by Ashley Mason
on Dec 13, 2013
It all happened very organically. When Olibjorn Stephensen, the Icelandic co-owner of New York’s esteemed natural wine hub The Ten Bells, wanted to open a new restaurant, it was second nature to ask his friend and wine buyer Philippe “Fifi” Essome to curate the list. In August, his spot Skál opened up in Chinatown, with Scandinavian-influenced dishes created by Ben Spiegel, a young chef he charmed out of Willows Inn at Lummi Island in Washington, who has also worked at Noma in Denmark.
The restaurant’s light and briny food has delighted both Lower East Siders and Icelandic natives, but after three months the team reworked its menu and unique wine offerings this week. We caught up with general manager Stephen McClure and co-owner Christophe O. about changes to wine list.
What are the challenges serving natural wines in a restaurant?
Christophe: People go to restaurants to have their dish that they love. For some, wine is the same way. We have some regulars already, and they drink exactly the same wine. But with natural wine, the wine maker has a small quantity. If we run out, we won’t get it until the next season. Working with The Ten Bells, we have to fight with them about having more cases. People get attached, so we have to have some regular wines.
Stephen: Especially for the white wine list, we won’t see what is here beyond the next two months. These will go away pretty quickly. The production level of many of them is so low that they just won’t be available. It’s exciting because we get to sit here and find new things all the time.
If you’re out of a wine, how do you get your customers to try new things?
Christophe: Some people already know what they want and it’s very difficult to convince them to try something else, but generally people want to try. We’re a new place with new dishes, and it’s very easy for us to get them to try something different. When you smile at them, you can change anything.
Stephen: It’s not the habitual smile or Christophe’s charisma. I think every person here is passionate about what’s either on the dinner menu or the wine list. That carries through in a really understated way. Approaching a table, then, is the easy part in the whole scenario. People want to experience what is in front of them or what’s being proposed. But also new product renews the staff’s palate and passion. There’s always something new to be tried and feel good about. We have a very loyal neighborhood customer base and they also want to see new things as well as get attached to some things, but it renews a dialogue between us and the customers.
What are the changes the wine list is going through?
Stephen: The first wines Fifi set us up with – some were tough and required some hand holding. We’re wine savvy, but at the same I didn’t want our servers to have to spend so much time walking a customer through them. I’m enthusiastic about continuing with minimal intervention wines. With a list like this, that is not dumbed down like many restaurants, it’s not just Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay. You really have the opportunity to put something in front of someone that is extraordinary and blow their mind.
Christophe: We want to keep a variety of appellations and grapes, so there is a reason for customers to come back. Fifi goes twice a year to France to choose wines, and imports wines from small producers. They’re specially imported for him and for The Ten Bells. We tried to have a little bit of wine from everywhere, but sixty percent of the wines were from France.
“Skal” is Icelandic for “to toast.” How does the Icelandic theme fit into all of this?
Stephen: Ben does a great job giving a nod to the traditional Icelandic fare but it’s his translation and the menu is his. There are a lot preserved things. Lots of seafood, which speaks to the cuisine, but at the same time it’s fresh and out of the ordinary. It requires a finesse of language to not burst our customers’ attachment to the Icelandic theme. But at the same time, when we walk them through the menu, whether they’ve grown up there or recently visited, they’re drawn to it. He’s amazingly creative.
Christophe: When we get people from Iceland, they recognize the surroundings. They feel at home.
Stephen: The living room atmosphere, modeled after Olibjorn’s intention of an Icelandic fishing village, is so indicative of what we actually experience behind the scenes here.
Christophe: With the drinks, we really wanted to do something different. There’s not a lot of organic wine from Scandinavia. We’re trying to do some infusions with Reyka vodka to get some flavor from Iceland. We don’t have aquavit, because all of the places have aquavit.
What’s on the horizon for Skal?
Christophe: In the future we’re doing a special cocktail every week, with one of the infusions from our bartenders. We’re thinking beets, bacon, roasted pear and roasted apricot in Icelandic vodka.
Stephen: We’re also implementing happy hour wines. It’s a Muscadet ($7), which is traditional, and a Monastrell ($7), which is organic. These are more food friendly – they’re definitely more suitable for month three of where we’re at with the menu as it has evolved. There’s more fish on the menu and more lighter bodied red wines. Natural wines mean a lot to us, but there were some gaps in the list that forced us to look at more traditional wines. The chardonnay that we started with wasn’t what people were really looking for. For us, it was a great wine but if you have to get through half a glass before you decide you don’t like it, that’s no good from a customer perspective.
We’re trying to keep it affordable price point wise for this neighborhood, but at the same time be appealing to people who see this as a destination. If I have a need for $100 bottle of wine, I don’t want it to be seen as everyday drinking wine. It’s hard. We’re moving away from what were really esoteric, or more difficult wines. When someone orders it, it requires so much, “It is, but it lacks this.” When a server has to start speaking in the negative, all is lost.
Stephen McClure has worked as the cellar manager and dining room manager at Inn at Langley on Whidbey Island in Washington. Prior to that he owned a small wine shop on Vashon Island, southwest of Seattle. Christophe O. has worked at Les Enfants Terribles and Ten Bells. For more information, go to Skal’s website.
by Andy Besch
on Dec 12, 2013
This past Halloween, I got quite the treat at the Shinn Estate Farmhouse, on the North Fork of Long Island. If you don’t know Shinn Estate Vineyards, then get on it. Husband and wife team Barbara Shinn (viticulturalist) and David Page (winemaker with Patrick Caserta) have been making wines based on organic and biodynamic methods since the early 2000’s, and every year they just keep getting better and better.
While they make a number of reds, whites and a killer rosé (which is always sold out) I’m singling out their Red Blend because it falls in the under $20 category. Me, I enjoyed sipping it by the fireplace with some excellent cheese, all part of the warm welcome guests at the inn can expect. You might want to pair it with a tomato-based pasta, chicken or even one of those famous Long Island ducks.
The Shinn “Red” is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah, and its eloquence is amazing for the price (about $16 retail). Bing cherries and touch of spice greet you as you sip this terrific vin de soif. It’s a perfect balance of acid and fruit. You can’t help but like what’s going in the New York State wine world, and this is exhibit A.
by Organic Wine Journal
on Dec 10, 2013
Here is a short film on Napa winemaker Robert Sinskey produced by cdsavoia.
by Organic Wine Journal
on Dec 10, 2013
Roundstone Rye Cask Strength
Catoctin Creek is a Virginia-based distillery that makes a great range of organic spirits, and every year they release a limited production of their “Cask Proof” Roundstone Rye, bottled at 116 proof. Only 120 bottles are available, so if you’re able to make it to the distillery in Purcellville, Virginia this Saturday, December 14th, try and stop by at noon and grab a bottle. According to founder Scott Harris, they usually sell out the first day.
Fabrizio Rossi of Cefalicchio
Last week we profiled Cefalicchio, a biodynamic winery in Puglia. We also had a chance to speak with Fabrizio Rossi, who guided the winery towards organic and biodynamic production over 20 years ago.
You were the first in your area to practice organic and biodynamic winemaking. What led to that decision?
I came back home in 1985 and got involved in my father’s farm. We used to produce grapes and olives, and we used to sell them in the local market. I was interested in organic agriculture and I got in touch with the International Foundation for Organic Agriculture. They sent me to the Associazione per l’Agricoltura Biodinamica in Milan.
I did not know much about organic agriculture, and I knew nothing about biodynamic agriculture and antroposophy, but I was puzzled and somehow fascinated by what appeared to me a funny mixture of philosophy and agricultural engineering. I thought that the challenge was an interesting one and I started with the biodynamic method in my own little farm, and later in on my father’s farm. In 2003, along with my brother and sister, we decided to pool our energies and start a small family winery. We started with a blend of Nero di Troia and Montepulciano grapes.
How does your land lend itself to biodynamic production? Is the soil, climate and pest profile easier or harder than other Italian regions?
It is certainly easier to produce grapes in our area than in many other regions. The climate is very favourable. As far as pests and diseases are concerned, we have only a few key problems, but we solve them easily. The soil is very favourable too. It is sedimentary rock, a limestone born from the deposits of sediments in a marine environment.
But, of course, reality is more complex than we anticipate. In our climate, due to a fairly hot summertime and a very high solar radiation, the ripening process tends to be a little bit too fast and the acidity tends, in some vintages, to fall before the perfect ripeness of the fruit. So it is often difficult to spot that perfect day when sugar content, acidity and phenol maturity are aligned. This problem seems to be more relevant with international varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Even the soil, as I said, seems to be very favourable, and the grapes do like it very much, although it looks like a very poor soil. The good “minerality” of our wines is probably due to the soil.
Do you think biodynamic farming enhances the quality and taste of your wines?
I am convinced that biodynamic farming enhances the quality of our grapes in the sense that the grapes are more “faithful,” if I can use the word, to themselves, to the farmer and to the terroir. The grapes, after the harvest, undergo a very complex process where the components are decomposed, during the maceration process, and rebuilt again in a completely different way. The colour, the taste, the flavour of the fruit may tell us a lot about the life of the plant. However, the wine may tell us a different story, as the alcohol in it points toward a direction which may have been normal in different times, but not anymore.
What are some of the challenges that biodynamic farming have presented?
The main challenge is that I have to keep studying and thinking and, of course, making mistakes. But this is more a pleasure than a challenge.
Now that you’ve been Biodynamic for over 20 years, have other vineyards nearby followed your lead?
Not many in Canosa. In Puglia there are quite a few biodynamic wine producers.
Do you talk about your biodynamic practices in your marketing?
I admit, when I started with biodynamic agriculture the main interest was an economic one. But, after so many years, I think that if we survive economically, and if we have some success, it is mainly because people like what we produce. But, I only take care of the agricultural production. Marketing is my brother’s job.
Vineyards at Cefalicchio
At Villa Cefalicchio
Barrels at Cefalicchio
Wine Cellar at Cefalicchio
Fabrizio Rossi of Cefalicchio
When your family has been in Puglia since 1650, a hundred-year-old winery is considered a recent acquisition. Driving up to the majestic Villa Cefalicchio we felt as though we’d been transported to the set of the classic 1963 Italian film The Leopard. We are met by Nicola Rossi, whose family has owned the property since 1871. He is gracious, elegant and a born aristocratic. First a lawyer, then a PhD from the London School of Economics and until recently he served in Italy’s Parliament. Now, he divides his time between Rome, where he teaches economics, and the Biodynamic wine estate he runs with his brother, Fabrizio, an agronomist and teacher.
Villa Cefalicchio has been producing wine since the late 1800s. However, like many in Puglia, these were vin de table, with the emphasis on quantity, not quality. In the early 1900s, Nicola’s grandfather started a cooperative in nearby Canosa. The Rossi family brought their grapes to the cooperative (which was the custom of the day) and also made their own wine. Everything was for local consumption. When the Nicolo and Fabrizio took control, they decided to leave the cooperative.
A generation later, the brothers have modernized the winery to compete in the world market. Fabrizio determined that Biodynamic farming was the responsible route to take, so in 1992 they became Demeter certified – the first vineyard in Southern Italy, and one the pioneers in the country. In keeping with their belief in sustainability, they’ve installed enough solar panels to produce three times more energy than the estate uses.
Cefalicchio’s philosophy is simple, “If the grapes are good enough to be table grapes, they’re good enough for our wine.” In keeping with this credo, they intervene as little as possible with the process. Yeasts are indigenous and the wines are lightly filtered. “We never filter so much as to prevent the wine from evolving; that is we never micro filter,” says Nicola. He further emphasized, “One of our few concessions to modernity is refrigeration. We thought about putting our tanks underground, but even then we would have needed refrigeration.” Because 70% of the wine is exported, and needs to be stable, sulfites are added at the end, but in such small amounts that they remain well below the limits for organic certification in the EU.
The estate encompasses 78 hectares (193 acres), 20 of which are currently planted in grapes. The rest is a combination of olives trees, fields ready to be planted in grapes, and woods for the all-important birds. They also have a second holding of 27 hectares at another location.
Interestingly, their biggest export market is China, where Nicola feels the government’s push toward environmental awareness is fueling his wines’ success. And, because the market is so large, a “small” shipment to China is 4,000-5,000 bottles. Overall, his wines’ top destinations after China are Japan, U.S., and Italy.
Cefalicchio produces 4 red wines, all of which contain, either in whole or in blend, the Puglian grape Nero di Troia. Nicola views this grape as their regional equivalent of Pinot Noir, thus its Burgundian style. Unlike other Puglian wineries, they use Primitivo only as a blending grape, which he views as Bordeaux-like in its characteristics. Their other blending grapes are Montepulciano and Cabernet Sauvignon.
They also bottle 2 whites and a rosé. Of interest is their Moscato, which, counter to expectations for this grape, is dry. They hope it will take the place of prosecco as an aperitif. Nicola feels “It starts as an aromatic wine, but ends with a bitter note which prepares you for the [fish] meal to come.”
Before we went to the cellar, we were shown the tasting and event room. This inviting, yet cavernous space with arched ceilings was once an almond storeroom – the estate was previously an almond farm. When renovating, they retained the original chute in the ceiling through which the almonds were poured.
The cellar is dug out from the tufa stone that underlies the entire estate. This is where the barrels lie on their sides as the wine ages in large oak barrels. They intentionally selected large barrels so that the oak to wine ratio would be low, and the flavors of the delicate Nero di Troia grapes would prevail. “We don’t want to drink a chair,” he joked.
The tufa is oceanic in origin. Nicola told us that as a kid he regularly found fossils in the soft rock, including an entire fish. He believes his wines’ minerality come from the tufa’s essence. “We are doing nothing but taking the memory of the sea and putting it into the glass.”
Ever the entrepreneur, Nicola works to expand the markets for his wine. Accordingly, he convinced another large wine producer that they needed a Biodynamic wine in their portfolio. They now include his wines in their catalogue, and since they’re distributed in places his small company can’t penetrate, this inclusion has opened up new markets.
At the end of the tour, Nicola reflected on his 1992 decision. “What convinced me that my brother was right in going Biodynamic was that when you grab the earth here, it’s living. You see earthworms. It’s moving. It doesn’t matter whether the season is wet or dry. We get consistent results. It’s like a baby who hasn’t been spoiled.”
We were fortunate enough to sample Cefalicchio’s wines over a dinner at the estate’s popular restaurant, which serves classic Puglian specialities to customers who often travel long distances for the pleasure of dining here. The beautifully appointed room is an inviting blend of clean sophistication and artifacts from the country’s past.
First pour was Jalal, the Moscato successfully made to replace either prosecco or a white served with fish. Delicious. Aromatic and floral. Restrained in its fruit, we thoroughly enjoyed the freshness. This is an interesting wine and a perfect match to the house-made antipasti, which included home-cured wild boar.
With our primi pasta course, Nicola opened his favorite creation, a 2009 Romanico (100% Nero di Troia) that spent 1 year in a barrel before being bottled. Since this wine requires a minimum of 3 years on the bottle before it’s ready to be opened, our 2009 was still young, as evidenced by the “Biodynamic fizz” and “still alive” taste. Over time, it will soften as the tannins mature. In our glasses, it did the same. The intense ruby red color lets you know that it will be jammy with withered fruits, spices and licorice. If we didn’t know better, we would have labeled this as a restrained Zinfandel. Ultimately the taste defies easy categorization. Romanico is a unique wine.
With our secondi carni course, which included two local cucina povera dishes, horse and donkey, we drank the Totila, a 50/50 Nero de Troia and Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Another deep ruby wine, this is full and fragrant with hints of red fruit, spices and vanilla.
The wines were delicious, but the true treat was being able to pair them with the chef Giampiero’s unique and artisanally prepared food.
Cefalicchio’s website has detailed information on their wines, olive oils, and growing methods.
by Andy Besch
on Dec 3, 2013
In the heart of Rioja Alta lives a slightly crazy winemaker by the name of Gonzalo Gonzalo. He happens to make some of the best wines from the region, without even calling them Riojas. Besides a killer red called Gran Cerado, he makes a white by the name of White Yeti.
Now, even if you tried this wine for name alone, your curiosity would be well rewarded. It’s 100% Viura (a.k.a. Macabeo), and fermented in stainless steel where it’s left alone to do its thing. No hanky panky, here. It’s just a terrific natural guzzler that you should grab off the shelf while it lasts.
No need to wait for summer, this is a wine for year round enjoyment. It’s smoky, salty, citrusy, apple-y, delicious-y. I’m thinking brandade or poultry, a good meaty fish or a steaming hot vegetable soup. C’mon. White Yeti, at around sixteen bucks – how can you not?
by Organic Wine Journal
on Dec 2, 2013
This Pinot Noir is like a “ballerina – with something to say.”