Day 20: Natural in Detroit

Putnam Weekley is…well you’ll see.

TRASH OR TREASURE

Detroit loves natural wine. It’s a matter of affinity.

The Motor City’s devalued stock has left a bewildering abundance of free resources for a young independent class of creative people. Caved-in crack houses to the urbanist are like the neglected old peasant vines of the natural winegrower; with care, and a good woodshop, these decayed relics yield priceless virgin forest finish lumber, straighter and harder than anything on the market.

When the remains of these old buildings are bulldozed, if not restored or redeveloped, Detroiters plant gardens. Detroit’s urban farming leads the country abundant wasteland into a rare source of wholesome fresh food. It makes me think of Mark Angeli coaxing tremendous late harvest pink wine from plain old Grolleau, or Salvo Foti finding Francisi on Mount Aetna.

For a long time I was surprised by how eagerly ordinary wine drinkers would return to my Southfield store to buy fairly obscure naturally made wines, regardless of any stated natural credentials. The truth was a lot simpler than I wanted it to be. It turns out these wines taste good to people who drink wine normally, one bottle at a time, like after work, or with friends. My peers in the trade do not drink wine normally. We sometimes find these wines troubling. Our palates are marinated in “mainstream” wine-drink and it affects our judgment. Such unadorned, unadulterated flavors are not easy to fit into our incremental conceptual schemes, so we either refuse to stock them or we resist giving them prominence in our collections. Once I understood this, and stocked natural wines to the hilt, the wine business suddenly became fun and profitable again. And there is no going back.

Now I am beginning to think Detroit needs a dedicated natural wine bar/shop. Maybe I will open one. But first we need to define terms.

WHAT IS NATURAL WINE?

People manipulate grapes to make wine. But vines, and their microbial allies, also manipulate people¬ – to make farmers and drinkers. And what a success! Farmers and drinkers now propagate vines on every continent..

When viewed in co-evolutionary time, the molecular workings of winemaking were, until recently, a complete mystery. Nature and art negotiated a tense and rather fixed mutual boundary. The weather, the slope, and various other uncontrolled variables determined whether one obtained immortal sweet nectar, or sour vinegar, or something in the middle.

Gross selection was our species’ defining role in this ecosystem, and a knowledge culture grew up around it. But now that’s changed. Instead of ‘farmers and drinkers’ interacting more or less proportionately with random vine mutations, vine crossings and microbial ecology, on a pace measured in years, now ‘oenologists and consumers’ intervene in the creation of wine at the cellular level, or at least more convincingly than before. Vast quantities of common wine have been “improved.” Predictably, the success and spread of this approach has forced an epistemological question: what does “improved” mean?

DETROITERS

I imagined posing this question to two well-known Detroiters: 1930s GM chairman and punk rocker Patti Smith..

Sloan said “the business of business is business” and that the business of the wine business is to offer wine “for every purse and purpose.” To him, product improvement is decisive and it can be viewed in two parts: 1) eliminating flaws – like VA, brett, DMS, etc. and 2) adding and enhancing performance and package features that consumer segments demand – like colors, flavors, packaging tricks, etc.

Smith disagreed. She said flaws are valuable. To her “improvement” is a lie used to sell soulless plastic trinkets to vulnerable consumers. The lie implies that all that is public and free is trash, so that we become willing slaves to a consumer junk mill. “People have the power,” and the way to really do wine is to take it back. Wine, like rock and roll, comes from technology in the public domain. Farmers, not focus groups.

Maybe we can judge Alfred and Patti by their works. Alfred P. Sloan, more than any other individual, created 20th century Detroit, my home. Both of my parents worked for General Motors, and I continue to enjoy the benefits of their collaboration. That being said, I personally loathe cars, and I’ve found GM cars to be carelessly crowded with gimmicks and quick to exhibit odd noises and failures. As big and generous as GM was to my family, our neighborhoods and region now bear the brunt of its lie – er – ‘lack of sustainability.’

Patti Smith on the other hand … well – go ahead and cry when you watch this hopeful, anthemic promotional video:

There are two notable Detroit cultural landmarks shown in the video above. One is the mural by Diego Rivera. (New Yorkers might have had Diego Rivera mural, if only the Rockefellers could have resisted 1930s anti communist hysteria.)

LAFAYETTE CONEY ISLAND

The other landmark is Lafayette Coney Island, home of Detroit’s premier gastronomical achievement: the coney dog.

A coney dog is common food. It’s based on a repurposed ‘trash’ beef organ, the heart, which gives the chili sauce a deep, alluring flavor. And coneys are cheap to produce. It’s no surprise then that Patti Smith is a fan; she even held her wedding reception at Lafayette. The list of celebrity Lafayette fans is long; it even includes importer Joe Dressner.

In 2007 I discovered by chance that Franck Peillot’s 2004 Mondeuse paired exceptionally well with coneys. And in honor of Corey’s 31 Days of Natural Wine writing assignment I snuck a bottle of Peillot’s 2006 Mondeuse into Lafayette last week where I drank it at a countertop seat with two dogs “up.”

Maybe Mondeuse was never called a trash grape variety outright, but the Sloanian grape variety “ladder of success” always seemed to suggest such a thing to me. Serious wines are made of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and sometimes Syrah. There must be a rational reason why the luxury market for Mondeuse is so trivial.

Sitting there at the Lafayette lunch counter, eating and drinking, the thought occurred to me: maybe the decline in plantings of Mondeuse can be explained by the lack of an international market for coney dogs. Who among the wine and food commenting classes has even tasted Mondeuse with a coney, its best and most natural pairing?

The coney transformed the wine into a swivel of cocoa-like warmth. Earth flavors became spice flavors, and I couldn’t help but smile back as Soupy Sales’ portrait grinned down on me from the wall above.

SUPINO

I took the remains of the wine and three coney dogs to my all-time favorite pizzaiolo Dave Mancini. I knew exactly where he would be on a Tuesday afternoon: working the oven at Supino Pizzeria on Russell Street. Dave opened his pizzeria last year, decorated it with reclaimed furniture and beautiful trash antiques, and began turning out thin crust miracle pies. Dave says his pizzas are most comparable to a hybrid of New Haven and New York style, with the occasional outburst of iconoclasm on top.

As expected, the unexpected delivery of Lafayette coneys was warmly welcomed, and Dave was happy to test my coney/Mondeuse pairing thesis. Based on his comments, the first taste of wine must have struck him as rather lean and tannic. (It opens up.) However, as expected, after a few bites of the coney, Dave confirmed his approval with raised eyebrows and another long drink of wine from a tall soda cup.

SLOW’S YARDBIRD

After leaving Supino and prior to a planned natural wine jeebus, I needed to settle another pairing question. A few nights earlier I had shared another Franck Peillot wine, 2007 Altesse, with my colleagues at Slows Barbeque. There had been a photo of Slows’ Yardbird sandwich in Bon Appetit . Wouldn’t that pair well with this wine?

The wine has a certain depth and butterscotch-like sweetness buried in muscular acidity. I thought it would go well as a palate wash with gooey chunks of smoked bird between slices of Texas toast.

So last Tuesday I took a table on Slows’ patio and ordered the combo.

This is why I don’t like notes. They lie. I wrote: “Deep sweetness, muscular acid like young Chassagne / ‘stand up’ to gooey yardbird? NOT ALL the way / scorched sugar oozing grapes / white caramel yellow infused / with pollen cornflower.” The wine did indeed “stand up” to the dish in a powerful way. The problem is that I slipped briefly into over-thinking mode, the curse of the third tier (maybe the lack of a dining companion can explain that). I can’t believe there isn’t but one 100% Altesse available in Michigan.

My solo visit to Lafayette and Slows was prologue to a natural wine jeebus arranged by Phillip Cooley. Phillip is an eco-builder, passionate Detroit booster, and the majority owner of Slows Barbeque. Like me, Phillip has a wine agenda too. He likes the real and wants to see more of it available locally. Earlier this year we teamed up to list as many natural wines at Slows as we could, but Phillip wanted more, so he challenged his favorite New York retailer to put together a case of items that are not available in Detroit. Perhaps this whole natural wine idiom will continue to spread like a germ through the spontaneously renewed, repurposed arteries of our proud 3 century young city.

Some of the wine facts below were provided by Ben Hagan at Slope Cellars,.

JEEBUS

We gathered in Phillip’s apartment with a group of volunteers who had just come in from a beautification project in front of the old MCS train station. We attempted to drink this wine “schnook” style – i.e. taste, evaluate, repeat – but less than halfway through the lineup the conversation melted into workday topics. The wine became ambience, which is a fine thing for wine to be.

German Gilabert Cava “Brut Nature” NV (Penedes, Spain – Savio Soares). An organically grown blend of Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada, aged on its lees for 16 months with no dosage. It was very dry and even a little tannic. It reminded Corine of crabapples. I imagined it was assembled from a fairly large pool of Penedes organic juice as a priority for selling the label, but I liked it well. Someone wished out loud for John Shoeninger’s Thai-style steamed mussels and I became hungry. The lack of food may have altered my reliability as a tasting correspondent on this occasion.

Dominique Derain “Chute de Derain” Vin Mousseux NV (Burgundy, France – Jenny and Francois). Biodynamic sparkling wine made from Aligoté from one of Burgundy’s rebels – Dominique never chapitalizes his wines nor filters nor adds yeast – he rarely, if ever, uses SO2. It was a frontal assault of pungent aromas – cheese, gunpowder, broken concrete – which yielded to a bracing palate with sweet curly cues of green and yellow fruits bursting with life. Someone in our group rated this a 4½ out of 5.

Anne et Philippe Bornard “Tant-Mieux” Petillant Naturel NV (Jura, France – Savio Soares). 100% Ploussard, made as a sparkling rosé, biodynamic. Nicely funky and fresh, with some traces of residual sugar. I don’t know anyone who can get enough of these natural fruity fizzy pink wines from the Alpine foothills. They make fine drinks in social settings or solo.

Chateau K “Cuvee K” Bergerac Blanc Sec (Bergerac, France – Jenny and Francois). Blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, certified organic. This was one of the lower priced wines in the kit and I liked it. Beyond that, it tasted pretty much as expected, like sharp, dry white Bordeaux. The Alfred Sloan over my left shoulder did not detect any lack of ripeness (no candle wax, no overblown grapefruit). On the other side Patti Smith yawned.

Jean-Marie Rimbert “Petit Cochon Bronze” Rose 2008 (Saint-Chinian, Languedoc, France – Jenny and Francois). Mostly Cinsault. It seemed pretty nice. Low acid. Silky, not heavy. Pure enough. I think the flavors got a bit lost among the more boisterous liquids on the table.

Sablonnettes “Les Copains d’Abord” 2007 (Loire Valley, France – Jenny and Francois). Made from Grolleau and Cabernet (presumably Cabernet Franc), no chaptalization, no added yeast, biodynamic. 11.5% alcohol. This wine got several in the party very excited. It was dark, clean and lean, with charming aromas of plain ripe berry fruit and punctual currant flavored tannins.

Julien Courtois “Originel” Vin de Table (2006) (Loire Valley, France – Savio Soares). Menu Pineau and Romorantin – this is Claude Courtois’ son’s wine. Ambitious wine. I thought for sure it was some kind of Chenin Blanc, harvested low and late, filled with oily Anjou mineral sensations and funky reduction. Pretty tremendous wine I think.

Julien Courtois “Element Terre” Vin de Table (2006) (Loire Valley, France – Savio Soares). 100% Gamay Chaudenay an heirloom clone of Gamay. Something forced a bit of wine to ooze past the cork here, and the aromas seemed to indicate the possibility of some sort of in-bottle malolactic events taking place. Regardless, I couldn’t have guessed it had anything to do with “Gamay.” It was obviously very ripe and thick, chewy, and intriguing. I’d like to experience this with all of its freshness and acidity intact, or, like all of these wines, in an isolated encounter.

Emile Heredia, Domaine de Montrieux “G” Vin de Table 2006. 100% Gamay. Organic. Pale and pretty. Charming. Easy to drink. Interesting too. Scented.

Primitivo Quiles “Raspay” Riserva Tinto “Brut” 2003 (Alicante, Spain – Jose Pastor). 100% Monastrell, “this is the Lopez de Heredia of the south – super old-school, large used american oak barrels, extended bottle ageing, fantastic stuff.” Opinions diverged on this wine. Phillip objected to the oak flavor. Most of our drinks are unoaked, and we’ve found even good oak-aged wines to be fairly incompatible with Slows’ menu. And planning Slows’ list is the usual purpose for these types of wine meetings. But I admired the wine. The wood was perfumed and soft and wilted delightfully around sun-softened red berry, vanilla and sweet spice flavors. I’d like to get this with beef cheeks or braised goat.

By this time it was late. Jarred Gild of Western Market in Ferndale suggested we grab some coneys. I wanted him to try the Peillot Mondeuse/coney connection anyway, so I went along with him. The memorable part was how the flavors seemed indistinguishable from textures, like a pillow, soft, dry and comfortable. I probably needed a real pillow at this point in the evening.

Just as we were finishing up I saw Wolfgang Puck executive chef Marc Djozlija picking up takeout bag. I did not have a chance to ask him what he planned on drinking with his coneys.

Coda

Next day, we finished Phillips case of wine with a bit of takeout from Slows.

Ca Sa Padrina “Mantonegro” 2007 (Binissalem-Mallorca, Spain – Jose Pastor)
Mostly Mantonegro (local varietal), blended with Callet (another local varietal), Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; low yields, stainless steel fermentation, very little new oak. Again, Phillip and I diverged in the pleasure we took from this wine. With Slows brisket (extra fat) and mustard sauce it seemed perfectly balanced, if big, and what can you expect from Mallorca wine? Everything seemed integrated and wholesome, with everything in proportion. Call it “mouthfilling” but not so filling that it didn’t pair perfectly well with the brisket.

Montebaco Ribera del Duero Crianza 2005 (Ribera del Duero, Spain – Jose Pastor). 100% Tinto del Pais, or Tinto Fino (Tempranillo); no chemicals, hand-harvesting, high-atitude plateau-grown, dry-farmed, unfined/unfiltered, stainless steel fermentation, 15 months in French oak. This was the only wine in Ben Hagan’s case that I didn’t especially care for. Phillip was also underwhelmed. It tasted like raw, sharp inexpensive wine without any sense of its origin. Brisket did not help it. I am curious what people on the internet think of it.

Ray Heald was my high school chemistry teacher. He and Eleanor lived down the street from my house. It would be nice if laws changed to allow Detroiters buy wines from Jenny and Francois, Savio Soares and Jose Pastor. That way, anyone with the money and the odd sense of priorities required might survey agricultural arts from their spiritual neighbors in other parts of the world. This might add fuel to the way we imagine making our environment serve us, rather than so plainly serving it, mostly in factories churning out consumer crap.

“I like gettin’ old.” – Patti Smith

Follow day by day here: http://saignee.wordpress.com/31-days-of-natural-wine/

Up next: BC Natural with Cherries and Clay; or: Canadian jokes are soooo 1980s

~ by Cory Cartwright on July 10, 2009.

9 Responses to “Day 20: Natural in Detroit”

  1. Putnam, first off, you are the only other wine blogger — to my knowledge — besides myself that uses epistemology in her/his posts.

    Second, I have seen the Rivera mural (when I played in Detroit some years ago at the museum) and I always wondered what the one in Rockefeller center looked like. There is another extant Rivera in the private club located in the ex-stock exchange in San Francisco.

    Third, I have eaten at Lafayette Coney Dog: can you still smoke at the counter?

    Great post…

  2. Putnam! Awesome post!!! You really make me miss Detroit every time you write up your adventures around town. I so wish I could have stayed for the drink fest at Phil’s; but at least you wrote about it so I can live vicariously.

    Cory… Thanks for getting all of the 31 days together. It’s been great to read all the posts so far.

    Jeremy (Mr. Bianchi)… My friend and I were at that show you played at the DIA! It was much fun.

  3. wonderful entry. i want to be in detroit.

  4. Crikey, Putnam! I guess I don’t have to worry about posting length when it’s my turn here…. I definitely need a Coney to complete the reading experience. If it makes you feel any better, Soares’ and Pastor’s wines aren’t available on the Philly-area market either, and J&F’s only nominally. Great work!

  5. I think I had better get to Detroit.

  6. Your post is wonderful – it’s tough to make people long for Detroit but your post does just that. I read it and it makes me think “What am I doing in New York.” I should go to Detroit, or back home to Ohio…it’s where all the really cool stuff is happening.”

  7. What a pleasant surprise to click on my current fave blog and find a great post about a case I put together and shipped to Detroit. Now I wish I could have hand-delivered the case! I’m psyched you liked the wines – and I agree with you about the Montebaco Ribera del Duero (I was under strict orders to ship any and all Jose Pastor wines I had in stock). I’d love to throw you guys another bottle of the Courtois Elemente Terre – such a cool wine, the Gamay Chaudenay is a red-fleshed grape which explains its freakish non-Gamayish vibe. Anyway, thanks for the post and I look forward to looking you up when I make my pilgrimage to Detroit, which you’ve put on my to-do list. And Cory, I love what you’re gettin’ up to here!

  8. my parents left detroit 45 years ago for the left coast. it makes me proud that the motor city spirit is alive and kicking. my two ford cars and i wish you all the best. “kick out the jams motherfucker!”

  9. [...] http://saignee.wordpress.com/2009/07/10/day-20-natural-in-detroit/. [...]

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