for George, with gratefulness
Danger, and Excitement: Giving Time to Wine
“A new approach or trend in wine is not exciting right off.” Bobby Stuckey tells me, “first it’s dangerous.” Stuckey is a Master Sommelier with a wealth of experience in Northeastern Italy (and elsewhere), as well as co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado, and the wine label Scarpetta. Stuckey’s idea of danger and excitement are meant to point out the challenge that a new discovery in wine carries with it.
The first introduction to a brand new style can offer such a break with previous expectations of wine that, as Ryme winemaker Ryan Glaab put it, the experience “is mind scrambling.” The feeling is dangerous when put up against old standards for judging wine that have grown inflexible. For those that remain malleable, however, an encounter with what’s new moves us past the danger zone into excitement–the first glimpses of new information giving charge to experience.
We’re discussing the idea of responsibility in the wine world when Stuckey touches on the role that knowledge and education plays. In order to make his point, Stuckey compares the oft discussed orange wine phenomenon to the surge in interest on Alsace that occurred in the mid-90s United States. When attention first turned to Alsace, a lot of sommeliers didn’t adequately understand the region–sweet wines? dry wines? what grapes? “It took a couple years for people to figure out what was going on,” he says. “We’re doing that right now with orange wines.”
The point behind Stuckey’s comparison, is that it takes time to genuinely understand new regions, or approaches to wine, let alone to simply gather basic knowledge. “Wine buyers need to take time to figure it out.” A mistake occurs, in other words, when people are quick to judge without having first put care into their study.
The time required to gain depth of understanding works against the pace of a world where it’s more common to quickly name drop wine styles, winemakers, or regions currently considered cool simply because trends too often equal street cred and attention. “We get buzz word trend focused, then go off the deep end.” Stuckey comments. “But,” when tasting wine, or trying something new we need to take the time and “ask, why did that work well there.” Stuckey characterizes this more in depth approach as “the craft of tasting a wine.” As he describes it, it’s a craft that develops with time and experience, and depends not just on sensory awareness, but intelligence and interest.
Answering Stuckey’s question “why did that work” depends too on recognizing the role of time for the winemaker. He points out that when it comes to exploring a new technique to making wine, “even great winemakers, 10 to 12 years before getting it, didn’t know exactly what was going to happen.” The best winemakers need multiple vintages to dial in their understanding of a new approach. In the process of trying out new techniques, there is also the risk of not knowing how the wine will be received.
In a U.S. context, Pax Mahle offers one such example. He began experimenting with using white wine maceration in 2003, but, as Mahle tells me, “it wasn’t until 2007 that one came to fruition.” Mahle was looking for texture and tannin without having to use oak or high alcohol, but wasn’t willing to bottle a wine until he was happy to put his name on it. Prior to that Mahle would find ways to blend his skin contact batches in to other wines. It was a way of allowing experimentation while mitigating the risk, maintaining credibility and quality.
Recognizing Responsibility and Hearing Voices
The responsibility piece kicks in in that it is generally wine professionals that are charged with greater access to a range of wines, as well as the position of representing the world of wine to consumers with less knowledge or experience. As proselytizers of the esoteric, wine professionals can slide into the more Catholic approach of acting as strict gatekeepers–a priest between the common and god–or take the more varied protestant approach of recognizing the people can talk to god directly. From the protestant view, anyone can learn about wine. As metaphorical spiritual leaders, we get to choose how we want to interact with that.
Levi Dalton takes the position of what I’m calling the more protestant aesthetic but counters it instead to an image of the Magician Sommelier. Dalton is a Sommelier in New York City, now working as the Wine Editor for Eater New York, and the voice of the interview podcast series, I’ll Drink to That. “Magician Sommeliers,” he tells me, “don’t want you to know the answers. They want to keep the illusion.” It’s a practice Dalton opposes. “You should want people to know things. You can’t stop them from googling stuff.”
Behind Dalton’s view is a similar consideration of time as that given by Stuckey. “Engage with something or someone on a real level,” Dalton suggests, comparing the process of getting to know a wine as that of having a genuine conversation with someone. When encountering a new wine, Dalton suggests, “sit down, try to treat the wine right, and try to hear something.”
In hearing something from a wine, Dalton is pointing out too that the responsibility for recognizing what a wine might have to offer rests in the person drinking it, rather than simply in the wine itself being immediately likeable. Recognizing the important role of the taster allows that not every wine will speak to every person. “If I find this interesting,” Dalton points out, “maybe other people will find it interesting. Not everyone but some people.”
Dalton’s openness to differing experiences with wine pulls the compulsion away from trends and shifts value back to individual wines, and particular markets. If not everyone is going to “hear” a particular wine, the need for supporting variation in the wine world comes to the fore of importance. It also makes the embracing of differences not only important, but fundamental to the overall ethic, not to mention integral to providing good service. That is, I may not like a wine, but my satisfaction in helping you find one you like depends on me listening to where you might differ from me, and valuing that.
The Relevance of Orange Wines
Stuckey and Dalton are both known, at least partially, for their insights on what are now called orange wines, macerated ferments of white grapes. Throughout our conversation, Stuckey demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the vintages of Radikon, as well as producers from throughout Italy. Dalton carries thorough experience of Italy as well, and developed the wine program of two Italian focused New York restaurants with an emphasis on integrating accessibility, education, and lesser known wines through the design of the menu. In this way, Dalton helped introduce the U.S. market to the phenomenon. Though orange wines as an approach reach to the techniques preserved in Georgian culture, Italian producers that drew from Georgia’s heritage brought the wine style to the fore of attention.
Dalton considers the meaning of the differing structure and texture of orange wines. “Orange wines,” he tells me, “make people think about how wines are constructed. It breaks the illusion.” With the illusion lifted, suddenly the winemaker’s trick is revealed, it gives the wine drinker access to the wine in a new way. The wine drinker has a new opportunity to start asking questions.
For many winemakers, playing with macerated ferments is a parallel process of asking questions. Back again in the U.S. context, Sonja Magdevski, winemaker for the label Casa Dumetz, describes that exploration, “the more I do, the more I learn. There are so many ways to make wine.”
Magdevski understands herself as early in the winemaking learning process after starting her label in 2009. It’s a view of winemaking she seems likely to carry far into her career, being committed to the process of exploration. She has begun playing with skin contact trials on Gewurtztraminer, so far expecting to use them as integral to a Gewurtztraminer blend. For Magdevski, the barrel that was left on skins for 21 days through fermentation was fascinating, but she recognizes too the limit in getting pulled into a wine only because it’s intriguing. “I wanted to do the skin lot as a separate bottling because it’s interesting,” she tells me. “But I realized, if the wine is not also pretty, and attractive to others, what’s the point?”
As a winemaker, Magdevski sees her responsibility as bringing together her learning process with the desire to share the wine with others in a pleasurable way. Playing with the two versions of Gewurtztraminer barrel side, a blend of the two draws on the heightened aromatics and pleasing texture of the skin contact, with the lift and purity of flavors from the pressed lot, together each gaining greater dimensionality.
In considering again the role of the wine professional, Stuckey emphasizes the importance of recognizing the winemakers learning curve. As he puts it, “if you’re doing something different, it takes a minute.” The winemaker learns their craft over timel. But ultimately he brings the point back again to the wine professional and their ability to facilitate for a patron. “Our responsibility as a wine buyer is to learn, and know what is going on, not wild west it on the customer.”
To read previous installments of this series:
To read last year’s series explaining Orange Wines beginning with how they’re made, then their presence in Georgia, Italy, and California, begin here: Understanding Orange Wines Part 1: A Quick and Dirty Look at How They’re Made and What Their Tannins Do To Our Saliva
The next installment will further consider the interplay of technique and terroir.
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