How Natural Wine Solved This Marriage's One Big Problem
I headed down to our cellarto get a white Burgundy to go with the salmon, but my lovely wife, Cassandra, yelled out that she felt like a red. Fine, sure, I could grab a Beaujolais. A week later, she wanted red with shrimp. And then trout. In desperation, I bought Zweigelts, Schiavas, Alsatian Pinot Noirs, even a red Sancerre, a wine that I’m pretty sure only exists for my precise predicament. “I’m all for having some white wine,” Cassandra would say, getting my hopes up, before adding: “As long as I can have red wine after, with dinner.” But I love white wine. And while “white with fish” may be an old cliché, sometimes red with fish is horrible. Try drinking Cabernet with mackerel. It’s like licking a handful of old pennies. The situation got so bad that I considered buying red food coloring.
Every white wine was problematized. Chablis was “too syrupy” and “thick,” Rieslings “too sweet” except with a cheese plate. All Chenin Blancs were “goopy.” As much as I searched, I could not find a marriage counselor who specialized in wine pairings.
Luckily, I found the equivalent: Lou Amdur. His tiny Los Angeles wine shop is so fun that my 9-year-old son asks to go there. Instead of organizing wines by region, his sections (written in refrigerator magnet letters) have included “Spaghetti!” and “Netflix & Chill.” He is a mad genius, one with a new insane project in the works every time I see him. Once, he pulled out bespoke hand puppets and voiced them as elderly, Jewish wine experts. He planned to use them in Instagram videos. He’s a guy you can talk to without worrying about if you’ll be judged.
Lou listened to me and suggested some natural wines, which he specializes in. I got a slightly oxidized white from the Jura, an orange wine from Slovenia, and a straight-up white from the Loire. Cassandra dug them, even agreeing to drink them with food. Lou had saved me from going on Tinder to swipe for women who love Gavi di Gavi.
But I wasn’t completely happy. Because I don’t love natural wines. I often find those cloudy wines with hipster line drawings on the label to be more interesting than delicious. I now felt forced to choose between good reds and weird whites. We needed another counseling session.
Sensing the seriousness of the situation, Lou agreed to come over for dinner with his wife, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis. I made a lentil and root vegetable stew, since she’s a vegetarian, and because it seemed like the kind of food that went with hippie wines. Lou also suggested a stinky washed-rind cheese, a sour blue cheese, a flaky sheep milk cheese, and a plate of pickles. This seemed like a major home field advantage for natural wines, but Lou said a roast chicken could work, too. I liked his confidence.
He arrived with four bottles of white wine and a gift: a rusty-lidded mason jar of homemade fermented green zhug (a Yemeni hot sauce). As he unpacked, Lou assured me that he didn’t go weird with his wine selections. None, he said, was made in an amphora. His definition of weird is wine made with technology that predates the wooden barrel.
He popped open a 2016 Il Brioso Rosato, a sparkling rosé from Umbria that was, of course, a pétillant-naturel, which has “natural” in its name. Pét-nats are made using a method (preindustrial, of course) in which wine is sealed in the bottle before its initial fermentation stops, rather than by adding yeast and sugar to a finished wine, like normal people do to create sparkling wine. It was cloudy, and the fizz died fast. Lou said there was “a little lactic, cheesy aroma,” but mostly I tasted unripe strawberries. It was fine. But really, what dry sparkling wine isn’t?
We sat down to eat, and I told Lou and Manohla about my concerns about natural wine. “That’s a bit like saying, ‘I hate French film.’ It’s too much,” Manohla said. “It’s like the idea that vegetarian food is bean sprouts. It’s not 1972. We’ve advanced beyond that.” Lou had more sympathy, saying that it’s challenging to make wines without adding sulfites, and therefore many have obvious imperfections, which hipsters claim to love. For them, “it’s an identity thing. It’s a natty boy thing. It’s a sign of authenticity. There’s a lot of soft-headed folkloric thinking,” he said dismissively. But, he also said, it’s important not to instinctively dismiss the unfamiliar. “Some cheeses gross me out and I look at you different if you like them. Like the maggot cheeses,” he told me. I was dealing with a man whose line in the gastronomical sand was eating maggots. Then Lou reconsidered. “Actually,” he said, “eating maggot cheese is cool.”
Lou had us all eat a pickle and chase it with a sip of Meinklang Graupert, an orange Pinot Gris from Austria. Graupert means “scruffy dude,” and the vines go unpruned and un-trellised like nature intended, man. It was savory without much acidity, and, while not thick, had some texture. It was also cloudy, with a tiny bit of tang. Cassandra loved the Meinklang, saying she’d happily pour it with shrimp scampi or pasta with fennel sausage. I wasn’t sure I loved it as much, but I drank enough to pour myself a second glass, somewhere between enjoying it and picking at a scab. Still, Decanter magazine, which is run by people who are more uptight than me, which I know because they’re British, gave it a 95.
With dinner, Lou opened an Italian white: Uis Blancis from Denis Montanar. It reminded me of oloroso sherry, having what Lou called an “aldehydic quality.” Even Lou seemed to find it more intellectually compelling than tasty. Our last wine, from Domaine Labet in France’s Jura region, was the Fleur de Savagnin en Chalasse. It had a label featuring a blot of multihued paint, as though we were watching that endless trippy part of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I took a sip. It was clean. It was delicious. I drank too much. It was just interesting enough that Cassandra loved it, too.
At midnight, while we were cleaning up, I looked at Cassandra and realized that our wine problem stemmed from the reason I first fell for her: She’s cool. Like Lou and Manohla, who met in the East Village, she’s a little bit punk. Even the reds she likes are rustic: We have a case of Chateau Musar from Lebanon and a lot of earthy Rhônes. I’m uptight, a Bordeaux and Burgundy guy. She’s expanded my life, and I love that. I also love that we can drink white with fish again.