Nine months ago, I was asked to curate the wine list for Henri, the second Chicago restaurant for Billy Lawless, who also owns The Gage Restaurant, where I am the wine director. He wanted it to be more classic than the Gage, which is bustling and bar-focused. The interior of Henri had been one of architect Louis Henri Sullivan’s last Chicago commissions in 1902. This is the last of five buildings left standing of all the prolific work from this important figure in modern design. It deserves to have a distinctive wine list to match.
People have no problem with blighting and destroying, yet down the line when something reveals itself to be a treasure we mourn its loss. If only we had known, or had been able to divine its importance, maybe we could have saved it.
This is happening in the wine world. I have noticed a marked shift, in wine that started around 1982. The popularity of certain critics, globalization, and the financial sector’s sudden interest in the wine world all snowballed, bringing a new set of standards and expectations, based on color, taste, texture and ripeness. Whether a Shiraz from Australia, a Bordeaux, or a Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley, the wine world suddenly came awash with a uniformity of flavors, eschewing personality, complexity and that ‘t’ word that everyone talks about but is so elusive – terroir.
So, the decision to create an all biodynamic/organic list became easy and made sense. Shouldn’t the wine list represent the most authentic wines? To honor winemaking at its most challenging and ultimately its finest. To allow each wine to express its sense of place, just as Henri expressed a sense of place, with its ornate facade, ghostly reminders of eras gone by and serene beauty?
Fortunately, I had a good track record with The Gage’s successful wine list, and I did not get too much resistance from my clients when I wanted an all biodynamic/organic list. About 70% of the Gage’s list fell under those parameters anyhow, I had unconsciously been buying wines like this for the three years we have been open. I downplayed the manure and horns, and focused on how such a list would distinguish us. I was given a green light.
I told my vendors to start pulling all biodynamic, certified organic and sustainable wines. I quickly learned that the term sustainable farming was riddled with vagueness and, depending on whom you spoke, meant very little. A common definition of sustainability was allowing the use of round-up on the sides of the rows to contain weeds. And while I am sympathetic to the demands of farming and the thin margins upon which agriculture is built, that seemed like a cop-out to me. After much research, I decided to use the charter developed by Nicolas Joly. Anything termed sustainable had to fall in the ‘one star’ category as the quality chart proposed. That would be the baseline for all Henri’s wines. if wines were to fall in the two and three star category, even better.
Not all biodynamic and organic wine is good wine. And I have tasted out many a bottle of gnarly, strangely oxidized and generally off “natural wines” to know that although the practices are ecologically laudable, the wine, in the end, must be delicious, balanced and sellable.
I went to Biodyvin, Summa Conference 10, Demeter USA, Ecocert and Demeter International and printed out page after page of producers who had been willing to make a stand about what went into their soils and how their wines were made. Many producers I recognized, and had no previous notion that they were a part of this alliance. I noticed too, that there were definitely ‘hot spots’ of biodynamics: the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Alsace, and Sonoma. But I needed to cull an eighty bottle list that offered more than these four areas could supply.
Bit by bit I started to cobble the list together. My vendors started to dig into their books, many calling their importers or the winemakers themselves, for clarification and philosophic discourse. Many discussions about sustainability and la lutte rasionnee (the reasonable way) came up, as my perspective was not as ecological (great that you have a koi pond & sheep on the property – do you spray?) as it was philosophical. I became aware of more and more producers who were not certified organic but practicing organic/biodynamic methods, many of whom I saw as the true guardians of viticultural biodiversity. It is a well-established fact that synthetic applications are more damaging to low-vigor and heirloom vines, yet it is the inclusion of these older, lower yielding vines in the harvest selection that can add depth and character and a true sense of place to the end product – that bottle of wine sitting on your table. Had Domaine Romanee Conti not transitioned to organic practices 26 years ago, would their selection massale, the traditional way of propagating plants from old, pre-clonal stock, be at all possible now?
In the late 1960’s, Maurice Combier of Domaine Combier had a severe allergic reaction to a phytosanitary product. He also noticed how the application of these synthetic preventatives and fertilizers were sublimating the personality and terroir of his vineyards in Crozes-Hermitage. He rapidly transitioned his 5 hectares of vineyards, as well as the 15 hectares of orchards to an organic regimen. The results in his mind, were tremendous, although for many years later he was known locally as crazy Maurice (Maurice Le Fou). It took nearly a decade to perfect their systems, but in the 1980’s the estate began to flourish and today the estate has expanded, remains organically farmed, and is very successful.
Ted Lemon of Littorai is an uncertified, but influential biodynamic producer in California’s north coast. One need only step foot on his other-worldy estate property in residential Sebastopol to know that something amazing and important is happening, right before your eyes. Fava bean stalks bend in the breeze, fixing nitrogen into the soil. Cover crops abound. Ladybugs hover in the air. Water lillies bloom in the water pond. The Haven Vineyard Pinot Noir ( I fell in love with 2006) from that estate is a profound expression of Pinot Noir, and something beyond words. It seems to hover between two worlds; ours and the ethereal world of imagination and abundant possibility.
The certification process can be tricky, and the eligibility requirements rigid, and sometimes arbitrary. I talked at length one afternoon with Joe Wagner of Belle Glos. He has farmed his Sonoma Coast Taylor Lane vineyard organically now for four years. Because the fence posts at the row ends were constructed of chemically treated wood, he was not eligible for certification. He questioned the ecological and financial implications that ripping out the fence posts would entail; in the end he decided to not certify. However, many other aspects of his viticultural approach made him eligible, in my mind, for placement on this list.
This list required more research than any other project I have undertaken. But through the research I have learned massive amounts about farming, agriculture, and the thin line winemakers walk between commercial viability and upholding ecological philosophies that have the potential to financially devastate them. I think lastly, that it is those who take the largest risks ultimately make the greatest wines. That has been my experience anyway.
Henri, located at 18 S. Michigan in Chicago, will open in August 2010.