Sourcing A New Winery

Spencer Harrington

Simic’s pacing past stalls at a natural wine show in Paris, bobbing and weaving his way around clutches of international wine importers. He’s in an antiseptic convention center in La Défense that could accommodate 10,000, a modern, glass-walled space that makes him feel like a ripening tomato. He’s impatient. So far, there isn’t much here he’d want to import to New York. There are wines with no fruit, wines with too much fruit, wines stinkier than their region’s cheeses. Some wineries make too little wine to bother with. Others make wine for too small a market or with no thought for the market at all.

He takes a coffee break at a stall outside the convention center and lights a cigarette.

The bare facts of his situation are depressing. Hughes Legrand, his superstar winemaker, left him two weeks ago for the competition. He panicked and spent too much on a flight to this show hoping to find new talent. Now he’s sleeping on his cousin Mathieu’s couch out by Roissy, with planes thundering in and out of De Gaulle at all hours. And this morning, Mathieu’s autistic daughter bit his arm while shaving.

He drags on his cigarette. None of this is good. Maybe Delaroc can help. He represents Gilles Delaroc’s wines in New York, and over the years, their business relationship has blossomed into something like a friendship. The winemaker haunts the natural wine blogosphere and writes one himself. Once in a while, Delaroc prods him to check out this winery or meet this vigneron. For the most part, Simic’s ignored him, but now he needs on-the-ground intelligence. No more kissing Frog winemakers hoping they’ll turn into princes!

The phone rings half a dozen times. Simic’s sure he’s going into voicemail, but at the last moment, there’s a clicking sound, and he hears a distant “Allo?”

“Gilles? Ici Paul. Ca va? There’s a strange pause, then finally a distant “Oui…et toi?”

Simic’s wondering whether he’s drunk, high, or being fellated: Maybe some joyous combination of all three.

Simic tells him about Legrand, but Delaroc’s already heard. He may even have known before Simic himself knew. He explains he’s looking for a replacement. Someone who makes good, marketable natural wine. They can be a new winery. He’s willing to build their reputation as long as they’re willing to be cooperative and work the market.

Delaroc yawns and tells him this is “bien difficile.” Anyone who’s good has already been signed. All that’s left are outliers.

Jesus…he’s come all the way to France to hear this? Simic paces, hurling his cigarette onto the ground.

No—this can’t be true. There are vignerons out there if you’re willing to find them. The whole country’s a vineyard, and grapevines are weeds. There’s got to be a crusty bastard somewhere making traditional wine.

He presses Delaroc: What does he mean by “outliers?”

“There are people making excellent wine, but maybe you don’t want to do business with them.”

“Let me decide, Gilles. Give me names.”

“The best is Nicole Pelliot, but she’s weird.”

Simic’s taken aback. “Weird” isn’t a word he hears in the natural wine world. There’s no such thing as weird. Deviance is a selling tool that salts up stories of a wine’s conception. Delaroc’s bloody winery is a free-love commune.  He’s even witnessed workers getting off in fermentation tanks!

“Oh, come on! What are you talking about?”

“I’ve been to a few of their parties,” he says. “I’ve drunk their wine. It’s very, very good—Très bien fait. Young men live there from one of the Central American countries, Guatemala, I think. They have tattoos on their penises.”

Simic digests this. “How do you know?”

“Why do you care?”

Simic doesn’t have an answer and feels his enthusiasm waning.

“Look, you know I only care about the wine. I don’t care about Nicole Pelliot’s personal life. But these Guatemalan boys…they are there of their own free will, right? What they do there is….” He can’t remember the French word for “consensual.”

Delaroc sighs. “I think so.”

“Give me her phone number.”

***

Simic hits a pothole so hard his core is vibrating, and his Renault Twingo feels like it’s breaking in two. Of course, Nicole Pelliot wouldn’t have a nice gravel driveway like all the other Cru Bourgeois in Bordeaux. That would be too bourgeois! Instead, her driveway is a rucked, off-road path out of the Paris-Dakar rally. After a quarter-mile of jolting through a wooded area, he encounters a clearing strewn with a half-dozen jerry-built structures and wandering chickens. Is this an encampment of anti-government lunatics? Is he going to get shot? Will the Twingo's front axle hold if he needs to make a getaway?

He stops the car. Nobody’s around. He hears a noise outside but can’t identify it because he’s blasting the AC. He cuts the engine and gets out, shielding his eyes from the July sun. It’s classical music, a string quartet blaring from speakers rigged under umbrellas spread at equal intervals across the vineyards. The speakers look like odd little deep-space probes, and the music’s loud, even for outside

“Monsieur Simic?”

He turns around to see a late-middle-aged woman in overalls and a cardigan with long, lustrous gray hair and deep-set hazel eyes. She’s carrying a wood staff.

“You’re Nicole Pelliot?”

Oui enchanté” she extends a hand, and they shake.

She apologizes for the noise.

“Haydn string quartets are salubrious for the vines,” she states. “They also help the yeast during fermentation.” Simic can barely hear her over the din; he’s not relishing the challenge of deciphering her French over the next 45 minutes.

“The music is encouragement for their growth. Euphony is healthful for all living things, don’t you think?

Simic nods eagerly. Why not? Certainly, classical music can’t hurt the vines, even if she’s playing it at Metallica concert decibels.

“I wrote an article about euphony in the Journal of Horticultural Science. Do you take this journal?”

Does he take the Journal of Horticultural Science? Very quaint this notion, he spends his days buried in intellectual journals. Simic remembers now Pelliot is an academic, a biochemist from the École Polytechnique outside of Paris. An egghead with an egghead’s disregard for reality, he concludes. She hasn’t yet made eye contact, maintaining a far-reaching gaze as if her mind is elsewhere.

“I remember seeing something about it,” Simic lies. He’s already trying to imagine her in the market, how his buyers would react to a distracted, soft-spoken academic with a seven-foot staff. Maybe he can position her as a sort of biodynamic guru who floats around in a lotus position and impresses with her profundity. Looking around, Simic sees all the markers of biodynamic farming: the cover crops, the compost heaps, the chicken shit fertilizing the soil.

“We don’t think of our vineyards as such,” she continues, motioning with her staff toward rows of grapevines in the distance. “We take a more holistic, generalized approach. Think of us as a farm in which we harvest grapes but also give back to the earth. We want to be integrated with nature. We want the farm to be a self-sustaining, living entity. And we want wines from our property to be living as well.”

In the distance, Simic sees a crenelated metal shed with a window revealing a microscope.

“Is that your oenology lab?”

“Yes,” she says. “Bottling without sulphur means I have to watch for bacteria and taste the wine constantly. It’s muchmore work than conventional winemaking. I’m in the lab more than anyplace else.” She stares off in the distance toward a much larger shed, and a faint smile passes over her lips. “Would you like to see the amphora room? It’s where we age our wines.”

Simic nods, and Pelliot grasps his arm, a familiar gesture that surprises him. As they walk, she explains the differences between amphora and barrel aging, and at the largest of the sheds, she slides open the door to reveal two naked young men caressing a large amphora mounted on a low platform. Cheap track lights shine on the scene, and Simic’s first impression is that they’re models posing for an art class. They’re striking dramatic poses on each side of the container as if they’re wrapped with snakes in an Italian Renaissance sculpture.

“I don’t show everyone this place,” she says, “but I feel your positive energy. I felt it with my staff the moment you arrived.”

For a moment, Simic is speechless, flattered, and unaware he was radiating any kind of aura.

The boys are silent, frozen in position, not looking at them. Do they pose like this all day? He can’t discern penis tattoos. He notices they do look young, but now in his mid-40s, he has only a generalized sense of people’s age. A dull fear washes over him. Is he getting mixed up in something here? Are the boys why Nicole Pelliot has no US representation? Should he get back in the Twingo and bounce out of here?

He finds his voice: “What do they do?”

“Rodrigo and César warm the amphora with their bodies. They switch places every so often. Everyone believes wine should be kept at cellar temperature. This is true as far as it goes, but I think wine benefits from body heat in its early stages of development. The warmth restores life energy to the juice.

“Do you do this for all your wines?”

She waves her staff dismissively. “This is only for the Cuvée Diana, our top-of-the-line. It would be too expensive for them to hug all the wines.”

She leads him by the arm to an adjacent room where terra-cotta amphoras are buried to their necks in the ground.

“We age our wines in amphoras just like the Greeks and Romans did. And we seal them with beeswax.”

“You must be the only winemaker practicing this method in Bordeaux,” Simic observes. He’d read online that she was self-taught, that she bought the vineyards and spent years in this corner of right bank Bordeaux working alone.

“I guess so. I don’t pay attention to what the others are doing. I think most Bordeaux wines are dull, and the most expensive ones are traded like commodities. I make wines for drinking. For that, I am called a ‘vinarchiste.’”

She grabs ahold of his arm and leads him to another shed with a dirt floor and a picnic table. She removes two bottles from a small wine refrigerator and sets them on the table, along with a spit bucket and two glasses. The labels show arresting portraits of a bald, middle-aged man with a scowl and a hatchet-faced younger woman.

“This is my entry-level, the Cuvée Marcus,” she says, pronouncing the name “Mar-COOS.”

“He’s my ex-husband,” she adds, gesturing at the angry bald guy bottle. “The wine is from the buried amphoras you saw.”

“The Cuvée Diana is named after my daughter, and that’s her portrait on the label. This is the wine you saw César and Rodrigo warming.”

Simic thinks people’s labels are a mistake. Why couldn’t Nicole just substitute a castle? Why is she honoring her ex-husband with wine? Presumably, she hates the bald fuck! And the ugly duckling Cuvée Diana portrait will sit on restaurant tables like a deformed, uninvited guest. Then there’s another problem: If the wines are biodynamic, where’s the certifying seal on the back of the bottle? Labels that say the wine is biodynamic help sell the bottles. He asks Pelliot, and she shrugs and says she doesn’t think it’s important.

“People who know me know how I work,” she states.

She hoists the bottles and pours wine in each glass. Simic lifts the Cuvée Mar-COOS to his nose, closes his eyes, and is transported to an early summer meadow redolent of hydrangeas and lavender. He takes a sip, and the wine’s red fruit is young, lively, inviting a second glass. Unlike other young Bordeaux, there’s no need to drink it with a steak frites to prevent your tongue from being raked by tannin. It’s good on its own! The aromas from the Cuvée Diana are more forest floor; there’s truffle and resin, and perhaps a little licorice. On the palate, it’s all blackberry fruit with firmer tannins but still very drinkable.

Gilles Delaroc is right: This is good shit. Unusual, even revolutionary for Bordeaux. And the local negociants and other industry types barely know who Nicole Pelliot is. Simic starts getting excited…he could redefine the Bordeaux market in New York with these wines! No question, she’s the one.

“The wines are good. I want to buy them…how much can you give me?”

They negotiate for fifteen minutes, discussing price, stock, and logistics. He doesn’t broach the ugly-people labels with her; they’re distinctive, as distinctive as the wines, and maybe that’s all that matters. Simic agrees to wire her a down payment, and they shake hands. No contracts, nothing. Very old school…this is the way Simic likes doing business. He’s got a good feeling. She’s not going to screw him.

Pelliot looks him in the face for what seems like the first time

“We have a ceremony at night when we bury the cow’s horns as part of biodynamic practice. We invite a druid priest. Then we all get drunk and make love.”

There’s a vague smile on her face. “You should join us.”

“That sounds lovely.”

The idea of getting mixed up in an orgy ceremony troubled him. The lengths one had to go to secure new talent! He’s sure Delaroc participated, and it likely didn’t live up to his expectations, so he now thinks Pelliot and her Guatemalan boyfriends are strange. Makes no difference to him…He’s got his deal.

Back in the Twingo, Simic heads for a route nationale back to Paris. It’s late afternoon, and he’s nearly blinded by the sunlight pouring through the windshield. Eventually, he’ll have to pull over at a filling station café for a fromage-jambonsandwich. He’ll eat, marveling at the quality of French bread, its miracle of crispy crust to the soft, chewy interior. He’ll drink a coffee, looking through the restaurant window at the cars racing past. And he’ll feel a sense of well-being some call happiness.


About the Author

Spencer Harrington has written on art and archaeology for ARTnews and Archaeology Magazine, and on music for The Beat, Spin, and Rolling Stone.