Tuesday, May 9, 2017

“Why, Sometimes I’ve Believed in as Many as Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast” 
 {a tasting note gone awry}

A surprise.  Then a reminder.  Then a memory.   One of my favorite things to do is paw through a wine list to find the hidden treasures as if all the lines in an open book are covered with bands of black silk ribbon over the ink, but every now and then there is an opening between the ribbons, held in place by a seamstress' pins.  Words are revealed and make a strange haiku: opal, dream, seashell, kiss.  Wines are revealed in the same way, calling forth sentiments of nostalgia, or hope, or infatuation.  These are wines that are known, sometimes intimately, that have changed the course of a life, that have inspired, or that are tantalizing as they are admired and curious because they are unknown, never before experienced, and the hope for connection, understanding, or a lightening bolt to the heart is strong.

At a table in the back room of a cozy wine bar in a warren of London {Noble Rot}, such a wine peaked through those blinds of ribbon, eyeing me with both recollection and a promise.  A first mentor's bottle of wine that had inspired me so many years ago, that challenged me, that beguiled.  A wine always full of questions, never answers, and mystery, a leap of faith.  But not only exotic, portending travels to exotic lands.  Also homespun, full of comfort, an elegant rusticity, like a fulfilling meal made from almost nothing in the larder or garden and served in a white chipped bowl on a well-worn oil cloth marked by a pattern of floating lemons and lemon leaves on a trellis, an absurd and delightful design.  A pasta with a sauce made from a clutch of flat parsley pulled from a sleeping winter garden and a tin of anchovies, somewhere an echo of preserved lemon, creating layers of salt, fruit, and oil.

I believe wine is a story.  There is a physical, sensory narrative arc that follows a beginning, middle, and end.  There is also the story of the place, the micro~climate, the culture, the plants, the winegrowers themselves.  Herein lies plenty of drama, intrigue, romance.  There is the story each of us creates when we partake of a wine that speaks to us, layers of narrative folded between the places the wine takes us in memory, present, and imagination.   This is why wine can be powerful like a book is powerful, or a painting, an opera, or a film.  This is why a wine list can be electric rather than just an obvious way of providing clear information.  If life is a story: messy, unruly, joyful, poignant, and sometimes downright melancholy, wine, a living and mercurial form, can be the same.
There were seven us at the table: a writer, an importer, five winegrowers, all tired and hungry after a long two days of a vibrant wine fair full of sweet comraderie and regard.  I ordered the Antece from 2003 grown and picked by the generous man Bruno di Conciliis who was the first to take the time to teach me something about how to make wine.  I remember well him sitting at our own table on the first day of March, snow thick on our Vermont ground.   He patiently tasted two bottles presented him, my first ever essays into wine, one made from California Barbera from some unknown source of fruit bought through one of our purveyors for our restaurant, the other a Nebbiolo shipped all the way from Italy, also peddled through the same produce vendor, a chain of supply feeding a healthy market of home winemakers.  Most likely the only Nebbiolo or Barbera I'll ever have an opportunity to make.  The wines were made in a claw~footed tub, the largest space we had in our small house, and also the warmest.  Bruno treated both homely efforts with the utmost respect and with all seriousness as he gave me a constructive critique, as if I were a fledgling art student.  Even if there was nothing else, I will forever be indebted to him for this alone.  But there are countless other moments of artless generosity that he has given me, through conversation, demonstration, and the complex instruction of his own wines.  I don't know if he will ever quite know the extent to which he profoundly effected the course of this particular life.

The cork was difficult and when the waiter tried to maneuver it out of the narrow glass neck, it broke.  The last bottle in the cellar, so it was decanted to remove any unexpected shards.  It was everything I had remembered when I first tasted this wine, maybe ten years ago?  But more mature, deeply amber,  the romantic spices, oil and salt and citrus ground closer to the earth, reminiscent of coffee and caramel, the oxidative style calling forth the chimera of a hundred year old fino sherry.

I wonder what I was doing in the summer and autumn of 2003 when this wine was grown then picked?  A hot, torturous summer in Europe, only slightly cooler in the fall.  Growing wine was nowhere on my horizon.  I can't imagine what my aspirations were at that time.  I know I was writing, tasting wine, studying wine, always assembling my wine list for the restaurant, a wine list that I hoped would excite someone else perusing it like I do so many other wine lists which have drawn me in.  I know in 2003 I was certainly eating, cooking, thinking constantly about travel, pining for return to Italy.  I have documentation of these things.  I think I painted a picture, a reproduction of a still life of peonies and a love letter, one late autumn night.  Did I think I might try my hand at being a lady painter?  Did I still want to be a writer?  Had I started to think what it might be like to sit for a Master of Wine?  The things we remember; the things we forget.

I like considering the cross~sections of Time, where we mark our own stories with another’s.  I believe the experience of a wine can encourage forays down such richly decorated rabbit holes, like the Antece, on this one night in London has done for me.  Where were the paths trod long before they were connected and joined or only crossed?  I like drawing the map after the fact.  What are the coordinates between me and the birth of the 2003 Antece in the volcanic soils of the south of Italy and this moment fourteen years later drinking a last and broken bottle at a table in London?

There are too many stops and coincidences, occurences that lead me to a belief in fate.  But I have two distinct memories that come easily to the surface and will forever be a part of my story of Antece.  In both, it is springtime, south of Naples.  We are with Bruno in a small hillside vineyard planted to Fiano, in the morning, facing away from the sea.  The vines are planted in a field of silvered green oats that almost reach the young arms of the vines.  We pick wild asparagus at the edges of the vineyard, on the edge of forest.  Later the asparagus will be made into an omelet.  Later we will realize the car is stuck in the mud at the foot of the vineyard.

In the other memory, Caleb and I are on the outskirts of Bruno's town, sent to see the ancient ruins of Paestum that define this part of the world.  We are in a meadow of red spring poppies and yellow flowers that I do not know.  Five sandstone temples are ghosts of the urban center that once was.  I can imagine the voices of market-sellers shouting, the sound of horses’ hooves or carriage wheels on stone, a perfume of roasting pork.  But such excursions are drowned out by the oddity of the present-day silence in the meadow.  The other visitors don't speak.  It is the most natural and wild formal ruin I've had the opportunity, the luxury, to stand in, the scent of salt, wild flowers and sun on the air.  The bones of the temples in this roofless cathedral weigh us down with each exhale and the immense history of it all and then exalt us with each intake of breath and the delicacy of the future.  There is nothing else possible but to be silent.

It is in the flash of a few moments at the table in the restaurant that this complete process occurs.  The finding of the wine on the list, the story of it we share together at the table, the tiny interior cinema of a sea~green hillside in the Cilento or the yellowed pumice of a Doric column, that moment of the ordering and opening, each of our seven individual experiences of it~some told, some unspoken~ my own burrow of associations and images.  This is the beauty and heartbreak of wine, these particular wines that a person who lives and works with wine will always remember, wines that even the casual taster will be struck by if they stop for a moment to notice, the transport backward and forward, all of our courses altered in some way by the experience and how it resonates within us, soothes us, or shakes us.  We are changed, even if we don't know it, our cells and synapses fire beneath the surface rerouting our personal maps.  If we take the time to consider, we may understand how we are moved, even just the fact that we are moved, even if we can't fully piece together our response in that moment. 

Our complex bodies and brains tied together by these unquantifiable emotions will shift and dodge us in new directions.  The catalyst~a wine, a food~sustenance sprung from the earth, from the farthest reaches of history, is ephemeral, a small moment, perhaps only the evolution of an evening.  Then it is gone.  It is not stagnant.  Even if we return to the same wine from the same vintage, it will never be the same because it is a living organism that is in constant flux.  As are we.  Yet, it will always contain the network of images or memories already associated with that bottle.  This is why I so strongly believe wine is wondrous, why a wine list might be considered a work of art.  They both have the ability to craft a new memory on top of others, sewn into the tapestry of our thinking, breathing selves that creates our individual history and connects it like a silken spiderweb to the ground we walk on, the sky at which we gaze, and the innumerable people and places to which we become tethered and can effect the outcomes of this little thing we call our lives.

I haven’t had a chance to see or speak to Bruno in several years.  The sad fact of living thousands of miles away and having rigorous schedules of farming and traveling.  Every time I want to write him to tell him what is happening in our fields or in the cellar, the little triumphs and the hard-felt travesties, I put it off because I want to have the time to write something of substance, something real, and time has become this commodity that I feel I don’t have.  The last time we spoke, we were in a bar in New York before a wine dinner.  I had brought samples of our second vintage in mason jars in a bag slung over my shoulder.  The evening was not long enough. 

This is in a way that letter to Bruno, a tasting note gone awry about a wine that caught my attention, and continues to catch my attention, will always catch my attention, this evocation a way to thank him, to tell him that I know he is there always, a guide and a friend, and how much the presence is felt.  The gift of an unexpected morning in a flat in London, the unraveling of wine, a storyLike Alice, in Wonderland, I chased the thread all morning down one of those baroque rabbit holes until it brought me up here, to a place of gratitude and humility before the power of friendship, imagination, love, before the power of wine.  To be reminded that, in spite of everything else, this is the joy of where we are now, the map being drawn in this moment, being happily caught between earth and sky.   

Saturday, March 25, 2017

{a guide of what to expect when you come to the tavernetta}

Imagine the tiniest of spaces in a narrow calle off the lagoon in Venice. The air is brisk and damp, the kind that seeps deep into your bones, and there is the pungency of woodsmoke spicing the air.  You are a little hungry and little thirsty, and there is a painted wooden doorway with no windows, but a sign to let you know that you might find something to sustain inside.  You've either stumbled across this door, lost because you've been following the faint music of a cello playing alongside a viola, hoping for an impromptu concert in a niche, or the sound of the instruments in practice coming out of an open window three floors above you, or this little wedge of a space has been recommended 
by an older woman you met last night
at the table next to you in a cafe on the piazza.  

She left a kiss of bright red lipstick on the edge of her white hot chocolate cup, but her nails were cut short and there were callouses on her strong fingers which made you trust her.  She told you to go during the afternoon, at that moment when you realize the lunch you ate was not quite enough, or that you forgot lunch all together because you had late breakfast at your hotel.  You don't need much, just a little something, and a glass, an n'ombra de vin, a shade of wine, as they say.  A bastardization of a notion from the middle ages when sellers would call out their wares, for spices, bread, cheese, wine in the piazza 
in the shadow of the big cathedral on a hot summer's day,
come and have a glass of wine in the shade!  
And while today it is too cold to look for shade,you like the idea of this shade of wine,or in another meaning, the spirit.  

As you walk into the tiniest of spaces, a glorified closet really, you narrow yourself between the few people sitting and those standing and come up to the bar.  You take a cup of hot soup and a small glass of something sparkling and find an open spot at the side of the room where you can lean against the wall.  You look at the shelves of wine thinking about what you might like to take home with you later.  Maybe you'll open a bottle from here at the hotel tonight,or you'll pack it snugly in your suitcase,a tangible memory of this very afternoon.  

You set your ombra down on the corner of the table because you see the other patrons standing do the same, and those few sitting happily make room for your glass.  When you are done sipping your soup, you head back to the bar and ask for another ombra, but something dry and white this time, and crostini
with smoked salmon and fresh ricotta.  And this is how the afternoon proceeds,
an interlude in a dream.

This is how we imagine our little space at the back of our barn, a garage really, a place to come and share in breaking bread and raising glasses together. It is casual and full of the bubbling of bright conversation just like the bubbles we serve in the glass.  On a cold, snowy winter's afternoon, or in the hot laziness of summer, you come to order one ombra, or two, or three, or four, a flight, because they are so small, and then you order one, two, or three little dishes for something to have with your wine.  You sit, or more likely you stand around the table, just like you would in that little place you found down an alley in an old, baroque city, and  it doesn't really matter because you are talking to your neighbor or the friends you
came with, and you are buoyed by the the warmth, the sustenance,
and the companionship of the moment.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Letter to the New, the Tentative, the Curious, Nervous, Thoughtful, Inspired, Learning, Adventurous, and Hopeful Wine Drinker

Dear Gentle Reader~

I initially set out to write an open letter to the venerable Mr. Hugh Johnson, the author and wine writer from London who has been a longtime voice in the appreciation and study of wine.  I began writing with the greatest respect, as I cut my teeth on Mr. Johnson’s wine books in the earlier years of my studies as I prepared myself to create and manage the Italian wine list of the osteria that Caleb and I opened twenty years ago.  My desire to connect directly with Mr. Johnson was in response to an article he wrote recently in Decanter Magazine entitled Do We Need a NaturalWine Alternative?”  I began this open letter in a flurry of thoughts and questions on a very late night after a bustling dinner service.  After my initial burst, life got in the way and my letter sat unfinished for a week.

Inspiration, or a kick in the pants, comes in many fiery forms.  Madame Alice Feiring, another equally formative wine writer and author whom I admire a great deal just posted today on her lively blog “The Feiring Line” a response to this article in “When Hugh JohnsonTalks About Natural Wine.”  She linked her post on the round table of social media and the thoughtful and exacting dialogue that ensued lighted another fire for me.  In my own commentary in the thread I mentioned I was working on an open letter to Mr. Johnson. I was encouraged to think about taking a different tack: we all know how badly it can turn out when we try to change another’s mind, but to write an open letter “to those starting in wine…is time better spent” was and is a challenging and humbling notion.

So, I write to you: The New to Wine, to the Tentative, Nervous, Curious, Thoughtful, Inspired, Learning, Adventurous, and Hopeful.  I write to you who are sitting at the table just beginning your journey and relationship with wine, and I write to you, the new, aspiring winegrower and winemaker.  In the dialogue on social media there was a lot of discussion about educating and engaging young people about the beauties and idiosyncrasies of wine, but you are not only young of age.  You are indeed the young woman who recently moved to Vermont to learn, to share, to experience, to plot and forge ahead in the world that we call natural wine.  You are the young man who works for a more conventionally directed wine producer in the Berkshires, but has a strong desire to farm his own vines biodynamically and to work minimally in the cellar.  You are the young couple who sat at table 13 last week in New York City at a wine dinner that hosted Caleb and me and our wines, intrigued and game; you are the young woman, or man, who have traveled back and forth from Vermont, to California, to South America, to Australia, to Tasmania for wine harvests in both spring and fall to learn this intricate and magical world of tending to a vine that in the end results in the mercurial liquid that is wine.  You are the retired gentleman who came for a day of harvest with us this past autumn, eager and bright in the eyes with a want for learning more about tasting and enjoying wine.  You are a skilled and established journalist of thirty years who moved from Los Angeles and lives now ten minutes down the road and just planted a small vineyard and is farming it biodynamically; you are the woman who is segueing from a career in perfume and is fascinated by the scent and structure of wine. You are the couple at our own restaurant table who asks me for a big, jammy California Cabernet or Super Tuscan who shrugs and says “Okay” when I say we don’t have any wine like that, but I will bring something that we can talk about that you might enjoy.  You are the young woman in her last year of college studying at a viticulture program in Bordeaux who’s special project is working on a team helping a conventional Chateau producer transition to organic and natural methods. You are another college student who just took a two week History of French Wine course in Paris where it became clear that camps have been drawn about how to approach wine, which has left you with lots of questions and a new-found wish to learn more.  You are the husband, or the single woman, who just last week said you knew nothing about wine, that you would drink anything, but who took a photo of all the labels of the wines you tasted at the end of the evening armed with information on where to find more of the same, taking your first real interest in what is in your glass.  You are the person on the threshold who doesn’t even know that any of this will happen in your future.

In an open letter, what might I share with you?  How might the Decanter piece by Mr. Johnson influence what I might like to write?  For I, too, am still at the beginning of my own journey with wine, and that is one of the pleasures of it.  We can never know all there is to know.  Wine is like a treasure map and scavenger hunt rolled into one.  Every time you reach a destination, you realize you have yet to arrive. And in particular, what might I want to share about this starry and earthy world of natural wine?

Firstly, I would like to share the reminder that the history of wine always leads us to the table.  Fermentation was the direct result of the need for survival, the need to make food that would last.  Wine was a way to preserve fruit for longer than its season.  We took sustenance, energy and delight from what fermentation provided.  I constantly remind myself that at the core, wine is food, and is an expression of a place and the people around it.

On the road of wine, I might encourage caution: caution of what you hear and what you read; a reminder to hold true to your own experience.  Wine is a venue full of emotions, opinions, stories, rumors, facts, history, projections.  I would suggest a caution against hubris: It is easy as you delve into wine to become haughty with what you have learned, how you might be able to tell a Sangiovese from a Nebbiolo in a blind tasting.  It is easy to be defiant, to protect what you have learned as the only way to learn.  It is easy to become opinionated without being open. This is not to say you can’t hold strong opinions on wine, I do myself, but it is important to do so with understanding, and always compassion in the dialogue.  It is important to have an open ear, and an open eye.

This is where things can get potentially murky.  Lines begin to be drawn, sides chosen.  You are “either”; you are “or”.  Right now one of the most potent dialogues circling around wine is the one whirling around natural wine.  You may already know about natural wine, or you may know nothing, wondering, “isn’t all wine natural?”  Before moving forward, it is important to understand that all wine is not naturally grown, or made.  There, I’ve done it.  I just drew a wide line in the clayey soil at my feet. 

You can grow wine in what has become known as a conventional manner, meaning that the farming uses synthetic chemicals, and that you allow yourself to use a variety of chemical manipulations in the winery.  My use of the word chemical is intentional here.  I think the basic understanding of chemical is that of a compound or substance that has been purified or prepared artificially.  But an organic chemist once pointed out to me that all materials used in farming and in a winery, whether organic or synthetic, are actually considered chemical.  The importance is using the correct descriptor of what kind of chemical.  This becomes crucial when discussing low-intervention wine, or wine manipulated in the cellar, or the kinds of agricultural chemicals used in the field.  In the United States, over 70 additives (including both synthetic and organic chemicals) are allowed in bottled wine.  The most usual ones cited are artificial color, tannin, sulfites, isinglass, egg whites.  But what of copper sulfate, polyoxethylene 40 monostearate, lysozyme, or ferrocyanide?   They too can find their way into what we drink labeled in a bottle called wine.

So we go forward with the knowledge that not all wine made in the 21st century is  inherently natural.  There are producers and wine journalists and appreciators who believe that true and real wine is grown in the field and that if the work has been done well, very little is done in the winery other than to provide a clean space and vessel and shepherd the fermentation and aging.  While others believe that one should be allowed to do whatever is necessary to make a “good” bottle of wine.  Whether it is saving a crop with a synthetic chemical tool, or using a spinning cone in the cellar to deconstruct a wine, and put it back together again based on the winemaker’s desire and image. There are those who are extremely dogmatic on both sides.  Everyone else falls somewhere along the spectrum.

And there, I have drawn a second line with the use of the word “good”.  What is good wine?  How do we know?

Mr. Johnson lays it out in established assumptions for us. “…wine depends on certain assumptions (of clarity, stability, and a balance between strength, sweetness, and acidity) and the sort of conventions enshrined in appellation systems.”  In the social media dialogue on Alice Feiring’s FaceBook page the question in response to a conversation about these assumptions was asked by another wine journalist and importer, Marko Kovac, “Why? Set by whom? When? How?”  These are fair questions.

Mr. Johnson went on to write, “’Natural’ doesn’t even come into it; these are works of craftsmanship; even, occasionally, art.  Does a winemaker, then, have the right to sell me something that ignores, flouts, the winemaking conventions that I rely on?”
These are the assumptions that Mr. Johnson relies on, an age~old criteria set down by French, Italian, German wine appellations whose main goals were to protect a patrimony.  Mr. Johnson has every right to write these questions for himself.  This is what he believes the criteria are for “good” wine.  It is the criteria of his generation and the wine conversation that was important at that time.  But these are not my criteria. 

It is important to remember that the deeming of a wine as “good” or “correct” is always, essentially, subjective.  My palate and your palate are forever different; we will never taste the same things.  We may gravitate to completely different styles.  I like higher-toned alpine wines, you might like broader, more tannic wines.  Our experience of acidity in a wine may be completely different.  I might prefer young wines; you might  prefer wines with bottle age.  What I see as clarity or cloudiness may be different than your perception.  At home, we have an antique painted cabinet.  Caleb says it is blue, I say it is grey.  When we both look at a really dark, inky color, I often say it is black, and he sees dark green.  Who is correct? 

Of course, criteria must be discussed, or we would have no system for dialogue or understanding or language about wine.  I find the natural wine camp to have reached a very logical, reasonable, simple evaluation for judging the end result of wine itself: Is the wine balanced?  This is. of course, after another set of criteria put forward by natural wine supporters, which is focused on a few basic tenets: the farming must be organic or biodynamic in some way; the natural yeasts on the fruit and in the cellar must be what fire the fermentation; no additional additives in the wine, and little to no sulfite used in the process.

As a wine drinker, a wine director, and wine producer these are the most practical, sensible questions that I think can be asked about the nature of wine and the vocabulary with which we can best discuss a wine.  A wine with a slightly higher volatile acidity might bring a plain wine into brilliance much like the elements of the five flavors in food create an inexplicable and magical experience.  Volatile acidity is considered by many to be a flaw, not to mention different kinds of issues like brett and mousiness that are often associated with more quirky natural wines and also considered major flaws in the criteria understood by tasters like Mr. Johnson.  My mother always told me that true beauty was never about perfection.  That is too antiseptic--boring even--and also deceitful.  True beauty lies in revealing at least one flaw, yet retaining balance.  It is what intrigues, elevates, surprises, and enchants.  It is mystery. It is what makes a wine enjoyable.

I would posit that a wine being “natural” has everything to do with a wine being truly good.  There are wines--some of the most storied and expensive wines in the world-- that fall into the “natural wine” criteria. (Interestingly, these wines are never mentioned by those who favor conventional wines.)  I think a wine can only approach art or be art if it is grown naturally in the field.  The wine becomes about the relationship of the winemaker and the vines, the narrative they create together.  Even in natural negociant wines, the maker has a relationship to the vineyard and the farmer doing the majority of the work. Not only does it have everything to do with it, I believe it is crucial if wine is to aspire to be sublime.

I have never understood the strong, often vitriolic responses to the language of wine described as “natural.”  I see from Mr. Johnson’s recent piece in Decanter even he sees how futile and divisive the argument and the word have become.  But I also do not understand why such a bucolic and benign word elicits such controversy.  Or why wine writers feel it must be replaced.  Writers will be writers and traffic in the currency of words, and I admire the gravitational pull to the tools of the poet, chiseling language until it is prismatic and pointed.  But there is an explicitness and fluidity to the use of the word natural in relation to wine that I believe serves the conversation well.

One of the things that concerns me in this heated kind of discussion is that the detractors are always ready to announce that all natural wines are bad--the antithesis of the “good”-- and poorly made.  What was an opinion becomes absolute.  Certainly, there are wine producers at all different levels and vintages with different kinds of problems, and like in anything, natural wine can be unbalanced.   But what of the discussion of conventional wines that are just as poorly made, that are just as unbalanced?  These are never cited by natural wine detractors. I would put those wines actually in a lower category because they can’t even put forward that they were grown organically or with an eye toward building soil and protecting terroir.  Not to mention the sheer nutritional or health issues around synthetic chemical farming.  But that is a whole other discussion for another day.

This digression leads me back to Mr. Johnson’s quip about the right of the winemaker to sell him something that openly defies his set of criteria and conventions.  There is fear in this statement: fear of being foolish, of good money after bad, of not subscribing to the trendy caprices of the modern somm.  He is not the only one to voice this sentiment.  But what do we have to be afraid of in wine?   Somehow wine has become something we fear, that we don’t understand, that we will not know the right words to describe, not be able to choose the right wine, not like a wine with which we are presented.  We are afraid of what others will think.  The language and mystique created by the establishment of criteria and conventions that has surrounded wine in the modern era has come to alienate us.  But the establishment of criteria and conventions aside, the answer seems plain:  Mr. Johnson, just like you, or me, also has the right to refuse that bottle of natural wine, just like any wine, brought to the tableside.  The winemaker is not foisting wine upon any of us, any kind of wine, conventional or natural.  There are no arms being twisted, no torture tactics employed.  We each have the free will, at least at this juncture in the free world, to choose what we would like to drink.   

When I saw a suggestion for a new word for natural wine in the word 'alternative', I found myself bristling.  Perhaps  Mr. Johnson was looking to the use of alternative as in the usage of Alternative music, something other than what the establishment puts forward.  But in the end, I find something patronizing in this use of the word, as if natural wine is a second class citizen to conventional wine.  I have written before in defense of the term natural wine, and real wine, and at the risk of repeating myself, I will include those thoughts here. 

“What I like about both terms is that they are deliberately specific and broad.  Natural wine was originally coined by the French as vin naturel, and it was meant to indicate a wine that had been made with as little intervention as possible both in the field and in the cellar, with native yeasts and little to no sulfites.  I like the idea of natural wine because it doesn’t pin down the definition.  It allows for a variety of approaches and philosophies.  Wine grown organically and biodynamically can fall under the big-tent definition of natural wine. 

I like the terms natural or real wine because they promote the shared belief that wine is grown in a vineyard free from synthetic chemicals and pesticides, and that the will or ego of the producer intervenes as little as possible in the cantina.  It allows every producer to respond to his or her season and location without having to follow the same set of prescriptive rules.

I understand the desire to define real or natural wine precisely, but I find the effort too restrictive.  Growing and fermenting wine naturally is a fluid process and the words used to describe it should also be fluid.”

So rather than cooking up new words to describe the longest held approach to making wine as if it were newfangled or a fad, let’s sit around the table together and taste.  Virtually or in~person.  Let’s have a conversation that is not marred by blinders and fury.  Let’s have a shared experience that connects us to the land from which our food and wine come and the people who farm it, the ones who prepared it in the kitchen, or those who fermented it in the cellar.  Rather than superimposing the idea of alternative over natural, let’s go back to the origins, and in the experience of these things that are grown and prepared with care and intention, with survival in mind, of life, love, and culture, perhaps we can do away with the derision and this tired fight, and you: the New, the Tentative, Nervous, Curious, Thoughtful, Inspired, Learning, Adventurous, and Hopeful Wine Drinker, in the wonder that is in all beginnings can bring the conversation to life again, to joy, and to more transcendant, yet very natural pastures.

{excerpt from An Unlikely Vineyard: The Education of a Farmer and Her Quest for Terroir, chelsea green publishing}

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

rumors come. rumors go.

Rumors come.  And rumors go.  We all are subject to them at some point or another.  Through our twenty years at 
{osteria} pane e salute~yes, it
was twenty years in November!~we've had some doozies.  Our best~loved speculations are that I seem to be perennially pregnant, that Caleb is still twenty, and my most favorite of all is that we are heirs to a great fortune.  
Would that that were true. 

There have always been the rumors that we are closed, or closing. It seems like almost every season this one circulates when we leave the restaurant to turn our attention to pruning, planting, or harvesting.  We also seem to still be re~opening, probably much to the chagrin of the originating storytellers, turning up like a bad penny every other season as for the past few years we've been working the summer and winter angle, closing our doors during spring and fall.

But life does change, shifts take place, the earth moves under our feet.  In these two decades of life at pane e salute, we have gone from village bakery and cafe, to lunch eatery, to osteria.  We've gone from early days of trying to source as locally as possible per the inspiration of our one-time life in Italy to the growing of our own prime ingredients.  We've gone from the well-honed dream of owning a little village restaurant to the experiment of growing wine on our own land.  In all these scenarios, one thing has stayed constant, the kitchen and the dishes which feed us and you, feed our spirit,
and the table where we share it all.

And what an amazing twenty years it's been full of adventure, good friends,  hard work, lots of love and tales to tell.  Stories to fill an era.  Or even two.

We have always been attracted to new adventures and new stories, and pane e salute's identity has evolved so many times since 1996.  Evolution, or revolution, comes around again.  Our winter season will run through mid~April, and then we will open our hands and let go of this sweet little space in Woodstock that has served us so well and hope that another young chef, or sommelier, or baker will be smitten with these spring green walls and tiny kitchen and make it their new home.

We don't think of this as a closing.  More of a moving, a transitioning.  The {osteria} will make way for the tavernetta and we will be able to consolidate all our farming, cooking, and winery efforts in one place, up at the homefarm, that seductive spot of land on the edge of a forest.  Hart will be open once a week, either as a kind of wine bar, our official winery "tasting room", or as a petite diningroom.  We won't be open to the public like the {osteria} has been, but rather we will continue to run it privately through our email list like we have for the pop~ups this last year. 

Many of you won't be surprised by these changes.  We see them ourselves as organic and feel we have been slowly and naturally moving toward this outcome for some time now.  We encourage you to come see us at the {osteria} before mid~April if you'd like to get one more visit in here, and we also hope you will transition with us, if you already haven't, and come see us up at the homefarm.  While changes like this are always bittersweet, we plan on doing plenty of celebrating, toasting to the {osteria} as we have known and loved it, and to the new tavernetta which will herald a new narrative.


So to that end, we'll be back at it again
a couple more times this month
celebrating at the tavernetta in this little corner of the Chateauguay.  

Sunday, January 22, just a few days after three of the moons of Jupiter~Io, Europa, and Callisto~show themselves,  we'll open the doors for the bar a vin from 1~5 in the afternoon.  

We'll divide guests into two groups: 1~3, and 3~5,

so let us know if one time suits you better than another.  
Small plates, shadows of wine, good cheer. 

Hart: tavernetta~bar a vin , Sunday, January 22nd,  1~5 pm.  

Limited space. 

RSVP per usual. @ lagaragista@gmail.com


Again on Sunday, January 29th,
a couple of days before the Moon, Venus, and Mars find themselves in a cirlce, 
we'll be opening up for another afternoon
of glass raising and good winter cheer.  
Two groups: 1~3 + 3~5.  
Let us know your time preference and we'll try to honor. 

Hart: tavernetta~bar a vin , Sunday, January 29th,  1~5 pm.  

RSVP only. Limited space. 

@ lagaragista@gmail.com.

#hart #baravin #tavernettaforestiera #garageproject #lagaragista #domainedelaforet #onetinykitchen #alpinewine #vtwine

Sunday, December 11, 2016

at the homefarm


long time, no see 

I have been having the itch to write again.  I've noticed it in the lengthy texts I write to friends, and the wine notes I record that somehow have the opportunity to become poems.  After the last book which took three years to write and a Herculean amount of energy, after I turned in those last pages, after the book came out, I wasn't sure I'd ever have anything to write again.  I felt like I'd used it all up in An Unlikely Vineyard and that I'd exhausted any avenue of what I might have to share further.

When people have kindly asked me, "Are you working on something else?" or "Are you writing?" I've been saying "No" in response, without elaboration and rather unapologetically.  Because what has there been to say? After a time, I began answering with the notion that I might pick up fiction again, but only genre.  "Maybe I'll write romances, or European-style mysteries.   Can you think of a good pen name?" I'd quip, and laugh. But for a writer, or someone who associates themselves with the written word, it's not necessarily a laughing matter.  To suddenly be rendered relatively mute, to not be inspired to put something down to paper or screen, is a loss.  But maybe I've never really thought of myself truly as a writer because I am other things?

I am a winegrower, that I know deep in the belly of my bones.  I am a farmer, a restaurateur, a sommelier of sorts.  I grow flowers.  I like to harvest vegetables, to take photographs.  I like to set the table, paint walls, create a landscape.  And I might call myself by any of these things at any time.  But "writer" has always seemed elusive, or forgotten.  And when I felt that perhaps An Unlikley Vineyard was my last hurrah, maybe the last book, I tried not to grieve, to worry, to feel like a part of me had come to an end and it was time to move on.  I don't like endings.  The end of a meal is melancholy.  An empty glass is full of tristesse. The end of a story often ends in tears.  I only gravitate toward beginnings.  The first taste, the first glass, the first time.  I stitch these together to make up my days. So, the notion that this particular time might herald the end of my writing, the end of an era in so many aspects of my life, hasn't seemed appealing.  And somehow easy to not acknowledge.  I can keep focusing on those beginnings.  My husband Caleb and I are good at those, and we keep turning to them.

Then sometime a few months ago, I began writing longer captions to photographs I would post, or writing snippets of images or memories down in the notebook on my phone.  The notes in my farming and fermentation journal have become toothier and more existential. Something was changing, shifting, drawing me.  I got the notion that I might re~engage in this blog.  But I wondered if it was worth the time and energy.  Would I actually come here to write?  Would anyone else join me? I came around to the idea that this would simply be a place to take notes and write ideas down again.  It would be for me to record, and if anybody wanted to come along for the ride, grand.

Then it started to happen.  Ideas for books.  Something about poems and memories sketched by the portrait of a wine. Then there was something about a Frenchman who came to America in the 1800's and grew grapes, made wine, and his connection to a grape varietal from which I make a wine.  A little animal inside of me cocked it's ears. And then there was something about food, gardens, harvests, tables, telling the tale as it's happening, bringing that table home.  It was like something sharp and precise on my tongue, the taste of something salty egging me on.

I returned to these practically defunct pages, like an old house where the old lady died a few years ago and the great-grand-niece comes to consider laying claim to the structure.  I tinkered with the idea of a simple renovation. I struggled.  Then it was done.  Ready and waiting for whenever I wanted to start.  If I wanted to start.   I saw the date of the last post I made: December 11, 2013.  I saw an opportunity, to christen the endeavor with a bit of luck, maybe even magic.  I could publish my first new post on December 11, a Sunday, three years later.  I'm a believer in cycles and the number three.  I believe most cycles happen in three.  I could start again and see where these pages lead.

So here I am writing.  It's hard to shut up a writer.  Once a writer, always a writer?  Probably.  I worry that I won't feel inspired or have time to write anything down the next time I visit, and this will be a false start. There will be wine to bottle, or a dinner to serve, or vines to be pruned, or seedlings to start.  But here is my hope: An update if you will, every month, not unlike the postcards I send out about what is happening at the farm, in the winery, at the osteria.  But to have this space to go a little deeper, or a little more fragmented, or a little more poetic, whatever the medium provides.  A place to record recipes that we're serving in the new tavernetta, or a tasting note about a wine that has fully captured my attention, or thoughts on an article about wine or food or art that causes introspection, or a photograph of a sliver of moon rising above the winery at the blue-black moment of dusk, a bright Venus sparking the sky below the crescent.

It's here I'll give it another go.  Let me know if you're reading, if you want to pop in and say hello.  I'll be here, and would love the company.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

half moons on a half moon

A long time ago, in the hills above Greve in Chianti, was a little restaurant.  It was, in reality, a social club that provided a communal space for a village that consisted of a cluster of buildings clinging to one turn in the road. The building that held the restaurant also had a cafe~bar that served pastry brought up from the big town at the bottom of the hill;  short dark, creamy coffees; and a glass of something necessary on a cold winters night.  Between the cafe~bar and the little trattoria was a makeshift ballroom where they held dances every other Saturday night.

Every weekend both the restaurant and cafe~bar were open.  Friday night through Sunday night.  In the trattoria was a woodfired, beehive oven.  In the oven, the two cooks, a mother and daughter, made pizzas as thin as sheets of music; they roasted birds of every kind, and maybe the shoulder or leg of a pig; and they boiled water for the weekend's special pasta. The pasta would get made on Thursday nights, late after everyone had gotten home from work, dinner had been cooked, eaten, and put away, and the children sent to bed.  In the home kitchen in one of the houses on the hill above the trattoria, the pasta dough would be mixed and rolled in the quiet of the night.  Little shapes would be cut out of thin and perfectly integrated dough with the lip of a juice glass, then stuffed and sealed for the next evening's offereings.  More could be made on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning.  When the work was done, the night would be finished with a tin cup of latte macchiato, milk warmed on the stove a stained with just a little bit of very strong coffee, the effects of the coffee completely canceled out by the comforts of the milk.

This is how I learned to make ravioli on a cold autumn into winter night with only stars and big half moon hanging in the sky, and a warm fire to accompany us.

For the pasta dough:
3/4 cup flour
1 egg
a few drops of water-dependent on egg and flour
big pinch of salt

Mix all together first with a fork then your hands bringing the flour and egg together just enough to stay together.  Only add the drops of water as needed for additional moisture.  The dough should be moist and ragged, but not wet or sticky.  Let rest for at least twenty minutes before rolling out.

To roll out, flour your surface well, and keep flouring as you go along.  Always roll from the center out.  Flip the dough and flour your surface.  Roll out until the dough is silky and supple and thin.  Begin cutting circles with your juice glass until you've taken everything you can from the sheet of dough.  Take the remainder of dough and make a ball, let rest while you fill your ravioli.

Then take your left over ball of dough, roll out as above until you have your sheet of dough.  Cut shapes, fill and seal.  Keep doing this process until you no longer have any dough left.

The filling you use for your ravioli is up to you.  Ricotta-based fillings are always nice as are pumpkin or spiced winter squash. Place your filling slightly off-center, and fold the dough over so that the circle makes a half moon.  Seal the edges of the dough together with your fingers.  Finish by an extra and decorative seal with the flat side of the tines of fork.

Lately, we've been making a filling of fresh ricotta mixed with a puree of Asian pear and seasoned to taste with salt, pepper, cinnammon, and just a bit of nutmeg.  Mix just enough of the pear sauce into the ricotta for taste and texture.

When you cook the fresh pasta (you can freeze them or let them dry for a day), they are ready when the ravioli float to the top of the boiling water.  We like to let them go just a little longer until the edges of the pasta feel a little soft.

A simple sauce of warmed butter and fresh sage is always perfect.  Heat the butter and sage with salt and pepper to taste, heated enough to release the essential oils of the herb; the edition of a grated parmigiana or grana and/or a slivered and warmed prociutto or pancetta makes a very nice and flavorful addition.


Monday, November 25, 2013

in anticipation

It has been a long time since we've stayed on the homefarm for the month of November.  Usually, we take this time to travel for rest and to find new inspiration.  But because of a long list of autumn farm and winery chores and the imminent deadline for a new book, we have stayed put and had to look to home for little revelations.

Vermont in November shows an austere and elegant landscape.  The lacey branches of the trees, the stark contours of hillsides, the smoky tendrils of woodfires.  The colors of land and sky are naturally muted: blue-grays, browns, soft blacks, translucent mauves.  The gardens still produce.  Curly lettuces and dark purpled radicchio, tempered orange carrots and ivory parsnips, creamy potatoes and white-fleshed apples, forest-green striped squash and flat baskets of stil- ripening tomatoes from our late harvest.  In our tiny kitchen, there is much to inspire.  The soup made of pumpkin and leeks, baked tomotoes stuffed with goat cheese and herbs, little tartlets of caramelized endive, sausages roasted with apples.

Thanksgiving week finds us giving thanks for time spent quitely on the farm.  We'll spend the holiday here too, looking forward to a long table set in finery and a long menu to while away the morning with cooking and the afternoon with eating and drinking.  We've settled on four courses.  Caleb will cook the main and the dessert; I will look after the antipasto and primo.  A rosso di Valtellina suggestive of spiced cranberries and roast turkey momentarily seduces, but we return to our original plan of Vermont quail.  We've saved apples out from the cider harvest for dessert.  November has brought me nostalgia and I will make ravioli just like I learned late at night in another little kitchen in Italy.  We have a pot of duck liver pate at the ready to kick things off with something decidely sparkling.  The other details have yet to fall in place.  Final flourishes and wines to accompany.  We have a few early mornings in front of the fire still left to pour over cookbooks and old restaurant menus with coffee in hand.  

The November landscape not only inspires in the kitchen, but also the table.  In thinking about our Thursday meal, we collect a handful of objects from woods and meadow, from pantry and china cabinet, and challenge ourselves to dress the table in November.  And this last Thursday in November will come, still bountiful with harvest and our happy gratitude. Happy Thanksgiving!