Sunday, June 29, 2008

20 Questions for Mary Taylor of the Thoreau Wine Society

You're living in Burgundy but you have a very strong connection to the Boston area. Tell me about that.
Im grew up in Concord, MA, my parents are still there and I return from time to time. It's a compelling place, so beautiful and so much history. Later I went to Boston College and lived in Allston for some years, while working at the Prudential Center and then at Boston University. I eventually moved to New York but I remain faithful to my Beantown roots, and I love Boston restaurants like Upstairs on the Square and Chez Henri.

Your website, thoreauwinesociety.com, was recently featured in Food & Wine magazine. How did you attract their attention?
I had met Megan Krigbaum, the assistant wine editor at Food & Wine, while working at another job. She liked my emails and featured the site in the magazine. It helps to keep people's email addresses – you never know when an email list will come in handy.

What's the connection between wine and Thoreau?
It's funny, I was just biking through Gevrey Chambertin tonight and thinking about all the extraordinary wines that I've had that come from this tiny land mass. Why is Chambertin so different from Lavaux
St. Jacques? As you get more into it, these are the questions from which you derive so much pleasure because you are directly experiencing what the soil/climate combination can produce; a very transcendental experience, if you quiet down and give attention to such sensual nuances. That is a major part of Thoreau's writings – transcendentalism – accessing the divine via nature. He also refused to give into societal strictures and went off on his own, similar to what I'm doing.

Other than your website and blog, what service do you offer to readers and wine lovers?
Good question. It's been a bit of a slog getting going. The logistics of what I'm doing are quite complicated, especially in regards to the individual states and their policies. But effectively what I do is sell wine like any other retailer in the US. I just do it from wine country. As I get moving, I will branch out and do events and wine trips. People can always look me up when they are in Burgundy, I'd show them the lay of the land.

Your blog includes some fantastic, little-known information, such as "in Paris, with practically every apartment comes a share in a dank basement" that could be used, presumably, as a wine cellar. Could you tell us more about that?
I just marvel at how France and the US have co-existed for so long and yet, as much as we Americans look up to French cuisine, we gaff at the idea of having a glass of wine with lunch (although we'll go out and have 3 American-sized cocktails at night). Proper French (not the dudes at the train station bar) really know how to do wine right. Really enjoy a glass or four with a great meal, but rarely or never go over-board. Keep wines in a cellar so that they are drunk when they are softened and more complex. Or spend $50 on a good bottle, but only drink one per week, when its matured properly. People in the US who have adopted these principles have pleasure in their lives that the rest of y'all are missing.

Your biography indicates a very strong connection between wine and literature. What, in your opinion, is the essence of that connection?
Literature and all art, really, gives us true freedom from monotony. Great wine has profound qualities like this. I remember drinking an '85 Salon with all of its bakery, perfume and old Paris smells... It just created another realm for me to jump into, just like a great novel or a great song.

Do you have a particular memory that crystallized wine as an important part of your life? Or is wine one of those interests that simply grew as you grew?
Well, honestly, I began as a White Zinfandel drinker. To my underage palate I was impressed that it was so gulpable, when beer and hard alcohol were so bitter and offensive. But as a good college student, I got into the merits of all of the finer beverages, irregardless. It was one night when my then-boyfriend brought home a bottle of '92 Opus One. We lapped it up and eventually went to Napa seeking out great wine. When I started working in wine, at Sothebys, I tasted many great bottles from all over the world, and started amassing a collection. But now, I take it easy, there's no reason to go crazy. I can say that because my now-boyfriend brings home Chambertin from his winery.

What is the Wine & Food Connoisseurs' Club in New York, and what is your involvement in it?
The Food and Wine Connoisseur's Club is another reason I can speak so confidently about wine. The club has existed since 1980, and is comprised of 12 members (I was made member three years ago). Led by Kris Prasad, a PhD chemist, along with some brilliant palates (I am the youngest and least accomplished), we taste 12 wines blind of a particular region and vintage. We thoroughly and seriously round-table discuss each one, discuss the appellations, soil and vintage, rank them in order, get into arguments about which is which and later reveal them. Then we taste them all over again with dinner, and throw a few older bottles into it as well. I've learned about sub-regions of, for example, Brunello di Montalcino, like I could never learn otherwise.

Are you aware of a similar club in Boston?
Not yet, although I try to cultivate one every time I'm there! But considering I will be spending more and more time in Boston (the folks) I would love to hook up with more connoisseurs. Like the Connoisseur's Club, I assume these clubs are small and limited.

What is the demographic of your readership? Are most readers based in the States? In France? Somewhere else?
All of my readers are in the US. Because my business is selling wine to Americans, I don't promote much here in France. But I do serve the entire US market, so if you know of anyone, have them join up! thoreauwinesociety.com

What is the demographic of your clients? Do you ship any wine outside of France?
I get all of the wine imported to the US and ship from various retailers around the states.

In Burgundy, do you see yourself as a wine merchant? Something similar? Something different?
The winemakers think I am a wine journalist, which I am (I ghost write for another company). But they know I have my own independent business with which I hope to succeed and they are very supportive. I am more of a wine-merchant from my computer.

You seem to have a special interest in Italy, in addition to France. Why is that?
I love Barolo – it is ethereal and lovely at times, and masculine and edgy at other times – but it has soul and personality. I was the buyer for several years for an Italian-based wine shop in Manhattan and I got to taste thousands of Italian wines and learn in-depth about the regions and the varietals. I met hundreds of Italian wine-makers as they passed through New York. It just happened that way. I also love Spain, Portugal, Germany and Austria, but I ended up working in depth with Italy.

What in your opinion (speaking from France, as someone with a vested interest in the sale of French wines) has been the effect of the weak dollar against the Euro?
Oh it's just terrible on both ends. If you are serious about wanting to drink great wine, taking a gamble on something at these current prices can often be a major disappointment. Thus, I verify what I sell. I might not be the first one to wax scientific, but I have tasted in great seriousness thousands of the world's best wines. My clients trust my palate. I don't sell what I haven't tasted and found to be excellent.

We've all heard how young people in France are now drinking more beer than wine. As an observer (and participant) of French culture, what's your take on this development?
In France, beer is for partying, wine is for dinner. No wonder the Americans drink more wine. My roommates in Brooklyn down bottles of wine when they are partying. Here in France, its beer.

How do you identify the wines and the winemakers you decide to work with?
It takes years of experience to get a sense. I couple that with the fact that my French boyfriend and his family and friends are very well-informed about who is doing great work throughout France. I usually propose working with a particular winemaker, and I wait to see how he reacts. If positive, he says "Oh yeah! He's really good." If negative, a nose wrinkle. He is out in the vineyards and at winemaker conferences and can get a much better sense of their focus and commitment. And I verify that with a tasting at each respective cuverie.

In a recent post you mentioned "that bit [of your] youth spent in the inner-city of Boston as well described in All Souls (the story of Southie) which I'm finally getting around to reading." Could you tell us more about that? About your youth in inner city Boston, that is, and about the book All Souls?
My family originally comes from Cork, Ireland. I went to public school in Massachusetts after the busing crisis. When I was 18, I hooked up with a bunch of kids from inner-city Boston, who teased me for being from Concord. I learned all about Whitey-Bulger and his effect on the city. There is a lot of pain there, because of that poverty and violence, that I both witnessed and felt. All Souls captures that. I like to mention other things in my essays besides wine wine wine – I connect with people on other levels.

The tone of your writing is balanced between critically astute and popularly engaging. Is that what you're after as you write?
Well, I'm totally bored sometimes with the same structure over and over. It's a challenge getting people excited about not only the product you sell as well as you and your mission. Because I'm not standing in a store engaging people, I have to make my essays as human as possible.

Do you have any formal training in wine?
I have an advanced certificate in wine from the Wine Spirit Education Trust. I started the next level which is the diploma but honestly, I failed chemistry in high school and as much as I learn about lignins and photosynthesis and sulphur and copper (there is so much to know), I probably couldn't pass a test.

What in your opinion are some of the most exciting wines coming out of France right now?
There are some ancient varietals being revived, such as the strains of Malbec that Elian da Ros has been working with in the C├┤tes du Marmandais. There is so much new hipster biodynamic winemaking; it's a great movement, but I think for some, it has become the only movement. And for me, I would rather a profound bottle of Patrick Javillier Meursault, made traditionally, than perhaps a Thierry Puzelat Cot.

Cathy Huyghe