La Dame Nature Le Fera á ca Manière

I make this dad-joke to guests at my bar pretty frequently when they’re on the fence about ordering another glass of wine or beer: “Oh it’s mostly water so don’t worry about it!” Chemically speaking, that’s true kind of in the same sense that it’s true to say that humans are mostly made of water: the kind of truth that totally misses the complexity of a thing. Grape vines use energy from the sun to trap water they pull from the soil in their berries which get pressed and whose resulting juice is fermented into wine. Obviously this is a vast over-simplification of a much more complex and nuanced process but the fact remains that the elemental key to making wine (or beer, rum, cider etc for that matter) is the presence of water. 

Where things get a bit complicated in this process is exactly where they always seem to get complicated for human beings: in attempting to control the behavior of all that elemental water and the forms that it takes. On a recent trip to Burgundy, I had the opportunity to hear first hand about this struggle with the elements that so acutely impacts the wine industry. 

Overlooking Burgundy
Beaune

Arriving in Meursault in April is peaceful. There’s not much action. Buds are breaking on vines, not quite ready to mature into fruit and the wine from the previous vintage is in barrel resting and maturing. In fact everyone seems still to be resting and taking respite from the drama of the previous vintage. 2016 in Burgundy was harrowing by all accounts. 

Our first stop is at Domaine Marc Rougeot. His family has farmed their 14 hectares of vine in Burgundy for five generations. Marc receives us warmly and speaks about the small collection of vines on his property. You really feel Burgundy standing on this property and looking at it. Some of its newest architectural structures are older than New York’s most ancient. It feels established, immovable and largely immune and untouched by the worlds significant dramas over time. It’s serene and pastoral and perfect. At least on its surface. I remark a bit breathlessly: “C’est sublime!” He responds, crushing marly soil in his hands and then letting it fall back where it belongs: “Oui. Mais c’est dure.” Yes. It’s beautiful. But it’s hard. 

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Rougoet’s is a small family run operation with an appropriately small cellar. My expectation as we climb down is to be fighting for real estate and knocking elbows clumsily as we taste through wines. On the contrary. His cellar is very comfortable. Roomy. A bit too roomy. We taste through the 2015 offering still maturing in barrel at least for another month or so: Pommard Clos de Roses, Volnay Santenots 1er Cru, Monthelie Les Toisières, Meursault Charmes 1er Cru. They are everything they should be. Even the Passe-Tout-Graines reconciles everything I felt and saw just outside in the vines. There are 40 or so barrels in cellar and as I walk through reading dusty labels I realize they’re all from the 2015 vintage. I ask where they are keeping the 2016 vintage and Marc gestures slightly sheepishly at a collection of 10 or so barrels segregated from the rest: “C’est tout ce que nous pourrions faire”- it was all we could do. 

Marc Rougoet Cellar
Marc Rougoet Estate

In good or bad vintages, water is among the most important aspects of winemaking. Are the soils draining enough to make the vines work hard enough to yield interesting fruit? What about the fruit? Too much water yields a diluted pressing too low in sugar for the yeast to be well fed and happily turning it into alcohol. Not enough water results in a flabby wine with too much alcohol and not enough acid. But this is all assuming the water is cooperating with the process and is in a liquid state. Hail bludgeons vines, knocking fruit off the vines and battering roots and branches. If it strikes early enough in the season, before significant fruit sets, careful farmers and winemakers can coax the damaged vines back to health. Late season frost too poses a threat covering berries and puncturing their thin skins with its icy crystals and causing the fruit to become too dehydrated to yield enough juice to ferment. These are extreme examples with water taking some of its fiercest forms. But it can be impactful and damaging even in more demure expressions. One early morning while in Meursault I look over the hilly vineyards that can be seen from our window and a light fog hangs and dips in and out of small valleys. The moisture in the air softens the early morning light and the hard edges of stoney medieval architecture. For a tourist, it’s an ideal vista. For a winemaker, fog, however romantic or beautiful to look at, is a harbinger for mildew too much of which can irrevocably threaten a vines ability to produce healthy fruit. 

Perfect Burgundian Weather

2016 in most parts of Burgundy offered a perfect storm of all of these. Hail early in the vintage. Early enough that though vines sustained extensive damage, they could be redeemed for the vintage to some degree. But then, a moist and moody spring wracking the already struggling vines with mildew and last, a frost unlike had been seen in a generation leaving the vines sparse and the yields tragically low. It’s quite easy to write this kind of vintage off. They can’t all be perfect with all elements, water and sun and heat and cold in seamless harmony with one another. Bad vintages are part and parcel of being a winemaker. And this is true but it’s a truth, once again, that completely misses the complexity of a thing. Marc Roegout, when explaining the whole ordeal is regretful and disappointed about the outcome of the vintage, but largely taking it on the chin and in good humor throws up his hands a bit and surrenders, “La Dame Nature le fera à ca manière”. Mother Nature will do as she pleases. This statement gets us closer to the truth.   Bad vintages happen. They always have. But they’ll become the norm as elements in our environment as a result of our having tampered with them too aggressively become disharmonious. The storied wines of Burgundy, largely unbothered by time and technology won’t escape the fate we are sealing for ourselves or the whims of la Dame Nature.

The Best Restaurant in the World is in Aruba

The last time I traveled with someone else’s family it was to South Padre Island in Texas some time in the nineties. Her dad and mom sat up front in his teal pick up truck. The truck had pink pin striping and we drove along blasting top 40’s from the country charts. We ate bologna and Miracle Whip sandwiches at rest areas on the way. I will never be able to un-see his white-man’s Jerry curled mullet. It goes without saying that from then on I preferred travel with my own family or better yet, by myself. 

Zeerover's Dining Room

 

Twenty years later and it’s February as fuck in New York and my seasonal depression is full blown. I’m invited to go to Aruba with a friend who’s been going every year with her family for as long as she can remember. I don’t hesitate. I don’t think about bologna sandwiches. I think about frozen cocktails with too much sugar but just enough parasols in them. It isn’t until I’m in a cab from the airport in Oranjestad to the hotel and I’m passing by TWO monstrous cruise-liners docked and presumably spilling retirement aged, orange skinned tourists looking to purchase gold by the pound all over the place that my anxiety specific to this kind of scenario creeps back. I’ve flown here on a whim and haven’t had a moment to put together my usual well researched Google map of landmarks and culinary gems to hit up. We pass a Pizza Hut. Fuck. Where am I even? This is not the off the beaten path Instagrammer’s paradise I romanticized on my flight down. It’s possible my friend has a spidey-sense about these things because she greets me with cocktail when I arrive. At least there’s rum. And sun. And wifi. Right. I shake it off. 

 

Piñas

The next morning, I wake up with a renewed resolve to keep an open mind. Adventure at all costs. I’ve gotten over my misgivings about traveling with other families. The evening before was spent somewhat ridiculously cooking a birthday meal of shrimp scampi for a friend of the family. It’s tradition I’m told. Blunt knives and limited kitchen utensils be damned. I’m the new kid so I’m at the stove wearing a beach towel as an apron and drinking most of the cooking wine. I like this family. Theres no Miracle Whip in sight and no one has a mullet.

 

We decide to rent a car and get on the road. I’ve learned about a natural pool deep within Aruba’s Arikok National Park just set back from the ocean. What’s it called when it’s off the un-beaten path? This is exactly what I need. The further we drive from the Starbucks flanked by Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada the more I feel like this is my kind of island. Plus: cactuses. Big ones. And everywhere. It turns out that Aruba is a desert island and the landscape as a result is quite dramatic. My Southwestern roots are happy here. Arikok Park however is a bit of a challenge to find. Aruba’s roads are inconsistently labeled so we make do with a map from rental car place which is really more interested in guiding us to pirate themed booze cruises than remote natural wonders. We finally arrive at the entrance of the park after more than a few wrong turns. It should be said that there are plenty of tours offered to this (and many other areas) of Aruba but I harbor a particular fondness for getting lost among palms and ferns and cacti. 

Eagle Beach

 

We realize we’ve made one critical error: the pool can only be accessed by 4X4 or via a somewhat treacherous 4 mile hike. I look mournfully back at the compact Toyota sedan we’ve been bouncing around in. Not gonna cut it. I’m wearing sandals. We have no water and my breakfast of half a dragon and passion fruit while fresh and delicious, isn’t exactly hiking food. And now I’m hungry. Actually hangry. Disappointed and in need of sustenance or at least, an ice cold beer. 

 

Roadside Coco

Friend tells me she knows about a waterside place that serves fried fish and beer. We just have to find it. It’s called Zeerover she tells me. Weird name. Not exactly confidence inspiring but my hanger is calling the shots so we get back on the road. It’s not Pizza Hut. So I’m skeptical, but game.  It takes an hour and a few stops to ask locals if they’ve heard of this place and where is it? Responses are a mixed bag. The place we’re looking for I’ve decided after the third inquisition, is actually frying unicorns and not fish and no one wants to talk about it. There are roadside coconuts to sip on, then scoop out in the mean time but I’m starting to get seriously freaked out that my meals on this island will be as disappointing as my non-trip to the natural pool when, after driving down what appears to be the same road for the fifth time, theres a barely visible sign, more of a weather-worn banner: Zeerover. 

 

Zeerover

I park the car like I’m mad at it (I am due to Arikok debacle) and pop over to a line that’s a bit longer than I anticipated. Confidence renewed. There’s a menu of about 5 items: catch(es) of the day, pickled onion, fried plantains, cornbread, fries. It’s…perfect. You order your fish by the piece or by weight. Wahoo, Snapper, Barracuda, Kingfish, plump, succulent shrimp as big as your thumb all caught that morning. You can tell because the small fishing boats line the docks which make up Zeerover’s al fresco dining room in back. A quick trip around the corner to grab a bucket of local beers (Balashi over Amstel Bright if you’re doing it right) and we scoop up a table by the water. When I say “by the water” I don’t mean that there is a body of water within my sight. I mean that I’m dangling my feet over the dock, dipping them into the crystal clear Caribbean drinking a beer while I wait for our fish to get fried up. Seagulls squawk and bicker over leftover fish bones. Palm fronds sway in the breeze. The ocean slaps against the bows of fishing boats. The soundtrack too is perfect. Our food arrives, heaping in a plastic bowl the color of the ocean. Simply fried (read: un-breaded and un-greasy) and perfectly seasoned. A few lime wedges on the side and the islands local papaya based hot sauce are really the only things you need in addition. Forks if you’re fancy. Fingers if you’re me. 

Fish @ Zeerover

I think about the Michelin guide. How does it work again? One star for “a very good restaurant in its category”, two for “excellent food, worth a detour” and three for “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. Given this criteria, Zeerover is ostensibly a three star Michelin restaurant. I went back in the time I was there. I had to. And I’ve vowed to return to Aruba for a “special journey”, dragging friends with me, ripping past the tourist mecca of Orajenstad, in a 4X4 this time (lessons learned), to Zeerover, chasing the perfection of this place, this island and this restaurant. How often do we truly happen upon experiences that put us in touch with our humanity so accutely? It doesn’t happen at Prada I don’t think. But it does at Zeerover.

This essay appears in the latest issue of  Counter Service  as one of it's  Cabin Service  features.  " Cabin Service is our new feature where we’ll tell our stories about the dining, drinking and antics we get up to when we travel: dancing and singing shamelessly to Despacito on the way to late-night Posole in CDMX, that thing of when a guy shoves a live crawfish in your mouth in a Korean fish market so you bite into it because it’s a him-or-you kinda moment, or knowing that sometimes the best Poutine in Montreal is the one closest to you, even if that means it’s from McDonald’s." To read and subscribe to Counter Service, head to  www.counterservice.us

This essay appears in the latest issue of Counter Service as one of it's Cabin Service features. "Cabin Service is our new feature where we’ll tell our stories about the dining, drinking and antics we get up to when we travel: dancing and singing shamelessly to Despacito on the way to late-night Posole in CDMX, that thing of when a guy shoves a live crawfish in your mouth in a Korean fish market so you bite into it because it’s a him-or-you kinda moment, or knowing that sometimes the best Poutine in Montreal is the one closest to you, even if that means it’s from McDonald’s." To read and subscribe to Counter Service, head to www.counterservice.us

Montauk: Winter Landscapes + Lunches

In keeping with my incredible timing, I’m writing this post about photographing beaches in Montauk in the winter on the first day of spring.  As I’m sure is at least a little obvious from my previous post, I am definitely not cool enough to make weekly pilgrimages to the Hamptons in the summer. This is mostly because I don’t super love rosé and my legs are too gangly and long to gracefully get in or out of those super cute inflatable swans without totally capsizing. Also- my barely repressed agoraphobia. All my personal flaws aside, I have been a handful of times and despite my cynicism, really enjoyed it. Here is why: 1. Lobsters 2. Sunset motorcycle rides along the beach 3. Roadside farmer’s markets 4. That impossible coupling of a yearning nostalgia for a certain Americana with the raw freshness and vigor of the potential energy of summer which only manifests itself in the most special of places.

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The authenticity that this place manages to exude despite literal trains of generic party-hungry weekenders unloading weekly onto its otherwise peaceful beaches is a testament to its integrity to its own particular identity. But integrity isn’t a seasonal affliction so when asked to photograph the winter scenery in Montauk for an upcoming Manhattan restaurant taking inspirational cues from experiences had “out east” I hit the road with a super heavy old Mamiya, a shit load of film and fifty percent less clothing than I should have worn.

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There are a couple of things I didn’t anticipate. To start, tripods in sand dunes are real tricky. I wanted to feel like Ansel Adams (don’t we all). Instead I felt like I was doing a dysfunctional tango with a three legged man. A monopod would have been a way less idiotic choice. Next time. Then, getting bamboozled by a frigid wave. The pristine stillness of the landscape there in the winter is deceptive. The ocean won (it always does). My Chuck Taylor’s lost. Also, traffic - both pedestrian and vehicular. Granted this was the week before Christmas but it was town after (festively decorated) town showing serious signs of life. It was nice to see that the appeal of this place reached passed fair-weather tourism. Also I felt instantly more confident about my lunch options!

Finally, lunch! While it’s usually against my better judgement to order food from a bar (especially one named Shagwongs) that isn’t fried, how could I justify being all the way out in Montauk, at the End of the World, and not ordering the local oysters? Begin tangent: historically oysters are the Northern seaboard’s quintessential bar food and I feel strongly that we’re really fucking up the whole experience by gentrifying it with our precious forks and our lemongrass infused mignonette. For more on this, please refer to Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster. Thank me later. End tangent. So, the oysters, Montauk Pearls, are the real reason I fell in love with Montauk in the winter. Bright. Crisp, Just briney enough, just sweet enough. Perfect. So perfect that I was doing that shocked, wide-eyed breathy chuckle thing people do when they’re completely thrown and bewildered by the simple perfection of a bite of food. Having spent the day among the dunes wrestling with the austerity of the weather and the winter landscape, it amazed me how acutely all of that had been distilled into these small bites. Behind me, the bartender pointed out the oyster farmer drinking a beer and himself having a dozen; a tall man, skin lightly windburned wearing a Carhart, worn but still hanging on, as they do. It would have been a perfect portrait but he, like I had been, seemed too ensconced in the transcendence of the oysters in front of him that I couldn’t justify interrupting. Some things are sacred. I feel very much that Montauk in the winter is one of them.

Champagne Savart + Apologies

Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure I know more about Champagne than I know about photography. But really that’s questionable because vintages are a thing. And climate is a thing. Both have an impact on Champagne. And only one has an impact on photography (unless I get real meta-which I am not). These things (and quite a few others) make Champagne, and wine in general a constantly evolving commodity. What is certain however, is that I know more about both Champagne and photography than I know about writing a blog. Sincerest apologies. 

The above nugget of self deprecation is why I find myself publishing this post about Champagne nearly a month after the turning of the New Year when it might have been more timely and appropriate. Apologies again friends. 

However, my tardiness totally illustrates the theme I’d like to highlight and that is: Champagne as a daily drinker. Because life is short. Champagne is delicious. And Trump is “president”. 

Let. Me. Break. It. Down. 

The Champagne I photographed for this…thing (post? entry? contribution? what is the correct term here?) is Champagne Savart “L’Accomplie”  NV. The shoot went something like this: 

  1. Invite thirsty friends to tiny West Village apartment completely devoid of natural light. 

  2. Set props and lights

  3. Realize cats have infested set. Wrangle cats away from set. Re-set set. Say “set” one more time. 

  4. Apologize to thirsty friends. Throw some tequila at that problem. 

  5. Make note about writing tequila blog in near future. 

  6. Get back the fuck on track. 

  7. Pop Champagne. PAUSE. Wine, especially Champagne like Savart, is crafted, from vine to bottle, in painstaking fashion by farmers and artisans that pour their lives and love into the process. Open it with some reverence, empathy and respect for the care that went into producing the wine in the bottle. Cut away the foil. Cover the cage with your thumb and turn the key to loosen it (6 times if you’re sober enough to count). Grasp the cage and cork with one hand and very slowly turn the bottle from the bottom. Let the CO2 in the bottle do the work of slowly pushing the cork free for you. Or saber it. 

  8. Pour it on your tits. JK. Or not. But like, pour it into something. Fake footnote: champagne coupes were modeled after Marie Antoinette’s…décolletage. So I’m not being totally inappropriate. However, I prefer a white wine glass. Better for tasting, smelling and not spilling and feels a bit more approachable and democratic than a flute. 

  9. Pair it with something cute (ie: oysters, caviar, fried chicken, Netflix, your mother-in-law). Champagne pairs beautifully with quite literally everything. One of many reasons why I feel justified in endorsing it as a daily drinker. 

  10. Share with thirsty friends. Or don’t. 

That last step is the most important. Wine is a living, breathing thing. Much like a human. So share that shit. Get social. Revel in it. Talk about it. Bitch about it. Drink about it. But also, don’t. Experience what it is to enjoy a bottle of champagne to yourself while you paint your toe nails and watch the 6th season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Netflix (that shit was so real, I can’t believe I got through it as an angsty teener without a drink). Woah. Blogs are super autobiographical. 

I think the point that I’m making is that we are a society that chases hedonism. And we should. We all work super hard. And Champagne is one of the absolute perfect material manifestations of the indulgence we crave. This bottle of Savart retails for around $60. When you consider that your Kombucha from the bodega retails for $6 and that your Gucci mules retail for $600, Champagne is actually a super approachable way to uh, treat yo-self. It’s luxurious. And luxury feels fucking good. And tastes even better.

 

More details for the curious…    

Champagne Savart “L’Accomplie”  is a non-vintage Champagne produced by Frederic Savart in the tiny region of Ecueil. He sustainably farms an even tinier four hectares of vines. Upon first glance, the grassy soil where his vines grow may appear a bit unruly and untended compared to his neighbors. In reality, this is all quite deliberate. Savart uses no pesticides or herbicides which is one of the reasons his wines are championed for showcasing the terroir of the region with such integrity. It is important to mention that Champagne, for the most part, is not produced to be evocative of its site. Larger and more commercial makers of Champagne have historically downplayed the terroir of the region favoring instead consistency and approachability of flavor for the consumer palate. Not for Savart. Instead, terroir is of upmost importance. His goal is to produce a wine that is as true to the unique character of the grape, the vine, the soil, the climate, the vintage, in essence, the terroir, of his vines as possible. He goes so far as to source the new oak his wines are aged in from nearby forests to further emphasize this concept in his wines. When getting down to actually making the wine, he relies on this new oak to allow him to use as little sulfur as possible to stabilize the wine. He does not employ “battonage” or stirring of lees, instead allowing the wine to rest and take on the character of the yeast more organically and peacefully. Nothing about his process is about manipulating the wine to satisfy an aesthetic determined by the winemaker. Instead, Savart allows the vines, the grapes, the vintage and especially the terroir to take the lead and inform his decisions as farmer and winemaker. All of this care and thoughtfulness comes across beautifully in the bottle.  When I taste Savart, I find myself commenting on how incredibly “pretty” the wine is. It’s finessed and elegant; Refined but endlessly interesting. It strikes this almost impossible balance between being a wine that shows incredibly bright, sometimes racing acidity but that is also warm and comforting. It allows the drinker access to the luxury they seek, rewards you after a long day, but never alienates you. 

Source: http://champagne-savart.com/english/index....