The Surreal Life

Have you ever seen Friday the 13th - Part III? It's arguably the worst entry in the epic slasher series, but I probably watched this movie around thirty to forty times between the years of 1992 and 1997. I taped it off a free preview of HBO we had during junior high and screened it incessantly on slow summer afternoons thereafter (it was originally presented in 3-D, so a good amount of the shots are meant to capitalize on the effect). It's currently running on the SyFy network and as I'm sitting here watching it again with a bag of chile picante Corn Nuts and a bottle of Nanbu Bijin Ancient Pillars Junmai Daiginjo sake, I'm wondering if this was really the scenario that the Japanese brewer envisioned when he made this incredible rice-based elixir. Are you supposed to open a $70 bottle of alcohol while eating processed food and watching the lowest of low-brow cinema? I don't know.

What's even more hilarious is that I walked downtown earlier to eat sushi and I ended up blowing at least triple what I had originally planned after ordering an incredibly rare seabass nigiri off the chef's menu. So after gorging on the highest of high-end fish, and drowning my sorrows in the highest of high-brow sake, I'm snacking on a $3 bag of fried corn kernels (I'm assuming Corn Nuts are made from corn?) and watching what is probably the worst horror movie of the last forty years.

That's called high-low fashion, baby. There are no rules. You can do whatever you want in this wonderfully surreal life. 

-David Driscoll


D2D Interview: Maximillian Potter

Rarely do the participants of the Drinking to Drink interview series stumble on to me, rather than me on to them, but that was the case with Maximillian Potter. Max had a Google alert set for any new press concerning his outstanding book Shadows in the Vineyard, so when my recent blog article about the text popped up on his radar, he reached out to express his thanks. I absolutely devoured Shadows in the Vineyard while vacationing in Paris a few weeks back (as did Corniche Pictures, who quickly snapped up the movie rights and are looking to bring the story to the big screen). My mother of all people was the one who recommended it to me, after hearing an interview with Max on NPR recently, so I ordered a copy for the road before leaving. While I knew the gist of the story—the plot to poison the vineyards of Domaine Romanée-Conti and blackmail its owners—I had no idea how deep Max would go into the history of the Burgundy region, its wines, its residents, and its storied vineyards. It was actually a wine book disguised as a crime caper, but written for people like me who enjoy the more romantic aspects of drinking, rather than the statistical side. Being a fairly recent convert to Burgundy, I was thrilled to learn more about its illustrious past. But being someone who appreciates plain and simple booze talk, I was genuinely inspired by Max's feat.

So when a message from Max showed up in my box, I knew exactly what was in order. I wanted to get him on the phone, get him talking about Burgundy, and hopefully ignite in all of our customers the same excitement and enthusiasm that Max had unleashed upon me. Despite the fact that I've worked at K&L for almost eight years now and have tasted countless wines from Burgundy throughout that time, I still feel like there's so much I'll never understand. But that feeling of helplessness stems partly from how I approach the region—my attempts at memorizing the most important vineyard sites, the mechanistic manuals that breakdown its varied soils, and the fantastical price points that exclude my access to tasting more from Burgundy's most heralded vineyards. It felt like learning a foreign language without any understanding of the culture. What Maximillian Potter uncovers, however—without any experience in the wine industry whatsoever—is the soul of Burgundy; the philosophies, the ideals, and the traditions that make it so unique. I quickly realized that I was going about my studies all wrong. I needed to focus less on the specifics, step back, and take in the bigger picture. After talking with Max one-on-one, I'm even more convinced of this new approach.

In this edition of Drinking to Drink we talk about the anxiety of walking into the world's most prestigious wine region without any wine knowledge, why Burgundy's combination of science and mysticism is incredibly romantic, and how our preconceived drinking notions can sometimes turn out to be entirely the opposite. Previous editions of the D2D series can be found by clicking here, or by visiting the archive in the right hand margin of the blog. 

David: I think my favorite thing about Shadow in the Vineyards is that the crime aspect of it—the actual plot to poison the vineyards of Romanée-Conti—is really just a tool to talk about Burgundy as a whole. Throughout the book you paint a portrait of the region—one specifically known for its complexity among wine drinkers—that’s easy for anyone to understand, and your inclusive tone allows a wider audience to enter into the fold. It’s everything I wish we could accomplish here at K&L on a more regular basis. It’s everything I want from a wine book when I sit down to further educate myself, especially one about Burgundy where I feel so much of what’s normally presented is dense and difficult to decipher. I love reading about the history of the region and the people who live there.

Max: The synopsis you just laid out there, and an audience pretty much exactly like you, is exactly what I had in mind when I wrote the book. The way I structured it was an attempt to replicate my own entry into that world. A crime is what brought me there, and I didn’t care so much about wine at the time. I didn’t know much about winemaking, didn’t know a Burgundy from a Bordeaux—it didn’t make a difference to me. I went to pursue what appeared to be a pretty good crime story for Vanity Fair magazine, but when I got there I quickly realized the crime was not really the most interesting part of the Burgundy story. It was merely the portal through which I entered that world. That’s very consciously how I structured the book—for people like my dad. He doesn’t care about Burgundy. This is a guy who lives in a row house in Philly.

David: What did he think about the book?

Max: When I first told him about the piece, he essentially said, “Let me get this straight: you’re going to go over and write a 5,000 word magazine article about some bad guys who poisoned some plants?” So I was very conscious to try and reach an audience like me or you—guys who don’t necessarily wake up every morning thinking about Burgundy. But once we’re exposed to how beautiful that place is, the storied history, and the wonderful personalities that make and flavor the wines there, I think we’re exactly the sort of audience for Burgundy that guys like Aubert de Villaine want.

David: I think one of the largest barriers to attaining a wider audience for Burgundy—and even Bordeaux in some instances—is the fact that few people seem to talk about it in an accessible way. I think that’s almost by design. There’s a certain high-brow audience that wants to control the conversation in a very specific way—one that assumes you already understand what they’re talking about, and if you don’t then maybe you shouldn’t bother. So when you say you think Aubert de Villaine would rather have a more grounded audience, your portrayal of his philosophies behind making the wine seems to suggest as much. I found that topic far more interesting than say drawn-out descriptions of soil content.

Max: I feel like I’m talking to a kindred spirit for sure (laughs). Like many folks who I think flirt with having an interest in Burgundy, I was initially very intimidated. But also not—and by that I mean that when I first went to Burgundy I didn’t know a soul. I didn’t speak French, and I didn’t know a thing about French laws and winemaking. That’s the context with which I get on the plane and go over there. Initially Aubert didn’t want to play ball, either, so I didn’t even have that going for me. What I did have going for me was a very good friend of mine, a guy named Ben Wallace who wrote The Billionaire’s Vinegar. I saw every stage of that book happen, along with Ben’s entry into wine. We were both staff writers together at Philadelphia Magazine a long, long time ago. He was one of the first calls I made while trying to figure out what my map would be into this world. Ben informed me about the existence of Becky Wasserman, who I’m guessing is someone you’re familiar with.

David: Yes, she’s a well-known exporter of Burgundy throughout the industry.

Max: I didn’t know her, but I did a bit of quick research on her and as you probably know she’s essentially the godmother of Burgundy, and has been described as such by many folks who I would eventually become friendly with over the years. So I reached out to Becky. Her husband is a fellow named Russell Hone, and Russell is a huge guy, six foot five, built like an offensive tackle, and absolutely brilliant. Also a guy who, when he wants to, can speak like a drunken sailor from the south of London. They agreed to host me on my first visit and we quickly became friends. I more or less confessed my ignorance of wine to these folks and there were a lot of commonalities there. First of all, Becky is not French. She’s from the United States, lived a huge chunk of her life in Philadelphia before moving to France, and very organically and naturally we had a lot of common threads to discuss. So a rapport was established and I think a trust as well over the next two to three years. I felt equally comfortable around Russell, who’s just one hell of a nice guy. His background in wine is also extraordinary. He’s truly an expert, and I told him that I didn’t know any wine terms, nor did the tasting notes really speak to me. He said to me, “It’s not really that difficult.”

David: It certainly doesn’t have to be, right?

Max: I’m not going to be able to do justice to just how funny he was in that moment, but he said, “You read these tasting notes where people say it has a barnyard aroma and it reminds me of a wet saddle with mushrooms. But no one ever says it tastes like fucking grapes! It’s wine! When you drink a wine, does it speak to you? Do you like the way it tastes? That’s all you need to know.” And that was extraordinarily empowering to me. That was me dipping my toe in the pool of what would become a two year odyssey through Burgundy, and it put me at ease—it took all the pretense out of it. You’re right, though. I think that with a lot of critics and reviewers wine is what matters to them. And it should. And they want to get access to the best wines, and they want to keep that access. A lot of people don’t get access, so part of that access means they have to create an aura—which much of the time is legitimate—of their expertise to show that their palate is more informed than the majority of human beings.

David: You think that’s what continues to drive reviewers towards long-winded tasting notes?

Max: I think they write in these terms, speaking to an audience of high-end buyers—which is necessary—but they do so in a way that I think is exclusive. It keeps people out, and—to be really candid about it—I think the winemakers like this because it creates a system of control in disseminating views about their wines. It works in their favor, too. But what you’ve astutely tuned in on is the opportunity cost of that formal/informal system of exclusion, which excludes a huge population of not just consumers, but people who simply don’t have the opportunity to be lured into the world and the wines of Burgundy in a way that speaks to them. It doesn’t mean they’re any less able to appreciate Burgundy, it doesn’t mean they’re any less worthy of appreciating it, and that’s why I wrote the book. What brought me into Burgundy had nothing to do with the wine—it was the crime. It’s what we call in the magazine world a bait and switch. Somebody comes to the story expecting one thing, but when they get there what they discover is a whole world that they never saw coming, and hopefully one they feel really good that they walked into.

David: Let’s tie that into your initial encounter with Monsieur Villaine—the head of DRC—who you said at first didn’t really want to cooperate.

Max: I went over there to report about crime, which I’d been doing for the better part of twenty years at that point, either as a writer or as an editor. As most journalists know, if you’re assigned to do a story and the subjects don’t want to cooperate, I’d like to think—if the story’s worth doing and has larger transcendent value—that the journalist is going to do it whether the sources cooperate or not. What happens is that you get in there and you only find one or two people who are gonna talk, and then you flush people out of the brush, and then they talk. Often times, you talk to enough people around the primary sources and then word gets back to them that this guy is serious about doing a story here, he’s not the antichrist, and more often than not I’ve found the people who originally chose not to speak do end up speaking. That’s the context under which I went over there. I figured if Aubert doesn’t talk, then so be it.

David: What time period are we at here? When did you first go over?

Max: This is the summer of 2010. My wife and I happened to be in Napa for a long weekend to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and a good friend of mine from college who had just started a winery there offered to drive us around. He’s the guy who said to me, “Hey, I just read about a story you might be interested in on a wine blog: some bad guys might have tried to poison some or all of the vines at Romanée-Conti.” So I said, “What’s Romanée-Conti?” He replied, “You’re a bonehead,” to which I said, “Well, you used to be a bonehead too before you started with all this fancy wine stuff, so why don’t you enlighten me, genius?” So he gave me the history and context of Romanée-Conti, and sure enough it did sound like quite an interesting subject. I talked to my editor at Vanity Fair and he agreed. My first call was to try and track down Aubert for his cooperation, who is an investor and partner in a winery called Hyde de Villaine in California. I figured if I could speak to someone who spoke English who also knew what Vanity Fair was, I might have a better chance.

David: And how did that go?

Max: At first I got a call back from Aubert a few weeks later. He has this wonderful gravelly and baritone voice, and he says, “What is it you want to do?” I told him, and then he said he would get back to me in two weeks. He even gave me the exact day right then that he would call me (laughs).

David: Did he call you back on that exact day?

Max: I did get a call on that day, but it wasn’t from him, it was from one of his publicists who told me I was wasting my time, and that Aubert wasn’t interested in talking about it. I told this person that I already had my ticket booked and that I’d be heading over anyway, and to please let Aubert know so that he didn’t feel like I was tip-toeing around his backyard. So I went over, met up with Becky, and started doing some reporting—talking to other sources, trying to bring myself up to speed on what Burgundy is and the people who live there. Working with me was an old friend from the magazine world who happened to be living in France, was fluent in the language, and more importantly fluent in the culture. She said, “We should try knocking on his door!”

David: At the actual DRC office?

Max: Right, and as you probably know, the Domaine is in a small town called Vosne-Romanée, and Vosne-Romanée is in the heart of Burgundy—it’s at the center point between Beaune and Dijon. It’s where arguably the best Burgundies in the world are grown. The majority of grand crus are right in that sweet spot. But the town itself is remarkably small. Quaint doesn’t do it justice. The town square is basically a well, a post office, and that’s pretty much it. There’s nothing else there. If you were to add it all up it would probably amount to four city blocks of cobblestone streets, very narrow, obviously built originally for carriages. So when my friend said “knock on the door” she meant it literally. We walked over from our hotel to the office. They’ve since opened a new office that’s much easier to find, but the original one is tucked on this little side street, so if you don’t know where it is you’re probably not going to find it. And even if you do find it, you’ll be so stunned at how unremarkable it is that you’ll probably go right past it. The only identifying sign are two red steel gates that have a very tiny R and C at the top.

David: So you knocked?

Max: My friend says to me, “Why don’t you let me go up and represent you as your assistant and we’ll see what happens.” I asked if she would be comfortable doing that, and she said, “Trust me, that’s how it works here.” So she goes up and rings the bell, I go and wait around the corner, it’s pouring rain—it’s like a scene from a really bad comedy. I’m out of sight, while my friend is gone for about thirty minutes, and at this point I’m thinking she must have come out of the Domaine and got lost. So I come to the front of this alley where the Domaine is, I poke my head around the corner, and she’s standing there with Aubert, to which I say, “Oh shit!” and they both hear me and laugh. He then waved for me to come over and we ended up in the tasting room inside. I told him again what I was there to do and he told me that he had two reservations to having the crime reported: one being that he didn’t want to inspire copycats, which is significant. If you think about the great vineyards—not just in France, but around the world—these beautiful vineyards that are pretty much the gooses that lay the golden eggs. Even if they don’t charge ten thousand dollars a bottle like DRC, they’re very meaningful plots of land to their respective owners and families that have been—in many cases—holdings for generations and generations, regardless of which country we’re talking about. They’re just open and exposed.

David: Did that surprise you?

Max: What occurred to me—and this is when I started to think there was a book here—is that there’s an unspoken pact between man and nature, and between vignerons and the rest of us, where, yes, these plots of earth are open. We can go, and we can visit them, and we can stand at the wall at DRC—the little two foot high stone wall—and we can look in, but we don’t go in there. We don’t cause trauma or stress, or think about doing anything that would ruin or destroy these exposed, vulnerable pieces of earth. But what happened here was exactly that, and it was unprecedented. Somebody threw a leg over that wall and attempted to destroy the Domaine’s prized vineyard. So Aubert didn’t want to inspire other copycats. The second reason was that he was concerned the historical context and the story of the Domaine itself—all the stewards of the Domaine and it’s storied history—would be given short shrift. In good faith, without hesitation, I told him there was no way I could write a piece about this crime and ignore the history and the care that has been applied to this Domaine and that vineyard for thousands of years. That’s imbedded in the point of the story.

David: What was your answer concerning other copycats?

Max: I said it was a valid concern, and maybe there wasn’t a way for us to get past that, but I explained to him that when my friend first told me about the crime, he did so out of a rather self-serving motive. He too has vineyards, and remember that this was at a time when no one was really sure what had happened over there. There were rumors circulating around the world about what may have happened at the most prestigious vineyard in the world, and this struck fear throughout the global winemaking community. Because if it could happen at the DRC, then it could happen anywhere. And because there was so little information provided, a lot of rumor and innuendo began to fill the vacuum of actual information, and there started to become a paranoia. So I told Aubert, “Look, you can keep this closed for the good reasons that you have, or we could be candid and talk about what really happened—dispel the myths—and then just deal with reasonable concerns.”

Aubert Villaine in the vineyard

David: And what did he say to that?

Max: He looked at me, David, and he said: “So you’re going to do this story whether I cooperate or not.” And I told him that was accurate. So he said, “Well, then let’s talk.” And that’s what happened.

David: And all of the topics that he’s afraid you won’t do justice to, you explain them so poetically that I have to think anyone who’s even remotely interested in Burgundy will be compelled further. I was so inspired, reading your book while in Paris, that I logged into K&L remotely and started ordering bottles myself! But perhaps what surprised me the most was how humble, soft, and down-to-earth Aubert comes across in your narrative. You would think with DRC being the most prestigious winery on the entire planet that Monsieur Villaine might be a bit snooty or hoity-toity, but as you get to know him it seems like you really liked him. You painted a very flattering portrait, let’s say.

Max: Yes, I did, and I’m not one of those authors who doesn’t read the critics reviews. I do read them because I want to learn from them, see where I may have made mistakes and how I can be mindful moving forward. And if people, like yourself, are inspired by the book, well heck I want to feel good about that too because that’s why I wrote it. So one of the criticisms I read said that I was too nice to Aubert—that it was too much of a rosy picture. I’ve written plenty of unflattering portraits of folks over the years because they were true—that’s what my reporting has born out. With Aubert, I wrote what I did because it was true! And I find it telling—and in a weird way validating—that this was a criticism. I went over there at a time when I had been covering crime and pretty unsavory characters for pretty much my entire professional career. What made going to Burgundy so appealing to me was I thought I would at least get a break from the normal bullshit. I’ll be in Burgundy, I hear the people are pretty nice, and I was feeling a bit burnt out, so it sounded great. I was expecting Aubert to be exactly how you said. I had even joked with friends about how I pictured this guy, sitting in his mansion, far removed from where the actual work gets done, with a glass of pinot and a scarf, his legs crossed by the fireplace, never having worked a day in his life, being aloof and snotty. And that’s the exact opposite of who this man is.

David: He seems incredibly endearing from what you describe in the book.

Max: What I found was a guy who calls the Domaine a farm. He wears basically the French equivalent of Dickie work clothes. He drives a station wagon every day. He’s the first person in and the last to leave. He’s out in the vineyards all the time. He’s personally invested and genuinely cares about his employees, and he speaks of the vineyards not as an acquisition or a revenue engine, but rather as a trust that has been handed down through generations—a trust that his father and grandfather were charged with taking care of, just as many historical figures before them have done, not just for their family, but for France. He also speaks of the vineyard as a place of extraordinary spirituality. Burgundy, as you know, was cultivated by Catholic monks and this was at a time in the medieval period when there are no vines there. It was basically wild forest, and these guys go in by hand and cultivate it. There’s no market pressure driving them. They’re simply trying to grow and birth the best wines to serve as the blood of Christ. They’re not trying to sell this stuff. They want to create something worthy of the divine and this is how Aubert speaks of it.

David: There’s a spirituality there that I think speaks to thousands of years of tradition that Americans can never really understand. There’s something awesome about that.

Max: The cherry on top of the sundae of Aubert’s awesomeness is bittersweet though. He and his wife were unable to have children. A lot of the vignerons in Burgundy speak of their vines as les enfants—which means children—but many of these folks, with Burgundy being as Catholic as it is, they go home and they have actual children, but Aubert didn’t have that. For him, the vines are surrogates almost. He poured into them all of the love and care in his heart, for all the reasons we just kicked around, but also because he didn’t have anywhere else to put it. I watched him one day, David, and—as I write about in the book, the opening scene—I hope it speaks to just how sincere and genuine his care is. I was watching him walk through the vines at Romanée-St. Vivant and he was trying to decide when to harvest. His arms were outstretched and his palms were down flat on the canopy leaves, and he was running his hands across them. Then he got to this certain spot, smack dab in the middle, and he got down and moved aside a canopy to pluck some of the grapes and taste them. As he did that, immediately in my head, I thought of my two boys—who are now thirteen and fourteen, so I don’t tuck them in as much as I used to. When they were kids though, I’d go in while they were sleeping and move aside the lock of hair on their forehead to give them a kiss goodnight. This was exactly the same love and tenderness that he applied to the vines in that moment, moving aside the canopy of leaves. So when his vines are threatened and he started getting notes from the bad guys, the threat was indeed dire because the wines made from those grapes are worth tens of thousands of dollars a bottle. There was also the pressure of knowing that Romanée-Conti vineyard is a part of French history. But it was also that his children that were being threatened—so these guys were toying with everything that was dear to his heart. So, yes, I fell for this guy a bit. He personifies a grace, a humility, a kindness, and a care that I think there’s a dearth of in the world.

David: Maybe that’s why I was so moved by his character. Because I’m starting to believe that people like him no longer exist—at least not authentically.

Max: Right, and I was given the opportunity to meet this person and celebrate that, so I wasn’t going to pull any punches on how wonderful he is, just like if he had turned out to be someone dastardly, I wouldn’t have pulled the punches on that. But—you’re right—it is emblematic of where we are globally, as a society we don’t believe people like him exist! I think that’s sad. For me, that was all the more reason to put a spotlight on him—even though he didn’t want one—as evidence that we’re all capable of being this tender, loving person. So that’s my long-winded answer for: yeah, I really like this guy (laughs).

David: You and I write the same way—at least in this case—in that we both look for the story in the people participating in the act. I find that when I go abroad and meet many of these small, humble producers, it’s easy to fall in love with them because their motivations for making these products have little to do with many of the motivators driving today’s consumer market. They’re not making wine and spirits for the purpose of one-upping their neighbor or their colleague at work. They’re not manipulating the flavors in order to get the 100 point score and impress their friends at their fancy dinner party. These motives never even enter their minds. And if they are indeed motivated by these factors, I can usually smell it from a mile away and it’s off-putting. But, like you said, when you find someone with pure intentions and humility concerning their work and their responsibilities, I’m so unaccustomed to meeting people like that, that when I do meet them, I want to get up on a soapbox and tell the world about them. I want us to take a lesson from them.

Max: Absolutely, and during my time in Burgundy—and even since then promoting a book—I feel like an outsider/interloper in the fine wine world when I go. I’m far from an expert on wine, but I do have a baseline now for what a good pinot tastes like. In fact, thanks to Aubert, I have a baseline for what the best pinots in the world taste like. It’s like when you read a good book or see a fantastic film, you have a baseline for what excellence is and that then becomes your standard. Maybe you don’t know the right words to describe it, but you know what’s good, and you know what isn’t, and you know why. I think then when you make recommendations they become more valuable. But when you talk about what motivates people to make wine in Burgundy, I want to circle back to this concept of terroir—which you obviously know about. Terroir is a concept that’s a hybrid of science and mysticism. What it means is that this vineyard—Romanée-Conti for example—is its own self-contained climat, or parcel of earth. And what the monks believed, and what they found from hundreds of years of research free of market pressures, strictly in pursuit of trying to cultivate the most divine wines on the planet, was terroir. They knew that each climat had its own unique characteristics of slope, sun, soil, geology, and rain. In their mind, these were all God-given gifts—pieces of a divine puzzle. Then their task became to find out what the best vines were to marry to this earth. Over time, they determined that the pinot noir vine—for the most part—married better to the terrain in the north, and that chardonnay married better to the soil in the south.

David: And it’s their job to simply get out of the way of that—to shepherd it, so to speak.

Max: Right, then you have the vigneron—who is the steward. They don’t believe in winemakers in Burgundy. They believe the best producer is a farmer who harnesses this philosophy of terroir. You want to get out of the way, to marry the vine to the earth, and to cultivate and support that God-given magic. You want to birth the grapes and let the wine almost pour itself into the bottle. Burgundy is unique in that the reason those vines were cultivated—whether you’re religious or not, whether you’re spiritual or not—not to sell, but to produce wine to please God. That’s not nothing. You can’t ignore that.

David: So you walk into this mystical, mythical terroir, a down-home Pennsylvania beer guy with your own preconceived notions of what the wine world is, and you get to taste not only the wines of Burgundy, but the very best wines of Burgundy. What’s your reaction in the face of all this?

Max: I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. My neighbors were cops, roofers, and firemen. There was almost never any wine in my house. There was either Schlitz or Rolling Rock, or maybe some Heineken if we were having a Champagne-style celebration. Even growing into adulthood, I was put off by a lot of the pretense surrounding wine. I was put off by the Frenchy names. It seemed enigmatic by contrivance. I thought of it was marketing hocus-pocus, like it was all stuff these folks did, somewhere in some room, to jack up the prices and overcharge people for fermented grape juice. But when I got over there, I quickly learned all of the things that we’ve discussed and I quickly realized the cliched ugly American I had been (laughs).

David: And even doing that is cliched! (laughs)

Max: So when Aubert and I first started to talk—we talked that first day for about four hours—he asked me if I had everything that I needed. I said no. No journalist is ever going to say, “Yes, I have everything I need.” So I went back the next day and we talked for another four or five hours, and at the end of it I met a guy named Jean-Charles, Aubert’s right-hand man who manages the Domaine and features prominently in the book. Jean-Charles, like you and me, has more of a proletariat, lunch box view of the universe, which was one of the reasons Aubert hired him, I think. He was in the room for most of the time while we were talking and at the end of that day Aubert asked me if I’d like to take taste some of the wines. I said, “Sure, why not?” So we go through the courtyard and walk down into the cellar—which whatever you’re picturing in your mind’s eye is probably exactly it. It’s straight out of central casting. You go down into the cellar, it’s a labyrinth, it’s full of old dusty bottles, like you’re walking through a catacomb almost. We get to the back room of the cellar and there’s an overturned cask with a candle on it, which seemed so appropriate, so it’s me, Aubert, Jean-Charles, and my translator. Aubert pulls out one of these dusty bottles that’s not labeled, uncorks it, and pours it in a glass. By this point I had done enough due diligence to know that whatever he’s pouring is one of world’s best wines and probably sells for thousands of dollars. But I’d never had one before. I’d never even had a Burgundy yet. I’m completely ignorant of how to taste. I don’t know the terms or the etiquette. So what I’m thinking in my head is: “I like this guy already, but what happens if I don’t like his wine? What do I say?” So as he’s pouring it I’m getting a little stressed, and when he was done we just sort of stood their quietly. I'm wondering: is there a starter pistol? How do I know when it’s time to drink? I wasn’t sure, so I just took a drink. I’m telling you, David: it blew my mind. It was amazing.

David: That’s exactly what people don’t want you to say! They want to continue thinking it’s all just a bunch of phooey!

Max: It gave me a huge sense of relief because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I looked at him with this huge smile on my face. He asked, “So what do you think?” and I gave him what was probably the most unsophisticated review in the history of wine. I told him about how when I was a kid growing up we had this candy called Pop Rocks and it was a packet of sugar that, when you put it on your tongue, would start to explode like Mexican jumping beans. It was just delightful and it made you happy. It was more of an experience and a sensation than it was just eating candy. So I said, “That’s what this was like, but it feels like it’s been sprinkled from Heaven.” So he smiled and said, “Well that’s good then, right?”

David: What was the wine? Did you get to see?

Max: It turned out that it was a 2008 La Tache. Later that day I ended up going across the road to and talking to Louis-Michel Liger Belair, whose domaine is literally across the street. He and I have become good friends—he ended up becoming my landlord for the two years that I lived there. But the next Burgundy I had was with him: the same vintage from La Romanée vineyard, which as you probably know is the vineyard adjacent to Romanée-Conti. There are historical reasons to believe that at one point La Romanée was actually a part of Romanée-Conti, but people have debated that. The argument would be now that they’re two very different climats. Both of those wines kick ass, if you ask me.

David: That sounds like a pretty good day.

Max: It was a very good day, especially now in retrospect. Later that night actually my translator and I were back at the hotel, sitting in the bar, and we had purchased a bottle of Nuits-St. George. Before we drank it we just looked at one another and we were both thinking exactly the same thing. I said to her: “Are you still thinking about those wines?” and she said yes. “Those were just fucking unbelievable, right?” and again she said yes (laughs). Later on—like months later—Jean-Charles would tell me about the first time he tasted the wines of the Domaine, and this is a guy who grew up in France. The guy was a school teacher for most of his life, but he certainly grew up in the wine culture and appreciated wine in a way that I didn’t at that time. He told me the first time he tasted wines from the Domaine, “they stayed in his mouth for decades.” That’s how I feel about that La Tache and the La Romanée. It wasn’t until a year later that I first tried Romanée-Conti—the 2009 vintage—and to a certain extent I get why tasting notes sound so bananas because eventually you just run out of ways to describe something that tastes otherworldly. When I drank the Romanée-Conti—and this sounds so cheesy; if you would have talked to me five years ago I never would have said this—it tasted like love.

David: Something you never thought you would ever say.

Max: I was looking for reasons to think all of this was bullshit. But it’s not. It’s real, and that’s what I think makes that place so special. The point of the book was to take someone by the hand and say: “Hey, you might not like wine. You might not give a shit about wine, or care about France and Burgundy, but here’s this really cool crime—come with me.” So we step into the crime and then we meet Aubert, and we meet the people of Burgundy, and we meet the Prince de Conti who is basically the James Bond double-agent of his time in pre-Revolutionary France, who had these wines and served them to people like Mozart and Voltaire, and essentially was antagonizing for the French Revolution before there was a French Revolution. He buys the vineyard for himself, takes the wine off the market. It was his own quiet way I think of protesting all the noble, aristocratic waste and abuse—all of the one-percenters essentially. You’re not going to drink it, it’s mine. I’m going to serve it to artists, and thinkers, and revolutionaries. So come with me, meet all these people—these are all the ghosts in the glass, as one vigneron told me. When I wrote the book one of my primary goals was that when you taste these wines, you'll know this history. You'll know all of the ghosts in the glass and you will recognize how special they are.

David: That's a great note to end on. Is there anything else you want to add?

Max: You know, here's something else I never dreamed I'd ever say, but it's true. One of the things I like most about Burgundy pinot noir is that if we go back to the beginning, Burgundy and the pinot vine were not a logical match. The terrain was uncultivated, rugged and rocky, and the pinot vine is fickle, and as a planting, quite vulnerable. Yet fate intervened and coupled this lovely little vine to this rugged, rocky earth and this remarkable union has endured everything from dramatic weather to wars, and even this attack; and this unlikely and enduring marriage has birthed this wonderful fruit and magnificent wines. In the end, in all makes perfect poetic sense. I think there is something so wonderfully romantic about that, in and of itself.

-David Driscoll


Coming Soon to SF

It's coming, folks. It's coming soon, and I'm not sure if you're fully prepared for what's about to land in downtown San Francisco. Are you guys going to be able to handle it? I don't know if you're ready for a gigantic, monstrous, fully-stacked, mall-sized wine and spirits store right in the middle of SoMa, with tons of parking, easy access to the freeway, and a friendly staff of K&L employees to help you navigate the overwhelming selection.

Think you can handle that? Because we're only about a month and a half away. 

While I can't yet confirm an opening date, what I can tell you is that the store looks amazing already. Just as it pertains to the liquor selection, there's going to be about twice as much booze as we currently have in Redwood City. So take the eclectic selection we have in the current San Francisco store and multiply that by about nine. Imagine rows, and rows, and rows, and rows of delicious spirits—as far as the eye can see. 

Then imagine a room just as big as this one full of temperature-controlled wine lockers which you can rent to store all of your precious wine bottles. If you're like me, you probably live in an apartment and don't have the space at home. We'll take care of that for you. Then imagine a huge tasting bar where you can come and taste all those delicious wines and spirits. Imagine all the possibilities of what could happen when you take a specialty store like K&L and give it the same amount of retail space as Whole Foods or Safeway.

Imagine it. Because that's what I'm doing right now, and every day that image is getting closer to reality.

-David Driscoll


D2D Interview: The Houston Brothers

Of the seventeen D2D interviews I've already conducted—a pretty eclectic list of intriguing personalities—I'm most excited for all of you to read this one. If you're like me and you think the American food and wine scene is beginning to take itself a bit too seriously, with trendy bars and restaurants that are trying to impress you rather than take care of you, I present to you now the antidote to that poisonous posturing. You may remember Mark and Jonnie Houston from a little exposé I did on their Hollywood empire this past August—an inspiring romp through some of the most creative and imaginative bars I've ever visited. Now I'm back hanging with the twins once again, this time giving them the chance to explain their incredible hospitality experiences in their own words. I can't say enough about how much I love these two guys and how drawn I am to their general philosophy as it pertains to the perfect drinking environment. The Houston brothers have created nine thematic destination spots—each with its own sense of place—that are as concerned with atmosphere, energy, and showmanship as they are with presenting you with a great libation. The only thing intimidating about them is that they seem to do everything extremely well.

I'm hardly the first person to feel this way, either. When you walk into their iconic 1970s-era house party of a bar, Good Times at Davey Wayne's, you can feel the energy in the crowd—even on a Wednesday weeknight. There are no snooty bartenders with stoic, solitary stares of pure contempt. There is no pretense, nor is there even the slightest bit of self-aggrandizement. All you'll find is a crowd of people having a great time, possibly drinking alcohol out of snowcones, with one or both of the Houston brothers right smack in the middle of it, leading the charge towards that good time they promised you. And don't think they're ready to stop now. These two dynamic entrepreneurs are just getting started, and I for one cannot wait to see where they go next.

In this edition of Drinking to Drink we talk putting the fun back into the bar scene, the ever increasing standards of cocktail quality, and how ultimately you need a bit of magic to make everything come together perfectly. Previous editions of the D2D series can be found by clicking here, or by visiting the archive in the right hand margin of the blog. 

David: So when I was down visiting your spots in LA a few weeks ago, Mark told me about an encounter he had in college with a professor who told him there was no better education in business than to simply go out there and do it. Which is exactly what you guys did. You guys dropped out of school and created a bar and restaurant empire in Hollywood.

Jonnie: Right, but when we first dropped out we went into the cell phone business. That was the big thing at the time. Mark did speak to a professor who told him, “If you want to get into business, then just do it,” and it proved true. It worked for us, and that’s when Mark and I first started working together closely. Even though we would have our differences, and argue like brothers do, it turned out to be the best working relationship that either of us had had. We did have other jobs prior to this, but none of them ever felt organic. 

David: So you eventually decide to jump into hospitality.

Jonnie: Jumping into the hospitality business—having grown up in LA—wasn’t really for us at first because everything we were exposed to at the time just wasn’t appealing. You had these huge night clubs with flashy lights and super rich guys posturing for position. It was so showy. Either that, or you’d go to a dive bar—and I appreciate dive bars—but you can’t really take your girlfriend there for a night out without having some guy hit on her, or worrying about a fight breaking out. It felt like there weren’t any comfortable places where you could meet interesting people and have a conversation. 

David: And you guys looked to remedy that?

Jonnie: Just creating a safe environment for people to get together and hopefully make new friends was something we wanted to do—to create an extension of our living room or a dinner party. Without having to do all the clean-up at the end of the night (laughs).

David: When did this idea actually become a reality? 

Jonnie: It came to a reality by us just falling into it. I had a cell phone store next door to the place that would become our first bar and the spot became available. It just felt right. It was perfect timing. Mark and I grew up in the bar business. Our mom was a bartender. Our dad was a barfly. We grew up around restaurants. We peeled shrimp for our aunt’s Thai restaurant and passed out fliers on the street, door to door, as children. We were always around hospitality and—truthfully—I don’t think either of us longed to get into the bar business. We had a different idea of what it was. We hardly saw our parents, my mom would work late nights and when she got back she was always tired. My dad went out almost every night, so in a way it kinda put a bad taste in our mouths. It wasn’t until we started doing our own stuff and saw the potential to create a different environment that we decided to get into it—a place where you could go and didn’t even have to drink really. You could simply socialize and have an experience. That was the impression we wanted to leave in the minds of people. 

David: So the first bar is the Piano Bar. This is the spot you decide to start out with.

Jonnie: When we walked into the available space we realized it was an old, run-down gay bar. I won’t go into all the details, but it was like a male meat market (laughs). We could see the potential of the location, however. That’s one thing I think Mark and I do well—envisioning the process of creation and coming up with a plan. The main thing that we wanted to create there was a safe environment for live music where you could hear a piano player while relaxing and having a good time. That was the inspiration. It has a New Orleans type of a feel with gas lamps and brick walls, along with great jazz musicians who play there on Wednesdays and Fridays. Great piano players, too. This is a place where you can come with friends, see a show, and not pay a cover fee. Unlike the Roxie and Whisky-a-Go-Go, for example. This was a casual setting where an artist could just pick up a guitar, play for everyone, and feel comfortable,

David: That sounds amazing, especially as I continue to grow tired of the pretentious live music scene as it pertains to bars and clubs.

Jonnie: What evolved from that was incredible. A lot of artists who would play at the Hotel Cafe nearby, they would play their big shows, then afterward walk over to the Piano Bar and just jump on stage and play there as well. Everybody from guys like Craig Robinson—I don’t know if you know him from the movie Hot Tub Time Machine.

David: I love Craig Robinson. He had the all-time best cameo ever on Reno 911 where he plays the keyboard and sings for the Sheriff’s Department commercial.

Jonnie: Well, he’s a good friend and he loves singing and performing. He’s jumped on the piano on many a night. He does it just for fun, just for the enjoyment. There’s a list of other celebrities too who have also just spontaneously performed. It’s those impromptu moments, those memories that are created, that really inspire us to keep to doing what we do.

David: Plus, that’s just pure word-of-mouth buzz. If I’m sitting at a bar and I see some celebrity just hanging out with the crowd, performing on stage just out of the blue, I’m thinking that’s a pretty cool place to be. That’s a place I want to be as often as possible. 

Jonnie:: It is cool! We don’t really publicize it though and I think that’s why a lot of these people feel comfortable doing it. They know it’s not going to end up on TMZ or some other celebrity rag.

David: So you guys ride the success of the spontaneous happenings at the Piano Bar into your next project: La Descarga. Mark, why don’t you jump in and talk about how the thematic elements came into play. You’ve got a very specific Cuban-inspired theme with a unique Speakeasy-style entrance.

Mark: La Descarga really marked a change in how we looked at night life, with me having gone and traveled to the Caribbean, to restaurants in New York and San Francisco, where cocktail cultures were really getting started. This is about six or seven years ago. We wanted to create our own cocktail program, infuse it with live entertainment, and create something that was more of an experience rather than just a bar. We liked the idea of a space where you couldn’t pin-point exactly what it is. It’s not a nightclub, but it feels like it because you’re dancing, you’re getting sweaty, and you’re having a great time. It’s not a cocktail bar because it’s not necessarily mellow and chill. And it’s not a theater or a stage where you sit down for an hour and then leave when the show's over. It’s all of these things mashed up, so it took a lot of planning to try and figure out how this was all going to work. But it was kind of like magic, too. 

David: In the way it all magically came together?

Mark: Yes. You can’t always plan certain things, they just happen, and for Los Angeles it really set the tone for a new way of going out. We did a reservation process, which was totally unheard of for a bar. You actually had to plan it out, and when you do that—that’s a date! You’re taking someone out on a date for a specific experience. Reservation for two, 8 PM. I think adding a dress code also issued a new statement because—as you know—LA is pretty relaxed when it comes to going out. These things created an experience and experiences would happen because of it. We had the Piano Bar where the guys from ZZ Top might jump on stage and play for everyone. Then we’re doing this Latin-themed bar where Andy Garcia might drop in, or the Buena Vista Social Club. As a culture I think we like to travel because we want to have new experiences, but not all of us can travel year-round. We wanted to mimic that same sense of inspiration that you might get by taking a journey. 

David: In a sense, you were bringing your experiences from traveling back home for others to enjoy.

Mark: Right, I would travel and then experience something and think, “I want to bring this back to LA.” I met this girl once who was really into cigars and it was the sexiest thing, but then I went back home and went out to a cigar lounge, and it was so….scuzzy. It was like a typical gentleman’s club. I looked around the room and thought, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” The environment was not the vibe I was looking for, so I thought we could create a better version. A place where guys and girls could go and feel comfortable, where you could also dance, and there was fun going on all around you, I thought that was the direction. So we have a cigar lounge at La Descarga and we have people of all types, of all ages, coming in to enjoy the atmosphere. 

David: And how has La Descarga gone over with the industry do you think? I thought the live salsa dancing was incredible when I visited.

Mark: Quite well. We were nominated a few different times at Tales of the Cocktail. It really resonated with the cocktail culture and the industry. This was our first attempt to incorporate live dance into the routine and since then it’s been—not really a formula or an approach—but it definitely has some role in every venue that we’ve created since. We continue to want to create venues that have an outlet for professional dancers who are open to dancing in our locations, creating an experience for the guests.

David: What you guys have been able to accomplish is simply awe-inspiring. To hear you say that you’re traveling around the world, collecting experiences, and bringing them home—that’s what I do as a buyer for K&L. Except that I do it merely with bottles. These are actual objects that I put on a boat, have them shipped, and then give to people. That’s easy. But you guys are bringing concepts, theories, and experiences—they’re ideas that are somewhat opaque. You then have to get home and turn those ideas into something clear and visible. It’s much more difficult, in my opinion.

Jonnie: I think you’re right when you say that what you do is similar. When you bring that special wine or spirit back from your trip, and you pour it at a dinner party, and everyone get’s that little taste of a country or whatever you were inspired by, we do that same thing. We like to incorporate spirits that correspond to these themes. With La Descarga it was Cuba and we wanted to bring in Havana Club rum—secretly we did in the back room. You want to create that complete experience down to the beverages themselves. 

David: That bar is one of the most beautiful bars I’ve ever been to—just in the aesthetics of the interior. You walk in and you think, “Wow, this is beautiful.” Then a salsa band shows up and starts playing music on a balcony over your head, and people start dancing on top of the bar. You talk to the bartender and he’s super friendly. He makes you a great drink while maintaining a kind demeanor. I mean, what more can you ask for? You guys have every aspect of this covered. Most other places would be happy to have one of these elements, but you have all of them!

Mark: I wish I could say we planned it like that, but it was really just magic. It was just something that happened. Believe me, there was some fear and a few doubts. Even my brother wasn't sure about the dancers, but it worked out.

Jonnie: Yeah, Mark was definitely more into the entertainment and creating an experience with that entertainment. At first I was skeptical. These are burlesque dancers doing salsa. I wasn’t sure how people would take it. But it was magic, and in doing La Descarga we really found our formula. Every day we’re perfecting that formula. There’s a misconception out there where people think, “If I can do great cocktails then I’ve got a great bar.” I think people are getting more savvy, however, and the customers’ eyes have been opened to so much more. People want more now. I remember back in the day when you could open up a bar and just put a pool table in the middle of it, and it would be packed. 

David: Ha! (laughs)

Jonnie: People now are like, “Well……maybe I’ll walk over there for a 5 o’ clock beer,” but they’re hungry for something more at this point, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. People expect more, and it makes our job that much harder. We’re always thinking of something better, trying to do something more creative, but it’s tough! Following our instincts and traveling to experience different cultures really inspires us. But I think if your inspiration comes from a real place—from somewhere in your heart—and you follow that, it’s possible to come up with something unique and special.

David: So speaking of inspiration close to your heart, let’s talk about the beginnings of Good Times at Davey Wayne’s. You guys are now successful bar owners, you’ve got two clubs under your belt, and you decide to create a bar in tribute to your late father.

Jonnie: To be clear, when we originally planned the project and took over the space our dad was still around. We were actually going with a different concept, but then he passed away and we put the project on hold for a bit. Until you lose one of your parents you really don’t know how it feels, and I think it affected us greatly. At that point, being in the space, it seemed like a natural idea to dedicate that place to him and his memory—to create a piece of our childhood, to make it reminiscent of our living room growing up. Every little detail that we did there—like the coffee mugs, for example—are from our past. Every morning our dad would have his coffee—so he said—but it was really a beer or a mixed drink and he put it in a mug so that he could hide it from us. But we caught wind of that after a while. So because of that we serve our beers in coffee mugs that say “Number One Dad” on the side. The garage entrance is an homage to all the great times we spent in the garage with our dad working on cars or building stuff. Mark and I learned all our skills there, from framing to dry wall, our dad showed us the way and taught us how to do stuff. You don’t realize how important those moments are until you lose them. All the little nuances and lessons your parents teach you that you don’t get at the time. You think, “Why are you making me do this chore?” but it becomes clear later. You remember those moments and you put them into practice later. Dedicating a bar to his memory seemed like the obvious thing to do at that point.

David: The first time I went to Davey Wayne’s was about a year and a half ago and I was absolutely blown away. My jaw was on the ground after leaving there. I came back up here and I told everyone I knew about that place, but the San Francisco scene is so different. Everyone is so fixated on being taken seriously, and in order to be taken seriously you have to show that you’re serious about what you’re doing. I would tell my bartender friends, “No, the cocktails were actually really good!” I had to make them understand that you could have great drinks—every bit as good as what SF is doing—but combined with a thematic experience that was extraordinary. Why couldn’t we do both?

Jonnie: I think that’s the mold that we broke. At this point in the cocktail culture of our modern age, there should be nowhere where you go and have a bad drink. You should be able to go anywhere, get an Old Fashioned or a Whiskey Sour, and have it made properly. It’s ridiculous to not be able to. But why can’t you have fun while doing it? Why do you have to sit down, be quiet, and be told the twenty rules about what you can’t do? Why can’t you drink a cocktail and have fun? Is it illegal? So I think cocktail culture needed to evolve—and still needs to. And I agree with you—San Francisco wants to be taken seriously, and there’s a place for that. However, I think you can be serious and have fun.

David: My question is: who doesn’t want to have fun? Isn’t that why we’re drinking in the first place? 

Mark: I think there can be different bars, created for the type of environment that you feel like being in. I think our approach is just something unique and different, where we’ve filled a void with something that was lacking. I don’t want to wait in line at some mega night club with three thousand people, and I also don’t want to go to some dive bar and drink stale beer. I want to go somewhere comfortable, clean, and safe, but maybe with a bit of entertainment. We wanted to give Angelinos something they were lacking. Something inspired from our passion and our own enjoyment. One example is the Speakeasy-style entrance at La Descarga, where we’ve turned that into something more playful and fun. Or like Break Room 86 with the vending machine that you walk through. It doesn’t always have to be a door with a little window that opens up sideways and a guy asking you for the secret password. It doesn’t have to be so literal. This isn’t the 1920s. We’re not actually in the Prohibition era. We’re in a new age where we can re-imagine what exactly a Speakeasy is. We’re having a good time without taking away from the quality of the drinks. People expect fresh squeezed juices, great sweetners and syrups, home-made bitters and whatnot, but we don’t base our bars strictly on the quality of the cocktails. 

David: Quality isn’t just about drinks when you go out. I have to say that—of all the Houston brothers bars I visited—the one I’m most excited about going back to is Dirty Laundry, which was the least thematic of the bunch. The reason being the small, club-like room in the back where the house band plays. The band that played when I was there was absolutely amazing. It was new-wave, upbeat, interesting, and catchy. There were only about forty people in the room, you could see the show without struggling, the visuals and lights were fantastic, and it felt like something real was going on in there. My wife and I looked at each other—you know that look when you both widen your eyes and give that expression that intuitively says, "Jesus, this is amazing". We were really impressed.

Jonnie: It reminds me of the Cavern in Liverpool. I think a lot of people gravitate towards that room because there’s a raw energy in there that you can’t explain, but it feels electric. I agree completely.

David: I feel like the third Houston brother being around you both. When I listen to you guys talk I get this energy in my legs and it slowly starts making its way to my head. We’re so similar in the ways that we think and with what motivates us, except you guys are like four steps ahead of me. And I’m used to being four steps ahead of everyone else! 

Mark: I think everyone inspires each other and we create. That’s what sparks innovation. I think that’s the beauty of working with my brother. I wouldn’t want to say we challenge each other, but we’re definitely open and honest with our feedback, and that helps us elevate and enhance the experience we’re trying to convey. The best thing about all of this—all these things that we’re building—is that i get to do it with my brother. It’s not work when you look at it like that—it’s fun. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of work that goes into this, but I really enjoy it. 

-David Driscoll


Follow Greg St. Clair Live in Italy

Sure, I might be grounded here in Redwood City, but that doesn't mean you can't follow one of our other buyer's travelogues. I'm helping Italian wine legend Greg St. Clair—the Mayor of Montalcino—organize his photos and thoughts into a nice little series of blog posts. You can follow his adventures starting here on the K&L wine blog. I think we're up to Part IV by now!

-David Driscoll