Day 21: Kaitlyn and the Magic Bottles (or, Why I opened London’s first natural wine bar and shop)
Kathryn O’Mara is the proprietress of Artisan & Vine in London
Kaitlyn was lucky to live in a city where magic bottles were shipped in from places as far as Australia and as foreign as France. Although she was a curious girl, she’d left it until the very day on which this story begins to first taste wine. Kaitlyn knew from her dictionary that wine was “an alcoholic drink made from fermented grape juice”, which pleased her because it sounded like a healthy fruit-based way to consume alcohol.
Kaitlyn was curious but not rash and was nervous about spending too much money on something she might not like. So she bought three bottles of wine for £10 and went home. To her dismay the three bottles all tasted very much the same despite their different origins. “Why write the name of a place on a bottle if what is inside doesn’t give a sense of that place?” Kaitlyn wondered in frustration.
For thirty two times thirty two days following Kaitlyn drank only cocktails or alcho-pops – which also came in magic looking bottles – whenever she wanted a magic drink. At least these drinks described what flavours they were meant to have, rather than listing different countries or regions on a bottle while tasting very non-different inside.
One day more than that, Kaitlyn was walking down the street and up a hill when a terrible storm broke out. She ran for cover into what she quickly realised was another of these wine shops. “Oh drat and bother” she frowned.
The wall of the wine shop was lined with one hundred different bottles and on the counter sat two fishbowls. A silver herring swam around the fishbowl on the left and a red herring swam around the fishbowl on the right.
“But there’s no such thing as a red herring” Kaitlyn petitioned, wondering if the world of wine could seem any more implausible.
“There’s no such thing as talking herring either” the Silver Herring replied, “but here you have both”
“Would you like to try my wine?” cooed the Red Herring
“Or would you like to try my wine?” perked the Silver Herring
Kaitlyn yearned for a cocktail bar where good looking people rather than talking non-existent fish might serve her.
She looked at the bottles lined up behind the Silver Herring.
“Contadino?” questioned Kaitlyn, reading the label of an odd clear bottle with an even odder bright red liquid inside.
“It means ‘farmer’ in Italian” said the Silver Herring “It’s from a grape farm on the slopes of Mt Etna in Sicily”
Kaitlyn opened the bottle and took a drink of the Contadino.
Instantly Kaitlyn was transported to Mt Etna. She appeared to be in the grassy backyard of someone’s home. The sky was dark and the air had a slight chill to it. In front of her were nearly a dozen large plastic tubs with bright red grapes bobbing inside.
“Ciao!” beamed a bearded man with electric eyes, emerging from his home behind her “I’m Frank Cornelissen, welcome to my winery!”
“A winery?” questioned Kaitlyn, looking around the backyard.
“Yes! This is where we take those beautiful Mt Etna grapes and ferment them to create wine!” He scooped a wine glass into the vibrant plastic tub and handed it to Kaitlyn to taste, “Try some!”
Kaitlyn swished the wine around her mouth and tried to describe what she tasted, “intense red berry flavours, something minerally, like the wine was sprung from stone.”
“Hardened magma to be precise” Frank smiled, “you taste that I’ve added nothing to the wine – this is 100% pure Mt Etna fruit”
It tasted delicious and not at all like those wines she’d had thirty two times thirty two days earlier.
Before she knew it, Kaitlyn had drunk all of the wine in her glass and was transported back to the wine shop.
Curiosity overcame confusion. She looked at the wines behind the Red Herring. Rather than describing a specific address or village, the Red Herring’s wines described large regions like ‘Central Valley’.
“Surely a wine made from a wider region must encompass even more flavours!” Kaitlyn remarked and eagerly took a drink from one of the Red Herring’s wines.
Again, she was instantly transported, this time, to what seemed like a factory. She gazed up at a massive steel tank that towered above her.
“Where are we?” she asked the tidily dressed man standing beside her.
“In the winery” he replied, looking up from his clipboard.
Kaitlyn looked around her, seeking clues of where in the world she was. “Where are the grapes from?”
“All over” the winery man smiled proudly, “It doesn’t matter too much, we have the technology to acidify, de-acidify, chapetalise, micro-oxidise or extract as required.”
Kaitlyn reflected on the dictionary definition of wine and her only other winery experience, “Don’t you only need to leave grapes bobbing in their juices to ferment and make wine?”
“Well you could – but that’s quite risky!” laughed the man, as if Kaitlyn had suggested something completely ludicrous, “Using modern technology we can produce consistent flavours, for a competitive price, on a mass-scale, year after year.”
Kaitlyn tasted the wine, “it tastes very woody”, she said hesitantly; confused about how something that comes from fruit, in a room full of steel, could taste like wood.
“Yes. For this wine we added tannin syrup and woodchips. This way we can make a very young wine taste like a great aged wine without the cost of oak aging or risky grape ripening.” The winery man explained enthusiastically.
Kaitlyn didn’t much like this additive-laden wine. She poured the drink out on to the sterile winery floor and was transported again back to the little wine shop.
She looked at the wines behind the Silver Herring and the Red Herring and blinked. There was nothing obvious to distinguish the two groups of wines.
“All wines are ‘made’, Kaitlyn. There is no wine plant, there are only grape vines.” Said the Silver Herring, “the difference is whether a wine tastes like it comes from somewhere or something.”
Kaitlyn felt betrayed and confused, “These manufactured wines seem to have more in common with my alcho-pops than fermented grape juice.”
“And they can be priced as good as alcho-pops too!” chirped the Red Herring
“I don’t know.” Kaitlyn said, remaining curious but not rash, “Let me try again”, Kaitlyn reached for another bottle behind the Silver Herring and took a sip.
Instantly she was transported to a beautiful sun kissed field. She could smell lavender and thyme and hear bees buzzing and birds singing. Ahead of her lay a vineyard, and beside it, a lovely two storey house, upon the balcony of which stood a man, singing out to his vines:
“I love you! I love you all!” he was saying to his vines. Kaitlyn walked to below the balcony.
“Bonjour!” the man gave a lively smile, “I’m Henri Milan, welcome to my beautiful vineyards of St Remy de Provence!”
Henri came downstairs and took her out amongst the vines. There were a wide range of colourful plants and insects living in the vineyard.
I stand in for Kaitlyn again, with Henri Milan, showing me is fantastically healthy biodynamic vineyard in Provence.
“The vines cannot live alone. They are part of an ecosystem, with lots of other plants and animals, they keep each other strong.” explained Henri “The flavour in the wines comes from the life in the vineyard and the soils. Because everything in the vineyard is natural, I make minimal intervention in the winery. What you taste is 100% Provencal fruit!”
Kaitlyn drank some more of Henri’s wine; “it tastes like lavender and thyme” she smiled contently.
“Of course – you are in Provence! These flavours are everywhere!” Henri exclaimed.
All too quickly Kaitlyn again had drunk all of the wine in her glass and was transported back to the little wine shop.
“It’s true! These magic bottles do have the potential to give a sense of the place that they’re from. But how do I find the magic wines from amongst these manufactured wines?” Kaitlyn questioned.
“The great dilemma of today’s wine world is not that there are so many ways of getting from fruit to wine but that the consumer has no reliable means of knowing which way a given wine maker has chosen” said the Silver Herring wisely.
Kaitlyn felt frustrated that all of the bottles in front of her were denying her the ability to make an informed choice about what she tasted and consumed. She turned scornfully to the Red Herring, “I do believe that your wines are as produced and preserved as an actual red herring and as distracting from the truth as the ideological red herring!”
She turned to the Silver Herring “The wines you’ve shown me…”
“We call them ‘natural wines’” interjected the Silver Herring helpfully.
“These natural wines are so very different to one another and so very like where they’re from. I do believe that each time I drink them I’m transported to where their grapes are grown.” Kaitlyn felt resolve growing, “I may not have the ability to instantly change all bottle labelling to be more transparent, but I could help people find a lovely wine shop like this where there is transparency about what is being sold.”
The Silver Herring smiled, “There are no natural wine shops in our lucky city, but it needs only a beast with arms greater than a fish’s to open our first natural wine bar and shop.”
Kaitlyn looked down at her arms. They were a little lanky, but certainly capable of opening a shop “I could do it!” declared Kaitlyn excitedly, “But how will we let people to know that natural wine even exists as a choice?”
“32 days is a good start…”
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Up next: A Calabrian Tale, or; On the wine trail in…darnit i can’t remember the country…