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Bobby's Troupe

In the sub-culture of wine marketing, the most-interesting tales are told of indie wine importers who got their starts tirelessly and sometimes fanatically searching out small wine producers in their chosen regions – the Loire or Liguria, Austria or Australia, Piemonte or Provence.  Almost always these importers are solitary men who bird-dog the trade fairs and spend weeks along the back roads “in country” searching for perfect producers – almost always small families with enough vines to generate a few thousand cases of high-quality wine at mid-level prices.  Even more ideally, these farmers have great personal stories to tell, are either just breaking out or have been shamelessly overlooked and can be painted as saints resisting the onslaught of Big Wine.  These importers don’t just sell bottles, they sell a way of life.

Once a sufficient portfolio of winegrowers has been scouted and signed up (it’s a better story if they sign at their kitchen tables), the small importer then spends the other half of his time hand-selling the wines to distributors, retail shop owners and even to consumers directly at in-store tastings.  If their zealotry on behalf of their farmers/winemakers at times seems excessive, it’s all part of legend-making, stories that retailers share with good customers over an open bottle in their store’s cluttered back office on a slow afternoon. “I once went on a trip to the Rhone with ol’ Willy, and we drank all day with producers and then drank all night at the bar.  But we were up at 7 to see five growers the next day!”  As the legends grow, so do the sizes of the now not-so-small businesses.

Who are these guys?  Kermit Lynch, Danny Haas, Peter Weygandt, John Larchet, Alain Blanchon, Brian Larky and Bobby Kacher come to mind. You can add the names of those I’ve missed.  Last week, Kacher was in New York with three of his traveling band of merry winegrowers so I stopped by BLT Fish where the French guys were pouring wines upstairs and occasionally taking a break downstairs to have a beer at the bar.

First I sit down with Mâconnais producer Christophe Cordier (Kacher naturally selects the wine I should sip as I jot things down).  Pouilly-Fuissé is again haute, and Cordier produces barrel-fermented wines from there and elsewhere that are complex but never fat. “My family was métayers” or vineyard share-croppers, Cordier says, “and my grandfather started with 14 hectares.”  Cordier today is both an estate grower (30 hectares) and a small négociant – an unusual combination 20 years ago but increasingly common today.  “I make about 20 domaine wines,” he says, “and 12-15 under my own name” as a négociant or grape-buyer.

Next, Geoffroy de Janvry of Beaune-based Domaine Albert Morot has his fascinating story.  A Parisian by birth, he did studies in winemaking before becoming a fish buyer for a food chain.  When someone told him that he actually had an aunt who owned a respected estate in Beaune, he was stunned.  After helping her in the 1997 harvest, word came back to him that she was interested in him taking over the business.  He did in 2000 and now makes 10 wines, mostly red, mostly Beaune, all estate-bottled.

Stéphane Ogier is the youngest of Bobby’s troupe, making Côte Rotie and Condrieu at Ampuis in the upper Rhone.  His grandfather grew orchard fruit and grapes, which he at one time sold to négociant Marcel Guigal before Stéphane’s father started making his own wine in 1988.  Stéphane is in charge now, and he exudes passion and energy.  Although he’s grown the estate’s Côte and Condrieu business, he really gets excited about the Seyssuel region on the east side of the Rhone – once a prime growing area, but abandoned after phylloxera struck over a century ago.  Ogier makes a Seysseul vin de pays in the Côte Rotie style, which he labels “L’Âme Soeur,” but he is leading a group of 13 Seyssuel producers to get the area recognized as a DOC, and probably not a Rhone-based one.

Kacher has selected well.  Al three men make excellent wines, all are charismatic people and all have interesting tales to tell.  And if you’re going to pay for a good bottle, why not buy one that has the free bonus of being packaged with a great back story beyond the back label?

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