29 September 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: georges descombes, vermont

There was a man hanging around in the driveway when my friends and I showed up on bicycles for a rendezvous with Morgon-based winemaker Georges Descombes back in April. We parked the bikes and tried phoning Descombes, who didn't pick up. The man wandered over, regarding his own cell phone, whereupon I recognized him as renowned Loire winemaker Pierre Breton, with whom we had evidently been double-booked.

It was a stroke of luck for us. Descombes zoomed into the driveway in short order, and in addition to a generous tasting of his celebrated array of Beaujolais, my friends and I were able to enjoy the perceptive commentary of two masterful winemakers, whose mutual appreciation was itself a pleasure to observe. It turns out it was Breton's first time visiting Le Noune, too. (I have yet to discern the precise origin of Descombes' nickname, which is among the most colourful in a region of colourful nicknames.)

That it soon got dark, and that, upon departing the long tasting, I skidded on gravel while racing downhill without headlights from the hamlet of Vermont, and that I fell and broke my collarbone, necessitating a taxi ride to the hospital at Villefranche-sur-Saône, doesn't mar the occasion at all, in retrospect.

26 September 2015

buckets, bennes, and quenelles: beaujolais harvests 2015

I moved to Beaujolais in mid-August to research a book I hope to write on the region's wines. I bought a 50cc scooter to get around on and I rented an apartment in Lancié, between the cru villages of Villié-Morgon and Fleurie. The uncharacteristically long blog silence this past month was on account of harvest time. 

I had initially planned to harvest with just one domaine, Yvon Métras in Fleurie. Métras harvests quite late, however - we began on Sept. 3rd this year (early by historical standards, but late for 2015 in Beaujolais). By late August I'd realised that since I didn't need lodging, most other winemakers didn't mind if I put in just a day or two of work here and there with their harvest teams before commencing chez Métras. 

This is how I wound up harvesting sixteen days straight with the following winemakers: Gilles Paris (Chiroubles), Jean-Paul Thévenet (Villié-Morgon), Jean-Louis Dutraive (Fleurie), Guy Breton (Villié-Morgon), and finally Yvon and Jules Métras (Fleurie). This isn't counting several subsequent mornings and afternoons spent harvesting various experimental micro-cuvées for these and other winemakers, which stories I'll relegate to future blog posts. What follows for now is sort of a harvest data-dump, a series of images and observations that I hope will transmit some of the flavour of the experience. 

17 August 2015

eternal return: le dome café, 75014

Upon arriving in Paris, one can take pleasure in almost any characterful feature of the city, regardless of fame or exclusivity. For six years the bins of Chinese vegetables in Belleville and the hair-weave tumbleweed around Barbés fascinated me more than the Louvre or the Musée d'Orsay. But conversely, as earlier this summer I prepared to leave Paris, I found myself drawn to the old, uncurious Paris, and establishments such as Le Dôme Café, the historic Montparnasse seafood brasserie whose iconic fame and ludicrous price point had heretofore completely repelled me.

What changed? I guess I just didn't want to leave the city with the nagging doubt that, in my peregrinations around rive droite wine bars, I was merely nibbling at the edges of what the city had to offer its wealthier diners.

Moreover, the Native Companion was leaving the city too, headed for a different destination. I thought I would mark the unbearably sad occasion by a kind of financial suicide, blowing memorable amounts of euros at Le Dôme on fresh fish, François Côtat Sancerre, and cinematic décor - all the accoutrements of turgid, laurel-resting Paris that, in our time together there, we'd been doing our best to ignore.

11 August 2015

clowns: clown bar, 75011

To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kind of scary. I've wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus, and a clown killed my dad. - Jack Handey

My distrust of Ewan Lemoigne and chef Sven Chartier's work goes back to the time Lemoigne botched my reservation at Saturne. Had Lemoigne handled the situation with any decency, I would've simply returned some other time. As it was, I didn't return to Saturne for over three years, until a magazine paid for my lunch there in March.

I just wanted no part of supporting such an inhospitable hospitality group. Until recently I was boycotting the Saturne duo's newer project, rue Amelot's Clown Bar, for the same reasons. Friends in the Paris restaurant scene, in efforts to persuade me to try Clown Bar chef Astumi Sota's lauded cuisine, would invariably arrive at the phrase, "But Ewan's not even there!"* I wouldn't budge, preferring instead to support nicer people at neighboring places like Repaire de Cartouche, Au Passage, Pas de Loup, Aux Deux Amis, and Le Tagine.

But hell, time passes. I'm about to leave Paris for a few months and I'd like to leave all grudges behind. Lunch at Saturne was excellent in March: I left utterly convinced of Sven Chartier's talents. And despite my differences with Lemoigne, I can certainly applaud the wine list he assembled at Saturne, which ranks among the city's best. Clown Bar, for its part, is a worthy addition to Paris' dining scene, offering an unmistakably upmarket experience of fine cuisine and natural wines in a pleasantly versatile format: small plates, Sunday service, a big terrace, a bar. True, it's more expensive than all its stylistic peers. But Paris has an under-served constituency who want that.

23 July 2015

the noble savage: sauvage, 75006

The other evening I had the occasion to follow up on a surprising recommendation I'd received in March from Guardian wine columnist Fiona Beckett, who had turned up what sounded like a splendid wine bar in the least likely place of all: mere paces from luxury department store Le Bon Marché. This is deep, gerontocratic Paris, home to those Parisians whose wealth and social stability have largely spared them from meaningful interaction with the contemporary era, let alone any re-examination of their drinking habits.

I adore this neighborhood, naturally. But, save for the splendid Café Trama up the road, it's until now been very hard to find anything to drink there.

So newcomer natural-wine cave-à-manger Sauvage, when it opened in February on rue de Cherche-Midi, needed merely to exist to qualify as groundbreaking. Bare-bones, boxy, and cheerful, Sauvage resembles a small-town Scandinavian coffee shop. But owner Sebastien Leroy outdoes himself with a surprisingly uncompromising natural wine selection, and an improvisational menu that grasps beyond the usual cheese and charcuterie to include - at least on the night I visited - a bright and vivid lobster salad.

20 July 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: jean-paul thévenet, pizay

On a rainy morning in April, over some barrel samples of his and his son's old vine Morgon and Régnié (respectively), I mentioned to Jean-Paul Thévenet that I was planning a book project about the wines of Beaujolais. Like many winemakers I spoke to, he was encouraging, but not without certain qualifications.

"When we started making this type of wine, there were people who quite liked our wines, but who soon began telling us, this is good, and that’s not good, and it’s no good for us, to talk like that. There are people who work conventionally who work very well, and we ought to leave them the choice..."

Having worked for over three decades to encourage better viticultural and winemaking practices in his region, Thévenet is aware that progress is slow, where it occurs at all, and that the eager attention of a critic is likelier to inflame situations than improve them. Thévénet counsels patience.

"Little by little, the products are less noxious... There are a lot of people who begin to work a little more naturally. When we started to do this in 1985 - Marcel Lapierre a little before - we were often refused the appellation because [our wine] was marked atypical, not representative of the region. Meanwhile the old winegrowers told us that our wines were like the Morgon that was made fifty years ago."

09 July 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: jules métras, fleurie

Young Fleurie-based winemaker Jules Métras released his first wine under his own name this year, a Beaujolais-Villages sourced from two parcels, one in Lancié, the other in La Chappelle de Guinchay. The latter parcel was formerly owned by Jules Chauvet. Jules Métras vinifies the wine in his father's cellar, an anonymous-looking, un-insulated concrete structure perched amid the Fleurie climat of Grille-Midi.

He makes the wine in much the same way his father does. The fruit, harvested relatively late, is cooled down before gentle, long, cool carbonic fermentation with natural yeasts in lidded cement vat. "It took eight or nine days to start fermentation, which is pretty long. At the end of five days I was going crazy," he says. "But my dad says, 'Noooo, don't worry.' He's never worried."

We taste the wine in April, not long before bottling. The nose is deep, redolent of crushed berry, and faintly roasty, although only older barrels are used in elevage. Its black-current fruit possesses the suavity and dark florals that made his father's wine legendary. Jules Métras titled the cuvée "Bijou," a bit of local youth slang whose popularity Métras credits to his friend and fellow Beaujolais scion Kéké Descombes. "Everytime he plowed a parcel, he'd send some photos and say 'Wow, it's bijou!' Meaning it's clean, magnificent. Now when we drink great wine, it's bijou. When a pretty girl passes, she's bijou."

08 July 2015

jordan mackay's beaujolais misinformation

Jordan Mackay. Someone get this man a glass of Métras.

I write now and then for an NYC-based website called PUNCH, whose stated purpose is to explore the culture surrounding wine, spirits, and other alcoholic beverages. It's a publication of Ten Speed Press, itself a subsidiary of Random House. I hope the site and its parent companies will forgive me in advance for publicly taking issue with a deeply misinformative piece recently published in PUNCH by San Francisco Magazine wine writer Jordan Mackay.

Entitled "Beyond Carbonic: A New Era in Beaujolais," the piece alerts readers to an ostensibly new trend in Beaujolais winemaking, Burgundian fermentation with de-stemming and pigeage, i.e. not the region's traditional carbonic maceration. This is not, not even by the furthest stretch of the imagination, "a new era." Mackay inadvertently acknowledges as much in the piece itself, citing Chateau du Moulin-à-Vent (established: 1732) as among the practitioners. Jean-Paul Brun, the other key example Mackay cites in the piece, founded his domaine in 1979, and has long been imported to the US. The producers Mackay cites, it bears mentioning, are neither the region's leading lights, nor its youngest vanguard.

So, not news. Where Mackay goes harmfully off the rails is in ascribing all the faults of industrial Beaujolais Nouveau production circa-1980 to carbonic maceration. In one astonishingly wrongheaded paragraph, he manages to conflate the influence of Jules Chauvet with that of Georges Duboeuf.

02 July 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: laurence and rémi dufaitre, saint-étienne-des-ouillières

A common wine writing trope is to conclude that a wine resembles its maker in some way or another. Nowhere is this less applicable than in the wines of rising-star Beaujolais winemaker Rémi Dufaitre, whose production of Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly (among other wines) is distinguished by its elegance and finesse.

Rémi Dufaitre himself is more direct, an endearing trait, from certain angles. When I arrived at his domaine in Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières, roughly where the Brouilly appellation meets Beaujolais-Villages, he lost no time asking me upfront about my blog traffic. When I introduced my bike trip companion N, a novelist, Rémi, without missing a beat, asked, "How many books did you sell?"

The no-bullshit approach, in this case, reflects the confidence of a young winemaker who enjoys broad support among his forebears in the region. Originally from Saint-Etienne-La-Varenne, Dufaitre has known since birth his friend and Brouilly neighbor Jean-Claude Lapalu. Influential Fleurie winemaker Jean-Louis Dutraive is Dufaitre's cousin. And while Dufaitre and his wife Laurence only began bottling their own wines in 2010, their work soon attracted the attention of Villié-Morgon legend Jean Foillard, who has said he considers Dufaitre among the best of the younger generation of Beaujolais winemakers. Who cares if he possesses the combative, ball-breaking temperament of a mob enforcer, when the wines are this good?

25 June 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: jean-claude lapalu, saint-etienne-la-varenne

Jean-Claude Lapalu occupies an interesting position in the pantheon of contemporary Beaujolais. The son and grandson of winegrowers, he began bottling his own wines relatively late, at age 35. It was 1996. "I'm an intermediary," he acknowledges, "between the generation of Max Breton, who started before me, and the young generation today."

Our visit had been arranged Lapalu's good friend Rémi Dufaitre, a talented young winemaker twenty years his junior, who was hosting us that night in the neighboring town. Despite their age difference, Lapalu and Dufaitre share an easy rapport. Dropping us off chez Lapalu, Dufaitre asked his friend to "throw us back" to Dufaitre's place when we were through tasting. We asked if that was normal rural slang. Lapalu just laughed. "It's just Rémi being Rémi."

Lucky for us, Lapalu was in an expansive mood on the day we visited. Our tasting went long. A born raconteur, he's among the rare great vignerons whose verbal expressivity is a match for that of his wines.

15 June 2015

conscientious objectors: les déserteurs, 75011

As diners and critics, we're willing to discern greater depths in a chef's plates if he or she has led a swashbuckling lifestyle, or at least can be presented to us as having witnessed the mysteries of foreign cultures. In contemporary Paris, the résumé spice du jour is "travel in Asia," a transcendant, cuisine-altering experience for chefs ranging from David Toutain to Saturne's Sven Chartier to Le Servan's Tatiana Levha. If, of that list, only Levha's cuisine shows any direct engagement with eastern cuisines, don't blame the chefs. Blame their publicists, and culinary media outlets.

Les Déserteurs, the upscale market-menu restaurant opened last year by chef Daniel Baratier and sommelier Alex Céret in the former Rino space on rue Trousseau, is, like its chef, deficient in narrative flair. The name is a witticism referring to the owners' former workplace, the untrendy Ile Saint Louis Michelin one-star Le Sergent Recruteur, a restaurant that I now read is in liquidation. When the joke passes, we're left with the following premise: Two Friendly French Guys Open Slightly Pricey Restaurant.

Diners will be forgiven for not leaping to book six-tops. I myself only went because they had a last minute table on a Saturday night, and I often work in the neighborhood. I was therefore caught entirely by surprise by the restaurant's outright excellence. From its pacing to its apportionment to its marvelous contents, a meal at Les Déserteurs is a tour de force of sensitivity, where the refined, vegetable-driven country cuisine is as nuanced and mature as the wine list.

11 June 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: benoit camus, ville-sur-jarnioux

Some tasting appointments in Beaujolais are difficult to obtain because a given winemaker's work is so sought-after that he or she has no interest in cultivating new clientele. Securing a tasting with young fringe-natural winemaker Benoit Camus was difficult for something like the opposite reason. He has almost no commercial operation to speak of, instead selling his finished wines wholesale to a few négoçiants willing to sell it for him. He has practically no direct clientele at all, and next to nothing for visitors to taste.

Camus lives in the southern Beaujolais town of Cogny, a short drive from Villefranche-sur-Saône, the riverside town north of Lyon where I commenced a bicycle trip this past spring with two novelist friends. In our initial communications, I sensed it embarrassed him to receive visitors when he had almost no wine to show. He rather gallantly kept proposing we go see a winemaker friend of his further north instead, until at last accepting to have lunch together at his house in Cogny, rather than at his cellar in nearby Ville-sur-Jarnioux.

Ordinarily I would have taken his suggestion to visit elsewhere, but Camus was located right on our itinerary, and I'd been keen to meet him since tasting his wines in Paris. As it was, over the course of a very short tasting that turned into a jam session, we got a small peek into the life of a promising, eccentric winemaker at the semi-anonymous outset of his career.

05 June 2015

back yard: yard wine bar, 75011

When I first wrote about Jane Drotter's splendid contemporary bistrot YARD in April 2014, I couldn't help expressing astonishment that some of the passing Père Lachaise locals found prices too high. "Stinting flintnosed cheapskates," I called them. YARD the restaurant was then and still remains one of the city's best deals, its prices calibrated more to the expectations of its far-flung quartier than to the skills of chef Nye Smith or the superior quality of his product.

Drotter, presumably as part of a grand strategy for domination of nightlife in the eastern 11ème, has now opened, beside her bustling bistrot, YARD Wine Bar, a cosy roomful of high tables and a wide terrace where she continues to indulge her clientele. The small-plate menu prices are lower than those of most soft beverage programs in the Marais.

It's worth noting, though, that Drotter's clientele has changed. Where once it consisted of whoever happened to live or work nearby, it now resembles a cross-section of the Paris fine restaurant crowd, which is to say, chiefly people who unhesitatingly order the whole menu twice and consume oceans of natural wine. This dynamic, one hopes, will sustain YARD Wine Bar's paradisiacal micro-scene for many summers to come.

02 June 2015

rebirth of cool: entrée des artistes pigalle, 75009

Everything about Entrée des Artistes Pigalle proprietors Fabien Lombardi and Edouard Vermynck's previous bar-à-manger on rue de Crussol evinced a stubborn, cloistered dedication to cool, which often superseded practical concerns. Each cocktail took up its own page on the finicky list. The wine selection was fearlessly obscure. Hospitality could feel a bit teenage. The music program consisted exclusively of canonical rap.

When I heard they were uprooting that original successful address in favour of a larger space in Pigalle, I worried it might be a case of two artistes fixing what wasn't broke. As the album work - as opposed to the early mixtapes - of an MC like Action Bronson attests, sometimes it's folly to polish an idea whose virtues lay in messy spontaneity.*

But it took no more than a footstep beyond the unassuming threshold of Entrée des Artistes Pigalle to realise I'd underestimated Lombardi and Vermynck's ambitions. The dazzling space is gilt-edged, multi-tiered, Escher-like, with two floors, each with its own bar, served by a kitchen perched on what is, in essence, a stair landing. Gone is the air of bedroom hero-worship that characterised the old address. Lombardi and Vermynck have done what a succession of better-financed Paris bars (Silencio, Le Perchoir) have so far failed to do: create a mature, transportive ambience of Parisian cool, un-derivative of other cities.

22 May 2015

n.d.p. in burgundy: julien guillot, sagy-le-haut

Tucked among the fulsome green hills of Sagy-le-Haut is the cellar of Julien Guillot, the charming third-generation winemaker of biodynamic Mâconnais domaine Clos des Vignes du Maynes. Before returning to run the domaine in his late twenties, Guillot, who is of telegenic height and fresh-faced in his forties, had a career as an actor in France. He is conspicuously good at marketing his wines. Their prices in Paris and the US testify to this. His Bourgogne rouge "Cuvée Auguste" costs more than your average Marsannay.

What Clos des Vignes du Maynes' appellations lack in grandeur is made up for in the domaine's unimpeachable history and winemaking acumen. Julien's grandfather, Pierre Guillot, practiced a nascent version of organic viticulture ever since purchasing the domaine in 1954. Later, Julien's father Alain was instrumental in helping get the agriculture biologique (organic) logo approved by the French government in 1984. Julien, for his part, initiated the domaine's conversion to biodynamic viticulture in 1998. Upon hearing Guillot recount this in the anteroom of his cellar, my friend C posed a great question: "What did people in the region call 'organic' before 'organic' existed?"

Guillot grinned, and with the confidence that comes from having been right, replied, "Les conneries de Guillot," or 'Guillot's bullshit.'

18 May 2015

off the map: la poudrière, issy-les-moulineaux

I credit former La Cave de l'Insolite proprietor Michel Moulherat for introducing me to natural wine. His wasn't the closest wine shop to my old apartment on a loud, leery intersection on rue Saint Maur. But it was the closest wine shop staffed by someone who was both well-informed and willing to share his knowledge. I'd often stop by on the way home from work - but never if I were in a hurry, because Moulherat's voluble, Irish-accented conversation and the bevy of bottles he invariably opened could quickly take up much of an evening.

Then a few years ago Moulherat sold La Cave de l'Insolite to some earnest young restaurateurs. He did a spell consulting on wine for fine restaurant wholesalers Terroirs d'Avenir. I don't know what else he did. He kinda fell off the map.

So I was delighted to learn recently that Moulherat is back in front-of-house these days, running the wine program at La Poudrière, a homey new natural wine bistrot and cave-à-manger tucked in a railway arch in Issy-les-Moulineaux. Where the hell is Issy-les-Moulineaux? the overwhelming majority of readers might reasonably ask. It's the southern terminus of the Métro line 12. There's a Museum of Playing Cards there, which I guess makes two reasons to visit, counting La Poudrière.