6 glorious winemakers who prize originality
There’s an old joke about a street with four restaurants side by side. The first has a sign saying, “Best Food in the City,” and its tables are sparsely populated.
The second says, “Best Food in the Country,” and even fewer people are inside. The third says, “Best Food in the World,” and it’s empty. The fourth says, “Best Food on the Block,” and it’s packed.
The joke could well be about the intentions of wine producers. Some aspire to make the best wines in their region; others, the country or the world. But for me, the most enlightened approach is simply to try to make the best possible wine from the place where the grapes are grown.
My favorite producers look inward, not outward. They ask themselves, “How can I do my utmost to convey the character of this particular patch of earth?” And they often conclude: “I’m going to make the wines that I like to drink. If nobody buys them, I’ll drink them myself.”
You’d be right to think that this doesn’t make much business sense. Successful corporations rely on focus groups and surveys to determine what the public likes. Their products fit their perception of what will sell, which in the world of wine often results in imitation rather than originality.
The most distinctive wines tend to be made by small, family-run producers. They do need to sustain their businesses, but they do not answer to outside forces motivated by sales and profits. They are free to define their own aesthetic standards.
Here are six producers who make glorious wines by following their own muse. Their successes have come about by working in unexpected ways, not by assessing the market and tailoring their approach accordingly. They have simply tried to make the best wines on their blocks.
La Garagista: In Vermont, Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber have proved that hybrid grapes, grown in the state’s cold climate, can express terroir in ways that few imagined.
Before La Garagista, most hybrid wines — crosses between
European vinifera vines, which include all the best-known wine grapes, and native American vines — were perfunctory. Since few expected greatness, the potential of hybrids was never fully examined. But Heekin and Barber, through scrupulous, conscientious farming and meticulous winemaking, revealed just how expressive these grapes could be.
Whether petillant naturels, still wines, co-fermentations of grapes and apples, or experiments with aging under flor in the style of sherry, their wines are always striking.
Sylvain Pataille: Sylvain Pataille works in the Marsannay region of Burgundy. He makes excellent reds and whites, but his four single-vineyard aligotes from prime Marsannay terroirs are the real eye-openers. Aligote has long been a workhorse white in Burgundy, a cheap drink for locals. Few had ever thought to grow it in the sorts of terroirs reserved for what were deemed superior grapes.
Because he believed in the potential of aligote, Pataille planted the grape in areas that might have been used for chardonnay, which can sell for higher prices. Each of his single-vineyard aligotes is different, expressing the character of its vineyard through the grape. All are resonant and intriguing.
“Aligote expresses terroir almost more than chardonnay,” he told me in 2017. Not many Burgundy producers would take that position, much less act on it. But Pataille had the courage of his convictions, and wine lovers are the beneficiaries.
Gaia Ritinitis Nobilis: I want to single out one of Gaia’s bottles, which says a lot about the qualities that go into an original wine. It’s a retsina, a wine infused with the resin of Aleppo pine trees that traces back to the ancient Greeks. Nowadays, tourists who visit Greece are warned not to drink retsina, which all too often is bad wine made with bad pine.
But back in the 1990s, Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, a founder of Gaia and the winemaker, was convinced that retsina could be a good wine. It was, he believed, a traditional product that should be a source of pride, and he was determined to do it right. The result, made with excellent roditis grapes and good-quality resin, is superb.
I scoffed at retsina until I tried Ritinitis Nobilis the first time. We reflexively dismiss wines not because they are inherently bad, but because we’ve only had bad versions. Just as with hybrids and with aligote, if retsina is made with care, it can be beautiful.
Hiyu Wine Farm: This producer in the Columbia Gorge region, where Oregon meets Washington at the Columbia River, makes astonishingly unconventional wines. One bottle might be a combination of assyrtiko, fiano, greco and other grapes that are put together because they trace a path from Greece to southern Italy. Another might mix pinot noir and gewurztraminer.
Not a company that only produces what is going to sell, Hiyu is built on taking risks.it was founded by Nate Ready, a former sommelier, and China Tresemer, a cooking teacher, who believes in natural farming techniques.
The wines are expensive and sometimes challenging. But if you allow yourself to go along for the ride, they can be wonderful and transporting.
Cathy Corison: With a prime spot in the Napa Valley, making wines of 100% cabernet sauvignon that nowadays sell for upward of $100 a bottle, Cathy Corison is hardly off the beaten trail. But what she has earned has come through sheer determination to stay true to her vision of Napa cabernet.
It hasn’t always been easy. Corison saw the ideal of Napa cabernet stray in the 1990s from the classic lines of fine table wine to a more flamboyant style of plush, powerful fruit and high alcohol. As other producers veered with the times, receiving praise and financial rewards, Corison plugged onward, making wonderful wines that conveyed her notion of Rutherford and
St. Helena terroirs — even as, up through the early 2000s, she was largely ignored.
Now, times have changed again. The subtle, restrained style that she always made is back in demand. Corison’s wines remain superb examples, demonstrating that Napa can be many different things.
Matthiasson Wines: When
Steve Matthiasson and Jill Klein Matthiasson began in 2003 to make Napa Valley wines, they wondered if anybody would buy them. The wines, by design, were lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than the norm. In addition to the expected cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays, they were using grapes that were far from the usual, like refosco and riballa gialla.
It was a time when the predominant styles included powerful, alcoholic cabernets and extravagant, sweet pinot noirs that were more suitable as pre-dinner cocktails than accompaniments to food. A lot of San Francisco restaurants were heavily criticized back then for ignoring California wines on their lists in favor of leaner, more restrained European bottles. The Matthiassons stood out like vegans at a steak party.
But 20 years later, their wines are beloved. Their success inspired other producers with similar tastes, who perhaps would not have taken the first step on their own. Today, the California wine culture has evolved into a wonderfully diverse world, and the Matthiassons deserve credit as early trailblazers.