Stained Glass: When Wine Folks don’t Want Wine | Varyer
A border of illustrated bottles.

Stained Glass

When wine folks don’t want wine

Everything but, almost, and not-quite wine

I’m a faithful believer that word of mouth in the food and beverage community holds more integrity than trendy listicles or influencer content found on the internet.

By the time a large-scale publication is talking about where to go or what to eat/drink in any given city, there’s already a line, and you’re late to the party. P.T. Barnum once said, “Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.” He’s also credited with the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Don’t get me wrong, there are absolutely situations where a popular spot deserves every bit of accolade and business traffic. A fittingly hyperbolic example might be that picture of the human traffic jam on Mt. Everest a couple of years ago. Yes, it’s the tallest mountain in the world and it’s going to draw a lot of attention, but there are 13 other 8000+ meter peaks in the Himalayas and I’m certain they all have quite a view. What I’m trying to say is that you can find the best gastronomic path by asking for directions, and having the right wine and booze sherpas, without risking your life.

A blue and yellow illustration of two people toasting glasses.

On a trip to New Orleans in 2015, I was running around with some of my best Chicago wine pals and at some point in the late afternoon we ended up at Bar Tonique by recommendation. A brisk round of well-made and regenerative Dark & Stormy’s later we loosened up and settled in, knowing this must be the place. We scanned the back bar and were all thrilled to see some of the Equipo Navazos cask finished Rum and Whiskies. There was an immediate response from the bartender after we zoned in on them. He knew we all spoke the same language; an instant rapport. I’m also reminded of the quintessential posters of Michel Tolmer on the walls of a bistro or wine bar, part of the language of assurance through small cues that energize and complement our community— particularly the Epaulé Jété for Catherine et Pierre Breton.

Remember when you could get a bottle of Weller bourbon and it was appropriately priced at $20? It’s partially due to the coterie buzz that anything from the Buffalo Trace Distillery has become highly sought after. Supply and demand reign, especially when you have to consider time as a factor that improves the quality of something highly sought after. The glut of bourbon geeks on the internet seeking out the smooth factor will eventually swallow up the goods once coveted by discerning drinkers, quality bars, and restaurants. OK— not completely— distributors and suppliers do the best they can to distribute pro-rata. There is a running joke amongst sommeliers I know involving ‘fighting for our allocations,’ and getting less and less Overnoy, Clos Rougeard, and Foillard's Morgon Côte du Py every year. If you pay close enough attention you can find plenty of other fantastic producers in the Jura, Loire Valley, and especially Beaujolais. There are so many good things to drink out there, it’s uncanny. Stop googling. Ask around, and keep reading!

People often ask me what I like to drink, or what my favorite wine is— a question I occasionally dodge by talking about everything but wine. Everyone needs some separation between church and state, work and play. Granted, wine and education are both passions of mine so I have plenty of energy for both, but there are beverages outside of wine that have a similar ethos where place, methodology, and time are important factors. These beverages are even more exciting to me because there’s so much to explore. Most of my wine colleagues always have such great recommendations for non-wine and wine-adjacent drinks apart from the big brands.

Apéro hour with Collin Moody, a good friend in Chicago, is always a treat. He’s responsible for turning me on to the magic of the Ti’ Punch. Not to be confused as a baby daiquiri, or even one daiquiri shook & split between multiple people as snaiq-uiris, he considers a Ti’ Punch to be a modified or ‘corrected’ straight rum.

“Sugar and a lime coin are there for minor background accompaniments to the star of the show—the rum,” he says. Not shaken, and wary of adding ice, if at all, Collin continues, “I like them full proof, at least to start. They taste like shit if your rum is shit, so get something nice like Haitian Clairin or Hampden from Jamaica. I’ve been drinking more of these than Martinique rums recently!”

Ti’ Punch (short for "petite") is the national drink of Martinique and widely popular in the French West Indies: a healthy pour of rhum, a gentle squeeze of lime, a dash of sirop de canne [sugarcane syrup].

(Rhum with an 'h' is made from fresh sugarcane juice, fermented and distilled, rather than molasses, producing a brighter, grassier expression of the spirit).

A blue and yellow illustration of hands reaching toward a bottle with a clock on it.

We both share a love for Cyril Zangs' French cider eau de vie called Double Zéro. A few years ago Collin had the pleasure of visiting Cyril and found out that the making of 00 was inspired by his love for Ti’ Punches. “He wanted to make something from his apples in Normandy that he could make a cocktail with. Cyril even had this little box that was able to hold a glass, sugar, a lime, and a bottle of 00 so he could take it on the go!” Upon his return, Collin made me a Ti’ Punch with the 00 and it blew me away. It quickly became a mainstay on the cocktail menu at Income Tax where he was the beverage director during its years in the Edgewater neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago.

My heart nearly broke when they closed down last year because of the pandemic. The back bar at Income Tax was an absolute thing of beauty. Collin clearly put a lot of work into sourcing spirits carefully with the same love and thoughtfulness that went into the wine list. Bottles of Laurent Cazottes and Rochelt’s dazzlingly pure fruit Eau de Vies, lots of Brandy and Calvados, and an impressive collection of Michel Couvreur whisky, uniquely blended and aged in a Burgundy Cellar. This cross-fertilization of fruit and grain spirits aged in wine barrels reflected a dedication and care in the selection of spirits at Income Tax that one rarely sees outside of a wine list.

I asked Collin if less-discerning customers would show curiosity or intimidation? “We generally proceeded in writing the list with a brash naïveté that generally served us well with guests—when you stack the list with lots of obscure stuff folks haven’t heard of, it can force a conversation. We were also fortunate to open up two doors down from Scott at Independent Spirits, Inc.—he has been waving the flag for so many of these under-the-radar spirits and wines in the Edgewater neighborhood for years, which definitely gave us a bit more courage.”

A blue and yellow illustration of a hand grabbing a bottle of wine atop a pile of apples.
A blue and yellow illustration of various bottles of alcohol.

It’s impossible not to mention importer Nicolas Palazzi of PM Spirits when talking about spirits closely adjacent to the wine world, whether that be by the use of grapes in his stellar brandy department, or barrel finishing programs with the aforementioned Equipo Navazos in Jerez, Spain. Knowing some of the PM core philosophies, I can say that the root materials of these products are keenly focused upon quality agriculture, no different than the vigneron. But spirits can be a more complete and focused snapshot than wine. Some winemakers consider themselves only a medium of their products, doing the bidding of the grapes and yeasts in any given vintage.

While they both require a deep, core methodology that has been honed over time, often over multiple generations, there's an intent and focused artistry to distillers similar to a photographer developing film, the click of the camera representative of the fruit and place, and the developing process of film akin to the distilling techniques and careful aging in appropriate vessels.

While talking with Nicolas recently he duly emphasized the differences between the spirit realm being dominated by brands and the wine world being more about the people and the places. His portfolio accentuates the same as the latter, drawing a similar audience willing to go out of their way to hunt down and pay for the experience of drinking something truly special.

A blue and yellow illustration of a bottle pouring out blue liquid.

There are so many other highlights to mention that are grape-centric.

Pomace brandy goes by many names such as Marc (France), Grappa (Italy), Orujo (Spain), Trester (Germany/Austria), Aguardiente (South America), among others that mostly serve as a kick in the pants digestif, but find the right one and no matter how strong it is, if it’s good, you will know. Mistelles are a combination of fresh grape must and brandy in certain proportions, and sometimes aged depending on the region or requirements by law. Pineau des Charentes (Cognac), Floc de Gascogne (Armagnac), Macvin (Jura), and Champagne’s Ratafia are some examples that are all incredibly versatile as apéritifs and also with cheese, desserts, as well as in cocktails.

Cocktails containing wine go back to, and perhaps precede the beginnings of cocktail culture. A Kir is a very old two-parter native to Burgundy. It traditionally calls for cassis and Aligoté, both humble ingredients and regional specialties. Sherry is one of the most important wine-based components of cocktails that has stayed true since the early days of mixology. Memory of You was a cocktail I came up with once that is stirred up as a Jerez-style Manhattan: 2 oz. Brandy de Jerez, 1 oz. Pedro Ximenez, and a few dashes of mole bitters. I recently shook up one of my favorite cocktails, a Pegu Club, and split it into two glasses for me and my pal, except instead of adding a splash of simple syrup to the recipe, I topped up each half of the cocktail with Bugey-Cerdon, an all-time favorite sparkling, off-dry, rosé wine from eastern France.

It’s a legitimate goal to turn everyone in my path into vermouth lovers. There are publications galore, print and digital, that sing its praises in and out of cocktails so I don’t aim to teach anything new about it, but I always encourage looking closer at the people and places to find something uniquely delicious.

Steadfast champions like Punt e Mes, Carpano Antica, Dolin, and Cocchi deserve their spots in the cocktail game. When bartenders create recipes, I recognize that it can be disheartening for a reader to follow along without the correct ingredients, so understandably many cocktail publications call for whatever is widely available.

It’s a legitimate goal to turn everyone in my path into vermouth lovers.

Dan Petroski, in addition to being the winemaker at the historic Larkmead winery, makes wine and vermouth for his label Massican. The approach, design, and delivery of everything under the Massican brand is harmonized by a color they created, inspired by an ancient Pompeiian color pigment, and now registered with the Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard University. When a brand identity can assist in telling the story of the products, place, and the people, it’s easy to be sold on it. The good news is that everything he makes is fantastic.

Dan began producing the vermouth shortly after starting Massican in 2009. The dry white is immediately delicious with a slight, noticeable sweetness that I sense more as subtle fruit, citrus, and nutty tones. Its simplicity compliments his intentional winemaking style with plenty of love put into it. St. George spirits (Alameda, CA) distill Massican wine for the brandy which herbs and spices are steeped in and eventually used to fortify the base wines.

I asked him about bartenders’ responses to artisan vermouth producers getting much less attention than bigger brands. “Smaller, craft products are not economically viable in comparison to commercial versions with hundreds of years of history behind their production methods that are scalable and can keep prices down.” He admits, “there is no single better dry white vermouth than Dolin Dry, sorry to all those (including myself) who are making vermouth, but a distributor can sell a bottle to a bar for $8/bottle and everyone makes money.”

A photo of wine and cheese.

Brooklyn-based Art Director / Design Director Jessi Brattengeier's visual identity for Massican. Photo by Emma Morris.

Despite the economic allure of the commercial product and the high costs involved with making his own, Dan benefits from making the vermouth in other ways. In addition to having a delicious ingredient for their cocktails at home, it grants qualitative improvements for Massican’s core wines. “The pieces that don’t fit into those blends provide a home for the vermouth base and we definitely want to use all of the wine, not wasting anything in the production process.”

Vermouth also poses an interesting suggestion of terroir since sometimes the ingredients, wine, brandy, all of the aromatic and bitter plants, herbs, and botanicals all come from the same environment.

Bianca Miraglia from Saugerties, NY farms nearly all of the ingredients for her Uncouth Vermouth. In the past she’s made a handful of different products, each with different coinciding ingredients, never creating a homogenized product that echoes wine’s concept of vintage. Currently, she’s breathing new life into Uncouth and concentrating on making two vermouths that will convey her unique little place.

I asked Bianca to finish this SAT analogy question, Garrigue : Southern France :: , Saugerties, NY. “Macrophyte. It’s fucking wet here and my farm has all clay soil and is surrounded by marsh on three sides. The forest climbs a rock ledge which allows that part of my environment not to exist in giant puddles. Anyone in the Hudson Valley will tell you mud is real. The upside to that of course is that I don’t need to irrigate, which is huge.”

Garrigue refers to the low-growing vegetation on the limestone hills of the Mediterranean coast, not the limestone itself.

Handwritten text that reads "Garrigue is to southern France as macrophyte is to Saugerties New York."

She’s planted six times the amount grown in past seasons and is now starting almost everything from seed. She still works closely with Red Hook Winery to make her base wine, “I’m very lucky to have been working with Red Hook for all these years. Those wines are the reason I don’t need to add sugar, they are so delicious and balanced I have nothing to correct on my end.” In the past six years, Bianca has relentlessly worked towards her farm-focused goals and while there have been some tasty things along the way, I’m confident that the best from her is yet to come. Her new vermouths are set to release this summer.

A lush, green outdoor scene.

Since we haven’t been able to have drinks together in forever, I asked her what she’s been enjoying lately. “Patrick St. Surin’s Clairin Milot, I buy that shit by the case when it’s available. A good daiquiri has become one of the most important ways for me to cope in isolation. Cynar, preferably chilled with a salted rim (I know, roll your eyes, then drink it). Quentin Bourse makes my favorite vermouth. That dude has so much more talent in his giant thumbs than I’ll ever have in my entire hobbity body. I’m really happy to see so many new expressions popping up in the world that are their own style. We’re really lucky to live during a time when there are so many producers comfortable making their art and feeling no pressure to carbon copy the industrialized standards.”

Two dark bottles.

Branch Out — Branch Out —

Other Producers & Aromatized / Fortified Wines not to miss:

  • Jean Bourdy Macvin (Jura, France)
  • Domaine des Cavarodes ‘Rastafia’ (Jura, France)
  • JP Metté (Alsace, France)
  • Mauro Vergano (Italy)
  • Bordiga & Mulassano (Italy)
  • Istine (Chianti),
  • Scarpa (Italy)
  • Fred Jerbis (Italy)
  • Roagna & Cappellano Chinatos (Italy)
  • L.N. Mattei Cap Corse (Corsica)
  • Meigamma (Sardegna)
  • A.A. Badenhorst Caperitif (South Africa)
  • Primitivo Quiles (Spain)
  • MUZ by Partida Creus (Spain)
  • Acha (Spain)
  • Casa Mariol (Spain)
  • Trabanco ‘Alma’ *cider based! (Spain)
  • 7 Mares (Portugal)
  • Empirical Spirits (Copenhagen)
  • Ransom (Oregon)
  • Matthiasson (California)
  • Forthave (New York)
  • Neversink (New York)
  • Rhine Hall (Chicago)