THE ROOTS OF TRADITION
Old World, New World
You identify as an 'Old World' wine merchant. What does this mean?
Well, I love to discover the origins of things, and with wine of course this is no exception. The focus here is to represent a product that's been carried on for generations and generations, because I think that’s where you find the true character of the wine—it's in the roots, literally.
And so I love representing wines from regions where growing grapes and making wine is simply a way of life, and has been for hundreds or thousands of years. I truly believe it’s in the cultural roots of certain grapes that the truest expression of a wine is found.
Which is not to say that I’m completely against new world wines from places such as California or Australia; but like I said, I'm very interested in origins, and as grape growing began in the middle east thousands of years ago in countries like Lebanon and Israel, and then made its way to Europe, and then eventually spread here to the US... the wines and winemakers of the old world are for me the deepest link and source of this tradition.
And as a merchant, by offering these wines you are participating in this living tradition...
Exactly. And having said that, while some old world winemakers are sticking with their traditional methods and creating wines that are a real and true representation of their terroir (the essence of the soil, the region, the whole climate...), there are other European winemakers now trying to make their wines more approachable to the new world market as well.
These makers, although they're still growing in the same soil, might let their grapes sit on the vine a little longer to ripen up, and might change some of their tactics to make their wines less tannic, less earthy in the nose, more fruit forward, things like that. And by doing this, they are in turn trying to create a wine that from a marketing perspective has a wider appeal to the new world palette.
So 'old world' and 'new world' distinctions are not just related to geography, but are also different approaches to making wine?
You could say that yes. When I look at a wine, and I look at the producer, or I am analyzing their wines, it's pretty clear to me if the wine is made in an old world style or a more modern style. Some young winemakers in their 30’s or 40’s are making wine based probably on how their father or grandfather did, and they might have the mindset of ‘I want to keep these traditions going, just the pure expression of the Nebbiolo grape from Piedmont, and it’s going to be tannic, and have all of this dirt character,' but on the flip side, you can have a Nebbiolo producer that says ‘I want to hit the bigger market out there, so I’m going to alter the grape, and make a fruitier style of wine.'
So generally speaking, new world wines are expected to be more fruit forward, whereas in the old world there's more emphasis on the subtle and earthy characteristics that reflect a particular terroir...
Yes, the new world wine style focuses more on drawing out the fruitier aspects of the grape, whereas old world wines are a combination of the grape and the terroir. And it's this relationship between the grape and the terroir that also tends to make them more contemplative, in my opinion.
And even though many new world winemakers look at the old world as the leaders or the forefathers in this respect, at the end of the day they will of course be motivated by whatever their market is—whether that's making a wine for purely profit driven purposes, or receiving high scores from Robert Parker and Wine Spectator and all of that, or just following their passion and doing what they want to do regardless.
Organic and Biodynamic
On many wine labels you now see the designation 'organic' and 'biodynamic'. What are do these distinctions say about the wine in the bottle?
Well today many people are of course becoming more conscious of how what they're eating is grown and prepared. However, although they might spend a lot of money on organic produce and meat, they still may not pay as much attention to this in regards to what they drink.
But in reality the process of farming and making a non-organic or conventional wine is actually pretty alarming. Workers have to wear hazard suits to spray chemicals on the vineyards, and those chemicals get sucked up the root of the vine, into the leaves, onto the grapes, and then get pressed into wine. And so technically we're drinking those chemicals, and although we're not really tasting them, they're getting into our system.
And so with an organic certification (as in organic farming practices in general) this means you’re not allowed to use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides in the soil or on the vine. And then regarding the actual winemaking in the winery, this has more to do with abstaining from the use of sulfur dioxide (or sulfites), which are added to conventional wines as a preservative.
So when you see a USDA certified organic stamp on a bottle of wine, this certification means that it’s organic both in viticulture and in the winemaking process itself. But the tricky thing is that you still don't really know if it's 100% organic, or 70% or 80% based on this certification, and so you may need to do your own research if you want to be sure it's completely organic.
And what about organic wines in Europe?
There are over 2,000 wineries practicing organic methods in the world right now, and France has close to 1,000 of them. There's also a strong presence of these practices in Spain, Austria, and Italy.
And where does the term 'biodynamic' come from?
The principles of biodynamic viticulture are drawn from the method of Rudolph Steiner and his philosophy of farming. And so just like organic, anything can be grown biodynamically, such as tomatoes and other produce. It takes a minimum of seven years to be certified in this method. There are a few wineries in the US practicing this way, but again the majority of them are in Europe —a lot in France and Austria— and you see them popping up more and more.
And what does this method entail?
Firstly it means you must follow the lunar calendar for harvesting every year—and a lot of people see this as somewhat cosmic and ritualistic, because you are doing things like taking a bull horn and stuffing it with manure and burying it to fertilize the vineyard, and using dried fish bones as fertilizer, and things like that... but I simply look at it as a practice that allows you to create your own ecosystem within a vineyard.
And so just like organic practices you’re not using any chemicals on anything, and you also have to pay attention to the lunar calendar, because you can only harvest the grapes on certain lunar phases, because they believe the plant is in its most optimal ripeness and ready state during that lunar phase.
And the winemakers who have converted to this method, do they say their vines have benefitted from these practices?
They do. You know, if you’re blasting a plant with chemicals, it’s not going to last as long. It’s like us as humans—if you're constantly taking medications all the time, it’s going to tax your liver, and it's the same thing with a plant. If you abstain from chemicals, you're going to get a truer, deeper flavored wine, and a vine that lives longer. And the older a vine lives, the more pure and complex the characteristics of the grape become. And that's exactly the result you get through these practices.
A Sense of Place
So you mentioned how particular regions and climates influence the overall flavor and character of a wine... can you say more about this?
Well we can look at France as an example: if you are in the Loire valley, which is further north and is a cooler climate, you're going to get crisper, more minerally whites, and higher acid reds that are maybe a bit more tannic.
And if you go a little bit further south, and dip into the Rhone valley, you'll find more muscular wines with deeper, richer fruit. It’s a lot sunnier there, which creates more concentrated flavors.
And then if you’re on the Mediterranean, the warmer climates tend to produce more fruity and rich wines —not always— but you are going to get different flavors based on the temperature and climate within that region.
And so the specific qualities of a grape can change depending on the climate as well...
Yes, take for example a chardonnay from California, a chardonnay from Burgundy, and a chardonnay from the Loire Valley- you're going to get higher acidity from the Loire, and a little more lemon and almond flavors out of Burgundy. And if you go to California, you're going to have more tropical fruit flavors; and you can still get the lemon, but it will be a very ripe lemon.
This way of experiencing wine seems to speak to the more contemplative approach you mentioned, where you're relating to the wine drinking experience in a much more comprehensive way, personally, geographically, and even culturally...
Definitely, and I think because most people don't really have this type of knowledge of the terroir and the wine making process here in the States, when we drink a glass of wine our palettes have simply grown accustomed to looking for these big rich flavors, and we're not really sensitive to these types of qualities and nuances, because we haven't been exposed to an approach that teaches us to recognize and identify them.
And speaking of different regions and cultures, how have your travels inspired you and your approach to wine?
Well the great thing about traveling is that you really get to see where all of these winemakers are living, what they are doing, and how they have been working for hundreds of years.
When we visit some of our winemakers and ask them about their vineyards, they often say 'oh it was my grandfather's, or my great great grandfather's, and this is how I’ve changed it, or how it’s changed over the years...' and you really get to see how they are doing things in the vineyard, and what they look like. It’s great when you see weeds and rosebushes and all kinds of wild plants growing in between the vineyards, because then you know it's an organic or biodynamic vineyard; where if it's pristinely groomed, although it’s pretty to look at, you know there's probably something else going on.
But it’s fun to visit all types of vineyards to see how people are doing things, because as I mentioned, everyone has a different motivation, and a different goal for the end product. It can be money, or it can be passion... you know I recently asked one of my winemakers 'why do you farm organically?' And with his son sitting next to him, he said 'because I want this vineyard to be around for my son, so he can take over when I am gone.' And that was a great statement, one that had a pretty powerful impact on me.
So it seems pretty clear that you resonate with this type of passion and commitment to winemaking...
Yes, that’s what we love to support. And a lot of people are under the assumption that a lot of these organic and biodynamic wines are going to be a lot more expensive than their counterparts, but that’s not necessarily true—there are a lot of great wines out there that you can get for under $20 a bottle.
But on the other side, a lot of the most expensive wineries in the world have also converted to organic and biodynamic farming practices. The number of these types of wine sales is growing at a much higher rate than their non-organic counterparts, and so the value of these practices are beginning to show themselves in the culture worldwide.