Earlier this year, I consulted on the wine program for a fantastic new restaurant in Philadelphia called Talula’s Garden. What made this project different--aside from having the chance to work with my friend Aimee Olexy, one of the great visionaries of the American restaurant scene, a latter-day Alice Waters--was the fact that Aimee wanted the entire list to be comprised of wines that were environmentally friendly.
Now, for too many consumers, the term “environmentally-friendly wine” conjures up images of bottles whose primary purpose is to be eco-conscious; taste and texture, it’s still often assumed incorrectly, will play a secondary role.
Of course, this only makes sense: For a long while, wines that advertised themselves in this manner were often less-than-stellar, and led a good number of the people who tasted them to assume that environmental-consciousness and successful winemaking were, to a certain extent, mutually exclusive.
This, of course, could not be further from the truth: A good portion of the best wine producers in the world realized a long time ago that the more respect they show for the land in which the grapes grow, the more truly and honestly their juice will speak of that particular patch of the planet. In other words, while chemical pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides may mean more grapes grown more cheaply, they also mean a more generic expression once the wine is bottled. And this isn’t even taking into consideration the unsustainability of it all: Dumping chemicals into the earth is, in any number of ways, like dumping certain drugs into the human body: It results in addiction, in a sense, and ultimately, the very balance that set it apart from anywhere else has been changed for the worse, and it needs more and more of those chemicals as a result to keep on producing ever-more-generic fruit.
Which is why Aimee’s desire for a wine list like this is rooted in such solid logic: The food she’s focused on in her restaurants is honest, deeply flavorful, and intimately tied to its source of production. Why, then, shouldn’t the wines in her newest one (a partnership with the restaurateur Stephen Starr) be the same?
The wines on the list are, at the very least, sustainably farmed, and at the most, certified organic or biodynamic. What this means is that, for example, the Instituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige Müller-Thurgau 2009 tastes like it only could have come from its home in Italy’s Trentino, and the Champagne J. Dumangin et Fils Rosé 1er Cru Brut NV is inextricably tied to its home in the Champagne region’s Chigny-les-Roses.
And it’s not just a matter of taste; it’s also a matter of respecting an environment that for too long has been abused to the point where it’s literally no longer sustainable to keep on doing things the old way. So in a very real sense, wines made in an environmentally conscious manner help to ensure that the best vineyards are still able to produce their great wines for our children and grandchildren to enjoy just as much as we do.
And as far as pairing these wines with food--well, I tend to think they’re even more versatile, even more food-friendly, than their mass-produced cousins. After all, these wines have so much inherent character that the winemakers generally don’t have to resort to the old tricks (over-oaking and other manipulations) to get the wines to a point where they actually taste like something. Rather, these are wines that speak volumes without the need for adulteration. They’re honest, yes, but they’re also seriously delicious.
We composed the wine list with bottles from all over the world, and produced from a tremendous range of grape varieties and in a mind-boggling array of styles. What ties them all together, aside from their eco-consciousness, is the fact that they each offer any number of pairing possibilities. And with food like Chef Michael Santoro is preparing here--seasonal, wildly flavorful dishes that demonstrate a gorgeous balance of technique and heart--a broad array of pairing options is not just helpful, but necessary.
And though this is the first wine list in Philadelphia to be environmentally conscientious in its entirety, it taps into a growing appreciation for wines like these all over the country; there’s a movement afoot. Because when all is said and done, and despite politics and other environmental considerations, wines like these simply taste good. And that, when you take your first sip of wine at the table, is what matters most of all.
Brian Freedman is a food, wine, and travel writer and wine consultant. He writes for John Mariani's Virtual Gourmet, Philadelphia Style Magazine, and the blog www.UncorkLife.com for Wine Chateau, among others. For more information on his work, or to contact him regarding consulting or speaking, please visit www.BrianFreedmanPhiladelphia.com