What's with your wine list? Part I, the philosophy

People often ask me “what’s with your wine list?” and I can see three easy ways to answer that: the first is about the philosophy that coheres each wine and the printed format into a perspective; the second and third are about each of those components, our unconventional layout, and the individual wines we source. In this blog post I’ll be writing a little bit about what the philosophy of our wine list is.

When Journeyman opened, we talked about everything here being a story: the ingredients have stories (we know the farmers, we look forward to the arrival of seasons and their associated produce), the dishes have stories (how elements are combined into whole plates that relate ingredients and techniques to each other), the menus have stories (we talk endlessly about how to structure our tasting menus to present them as the best story), and so on. It seemed logical to treat our beverages the same way, so we choose drinks that have depth to them: an amazing winemaker story, an amazing tradition or historical grape at their core, or a particular social function we love. How we translate that depth is the stuff that makes our wine list unique.

There are few things that please me, as the wine director, more than writing down the name of a wine for a guest at the end of the night. If you ask me to write something down, that tells me that I’ve served you a drink that resonated with you. One of the things I love about wine is its inherent discontinuity: you can taste the place it was made and the place you first tried it each time you open a bottle. I like to imagine that when you bring home a bottle that you first had with us at Journeyman, you’ll remember us. Every time I serve a guest a wine that they truly love, the memory of their joy is added to my memories of that bottle, and no matter where or when I crack the next one, I’ll think of them again. Goethe said that architecture is like “frozen music,” and that is pretty close to how I feel about wine: assuming that you swap “wine” for “architecture,” “fermented” for “frozen,” and “memory” for “music.”

Where does your wine come from? Our tastes are primarily Old World, but we buy wine from all over the globe. We wish — at least in theory — that we could make a wine list entirely of local producers, but alas! we love wine and New England is hardly wine country. Our chefs have a taste for French and German wines, I have a taste for Italian and Spanish wines, and those 4 countries are amply represented on our list.

Who makes your wine? We have a bias toward small producers: we can’t know every winemaker the way we can meet so many of our farmers, but we still prefer the mentality of small-scale production. In particular, we love family-owned and operated estates, and we love vignerons, the folks who grow their own grapes and make their own wine. We believe, as many of our wine heroes have claimed, that 90% of what makes good wine happens in the vineyard. We have a personal bias toward female winemakers, toward organic winemakers, toward biodynamic winemakers, and toward low-intervention winemakers. Our taste in winemakers and wine situate us squarely in the “natural wine” movement.

Where’s my Cali Chardonnay? I don’t mean to dump on either California wine or Chardonnay, but I do mean to say that there are conventions in wine that we choose to ignore: we don’t have a prestige list of Burgundies or Barolos, and we don’t have a high-end list of super-sized California wines. Some of that is simply a matter of cost, as we’re a small & young restaurant, and some of it is a more stylized reason, which is that we hope you will choose a wine for its taste or its story rather than for its name.
After you get past our preferences in winemakers, it all comes down to our preferences in earth and grape. We’re suckers for indigenous varieties and yes, we know how contested a term that is. We’re suckers for lesser-known grapes, old vine grapes, low-yield grapes, and so on. We love the history of European wines, and the history of techniques like amphora-aging or pigeage. We love wine makers who let the wine be, even if that means this year’s vintage is nothing like the last, and even if that means sometimes they release a wine from 2009 before they release a wine from 2001.
Wine culture in California is a complex and rapidly evolving thing — it’s only in its infancy, comparatively — so while there’s a ton of amazing wine out there, there’s also a ton of stuff that many of us couldn’t tell apart in a blind tasting. We buy wines that have a lot of character to them, which often means less new oak, less new technique, and, unfortunately, less new world. If there’s a new world wine that you love, by all means, recommend it to us. All of us drink wine away from work, too, and love to try new things.

What should I drink with my meal? We don’t really buy wines that we don’t think are food-friendly. To us, a food-friendly wine has a little bit of reserve to it, whether that means a higher acid content to help you taste each bite and sip anew, or more restrained wood and tannin to keep keep you from turning turning into a purple-toothed fire-breather. We’re always happy to help you choose a bottle or glass that will pair seamlessly with your meal, but we also believe in the value of simply drinking what you love (assuming you can find something you love on our list of what we love), whether or not it’s a perfect pairing. Every server at Journeyman has a short list of the bottles they love best off our list, and when it’s possible, I suggest asking them for a recommendation: their passion and enthusiasm can often make a wine that much more delicious.

Where can I buy that wine? We rarely sell wine that’s available in every liquor store, but our city has had a major wine revolution in the past few years with wine and retail institutions like the Wine Bottega, City Feed & Supply, Federal Wine & Spirits, Ball Sq Fine Wines, and Formaggio Kitchen supporting natural wine, & a bunch of newer ventures like Central Bottle, Terra Vino, and Streetcar pulling in alongside them to sell it pretty exclusively.

I’ll post about the way our wine list is formatted and about some specific wines in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

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One Response to What's with your wine list? Part I, the philosophy

  1. Benjamin says:

    What’s with your wine list? Hopefully the dinner menu…badum crash.

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