In the Valley, knowledge of wine runs deep.
Many know that the Mad River Valley is filled with food geeks and beer geeks—people who bring knowledge, curiosity, and high standards to what they create, eat, and drink. Fewer know that the Valley has its share of wine geeks, too. I mean passionate people without pretension who have been informing and impressing new wine aficionados and sophisticated consumers for years. Most of us are self-trained, introduced to the world of wine by a mentor or a singular wine experience, or just brought up in a way of life where wine on the table at meals is a part of the everyday fabric of living. But there are formally trained people in the Valley as well.
My own love for wine began when I came to the Warren Store thirty-five years ago. Bill Wadsworth was the proprietor of the wine shop at the time. When I started working I heard that he was in California rounding up hard-to-find reds and whites from Napa Valley and was actually icing down the whites daily in his car as he worked his way back to Vermont. What dedication!
My real love of wine began, however, when Bill and I tried a bottle of La Mission Haut Brion 1974. As someone who grew up drinking Mateus and Lancers, I knew right then and there that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The layers of flavor, complexity, and nuance from that wine converted me. I learned a great deal from Bill, and through numerous tastings and long conversations my palate developed and my curiosity grew. Soon I was traveling to California to visit many of the wineries we represented, and to this day my vacations revolve around wine regions in France, Italy, and the Pacific Northwest, where last summer I participated in the annual Oregon Pinot Camp—a sort of boot camp for Pinot Noir lovers. My Oregon experience took me through every aspect of the wine-making process, from canopy management to pest control, chemistry, geology, blending, and tasting. For me, learning from the wine maker and touring the vineyards in some of the most beautiful areas on earth is the best education. You can truly understand wine when you see how much care is taken to ensure that it reflects the wine maker’s creativity and sense of place. Often wine makers will manipulate alcohol and sugar levels—and sometimes this is necessary, given the vagaries and challenges of each growing season—but the real masters tend to have a hands-off approach and let the wine speak for itself.
I’m a firm believer that a wine should be more about finesse than power. (Power wines tend to be overly alcoholic fruit bombs, such as a very oaky Chardonnay, that overwhelm the flavors of the food. Finesse wines tend to have a good balance of fruit and acidity and alcohol levels around 11 or 12 percent.) I encourage my customers to get out of their comfort zone and “drink outside the box.” There’s so much good wine out there from lesser-known wine regions. My hands-on approach in choosing wines and educating my customers about them will often lead people to a Zweigelt from Austria, a Nero d’Avola from Sicily, or a Tannat from Uruguay. Each of these wines has a provincial rustic quality and lends itself well to food from the same region. I love talking about wine so much that I like to offer a “long” or “short” answer option. Some people let me go on and on, and others are pressed for time and just want to hear the scaled-down version. I’m happy either way.
Chris Alberti, the chef/owner of Peasant and a grape grower himself, likewise came to his knowledge of wine through life experience rather than specific training. He grew up in a family that appreciated wine, and as a youth was allowed to drink wine at family meals on holidays and Sundays. Later, when he was working in finance on Wall Street, he started collecting wines in earnest. “I became a big fan of the Rhône from Bandol to Côte Rôtie and everything in between. The older I get the more Burgundy I want to drink, but the power of the Rhône wines will always be a love of mine.” The approach he takes to food and wine is a traditional one. For him, “farm to table” is not a new phenomenon but the way it’s always been, at least in Europe. And that’s what he aspires to in the kitchen: classic, rustic, Old World food paired with the classic varietals, paying homage to the areas he feels make the best examples of a given varietal type. “If I need a Sauvignon Blanc for a food pairing I’ll use a Sancerre. You go with the best.” (Sancerre is the region in France where some of the best Sauvignon Blanc is produced; in Europe, wine is identified by place of origin, whereas in this country it’s by varietal.)
When Chris is not at Peasant he’s up at the vineyard he manages above the Valley corridor on East Warren Road in Warren, pruning, doing canopy management, and harvesting (he taps friends and family to help). Only a crazy man would throw himself into the stressful and never-ending challenges of running a vineyard and overseeing all aspects of a restaurant. The vineyard is dedicated to Frontenac Gris and Prairie Star—not household names but interesting grapes that can tolerate Vermont’s harsh winters and have the flavors and acidity to pair well with Chris’s wonderful cuisine. Vermont wines are slowly being appreciated for what they are and what they can become.
Others in the Valley have sought out more official credentials. Joan Wilson, owner of the Waitsfield Wine Shoppe, and Bruce Hyde, manager of Timbers Restaurant, are pursuing certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers in London, an international examining body that requires people to pass four leveled exams in order to become master sommeliers. Wilson recently passed level 2; Hyde is preparing to take the level 2 exam in the fall. Ari Sadri, the manager of the Pitcher Inn, has passed level 1, though most of his wine knowledge, he says, comes from tasting up to three dozen wines per week, and from “thirty years of falling asleep reading books on wine every night.” Level 1 requires knowledge of (and ability to identify wines by taste from) all the wine-growing regions in the world. The knowledge required for each level becomes more and more specific: master sommeliers must be able to identify specific wines from specific vineyards, and articulate what makes them different from their neighbors. (In forty years, only 227 people worldwide have passed level 4, which hints at the level of dedication—and studying—required.) Wilson has also been certified through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) in London. In January 2015, she passed level 3, involving a two-hour exam on wine theory and a tasting exam for which she had to identify three whites and three reds down to their vintage, appellation, and village of origin. She’ll begin studying for level 4, a two-year process, in October.
Wilson worked on Wall Street for thirty years before moving to the Valley in 2005; she opened the wine shop with her husband the following year. Her father worked for a wine importer when Wilson was young, so she used to try a range of wines and ask her father questions about them. Then, in the late 1970s, a customer sent her a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieux Télégraphe, which spurred Wilson’s love for French wines. These days, with 1,000 different kinds of wine (and 350 kinds of craft beer) at her store, Wilson has one of the largest selections in the state. She travels when she has time, and has visited vineyards over the past few years in Austria, Italy, Germany, California, and Washington. During a trip to Oregon (which she says is like “Vermont on steroids—pretty, green, and with huge trees”), she explored some of her favorite Pinot Noirs. “California’s are very fruit-forward, and Oregon’s are a little more Burgundian in style; the fact that the wines are grown a little further north, with hot days but cool nights, means they’re lighter and earthier.” Lately Wilson has found herself drawn to “natural” wines, a new movement that harkens back to how wines used to be made. In natural wine making, nothing is added to the grapes—no sulfites, and no yeast (they use open tanks, so the yeast shows up naturally). She stocks a lot of those wines in her store, but she has many other kinds as well—to fit all of her customers’ preferences. “My philosophy is, drink what you really like. It shouldn’t be that difficult or complicated.”
Timbers manager Bruce Hyde first started becoming knowledgeable about wine when he took an introduction to wine course at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration; since he was nineteen at the time, the course was the only legitimate way he could try wine. Every spring, they went on wine tours of the Finger Lakes region, where Hyde came to appreciate the fine Rieslings produced at the Hermann Wiemer vineyards and elsewhere. As his knowledge and training have evolved, Hyde has found himself gravitating, like Wilson, toward what he calls “honest wines—wines that have very little human manipulation and tend to reflect the natural state of the vineyards.” With these wines, the variation in taste comes not from what the wine makers do after the grapes are picked, but from where the grapes are grown—what the French call terroir.
Hyde tries to bring this approach to the wine list at Timbers, where his overarching goal is to serve wines that have a sense of place. For research, Hyde travels to a range of wine regions. “It’s very difficult to understand wine from a region without seeing the vineyards and talking to the wine makers.” Last fall, Hyde went to Sicily, where he sought out wine makers who share his feeling about the importance of a sense of place. “The new guard of Sicilian wine makers—Arianna Occhipinti, Lamoresca, and Frank Cornelissen—are all making incredible wines with little manipulation in the winery. Call them natural wine makers or non-interventionists, but in essence they are growing grapes with great care and trying to put little human influence into the bottle. I identify with these guys and really enjoy the wines.” Sometimes the mystery that wine makers employ is just letting nature take care of its own destiny.
Ari Sadri’s interest in diving deep into all things wine happened under the wing of Andy Ayers, proprietor of the now-closed Riddle’s Penultimate Cafe & Wine Bar in St. Louis, which was the best wine restaurant in the city. Sadri recalls that each week Ayers would sit down with whatever staff was interested to talk about wine: What should you pair this particular wine with? What is that wine region known for? “It spoke to my inner nerd,” says Sadri. As he learned more, he realized that for him, too, a wine’s strong connection to the place where it was made was all-important. “Each wine is temporal, an expression of a grape grown in a specific place at a specific time under specific conditions,” he says. “This is compelling to me, as it means that each wine is unique, never again to be completely duplicated.” As an example, Sadri points to the 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon vintage from California. “It was relatively rainy at harvest, lots of people freaked out and picked early, and ended up either with green stemmy wines, or diluted, watery wines. Some producers, like Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards, had seen this pattern before and knew they would get a normal harvest. Draper waited it out and made a stupendous 1989 Cabernet reflective of its location, area, and season. He knew not to panic, and made better wine than the others.” Through studying, tasting, and traveling to vineyards around the world, Sadri is on the hunt for wines to introduce to his customers at the Pitcher Inn. “Beautiful wines are made all over the planet these days. I’m always seeking them out; it doesn’t matter where they come from. But I am never looking for powerhouse wine; I want balanced, elegant wines that speak to me about place.”
Wine takes us through many portals. We learn about farming, the impact of weather, wine as a commodity, wine in ritual and rites of passage. We learn about wine’s nuances and its interrelationship with food through its flavor profile and balance of fruit and acidity. For us, the learning never stops, and the enthusiasm never ends. Ask any of us about a bottle of wine, and we’ll tell you its story—the long or the short version.