We’re Moving (again…)

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Yes, we’re moving this blog again.  

Last time, it wasn’t so pretty, many tears were shed, there was mass hysteria, and many unholy things happened.  This time, we’re pretty sure we got it right.  Pretty sure.

In any case, please redirect yourself to our blog’s new home: http://vinotas-selections.com/blog/

I should also mention that we have rebuilt our website, so while you’re there take a little stroll around it at http://vinotas-selections.com and let us know what you think.  Or not.

Doesn’t matter to me, I’m just gonna pop a bottle of Perlette and watch the container ships arrive with our wines.

The Italians are Coming!

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Well, you knew it had to happen eventually.  I always try to keep an open mind, and more importantly, an open palate, so I’m always on the lookout for something interestingly different but good and affordable.  Which means, of course, that I taste a lot of crap and really abuse my tongue for my customers.  But, alas, such is my lot in life…

For some time now I’ve been seeking Italian wines, but between business development at home and herding my French and Spanish winemakers, I had not really had time to focus on that search.  So I jumped at the opportunity to taste some Chiantis when a local trade tasting took place.  And lo and behold, I found what I was looking for: a small farmer Organic Chianti.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Italians are coming!

Located in Cavriglia, between Florence and Arezzo, the Tenuta San Jacopo winery was in a state of disrepair, its old vine Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Trebbiano vines lying uncared for, until 2002.  Then three wine-loving brothers from Milan purchased the property and set about restoring it to its former glory.  

Stefano Balzanelli (the long-haired guy up top) manages the property, set in rolling dry hills between Florence and Arezzo.  This mid-sized property is planted to 38 ha (93.9 acres) of vines, with another 20 ha to old olive groves.  Portions of the vineyards were replanted after the purchase, while the older, healthier vines were tended to and brought up to modern standards.  Certified Organic methods are used to take care of the land, the vines, and the grapes.  These are then hand-harvested in small baskets, then sorted again at the winery and destalked before going into stainless or wood fermentation tanks (depending on the cuvee).  The end results are lovely, earthy old-school renditions of Chianti.  No over-ripe or over-oaked fruit here!

We are proud to add the Tenuta San Jacopo wines to the Vinotas family, and we’re sure you’ll be very pleasantly surprised with them as well.  Stefano’s Poggio ai Grilli Chianti is lively, aromatic and refined while at the same time rustic, very Italian in so many ways.  Bright, fresh red cherry fruit is complemented by earthy minerality and a wonderful lift, with a long finish.  This is truly an old school Chianti.

I am so excited that I could start singing “When the Moon Hits Your Eye…” but I’m not sure that’s appropriate.  In any case, the wine is outstanding, it’s Organic, and it will retail under $20 too.
PS: As usual, more pictures can be found HERE

Gaillac? Gaillac!

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Well, let no one say that we’ve been lazy this year.  It’s been NUTS.  To quote the great philosopher Mel Brooks, “Nuts!  N-V-T-S nuts!”  The first 8 months of this year have been spent doing business development, keeping our current customers happy, and juggling tastings of samples sent from Europe.

Speaking of which, now that the August slow-down is here, I have some time to talk about someone I met while in France earlier this year.  I had heard about some interesting winemaking going on in the Gaillac region of France, which is northeast of Toulouse, in the Southwest part of the country (see below).

Truth be told, I was a tad surprised.  This was a region better-known for making cheap jug and box wines from international varieties.  But, my sources insisted that no, something unique was going on here.  Some folks were shepherding the local indigenous grapes like Braucol, Duras, Loin de L’oeil, Prunelart, and making wildly good wines in the process.  Yeah, I never heard of them either, so don’t feel so bad.

So after much back and forth, I ended up meeting with several producers from the AOC.  One in particular stood out: Nicolas Lebrun (that’s him at the top of the page), who runs l’Enclos des Braves.  Quiet, unassuming, and rather shy, Nicolas poured me his white Gourmand Sec (a blend of Loin de l’Oeil and Sauvignon Blanc), which was perfumey, minerally and crisp and really deliciously different.  Intrigued, we kept tasting through his lineup, until by the end I was convinced I had found a winner.  His Gourmand Rouge, an assemblage of Duras, Gamay and Braucol was like liquid dark velvet, with a crystal minerality that lasted for a ridiculously long time.

After having worked at other wineries for over 12 years, in 2005 Nicolas found the plot he was looking for: L’Enclos des Braves.  This small hilly 6 ha (14.82 acres) vineyard was topped with limestone-rich soils and a thick layer of clay, perfect for drainage.  The vines were all 20 to 35 years old, and Nicolas took to them like a father to his kids.

Treating them in accordance with Biodynamic principles, he uses only indigenous yeasts, manually harvests everything, and adds barely any SO2 at bottling.  Like children, he lets the wines take their time.  To put it mildly, he is making beautifully wild and soulful wines with these local grapes.

I was blown away by the quality of his wine, but to make sure I wasn’t wine-goggling them, I had our star winemaker from Azay-le-Rideau, Pascal Pibaleau, try them.  He was floored as well, so I knew I’d found a winner.  Just to make sure, I retasted some samples at our offices in NYC and our team fell over themselves in happiness.  One even said, “I want to wrap myself up in this wine.”  OK, a tad hyperbolic, but you get the idea.  A few calls, emails, telegraphs and smoke signals later, and we were in business.

So, I am proud to introduce our newest winery, l’Enclos des Braves.  Biodynamic, small farmer, lost in the wilderness, and making some killer juice from old vines of stuff that would have disappeared without his support.  His wines will be available in Fall 2013, arriving early September, and heading to several different markets, I’m happy to say.  Look for the label above, and you won’t be disappointed.  

Especially as it’s sure to retail under $20.
PS: Come see more pics at our Facebook Fan page, www.facebook.com/Vinotas

Loire & More

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The Chateau in Angers (in warmer times)

I’ve been swamped with work since I got back from France in late February, so this post is a tad late.  Apologies, as usual, and all that.  In any case, the rest of the trip went smashingly well.  Aside from a super nasty bug that sidelined me for most of the Loire shows (no Dive this year, sniff sniff), my time in France was super productive (and delicious!).

While in Angers (a beautiful city, I might add), I met up with Jean-Pascal Aubron, our Muscadet producer, who says Bonjour!, as well as Pascal Pibaleau (he was just everywhere this year).  I retasted Pascal’s INSANELY good 2012 Gamay, from vines planted in 1964, which underwent 18 days of carbonic maceration (he likes to take things low and slow, looking for depth and quality, not a quicky wham bam thank you Ma’am).  Guess what, Gamay’s arriving in late June/early July, so get your palates ready!

Catherine & Didier Tripoz getting all impish

There were some amazingly good meals, some great wines as usual, and visits to producers in Champange and Burgundy (sadly, nothing new from the Cotes de Nuits to report yet, but I keep trying!).  While in Burgundy, I did manage to revisit Catherine & Didier Tripoz, who make our lovely Macon Charnay Clos des Tournons.  The 9 ha walled-in plot is composed of 12 parcels of varying ages, and boy did we get geeky: we tasted each one and it was fascinating to see what they did even when handled in the same manner.  Didier hand-picks each parcel and vinifies each separately since they’re differing ages.  Each one offers something unique, so Didier assembles them only once they’ve done their own fermentations (in steel and cement tanks – no oak here!).

After a short relaxing stay in Paris, it was back to NYC and back to the grind (or I guess the press in this case).  Our business has exploded in the past 24 months, so it was time to tend to things.  I’d have much preferred staying in the vineyards of Europe, but alas someone has to import and sell them here.  And that someone is me (well, I’m one of the someones doing it, but you get the idea). But I still LOVE this job, even if it’s super difficult somedays.

Things have gotten crazy.  As of June 2013 we’re in 11 states, and pushing hard to grow.  New Orleans has been one of our biggest surprises and biggest markets, we’re working with an amazingly awesome team call Uncorked.  Great people, great food, great fun every time I’ve been down there.  Vermont is also turning into a nice change of pace, and Maine has begun picking up.  It’s been a tough slog, there’s a lot of competition (especially in NY, it seems like a new importer/distributor is popping up every day – I know of some stores dealing with 65 wholesalers), but the US is thirsty for more.

Which brings me to the next news: we’ve picked up some great new producers, so look for some new labels in Fall.  One of them is a small Biodynamic producer from the Gaillac region of Southwest France, northeast of Toulouse.  You’ll meet Nicolas Lebrun doing some crazy work in his fields, working with indigenous grapes like Duras, Braucol (Fer Servadou), Loin de l’Oeil (white) and Prunelart.  The wines are big and dark and velvety but beautifully balanced with sparkling minerality and long long finishes.  I had a bottle of his basic Gourmand Sec Rouge (Duras, Braucol) that took 7 days before it faded.  This stuff ROCKS.

Look for this label in Fall, coming to a store near you (hopefully!)

Best of all, I am pretty sure this will retail around $16-17, and will be perfect for the cooler weather or BBQs in summer 2014.  I am so excited about his wines it’s not even funny.  And I’m getting just as excited for our other new wine, as we’re branching out from France and Spain to… Italy!  Ciao Italia!  We found a lovely small farmer Organic Chianti, which again should retail under $20.  More details to come, but we keep looking for new small Organic or Biodynamic producers to import and get to a store near you.

Frankly I haven’t been this energized in a while, and planning for Fall and the future is taking up all my time.  If you can’t tell, I am really jazzed for what’s to come.  Heck, we even hired a COO (granted, I’m cheating a tad, it’s my wife, but she is quite the slave driver), as well as a part-time salesperson for the NY market.  AND we’re talking to another salesperson.  I guess it’s a testament to the quality of our wines that folks are coming to me and asking to rep our wines.

Which is why I’ve let this blog slide a bit, shamefully.  Once again, I apologize.  Next time you see me, feel free to berate me and if I have an open bottle I’ll pour you an extra-large glass of wine.  I promise to do to a better job at this.  Plus I forgot how much I loved writing, though there’s no telling if you enjoy reading this.

In any case, more to come, soon…

Make Mine a Minervois Part Deux

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Anne-Marie & Roland in the cellar (thus the dark pic, apologies)

When I’m in France for the trade shows, I usually use the train system.  It’s pretty clean, comfortable, fast, shockingly efficient (except when it’s not – say for example when the national railroad, SNCF, is on strike), not too expensive, and drops you off in the middle of cities.  No need for cars and all their attendant expenses.  It’s also great when traveling into the countryside of the Languedoc, which is quite vast and still relatively under-developed.   Heck, when you land at Charles de Gaulle, you don’t even have to go into Paris to take the TGV, there’s one at the airport (which was surprisingly clean and well-organized on this trip, very un-French-like, frankly).
I left Montpellier and headed south along the coast to Narbonne, from where I took a smaller regional train to a town called Lezignac (go ahead and Google it, I’ll wait).  It’s small, but I was going to a smaller village, Castelnau d’Aude (Google THAT, with its 300 inhabitants!).  I was met at the little station (very quaint) by my newest Minervois winemaker, Roland Coustal of Domaine Terres Georges.

He picked me up in a beat-up old van with a wooden pallet in the back and mud caked on the insides.  The interior smelled of wine.  Love it!
Anne-Marie & Roland contemplative in their vineyards (and better lighting)

We drove the 15 minutes to the domaine, which is in the center of Castelnau d’Aude, down a VERY narrow street (I swore we’d bang the walls, but made it through miraculously each time).  Here, Roland and Anne-Marie had built a gîte, a small apartment, on top of their barn.  The décor was very pretty and I’d happily spend a few more nights there if I could. 
We drove the 15 minutes to the domaine, which is in the center of Castelnau d’Aude, down a VERY narrow street (I swore we’d bang the walls, but made it through miraculously each time).  Here, Roland and Anne-Marie had built a gîte, a small apartment, on top of their barn.  The décor was very pretty and I’d happily spend a few more nights there if I could. 

Comfy & quiet bed

But this was my first visit and so I wanted to check things out for myself, including the vineyards and back-vintages.  Roland and Anne-Marie took over the domaine from her family, after her father fell ill and died in 1998.  After several years of cleaning up the winery and ripping out poorly-performing vines, their first vintage was in 2001.
In fact, I had the opportunity to try a vertical of the Quintessence, one of their higher-end wines, which from 2001 to 2008 was 100% old-vine Syrah.  In 2009, Roland added 20% Grenache, and the rest is history.  The wines in general are alive and marked by a surprising freshness, minerality and acidity, shocking when you consider where they are (temperatures regularly reach over 95F in summer for long periods).  And I’m not just talking about this wine but all their wines.  They truly are wines that reflect their source and their terroir.  But more on that later.
80% 60+ year old Syrah, 20% 65+ year old Grenache

We spent the first day in the vines, something I never get tired of.  They have 12 hectares (29.65 acres) scattered among 24 different plots, with some seriously dense planting (4800-5500 vines/hectare).  Yields are low but manageable, in the 30 hectoliter/hectare (I’m tired, you do the math if you want the US numbers) range.  There’s lots of old vines (Syrah, Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre), and no new oak, but several wines do see some time in 2-, 3- and 4- year old casks to let them soften and round off a tad (Quintessence and Racine, I’m looking at you).

Gnarly 60+ year old Carignan

The soils are for the most part dry limestone, with stones thrown randomly around the vineyards.  One planting is actually on top of a the ruins of an ancient Roman village, so it’s not unusual to see pottery shards showing up after a rain (I saw some myself) – pretty cool.

Roman pottery in the vines

 Roland is fanatical about keeping his vineyards clean and healthy.  He believes that there should be an integrated approach to maintaining his vines, that using just one method isn’t enough.  So while they’re not technically certified Organic, they do practice Organic viticulture and follow those principles.  So there’s grass between the rows, there’s no chemical interference, and he encourages the growth of good insects and animals to help keep his lands alive.  In fact, while walking through the vineyards, we came across something I’d never seen before, a bird’s nest nestled comfortably in the crook of a vine.  Roland was giddy with happiness, saying “This shows to me that things are alive and healthy.”  You be the judge:

Nest in the vines

I’ve seen my fair share of vines and vineyards and can sometimes get cynical, but even I thought that was pretty damn cool.  We also visited his chai, where the wines are made, both in cement and stainless steel tanks to maintain their purituy, as you can see below.

Cement tanks

After a lovely lunch cooked over vine cuttings, Roland brought up a bunch of Quintessence, going back to the very first vintage, 2001.  OK, it’s not that long ago by Burgundian standards, but for a new winery to be making wines that last 12+ years is pretty impressive.  

Quintessence Vertical 2001-2011

 I won’t bore you with each wine’s tasting note, but I can say that overall the wines were really beautiful expressions of their terroir and their constituent grapes.  I will be honest and say I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I was really genuinely shocked and impressed at the quality visible here.  These were gorgeous!  Granted, they’re using 60+ year old Syrah and Grenache, but I think the fact that these were so lovely shows off Roland’s winemaking skills.  
Roland is a superstar, and a great person too, and it’s a real pleasure to be importing Terre Georges’ wines into the US.

On the Road Again…

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Rows and rows and rows of wine…
Once more the wheel turns and I find myself in France for a few weeks for the wine trade shows.  First up: Millesime Bio, in Montpellier, in the South of France.  Yeah, there are worse places to be in late January, let’s be honest. 

This show is dedicated to Organic and Biodynamic wines, with a few Natural wines thrown in for good (and mostly stinky) measure.  There are small winemakers (like my Azay-le-Rideau producer, Pascal Pibaleau), and huge corporate coops showing their wares for 3 days.  Thousands of professional alcoholics wine buyers come from all over the world to sniff, swirl and spit.  It’s a grand old time, with the few good restaurants and wine bars in Montpellier packed to the gills with wine pros.

This year, there were more “Off” shows than ever before (6 at last count), with many showcasing only Natural wines or smaller, independent producers.  What’s an “Off” you ask?  No, it has nothing to do with insect repellent.  “Offs” are smaller side shows, usually taking place in old monasteries, castles or ruins, where folks who can’t (or won’t) pay the main show’s fees can pour their wares.  They are great venues for meeting new, up and coming winemakers and meet some old favorites who are now eschewing the big show.  They’re also much more informal, meaning there’s less spitting, more sloshing, and way more singing and dancing between the tables.

Most of these Offs were focusing on Natural wines, which is the new “it” thing in the world of wine geekery.  Made with minimal intervention, these wines can be startlingly alive when they’re good.  But when they’re not, well, you better like drinking, say, rotten meat.  And, since these wines have no added SO2, they are inherently unstable, so shipping has to be handled as gently as possible.  If I sound cynical about them, it’s because I’ve tasted a LOT of them, and too many use the term “natural” as an excuse to make a flawed wine.

That said, I do appreciate the spirit of innovation and invention which drives these winemakers, who are passionate about the land, the environment and their terroirs.  And while I did taste some complete shitshows, I found some interesting things, both at the main show and at the Offs.

Pascal stands at attention at his table

As I mentioned previously (were you paying attention?), I also managed to meet up with Pascal Pibaleau, my Azay-le-Rideau producer, and retaste his great wines.  In fact, I may bring in a new one, a Gamay that was outstanding and should retail in the $19-20 range.  That stuff was so good I had to stop myself from drinking it all.  His sparkling Rose, made from Cab Franc and Grolleau, was delicious, and as much as I wanted to stay there and just drink his wines, I needed to go meet some folks.

What’s a wine trade show like?  Well, lots and lots of tables, bottles and glasses, with folks trying to get your attention, and many dying to meet US importers.  Despite the Euro’s strength (grrrrrr….), the US is still their main export target.  China is an important market, but mainly for high-volume, low-cost crap (having tasted what goes out there, I can use the technical term “crap” with a fair amount of confidence).  The smell of wine is almost overwhelming when you arrive, but you get used to it and get on with your work.

Lunchtime is served in a huge hall, but unlike trade shows in the US (I went to a few in a previous life), the food here is, well, really relatively damn good.  There’s some great salad, stinky cheeses, and well-made main courses.  Of course, this is all in the context of a trade show: feeding several thousand hungry and sometimes slightly inebriated wine buyers can’t be easy, so making sure you don’t start a riot with bad food is pretty impressive.

Herve and Sylvie Sauvaire looking a tad shell-shocked

I was lucky to also meet up with another of my producers, Hervé Sauvaire and his lovely wife, Sylvie.  While they do practice Organic viticulture, their domaine is not certified, so they were there to see some friends (and me!).  Frankly, for all intents and purposes, they are Organic, as they don’t use any chemicals or weird shit on their land.  They have one of the oldest wineries in the South (it was a dowry in the early 1600s), so they’ve had some time to figure things out and make sure they maintain the health of their terroirs.

All in all, it was a good show, I found a few interesting things (if they work out, we might be branching out, stay tuned…) and met some great folks.  To me, the highlight was seeing Pascal and Hervé, because as important as the wines are, at the end of the day it’s all about the people.

Millesime Bio done with, I headed south on the put-put train to the Minervois, there to visit last year’s discovery, Domaine Terres Georges, in Castelnau d’Aude.  Their wines are starting to get some serious traction in the US, so this was a visit I was really looking forward to.

2012 State of the Wine Biz

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And so another year bites the dust.  It’s been 12 months of ups and downs, both personally and professionally.  More ups, I’m happy to say, with lots of good wines, some great bottles, and of course some duds.  I’ve also met some terrific folks, had some amazing meals, and traveled to some great new places (I’m looking at you New Orleans and Chicago).  In fact I was so busy that I didn’t have the time/energy/superpowers necessary to update this blog as much as I wanted to.

All in all, it’s been a banner year, and 2013 is looking even better.  Looking back and forward, I’ve had some time to think about the current state of the wine business, and there’s both good and bad news.  

The bad: it’s still frustrating to represent small-grower wines when people instinctively reach for the big brands.  Now, I don’t blame them, the marketing dollars mean that those names are always at the front of their brains when they’re in the wine store.  But it would be nice (and not just for me but for all small importers) if more people were more adventurous.  The good: the number of folks willing to try new wines is growing by leaps and bounds, so there’s something positive to say about the situation.  They’re also realizing that wine isn’t meant to be just a cocktail but is meant to compliment and add to a meal with friends and family.

Most frustratingly, the wine business is still full of large-scale brands made by coops and factories instead of the small farmers we try to support.  They and their distributors aren’t afraid to take a loss to maintain market share, which makes it difficult for small guys like me to compete.  Not impossible, just harder than it should be.  I know, I know, every single small business owner probably says the same thing.  So be it.

2012 also seems to have been the year of the Natural Wine.  There were lots of debates about what they were (there is no official definition aside from “un-manipulated”, which itself can be left open to interpretation).  What was left unsaid, frankly, and I might get some flack for this, but who cares, and is the Natural Wine movement’s dirty little secret, is exactly that: too many of these wines taste like dirt, with rotten meat and poopy notes.  Basically, many of these wines are undrinkable by all but a small geeky crowd.  Most civilians who try some of these science experiments will never want to touch a bottle again.  In short, there’s way too much bad “natural” wine out there using the term as a marketing and selling tool instead of focusing on increasing the quality of their products.  I’m not saying all natural wines are bad, but quality needs to improve a lot more before they become more popular.  Here’s hoping to that in 2013 as many of these wines can be interesting and wonderfully alive when they’re good.

Critics also seemed to be losing ground to the virtual cloud of tasters represented by social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc…), forums (like Wine Berserkers) and aggregator sites (like CellarTracker).  The most traditional site, The Wine Advocate, was sold to a small group of Asian investors, meaning that Robert Parker, the uber-critic for decades, is heading into the twilight of his career.  But these are mainly frequented by the more hard-core wine geeks, whereas the general public still constantly asks what scores wines have gotten.  Again, I don’t blame them, it’s a symptom of the mystery that still surrounds wine.  

Speaking of which, I’m glad to report that the US is opening its palate at a dizzying pace.  My travels this year within the country have shown me that, despite what I wrote above, a larger number of people are thirsty for more than just the big brands.  They’re genuinely curious and interested in trying new things.  This helps to de-mystify this wonderful beverage we call wine.  The more people start experimenting with new wines, new grapes, new vineyards and new countries, the better it is for everyone.

Perhaps I’m an optimist, but I really do see some great things coming in 2013.  Not just for me (though it is my blog so I could be excused for just focusing on myself, which I assure you I won’t do, dear Reader).  But for the whole wine-drinking world.  More higher-quality wines at better prices from more places, some of them coming to our shores for the 1st time.  

It’s been said before, but there has never been a better time to be drinking and exploring the wide world of wine than now.

Cheers and Happy and Healthy New Year!
Stay Thirsty!

Make mine a Minervois

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The Minervois is an appellation that I just adore.  It’s absolutely wild and gorgeous, and the best wines showcase this terroir.  The better examples have a certain spiciness and minerality that you don’t always find in the region.  However, too many are jammy and flabby or are trying to respond to what they think are “market tastes”.  And, granted, it is HOT around these parts.

So when I met Anne-Marie Coustal and her husband Roland (isn’t that a cool name too?) at a local tasting held in an ancient abbey, I found myself going back several times to their stand.  Their wines were alive and had a certain nervosité(a nervous energy), as they say in French.  Turns out there’s a reason why: they are hand-making wine using old-fashioned traditional methods on some very, very rough and uneven soils.

 The Coustals took over the winery from Anne-Marie’s parents in 2001, just before her father, Georges, the winery’s namesake, passed.  They farm 12 hectares (29.65 acres) in small, stony plots between Tourouzelle and Castelnau d’Aude.  Their vines, aged between 10 and 60 years old, are densely planted (4500-5500/ha) in some wild terrain, surrounded by guarrigue and woodland.  Sustainable agriculture while leaning organic is the preferred practice in their rocky plots, and everything is manually harvested with berry triage to ensure the quality and health of the grapes.  The temperature-controlled fermentation is slow, varying between 22 and 35 days depending on the cuvee and the vintage.  Unfiltered, unfined, their AOC wines are gorgeous, spicy, well-balanced, medium- bodied reds from Syrah, Grenache, Carignan , and Mourvèdre.  This is a true family affair, one to pay attention to.

The first wine to arrive, their Et Cetera (see label at top- 40% Grenache, 40% Carignan, 20% Syrah) is a bright yet dark juicy-fruited wine with some red berry notes dancing on a medium-bodied frame with a core of minerality, that ends in a long, succulent finish.  A stunner at this price point, that’s for certain.

It’s a real honor to be importing these wines.  My customers quickly recognized their quality, and so they’ve just gone off to Chicago and New Orleans, as well as NY and NJ, so we might be on to something here.  Seeing that makes me giddy, and not just for the business side.  I love finding little gems like this.  If you try this wine, please let me know what you think.

And thanks for your support!

Introducing Terre du Sol Wines

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Pretty label, right?

If you’ve been reading this blog (and I mean, who hasn’t, right?), you know I don’t pick up new wines that often.  Heck, after 4 years of doing this, I only have 14 French wineries and 1 Spanish winery.  Of course, things come and go, but I’m old-school and believe in cultivating long-term relationships with my growers.  This, to me, is the best way to maintain and guarantee high quality.

So when I add a new winery, it’s cause for celebration.  Well, this year, we’ve added 2 new ones, a Minervois that I’ll talk about in another blog posting (this also gives me the incentive to write another post) and a lovely light-bodied wine from the edge of the Mediterranean.  So, first, let’s talk about Terre du Sol, from the Languedoc-Roussillon.

I don’t usually go in for wines like this, but I was shocked at the quality and the price points involved.  For legal reasons, I can’t identify the parties involved, but one of our best winemakers has been consulting for other wineries for years.  When one of their clients made something special, my phone rang and I was told to head over to the winery post-haste.  I jumped and grabbed the first train heading south out of Montpellier.  I arrived to find a table full of samples awaiting me…
After a long morning of tasting (woe is me, right?), I was convinced we’d found something truly special here: some excellent wines at excellent prices.  They were well-made, with beautiful fruit and  minerality, really nicely balanced.  And, frankly, the label was very pretty (I know, I know, but we all know that marketing counts a lot).
Seriously, no one should ever be disappointed when they open a bottle at these prices.  I mean, there has to be a way for quality to co-exist with value in this type of wine.  And so with our winemaker’s experience and advice, there’s a certainty of excellence. 

“Terre du Sol” means Land of the Sun in the local dialect.  Grapes for these wines are grown on stony soils at the edge of the Mediterranean and bask in the sun year-round.  Delicious and easy to drink, they follow my philosophy of trusting small family winemakers to make affordably delicious wines.  They really are like sunshine in your glass (sorry for being corny but it’s true!).
I am starting with Le Roujal, a blend of unoaked Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and a drop of Merlot that is full of bright but dark fruits, with a medium body, some meaty notes, and a mid-length finish.  Talk about the perfect Fall/Winter wine, this just screams sunshine and a light mood, something in need during the dark cold months ahead of us.

So look for this label in your local fine wine establishment, the cases are hitting the streets just now.

Vinotas Selections in the News!

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Well, sort of.

Disclaimer: utterly shameless self-promotional plugging ahead, be warned.

As you can imagine, it always makes me happy to see my hard work rewarded, and not just by sales (though of course that’s the best, I’ll admit).  I love seeing the smiling face of someone discovering one of our wines and realizing that those from small growers have a particular character, a soul, a certain je ne sais quoi to them.  But I also love getting some recognition in the press (hey, I’m only human, after all).

So it was a pleasure to chat with Simone Gubar from the Columbia Business School alumni magazine, who was doing a lovely article on people following their passions.  Wine being a passion of mine, as you might know by now.  We chatted a bit on the phone, and what came out was a very nice article detailing my efforts in trying to find and preserve small family wineries.

You can read it here:

What do you think?

It’s that time of the year…

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Yes, it’s that time of the year again, when the leaves turn orange, the birds fly south, and the grapes ripen on the vine.


Old-vine grapes being picked at Clos Bagatelle in St Chinian

Back in 2006 I worked the harvest in Burgundy, and let me tell you, it wasn’t easy, and I was 6 years younger than now.  I had pains in places I didn’t know existed, and some in places I wished I had never discovered.  That said, it was a magical experience that I’d happily do again if I were younger.  MUCH younger.  At this point in my life, I prefer to sit back and try to move these amazing wines, and let the pros handle harvest.  
Into the bin with you, my pretties

Well, harvest has been going on now for a while in the South of France, but my winemakers being busy and all, they are only now getting around to sending me pics and reports.

Anyone want some St Jean de Muscat grapes?  These are Christine Deleuze’s brother’s pickings, he’ll make an amazing sweet wine from it

2012 has been a very difficult year in most of France, Spain and Italy.  Between lousy weather, heat waves, hail and problems with mildew and oidium in the fields (especially in Champagne, where a tornado actually touched down in the vineyards), my winemakers have been super busy.  Over the next few days and weeks I’ll be posting harvest reports from our wineries (assuming the winemakers haven’t passed out from exhaustion), with maybe a few pictures (again, assuming the winemakers remember what I keep asking them for!).  So stay tuned.

Here’s the first report from Clos Bagatelle in St Chinian (full picture album is on our Facebook Fan page at www.Facebook.com/Vinotas – become a Fan!): the year started tough, with cool and wet weather followed by summer hear waves, but September was warm with cool nights, which kept the grapes fresh, maintaining the levels of acidity we’ve come to expect from Christine’s wines.  As they say in France, September makes the wine, meaning that the entire year can be crappy, but if September is nice, then you’ll have some good wines.  However, volumes are down by 20%, something I’m seeing across the board.  Still, quality and color are looking good, but we’ll know more early next year.


Beaune… Rhymes with Home

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Beaune rhymes with home…

OK, well maybe not that much, but in my mind it does, and that’s all that counts.

Troglodytes on the Loire

I took the sloooooooooooooow train from Angers to Beaune, a leisurely 6 hour ride on a TER (ironically that stands for Train Express Regional, which, I suppose if you weren’t going from one side of the country to the other, it might qualify as). One interesting thing about following the Loire upstream was passing by its renowned chalk cliffs and hillsides, into which intrepid folks had dug charming homes and wineries. I once stayed in one of these so-called “troglodyte” places, in a B&B outside Azay-le-Rideau. My room was an old kitchen complete with bread oven, dug right into the living rock. Super cool.

Streets suffused with history

I arrived in Beaune at 9:30pm and started walking into town. I couldn’t help but grinning immediately: it had been 4.5 years since I’d last been here, and I was happier than a schoolboy on Christmas morning. I didn’t care that it was freezing, I didn’t care that my laptop bag kept falling off my suitcase on the uneven cobblestones, I didn’t care that it was pitch black and there was no one out: I was home.

Place Monge

There’s something about Beaune and Burgundy for me. The first time I visited, I felt like I was coming home, as if I actually belonged here. Maybe in a past life, I was a Burgundian Duke or winemaker (more likely a peasant, but hey, I’d have lived in Burgundy!). To me, this is IT. This is the vinous Holy Land. I do love other wine regions, but my soul belongs here. I don’t know how or why, that’s just the way it is. Your money may vary.

Hey, nice house!

And that, however, is the key word: money. To enjoy these wines, money is what you need these days. Wines from the area have shot up in price as their popularity has increased, which sucks for those of us on a budget. And it certainly doesn’t help that the better ones are made in tiny quantities. Of course, they’re much cheaper at the source, so I took advantage of that… But I was here for work, not play, or at least not that much play.

Love these guys

I was here to meet some new winemakers and visit some old friends at better-known domaines like Dujac, Jadot, and Evening Land/Lafond. Whitney Woodham, a friend from NYC who’s the GM for Evening Land, generously drove me around, and as we passed from one legendary medieval village to another I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. The sun shone on naked vines carpeting the eastern side of the valley as we wandered, and I leaned forward hungrily, trying to drink in all the sights in case I didn’t come back for a while.

Whitney poses in front of the Evening Land offices

My tastings went pretty well, I am happy to report, though there’s a lot of work left to be done, as usual. Pricing is relatively stratospheric, especially to someone used to dealing with much lower price points. With the economy improving and my network of customers asking for better wines, I want a Burgundy. So we’ll see. Keeping fingers, toes, ears, eyes and tongue crossed…

Jadot’s chai

I should add that the 2010 reds/whites at the places I tasted were very nice, with pure fruit and exceptional structure, reminding me of slightly warmer, more balanced 2008s. Now that’s a vintage I’m really enjoying for its pure red fruit and bright acidity. As for the 2011s, well, it’s a tough call as they haven’t even gone through malo yet, but there was excellent potential in the ones I tried. Of course, with Burgundy, there’s always one rule year in, year out: producer, producer, producer.

Oooooooooh sooooo good

My four days in Beaune flew by in a flash. There were several wonderful dinners with some lovely wines, new acquaintances were made, old friendships were rekindled, and despite the freakishly cold weather (5°F one morning, you read that right) the sun was bright, the sky was blue, and there was a spring in my step. I boarded the slow TER back to Angers with more than a tinge of regret. I promise I’ll be back, Beaune, and sooner than 4.5 years. That, I promise you.

Au revoir ma Belle Bourgogne!
PS: Pictures of Burgundy can be found HERE.

Geektime in Angers

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The Chateau with a sprinkling of snow

Just when I thought I had geeked out enough on Organic or Biodynamic wines in Montpellier, here came the real geek shows in Angers, in the Loire Valley: La Renaissance des Terroirs, La Dive Bouteille, and the new Salon des Vignerons Bio (because another one is what’s really needed…), one after another. Basically three days of non-stop small producer Organic, Biodynamic or Natural wines being poured by the winemakers themselves, usually in absolutely stunning settings.

The center of Angers

Angers is a small lovely city in the Loire Valley. It’s very old, and sort of looks like what I imagine a scrubbed down medieval 5th and 6th Arrondissement in Paris would look like without all the knights, the peasants or the Plague. It’s always a pleasure to be there, even if in winter it can be pretty cold and humid. Luckily, we have lots of yummy wines and delicious food to keep us warm.

The Renaissance des Appellations Show

First up: La Renaissance des Appellations at the ancient Greniers St Jean. This stunning setting almost overwhelms you when you enter, with high ceilings, gorgeous wooden arches and stone pillars embracing the thirsty crowd. The room is quickly filled with Natural, Organic or Biodynamic fans, both journalists and buyers. Some of the favorites of the geek crowds are always in attendance (Pinon, Huards, Larmandier, etc…), and their tables are always crowded. There are also lots of interesting new producers, and it’s a thrill to discover something new and delicious. Still, despite the increasing quality of the wines, there are still way too many bad examples using their labels as marketing tools. Natural/Organic/Biodynamic should not be an excuse for sloppy winemaking.

The Chateau de Brézé

The next day was the Main Event that I’d been really looking forward to: La Dive Bouteille. If I thought the Greniers St Jean were beautiful, the Château de Brézé outside Saumur, where this tasting takes place, is absolutely stunning. This breathtaking castle has very steep moats that were never filled with water, and there are stairs that lead to caves cut into its sides, where the tastings were held.

The caves fill up

This tasting is much more informal, as the winemakers stand next to overturned barrels and pour you their wines. You pretty much spit onto the cave floor, which is always fun. Each cave has several regions, and you can find some pretty amazing wines here. Again, there are some crappy ones too, but that’s to be expected. There’s a lot more energy here among both the presenters and the attendees, it’s more like a wine geek festival than a business meet and greet like the Renaissance. Which is fine by me.

Jean-Pascal and Pascal say “bonjour”

I was joined by my Muscadet producer Jean-Pascal Aubron and my Azay-le-Rideau winemaker Pascal Pibaleau, both of whom have a natural curiosity and love discovering what their neighbors are doing (warning, I’m biased about them as I think they’re doing some great work, so deal with it. It’s my blog after all). As we bounced from barrel to barrel, it was so thrilling to hear them compare notes with their friends. Why’d you do this? Why’d you do that? How’s this turning out? As a wine-lover, and someone who loves learning how things are made, this was beyond cool. And MAN were some of those wines good.

The new Salon des Vignerons Bio de la Loire

Finally, the newest show on the block arrived, and this was more like a Renaissance-light than something completely different. That said, there were many more small and younger wineries, which can be both good (high quality, exciting wines), and bad (high prices, small production, or just plain bad wines). Pascal was showing his wines here too, so it was great catching up with him as he’s such a wonderful person, full of warmth and humility despite the quality of his wines.

That night, Jean-Pascal drove in from his winery in Vallet to join us for a long, delicious and wine-soaked dinner, my last one in Angers for a week. I said my sad farewells to them, only to be reminded that we’d be seeing each other in a few days at the huge Salon des Vins de la Loire.

Finally, off to BURGUNDY!!!!

PS: Here’s a full album of pictures from La Dive Bouteille for your enjoyment.
PPS: There are also picture albums of Domaine Sauvaire-Reilhe and Chateau la Croix des Pins in that Facebook folder.

InterMezzo Visits

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Domaine Sauvaire-Reilhe’s 16th Century tower

After Millesime Bio, I had some time before the next round of shows in Angers, in the Loire, so I headed off to Crespian, in the Coteaux du Languedoc, north of Nîmes. Yes, I was going to be abusing my palate some more, er, I mean tasting more wine, but this time at the domaines themselves. I was there to see Hervé Sauvaire, owner and winemaker at Domaine Sauvaire-Reilhe. His family has owned this winery since the 1600s, when one of his ancestors received it as a wedding gift. Talk about a generous present!

Old-vine Carignan

Their home still has a 16th century tower, though of course it’s been renovated. Hervé met me at the train station and we drove up into his vineyards, located on rocky hillsides around his house. He’s got some crazy old vine Grenache, Carignan and Vermentino, as well as Syrah, planted in super rocky soils. When you see where these vines grow, you wonder how they can survive let alone thrive.

The winery- look Ma, no oak!

Hervé shares his chai with 2 other winemakers, and while one of them does use oak, Hervé does not. To me, this keeps the wines fresh and light on their feet, with bracing acidity balancing out the beautiful, deep minerally fruit. And while his winemaking’s not “Certified” Organic or Biodynamic or Natural, he does take loving care of his soils, as they have fed his family for centuries with the quality of his wines. And I’m not the only one to think so, his wines have been selling very well in the NY market, which makes me very happy.

Say Bonjour to Hervé!

Hervé himself is really lovely and down to earth, with huge hands that have been weathered by years in the vineyards. He’s serious, but a smile comes easily to his face. It’s people like him that make this business worthwhile. Getting them the recognition for their work is something that delights me, and just recharges my batteries. So after a hearty lunch of bull stew (a local specialty that was delicious) and his wines, off I went to see my newest winery, in the Ventoux, Croix des Pins.

Bienvenue to Croix des Pins

Croix des Pins was an old and crumbling property until Jean-Pierre Valade and two of his wine-making friends got together and started renovating it. They also purchased some vineyards at the foot of the steep Dentelles de Montmirail mountains, all old-vine Syrah and Grenache on terraced hillsides. Using Organic principles, their goal is to make wines that are pure expressions of their local terroirs. Yeah, every winemaker says that, but at the end of the day the proof is in the bottle. These wines are crisp, spicy representations of their appellations, Ventoux, Gigondas and Crozes Hermitage. And I’m not the only one to think that, Steve Tanzer’s Rhône reviewer Josh Raynolds scored them well:

And thus another long, lusty dinner with lots of wine ensued, and lots of laughter. These are soulful, good-humored folks who are thrilled to be bringing these vineyards back to life. And I’m really happy to be able to represent them in the US.

Gnarly old vines


Millesime Bio 2012

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Every year, a horde of thirsty wine buyers makes its way to Montpellier for the annual Organic and Biodynamic wines trade show, Millesime Bio. It doesn’t hurt that the show takes place in the South of France, where the ambient temperature upon arrival was 60F. For reference, despite a relatively mild winter, when I left New York it was 28F and we were delayed 2 hours while the plane was de-iced. Lovely.

Le Choo-Choo arrives

Usually I fly straight from Charles de Gaulle, but this year I took the TGV from the airport to Montpellier. Happily enough, I ended up doing a Grand Tour of France through some of my favorite wine regions, heading East through Champagne, South through Burgundy and the Rhône, then West through the Languedoc to get to my goal. And it only took 4 hours! Looking out the window as we flew at airliner speeds, I had to smile: even now, with years of experience under my belt, it always amazes me that such a small country (slightly larger than the state of New York) has so many different landscapes. From the flat green fields and farms of the north to the undulating rocky forests in the East to the dry bare stone of the South, this country has scenery for everyone.

Welcome to a wine trade show

The trade show itself is several halls worth of wines that have been made according to Organic and Biodynamic principles. It’s also (sadly) still an excuse for a lot of people to make a lot of bad wine. That said, and my blazé attitude aside, there are some really stunning things to be found these days. Of course, this also depends on the price, but that’s the nature of the business (and a business it is, make no mistake about that).

Row upon row of wine

When these wines taste good, they’re great, really bright, living things, expressive of their origins and of the care the winemaker put into the vines and the winemaking. When they’re bad, they can (sometimes literally) smell and taste like shit. Bad Organic/Biodynamic wines take on an odd, nearly BO-like aroma and get sharp spiky notes in the mouth. Good Organic/Biodynamic wines, to put it mildly, go down smooth and feel alive, with vibrant fruit and lovely acidity and minerality.

Pascal Pibaleau at his stand

The first thing that hits you when you walk through the door is the smell: it smells like WINE. And that just brings a smile to my face. For two and a half days, I wandered the tables of Millesime Bio, stopping to see people I knew and meet people I needed to know. I also had the chance to hang out with one of my winemakers, Pascal Pibaleau, who makes biodynamic sparkling, whites and reds in Azay-le-Rideau in the Loire (yummy stuff too but I am biased, of course). By the end of Day One my teeth hurt like Hell, and I’m pretty sure I yelped the moment the toothpaste hit them that first night (for those who don’t know, young wines tend to have lots of acidity, and that sensitizes the enamel on your teeth).

Like an evil wine-swilling Santa Claus, I had made my list and checked it twice, I knew which wines were naughty (already imported) and which ones were nice (undiscovered). Let’s face it, you can’t go in there without some homework: it would be like visiting the Louvre with no real clue of what works of art you wanted to see. You’d end up getting lost for days and someone would have to call Seal Team 6 to rescue you.

And for the record, it’s not an orgy of foie gras and cheese (sadly). In fact, most of the meals were pretty well-balanced, though the best part was sitting with various random winemakers and trying their wines at the table. I mean, wine is made to be both convivial and served with food, so this was a great showcase for them. As opposed to the relatively scientific method employed when standing in front of a table trying not to spit wine into your neighbor’s glass.

I will say that I still do love going to a table full of anticipatory dread, sort of like a child on Christmas Day running to the tree, hoping to unwrap something good but also hoping it’s not brown socks. More often than not in my line of work, it’s brown socks (some of these wines actually smelled/tasted similar to what I imagine old brown socks would be like). The worst part is finding something that’s delicious and checks off all your requirements, only to discover that it’s WAY too expensive. Talk about deflating your dreams…

On this trip, I found a few wineries I would love to work with, but there’s a lot of negotiations to be had before any hard decisions can be made. I was also lucky enough to have the time to visit some wineries I am working with south of Montpellier (there’s nothing like a few hours in the warm sun on a mid-January day to revive the batteries), as well as see another one of my winemakers, Christine Deleuze of Clos Bagatelle in St Chinian (while she doesn’t make Organic/Biodynamic wines, she does make some damn delicious ones using sustainable practices – again, I am shamelessly unapologetically biased, deal with it).

But it’s not easy: you’re on your feet all day from 8am to 5-7pm, there are long dinners afterwards with customers or winemakers, and your liver is just taking a heck of a beating even with the spitting, not to mention what must be happening to your teeth. And frankly, let’s not forget when you stumble onto a bad wine and have to remain poker-faced as the winemaker tells you his family’s been doing this for hundreds of years and thinks they’ve got the secret to success. Good luck with that one.

All in all, however, I am happy to report that there is a definitive qualitative trend that’s pointing upward. More people are making good Organic/Biodynamic wines at relatively affordable prices than at any other time. All it takes is the right importer to bring them in (Me! Me!).


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After a tad over a year of posting on a f*$&#ng pain in the ass server, we’re back where we started, on Blogspot. Their ease of use and clean lines make us think we really screwed up by going somewhere else, so we sincerely apologize.

Come back and I promise to blather on incessantly about the wines I try to import into the US, I promise.

Oh, and now we’re also on Twitter, which I’m pretty sure is a sign of the Apocalypse… But if you want to follow us, we’re at @VinotasWines

I have to say, it’s good to be back.

Le Beaujolais Nouveau Grolleau Pétillant est arrivé!

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La Perlette Sparkling Grolleau

I know all the signs say the Beaujolais Nouveau has arrived, but screw that fruity banana-y crap. How about some real wine? Something that’ll make you sit up and go “Whoa”. How about some Sparkling Grolleau?

Pascal Pibaleau’s wonderfully eccentric and deliciously different sparkling wine has finally landed, just in time for Turkey Day. Grolleau is usually made into innocuous still red and rosé, but in Pascal’s hands it’s turned into a sparkling jewel. This wine has character, is alive, and truly tastes unique. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s from a biodynamic Loire Valley producer in Azay-le-Rideau. After manually harvesting the grapes, Pascal halts the alcoholic fermentation partway through, then lets the wine sit on its lees until disgorgement, at which time no sulfur and no dosage are added. You end up with a lightly sparkling (“perlant” in French) wine that starts off fruity and ends with a super dry and rather nutty aspect. How cool is that?

And I know it’s stupid, but I really do love that label. At first you see a grape vine with bubbles rising from it, but take a longer look and you see something else, something more whimsical. This reflects Pascal’s character. Like me, he doesn’t take himself too seriously, though he is dead serious about the quality of his wines.

So if you’re looking for an affordable (under-$20) sparkling rosé for Thanksgiving or for the end-of-year holidays, uncork (or better yet, saber) a bottle of Pascal Pibaleau’s Sparkling Grolleau La Perlette.

Man, I love this stuff.

Le Beaujolais Nouveau Grolleau Pétillant est arrivé!

This post is by Vinotas from Random Ramblings on Food and Wine

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La Perlette Sparkling Grolleau

I know all the signs say the Beaujolais Nouveau has arrived, but screw that fruity banana-y crap. How about some real wine? Something that’ll make you sit up and go “Whoa”. How about some Sparkling Grolleau?

Pascal Pibaleau’s wonderfully eccentric and deliciously different sparkling wine has finally landed, just in time for Turkey Day. Grolleau is usually made into innocuous still red and rosé, but in Pascal’s hands it’s turned into a sparkling jewel. This wine has character, is alive, and truly tastes unique. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s from a biodynamic Loire Valley producer in Azay-le-Rideau. After manually harvesting the grapes, Pascal halts the alcoholic fermentation partway through, then lets the wine sit on its lees until disgorgement, at which time no sulfur and no dosage are added. You end up with a lightly sparkling (“perlant” in French) wine that starts off …

Oh God I Look Awful

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Luckily the wine is fantastic. After a LONG hiatus (due in no small part to a very quiet summer which had me banging my head against a wicked case of writer’s block), things have picked up. I just returned from a 2-week business trip to Europe where I had a chance to try some Italian wines and visit one of my wineries in the Rhone, Chateau Gigognan. I will post about those eventually, but figured I’d give you, my patient and loving readers, the chance to poke fun at me by watching this little clip wherein I talk about Felines Jourdan’s fabulous Picpoul de Pinet:

Behind The Vine – 2009 Felines Jourdan Picpoul de Pinet

God, I hate video.