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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.

Ennui.

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.

Memory, cheapened

Years ago, I had a favorite restaurant in Boston. I don’t know if it was the best restaurant in Boston (that honor has, for a long time now, belonged to No. 9 Park), but it was most certainly my favorite. I not only went every chance I could get, I sent all and sundry there whenever I received a request for advice. (Which, in those days, happened quite often.) And I’d take as many guests there as I could, every one of whom was exceedingly impressed.

The restaurant was one of a (then) very rare breed of authentically Italian outposts in the overtly Italianate (but even then gentrifying) North End of Boston…one that didn’t just rest on the easy profits of overly-familiar red sauce, pasta, veal scallopini and the like. The chef had a point of view, and also a hook: he eschewed butter and cream as foundations for his cuisine, which lightened it sufficiently for him to work an authentically Italian, yet also fundamentally modern and experimental, magic with his food.

But while the food was excellent, it wasn’t what kept me coming back.

The wine list, too, represented a particular mindset (it was also constructed by the chef). Missing were the mainstream but ever-so-boring Chiantis and pinot grigios of most of its neighbors. In their place were obscure bottlings from DOCs even the reasonably wine-savvy had never even heard of, much less tasted…wines often made from grapes virtually lost to history save for the fanatic traditionalism of a few growers.

But it wasn’t the wine list that kept me coming back, either.

On nights when it wasn’t too busy — in other words, not on weekends — the chef would gleefully participate in what is my absolute favorite kind of dining: the surprise tasting menu. Diners would tell him what they didn’t eat (or, in some cases, enter a special request for something…rabbit, for instance), and he’d construct a series of dishes and matching wines that were regularly astounding in their perfection. Not “great” cuisine with all the cultural baggage that implies, but food and wine perfectly-executed with both art and passion.

I used to love those meals. I used to live for those meals.

But, as tends to happen, one day the restaurant closed. Insiders and recipients of insider gossip (I was one of the latter) saw it coming for a while, due to factors pretty much unrelated to food or customers. And so I made sure to go back one more time, to pay a sort of homage to a chef who’d fed me so well for so long.

One of the biggest quirks on an already very quirky wine list was that the most expensive wine on it was not an old Chianti Classico Riserva, not some rare Amarone, and not some cultish Gaja. It was from Piedmont, but it was no prestige Barolo or Barbaresco. Instead, it was the Coppo Mondaccione, made from the increasingly obscure but wonderful freisa, and often considered the most “serious” among all the grapey and boisterous expressions of the grape.

So on my last visit, as the restaurant’s consistent brilliance drew to a close, the chef gave me a gift. Whether it was a thank you for the scores of diners I sent there, or for my own patronage, or from a sense of wine and food camaraderie, or as a gesture of friendship, or maybe just because he didn’t want to carry the inventory to closure, I was presented with a pristine bottle of Coppo 1995 “Mondaccione.” I put it in the cellar, and waited. Because it needed time, and because I hoped that maybe I could drink it with the chef who gave it to me.

Years passed. The chef moved on, and eventually re-entered my dining life in another role. But I forgot about the wine. One night, many years later, we managed to have the chef over for dinner, and while getting the dime tour of the cellar, he identified the wine as the one he’d gifted so many years ago. I moved it to a different rack, thinking that I’d open it for him the next time we got together.

But then, other friends — excellent, close, wine geek friends — decided to leave Boston for the Southwest. And so, we hosted a little blowout dinner for them, and the Mondaccione got opened.

Inevitably, it was corked.

When people ask me why I’m so passionately anti-cork, this is the sort of thing I tell them. Because this wasn’t just a (reasonably pricey) wine, twelve years old and theoretically definitive in its idiom. That, though at some cost, could be replaced. This was a wine that meant something to me. It had aged…at Coppo, at the importer’s and wholesaler’s warehouses, in the restaurant’s cellar, and finally in mine…for a long time. And it was full of memories. And from the moment of bottling, it was ruined by a faulty piece of tree bark that cost the winery a few cents, at which price the scandalously indifferent cork producer managed to make some sort of profit.

This morning, as I poured it down the drain, the memories smelled of moldy cardboard, and the meaning was choked off in a wringing tourniquet of fungal nastiness.

Damn you, cork. Damn you.