“In 2001 Jennifer Buck, the young l’Américaine, travels to France fresh out of college, where she meets Didier Ferrier, a second generation grape grower in Corbières. They fall in love, move back to Didier’s home town, Douzens (pop. 800) and start a family. They decide to make their own wine from the family’s old vines instead of selling their grapes to the local co-op. Their ancient vines produce wines that are so much more intense and complex than a typical Corbières that Didier decides to leave the Corbières consortium.”
I’m a sucker for a good story. It might be from the bestseller list, a children’s classic, or a well-done movie. But it’s stories about wine, like the one above told by Mike Pelletier from Fountainhead Wines, that make me thirsty. Stories about who made it, where it’s from, and what’s unique about it get me excited every time.
In a world with endlessly long shelves of popular varietals from wine regions around the globe, it’s hard to distinguish one wine from another. Generic descriptions on the back label don’t help much. Shelf-talker tags can quote favorable reviews or offer staff picks, but I like to know more.
There are some retailers who take a different approach. They choose their offerings by tasting and learning as much as possible about the winemaking. Sampling the wines with the winemaker is a good place to start. Visiting the region, vineyards, and winery is even better. Cultivating a long-term relationship and handling the wines vintage after vintage is best.
The partners at Fountainhead Wines in Norwalk have taken this approach from the beginning. For more than twenty years, they’ve sought out and developed relationships with small producers in Europe and the U.S. The wines in the store, regardless of price, are vetted by the owners.
For the most part, the wine choices are the product of a personal relationship that extends over many vintages. Besides Jen and Didier (who have been their guests for dinner at home), they’re happy to introduce you to winemakers like Timothy Malone, a former Fountainhead employee, who makes sought-after Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Vincent Caillé who vinifies natural wine in the Loire Valley.
Jen and Didier make two wines available at Fountainhead. Ventilo (fan) ($20) is, according to Pellitier, “a dry, slightly spicy rosé, from the rare Chenançon grape.” Oiseau ($22) is a flavorful “old-vine Carignan with Grenache and Syrah lending a Provençal seasoning to the mix.” Both the personal insight to the people and places along with vivid descriptions of the wines push my buttons.
If you’re in a wine store that only has a cashier and a shelf stocker, then stick with a wine you already know. In a big box store an “exclusive” house brand might be a winner or not. It’s hard to tell.
A store with a knowledgeable staff that tastes the wines and meets the winemakers will be able to guide you to interesting and enjoyable bottles across all prices.
Ancona’s Wine in Wilton is a good example, with three stores they have enough buying power to get the good stuff, including a few well chosen private lableings. The wines are carefully selected, winemaker relationships are cultivated, and the staff is well-versed. From the-two-for-$10 table to the high-end Pinot Noirs, the wines have stories that are well-told in Ancona’s emails.
It’s possible to tell meaningful wine stories and deliver on a national scale too. John Rimmerman at Garagiste.com was one of the first to travel the world, bringing winemaker stories and the wines directly to consumers on the internet. His compelling descriptions are hard to resist.
Kermit Lynch has been a wine retailer, importer, and distributor since 1972. From his Berkeley, California base he has traveled France and Italy seeking out and developing bonds with small producers of character-driven wines. KermitLynch.com is an encyclopedia of wine lore and information. Since he is a distributor, some of his wines are available in Connecticut, or you can order direct.
A recent KL email introduced Anne Amalric who makes delicate yet flavorful rosé on the island of Corsica. In the August newsletter Emily Spillmann, Lynch’s rep in Burgundy, recommended three personally selected rosés ranging from $17 to $35.
I guess I’m not the only one who feels this way. It seems like there are other wine-story lovers out there. A bottle of wine is always a pleasure. When I feel a connection to the winemaker and region, when I feel that the wine has been carefully chosen, when I feel that the wine is unique, then that bottle is a more satisfying experience.
At dinner last week, we enjoyed a bottle of Jen and Didier’s Ventilo rosé. Chatting after dinner we kept refilling each other’s glasses with the rich and lively wine until the bottle was empty and we were a little tipsy. It’s the kind of personal, distinctive, unique wine that just won’t stay in the bottle.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.