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Expat Robert Camuto On His Oenophilic Excursions In France

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Robert Camuto, recently published Corkscrewed, a collection of profiles on French winemakers he's met during the past seven years he's been living in France. During his U.S. book tour, I caught up with Camuto—over coffee—to discuss biodynamic wines, Robert Parker, and wine as food.

LM: In your book, you wrote that you no longer think of wine as a drink—you consider it a food. Can you explain what you mean by that?

RC: Oftentimes, we consider wine a drink, but that's because people serve it like a drink. When you go to countries like France and Italy, wine is always part of a meal and it's seldom considered other than that. People will have an aperitif before but the wine served at the table is usually different. The more I travel from region to region I see wine as a food group that pairs with the other foods in the region, and all of that relates to terroir.

For example in the Rhône Valley, the wines are fruitier, a little fuller-bodied. Those southern wines pair really well with those foods, which tend to be spicier, vegetable-based with peppers and olive oil. As you travel north and enter the northern Rhone, the wines are longer, more acidic, and go with the food that's heavier, creamier, and with more meats. I see wine more and more as a food and I can hardly separate the two. Now when I taste wine, rather than identify the fruits in it and the technical analysis, I think, 'What would I have this with?' I try to complete the picture.

LM: Were you interested in wine at a young age?

RC: My grandfather in New York had a delicatessen on 1st avenue, Ralph's Deli, and when I was probably five or six years old, I would open his basket bottles of Chianti. That's my first memory of wine. My family's Italian-American so wine was always around, but it wasn't until I moved to France and started meeting these passionate wine makers that their passion became infectious and made me want to write about it.

When I was in Journalism School, I remember the phrase, 'Follow the Story.' I saw this new explosion of quality and regional terroir. This new generation of educated wine makers were going back to their family vineyards and making wine with intelligence and with respect to the environment as an expression of local terroir, because there may have been a generation or two that veered off into making quantity and trying to make more international style wines to compete in the world wide market.

LM: Terroir has been, and continues to be, a huge factor of wine in France. However, even though there are certainly different areas in the new world, why aren't other wines advertised or marketed as such?

RC: France has probably the greatest diversity of terroir of any country in the world, little microclimates, where things change in such short distances. The other thing is that to find terroir takes a lot of experimentation and testing. The Romans, who didn't have loans or business plans to meet or financial investors to please, could basically go around and find the best real estate.

LM: You mentioned Robert Parker several times. Is the way he judges wines one of your largest criticisms of him? Or his standardization of wines?

RC: He's just one person with one palette. I'm sure he's a very good taster and I'm not totally anti-Parker. There are some good wines that Parker likes, but there is a certain style of Parker-ized wines—very heavy, woody, licorice-y, overly strong, high alcohol wines—that, to me, are essentially wine as a drink or cocktail. To the extent that that became a standard of wines I think was unfortunate, and to me, that's just not interesting.

LM: What do you think about this renaissance of small producers? Will it continue to grow or, because of economic constraints, larger companies will win out?

RC: To me, what's fascinating is the diversity of terroir wine. There are big producers who do a fine job at what they do. But I hope that people start valuing things that are real because I don't think it was just the economy that was out of balance—it was the whole world, our agriculture, everything. As a society we need to have some values other than just the Market. Hopefully people will question their values. What is really encouraging about this trip is that I've seen more of that especially on the West Coast. Hopefully that's not a fad. What's encouraging is seeing it in young people under 35 taking a very intelligent approach to food and wine.

LM: When you were wine grape picking in the Alsace, you mention that you were asked if you were an American spy. Were the French, or are they, protective about their techniques?

RC: No, the people that I've dealt with are very friendly, generous and gracious. A wine maker would say there are no secrets unless they're doing wrong.

LM: What I found so fascinating is it seems as though no two wine makers do the same thing. Each person uses the way they think is best.

RC: Charles de Gaulle once said that it's impossible to govern a country with 250 types of cheese. The French stubborn individualistic personality has had the positive effect of preserving some of these traditions and individuality and terroir. Sometimes, we, who the French would call, Anglo-Saxons, tend to think of best practices. What's the best way to do this? The best. I think that there is no best, no "one way". We tend like labels, when in fact, once someone gets to a certain point in their vineyard, labels don't really matter.

I hope that people don't get stuck on labels like organic—which is a label that has been manipulated—or biodynamic. Eric Tessier is a winemaker in the Rhone valley who is stopping to do biodynamics. He read the book "One Straw Revolution" by this Japanese man Fukuoka who was a straw farmer and he's going to completely use his techniques, which is no plowing of the soil whatsoever. What's good is people experiment. They try things. I'm not saying it's good or bad, I just think it's interesting.

LM: You wrote about biodynamic winemaker Nicolas Joly. What are your thoughts on biodynamic wines?

RC: I think anything that brings people close to the soil and to respecting the environment is good. The biodynamic producers that I have the most respect for are the ones that are always questioning. If someone says, "We're biodynamic. Everything is great," and they stop thinking, that's not good. Rudolf Steiner was from Austria and what he has to say has nothing to do with the south of France or California. People need to be attuned and aware.

LM: If you had a last meal, could you choose a last bottle of meal for your final supper?

RC: It would depend on what I was eating. This year, there's been a very good truffle crop in the south of France, so I've taken to buying truffles from these truffle vendors behind the Mairie on Friday afternoons. The preparation is simple: black truffles chopped up in butter and then tossed with pasta. We had a group of eight people for a celebration and the wine that was the home run was unexpected: a white Cairanne, from the southern Rhone. There were more expensive or higher rated wines on the table, but that one was nutty so that combination was fantastic. But normally I would think that if it's a last meal, I would have to pick something from Burgundy, something I've never tried, like La Tâche.

LM: Are you working on another book?

RC:Yes, the French translation is coming out this fall. My next book with the same publisher is coming out in 2010, and it's going to be on Sicily.

LM: On wines?

RC: Yes, wines in Sicily. It's fun too because normally you could make an initial appointment in France for maybe two hours or an afternoon. In Sicily it's sometimes more like two days.

LM: Things take a little longer?

RC: What's great about Sicily is that it's so disorganized that the people have to be totally self-reliant. Everyone depends on his or her cousin. I had a problem with a rented car. It's the first time I've ever done this—I locked my keys in my truck. You call Avis on a Saturday morning in Italy and no one's answering, so what do you do? We're at the hotel and we're going to call a locksmith, but they wouldn't call the locksmith directly. The woman had to call her cousin to see if they knew this locksmith. In summary, what's really interesting about Sicily to me: this is the first generation of free people ever in Sicily since the mafia's been in decline since 1992 and the anti-mafia movement started there.

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