If I had to choose a trait that I value most in a person, I would choose that it’s being a good storyteller. I believe it requires kindness, empathy and patience to be a truly great one, which is why it’s the highest form of praise I can think of to offer. There are hundreds of ways to tell a story, and there are many, many people who have found great ways to tell them. This is, in part, why I love natural wine. It is story. By default, by resisting through just being, rebelling by occurring, natural wine is story by simply not being conventional wine. Every vintage of every label is another story to tell, and every glass from that bottle is going to amount in an experience, however small.
I chose Famille Vaillant’s “Cabernet Breton” for my first blog post because it plays a tender chapter in my own wine story. It starts on a bambi-legged move to Chicago at the precious age of twenty-three to pursue big entertainment dreams in the comedy industry, where I fell into a job as a backserver on the opening team of a gilded, sprawling steakhouse in the cold storage district of the West Loop. I took my first wine classes and was regularly tested to verify my ability to watch other people serve Cakebread Chardonnay by the glass. At that time, I wasn’t quite sure that when my sommelier told me with wildly-gesticulating enthusiasm that, yes! I was indeed tasting tobacco in this cab sauv! that the wine wasn’t actually fermented with tobacco. I also wasn’t quite sure about Burgundy, was it a grape, was it a place, was it both, and why did the Alps seem to get involved so often, and this wine is room-temperature why is everyone so concerned with how hot it is? This I take with me to every new guest that I serve who has stared at the menu with either helplessness or defensiveness or indecisiveness soon followed by the very common, “I do not know a single thing about wine.” Yeah, dude, welcome to the first chapter of your journey; surprise, there is no tobacco involved in the fermentation process!
Fast forward through five years filled with many generous and kind wine directors, and dozens of stewarded bottles on my couch, and Friday afternoon wine class after Friday afternoon wine class after Friday afternoon wine class, I arrived at a very informal Friday Afternoon Wine Class at one of the best restaurants I’ve ever worked for. My bar manager wanted to do a blind tasting with the team to practice working through basic identifying skills. This is the superpower sommeliers train for, and I have gawked at many a wine training, at many a tasting, at those with a more detailed, exercised palette than mine who can identify the varietal and region in seconds from one single swirl, inhale and swish. So it’s hard to accurately depict the excessive swell of pride I felt when my bar manager removed the brown paper bag from Famille Vaillant’s 2018 vintage of “Cabernet Breton”, and I looked down at my own paper to check what I had written in hesitant cursive under varietal: cabernet franc and region: loire.
It is a basic step in any one wine person’s wine story, but this wine holds a tender spot in my heart for being the first, real signifier of a lot of work, education, and blurry evenings on my couch.
It doesn’t hurt that this wine is what I want my red wine to taste like. With a nose of white pepper, and early morning earth, damp with a dead-of-night rain long finished. There is a transition in its wetness, and maybe that transition is early spring. With fruit, there is rainier cherries, gone soft and bruised in the bag, but also hopeful plums that you saw for the first time all year after the long winter, hard stone plums that were picked too early, and no matter what will never ripen in the fruit bowl. The skins of those plums. There is gravel too, if there is a nickle mixed in with the gravel, and also you skinned your knee on the gravel, so there is a pinprick of blood.
The finish is vegetal. A great storyteller in my life with whom I shared this bottle said there is a tail end spice, and unfortunately, the lingering essence of olives (I am allergic to them, and they loath olives [fortunately for both of us, as it turns out, no olives were used in the fermentation of this wine]). I personally experience green pepper in the finish, which was my first clue, the first time I had this wine, that I was drinking cabernet franc from the Loire.
This wine also has story, one many years long. It comes from Anjou, a subregion of the Loire Valley in France. The land was established by the Vaillants in 1626 and it has seen over 20 generations of grape-growers and winemakers since. The vines themselves are 60 years old, and they have been in the hands of siblings Laurence, Dominique and Jean-Francoise since the 1980s, where they immediately began the conversion to organic and biodynamic practices, for both of which they are now certified. It hits all of the big natural wine marks: unfined! unfiltered! bottled sans soufre! Hard-harvested, of course, natural-occurring yeasts, obviously.
The wine sees neutral wood during fermentation and for six months of aging before bottling. This validates the soft and gentle tannins some might refer to as velvet, some being me.
This wine would probably like to be paired with a small gathering, taking turns telling boastful tales of small, personal accomplishments to the reception of generous support. It would also do well with a serious check-in of feelings, or a report of a challenging trial not yet finished. It digs on friendship and big laughter, but also I think some hefty cheese and, if we’re being honest, a bowl full of olives.