How Punk Is Your Pinot?
Like any subculture, the wine world has its indie stars. Ray Isle looks at the insider darlings now and what gives them their cool-kid cred.
Have you ever hear of Guiberteau? How about Brézé? Or Saumur, for that matter? If you’re not in the wine business, or not obsessed with the wines of France’s Loire Valley, those names won’t mean much to you. But if you’re a sommelier, particularly at a restaurant with any aspirations to hipness, odds are good that the Guiberteau name will make your eyes light up. Bells might even start pinging in your head, like you’re some kind of crazy wine slot machine and you just hit a thousand-dollar winner.
Going backward through those names, Saumur is a wine region in the Loire Valley. Brézé is a hill in Saumur, covered in Chenin Blanc vines. As for Guiberteau, I’ll let the importer’s words stand in for mine: “Romain Guiberteau owns some of the best land in Brézé and makes dry Chenins of punk rock violence, yet of Bach-like logic and profoundness.”
Ooh—punk rock violence. Man, doesn’t that sound cool?
To be fair, the Guiberteau wines are extremely good, and their importer, Becky Wasserman, has an unerring track record as a wine talent scout. But having spent my youth near enough mosh pits, I’d say there’s very little that any Chenin Blanc anywhere in the world has in common with being elbowed in the face by some sweaty aggro skinhead. The connotations are the point: “Punk” suggests outsider, break-the-rules, fight-the-power, while “violence” conjures intensity, power, surprise.
In restaurants right now, for a wine to be truly cool—and don’t think there aren’t cool and uncool wines—it needs to have at least a whisper of the transgressive. Call it punk, indie, alternative—whichever you want—but the music analogy is apt.
If you don’t believe me, sift through the lists at wine-centric restaurants across the country. Three things will strike you. The first is linguistic: Wines that sommeliers are particularly excited about often come accompanied by adjectives like “expressive,” “independent” or “experimentalist.” Winemakers “subvert your expectations,” “man the battlements” or look “like an indie rock dj.” (I keep searching for a list with an “inexpressive,” “corporate” Cabernet made by “some old white guy who still listens to REO Speedwagon,” but no such luck.)
Second, the characteristics of cutting-edge wines push boundaries. High acid is excellent; reductive funk, bring it on; some fuzz tone cloudiness—a deal-breaker in a Napa Cabernet—is intriguing, a hallmark of artistic ambition.
The third thing, which is a little peculiar, is that these deeply individualistic, subversive wines pop up on wine list after wine list. It’s like when your trend-chasing friends all seem to start listening to the same undiscovered band at once. The current cool-kid playlist is heavy on the Loire, Jura and Champagne in France; loves the lo-fi movement of natural wine; and embraces talent in offbeat places such as the Canary Islands or Sicily’s Mount Etna (volcanoes are very in). Large-production “corporate” wine, like corporate rock, is anathema. Small importers have followings the way small record labels once did. In fact, small is good, period. Making 500 cases of something is edgy. Make 500,000, and it’s Coldplay in a bottle.
But while digitized music isn’t limited by quantity—it’s not like Spotify is going to run out of your latest drone-metal discovery—sommeliers must compete for limited amounts of the same wines. As Jason Wagner of New York City’s Union Square Cafe says, regarding the Jura producer Pierre Overnoy, “Are you kidding me? I have an Overnoy allocation of two bottles of red and one of white.” (He means that’s what he gets per year.) Some wines never even make it to outlying markets. Consider Sandlands, the boutique label from California vineyard guru Tegan Passalacqua. Cappie Peete, who oversees wine for chef Ashley Christensen’s restaurants in Raleigh, North Carolina, laughed when I mentioned it. “That’s one of those coveted new wines that most of us here haven’t even tried. I’d love to see one bottle come into North Carolina.”
Which doesn’t mean that today’s hits won’t be tomorrow’s bargain-bin cutouts. In the late ’90s in New York, Duckhorn Merlot was allocated—you couldn’t touch the stuff. That’s unimaginable these days. (In terms of cool, Merlot had a stake driven through its heart by the movie Sideways 13 years ago and still hasn’t risen from its grave.) Paul Grieco of New York City’s Terroir wine bar, whose samizdat-like wine lists have influenced uncountable young sommeliers, recalls that in the early 2000s, when he worked at Gramercy Tavern, “with one of those big-gun Australian Shirazes—I can’t recall which one—I got allocated three bottles. At Gramercy! At $150 a bottle!”
Other names and places have risen up the charts and faded away, too. For a while in the mid-2000s, Austrian whites were sommelier catnip, with people vying for what few bottles they could get of, say, F.X. Pichler’s latest vintage. Not long after, the vineyards of Spain’s Priorat had their moment, which then waned; seven or eight years later, Spain also provided a brief Txakoli frenzy. These days, Grieco says, “Burgundy is the new Napa Valley cult wine, with Jura thrown in as the salt and pepper on top of it.”
What has changed though is how wines like these become popular. For restaurant buyers, the dominance of critics like Robert Parker has largely vanished. Instead, the sommelier community itself, through social media, creates the buzz. Camille Rivière, who imports wines from Jura and southern France, says, “We’re in a world where sommeliers live on Instagram and Twitter. They see other people post all these bottles, and they get excited. That’s worldwide. You go to the Le Nez dans le Vert tasting in Jura, and you’ll see sommeliers from around the world—French, US, but also the Danes, the Swedes, the Japanese, even the Russians.” Often it only takes one influential person to start the trend. As Jason Wagner says, “There’s always a ‘patient zero’ for these wines.”
The other big shift—possibly the one most pertinent for casual wine buyers—is that the underground hits right now, the wines that sommeliers will trample one another to get, often aren’t all that expensive. Because they’re from up-and-coming regions or from winemakers just beginning to achieve fame, most are under $100 on a wine list. A bottle of 2015 Guiberteau’s basic Saumur Blanc will run about $65 on a wine list, as will newly minted Rhône Valley star Hervé Souhaut’s Ardèche Syrah. Even the Jura producer Jean-François Ganevat, whose prices have rocketed upward, is still fairly affordable. His Cuvée de l’Enfant Terrible Poulsard runs $130 or so in restaurants—not cheap, but substantially less than a premier cru Burgundy of similar quality, or even a top California Pinot Noir.
In other words, the barrier to enjoying these wines isn’t paying for them, it’s finding them. But there are ways. If you’re a sommelier and you want to get into the Guiberteau club, sure, the line goes out the door and down the next block. But as an ordinary restaurant-goer, not someone trying to amp up their wine list, in many ways you’re better off. Most people are still ordering the AOR Top 40 bottles of the world: easy-listening Chardonnays and pop-rock Pinot Grigios. Which means that hipper wines often linger…waiting for that one fan—you, perhaps—who really gets them.
The Coolest Wines in the World
2016 G.B. Burlotto Verduno Pelaverga, $23: Pelaverga, an obscure Piedmontese grape, makes delicate reds with white-pepper notes. As Erica O’Neal at Italianne in New York City says, “I can get all the top Barolo I want, but Pelaverga I really have to fight for.”
2016 Hervé Souhaut La Souteronne Gamay, $30: Gamay doesn’t typically grow in France’s Rhône Valley, but don’t tell that to Hervé Souhaut. Effectively, this is cru Beaujolais from Syrah country, which is a cool (and completely unlikely) thing. Plus, the wine is delicious.
2016 Jolie-Laide Gamay Noir, $30:California’s Scott Schultz focuses on grapes that big wineries never want to bother with—Trousseau Gris, anyone?—making minute quantities that somehow end up on wine lists everywhere. Try his aromatic, raspberry-ripe Gamay Noir.
2014 Domaine Tissot Les Bruy È Res Arbois Chardonnay, $45: When it comes to edgy restaurant wine lists, there is no region more of-the-moment than France’s Jura, and Tissot is one of the best producers. This single-vineyard white is smoky and rich, lifted by an electric jolt of acidity.
2014 Guiberteau Brézé Saumur Blanc, $62: Guiberteau is the “it” wine producer right now. But uneasy lies the head that wears the crown: Next year it will undoubtedly be someone else. Either way, enjoy the crystalline focus and intensity of this Loire white.
NV Marie-Noëlle Ledru Grand Cru Brut Champagne $82: As Cappie Peete says, “There’s always a Champagne everyone is fighting over, and every year it’s a new one.” In 2016 it was Savart; this year LeDru’s vibrant cuvées are particularly hot.