New York sommelier comes to Lodi (and Michael David’s latest Cinsault & Inkblots)
A sommelier, according to standard dictionaries, is the person in a restaurant in charge of buying, storing and serving wines. You can say “wine steward,” which sounds pedestrian. And so people prefer to say sum-uhl-YAY; which, as you might surmise from the hoity-toitiness, is originally a French concept. The word itself is derived from the Old French word for pack animal driver – probably an alteration of sommerier (from somier or “pack animal”), and prior to that, the Medieval Latin saugmarius, from Late Latin sagma (“packsaddle”) – since somehow, sommeliers in France evolved from officials in charge of transporting supplies to dudes with the keys to restaurant wine cellars.
Sommeliers, in other words, are a breed apart. Since only high-end restaurants tend to have sommeliers, quite often they live in glorified worlds of their own, even though they are basically wine lovers, like any wine lover, who happen to get paid for cultivating their predilection. But inevitably, the way they think about wine can be different from the way even other wine professionals (like winemakers, retailers or journalists) think.
What is in the minds, for instance, of New York City sommeliers? For one thing, they can be very Eurocentric; which is understandable, since restaurants located on the Eastern Seaboard have access to all the European wines in the world.
This also means their tastes can be skewed more towards wines with lower alcohols, higher acid, less oak and fruitiness, and more pronounced minerality – including, often enough, the earthy, composty, “dirty” aspects of the latter. East Coast sommeliers are not scared off by red wines with brick or transparent colors, nor by white wines that look brown or oxidized; and what’s a little leather or barnyard (i.e. Brettanomyces), for that matter, especially among friends?
Here’s the thing: it’s not that many sommeliers object to clean, good sized, fruity or richly oaked wines per se. What they are really looking for is unpredictability — almost anything that avoids sameness — because you can’t be a special sommelier if you serve exactly the same wines as everyone else. If it happens to be funny looking, undernourished or slightly odd tasting wines, so be it. Sommeliers are professional wine geeks, after all; and in that sense, they represent the sentiments of a growing number of wine geeks among consumers as well.
For those of you who have had encounters: if this sounds a little like San Francisco sommeliers, that’s no surprise either. The Bay Area has long been known for its own brand of Eurocentrism. Alice Waters, for one, recently commented that her landmark Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, has always emphasized European over Californian wines – despite the restaurant’s famous culinary locavorism – for reasons of value and food compatibility. But that’s a cop-out. Fact is, Alice Waters simply prefers the taste of European wines. She’s primarily a Francophile when it comes to wine, which is amazing considering her association with the birth of California cuisine (even if inspired by Provence).
Jordan Salcito, on the other hand, is a New York based sommelier who has recently seen the slight error of her ways, after ten years in the business: first as a grunt in Daniel Boulud’s kitchen, then as a sommelier at high profile Manhattan restaurants like Daniel, Eleven Madison Park, Crown, Gilt, wd-50, Nick & Toni’s (where hasn’t she worked?), and currently, the famed Chef David Chang‘s Momofuku.
This past December, a friend brought Salcito a bottle of 2011 Turley Wine Cellars El Porrón Lodi Cinsault ($17), which proved to be a revelation. Before tasting the wine Salcito admits to having “preconceived notions,” because the appellation on the El Porrón label read Lodi, California. But, she wrote us later, “the wine proved me completely wrong… it was beautiful – balanced, fresh, floral, complex and mineral-driven, and relatively low alcohol!”
After also finding out that the Turley Cinsault came from vines planted in 1886, still thriving on their own rootstocks, Salcito tells us, “I had to see it for myself.” So this past January, Salcito flew from New York City to Sacramento, and made a beeline to Lodi, where she knocked on the door of Wanda Woock Bechthold. It was Bechthold’s great-grandfather, Joseph Spenker, who originally planted the Cinsault vines going into the wine that Salcito found so intriguing.
For Salcito, it was important to meet the heir to this legacy, who is now 82 years old: not so much because she owns the heritage Bechthold Vineyard, but also because of the “passion for the past” evident in the very fact that she had fought to keep those vines alive, even through the lean years when there was absolutely no demand for Cinsault from nineteenth century vines.
15 years ago Bechthold was selling the Cinsault for barely $200/ton – most of it packed in lug boxes and shipped East to home winemakers, since there were no wineries in California interested in the grapes (part of the problem was that, prior to 2004, the grapes were identified as Black Malvoise, not Cinsault). Today, thanks to demand created by specialty wineries like Turley, Michael-David, Onesta and Bonny Doon, the fruit goes for well over ten times that amount. The vineyard’s current caretaker – Michael David Winery VP Kevin Phillips, who organically farms the vineyard for Wanda and Al Bechthold – now essentially picks and chooses who gets the grapes.
While in Lodi, Salcito also met with a few more of Lodi’s growers and winemakers, which gave her a stronger feel for California’s historic plantings – “gnarled vines,” as she describes them, that “carry a century’s worth of stories.” More importantly, she’s since discovered that, as in Europe, there are smaller scaled vignerons working in Lodi’s Mediterranean terroirs who are “fermenting with indigenous yeasts and vinifying in small vats… everything (from harvesting to pigeage to décuvage) done by hand.”
Ms. Salcito – who currently works with a winemaker in Montalcino, Italy and a winemaker in Côte de Beaune, France to produce her own line of wines under the Bellus label – is now seriously considering producing her first “authentic” American wine… in Lodi! It won’t happen in 2013, but the seeds have now been sown…
New York sommeliers may know exactly what they want in a wine. Sometimes it takes a few years for them to discover that it can be found right here, in our own backyard!
MICHAEL DAVID’S LATEST BECHTHOLD CINSAULT & INKBLOT REDS
Late last month, Adam Mettler – Michael David’s GM/winemaker – gave us a taste of their recently released 2011 Michael David Bechthold Vineyard Lodi Cinsault ($24): a very fine and subtle medium-weight red – neither light nor heavy – with a pure rhubarb/red berry perfume tinged by an inviting kitchen spice (clove/nutmeg nuances). There is a mild, firming tannin taste in the mouth, smoothly embedded beneath deep, long, flowing, fluid flavors, finishing with just a trace of loamy earthiness. Bravo!
While he was at it, Mettler also opened no less than three different 2010 varietal reds bottled under Michael David’s Inkblot sub-label. All three were much deeper colored wines than the Bechthold Vineyard Cinsault – black/violet hued reds (hence the name, Inkblot), generous in both oak and tannin qualities (as such, sensory opposites of the Cinsault — the Eurocentric tastes of sommeliers be damned…). Re:
2010 Michael David Inkblot, Lodi Cabernet Franc ($35) – From a phenomenal vineyard located on Sargent Rd., farmed by Lodi’s Keith Watts (this spring McCay Cellars will be coming out with a 2010 Cabernet Franc from this same vineyard), a thick, tightly wadded yet velvety rich red wine emanating floral/violet perfumes with brambly-bright raspberry notes, beneath a veneer of polished oak. Winner-winner-chicken-dinner.
2010 Michael David Inkblot, Lodi Tannat ($35) – Ferociously big, tannic red, not for the faint of heart – tight yet sweetly concentrated black fruit with a sense of raw red meat, with pungent sweet oak adding to the mix. Thick as a brick on the palate, yet with a polished, rounded feel. Hammer time…
2010 Michael David Inkblot, Lodi Petit Verdot ($35) – This Inkblot stands out because it takes the raw meat qualities perceived in the Tannat into the realm of animal – a little bit of game, a touch of leather, and little whiffs of char – encapsulating tightly laced blackberry/blackcurrant aromas and flavors. Thick, dense, almost chewy texturing; pounding the palate with as much youthful tannin as sweet, black fruit qualities.