“The Yanks, you’ll see, they sometimes like wine, but don’t worry, they don’t know much about it”. As a good pupil, I still studied my subject a little, just so I wouldn’t put my nation to shame, you never know. A small selection of nice wines from the Ardèche region, modeled on Calexico’s image: complex and varied, made by passionate people who know what they want and master their subject withoutlooking down on a few experimental incursions. We open the first bottle with Joey Burns and John Convertino.

When you want to look the part

“ Which track did you chose for this wine?”, Joey asks me. The Viognier, this explosive variety of vine, with its emanation of flowers and fruits that fill up your head. At first glance it looks so straightforward and obvious that some wine amateurs seem scared to admit that it’s nice, fearing they might look like their standards are not up to the task. When one wants to appear specialized, isn’t there a risk in admitting that they like things that are so easy to like, things that almost everybody else is likely to like too? Just try making friends in an alternative club in Williamsburg, trying to connect up the regulars with your passion for Muse, or let’s say Madonna. Good luck. And yet if its effect on you is “It’s heaven on earth in her embrace, her gentle touch and her smiling face, I just don’t know what to do. I’m too afraid to love you”… But if you want to like, then do! And if there is a slight bitter aftertaste in your mouth, just like with this Viognier, don’t you dare think it’s a fault: can’t love itself be a little bitter sometimes?…

So I start up the Black Keys, ‘I’m too afraid to love you’. Joey and John have had a sip and they’ve stopped breathing, focused as though they were taking an audition for the release of their first album. “The music seems perhaps a little heavy to me, remarks Joey, but it works. Why this track?” “Because it’s a white wine, so with the Black Keys it makes sense, don’t you think?”, steps in the one person who is supposed to provide me with unfailing support this evening. An evening that has intellectually and emotionally high stakes I might add. Anyway. Joey and John laugh, admittedly at my expense, but they laugh. We reach an agreement to say that Gaby Moreno covering ‘Laisse tomber les filles’ or even Calexico with Françoiz Breut on ‘Si tu disais’ would go well too, even better. Krystof, who tours with the band and also opened the Cordobar, a wine bar in Berlin, gets interrogated by our two partners in crime to identify the grape variety (don’t worry Krys, you can make a mistake with a clear conscience… Did you read the work by Gil Morrot, winemaker and CNRS researcher, about taste? Just what you need to loosen any wine amateur in a state of stress during a blind test).

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Ok, I’ll admit I didn’t go down the easiest route with my Black Keys and third degree analysis. Yet let me paraphrase Claude Levi Strauss, who had said the following about food: it’s not enough for a wine to be good to drink, it also requires being good to think. How can you enjoy eating meat when you cannot bear the idea of an abattoir? Is a wine made by a great domain belonging to a bank good? Does the end justify the means? … Perhaps, sometimes. But try this: close your eyes, think really hard about the bank and taste the wine. What do you think? If the feeling it generates in you is intense happiness, then quickly go there. However, if when drinking a glass you feel more satisfaction thinking about a passionate young couple who go out of their way to cultivate vines that are situated on barely accessible terraces, within a superb mountainous landscape, and who try their hardest to make a delicious wine in spite of precarious conditions, then please enjoy this Viognier by Benoît Salel and Elise Renaud.

this weird foreign syntaxe

Calexico has always had so many nationalities amongst its members and written so many songs about frontiers and uprooting. On the eight albums that the band has recorded since Spoke (1997), maybe none has forgot these themes, like in the beautiful Crystal frontier :”Both sides keeping a close eye / watching a close eye /watching the bullets fly here on the crystal frontier”. So how could we not put forward a wine made by an uprooted figure? Andrea Calek, this kind of punk model born in Bohemia, Czech Republic, decided to set up in the Ardèche to produce a natural wine, sometimes eccentric and provoking. Yet under control. Admittedly the man is one of a kind (nothing beats living in a caravan in the middle of the vines, making wine more organic than organic whilst sporting a proto-punk look spiced up with a tenacious personality to integrate in an Ardéchois village), but he knows what he’s doing, and it’s far from being rubbish. His 2015 primeur wine ‘A toi nous’ (“What does it mean?, asks John. Ah? That when I give you some to drink, we become us?… I like it!”) fills your mouth with fresh fruit, with the little pikes of residual CO2 de rigueur, and also a few hints of unusual tastes that we find a bit difficult to identify. “I hear strange things…”, says Marlon Williams, a young singer from New Zealand who croons about his wife’s death in 1989 (a time when he wasn’t even born), pasting some dark lyrics over a folk ballad tune. Strange… And why choose such a tragic song for a wine? John points out: “He doesn’t sound like he comes from New Zealand. And by the way, this wine doesn’t taste like a Czech wine!” This is all so very strange.

In any case, John is beginning to be more and more convinced by the W&N concept: “Some music pieces are like wines. At first, it’s hard to appreciate them, then you get back to them a little later, you get used to them and find some qualities you couldn’t see to start with. And you end up liking them. And sometimes you also think: there’s no way I’m going to have another sip !”

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Jérôme Jouret also makes organic and natural wine, but in his rather consensual version, straighter (“some of my natural winemaking friends actually reproach me a bit for it, but that’s how I like it”, he owns up). Oh yeah, my little chemist friends, you won’t believe it but USING JUST GRAPE JUICE we can actually make a wine with no gas, no diverse deviations, light and full of fruit but also complex. In other words, a wine that will also appeal to the non-militants. If we cannot deny that the natural wine approach has a certain panache and a few nice achievements, its non-intervention dogma can also be accompanied by some destabilizing flavors (kind of like “after 3 weeks of airing it should be better, shouldn’t it?”). When should the winemaker stop intervening in order not to hide his wine’s character ? Conversely, when should he intervene so these deviations don’t conceal this precious and particular character?… There are as many answers as there are winemakers, and that’s just as well. “A very well balanced wine”, reckons Joey. “Strawberries, cherries, and an angel’s kiss in spring…” sing in the meantime Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra in Summer Wine.

using just grape juice

“Wine should always be made this way, using just grape juice”, slips the band’s Spanish guitarist Jairo Zavala in passing, also a real connoisseur – my word, the whole band are wine fanatics (later he will say to me: ‘Hey, do you know the Ochota Barrel domain in Australia? They make a great organic wine and they even named one of their cuvee Fugazi, the band from Washington DC! All that in the middle of the koalas.” Probably also wombats (yes, actually I made a bet I could place the word wombat in this article).

Joey takes this opportunity to remember the film ‘A year in Burgundy’, where he was struck by the contrast between winemakers who consider their work in the vines as a way of life, as part of a family, where intuition and feeling are key, and those who see it mostly as a business supported by a computer… (“What do you mean my Bordeaux reminds you of a Californian wine? Impossible, monsieur, they don’t have our terroir, obviously, it’s got nothing to do with it”).

Objective excellence

Dark, spicy, concentrated, complex, balanced (although perhaps a little woody, but that should subside with age), there was no choice but to crack open a St Joseph (Stéphane Robert, domaine du Tunnel 2014). In other words, the posh side of the Ardèche. From the top of its harsh hillsides that have been cultivated since Roman colonization. But our band members – which meanwhile have been joined by bass player Scott Colberg, who is trying to catch up on what he missed as best he can, followed closely by the W&N team: “There, did you try that one? It’s Summer Wine !”) – weren’t born yesterday. The black beverage, which complements brilliantly (I can’t flop every time, for goodness sake) Mark Lanegan and Isobell Campbell’s at once powerful and delicate company, is clearly not their favorite of the evening. Although they judge it to be excellent and cannot fault it. Too much Shiraz backstage, touring over the years?… Too much of a classic?… Maybe. I am over the moon. Not that they’re not fans of this St Jo, objectively it is excellent indeed and doesn’t need us to defend it. My friend Søren Kierkegaard was telling me recently that “the more we think objectively, the less we exist”. In some ways, wanting to drink a Jouret or a Calek more than a noble Saint Joseph is the beginning of existing… The Yanks, they’re not what they used to be.

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Written by Renaud Pradon.

PS: Joey Burns, whose wine guide is coming out soon (he could so do it, I promise you), recommends for you today: the Carmenere from Chili, the Gut Oggau wines (Austria), Tinto Valbuena (Spain), Dos Cabesas (Arizona), wines from the Douro Valley (Portugal)… I hope he won’t forget to include the Zinfandel Primitivo that John’s grand-father used to make at home using whisky barrels, in Apulia (Italie).

Many thanks to the members of Calexico for their incredible kindness, curiosity and worldwide knowledge about winemaking which they share with obvious pleasure. And also for the beautiful music, of course…

Thanks to the Epicerie Moderne, Feyzin (69), FR.

Thank you Agnès Young for the translation.