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I find more joy in a simple glass of wine these days than I ever have. Yet that course correction comes amidst a wee paradox: Except for when I was a graduate student, I’m drinking, on average, the least expensive wine of my life–but it’s not cheap.

Julien Sunier of Beaujolais: a producer who does things the “right way”

Do I care less about wine? Or people? The pandemic–that revealing accelerant–has changed so much of our lives, but there’s a lot of silver in the linings. (I should mention that I’m also drinking less.) It is, I think, not that I care less about people or wine, but that I care about more people and more wine.

The case for cheap things is a cornerstone of late-capitalist consumer culture. However, most of the true costs of cheap products are spread among many people over vast areas–all of which suffer unfairly. Wine, for example, up to, say, $7 is, in a way, a false narrative. A bottle of wine that costs $7 (or less) can’t truly be had in 2022. Of course, you can find a wine for seven bucks in shops across the country, but most of the actual costs are hidden from most consumers. It might be a good deal for us, but somewhere down the line, as it were, it’s a bad deal for someone else–and often many others.

If everyone along the way to the production of a bottle of wine is being paid a living wage and has healthcare of some stripe–and if the environment is not taking an unhealthy hit–a bottle of wine should cost about 20 bucks*.

I realize this sounds a bit highbrow, or at least uppity, and perhaps it is, but too many of the costs of production for such radically inexpensive products are not in our calculus.All we think is that we deserve these products or just can’t afford to spend more–but we’re still paying. A 99-cent hamburger proves the same moral math. The environment takes an often uncalculated, off-the-menu hit as do many laborers along the way, including all of us.

Capitalist culture will tell you that some products are, in fact, too cheap to yield profit, but that’s by design. Some businesses say it’s their choice to sell their products at whatever prices they want. This, however, is thinking without consideration beyond profit. Such “loss leaders” fail to consider the lives of low-paid workers the world over, and such manipulations further accelerate environmental degradation and climate change. Is this true in every case? No, but we live in the Capitalocene, not the Anthropocene.

I am more interested in organic wine, biodynamic farming, or wine that is raised naturally. I want balance first, and pleasure first, and globally available local wine first, and if I can afford it, I want to pay for it because I want to support it–not merely for the bottle I take home, but for the whole process.

For many companies, the best way to sell a product is to limit the customer’s evaluation time during the purchase decision, and the easiest way to do that is to make the product cheap. The next step is to hide some of the costs, which often means hiding the human and environmental damages of the production.

So, I’ve begun to buy and drink wine that represents a good value but is also organically farmed and often biodynamically raised–and not falsely cheap. I’m trying to buy wine that is produced by growers that pay living wages to all their workers. The new pleasures I’ve found during these times include concern for the welfare, so far as I can tell, of people I will likely never meet. I’m still working it out, but I think if our only measure of success is to find the cheapest wine, and so, to line the pockets of the rich, it only serves to praise an idleness that feels cheap.

 

II

All the great wine shops in the East Bay, including Oakland Yard, Bay Grape, Ordinaire, and Minimo, have great selections and take responsibility for the wines they sell. That includes, to the extent currently possible, consideration of the wellbeing of everyone along the lines of production.

Like all the buyers in the shops mentioned above, the buyers at Paul Marcus Wines try to find wines with varietal authenticity, provide a sense of place, and are delicious. Furthermore, we try to ask the right questions of the importers in the hopes of making better purchase decisions for you. And this comes at a cost: the cost of a more equitable society.

This is not a note saying we are raising prices, but rather to say it is important to remember what we’re doing when we so often quickly or blindly “support the economy.”

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* This number is an approximation–a rhetorical flourish of sorts. The number would change dramatically depending on the variety in question, the location of the fruit source, and the city in which the wine is sold.

I was sipping an exotic wine with my favorite Vietnamese takeout last night and was surprised by the smoky, salty, “volcanic” aromatics that underlay the delicate muscat-like lychee fruit notes. Majorca, where the wine’s from, must be a volcanic plug of an island, I explained to my partner. Only that could account for the savory base I was tasting.

I’m regularly wrong, so I was already doubting myself even before I read that the Balearic Islands, of which Majorca is the biggest, are not of volcanic origin. Being naturally flexible, I was able to quickly pivot to my next explanation: The wine was reductive.

“Reduction” is the rare wine-geek term that’s not (mostly) subjective. At its simplest, it’s the technique of strictly limiting oxygen during a stage of fermentation. Certain compounds given off by the yeast cells are prevented from binding with good-old reactive oxygen molecules, and they stay trapped in the soon-to-be wine. Wines that feature reduction, or are reduced, exhibit a range of savory, salty, smoky, gunflint, matchstick, or even full-on sulfurous aromas. This can be good or bad, a lot or a little. In my wine last night, I enjoyed the added complexity; the fruit shone through unscathed, but there was more than fruit to think about.

Stéphane Tissot, star of the Jura

Preventing oxidation in wine seems like a good thing, and winemakers can tell themselves they’re not adding flavors through the technique–no, they’re just protecting the wine from premature aging. But, of course, they’re doing both. Some are very good at it (see Walter Scott’s lineup of Oregon chardonnay), and some push it pretty far (like Tissot in the Jura).

Many wine professionals are fans of reductive wines–Master Sommelier Rajat Parr, for one, praises Tissot highly for it in The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste. Fruity flavors are wine’s easiest achievement. Stony, more mineral flavors are much harder to capture. And while it would be unfair, too broad, perhaps even, gasp, reductive to say that too many wines present so much sweet fruit that they might benefit from the addition of a savory element, it might also be, occasionally, a little true.

So, if you find yourself wanting more than just fruit flavors in your wine, or want to keep abreast of trends, or simply want to know what Raj Parr is talking about, stop by the shop and ask us about reduction.

Cellaring wine has appealed to me since the earliest days of my wine journey. I’ve been putting away wine for about 40 years, and it just dawned on me recently–now that I’m in my 70s, it might be a good idea to start drinking my cellar.

In the time of Covid, I’ve had fewer opportunities to open old bottles with friends or at restaurants. Well, my daughter came out here for a three-week visit in December and wound up staying for three months. (I guess the food, wine service, and weather are better here than in New York.) And now we had the quorum we needed for exploring the cellar.

Wines generally begin their lives with a lot of fruit and vivacity, but they can be somewhat simple. With age, they begin to develop more definition and evolve into something more complex–kind of like people.

One of the best cellar wines I’ve had so far was the first one I uncorked. It was the 2008 Vietti Barolo ‘Rocche di Castiglione.’ I caught this wine at the perfect time. It still had a lot of its youthful fruit, but it was entering the phase where it starts to take on secondary flavors; warm, lively, maturing nebbiolo flavors and aromas of tar, roses, violets, and red berries. Some of the other nebbiolo-based standouts we opened were the 2004 Sottimano Barbaresco Riserva and the 2006 Ovello from Produttori di Barbaresco.

I cellar a lot of Barolo and Barbaresco, and PMW currently has two great vintages in stock: the warm, open, and friendly 2015s and the slightly more delineated and complex 2016s. Laying down some of these wines will be tremendously gratifying, and we offer several single-vineyard expressions from Sottimano, Produttori, and other esteemed producers.

The wines I cellar the most, however, are reds from Burgundy, and not surprisingly, it was those I turned to most frequently. The 2002s are great, period. The Serafin Charmes-Chambertin was a true jewel. They have been drinking exquisitely since day one, and sadly I have exhausted most of mine. The best of the Burgundy I opened–on my birthday, to boot–was the 1999 Bachelet Charmes-Chambertin. It still had years left on it–truly astounding.

The powerful 2005 Burgundy wines, on the other hand, have been a mystery. On release, they were gorgeous–abundant fruit, structure, aromas, and power, a drinker’s paradise. And yet they closed up; for 15 years, they have been unyielding. Thankfully, they are just starting to reemerge.

The 2009s were highly acclaimed upon release and later criticized somewhat for their abundant fruit but lack of acidity. I opened a couple of 2009s, and they seemed to achieve a steady bearing with lots of fruit and a harmonious mouth feel. The 2009 de Montille Volnay 1er Cru ‘Les Taillepieds’ was an absolute knockout.

The 2010 vintage is an unconditional classic–light in color and mouth feel, yet they have a tension that lengthens the palate exponentially. I opened my first 2010 the other day: the Bitouzet-Prieur Volnay 1er Cru ‘Pitures.’ It was exquisite, and it made me anticipate drinking more from this superb vintage.

At PMW, we have plenty of cellar-worthy red Burgundy in the store from the likes of Sylvie Esmonin, Frederic Esmonin, Joseph Voillot, and Domaine de Montille. In general, I like to give red Burgundy about a decade of aging before popping them, depending on the vintage.

Every once in a while, you drink a wine that absolutely transports you to a space that goes beyond the glass. That happened the other night with the 2011 Lafon Meursault 1er Cru ‘Perrières.’ This white Burgundy had me groveling in the Perrières vineyard and inside the cellar walls. In the real world, the wine was the essence of butter, stone, mineral and integrity. The finish lasted for one minute.

An assortment of Rhones also made the cut. The 1990 Gallet Côte-Rôtie was still fresh with lively, gamey syrah flavors. The graceful 1998 Pignan Châteauneuf-du-Pape had a surprisingly light-to-medium mouth feel, although I wish I had opened my very good 1989 Jaboulet Hermitage ‘La Chapelle’ a few years ago. I was really looking forward to my 2000 Chateau Rayas Châteauneuf, but it was corked. Bummer!

Single-vineyard expressions from Sicily’s Etna Rosso DOC, featuring the wonderful nerello mascalese varietal, also benefit from time spent in the cellar. I describe these wines as a cross between nebbiolo and pinot noir. Many of you are familiar with the entry-level wines from PMW-approved producers such as Benanti, Graci, and Terre Nere, to name a few. The single-vineyard examples are very powerful and fruity at first, but after four or five years of aging, they turn into complex, smooth, yet grainy gems.

I had both the 2010 and 2011 Terre Nere Etna Rosso ‘Guardiola’ recently, and they were marvelous. Upon release, the 2010 offered a big mouthful of fruit that lacked definition, but it developed into an Etna Rosso that resembled a seamless Burgundy. The 2011 drank well young, but had also developed quite well over the course of a decade.

Yes, the joys of cellaring require patience–not to mention a cool, dark place–but the payoff is definitely worth it.