On En Primeur

Here's a piece I wrote for a cool kids magazine that switched issue focus. Lolz. Wine writing is something I really want to focus on this coming year, as it's fun and rewarding. I had an amazing transformative time visiting Bordeaux this past March for my first En Primeur. It really surprised and changed my vision of these wines. I hope you like it, lemme know yeah? x n

----

Why yes, I will have another piece of bread to soak up the last of my velouté de cèpes (with foie gras poélé, obviously). I dip carefully, watching the white bread swell, as I take in the scene.

It is March 30th 2015, I am sitting in the event room at Haut Bailly, one of Leognan’s most prestigious estates. I was invited three months ago rather out of the blue and it seemed like a good enough reason as any to fly to France. The group of guests is small, under fifty. To my left, the most handsome Assistant Winemaker I have seen in some time.  He is young, lean, shy. A true claret. The ’82 vintage, I later learn. I hear from the general address, completely in English that he works with other Medoc producers doing research. I am delighted. Nothing brings me greater joy than debating yeast strains with handsome vignerons with rough hands and an encyclopedic knowledge of soft cheeses.

“Your research, tell me about it.” I ask, in the uniquely shameful, rusty French of a Canadian anglophone. “Oxygen and sprays”, he responds, amused. I think of the world’s highest paid consultant Michel Rolland in the cult film Mondovino shouting into the telephone of his chauffeured BMW to ‘micro-oxygenate, micro-oxygenate, micro-oxygenate’. It’s a line played to death to demonize the homogeneity of Bordeaux in particular and the commercialization and sterilization of global food and drink in general. Where do the youth of Medoc stand?

“So, what are your results?”, I ask, not before speed-checking my white silk jumpsuit, yet unstained. “Well, it’s the same”, he responds, matter of factly. “More, less, we can’t find a difference.” What do you mean there is no difference? He shrugs. ”It’s the same”. And spraying? “Less.” For the vines or for the neck-tags?, I prod. He shrugs again, “both, I guess”. And what of organics? “Too wet”. Huh. “Do you want some more ham?”, he differs. Tuck in your top buns wine snobs we’re not in Paris anymore.

Welcome to Bordeaux En Primeur 2015.

You know the ticket. That week in late March where trade and journalists are invited to taste six-month-old unfinished wines and assign them a score out of 100. This score will largely determine the later price of an extremely different final blend.  Lolz. Following the release of these prices, trade will buy and sell to consumers years before the final wine is bottled, let alone shipped. Double lolz.

The Bordelaise call it a campaign. And it is just that, political, ideological. It’s about capturing imagination, year after year. This is Who We Are Believe in Us.  There is a disquieting lavishness to the week-long spectacle. Lunches, dinners, tastings. No one pays - how vulgar! There are no prices on bottles – that comes months from now - only shiny tasting books, limitless cheese and free pencils. I took three! "These are the fireworks", one particularly smarmy negociant recounts near the end of the week. "See our show, but you better open your wallet when we pass the hat".

Bordeaux, more than any other appellation, is synonymous with wealth and power.  We know this. It’s a port town. The famous Gironde Estuary and its tributaries do more than moderate climate, they allow for easy shipping. In 1855, when Napoleon III called on the region to rank Chateaux for the Paris World Fair, it was done by traders on price. Imagine if today’s Michelin stars were based on restaurants’ average cheque the year Charlotte Brontë died. Really it means very little. A self-fulfilling prophecy re-cemented with each foreign purchase, each shiny new chai and yet this above all others, is the classification that most people know. The campaigns work.

It’s easy to think the history of en primeur extends back over a hundred years, just like the classification it’s based on. But this is a new history. 1982 produced more than my handsome seatmate. It was the year that Michael Jackson, still black, released Thriller. It was the year that The Times Man of the Year, still called Man of the Year, was a computer. It was also the Bordeaux vintage that launched the career of a young American. Robert Parker defied his British peers and lauded the vintage with an easy to understand 100 point scoring system. Americans bought in droves. An influx of cash for the chateaux and cache for the consumer. Wine before it’s wine. The internet pre-sale before the internet pre-sale. I have this special rare thing and I have it first!

Twenty-three years later and Parker isn't eating foie gras with the rest of us, yet the system he bolstered remains. Many wonder, what now? Most of the world’s great journalists have rallied against the spectacle. They point to change coming. “Look at First Growth Chateau Latour exiting the system in 2012!”, they cry. And yet, no one followed. Bring it up to the Bordelais and they roll their eyes and sneer. “A mistake they regret every day!”, they tell you, as they fill your glass with Sauternes (okay!) and pass the tri-coloured macaroons (I ate two! ). And really, no one should. The visiting buyers resent it, ‘I will not buy if I cannot taste!’, an American, Chinese and Canadian retailer each tell me on separate occasions. [An American, Chinese and Canadian walk into a Chateaux…] The other producers resent it, ‘all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others?!’, they scoff with a loud guffaw.

And so, what now? There is no denying that en primeur as a way to quantitatively rank wines is ridiculous. Ranking unfinished wines meant to be aged for decades is crazy. Crazier still if these tank samples are manipulated without regulation and are in no way guaranteed to reflect the final blend. Crazier still if these tank samples, steeped in history are often served to trade and journalists without hiding their famous Chateau name or appellation.

So why is en primeur so important? General style, certainly. The most manipulation can’t hide trend. Duck, duck goose. The anomalies, good and bad stick out. Regionality shows. But more important than vintage notes, the year’s weather, is the reinforcement of cultural climate, the overarching narrative emboldened by the trade who year after year by attending the week acknowledge that Bordeaux is special. This is world wide content creation. Collective passport stamps from top journalists and buyers across the globe.

Because that’s the thing. It’s not about blind tasting. Countless blind tastings prove the equality, if not superiority, of Chilean, New Zealand, American and no-doubt-soon Chinese blends to their French counterparts. Bordeaux, tasted blind, is far from untouchable. Yet none of those regions make you want to pull over on the side of a 1 ½ lane highway with no curb to take a photo of an appellation sign you have been reading about since you were a kid.

Approaching the vintage, ticket booked, silks packed, I thought about Bordeaux, post-Parker, having a cool kids come back. We can only drink the same 25 natural wines with razor clams and tail-to-snout terrine for so long. What can be more forward than to go backwards? I can see it now, the well-dressed lanky sommelier to the young, adventurous couple, “yes, yes, the Saperavi is fine, but this 2008 Moulis-en-Medoc...”

But then, I went there. This place is as much about come backs, as it is about cutting edge research. [Do you want some more ham?] Bordeaux isn’t a kid, it’s an old man in a nicer suit than you’ll ever own. Bordeaux is bigger than a trend and that’s the point. It is history, prestige, romance and above all, luxury.

On the plane home, trapped between time zones, I watch the Hunger Games and cry, almost continuously. It is all just so unfair. The Capital enjoying luxury, costumes and hair styles. The outer regions bearing the brunt of the work without money or success, so dependent on the region’s heart. My cold, starchy banana bread sticks in my throat. Bordeaux as en primeur, as a public image of prestige and luxury is The Capital, the 5%. The Grand Crus combined represent less than 5% of the ocean of wine released from one of France’s largest AOC’s. It is also the 5% of Bordeaux we are least likely to consistently drink.  And yet, it sets the tone. As another negotiant regails, “the critics are all over $20 New World wine: 91 points this! 93 points that! No one reviews a Bordeaux Superior from Entre-Deux-Mers, this is our shot. You tell me that is fair”.

And it isn’t. None of it. A yearly campaign. The image elect. We are here, we are drunk and we understand! These wines are special! These wines are important! These wines are exclusive! The whispers and silk and history weave a narrative we all want to believe and perhaps more importantly, sell. It's one France desperately needs to stay on top. Oh, and the wines this year were really pretty good.

On English Fizzzzzz

London is a place I have passed many times en route to places with more vineyards and colder beer. Early last year with whispers of wine tides changing for years now, I decided to come to RAW - the world’s largest convergence of natural wine producers. What the fuck is a natural wine producer and why I would fly 10.5 hours to find some later.

With plotting in place the question became how best to craft a wicked trip around it. I am used to living in a country that makes epic amounts of delicious wine no one has heard of. Canadian wine, which is dry, plentiful and delicious is ice wine and ice wine only in the eyes of most of the world.

Pinot Meunier at Nyetimber, with its characteristic white powdery leaves in flowering. 

Pinot Meunier at Nyetimber, with its characteristic white powdery leaves in flowering. 

I was intrigued by the wines of England and knew little else than it was mostly sparkling. Expensive sparkling. Expensive sparkling that only British WSET students must be aware of for their Diploma exam. I must admit I approached the category with skepticism.

It made sense for the domestic market, sure. I mean, every state in America makes wine. People are thirsty! People like local! Or perhaps, in some cases, people like cheap. In my mind English sparkling was like 60% that. Yeah yeah yeah okayyyyy sparkling in this wet cold terrible place. Cool guys, if you can’t ripen anything else, who doesn’t like a bubble. Needless to say assuming things is dumb. English fizz is here, delicious, improving fast and not going anywhere. 

what is also going nowhere are borrowed Hunter boots worn without socks. the struggle is real.

what is also going nowhere are borrowed Hunter boots worn without socks. the struggle is real.

Traditional wine countries are steeped in history: the triumphs, turmoils, successes and heartbreaks of centuries. I love it. It is what transcends wine from drunkening tool to cultural artifact, liquid history. But in the wise words of Australian rapper Iggy Azalea “fuck love give me diamonds”. History is great, but the sparkle of a burgeoning place teetering on breakthrough is exhilarating. [that's probably what she meant, right?!]

So why now? Nicholas Coates of Coates and Seely, put it nicely. Within the last ten years England has moved from the wrong to the right side of marginal. Thanks global warming. Put simply, England used to be a bit too cold. Now it isn’t.

Nicholas Coates in his gorgeous home in Hampshire.

Nicholas Coates in his gorgeous home in Hampshire.

Grapes love to be on the edge. Some of the world’s best wines are made in the most impermeable soils, the coolest conditions. From struggle comes greatness.  In the last ten years Champagne has seen temperatures rise every year. So has England. This trend of worrying temperature rise in classic regions and growing production in once inhospitable regions is happening around the world.

This is particularly exciting for the English as the area around Hampshire is chalked full of chalk (lolz, sorry). Like fancy chalk. Like the exact type of chalk found in Grand Cru Champagne. This is really good Chardonnay soil (Champagne’s noblest grape along side Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). It is also commercially exciting as the Brits are way into fancy bubbles. They drink 33 million bottles of Champagne a year making them the world’s largest market. That is 10 times the volume consumed by the United States. What if they could make the same quality of sparkling wine at home? What British organization, royal event or UK restaurant wouldn’t prefer it to an import?

beautiful places.

beautiful places.

We visited three of the regions stars to find out more: Hambledon, Nyetimber and Coates and Seely. A quick run down.

Hambledon in chalk rich Hampshire is gorgeous: complete with south facing vineyard, a state of the art winery and a regal Rhodesian Ridgeback. Owner Ian Kellett is whip smart and fiercely ambitious. You just want to be on his team. He sees English sparkling as on the tipping point. He has the soil, England’s oldest vineyard - first planted 50 years ago - and the best equipment and expertise money can buy. He is looking for the industry as a whole to take 25% of Champagne’s market over the next decade. He is making phenomenal wines and wondering when Champagne will start paying attention. If they haven’t yet, I have a feeling he will make them with dreams of the industry increasing to 6-8 million bottles.

Nyetimber is another star and the region’s most internationally known name. They were the first to plant Chardonnay in 1988 and dedicate themselves wholly to sparkling. Their first vintage, 1993 won them top prizes in blind tastings with Champagne and people stopped teasing - ‘Chardonnay will never ripen, those fools!’ - and started paying attention - ‘how much Chardonnay can we plant.'  Nyetimber is mostly produced on Greensand, the soil of Sussex, that brings perfume, brightness and fruit to the blend, while their chalk plots in Hampshire bring minerality and texture. We had a wicked vertical tasting with winemaker, fellow Canadian and fellow Queen’s graduate Brad Greatrix. If that isn’t the best name I do not know what is. The wines are precise and joyful and the packaging is killer.

Our last stop was Coates and Seely, the days small-town hero. We were late as all hell and had the immense pleasure of meeting Nicholas Coates and his lovely wife Virginia at their family home I would like to like out a Jane Austen novel in. Nicholas and Christian Seely were school friends in the 80s. Over a lot of wine in Bordeaux they hatched a plan to make England’s finest bubbles on chalk soil with the best French winemakers. They make only 65,000 glorious bottles they cheekily label ‘Methode Britannique’ with no plans to expand. Their wines have true personality, quite characterful and meant to be paired with food. They sell to some of the finest restaurants around the world and regularly welcome top sommeliers to their home for freshly hunted deer carpaccio, the perfect match for their savoury, piney, perfect Rose I forgot to spit. Yes.

Big thanks to best wine friend Jamie for being the driver and making the best schedule. While I did lose my iPhone in the English country I mostly blame not spitting and jetlag. Look out for these wines. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

On Big Gulps

It is interesting to be present for tough moments. Already, I resent this sentence as ridiculously oprah-esque, but whatever, deal.

This last month, all these little bubbling issues kind of exploded and I came rather close to a) quitting my job in a furry of frustration *table top flip!*  b) quitting vancouver and moving to a forest *donkey kong punch* & c) severing ties with any and all humans who had gotten too close to enable a) and b) *5-year-old tantrum*.

get me out of this new hell!

get me out of this new hell!

I say this not to be overly dramatic #overlydramatic, but because it all felt so real, like the only option. When you leave your home (and all that that means) for something and then it isn't what you thought - because how could it be. When most days feel like banging your head on a rather large, unforgiving wall and the wall is laughing at you. 

So I was feeling these medium feels and then went to France for en primeur -- which I have been DYING to talk about because it was transformative and fucking AMAZING -- and then came back and it became clear how much it wasn't working and it was like yep, nicole out! *peace sign emoji* *balloon* And I did pull out. Like tell friends and family (rather dramatically) that I was returning to toronto &/ or moving to a forest without cell phone service to live out my days in an ill-assembled tent looking for a good, strong fisherman.

I spent a good few weeks in this hard reflective, wrinkle-inducing moment - seriously, this year has aged me more than Obama's first term. In it, I came to the conclusion that being an adult is recognizing when something isn't working and changing it. 

your stupid beauty doesn't fool me! 

your stupid beauty doesn't fool me! 

So I decided to leave and felt this freedom and excitement and rush of possibility. Where to live! What to do! Let's fly, world! And then the next day came. I was full of lightness from accepting defeat and perhaps releasing most of my bodily liquids in tears. I had a day of great meeting after great meeting talking with people I really liked about wines I really liked. Home that night, I sat in the sun eating fitspirational vancouver food and realized that I deeply, deeply didn't want to leave. That I was actually doing a lot of stuff I liked around humans I liked even though there was this bit that wasn't fitting and that the thing to do wasn't to flee, but figure out the broken bits. Re-commit to doing the part I could do well because my job and this place really mean something to me.

blurry pizza every day. 

blurry pizza every day. 

So I pitched a new job and the new job is real. I'll get more freedom, more restaurants, more private events and a ton more responsibility (& work). I will get to flex all this wine muscle I have been working so hard ruining my teeth and bikini body to build. Sooooo personal life crisis over now we can talk about wine like normal idiots. 

Tomorrow will be Paris and the start of en primeur. 

 

xo nc

On Canada's Best Sommelier

The whole body ache of exhaustion. Lately: life. 

This week! Oh goddddd, this week. The highlight: flying to Toronto to watch Canada's Best Sommelier Competition. 

other highlight: buk chang dong soon tofu, Toronto's best Korean/ my old favvvvvourite.

other highlight: buk chang dong soon tofu, Toronto's best Korean/ my old favvvvvourite.

We all know that a Sommelier is a fancy word for a wine professional who, in theory, makes wine lists & is the ultimate wine service and food pairing pro. In practice, Sommeliers often do a million other restaurant management things that have little to do with wine, because restaurants are expensive.

Somms are getting kinda cool. In 2013 or let's be honest, whenever Netflix released it, the movie Somm - where four Sommeliers attempted to pass the prestigious and insanely difficult Master Sommelier exam - was a thing that almost everyone asked me about when they found out what I did. "Cool! I watched Somm!" 

I did not watch Somm. I got through 10 minutes and found the whole thing so intolerable, I considered a career in beer until I realized I have the wrong body type. Jk! Anyways, I'm sure the candidates are very nice and without a doubt incredibly dedicated and talented, but I just couldn't deal. The all boys club naming obscure adjectives in their glass. The locker room, my glass is bigger than your glass bravado. No thanks. The trailor is here.

my glass is totally bigger than your glass tho.

my glass is totally bigger than your glass tho.

I am all about the understated, talented Sommelier, one of my favourite archetypes. Interested, introspective. Warm, but not too warm. Lingering just long enough. Poised. The best Sommeliers should be amazingly knowledgable, but never showy. In the same way that only the worst bosses need to tell you they are your boss, the best Sommeliers shouldn't need to say they are Sommeliers, let alone Master Sommeliers, they should just be wicked good at their jobs, choose fantastic wines, listen to what their customer wants, find them their perfect bottle and then pour it with such grace that it bestows ultimate trust and pride. "I choose good!", the guest will internally beam.

Meeting the understanted sommellier was perhaps my favourite part of selling wine in Toronto. I witnessed the rise of the young chef, buying a hole in the wall and making a tiny, dynamic menu. With the young chef, came the hot somm, pairing the chef's favourite things with unusual wines chosen for their balance, food compatibility and story. The focus left filling categories on a list (I need a Cali Chard, Aussie Shiraz, Chilean Merlot) to filling taste profiles and choosing wines that sung true. Often this meant a shift from larger producers and by-the-book taste profiles to more naturally made wine with little additives or manipulation. At times this went too far. There is little worse than the dogmatic worship of natural or biodynamic wines. A slavish appreciation for flawed garbage juice. Ignoring flaws and balance because something is the colour of pond water.  But, I digress.

Fancy white table cloth service has never been my jam. And indeed, apparently not my peer's either. In my time in Toronto, I watched countless high end restaurants close in favour of cool kids more relaxed places. The one thing that critics often pan about this new evolution of dining is a drop in service. I never got that. I liked the denim on denim. The hot, young, mean people serving me food.

And then I saw the Sommelier Olympics or rather the Best Sommelier in Canada Competition. Eight competitors from around Canada competed this weekend for the title and chance to represent Canada at the World's in Argentina three years from now. Each competitor had already won their provincial competition. I write about BC's competition here.

a blurry photo of the top eight. #daydrinking

a blurry photo of the top eight. #daydrinking

They squared off in Toronto this past weekend to write a theory exam and compete in service (decanting, cocktail making, beer pairing, menu construction, glass blowing*). From the preliminary rounds, the top three competitors were selected to compete live.  

*not glass blowing

The top three!

The top three!

Live service. In front of a huge audience and a television camera. In their second language (!). Like, whoa. So hard, but also so much yes. In this ever anglicized world, where google translate and gold apple watches make real learning obsolete, I love this old world respect for language and culture. Food and wine is universal. It brings people and cultures together. Part of respect for culture is communicating in a language that isn't your own. God, I need to brush up on my French.

The tasks: building a Canadian whisky cocktail, blind identitfying a spirit (its base material, origin and age), opening a champagne magnum and pouring it equally into 24 glasses without going back, decanting an old bottle and speaking to its origin and perfect food pairing, looking at 15 slides and identifying the wine association or menu error and finally blind tasting three wines and identifying the grape, region and age in years, along with a full tasting note, of course. All three candidates were funny, relaxed and so so good behind their white table cloths.

I finally got it. This was service. Next level service that brings the human experience of dining to another level. It isn't about being in a fancy room or paying $65 for a plate of asparagus, which I have totally done! I'm the worst, but experiencing meticulous professionalism that is relaxed and precise and only stems from years and years of study and practice.

The winner, Elyse Lambert, was whip smart, talented, humble, warm, generous and basically my new hero. Her acceptance speech spoke of her 10 year journey to this place and the joy in watching her student come in third in the same competition and challenge her to be better. I must admit, I also loved that a woman, the only woman in the competition, won. I cried. Her journey brought me to tears and not just because I had had an incredibly misogynistic experinece with a client just days ago, but partly. She made me want to be so much better. 

Elyse Lambert taking the prize.

Elyse Lambert taking the prize.

On Scores & Sales & People

Yesterday I woke up sore and foggy. Six days of pouring for over 75,000 trade and consumers at the Vancouver International Wine Fair. It was a lot of people. 

all the people

all the people

My biggest pet peeve for consumer pouring is describing wine like a chemistry textbook. 85% Cabernet, 18% Merlot, 100% no one knows or cares what this means. Even worse is listing oak regimes. 1 year in 40% new French oak transferred to 3rd use American oak for 17 months racked back to Slovenian casks to settle.  Just stop. 

For consumers (and dare I say, trade), percentages or oak regimes simply shouldn't matter. The wine should taste whole and complex. Blending and oak should be a hidden process to make that happen. Doing it the opposite way is reading the ingredients to a restaurant recipe before taking a bite or memorizing the ikea instructions before sitting on a newly assembled couch (please note: this was an awkward segue to let everyone know I own my first couch). 

I'm sitting here RIGHT NOW.

I'm sitting here RIGHT NOW.

Instead of meaningless jargon, I usually say what the wine is, a cocktail vignette of where it's from - and what that means in terms of profile - and then list some descriptors: fruits or spice or earthy bits (wet-wormy earth!  dry hay on a hot day!).

For me, reading or hearing descriptions is the most helpful when you're new to wine. Parsing out descriptors from a glass of boozy juice is weird.  Sure you taste a rough category: sweet, fruity, dry, savoury, full bodied, bitter, acerbic garbage juice, but then what?

When you have someone else be like, to me this takes like tart blackberries and tree bark, all of a sudden your mouth is full of your grandma's blackberry jam in algonquin park. You feel more connected to that wine, like you understand it better and the next time you taste something similar you can be like this tastes like blackberries, but stewed ones and is that barbequed meat with a hint of smoke? #pro

pouring like an elegant woman, always. 

pouring like an elegant woman, always. 

Tasting and categorizing wines based on descriptors is one way to classify wine. 

Then, there is the other way. And actually, I take back what I said before, my most detested way of describing wine to consumers. THE SCORE. The score and only the score. This is a Dornfelder from Alabama. 91 points, big pours. *applause* 

We all know the 50-100 point score in describing wine and it has been analyzed and criticized to death. This is a method of assessment that skyrocketed to popularity in the 20th century and dominates wine writing today. The most famous proponent of this system is famed American critic Robert Parker. Critics will describe the wine and then assign it a score that encapsulates it's overall worth. Yes, that's right, there are usually words beneath this number, but as any wine agent, sommelier or wine shop owner will tell you, no one reads these words. What remains is this sensory thing reduced to this baffling one dimensional prison sentence. Technically 80 points and over is good, over 85 is very good, over 90 is outstanding and 95-100 is fairy dust. In practice, anything under 90 is a kiss of death. Put a big 89 point sticker on a value wine and watch it gather dust. Anything over 90 suddenly looks a bit shinier. Regardless of what it tastes like, it has this stamp of approval by this human that none of us have ever met.

photobooths at wine festivals: 88 points. 

photobooths at wine festivals: 88 points. 

There are tons of problems with this type of scoring. Beyond gross simplification, the biggest, fuller bodied wines tend to stand out in huge tasting panels. Often, this type of wine is rewarded, penalizing the restrained and elegant and creating this homogeneity at the top. 

That sucks. We all know it sucks. Some reviewers work very hard to not judge this way, but that usually leads to lower scores that no agent in their right mind would use - cough, Jamie Goode giving one of my wines an 87 on my own facebook page, can't wait to write that on the technical sheet never! Lolz.

93 point view from the convention centre!

93 point view from the convention centre!

And yet. This week I woke up to an email from one of my all time favourite producers. Their new release received their best score ever, 98 points from Parker himself and even further, glowing praise on the talent of their team. I was so excited. I screamed in bed and giggled like a girl that my stray white hairs will reveal I am no longer. It wasn't because I would sell more, this wine sells itself because it tastes good and is made by a wicked family. It was actually the score. The number. It got me. I was mesmerized. NINETY EIGHT POINTS. To drink something so close to perfection. There is something in humans that loves the simplicity of it all. The validation. The prestige. God. What an insane thing our industry is based on, but boy does it work good on the human condition.