From the archives…An Evening with Aubert de Villaine

by Kermit Lynch     

[From the July 1997 Newsletter]

Bouzeron, population 151, is a little tail’s end of a village in Burgundy where winter’s night can fall with an especially icy clunk. Its three or four streets were already dead and deserted when I drove up to Aubert de Villaine’s iron gate last November. Actually I was running a bit late, so after a handshake we descended straightaway into the cellar and its heady smells of earth, oak, and newborn wine.

Aubert de Villaine has a ready sense of humor and an enviable combination of lucidity and discretion. When I picture him, I see him just breaking into a smile, a playful gleam in his dark, intelligent eyes. Having known each other for more than 20 years, we always have too much to talk about, so our tastings bounce chaotically from comic asides to catching up on friends and family to wine trade gossip and a no-holds-barred critique of whatever we are tasting.

Aubert de Villaine (© Gail Skoff)

Of course we begin with his Aligoté de Bouzeron, considered Burgundy’s best, and Aubert said that personally he prefers 1996 to 1995. I said 1996 ($14.95) seemed leaner than the 1995. “J’aime bien les vins austères,” he said, contradicting almost the entire American wine establishment.

Then he announced that for the United States he left his 1995 white Burgundy “Les Clous” ($16.50) completely unfiltered. A true stony hillside wine, “Les Clous” always shows more race and structure than flatland Bourgognes, and I must say that it gains by remaining unfiltered because there is more flesh left on that impressive bone structure. He uncorked a 1993, too, which has opened up beautifully. If ever I make a wine, I would hope it shows such subtlety and class.

Aubert’s newest acquisition, a premier cru from Rully, Les Saint-Jacques, is a real prize. (But then, could a de Villaine settle for an ordinary terroir?) The 1995 has a delicious pear-skin aroma and a firm, full palate. The 1994 ($18.95) has so much personality that I made it a Jaded Palate selection, and the 1995 shares that same goût de terroir.

My tasting notes on the 1995 red Burgundy “La Digoine” ($18.50) begin with the word WOW and then I repeat it at the end, too, which isn’t like me. Due to 1995’s short crop, I had to settle for half the quantity I wanted.

His 1995 Mercurey “Les Montots” ($19.95) is something else entirely. “La Digoine” is so pretty a wine, but the terroir of “Les Montots” produces a more tannic, old-fashioned style. “Un vin d’autre fois,” Aubert said. But it also seems to smell of grape skins and stems and freshly cut Pinot Noir. “That is one reason I love the Mercurey,” Aubert said, “because it always recalls that smell of the harvest, you know, working the grapes, the crush.”

Something about the 1995 “Les Montots” made me think of Conrad’s title The Heart of Darkness, and the title would occur to me again before the night was over.

Right about then, as Aubert poured a taste of the 1994 Mercurey, I mentioned that I was wearing espadrilles from Provence, and that my toes were chattering. During wintertime that earthen cellar floor is like standing on an iceberg, so carrying along the 1994 Rully blanc to serve as our apéritif, we walked out into the darkness up to his house.

He built a fire first thing, poured that wonderful Rully, then showed me two new recordings of the Bach Cello suites, one by Yo-Yo Ma, the other by the Russian Mstislav Rostropovich. We decided to “taste” and compare the two performances.

I grew up with the Pablo Casals version of the suites, one of the great recorded performances of the century, so truthfully I was prepared to be a little underwhelmed by the new recordings. The Casals seems soulful, existential, the Rostropovich so emotionally vast. How their cellos seem to sing and speak. The Yo-Yo Ma is more lively, dance-like, but not as subterranean.

Right about then Aubert left to search for another white. Many of you might not be aware that he owns part of another winery farther north, in Vosne-Romanée. Anyway, he returned with a 1967 Montrachet from his other winery, which really hit the spot as we listened to the second cello suite à la Rostropovich.

Aubert began to tell me what he had heard about the actual recording of the suites, which the Russian must have believed will remain his foremost legacy as a cellist.

Rostropovich chose to record the suites in France in the ancient cathedral at Vézelay from which the Crusades were launched because, he wrote, “I saw the rhythm of the internal architecture shorn of all superfluity, with none of the gilt and ornamental trimmings of the Baroque style. I saw the severity of line and rhythm of this vaulted construction, which reminds me so powerfully of the rhythm of Bach’s music.”

Recording took two months. He recorded at the midnight hour, the cathedral silent, empty, except (I’ve been there) for whatever spooky stuff might be emanating from its crypt (which is said to have some remains of Mary Magdalene). Imagine the texture of the cello’s sound in that vast, dark, stone cathedral! And my God it is fabulous as it growls and soars.

We listened to the Sarabande from Suite no. 2. (Film buffs, didn’t Ingmar Bergman use this piece in Through a Glass Darkly? I seem to recall hearing it during a scene in the dark hull of a wrecked ship, with…was it incest, sexual initiation, both?) Is there music that searches deeper? It is terrible and magnificent. The cello’s bow seems to scrape right across your own guts.

While recording, the Russian and his wife lodged with Marc Meneau, who has the three-star restaurant L’Espérance just down the hill from Vézelay. A cellist who apparently has a healthy appetite, Rostropovich might have enjoyed some of our Bourgogne blanc “Henry de Vézelay” from Bernard Raveneau ($12.50), which is made practically next door. I like to think he did.

Back now, though, to Bouzeron, where dinner is served with a 1961 Romanée-Conti. I have, I admit, during my career, enjoyed many an old vintage, but this, this!!! I told Aubert that is has a goût de terroir, mais pas de cette terre. It is from another planet. Tasting notes? Are you kidding? I am in no mood to attempt the impossible. But what a culmination to the evening. Would I have been so receptive to the glorious intricacies of the 1961 Romanée-Conti had it not been for our passage through the Bach Cello Suites? Forget wine-and-food marriages. Here was a fusion of music and wine. The only way I could describe the wine would be to play the music.

And what a voyage the entire evening had been, starting with that first innocent burst of fresh Aligoté.

You can find the latest Bouzeron Aligoté from A. & P. de Villaine here as well as our current selection of wines from Vézelay here.

Richard Olney’s Final Book, Reflexions

by Jim Harrison, March 2000

Richard and Kermit © Gail Skoff

I was thoroughly swept away by Richard Olney’s Reflexions, which made me all the more saddened by his death this past July. There is ample evidence in Reflexions that no one on the planet has sat at better tables, most especially his own, or drank consistently better wines than Richard Olney. The evidence here and in his many other books, all of which I revere for their lucidity and range as books about food and wine that suggest, but not obtrusively, that there are standards that must be kept, no matter how implausibly high these standards might be. And this is all against a backdrop, a diorama, of a life lived with devotion and honor, of life lived as art itself.

If I have ever been to a home that may suitably be called magic it must be that of the Peyraud family in Bandol. The place has all the delicate mystery one senses in reading Alain Fournier’s Les Grandes Meaulnes (in English, The Wanderer) but also the very visceral, sensual quality of the best food one is likely to eat, prepared by Lulu Peyraud. Once there, there is not the slightest desire to ever leave, not for Paris let alone home.

I had been to Lulu Peyraud’s for lunch once before I met Richard in the spring of 1996. In the earlier trip I was with a Franco-American, Guy de la Valdène, who had taught me a great deal about both the French and their cooking. I was very excited at the time to learn that Richard lived in the area because I was so devoted to his work, much in the manner that I would have been in Mississippi had I known that Faulkner was down the road frying bacon for lunch to go with his bourbon. I’ve never been interested in differentiating between genres. The best is the best and we must take it on the rare occasions that we find it.

So in 1996 when I was on a French book tour, no more delightful than an American book tour except that, unlike in America, the food will carry you through, I drove to Lulu’s for lunch with my friend the French literary fixture and translator, Brice Mattieussent. I was a bit flustered, actually stunned, to find that Kermit Lynch and Gail Skoff were there with the fabled Richard Olney. In a curious, not improbable way, I had the same set of feelings I had had years before in London on spending time with John Huston. Were either of them still alive the comparison might strike them as far-fetched, but I can guarantee they would have been drawn to each other. In both cases I knew the work thoroughly before I met the man. And in both men there was an uncompromising, tenacious, and indefatigable pursuit of excellence, an implicit splendor that accompanies Kierkegaard’s “purity of heart is to will one thing,” whether it be the art of food and wine or the art of cinema.

In Reflexions and in person one senses that like many artists Richard was quite human, only more so. He was perhaps too indulgent with some of his friends but that is part of the territory, and I remember his laconic twinkle when I was carted away after a four-hour lunch and a great deal of wine to address a large audience in Marseille. He was sympathetic but knew the situation was comic. Luckily with a gallon of excellent Domaine Tempier Bandol in my system the audience became a flowery blur.

The next morning on the train from Marseille to Paris I remember reflecting that there was a specific grandeur to Richard Olney. This was a largehearted man, and his largeheartedness is everywhere in Reflexions, from his single-minded devotion to his work, to his lifelong love for his five brothers and sisters and his many friends. One can only imagine the loss felt by his close friends such as Kermit and Gail, Lulu Peyraud and Alice Waters, and his brothers and sisters and their children who were so close to him. Reflexions is an enchanting memoir of this life.

Bird Progressions

by Kermit Lynch, November 2000

I have been working on a piece trying to explain (so far without success) Richard Olney. He was my friend and, in a casual sort of way, my mentor, and I liked his attitude about food and wine. Richard died last year, and I think about him a lot.

To mention Richard here, where the subject is Thanksgiving, does not seem thoroughly appropriate. I can see him loving the event, the reunion of his large family, enjoying the progression of wines that a long meal and lots of people would occasion, but when the huge stuffed bird is placed on the table, I can see Richard wince. There were two American favorites that Richard really could not stomach: turkey was one, and he hated watermelon. So I think of Richard in this context not as he might relate to a turkey, but because of his genius for wine progressions. To put it simply: dry to sweet, light to weighty, simple to complex, young to old.

Thanksgiving provides us an opportunity to riff on his theme, because there are a good number of glasses to fill and refill, several courses that need accompaniment, and, because almost all wines go with Thanksgiving fare, we can get into some nifty improvisations.

After studying our current inventory, I composed four wine menus to serve with traditional Thanksgiving fare. Those of you with wine cellars might, of course, prefer to dig out some older treasures.

“The genius of Champagne seems to me best expressed at the apéritif hour,” Richard wrote in Ten Vineyard Lunches. And, “as long as the Champagne glasses are kept filled, no one minds lingering before going to table.”

Champagne or other sparkling wines are a festive way to open holiday ceremonies. Spirits brighten, tongues loosen, stomachs start to growl.

As you will notice, I like themes and variations. Also, I find that Alsatian wine is in the right spirit for this holiday. Beaujolais, too. Both, in their perfumes, contain memories of the past harvest’s bounty, which is what we are giving thanks for, right?

With several bottles needed, it is the opportunity to open your white wine service with, for example, a drier, simpler Riesling or Gewurztraminer and move to a finer, more complex and expansive wine from the same grape variety.

Menu three riffs on a Chardonnay theme, working south from Lassalle’s Blanc de Blancs to Bernard Raveneau’s white Burgundy from Vézelay to Roulot’s richer, deeper Bourgogne blanc. Or you could draw from your cellar a 1988 Raveneau Chablis and follow it with a 1982 Meursault from François Jobard, or something like that. It is fun to mull over the possibilities (it involves defining the character of the wines you are considering) and fun to enjoy the results of your decisions later at table.

Notice that two of the menus include reds from Beaujolais and lead to red Burgundy. I love that progression from a flashy, fruity, youthful red to something older and nobler. Gamay and Pinot Noir are good choices for Thanksgiving. They shine.

The flavors of reds from Chinon and Bourgueil (menu three) seem to bring out the wild fowl/Pilgrim origins of the holiday bird. It would also work to open the reds with a Chinon or Bourgueil and follow with an older Saint-Émilion, which usually has Cabernet Franc in its blend. If you have a Joguet Chinon from the 1970s or ’80s, follow it with a Saint-Émilion from the ’60s or ’70s. Nice.

Menu four is for Rhône addicts, but the Champagne is for getting your mouth wet. First things first. Then you have a white from the far south, hopefully with some Marsanne in it, like Trignon’s Cuvée Célestine or Alquier’s Marsanne/Roussanne blend, then you head north for the Rhône’s greatest white, Chave’s Hermitage blanc, which you will have to provide, because we have none left in stock. The 1989 and 1983 are doing well, for example. As for the reds, the Châteauneuf follows the Côtes du Rhône Villages beautifully. Hierarchy, man! French wines have hierarchy, and if you know how to use it, you can orchestrate a symphonic progression.

The Apéro File

By Kermit Lynch, August 2002

By actions, not words, Richard Olney taught me the virtues of the daily apéro, which is French slang for an apéritif. My Webster’s defines apéritif as “an alcoholic beverage, especially wine, taken before meals to stimulate the appetite.” Taken? Well, that’s not why I “take” apéritifs.

And there is a French definition from 1750: “qui ouvre les pores, les canaux, les vaisseaux.” Quite physical, that one, the apéro serving to open one’s pores, blood vessels, and assorted other bodily systems. Serving to open . . . an opener, that’s the apéritif. Aperture is from the same root. An apéritif opens the evening, the meal, the festivities, and it might as well also open up oneself.

When I used to drive up the steep, narrow driveway to Richard’s place in Provence, we would embrace in the French style, then sit down under his arbor of grape vines for an apéritif. As the sun sank lower and lower, a bowl of black olives would appear, slices of saucisson, and iced radishes with butter and salt. The wine flowed, as did the conversation.

Often the apéritif was a cheap little dry white or rosé, always well chosen. Richard referred to them as mouth rinse. What a wonderfully unsnobby perspective! He ordered Fontsainte’s Gris de Gris several cases at a time. Once in a while his mood led him to open with something a little grander, like Tempier’s rosé, or a bottle of nicely aged Champagne. “The genius of Champagne seems to me best experienced at the apéritif hour,” he wrote in one of his books.

Jim Harrison quotes Peter Lewis’s remark that white wine “fatigues us and doesn’t promote unbridled lust,” but he must be referring to those kinds of whites that Jim finds syrupy enough to put on pancakes, because a good white starter should relax and stimulate at the same time. You want something dry and crisp, chilled and lucid, with some zing to it.

My reaction to Jim’s article? Never a red without a white to precede it; never a white without a red to follow it. I am convinced that the Creator had a plan, if only in this specific instance.

But before I turn spiritual on you, consider how the arrival of the dread oenologists on the wine scene contributed to Jim’s prejudice against most white wines. Once upon a time (all the way up until around 1970, in fact) wine’s second fermentation, the malolactic fermentation, was not understood. It occurred spontaneously in barrel along with or after the alcoholic fermentation. Once it was understood, this gift of nature (which renders wines more interesting and swallowable) began to be blocked technologically in a lot of white and rosé wines. It is easy to block the malo. You add a good dose of sulphur dioxide (yuck) and you sterile filter (yikes).

Why would anybody want to do that? Stability. Facility. Security. Once the wine is dosed and dead, the oenologists sleep better, because dead wines don’t budge. They might lack depth, smell of SO2 and cut your palate to shreds with untransformed malic acid, but then Pleasure 1A was never a course offering at Oenology U.

Choosing openers, I seem to go through stages. For long periods Tempier’s rosé can hit the spot day after day. Then I’ll go on a flinty, crisp Loire jag: Epiré, Minet, Reverdy, Muscadet, and so on. This year has been a white Burgundy year, and I find myself regularly opening my evenings with a Meursault or Chablis, usually with some but not too much age. I thought it was interesting that besides reds, Harrison specified liking Meursaults, because almost all Meursaults and other white Burgundies do complete that second fermentation I was talking about. So do all reds, and so indeed does Tempier’s rosé, so I’m guessing that the malolactic fermentation plays a role in Jim’s wine preferences. It sure does in mine. At Chablis, a lot of lazy winemakers have now, god forbid, joined the “block-that-malo” club, but I promise that you will never find one here.

Anyway, this year I have been going through my 1990 premiers crus from Raveneau. Also any of his 1994s. Vintages 1991, 1992, and 1994 from Jobard. Coche’s 1988. Chevillon’s white Nuits-Saint-Georges makes a great opener, as does the Vézelay blanc. And don’t forget the light little sparkler, Prosecco, which the Venetians “take.”

Remembering Richard

by Kermit Lynch, October 2002

Richard Olney, circa 1983 @ Gail Skoff

Some readers might recall that Richard Olney influenced me quite a bit at the beginning of my career. Or is that bragging? Now that he is gone, I miss him even while I work, because sometimes I used to select the wines I import with the thought in the back of my mind: would I pour this for Richard?

A native of the Midwest, Richard went to France in the 1950s and stayed. He became a respected culinary expert and wrote for France’s most prestigious culinary publications. He authored several books, some of which we stock, some of which like Yquem and Romanée-Conti, are out of print. Too bad.

He was famous for being ornery. His criticisms could be devastating. Plus, he was always right. I am never always right. If Richard was not cocksure, he would not offer an opinion. As you can imagine, it is a hell of a thing to argue with a friend who is always right.

Here is a Richard story I have wanted to tell you for a long time because of the way it reveals Richard’s personality and the perils of restaurant dining in France, but I have hesitated because it seemed to catch Richard in error, of all things.

A few years ago, I invited Lulu Peyraud and Richard to spend a weekend with my family and me on the island of Porquerolles near Toulon. Our hotel had a Michelin-rated, one-star restaurant, and we learned that we had to pay for at least one meal a day there. Imposed meals, always a bad sign. The restaurant was a client of Domaine Tempier, so Lulu was interested in making a good impression.

The first course arrived and we all stared down at it as if some obscene violation had taken place. There on our plates was the little sea creature native to local waters called a vioulet. I’d better explain what a vioulet is because you may never encounter one. It is a coquillage, or shellfish, but its “shell” looks like a rock, feels like a rock, and cutting one open is knife destroying. Yet some of us consider them a rare delicacy, including all of us there at table. Normally you cut them in half, revealing the beast within, which is vividly colored: shocking neon lemon yellow, sometimes with greenish or violet tints. With your thumb you force one out of the half “shell” and you eat them raw. Most people look at a vioulet and refuse to try one. Of those who try, many will spit it right out because nothing they have eaten has such a texture. Almost rubbery. Alive and rubbery. Or they resist the incredibly potent flavor of the sea the French call iodé. But then there are those who have an almost religious appreciation of them.

What we saw on our plates was sacrilegious. The one-star chef had chopped the beasts into raw hash with chunks of celery on a lettuce leaf! There was incredulous muttering from Richard, astonishment on Lulu’s face. And I’m the kind of guy who thinks that even an oyster has only one valid destination: raw and chilled on the half shell. I have seen oyster terrines, oysters baked, oysters ground into paste. If you have good oysters, serve them raw; if not, don’t serve them. And if that is arguably true of an oyster, it is a thousand times more true of a vioulet. And of a radish, by the way.

We each took a nibble. Richard dropped his fork in disgust.

After a while the maître d’ (let’s call him Gaston) arrived to ask if anything was wrong. Of course something’s wrong, I thought. Get these plates out of sight and shut up.

Out of deference to Lulu’s position as a wine supplier, Richard managed to say something innocent and uncritical, but Gaston noticed his American accent.

“Oh, that’s it, you Americans are squeamish about raw food.”

Uh-oh. If you knew Richard, you would know that he would not like being referred to as “you Americans.” And besides, Richard is the one who introduced me to vioulets in the first place, with a bottle of 1974 Morey-Saint-Denis blanc. Richard enjoyed eating kidneys and lungs, testicles and brains. Not squeamish.

He and Gaston began to bicker and as they did so, diners at nearby tables turned to listen.

Gaston could not accept that an American knew anything about the local vioulet or anything about food at all. Finally Richard began to let it all hang out and told Gaston that at least he might change the menu to get the spelling of vioulet corrected. Gaston looked like he’d swallowed a porcupine. On the menu it was spelled violet. After a couple of yes-it-is and no-it-isn’ts, he told Richard that he was certain it was violet because it was spelled that way on his fisherman’s delivery van. He saw it every morning. Richard looked down, straightened a few bread crumbs for a beat or two, then settled his eyes on Gaston. “Maybe you would be better off with a dictionary.” I don’t know about you, but I found that remark rather scathing.

By now, the entire restaurant watched the show, because, given the volume, it could not be ignored.

Richard explained that vioulets are to be served pristinely, accompanied by bread and butter and a dry white wine.

Gaston stood as tall as he could. “Monsieur (all this took place in French), you are not in some bar on the port. Don’t you understand? This is a one-star restaurant and people come here for haute cuisine.”

Richard exploded. “Ce n’est pas de la haute cuisine, c’est de la merde!

The plates were removed. Our main course followed: a filet of sole and slices of zucchini wrapped together (!) in aluminum foil and baked in the oven. How about that? A one-star TV dinner. Haute cuisine, indeed.

However, when I first sat down to write this story, a source in France assured me that vioulet is spelled violet. My French dictionary did not help. But Richard, wrong? It ruined the character revelation, ruined the anecdote.

Then, the other day at lunch in Burgundy with Aubert de Villaine, I told him the story. A few days later I found a fax from him, a page from his dictionary with the spelling vioulet, explaining that the word is of Provençal origin. As is the critter.

“So you see,” Aubert noted, “Richard was right again after all.”

Remembering Richard Olney

By Lulu Peyraud, July 2001

Richard Olney’s kitchen © Gail Skoff

What is the first thing I would say about Richard Olney? That he was a handsome man, very elegant in his bow ties, discreet, considerate, a careful listener, and a good friend.

We met him, my husband Lucien and I, thanks to Magdeleine Decure and Odette Kahn, publishers of the magazines Cuisine et Vins de France and Revue du Vin de France, back in the 1950s. In view of Richard’s remarkable aptitude for wine tasting and his innate understanding of the cuisine of the great chefs (to whom Magdeleine and Odette introduced him), there was no way they were going to leave Richard free to focus on the passion that had originally brought him to France: his painting. Speaking perfect French with a lovely American accent (which added to the charm I found in him), schooled by entering a circle that presented prestigious tastings in the noblest cellars of France and at its most celebrated tables, Richard acquired, with the seriousness and unaffectedness that came naturally to him, a competence rare for a foreigner who had so recently arrived in that privileged milieu. Accepted in the world of gastronomy and oenology in Paris as well as in the provinces, he began writing articles for Cuisine et Vins de France.

Then he created the Lubéron College for foreigners seeking food and wine instruction, with classes and practical experience at certain wine domaines and restaurants. After that he spent seven years, mostly in London, where I sometimes visited him, working on the Time-Life series The Good Cook. Several other books followed, which have been translated into several languages.

Before that, however, he had left Paris for Provence and moved quite close to us, and thus the ties between us grew stronger. He would visit our home at Domaine Tempier, which was filled with children that he watched grow up, and full of our friends with whom he shared parties, banquets, tastings, and celebrations. All these events gave us the occasion to go pick him up, because Richard never learned to drive. Or, we would go up to his hillside home to dine outside in the shade of his vine-covered terrace. He would prepare succulent meals all by himself, including vegetables and salads from his own garden. We shared the feasts with friends we had in common, like Michael Lemonier, Jill Norman, Aubert de Villaine, Alice Waters, and Kermit Lynch and his family. Richard would always give us his enlightened, to-the-point opinion when wine tasting, whether we were judging the newest vintage or enjoying an old treasure.

His rigorousness, his candor, and the friendship that grew between us were a source of great happiness, because whether times were good or bad, we could count on each other.

He did Lucien and me a great honor when he wrote his book (Lulu’s Provençal Table) about Domaine Tempier, which featured recipes from my kitchen.

We met his numerous brothers and sisters, who gathered every summer at his house here in Provence, and we enjoyed entertaining them with luncheons at the domaine. We also received Richard’s parents from Iowa, the time they traveled together to France to see him, and I still have the charming painting his mother did of a vase of flowers, which hangs in the entry hall at Domaine Tempier.

During his health problems, we kept his family informed, right up to the final, fatal attack. But Richard’s spirit is so alive in all of us that we will never stop honoring his memory when we get together.

Eating Donkey Ravioli in Piedmont

A few months ago, many of us in Berkeley had the good fortune of getting to spend some time with two producers who are relatively new to our portfolio: Fabio Altariva, of Fattoria Moretto in Emilia-Romagna, and Luca Marchiaro of Antica Distilleria Quaglia in Piedmont. At dinner, I asked Luca, who looks like Liam Gallagher, what his favorite Italian food is, knowing that asking an Italian this question is like asking Eric Clapton which is his favorite guitar to play. While our Piedmontese guest thought it over, visions of pizza napoletana, tortellini, pesto, and ribollita danced in front of me.

After a few moments, Luca answered, with a straight face: “Donkey ravioli.”

Huh? Did Clapton just say that a ukulele is his favorite guitar to play? Luca must have seen my jaw dislocate because he quickly followed his answer with context. He explained that wartime poverty in Asti led one restaurant family to sacrifice its remaining, honorable donkey because the family did not have access to any other meat. Because asino is tough, they cooked it for several hours in a stew and inserted succulent spoonfuls into the classic pasta pouch. Delicious and a way to commemorate leaner, hard times, donkey ravioli lived on in this restaurant—and others in Piedmont—to the present day.

Now, I have followed a mostly vegetarian diet for the last six years, but when Luca was done, I wanted to book a flight to Piedmont and try this dish right away! But what to wash it down with? The reds in our collection of Piedmontese wines would do very well, from Benevelli’s quaffable, versatile Dolcetto to Guido Porro’s exquisite Baroli—contenders for Value of the Century. Just be sure to start your meal with the Vermouth Luca helps make. You can drink it straight or mix it into a variety of cocktails. My personal favorite is a spritz, using an Italian sparkling wine like Fattoria Moretto’s Pignoletto, a delicious alternative to Prosecco.

If the ravioli don’t appeal to you, that’s fine. The wines of Piedmont are perfect for most fall and winter dishes that come to mind, from butternut lasagna to Shepherd’s Pie, and all your favorite stews and braises in between. Buon appetito!

View the wines in our Guide to Piedmont collection here.

The Sardinian Festival of “Mamuthones e Issohadores”

by Tom Wolf

Every winter, in the remote Sardinian mountain village of Mamoiada, twenty men transform into the mysterious, masked, and pagan Mamuthones and Issohadores. It’s the day of Saint Anthony the Abbot—patron saint of animals and swineherds, among others—and the Mamuthones are wearing black handmade masks, brown fur, and 50 pounds of cowbells on their backs. The Issohadores, human counterparts to the animalistic Mamuthones, dress in red, white, and black, and carry lassoes. Through the cold town dotted with bonfires, they process together, performing their respective dances, from afternoon into night. (This year’s parade took place on January 17th.)

Like many Sardinian traditions, this one’s history is opaque—oral and varied. The island is almost 150 miles off the coast of mainland Italy, and the festival is a world apart from the extravagant and brightly colored winter carnivals of Venice, New Orleans, and Rio.

If you were to travel to Mamoiada for the Mamuthones e Issohadores celebration—aside from watching the central parade—you should visit the museum devoted to the masks of the Mediterranean. Then you might feast on roast pork, prosciutto crudo, and culurgiones, celebratory Sardinian pasta similar to ravioli, filled with some variation of boiled potatoes, olive oil, pecorino cheese, garlic, mint, and nutmeg. And you’d certainly sip on Cannonau—Sardinian Grenache which, according to one local mask maker, children from the town taste immediately after leaving the crib.

Giovanni Montisci, a former mechanic, has become a master of Mamoiadan Cannonau since he started bottling his own wine in 2004. With organic work in his very old vines—often plowed with the assistance of a bull—and minimal intervention in the cellar, Giovanni crafts a deep, elegant wine: Sardinia’s answer to Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The most recent shipment of Montisci’s wines has just arrived. You can find his Cannonau “Barrosu” here.

Keep Coming Back to Cabernet Franc

by Dustin Soiseth

Cabernet Franc is my favorite grape. Before I worked at Kermit Lynch—even before I jumped into the wine business full-time—I would come to the shop to buy Loire Valley reds. Where else can you purchase the absolute best a region and domaine have to offer for about fifty bucks? Not many places. They were a steal back then, and they still are today. I sang Cab Franc’s praises in last month’s newsletterwhich features a great Cabernet Franc samplerbut I would like to share a more personal story about one particular wine here on the blog.

It was probably in 2008 that I bought a bottle of 2005 Charles Joguet Chinon “Clos de la Dioterie” from the Kermit Lynch retail shop in Berkeley. It is the domaine’s most majestic wine from their oldest vines, and it ages forever. I ignored the bottle as best as I could, but ended up uncorking it about a year later. It was a special occasion for Kate and me. We were hosting our first dinner party as a married couple and I wanted something special to drink. The wine was great, though I can’t help but feel that some of the subtleties went unappreciated both due to the wine’s youth, and the fact that dinner was about an hour and a half late and everyone was starving. Still, it was a special wine for a special night. I began working at Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in 2013, and shortly thereafter we received a few magnums of that same 2005 Joguet Dioterie. I vividly remembered the wine from that dinner party, and eagerly bought more.

Every so often, the KLWM retail staff get together for dinner, and of course we bring our own wine. It’s a great time for us to unwind, share our favorite bottles, and take a break from yelling at one another and fighting over allocations. The most recent dinner took place at Camino in Oakland. I brought that same magnum of 2005 Dioterie I purchased a few years back, and paired it with an entrée of grilled pork loin and sausage with farro, grilled pan di zucchero, almonds, and preserved lime. On this occasion the wine was in its prime: raspberries steeped in black tea, plums, graphite… A more mature Cabernet note appeared on the finish after being open for a few hoursroasted tomatoes. And fine tannins. Some tannins are aggressive, assaulting the palate; these were refined tannins, aikido tannins that used the fattiness of the pork loin and smokiness of the sausage to their benefit. There were many great bottles that night, including old Tempier and Trévallon, but that Dioterie was the star for me.

I still have a few ‘05s from Joguet in my cellar, including a Dioterie, and that makes me happy. I have enjoyed the wine in its adolescence and young adulthood, and now I’m going to wait to enjoy the last few bottles in their (and my) maturity. It’s been a years-long journey with one wine, and it’s not over yet.

 

You can find the 2014 “Clos de la Dioterie” here.

From the archives…The words and wines of André Ostertag

by André Ostertag

Alas, I barely have any memory of my previous lives, and although I am willing to bet that I was an innkeeper, a drunkard, or at least your common wine drinker, as much as I search my memory I cannot recall what wine tasted like back then.

Luckily, yet too rarely, I have at times had the opportunity to lower my nose into a glass of old Burgundy from the beginning of the century or a pre-war Alsatian wine, but each time a romantic dizziness swept me away from objective analysis.

One thing is certain, the wines of yesteryear have the power to set our spirits afire. Their rarity, their glorious age, and the weight of history, command our respect and impel us toward contemplation. Such tastings are always stamped by an almost religious emotion. And even if it should happen that such a wine shows a flaw or two, the emotion felt when drinking them renders the experience unique and unforgettable. Thus they will always seem superior to today’s wines.

Nevertheless, wine has never been so intelligent as it is today. Our engineers, oenologists, and technicians of all varieties have made possible a spectacular leap in quality. Actually, good wine will soon become an everyday beverage found in bars, bistros, and shopping carts. Quality has democratized itself so much that Saint Marketing, who never ignores our weaknesses and who anticipates our desires, has finally cut us short of any sense of surprise. It is horrible to say it, but quality has become banal!

Above all, this kind of quality is a reflection of technical advances and consumer fads. However, true quality is that which succeeds in surprising and moving us. It is not locked inside a formula. Its essence is subtle (subjective) and never rational. It resides in the unique, the singular, but it is ultimately connected to something more universal. A great wine is one in which quality is contained. Such a wine will necessarily be uncommon and decidedly unique because it cannot be like any other, and because of this fact it will be atypical, or only typical of itself.

Modern man, in his eagerness to understand everything in order to master it, spends his time classifying, filing, and organizing. It is obvious that the indefinable, the unclassifiable, and the unusual confuse our modern thought processes. So it should come as no surprise that the notion of terroir suffers while the grape variety gains importance, or the “commercially correct” spectrum of aromas is confined to the fresh, easy, and simple to the detriment of more unusual aromas (mineral notes, lees, and so on).

Today the definition of quality wine is one that should give equal pleasure at any moment, night or day, from one’s cradle to one’s deathbed. As if wine were nothing but a vulgar consumer object, sleek and docile, a little pet devoted to not disturbing our moods or classifications. However, it seems to me that in the old days wine was more capricious, more erratic, no doubt, yet its personality was more pronounced. There were no clonal selections. Each plot of vines represented a variety of different rootstocks. A wine bore more than now the imprint of its vintage, because the weather conditions and their direct consequences on a wine were less easy to remedy by treating the vines or correcting later in the cellar laboratory.

However, the real change took place above all in the relationship or exchange between man, his vines, and his wine. Before, a winemaker had to maintain an intimate, direct rapport with the elements. He had to link himself to things, allow them to become a living part of himself, to penetrate his soul, his gut, in order to feel and understand them.

Had he any other choice? There was no protection against disease or pests in the vineyard. No oenology lab, no research centers. Only the winemaker himself held the key to “Le Grand Vin.” When scientific knowledge and technology are limited, our senses of observation, intuition, and sensitivity, all of which make up our subjective thought process, are heightened.

In the old days the wine producer had few resources with which to defend himself against nature. He had to figure out how to come to terms with her.

 

If I were to read something like that, I would want to taste the man’s wine to see where such thoughtfulness led him. And I did. And now you can, too. “Wines that surprise and move us,” as he says. This shipment marks the beginning of our collaboration with André Ostertag. You won’t be bored. –Kermit Lynch

[From the March 1996 Newsletter]

 

Try the 2015 Pinot Noir “E” >> from Domaine Ostertag, featured in our September 2017 newsletter.