In support of saignée's 31 Days of Natural Wine, I ventured out from the safety of the Lab's crenelated, ivory tower and sat down over a bottle of Chablis with Lou Amdur of Lou.
Sometimes you serve a wine and it needs context and description. Sometimes you serve a wine that is so good, you just pour it and let it speak for itself.
The interview, or more accurately, Lou's answers to my questions, are like that. I don't think this needs any introduction.
And if reading this doesn't make you want to go to Lou immediately (it's at the corner of Vine and Melrose in Los Angeles), then there's really no helping you. Is there?
LAB: Can you describe your "conversion" to natural wines?
LOU: My conversion experience to natural wine is on on-going and didn’t emerge from a single epiphanic moment of eureka. And I should say it’s an on-going conversion, as the natural wine movement itself is a moving target—with a vigneron like Thierry Puzelat, for example, it’s clear that he’s having an on-going conversation from vintage to vintage with his vines and his winegrowing process. Certainly a big thing for me was attending the huge Nicolas Joly natural wine road show a few years ago at the Skirball Center; that gave me an opportunity for the first time to taste a great many natural wines (I realized, after three hours, that (a) I was only half way through the tasting, (b) I was drunk, even though I was dutifully spitting, (c) I had been so enraptured by the wine that I’d been ignoring the klaxon horns of my poor bladder, and was on the verge of peeing in my pants, and (d) I had to somehow get back to my wine bar in Hollywood by 6 PM).
My palette is following an arc that I think is familiar to some who grow up with wine, but perhaps not very interesting wine. You fall in love with big, chunky wines, but end up preferring wines that are made with a lighter touch. As a kid this meant the big, chunky, sticky sweet Concord grape kosher wines of Shabbos and Pesach. But when I was four or five my Uncle Eli gave me a small glass of the very good wine he had been making in Minnesota starting in the late 50s—he was a serious-minded hobbyist and pioneering quality wine grape grower in Minnesota, plus he had a doctorate in chemical engineering so the wine making process was not something foreign to him. I remember that first taste of Eli’s wine; compared to the Manischewitz Concord grape wine I was accustomed to it tasted bitter to me but I liked it! And that’s the beginning of the arc.
In my late teens I drank mostly beer and cheap hard liquor (1 dollar shots of vodka at Verkhovyna in the East Village!). At that time the drinking age in NY was 18, and most delis had a decent selection of imported beer, and I found that I enjoyed more complex beers like Reinhardt Wild Ale. I did enjoy drinking what I referred to then as “big” wines, big oaky Napa zinfandels like Hannah’s. These big wines have sweetness, less from any residual sugar and more from the alcohol. And I understand completely why many people gravitate to such wines and never seem to move beyond: they’re wines that don’t make you think. And by “think,” I mean thinking with your tongue, not your brain. Émile Peynaud has a long description of how the tongue “thinks” in one of his books, and it’s actually quite disturbing to pay attention to the physiology of taste when you’re drinking wine. There’s a Stereolab tune with the line, “We need so damn many things to keep our dazed lives going,” i.e., we have a lot of shit to attend to in our lives and for most folks, wine is a field of non-controversial pleasure, they don’t want to think about wine, just enjoy it. You see the same attitude toward food among chefs like Bad Boy Bourdain, who’s attacked Alice Waters in the most embarrassing way—how dare you make me think about what I put in my mouth!
When you drink a massive, high extract, high alcohol wine, its overwhelms your palette; it’s a very atavistic pleasure that I liken, as a vulgar Kleinian, to the overwhelming feelings of deep satisfaction that blot out everything else that an infant feels when it suckles. And it makes it difficult for some people to enjoy a new wine, especially a lighter-bodied wine for which they lack reference points. It pains me when 20 somethings profess that they’re “pinot grigio” drinkers, as if pinot grigio is a brand, like Coke. They’re young geezers, many of whom will never drink outside their comfort zone. Jeremy Narby, when asked about the safety of taking ayahuasca, responded in an interview that we’re too safety obsessed in our culture—ayahuasca isn’t safe, it might just teach you something about yourself that changes you forever. I don’t want to live as a crabbed old coot like the character that Edgar Buchanan played in Petticoat Junction. I try to become more receptive to new things and experiences. Wine is my ayahuasca.
In the early 80s I worked at a restaurant, long gone, that was connected to the New York Wine Center in Manhattan. We were allowed a shift drink and we mostly drank Mondavi cabernet, but one day a wine rep sent back to the kitchen a half-full bottle of Lafarge Clos du Château des Ducs, ’78, and that was my transcendental wine experience. I didn’t know what I was in for—it’s like the first time you get high, you’re always chasing that first time. I kept looking for that bottle for years (only later did I learn that ’78 was a great Burgundy vintage, and that only way I was going to find a bottle of that Volnay was if someone opened a bottle for me—still hasn’t happened).
LAB: How do you go about discovering the wines for your list?
LOU: How do I learn about new wine? To be sure, you’re not going to find satisfying coverage in Wine and Spirits, Decanter, and of course, Wine Spectator. I learned a lot from reading two of Patrick Matthews’s books, The Wild Bunch and Real Wine. There are a few blogs I enjoy reading, and the discussion groups that I lurk around on, like Wine Disorder, are populated be folks who have had their conversion experience a long time ago. I depend a lot on the superb distributors and importers I work with to do the hard work of locating new growers: there’s Farm Wine (distributes Dressner and José Pastor in California), Peter Weygandt, Michael Sullivan, Hiram Simon, and Betty Dunbar, to name a few. Note that these are importers who mostly import French wine (though Weygandt, for example, brings in some great Austrian wine, too). Sometimes, I find an importer that brings in a single biodynamic wine that I love (I’m thinking of one grower from Roussillon), but the rest of their book is not interesting. I’ve been trying to get a distributor for Jenny & Francois here in Los Angeles for a couple of years, and so far, no go, so when I order their wine, it’s a large order (for me, at least—30-50 cases). Another source are my friends and customers who bring me wine to try. I have a regular, now friend, Martin Marquette, who is good friends with Azzoni, and I first tasted three of Azzoni’s wines that Martin brought back from France for me. Finally, whenever I travel abroad (rare for me since I signed the lease for my wine bar in 2005), I visit wine bars, shops, and if I’m in wine country, vignerons, though I find organized tasting rooms a la Napa dull—I like talking to vignerons, not tasting room staff. We were in Paris last December and enjoyed visiting La Cremerie, it was just down the street from our hotel, and also Racines.
LAB: You're stranded on a desert island, what three natural wines are in your cooler?
LOU: Three desert island wines: I’d pack a sparkling wine, a red wine, and a white wine. If there was room, I’d also pick a dessert desert wine. For a sparkler I’d go for a good grower Champagne, like Leroy’s zero dosage cuvée, or Drappier. For white I’d select something refreshing but also complex that might work well with my desert island fare of raw fish and coconut, perhaps one of Tissot’s non-sur voile wines (I love Tissot and Puffeny’s sur voile wines, but I don’t want to drink them every day), or maybe something really straight forward, like J.P. Brun’s Beaujolais blanc. For red, again, it’s a desert island, hot and dry, so I’d select Foillard’s Morgon Côtes du Py which I’d shove in the ocean for a few minutes before opening so that it’s nice and cool, or possibly one of Gauby’s wines, his vielles vignes. Both are wines that I have had over several vintages, and I never tire of drinking them, and always find new facets to enjoy. Finally, for dessert, Suronde’s Quarts du Chaume, or the Jurancon that Dageneau made (I have a six pack sitting my cellar—well, I’m down one bottle that I gave as a gift).
Notes on the natural wine and a reprise of the interview will be available tomorrow at saignée.