course is to become every more firmly lodged in the vise. It’s a beautiful, gilded trap, but it’s still a trap.

There are escapees, however. The barriers are not impenetrable. There are chefs, even among the most renowned and étoile-laden, who push against boundaries both real and imagined. No, I don’t think there is an El Bulli analogue in the DNA of any French Michelin three-star of whom I’m aware (though its worth remembering that Adrià often credited the most creative of his French peers for inspiration), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t movement.

rabbitIn 2011, I had a double helping of Pierre Gagnaire. The first course was at the fascinating Forum des Images in the in-progress ruins of Paris’ Les Halles, a repository of individually-viewable films and video of all sorts. My French, alas, is not always up to vocal expressions of the native arts, but there was a short documentary about the culinary maestro, and it made for interesting and (more or less) comprehensible viewing.

The takeaway: Pierre Gagnaire is nuts.

Oh, he’s not crazy in the sense that he wanders naked down streets muttering about the aliens living in his brain. At least, I presume not. Rather, he’s the sort of “nuts” common to a lot of ultra-creative types, in which the relentless need – far beyond an urge or even a desire – to create leads not just to obsession, but obsessive dissatisfaction. An obsession that actually keeps him out of his kitchen during service, because his fiddling, nervous presence makes it impossible for his team to execute his dishes.

And this nervous energy, this relentless double-branched drive towards More and Different, is on every plate at his eponymous, lavishly-praised restaurant. At least, every plate I see. If there are restrained Gagnaire classics somewhere on this menu – and there might be – they pass neither my eyes nor my lips. More revelatory is the fact that there’s not only more than one idea on a plate, there’s almost always more than one dish on a plate. Sometimes a half-dozen or more. “Tuna” becomes a mezze platter of notions and whimsy around the core ingredient; whereas a modernist might cause the diner to wonder what they’re getting, Gagnaire leads one to wonder if there’s anything they’re not getting. It’s exciting, it’s overwhelming, and it’s bound to dissatisfy many as much as it thrills others.

The food at Gagnaire is all over the map. I don’t mean qualitatively – everything I try is extraordinary, and that isn’t a universally-shared experience of this restaurant, even among friends whose palates I usually trust – I mean stylistically. If there’s a center of gravity to this food, other than Gagnaire’s feverish flux, I can’t find it. There are obvious global influences, and Asia is referenced with some frequency, but little is geographically specific. Yet it’s not really “fusion,” either. More like a fan-spread glitter-shower of ideas, visually captivating but feeling refined only to the extent that at some point, someone arbitrarily stops the twiddling and adornment and expels some sort of product from the kitchen. I suspect that in the mind and kitchen of Pierre Gagnaire, little is ever “done.”

What about the ancillary matters? Service is what one wants from this type of restaurant, with more than a bit of cleverness when warranted. Décor is a little on the modernist power-broker side, but still within the expected range. The wine list is long enough and itself a bit modern, but I’ve no trouble finding wines worth drinking (which isn’t always the case at highly-starred establishments…see below).

Krug Champagne Brut “Grande Cuvée” (Champagne) – Rich and heady, but really not all that complex or interesting. It’s like gilding and jewel-encrusting a turnip, frankly; yes, it’s all shiny and sparkly, but what’s the real point? It’s still a turnip, and doesn’t want to be gilt. The wine’s elegant, and maybe the point is that one should feel elegant while one drinks it, but that’s really much more about the drinker than it is the wine itself. (4/11)

Boxler 2009 Riesling Brand (Alsace) – A little sweet, a lot heavy, a fair bit alcoholic. There’s still plenty of honeyed minerality and bronzed musculature, with the stone fruit and gold of the site evident, but it’s just too boozy for my taste, and I’m not sure this is a quality one will want to live with for long. I’d say I was surprised by this result, but a legendarily hot vineyard in a big year…unfortunately, I’m not surprised at all. Dismayed because of what it portends for globally-warmed Alsace. Disappointed that this came from an extremely reliable producer. But not surprised. (4/11)

Darroze “Domaine de Rieston” 1990 Bas-Armagnac (Southwest France) – Armagnac turned up to 11, or maybe even 12, in darkly-oaked intensity laden with succulent dried fruit. Showy and rather fantastic. It is not, I think, designed to appeal to lovers of older, more reticent and well-matured spirits, but it’s impossible to ignore and, frankly, very difficult not to like. (4/11)

The verdict? I’ve certainly had more adventurous meals in more freewheeling locales. I’ve had better meals in the sense that perfection seemed within their grasp, even from this exact type of restaurant in this very country. But this is without question the most interesting three-star meal I’ve had within the borders of France, and as I leave I’d describe the experience not as satisfaction, nor even as admiration, but instead as an overwhelmed variant of happiness tinged with fatigue.

rodin sculptureAs noted earlier, there are other ways to rattle the shackles, and one of them is to offer a jovial middle finger to tradition while remaining inside it. This is more or less what Alain Passard and his long love affair with vegetables have done at his minimalist, reductive Arpège. To maintain, even escalate, three-star pricing yet serve a meal consisting primarily of roots, flowers, fruits, and leaves takes a sizable pair of something Passard would probably not serve at this restaurant.

For years, the primary complaint I heard from dissatisfied post-Arpège diners was, “this much money for vegetables?” I take the point on its economic merits, and Arpège is breathtakingly expensive, but never agreed with the assumption behind it: that there is something inherently unworthy about vegetable cookery, that the heating of flesh is self-evidently more valuable. One doesn’t spend three-star money for ingredients, which – with rare exceptions, and (somewhat ironically) Arpège provides a number of them – a little work could procure for any home cook’s use. That three-stars tend to lay on the truffles and fattened liver rather thickly is, again, not something one needs three-stars for. Rather one pays a stratospheric tariff for the skill with which those ingredients are utilized. And it has rarely been said, even by his detractors, that Passard can’t cook.

Just a few steps down the street from Arpège is the Musée Rodin, filled with nakedly passionate revelations of the essential, in which that revelation animates qualities unknown to the medium without the intervention of the artist. That describes what a fair number of chefs do, as well. Were Arpège a museum of sculpture, it’d be filled not with recognizable objects, or even chips and shavings, but with the undefiled rocks and stones whence they came.

Passard remains a gracious host, and any chef this famous willing to sit in an empty corner of his restaurant during service and graze, slurp, and smile at departing patrons has a refreshingly comforting notion of what it is that he does; it’s fairly apparent that he sees himself less as a performance artist than as a cook. And that, whatever flaws he may or may not have, an inability to relax is not one of them.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if the fact that, by the time I finally make it to his restaurant, animals are back on the menu reveals some slight diminution of focus. Every truly great dish I encounter is either entirely or in the majority comprised of plants, while the most disappointing bites are those in which plants play little to no role. Case in point: a plate in which nothing other than an array of seasonal vegetables, each cooked differently but with a perfection beyond perfection, is one of the most extraordinary statements of pure essentialism I’ve ever encountered. On the other hand, turbot – my favorite swimmer, and a fish that can be breathtaking in its singular complexity – is drowned in a gloppy cream and vin jaune sauce that utterly obliterates the fish (and doesn’t do much for the sauce, either). A you-can-read-through-it beet nigiri is an exquisite, naked pair of two perfect flavors (the beet and the rice), a beet “merguez” on the aforementioned place of vegetables is so good I fail to repress a gleeful laugh at the audacity of it, but chunks of poularde with another mélange of plants are nothing special and completely overshadowed by the continuing excellence of the vegetables (and, in this case, fruit).

The nadir is a chocolate mille-feuille that tastes like a pile of stale ashes and, aside from its wet core, is almost completely inedible. I have no idea whether this is a failure of intent or execution, but a failure it is. In fact, it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever been served in a restaurant.

The décor is really nothing at all, I’d suspect by intent. Service is on the casual side of what one might expect, which I think reflects the chef, but does no disservice to itself. The wine list is somewhat of a disappointment in that it shows neither the deep bench of classics some diners will expect, nor much interest in new directions in wine. That said, not “much” is not “none,” and there are a few dabblings with natural wine. Still, if one isn’t prepared to shower coin on still-too-young Names, drinking here is not as rewarding as it might otherwise be.

Laurent-Perrier Champagne Brut Cuvée Rosé (Champagne) – Pink, and tastes of it. Sharp, fruity, clean, soon dead. Next. (11/12)

Alexandre Bain 2011 Pouilly-Fumé “Pierre Précieuse” (Loire) – Sweet, flabby, and more than a little bit insipid. I get that this is natural, but it’s horribly boring as well. Maybe it works as an apéritif. But it doesn’t even have the nervosity to be a German riesling stand-in. (11/12)

Comte de Saint Victor “Château de Pibarnon” 2000 Bandol (Provence) – Halfway to excellence, but the halfsies are evident in the disjointed structural imbalances, which are slightly stewy and tending towards the fluffy at the moment. That’s not, I think, where this wine will end up. Otherwise, there’s blackened meat liqueur and herbal tincture…a pretty classic Bandol signature, with a rocky underbelly seemingly characteristic of this house. Wait on it. (11/12)

Lhéraud 1973 Cognac Petite Champagne (Cognac) – Forcefully classy. Like drinking fine pastries, with a boozy core. Is it as complex as an Armagnac of similar age? No, but it’s silkier. There’s your tradeoff. (11/12)

I want to love Arpège. I do like it, the disaster of a dessert excepted. But of course, a restaurant at its externally- and internally-imposed level – and here I mean both reputation and price – doesn’t retain the freedom to just be liked. It needs to be loved.

And that is also part of the trap.

This and other travelogues encompass multiple temporalities, for the blog format does not easily accommodate imposition of timeframes other than its own rigid sequentiality. That is to say: if I’ve visited a place on three separate occasions, posts arising from those visits will not be kept separate. All future travelogues will thus be undated, with only the dates that always follow wine notes indicating when they took place (or, when there are no wine notes, an alternative indication will be provided). Travelogues from the past are in the process of being unshackled from their own temporal moorings.

Clothes do not make the woman

closeup of girlsWe lip-serve the idea that the moment of preconception is important. Dangerous from one perspective, necessary constancy from another. But from neither do we reject it outright. How could we? Our ability to navigate through life’s encounters is almost entirely dependent on the rapidity and accuracy with which we preconceive. It’s a vital skill.

But it’s also fraught. There are troubling aspects to preconception, to guesses that blind rather than enlighten. We try to avoid those instances, and properly so. But that doesn’t mean we can help but have them.

The art of illusion is a tool with which one can counter our disposition to preconceive. And while it’s practiced everywhere, few have raised it to the art of the Parisian female. I use that word, rather than “woman,” deliberately, because among the many ways that les double-X-chromosomed engage and dance with illusion is how they elide age.

Look at a group of American females, from a non-definitive distance, and guess their age based on their dress and demeanor. You’re likely to be correct far more often than not. Make that same guess in Paris, and you’re probably in for a surprise. The bold, showily-youthful fashionista on the sidewalk in front of you could be 16 or 60, and until you see their face you might have no way of knowing. Perhaps not even then.

This is, of course, of no actual consequence except to the questing lothario. (And again, perhaps not even then; the French revere both maturity and its opposite in ways that are unfamiliar to less broad-minded cultures.) But from a more observational standpoint it re-elevates the nearly-eroded air of mystery surrounding human interaction. It destabilizes the foundations of preconception and issues a direct challenge: each conception must now be earned. Answers now necessitate questions.

So it is with certain wines. Some demand an early demise, some remain ambered in eternal youth, some only learn to express themselves in complete sentences with the onset of maturity. And often, we “know” this preconceptually, without laying hand on bottle. Except, of course, sometimes we don’t. Some wines belie their age, in either direction. Wines can conform, but wines can also defy.

Installed in my Parisian rental, over several dinners with and without friends, one of the most counter-conceptual wines (hand-carried from a visit to the winery) provides an object lesson in the dangers of the temporal guessing-game. Not that anyone’s surprised about an ageworthy Rioja (though we usually don’t mean the pink version, which I sometimes feel López de Heredia gleefully unleashes in its faux-convalescence just to enjoy the shocked reactions of a jaded public), but that the house’s wines are just so bafflingly evasive about their current age and their future prospects. The only sure guide, in the absence of the usual clues, is history. The ultimate preconception.

R. López de Heredia 1997 Rioja “Gran Reserva” Viña Tondonia Rosado (Center-North) – Restrained. Very restrained. The bony, exposed-wrinkle structure of this wine…so unique among rosés…is a little more stretched than usual here. Even for Tondonia Rosado, this is bare and stark. There’s that skeletal minerality and steady-state, bell-tone fruit that tastes more like the desert in which one will either find appeal or not (I do), but the wine’s just…well, “tired” isn’t quite right, because it’s not faded beyond its intended form. Perhaps the best way to describe the wine is that it’s afflicted with a very slight pallor. (11/09)

R. López de Heredia 1981 Rioja Viña Bosconia Gran Reserva (Center-North) – Faded, antiqued red fruit – the lightest possible – with the sepia patina of age and a gritty, starting-to-disconnect texture. A fine-edged tannin scrapes, slowly, across the thin surface. The aromatics are lightly earthen and quite beautiful, but the palate is a bit tired and gasping. It’s a good wine, still, but I’d consider drinking it posthaste. (11/09)

R. López de Heredia 1981 Rioja Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva (Center-North) – Gorgeous old fruit aromatics of windowsill-cooled summer pie, wooden spice box, and soft suggestions of earth glide from the glass, but this is no fading beauty. On the contrary, the palate is fulsome and almost lush, with well-aged but still vibrant red fruit, more than a few hints of spice, and a great purity of texture. The acidity is strong enough that those who fear it will wish to take care, but otherwise it’s an exciting counterpoint to the suppleness of the balance of the wine. Mature, for sure, but probably nowhere close to decline. (11/09)

marie antoinetteEvery place that tourists go has restaurants to which all tourists go, until they (the restaurants, not the tourists) reach such a Yogi Berra-esque state of popularity that nobody goes except tourists. Usually, the establishment is well into decline at this point, having lost any economic motivation to perform beyond minimal expectations, at which point even tourists start to whisper in contravention. The next step is to litter the place with faux-authentic paraphernalia to re-entice those who’ve read the name in a guidebook somewhere, at which point no passersby can miss the lack of any ambition beyond the trapping of tourists. Restaurants can usually hang on in this fashion, like comestible zombies, for decades, as each new generation of suckers walks through the door.

Some respect is thus due to places that don’t really change. Much.

Les Deux Magots – No, highbrow celebrities no longer haunt its no-longer-smoke-wreathed tables, but there’s no mistaking why anyone goes here: the increasingly-distant memory of Sartre, Beauvoir, Hemingway, Camus, Picasso, and so forth. It must be in every guide book, and at any moment those many-languaged tomes rest atop virtually every table. But Les Deux Magots is by no means terrible, though there’s little reason for it to not be; the tourists will still come, I’m sure. It’s not great, either. It’s decent, perhaps just on the upper end of acceptably genial, though suffused with the impatient gruffness of Parisian waiters forced to decode questions in a dozen languages per hour. There’s a timeless feel to it, but that timelessness is curated rather than spontaneous; the reasons for which people will sit in these seats cannot recur. At least not here.

I’ve out-of-country guests who, given a list of venues for a quick beverage and bite, choose this over other area options. And why not? Sure, I’d perhaps rather be somewhere else, but why deny them their experience? Alongside a perfectly serviceable tuna and green asparagus quiche, I choose a glass of what’s a surprisingly notable wine from their short list.

Vincent Dauvissat 2007 Chablis La Forest 1er Cru (Chablis) – From a bottle that’s obviously been open a little too long, and so: faded rocks, mostly. There’s a lot of tactility and intensity, but the details of both are muted. I’d need a fresher bottle to say anything more useful about this wine. (3/11)

This is another installment in a temporally and structurally dissociated Parisian travelogue.

When push comes to chèvre

There exist more ways to get what one wants, in the mercantile realm, than ever. For many – especially in the most electronically developed countries – this is the lifting of a burden. One can have almost anything, from almost anywhere, free of the time-consuming friction of face-to-face interaction.

Elsewhere, this is viewed less positively. French feet rest heavy on so many cultural brakes that it’s sometimes difficult to see how, amidst epic and often completely arbitrary contrariness about just about everything, these deliberate pressures can lead to desirable outcomes.

Please forgive the tangential subject-skipping in those last two paragraphs, but there’s a point to it. For I am now going to talk about cheese.

At my Parisian apartment’s nearest supermarket, which is generally dismal and harbors a persistent odor of garbage, cheese is behind a rope and requires the beneficence of staff to acquire. Meat? Fish? Sure. But cheese? The stuff is, mostly, already boxed and wrapped. Why must there be a person between me and my brie? I suspect it’s because, to the French, cheese is too important to be left to the proletariat. Also, because that’s just how cheese is sold. Remember: “arbitrary.”

And if one seeks good cheese – the wheels, wedges, and three-dimensional polygons on which the fame of French cheese is justly built – one must go to a specialist. A merchant and affineur, yes, but also a guardian of tradition, a hyper-knowledgeable guide, and a meddling interferer with consumers’ best-laid plans. The thing is, one does not just buy cheese at such an establishment. One enters into a storied negotiation, the outcome of which is not certain until one is standing on the sidewalk, holding a parcel that emanates lusty aromas of biologically active dairy products. Which might be entirely different from what one intended to purchase at entry.

It’s possible to purchase food and drink from French merchants with minimized interpersonal interaction, but the qualitative sacrifice is enormous. To get the good stuff, one must build a relationship…and I use that word deliberately, because the process is not unlike dating. The complexity of the interaction goes well beyond the boundaries of an “I would like”/“we can sell you” exchange of supply and demand. There are interrogations for which one must offer explanations (“when are you going to eat this cheese? for how many people?”) and catalysts (“the bleu d’Auvergne last week was excellent, but I’d like something a little more aggressive”), there are force-feedings (“this is the cheese that you will buy, and this is how you will serve it”), and as a result the simple act of sectioning and wrapping a few pieces of cheese can take the better part of a quarter-hour. But woe betide should this relationship fail to get off the ground, or develop in difficult ways, because product quality will suffer as a result. It is essential to build a positive rapport with a merchant who has consumable goods one desires, and the burden of that interaction is – contrary to American practice – almost entirely on the consumer, not the purveyor.

Here follows a tale of merchant dating failure. And of success. A multi-year love story that has come to full, and gloriously stinky, ripeness.

Marie-Anne Cantin (2009) – The aroma of fame hangs over this rue Cler shop, lingering thick and nearly tactile in the air to either end of its block. Or maybe that’s just the chèvre.

A famous affineuse, a beautiful selection of cheese…why, then, am I about to complain? Because even after a half-dozen visits, each query as to what’s fresh, what’s interesting, what’s seasonal draws the identical droned reply from the tall, patently bored young man that is always – despite my attempts at identifying his off-day – here: “brie, Camembert, Roquefort.” Yes, OK, and a first purchase demonstrates that versions thereof sold here are superlative. But there’s a whole room full of cheese, some of which are as yet untasted legends from my reference books. Can’t I try something else?

“Brie, Camembert, Roquefort.” Apparently not.

Marie-Anne Cantin (2011) – A year and a half later, the only holdovers on the staff appear to be Madame Cantin herself and her husband (who, on my first visit, scolds me for threatening a pyramid of ash-covered chèvre with the uncontrollable arc of my allegedly wildly-swinging murse). And so, a new attempt at relationship-building is initiated.

This time, it pays off. Suddenly, there’s a lighted and signposted pathway through an oozing world of terroir-specific brie. “Sec” in reference to a goat cheese now actually produces a semi-hard version, not just whichever cylinder or pyramid the shopkeeper happens to put his hand on, and always something different than was offered last week. A full range of creamy rounds and squares, bloomy and washed – the very cheeses that are impossible to acquire legally in the States, and are inevitably past prime when they are available – are systematically offered over the course of two months’ visits. Best of all, a deliriously complex four-year-old Comté, previously extant but not for sale to just anyone (“anyone” being me) suddenly becomes available. Each week, each exchange, is a new adventure in not just selection, but also in escalating warmth. My only regret is that when I come back, I might need to start all over again with a brand new blind date.

There are other sources, as well. One does, on occasion, leave the comfort of a marriageable affineuse for the excitement of a lactic dalliance; this is France, after all. Most of the action on the side comes from a purveyor at the biweekly Grenelle open market that offers a selection of his own goat cheeses from the Loire. His fare tends towards more youthful freshness than is my personal preference, but it’s still a fine and varied array of chèvres. The best is probably his Selles-sur-Cher, which is sold in a range from birth into a creamier era of development, but the ash-dusted fresh rounds and logs are impressive in their own right.

But again, cheese is only part of the act. The rest is his banter with the mostly female market crowd, with whom he relentlessly and shamelessly flirts. (Sometimes unsuccessfully; on my first visit, a middle-aged woman stalks off in anger at his unexpected use of the familiar form, hissing “animal” at him as she harrumphs away. By week four, the familiar is all he’s using in my presence, but then I’m not French and don’t really care about such things.) A good 90% of any commercial transaction with this gentleman is, thus, unrelated to the actual exchange of money for cheese, but rather the chatter than precedes and follows that transaction.

And so, that’s a French cheese transaction. You might not get what you want, exactly, but if all goes well, you’ll get more than you knew you wanted.

Every country has its white zinfandel. A sticky, too-sweet, unstructured, synthetic-tasting Kool-Aid™ wine. France’s is often made from one or both of the cabernets and carries the Anjou appellation, though there are plenty of blushing contenders for the role made elsewhere. I notice, as a frequent renter of apartments and gîtes in various French locales, that when there’s a gift bottle, it’s very often something of this stylistic ilk. Why, I wonder? Perhaps as a result of a guess that it has the broadest potential appeal to all, but especially sundry? Perhaps – though this seems hard to believe based on the evidence – people actually like the stuff?

Well, I don’t. And yes, it’s rude to look a gift horse in the mouth and decide to withhold the lurid neon pink refreshments. But I would love to, landlord by landlord, shift attention to something a little more interesting for both novice and geek tastes. Sweet and fun, sure, but clever as well. A Bugey Cerdon in every pot, maybe? It couldn’t hurt.

Emb. 49125D 2009 Cabernet d’Anjou (Loire) – Sweet synthetic strawberry syrup. It’s wine, but I know this primarily because the label says so. And you have to love the romance and revealed cultural history of the winery’s name. (3/11)

Les Fouleurs de Saint Pons Vin de Pays du Var “Réserve du Cigalon” Rosé (Provence) – Candied berries, a bit hot, thin, and not very interesting. (11/09)

Bernard-Noël Reverdy “Domaine de la Garenne” 2008 Sancerre Rosé (Loire) – Actually, not bad. (I know…lead off with the lavish praise, right?) Dry, with some flattish minerality exposed – something planar and uniform – and a little patina of raspberryishness. Nothing to think about, but quite drinkable while well-chilled. And had I not written this note hot on the drinking’s heels, I’d never have remembered drinking this at all. Meanwhile, that Reverdy family sure is fertile, isn’t it? (11/09)

Renardat-Fache Bugey Cerdon (Ain) – Intense strawberry, with one of the best balancing acts between acid, fruit, and sugar I’ve encountered under this label. Fresher for the lack of a trans-Atlantic trip? A better vintage? Or just an artifact of the environmental bonus multiplier of drinking it in Paris, rather than in a Boston suburb? Well…does it matter? Whatever the cause, this is the best bottle of this wine I’ve ever tasted, and I have consumed a lot. (11/09)

Rondeau Bugey Cerdon (Ain) – Pure strawberry lifted by raspberry/cranberry volatility. Fun, fun, fun, and no one’s T-Bird is getting taken away. (4/11)

Corse grind

This and untold essays to follow are a Parisian travelogue…in a sense. Neither an event-by-event diary, as most are, nor a bare-bones food-and wine accounting, as more recent others have been, but something different.

Food and beverage are the foundation, and no entry will be without one or the other. But does anyone need me to tell them that they should visit Sainte-Chapelle, and why? I don’t think so. Then again, Paris deserves more than a guide to consumption. Besides, there are already sites that do exactly that, and brilliantly.

Oh, and this: this “travelogue” encompasses multiple temporalities: at this writing, a month-plus visit in the late fall of 2013, a two-month stay during March and April of 2011, and a one-month stay in 2009’s autumnal decline. By the time it has been fully populated, it will no doubt have been supplemented by future visits. The only case in which this really matters (wine notes) are – as always – dated for clarity, but where necessary commentary on restaurants, shops, and so forth might also carry date specificity. Usually, however, the same thoughts apply to multiple time-frames. In Paris, even the temporal is eternal.

So…that’s probably enough introductory essay, and in fact enough idle musing for one entry. Why not jump right in? Because that’s how I start my stay: night one, hour one, very shortly after arrival via Eurostar, and still chilled to the roots by an icy week in London. Shopping options at this hour range from a dismal Monoprix to a downright depressing Franprix, and in any case the owner of the apartment I’m renting wants to have a quick dinner in a nearby restaurant. Sounds good to me, especially since I get to pick.

Villa Corse Rive Gauche – In the United States of a slowly-disappearing era, this space might have been labeled a “supper club.” It is swanky and club-like, but in neither case akin to, say, a starred establishment. Maybe more like faux-Vegas hipster? I don’t mean to disrespect the bookishly masculine interior, which I actually like, but it’s very obviously both restaurant and gathering place.

My dining companion needs to catch an overnight bus back to her cross-channel home, and so our dining hour is far in advance of anything even remotely typical by Parisian standards. But if they’re surprised, they’re happy to seat and serve us anyway. The menu is, as the restaurant’s name promises, Corsican. The wine list even more so, with a breadth (though not depth) that’s extremely impressive. Perhaps by-the-glass options could be a little less reliant on the island’s internationalized offerings, but that’s a quibble, and it’s unlikely that most will fail to find a wine they want on this list..

Our food is mostly well-prepared and served with brevity (a correct reading of our early-hour dining needs that may not apply to more temporally acceptable dining). My chop, from some Corsican breed of pig, is flavorful despite overcooking (I’ve become acclimated to the persistent French and Italian preference for this meat to be less pink than I’d prefer), but my companion’s gargantuan assemblage of noodle and mushroom is the superior dish.

My only complaint is about price. This is not an expensive restaurant, exactly, but it’s a little more expensive than its ambiance, quality, and (especially) ambition warrant. I think the bifurcated and somewhat clubby intention of the restaurant adds a certain surcharge to what, elsewhere, might be the same cooking presented in a more direct manner and in less luxe surroundings.

Leccia 2008 Patrimonio “Petra Bianca” Rouge (Corsica) – Dark fruit. A little wild. And very, very heavy. It’s not thick, precisely – there’s a reasonable amount of space in the middle (too much, perhaps) – but it’s like a Christmas tree with its outer limbs over-draped and sagging with weighty decorations. Most of that weight is structure, and time will tell what it tells of that structure’s development, but right now it really needs the counterweight of intense animal flesh, or a reasonable equivalent. (3/11)

Dispatches from Naturalia

A few weeks ago, an offhand dismissal of natural wine on Twitter (imagine that!) caught my eye. Paraphrasing, the tweeter mused: “still trying to decide if it’s all just marketing.”

I can answer that, actually. Yes, it is indeed marketing. So is “Gevrey-Chambertin.” So is “pinot noir.” And for the exact same reasons.

Inspired by the above, I admit continued bewilderment at a refusal to engage with ambiguity when it comes to the word “natural.” I’m glad that people have, from time to time, offered definitions, because it gives us something to argue about. But those are their definitions, not the definition. It’s quite clear that among both self-identified and externally-identified producers of natural wine, there’s little to no agreement on precise, regulatory-style meaning. And while a few ideologues are more than willing to fight about it, most are quite happy with the lack of rigidity. Alas that detractors (and advocates) can’t adopt the same attitude.

But aren’t “Gevrey-Chambertin” and “natural” different? Doesn’t the former have a specific definition? Yes it does, but it’s mostly about geography and content, a little about practice, and not at all about what the wine is actually like. “Pinot noir” is a specific grape, yes, but both a transparent blanc de noirs Champagne and an opaque hot-climate bruiser are pinot noir. The name is a datum, not a characterization.

“Natural” has no force of legal code behind it, but amongst its Gaussian distribution of producers that there’s a core set of practices that any hypothetical code would include (and practices it would exclude). And yet, this still tells us nothing about what the wines are like. A pretty little gamay for immediate slurping? A stately riesling made for (given sufficiently careful cellaring) long aging? Both exist.

In other words, there’s as much simultaneous meaning and ambiguity to the word “natural” as in many other wine terms. We embrace uncertainty elsewhere, using words that are not simultaneously prescriptive and descriptive. Why is it so hard with the word “natural?”

Perhaps it’s because the word – like so many others – gets entangled with value judgments. In this, “natural” takes up the burden that “terroir” used to carry. Some of the most passionate defenders of the concept can be regularly seen to have – maybe subconsciously, maybe not – entirely conflated the term with “wines they like.” When a wine comes along made exactly as they’d prefer, but far outside their stylistic preferences, they start protesting that it can’t be natural and looking for redefinitions that will exclude it. This is ludicrous. “Natural” is prescriptive, it has some limited ability to be descriptive, but it is not and cannot be qualitative. That’s not to say that one can’t prefer natural wines for reasons aside from the organoleptic. But “natural” is not a synonym for “good,” and it was never intended to be.

On a personal level, one of the biggest reasons I appreciate the growing presence of natural wine is the pressure it exerts on winemakers who’ve never met an intervention they don’t like. I don’t expect many of them to change, and certainly control-oriented industrialists never will. But others will. More might reconsider what they do, maybe making a little tweak here or there, perhaps experimenting outside the borders of “what they’ve always done” to see if quality can be achieved in a different way. The more important outcome, to me, is that producers are under increasing pressure to be more transparent about what they do. What did they add? What did they adjust? And why?

These very questions are themselves too often taken as value judgments. This, too, is ludicrous. I am in no way dismissive of the impulse and the frequent need to intervene, sometimes aggressively, to shepherd a wine from grape to saleable bottle. And some of my favorite wines are the result of intense intervention. But centuries of furtive meddling have served no one except the true industrialists, whose practices are thus fully legitimized. And the secrecy not only fails to increase knowledge, but leads to confusion and premature didacticism on the part of insufficiently educated wine folk…consumers, yes, but even sometimes those in the biz. If the obsessive focus on practice brought by natural wines serves to turn up the intensity of revelatory light, there’s not a single bad thing to be said about that.

Last year I penned an essay on the qualities and difficulties of the natural wine scene in Paris. I’m in the midst of another extended stay in that glorious city, and have as a matter of choice been rather immersed in the stuff. And so it’s been interesting to reexamine my former conclusions.

Has anything changed? Yes and no. There are even more natural wine bars and restaurants than before, which is a testament to their success (some of the old stalwarts have even expanded). That’s the first “yes.”

The “no” is that at such establishments, vinous apartheid more or less continues to reign. That’s a loaded term, so let me clarify that I mean it in a value-neutral sense. Natural wine lists mostly remain natural wine lists, full stop. If there’s a wine bar or restaurant that fully embraces naturalia yet allows their stock to be dominated by qualitative rather than definitional concerns, I haven’t seen it (which is not to say that it doesn’t exist; one can’t go everywhere, or at least my liver certainly can’t). And that, of course, is fine; I would no more criticize a restaurant for being exclusively “natural” than I would for specializing in crêpes. I still think an opportunity is being missed to broaden the concept, but I’m not a business owner.

It’s probably true that there’s more bad natural wine than there used to be. No surprise there. I don’t mean that the wines have gotten worse, I mean that there’s some trend jumping, and a quantity of product that appears to be more the result of fermented ideology than fermented grapes. It’s certainly true that there’s more similar-tasting natural wine than before, due to the leavening effects of semi-carbonic maceration and other asymptotic techniques. I like these cute, fresh little vins de soif, as they’re often called, but a steady diet of them across appellations and grapes gets repetitive and frustrating; I don’t want every grape, from every appellation, to taste like either gamay or pétillant orange wine.

There’s a second “yes,” however, and it’s a welcome development. It’s been a bit of a joke amongst wine geeks, over the years, that Lapierre has somehow found itself the sole representative of natural wine on hundreds of wine lists and store shelves ‘round the world. Good for Lapierre, and good for people who know and love the wines, but that’s no longer quite true. Major retailers here are now more or less compelled to feature natural wines somewhere in their square footage meterage. Good restaurants have more and more options from the natural side of things, and they tend to be the better examples of same. That’s the merging of preferences that I’d hoped for; that “natural” not be an exclusive end in itself, but just another choice among a diversity thereof. Because only then can it directly influence the conversation outside a small circle of oenophilic obsessives.

And yet, despite all the above, it remains true that natural wine is a niche. A micro-niche. Given that its practices are highly unlikely to be scalable to the mass market, that’s all it will ever be. There is so much written, pro and con, about natural wine that it would be easy for a causal observer to conclude that the market was awash in the stuff. It isn’t, and in places that aren’t Paris (or, I’m told, Japan), finding more than a token bottle is like seeking an unsulfured needle in a volatile haystack.

So to our introductory Twitter skeptic, wondering if it might all be just about marketing, it might as well be if the argument in their favor is not in rich physical supply. The wines can be hard to find, harder to transport, and even when present are often unwilling to be the lap cats of the vinous world, curling up for a few hours of familiar and unconscious comfort. They are difficult wines for (judging by some of their fans, including myself) difficult people. Their very difference can be both flaw and virtue.

Market that.

Paris, naturally

My submission for saignée‘s inspiring 32 Days of Natural Wine event, found here in its original form. Go read it there, and then read everything else in the series. You’ll be a better person afterward.

[nouveau ad]Paris may not be the heart of the natural wine movement… that and all the other vital organs reside in the cellars and the regions whence the wines emerge…but it’s almost certainly the head. It’s got a critical mass of consumers, from enthusiast to hipster (and wannabe-hipster), and a vibrant commerce that serves that mass.

Natural wine nirvana, right? In a sense. If there’s a bright, or even popular, future for natural wine, Paris is what it looks like in its ascendance. One can revel for weeks – perhaps even months – in the unsulfured and unyeasted with the right list of purveyors and a fat carnet, or at least sturdy shoes.

Except…I did that. Ate, drank, cooked, and shopped as naturally as I could. And the shocking (to me, anyway) takeaway was that I found it a little boring. What’s more, it made me realize something: not everything is lit with rosy natural light in La Ville Lumière. There are some shadows lurking on les routes ahead.

This is going to require some explanation, I suspect.

What can destroy a wine category these days? Lack of quality, certainly, but this is a slow actor; the general unsaleability of Mâcon or the turning away from Tuscany didn’t happen overnight, but over decades. What can kill it a lot faster, even from a position of apparent desirability, is the reality or perception of over-uniformity. Of externally-enforced conformity. Of cynical boredom. By way of example: remember when muscular Australian reds of both gravitational and evaluative endowment were the point-laden rage? Notice how, just a few years later, one can barely give them away? There’s more than one factor at work in that Icarian tale, but a major contributor is that the thermonuclear fruit devices that were so lauded by critics and consumers are available from just about everywhere on the planet (including Australia) at a much lower cost than those paragons of pricey (purported) pulchritude.

Now, let’s be honest. There are those who drink for predictability. Who – though they would probably object to the metaphor – crave a certain McDonaldization of product, in which consistency and the comfort of the familiar are atop the pyramid of virtues. Rather obviously, those folk aren’t buying natural wine. At least not on purpose. The market that rejects the standardization of industrial viticulture and outcome-oriented winemaking is, by definition, counter- and anti-. This market seeks sensation, but the sensation it seeks is that of authenticity, of difference, of deviance. Among the principal appeals of natural wine are its unfamiliarity and unpredictability. Both of which are, as they must be, measured against the norm…which is, in this case, traditional (which is inclusive of, but not of necessity, industrial) wine. Without that contrast, much of what is unfamiliar and exciting about natural wine is decontextualized.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that without the alternative, natural wine would be less appealing. But then again, there’s probably a cohort of devotées that would experience that little twinge of dismay that all adherents to the alternative feel when their private affection goes mass-market. It’s true in music, and maybe it’s true in wine. That said, we’re talking about a nano-niche within a micro-niche here, so let’s move on to a more important conjecture…

My somewhat leisurely encounter with Paris’ natural wine scene delivered a lot of sensation, difference, and authenticity. No question. But viewed through the contextual lenses of time and post-facto consideration, it delivered something else.


It’s not that any given wine demanded this reaction. Mostly, I drank very well. Extremely well, actually. I could have gone many more months without repeating a libation, without going back to something a second time (though that did happen once, for which I must blame Jean Foillard’s uncanny skill with Morgon), without being forced to act not as an eager dabbler on the frontier, but rather as an actual wine consumer stocking up on quantities of favored bottles. That’s the wonderful breadth of potential natural wine experiences that Paris provides, and it’s unquestionable that had I been in Paris long enough, I’d have had the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of wines that were otherwise no more than ephemeral dalliances. There’s great value in that, for sure, and I look forward to suffering that burden in the future.

No, it was the commercial face of my natural wine crawl that brought on the ennui. Wine bar, store, restaurant…wine bar, store, restaurant…wine bar, store, restaurant: the same list, the same selection, the same labels. Almost without fail.

The immediate objection – why is this bad, exactly? aren’t most of the world’s wine collections the same boring and industrial (or at least traditional) wines, over and over? – is both taken and acknowledged as correct. Yes, the sin of boredom is committed so much more frequently outside the natural wine world that it hardly bears mentioning inside it. But the special thing about Paris’ genre concentration is that it previews the consequences of a triumph of the alternative. And in that triumph is born a redundancy that looks an awful lot like all the familiar redundancies. I’d like to see natural wine avoid that fate.

The problem is self-segregation. Natural wines have…by the deliberate choice of their selectors but also by a somewhat surprising inertia…ghettoized themselves into a self-referential niche. It’s a reasonably successful niche, and the marketing advantages probably go without saying, but a niche it remains. I know there are some who prefer this state of affairs – there’s your alternative music analogue writ vinous, in which the magi of secret knowledge tremble in fear of the moment in which their favorite becomes known to The Other – but there is also a legitimate argument against this preference.

In various cities around the U.S., cities in which natural wine is decidedly alternative and hard-to-find, there are a few stores, wine bars and restaurants to which one goes to be guaranteed a selection from the genre. There might, for example, be just one “natural wine bar” in an otherwise wine-soaked metropolis, or a sommelier whose iconoclasm is rewarded by a dedicated but niche fandom. In that situation, rigid orthodoxy is a marketable virtue, and should neither be gainsaid nor challenged. In such locales, rigidity of concept is a virtue.

[mccafé]But in Paris, where it would seem to be thrilling that there are considerably more than a handful of such establishments, the effect is somewhat different. The wines are no longer hard to find, for the interested. What they are, instead, is gated within a neighborhood of like-minded peers, largely unchallenged by dissent from within or without. It’s an oeno-epistemological closure that just can’t be good for the category.

“Well,” one might ask, “why not?” Given that both the old and the modern ways have been dominant everywhere and everywhen, shouldn’t natural wines be allowed their own time in the sun? (Or rather, their time in a humid, slightly chilly environment in order to avoid the much-feared instability allegedly inherent to the genre?) Wouldn’t it be better if even more establishments went au natural?

No. That is to say: sure, I’d like to see a lot more natural wine, presented however a given establishment wishes, as long as that method gets it to my glass. But what I’d really like is, when forced to go to some standardized culinary purveyor of comforting mediocrity by out-of-town guests who’ve heard the chef’s name on the Food Network, to have natural wines on that wine list. I’d like to walk into a wine shop in Nisswa, Minnesota and be able to buy something that’s not industrial. I don’t want natural wine to be something one must go to Paris (or New York, or San Francisco) for, I want it to be part of the everyday experience of oenophilia. An equal voice in the conversation inherent in every glass. An accepted part of the landscape, neither feared nor a cranky curiosity, but just another typical geographical feature

That may be an impossible dream, since natural winemaking doesn’t necessarily scale all that well. Sure, OK, I get that. But if there are a lot of natural wines (and ideally, as time passes, there will be more), why not spread the wealth a little? Why not some intrusions into enemy, or at least unfamiliar, territory? If there’s a reason one loves natural wine – whether that’s taste, philosophy, or something else – then it’s hard to understand a lack of desire to see that taste/philosophy/etc. exert influence outside the fold. It’s great to welcome a new addition to the natural family. But wouldn’t it be more valuable if, say, Villa Maria abandoned inoculated yeast thanks to the influence of natural wine? If, for example, Drouhin and Jadot massively reduced their use of sulfur? If Wolfberger decided against chaptalization? No, it’s not a clear path to perfection, and the wines still won’t be “natural” by anyone’s definition. But the perfect – as the cliché goes – must not become the enemy of the good. Progress is preferable to the alternative.

That said, I don’t think industrial wine can go away. Nor should it. The demand for crushed grapes outstrips anything the natural set can provide, and especially so if I don’t mistake the generally anti-corporate inclinations of those in the natural wine cohort. Traditional wine can’t (and won’t) disappear, either. But I’d love a wine world in which the two éminences (pinot) grises were not the entire story, and in which natural wine was more than a brief appendix…or worse, a screwily-fonted footnote. To expand to chapter form, natural wines are going to have to expand the range of their thought and worldview. They’re going to have to deal with their competition. Face to face, vino a vino.

It’s easy to miss that they’re not doing this. Are you a Beaujolais booster? A Loire lover? A Jura junkie? You – and I – are in luck: the best of the appellation could very well be represented on the natural wine shelf. But what about Irouléguy? Bandol? Burgundy? The Rhône? Bordeaux?

My own personal oenopiphany of ennui occurred, I suspect, because I’m an advocate of Alsace. Now, it must be acknowledged that not many natural wine folk share my enthusiasm for the region. There are various and entirely supportable reasons why, and the whole “natural” ethos is just one of them. That said…looking at what’s on commercial offer within the category, who can blame them? Aside from Barmès-Buecher, the offerings are wildly inconsistent at best, and too often downright wretched at worst. And so, in store after bar after restaurant, the same labels appear. The same, awful wines. Or maybe the good stuff, but in any case that good stuff is still identical to the good stuff at the last place. And the place before that. And the place before that. Worse, in no sense are the pinnacles of the appellation – the benchmarks that define that potential for a region – represented. Alsace is hardly alone in this, but it is (for me, as a self-professed fan) a convenient stand-in for the complaint.

[le verre volé]Herein resides the gnarly core of the problem. It’s not that I care that much if Boxler, Weinbach, Josmeyer, Trimbach, or whoever one wants to name as their flûted standard-bearer is available in a given venue. But when they’re not available in any of them? And when the natural alternatives are similarly absent in the non-natural establishments, for reasons I dare not guess? I don’t want to overstate this as vinous apartheid, because that would be an abrasive and confrontational step too far, but it’s a separation that need not be, and the wines as separately-presented are most definitely not equal.

(A caveat: natural wines cannot always stand against alleged “benchmarks” due to the particulars of their élevage. If the pinnacle of a place is considered to be some forty-year-enabled wine, an unsulfured alternative is unlikely to be equipped to challenge that supremacy. And fair enough. But when comparisons are apt, they’re also quite valuable. Not because one should drink with winners, losers, and hierarchies always in mind, but because the qualities that make natural wine appealing are – as noted zillions of words above – most clearly defined by their alternatives. By not pointing directly at this distinction, natural wines are missing their…pardon the pun…raisin d’être.)

Natural wine needs to shed the yoke it has secured ‘round its own neck. The concentrated focus of its endorsers should continue, and should expand everywhere that is and isn’t Paris, but there’s so much more it could accomplish once it gains a firm foothold on the foundation. A full engagement with the marketplace of wines will engender a crucial, corollary engagement with the marketplace of ideas. As it stands, natural wine’s separatism allows – even encourages – a destructive factionalism. Here, for example, is a (representative, unfortunately) California winemaker on this very topic amid a recent wine forum debate about the word “natural”:

“[…] but if they say what they do is ‘natural,’ then that is a direct marketing attack on other wineries.”

To answer this: it’s mostly not (there are always exceptions), and the winemaker is being needlessly defensive, but he’s also expressing a widely-held opinion. What’s more important is that it’s a reflexive and resentful feeling that need not be. When natural wines self-segregate, they require the argument for their quality to be conducted solely with words, with philosophy, and with rhetoric. This is, necessarily, unequal to the task. Were the wines physically coequal with their otherwise-identified peers in the marketplace, the dialogue wouldn’t be one carried out in the strident, bickering, posturing tones of blogs, web fora, and print, but by the character and quality of the passion represented by each bottle. The wines would, perforce, speak for themselves.

And isn’t that what natural wines should do? Isn’t the fundamental philosophical purpose of natural wine to express without mask or interpretation? Without interlocution? Without filtering?

The Paris of my desire – and the stay will be longer next time, and much longer the time after that – should not be a carefully-constructed list of naturalia with GPS coordinates and hours of operation. It won’t be a parallel universe. It won’t be a matter of choice, of division, of convention vs. dissension. In my idealized Paris…and eventually, elsewhere…“natural” will no longer be separate, only, and first.

It will be…only natural.

A cute angle

[ste-chapelle window]With a heavenly slab of foie gras poached in Banyuls (thankfully free of any suspiciously white sauces), I ask our somewhat munchable sommelière if there’s a glass of Banyuls that might go better with it than our Condrieu. I don’t get one. Instead, she launches into a mini-soliloquy, explaining that what I really want is a dry red wine. Well, no I don’t…but she does seem convinced. I finally consent. It’s just as well she doesn’t return to inquire after the pairing, because it’s awful. We appear to have lost the love, the hottie sommelière and I.

…continued here.

Don’t rain on my café

[stirring coffee]On my very first day in Paris, I ascended the Arc de Triomphe to take in the view, then strolled down the length of this most famous of avenues. I remember the people, the chintzy foreign borrowings, and the over-the-top commerciality, but I also remember being somewhat swept away by the experience.

Well, I have no idea what I was thinking. Some memories are best left as memories, and I quickly come to resent each remembered step. What, exactly, is the appeal of the upper half of this boulevard? Except to business owners, I mean. Only as the street descends to the FDR Métro stop and commerce gives way to gardens does it become worthwhile. In fact, the stretch from there to the Place de la Concorde (my favorite “great space” in Europe) is quite striking. But my advice? If you’ve good memories of the Champs-Élysées, never, ever return. For these days, it’s little more than an avenue of regrets.

…continued here.

Terry & lair-y

[square at night]Leaving Alsace for Paris, via Metz, Burgundy, Montana…and the past. An excerpt:

Normally, this hotel would be in a prime location. I say “normally,” because it’s right behind the National Assembly, which is currently a thicket of police and barriers as the city prepares for a strike. Thankfully, this really only becomes a hassle on our last two days in Paris, while the demonstrators (mostly students) chant and throw things for a well-planned hour or two, then disperse to discuss the matter over coffee. The logistics of a French strike are something to behold.

…continued here.