Wines of 2021

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Wines of a year, huh?

Even setting aside the wines I’m lucky enough to taste by way of a class I’m teaching, or at a professional tasting—thinking, that is, mostly about the stuff I’m actually drinking, for “pleasure”—making a list of those things raises all kinds of questions. 

Like, is there a point to wine beyond being tasty? What is worth commemoration? What makes a bottle important? What made me feel something?

(A friend in the industry recently asked me a version of this question in the middle of a conversation about American wine: “Ok but what domestic wines have you gotten emotional over?” And it’s a good gut check! We professionals as a group can get so used to evaluating a wine along all of these different metrics— ‘This is good quality for what it is’; ‘I can sell this by the glass and the price is right’; ‘This will make somebody else happy’—that we forget how to hold on to the wines that give us goosebumps, or make us happy when we’re sad, or that we’d carry with us out of a burning building.)

If there’s anything the wines that hit me hardest last year have in common, I think it’s a sense of time.

A wine doesn’t have to be ancient for its age to be meaningful. It can still have developed and become more itself in bottle. It can still be a transmission from another era. (And everything before March 2020 feels like that.) It can still be something you might not ever see again.

So here are some bottles I drank, arranged in more or less the order I’d drink them if they were all open in front of me at once, and here’s why drinking them meant enough to me that I’m still holding on to the memory of them, long after the fruit that made them was picked and fermented, long after they were bottled, now that this year is over:

2014 Cascade “Blackberry”
I had a bottle of this at Beer Street in December while catching up with somebody I hadn’t seen since the last time I worked a service (coming up on two years since I clocked in, now). Cascade is in Portland and stands at the beginning of the US sour beer rebirth (their first release was 2006). Seeing in my neighborhood bar brought back fond memories of the beer list at Rouge Tomate five years ago, the last time I got to care about sour beer and farmstead ales for work. When fruited sours age in bottle, the line between wine and beer starts to blur. There’s stuff here that wouldn’t be out of place in old pineau d’aunis rosé: soft and rhubarb-y, earth and fruit together. 

Reading Beer Advocate community reviews about this bottle is depressing. Someone’s bitching about the price ($25), there’s a bunch of medium ratings from 2016 talking about it being too high in acid. I like the feeling of being slightly uncool enough to really dig this. As a wine person, it feels like a bargain, and a treat.

2018 Antoine Lienhardt aligoté
There’s always at least one wine on these lists that I came back to again and again throughout the year. I poured this for classes, I drank bottles on my own, I shared it with others. To me, more than aligoté, it feels, simply put, like a white from Comblanchien. 

It’s in the vein of Clos de la Marèchale, in other words (this will either paint you a picture or be totally inscrutable; the clos is just uphill). Everybody talks about aligoté being green and lean, but this isn’t like that at all, between the vintage and being treated by the person who made it, matter-of-factly, like white Burgundy. It’s cheesy and rich, but there’s a fresh core of acidity, and the farming is amazing: not just biodynamic but regenerative. 

Lienhardt is the first person in his grower family to bottle his own wine, and he only started a few years ago. I guess the aligoté was the harder sell; there was a lot of this for me to drink and share, and it’d been kicking around for a year or so as it mellowed out and evolved. I have a soft spot for a really good wine that has trouble moving out the door.

2016 End of Nowhere “#1 Crush”
Speaking of which: the End of Nowhere is my friend Chris’ winery, out of a garage in the Sierra Foothills that is as far away from everything as the name makes it sound. He grew up on the property, but we met while working at the same wine bar in Union Square before he moved back out west to plant vines at the highest elevation in Amador County in a meadow across a dirt road from the house he grew up in and, in the meantime, buy fruit from the valley and the Sacramento Delta.

2016 was his first commercial vintage, and his first release was zinfandel done two ways, with a light touch: juicy, low-abv carbonic a la Beaujolais, and delicately colored rosé. The first vintage of his rosé didn’t sell as well as he would have liked—distribution woes—and by the time I was out there last fall to help him for harvest a second time, he still had a bunch of it left in his garage.

Imagine my surprise, then, when in the middle of a day of foot-stomping or washing out t-bins or whatever I was up to, he popped a bottle of the now five year-old, 12.9% abv zinfandel rosé and at this point it was the pale sunlit color of young chenin: white peach and salt and a spine of bright acidity, not just alive but more insistent and compelling than it’d ever been. It was fucking delicious, in other words, and I was obsessed. I talked his ear off about drawing a new label and giving it a new name. Nobody’s going to buy five year old zinfandel rosé, but what about a blanc de noirs with a redemption story? (Chris, call me.)

Shit like this so rarely happens, in life. We’d like to think we’ll be better, we’ll turn it around, we’ll do it right this time. How often does that happen? How often do we let it happen?

2015 Claude Courtois “Racines”
We’re in the transitional, pastoral green of the Sologne, and Claude Courtois’ cagey field blend of at least a dozen white varieties is a wine I have a hard time getting out of my head. (He doesn’t like to really talk about everything he has in the ground—for instance, I think the guy’s got a gewürztraminer vine in one row for fun—but call this mostly the classic varieties of his region: chardonnay and sauvignon sure but also menu pineau and romorantin, among the others.) 

This was a transitional time, too: a birthday dinner in March, when dining out was just hesitantly beginning to be something my partner and I were willing to do together after that long pandemic winter. We sat in a covered patio in the alley outside of Momofuku Ko and splashed around in a wine list with a lot of things on it that had been bought before the pandemic and now had some age on them. 

Wines like this, you don’t really see much in the wild with that kind of little grace period of bottle development. There’s not enough of them, they’re not the type of wines that collectors drool over so there’s no secondary market, then tend to get allocated to restaurants (where they sell) or drunk at home (where I can’t see). If there’s people smart enough to have cellars full of Claude’s wines, well, I want to be their friend. 

The last time I got to experience this much real wine with a little bit of time on it was when I helped reopen Rouge Tomate. As an opportunity to see, over and over again, what would happen to, I don’t know, Nicolas Gonin’s persan after 6 years, it’s something I’ll never get over. 

This reminded me of that feeling. It wasn’t even that expensive; but it was an unfolding, multi-dimensional thing that changed and kept changing. It was magic.

2016-20 Realtière rosé vertical
Also magic: my first tasting in a room with a bunch of other NYC wine folks, back in late June, in that moment where “fully vaxxed” meant something and cases in the city had ticked down to nothing and it seemed like we might maybe be out of the woods. Jean-Luc Lametrie from MC2 organized a tasting of Pierre Michelland’s work in the far north reaches of Provence, basically alone in the hills, and all of the centenarian bottlings of cinsault and aramon and carignan blanc were moving and educational and basically don’t exist, but what really got me was the five vintage vertical of their entry-level rosé, “Pastel”, the ultimate rarity in Provence: a rosé that hadn’t been stripped down to the palest color possible and had all of the life taken out of it, each vintage not just an evolution but wildly distinct and differently shaped, and I had a ball seeing all of them together and being immersed in the warm bath of the city’s collective wine brain again. The moment seems even more precious in retrospect.

2014 Enderle & Moll spätburgunder “Muschelkalk”
Literally “chalk full of mussel-shells”, Muschelkalk is what the fossil-laden sedimentary soils that define this pinot noir bottling from Enderle & Moll are called, a gift from a friend who brought it over while we opened some other things together and cooked dinner. She was worried because it hadn’t been stored perfectly over the years. But it unfolded in sixteen different directions, as much rosehip and wild berry as beetroot and earth, early fall encapsulated and blossoming with air. Just a miraculous survival, and a piece of generosity. My new goal for the coming year is to entertain one-two people max at any given time. I would be very happy just having a different person over for dinner five nights a week. (I used to do 200 covers in a single service; this is what I’ve been worn down to.)

2016 4 Monos, garnacha “Cien Lanzas”, Cenecientos, Gredos
I have a longstanding obsession with the high-elevation perfume and lift and weird elegance of grenache in the granite mountains west of Madrid. There’s a national park and they’re a treasure-house for old vines that hide up the Sierra de Gredos’ mule paths and mountain streams (I have used this line before and I will again). The last bottle of Cenecientos I opened was I think a 2018? and a little bit of a black hole at the time, not in a bad way, just in a serious way, a not-ready-to-come-out-yet-you-fucked-up way.

Another restaurant list (the Modern, sitting out on the terrace looking at the Calder sculpture garden, which is something you couldn’t do pre-pandemic), another tiptoe into city life in September (parents in town, seeing Hadestown on Broadway just after it’d reopened). My dad lost his sense of smell years ago so any pleasure he takes in wine is purely textural; he loves ‘smooth.’ 

I order grenache all the time, for him, but this was also for me, and the ’16 that had been kicking around the list at a place too fancy for people to drink Spanish garnacha in was in a very, very special place, translucent silk and depth all at once. If a bottle of Burgundy did this you’d be grateful, and paying through the nose for the privilege.

2016 Les Lunes, carignane, “Arnold’s Block”, Hopland, Mendocino
Another wine I got to taste in multiple ways this fall, another extension of an ongoing obsession (with carignan’s ability to hold on to freshness and grace in hot places, and its surprising delicacy and nuance as the vines and wines age). 

Shaunt and Diego’s work were things I knew glancingly before the pandemic but grew to appreciate even more over the last years. (Wines are like this, sometimes; it takes me a while to realize I love something, it’s never one taste and I’m done for, the real ones sneak up on you and you realize belatedly they’ve become solid things, part of the way you understand the world.) 

So here’s five year old carignane, an overlooked variety in an overlooked part of the world, settled in bottle to the point where it was undeniable.

2016 Akushika Shuzo, junmai nama genshu, “Black Moheji”, Osaka Prefecture
This year gave me sake, too—or, at least, the opportunity to dive into sake again. Linda Milagros Violago, who now runs the program at Canlis in Seattle and who taught me pretty much everything I know about boundary-breaking sake when we were at Rouge together (sample: rice-polishing is a spectrum of style, not a hierarchy of quality), talked during the Industry Sessions class on sake about not calling it “rice wine” and taking it on its own terms. 

And so I know for a fact she’d be disappointed that the very first words out of my dumb mouth when I turned the back of this bottle over, in the process of pouring out tastes in jam jars for said class to distribute, upon seeing ‘single rice paddy’ and ‘organic farming’ and ‘estate cultivation’ and ‘four years of age’, was “Holy shit, this is sake Burgundy.” 

Either only very specific things counts as wine, or everything is; anything in the middle is drawing arbitrary distinction. In my most optimistic, open moments I feel like the latter. Lots of people want to give serious consideration to wine but leave cider or beer or vermouth out in the cold. And there’s a part of me that thinks, fermentation is magic, the raw material doesn’t matter, celebrate all of it.

But there’s a value to specificity, too, to letting culturally particular things be what they are. Mezcal made from tobola is not the ‘chenin of agave spirits’. This bottle wasn’t Burgundy, after all.

But it did carry time and place with it, and the story of a grower, and the ability to age. It was something, is all I’m saying, and I’m glad it passed my way.


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