Saarburger Rausch Vinyeard
Hans-Joachim "Hanno" Zilliken stands in front of a portrait of his ancestor. His family has been making wine here since at least the mid-1700s. Today, Zilliken is still a family affair, and Hanno works together with his wife, Ruth, and daughter, Dorothy, to continue the tradition.
The winery is officially titled "Weingut Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken," and known commonly as "Zilliken." The word "Forstmeister" translates to "Forrest Master," and refers to Hanno's grandfather, who was the forester for the King of Prussia in the late 1800s/early 1900s era.
<-- Saarburger Rausch is the vineyard where the Zillikens work much of their magic. It lies right on the edge of town.
The winery is so interesting. It is a juxtaposition of the past and the present. On top of the ground, there is an ultra-modern tasting room with crisp, clean architecture. But if you descend below the house you come to several levels of wine cellar that are anything but "modern."
When descending to the cellar's first cavern, the first thing you notice is that the crisp, modern, white walls change to old brick that is populated with billowing, cotton-like mold. Sunlight is verboten here. Hanno flicks on a light switch. As you carefully make your way down the staircase the air thickens and dampness envelops you. The smell of moss and life dances around your nose. You must balance your footing on the slippery floor.
Hanno pushes on a huge door that has turned the colors of aging metal and reveals the barrels. In his own words, he makes "rieslings that float like butterflies." I feel that I am inside the nutrient-laden cocoon where his butterflies are hatched.
Hanno does everything in 1000L wood barrels. These barrels are bigger than the Burgundian-stle barriques, but they are still on the small side. He doesn't want to ferment in larger containers because "in too large of a container, it almost cooks when it ferments." He wants a long, cool fermentation to draw out aromas. In this cool cellar, it takes several months for a barrel to ferment. Wood has other charms as well:
"A special amount of oxygen helps the yeast ferment. And contact with the wood gets the acidity more round. The same wine in steel would taste more aggressive. Also, the wood doesn't get hot during a fermentation. So many other growers no longer use the casks-- it is more work, they are harder to clean, and it's more expensive. These are rieslings aged in oak but not oxidized."
<-- Here is an especially long stalactite clinging to the ceiling. When you touch these stalactites, some of them feel slightly gooey to the touch, like a hard gel. Others looked like liquid drops, but felt hard to the touch. I wonder how much of the hard-matter content in the stalactite is minerals extracted from the wall, and how much finds its way in on airborne dust.
<-- Within this incredible cellar there is a great library of riesling.
The bottles rest in the atmosphere and appear to "sweat" with a thin sheen of moisture.
And yes, the mold finds its way to the bottles as well, enshrouding them. It takes a certain trust-in-nature to allow your bottles to age this way.
And juxtaposed against a voracious microbiology that grows where it wants is a meticulous order; neatly filed bottles left to rest in this special environment.
This cellar reminds me of Nature herself: wildly unruly and yet ordered to an infinite degree.
We taste some of the dry wines.
Zilliken Saarburg "Alte Reben" Riesling Trocken 2012
There are 3 hectares of old vines in Rausch that are 60, 60, and 100 years of age. This "Alte Reben" is a selection of the 60 year old vines.
This is dense and dry with an aroma of grunstein (the rock in this part of the vineyard). If you smelled a piece of the wet grunstein and then the wine, you could really pick up elements of aroma. The texture had this elegant filigree aspect to it. Hanno describes this as "liquid minerals."
Zilliken Saarburg Rausch Riesling GG 2012
Dry rieslings like this weren't always in production in the Saar region. It's interesting to see how, over the last decade, the VDP has helped shape and encourage this new wave of incredible dry rieslings.
Slate & grunstein minerality, subtle intensity, very complex.
<-- This is a new capsule, regulated by the VDP's new vineyard ranking system. We will start to see many of these with the 2012 vintage. Notice the band around the bottom of the capsule that reads "Grosse Lage"-- this is the VDP's new term for the highest quality vineyards (similar in theory to a Grand Cru site).
We move away from the dry wines.
Zilliken "Butterfly" Riesling 2012 (7.5g/L TA; 18g RS; 85-92 Oeschle)
light & elegant riesling that, in Hanno's words "floats like a butterfly."
Then we delved into the wines with some higher RS levels. Since the VDP regulates that its top quality wines must be dry, this has bifurcated production among producers. VDP member will make a dry wine from their top sites (this may be picked at Kabinett/Spatlese/Auslese levels, but the sugars must be fermented through to dry) and label these wines as "Grosse Lage" or "Erste Lage" (for many producers they once called these GGs, or Grosses Gewachs, before the new system came into play; many have kept the letters "GG" on the label). Some producers are happy with this and focus on dry wine production. Others have traditions and preferences for making wines according to the Pradikat system, and make a second group of wines that can be labeled "Kabinett," "Spatlese," or "Auslese," but these wines eschew the prestigious Grosse Lage or Erste Lage classification. For bottles from 2012 onward: if the wine says "Grosse Lage" on the capsule, you can assume that it will be dry. If the wine says Kabinett/Spatlese/Auslese and the producer is a member of the VDP, you can assume that it will have some noticeable RS. For non-VDP members, you still don't know because there are no national rules that govern RS (just must weight).
Hanno poured us a neat comparison: the Rausch Diabas and the Rausch Kabinett. Both are from the same site, but the Diabas is a special selection from vines that are planted on the veins of diabase rock (hard, black, iron-rich stone that formed when lava cooled extremely fast eons ago). The Diabas ended up with too much RS to be labeled as a Grosse Lage (which is regulated to be dry), but Hanno could label it based on soil type (which seems to be a growing trend in Germany). He notes that "There are 18 grams of residual sugar but the diabase absorbs all of the sweetness." His comment is an interesting observation of flavor perception: sometimes, sugar can be balanced by acidity, other times, it can be balanced by the perceived minerality in a wine.
We tried a few of his 2012 Kabinette:
Zilliken, Saarburger Riesling Kabinett 2012 (8.6g/l TA; 56g RS)
rich & balanced, flower petals, white peaches
Zilliken, Bockstein Kabinett 2012 (8.7g/L TA; 61g RS)
pretty & floral, with an interesting minerality
Zilliken, Rausch Kabinett 2012 (9.1g/L TA; 69g RS)
This was like biting into one of those fresh, sun-warmed peaches at a road side farmer's market in North Carolina. It was so juicy with such lovely fruit; and the minerality that backed it all up drew out the finish for such a long time. What a great wine.
We moved into the Spatlesen and Auslesen.
Zilliken, "Saarbug Rausch" 2012 Riesling Spatlese
This Spatlese was picked with about 20% botrytis.
This had an incredible clean aroma, like fresh coconut meant, mangoes, and peaches.
Zilliken, "Saarbug Rausch" 2012 Riesling Spatlese - Auction (9.9g/L TA; 100g RS; 102 Oeschle)
This was a special Spatlese produced for auction only.
Similar fruit aromas as the non-auction Spatlese, but with dried qualities: dried coconut meat, dried mangoes, dried peaches, dried pineapple. An intense mouthfeel; thick and rich. About the ageability, Hanno notes "It's made for other decades."
Zilliken, "Saarbug Rausch" 2012 Riesling Auslese
He also poured some 2012 Rausch Auslese- a truly humbling wine. This was picked at 106 oeschle (that's really ripe!) and had about 40% botrytis. Many of the grapes were frozen when it was picked.
Zilliken, "Saarbug Rausch" 2010 Riesling Auslese GK
(12.7 g/L TA; 150g RS; 7.5 abv)
This was a real treat-- a taste of the GK Auslese. This is such a powerful wine. Rudi sips it and says "This wine will outlive all of us!" The acidity is so high, I can't even begin to imagine the agability.
"You see the range of possibilities," Hanno notes. "It's up and down; we are working with nature..."
Here (photo on right) are the kind of slate soils that you find the Saarburger Rausch.Holding up a glass of the 1980 next to where the rest of it is stored
Hanno poured the wine pictured to the left from a label-less bottle. We smelled. This was a different animal. It was old; it smelled herbaceous like asparagus, roasted mushrooms, and bacon fat. It was smokey, and really dry-tasting despite the 50g of residual sugar. It had a round creaminess at the end. I was mystified. I knew it was special, but I couldn't even begin to guess what it was.
What a surprise: it was a 1980 Kabinett Icewine-- doubly special because they no longer make Eiswein Kabinette anymore, and also because this was my birth year! 1980 was a rough year in most wine-growing regions around the planet, so finding a lovely wine from my birth year is a very unique treat! 1980 wasn't easy at Zilliken though. Hanno notes, "Here is an example of a tough vintage with green, herbal notes."
I thought, "I'm not sure this family could get any sweeter or more hospitable" as they waved goodbye to us when we drove away...
On a recent trip to Germany I got to stop by Weingut Schäfer-Fröhlich in the Nahe Anbaugebiete.
<-- Weingut Schäfer-Fröhlich
<-- The Tasting Room
Schäfer-Fröhlich headquarters are based in Bockenau.
<--- This is the town you drive through to reach their headquarters.
Tim Fröhlich took over from his parents in the 1990s (1995 was his first official vintage) but his mother is still very much involved. They taste every parcel together and confer on the best way to proceed. Tim describes his mother's palate as very similar to his own. He goes on to elaborate that because they have such similar palates, their discussions about the wine always revolve around fine-tuning the tiniest details. These wines are so precise that I can't help but think that these talks with his mom have immensely shaped his direction of winemaking. It's special to find a winemaker so lucky to have a mentor that could guide him along such a narrow path. I imagine most winemakers start off with wild experiments to see what works and what doesn't, and it can take years to narrow down to refinement. Tim has had strong guidance from the beginning and has been able to skip over finding his way, and has jumped into fine-winemaking right from the start.
I only spent about an hour tasting with Tim, and from that hour I'd describe his personality as intense, focused, and driven. He's a quiet guy, but you can tell that inside there is this glowing, meticulous, fierce intensity. He doesn't talk about sales or brands or the wine market-- he talks about grapes, soils, vintages, and vineyards. He is obsessed with his vineyards, and with coaxing the best from them. His intelligence is focused: he knows exactly what he wants from each vineyard and he mentioned that one of the greatest things he has going for him is a great vineyard management team. "They know what I want," he says, and it means so much to be able to trust them to prune and pick to his specifications.
Tim on Yeast
Tim feels very strongly about doing wild yeast fermentations. He describes it this way: "When you use cultured yeast, or even domesticated wild local yeast, you end up with a 'Grand Style,' but you hide the year." To him, the most interesting thing about winemaking is how the particular year gives the wine its character.
To cultivate these yeasts he farms with a philosophy that I'd call lutte raisonn e. He uses salts and biodynamic preparations at times, but this is mixed with other approaches based on weather and site.
He and his mom choose when to pick by tasting the grapes. He has found that consistently, they end up picking fruit for their spätlese wines from the same parts of the vineyards. He doesn't usually pass more than once through a site to pick in stages. To him, the later harvest vines express themselves as parcels. He tributes this understanding of the vineyard to meticulous vineyard management. His words of wisdom: "If you must make a lot of selections at the end, you didn't do the work at the beginning."
Some soil samples from his various vineyards.
Schafer-Frohlich, Blanc de Noir, Spatburgunder trocken 2012 (Nahe, Germany)
I noticed at the 2013 Weinbörse in Mainz that several producers made 2012 blanc de noir wines from pinot noir. From a linguistic viewpoint, it is interesting to note that everyone in Germany refers to these as "blanc de noir" instead of "Weiss vom Schwarz."
For Tim, this is a great way to showcase his pinot noir vineyards until he has a larger winery and can start to make dry reds.
These grapes come from Stromberg-- a very steep vineyard full of volcanic rock and planted with 35-40 year old Spätburgunder vines.
When describing this wine to me, Tim says "We prefer maximum elegance;" and you can definitely taste this preferment! The grapes from this site have much color in the skins; Tim wants a light color, so he does no skin contact and uses all free run juice.
Schäfer-Fröhlich, Bockenauer Weisser Burgunder "R", 2012
This Weisser Burgunder comes from red slate in some steep places in Bockenauer.
This was picked at 102 Oeschle (that's quite ripe!).
These single vineyard Grosses Gewachs are what wine is all about. When I tasted through these side-by-side I had one of those profoundly personal wine experiences. I was awestruck and amazed. My idea of what riesling could be was forever changed.
I've always appreciated riesling, and even loved it on occasion. I've curiously observed many wine geek friends who are absolutely obsessed with riesling and preach it like religion. I've watched them drool over the riesling section in wineshops. I've met up with them for dinner and seen them wide-eyed, pulling a bottle of riesling out of their bag to pour-- clutching the bottle with two hands as if it were the Holy Grail, meticulously portioning it out as if it were a rationed resource. I've gotten a kick out of their passion, I've been inspired by their undying, unwavering, unfaltering love of this grape. After this Schäfer-Fröhlich side-by-side GG tasting, I became one of them.
I know the exact moment it happened too: we were on the third one, and I was suddenly overcome with the realization that I was experiencing something profound, unique, and special.
There is a wide spectrum of what riesling can be; of how it can manifest. Tim's GGs exist within a very thin band of this spectrum, and while they are all similar, each one reveals an infinite inner world of subtle detail, subtle textural differences, über-expressive minerality, and electric energy. Driving energy, focused detail, subtle power: these qualities could describe both Tim and his wines.
Here is more detailed information about these vineyards:
Schlossböckelheimer Kupfergrube ("Copper Ditch")
Kupfergrube was originally planted between WWI & WWII on the site of an old copper mine. It is 14 hectares in total, very steep, with complex volcanic soil rich in a wide array of minerals.
Schlossböckelheimer Felsenberg ("Rock Hill")
80-90% slate with some white & black quartz deposits.
Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen ("Little Place of Spring")
Tim has a special parcel that is very steep and comprised of hard, red slate.
very rocky & steep vineyard, calcerous soils, over 65 year old vines
blue Devonian shale with quartzite and basalt
Wild orchids grow in the rocky places of this vineyard, and a special flower-protection group ensures that these areas are protected. Tim recognized the potential of this vineyard and bought the entire Felseneck when the opportunity arose. He even purchased the steep part that is protected by the orchid group, in hopes that maybe one day, he can plant there. He sees the orchids growing among the vines and thinks that the two plants can coexist.
And the riesling from this Felseneck vineyard: this is magical wine-- the kind of wine I dream about.
<-- This is me holding a glass of Felseneck next to a soil sample from the vineyard.
Tim describes a few past vintages from this vineyard:
2008- "a very elegant wine, but the acidity is much brighter than in the 2012"
2010- "a special vintage because the harvest came very late"
2012- "The words for me are finesse and elegance." I concur!
What are Tim's plans for the future? Right now, he has no room to make red wines, but he wants to. Currently he makes a blanc de noir from some prized pinot noir grapes, but when he builds a larger winery, look out for his pinot noir. If the quality is anything like his rieslings, we can consider ourselves lucky as wine-drinkers!
Schafer Frohlich Schafer Frohlich Schafer Frohlich Schafer Frohlich Schafer Frohlich
It was such an honor to be included on Wine Enthusiast's list of 40 Under 40 Tastemakers!
Check out this fun video that we made!
The Weinborse Mainz is a wine tasting organized by the VDP. The festival is a major showing of the 2012 vintage (though many vintages are poured). Most producers have just bottled the 2012 and this is the first public debut. This was my first time at the festival and in Mainz. Here are a few pictures from Mainz and some highlights of the tasting:
Two giant halls filled up with winemakers! All grouped by region.
Outside the tasting hall this path wanders along the Rhein.
The cathedral is a few blocks away and dominates the main square.
Gutenberg changed the world here & a whole museum honors his contributions.
The main square is 2 blocks from the tasting.
The Schloss Lieser table had an interesting riesling auslese from blue slate soils (Niederberg Helden 2012).
Clemens Busch had some excellent wines- I loved the Vom grauen Schiefer Riesling trocken 2012 (ortswein) and the Marienburg Fahrlay-Terrassen Riesling feinherb 2011 (grosse lage).
A. Christmann farms organically & has a special lineup of Pfalz rieslings.
Glaser-Himmelstoss in Franken poured this 2011 4-day skin contact silvaner. Their first year they did this was in 2011, and when I asked why, the winemaker mentioned that he tastes old silvaner and wanted to make one that had some real ageability to it.
Grey slate soils with veins of iron from Karthauserhof along the Ruwer.
Dr. Crusius in the Nahe makes a very interesting wine from a vineyard full of this rock called "black porphyr"- really hard stone with bits of charcoal and bubbles of quartz throughout. Crusius Schlossbockelheim Riesling "Lach" trocken 2012.
Here are some reds from Dr. Heger in Baden. These are all from volcanic soils. The wine on the right, the Winklerberg Hausleboden ("Hot Floor") Spatburgunder GG grosse lage 2010 was so complex!
This is "Rot Gold"- a blend of Pinot Gris & Noir that must be harvested & pressed together.
The Dr. F Weins Prum table was pouring some great wines as well!
'WOMAN TAKES JOB AS WINE STEWARD," read the New York Times headline. In 1943, a female sommelier was newsworthy. You can read the full article here (you need to be a NYTimes subscriber), and come to your own assessments; but here is my account of how that headline led me on a chase after Mrs. Elizabeth Bird.
I came across this clipping in February 2013, as I was doing some research for a completely different project (the history of the sommelier profession); in a search of the NYTimes archives this article popped up due to the "sommelier" theme. I read it.
I read it again. I read it out loud to my husband. I read it a fourth time the next day. I couldn't get her out of my mind. I became charmed by the fragments of Elizabeth Bird's personality that shone through the article, and I truly think she deserves a new, 21st Century article, all to herself. Elizabeth Bird was most likely New York City's first female sommelier.
I think back to some of the unique situations I have had to deal with as a 21st century female sommelier. There was the man who asked for the sommelier, then when I arrived asked for the sommelier again. "I am the sommelier." "But you are a woman?!" "Excellent observation, Sir; can I talk to you about the wine list?" "No, no! I'll just pick something out myself." Ironically, he chose a bottle made by a woman and her 8 sisters. After I poured the bottle, I told him this with a big smile. "Is it too late to return it?" he asked. "Sadly, it is," I informed him, "but cheers!" There are the men who, after I open the bottle of wine, slap their knee and say "Sit on my lap!" Sorry, Santa, I'm busy! There are the caveats: "I'll only order this bottle if I can also get your phone number," I've given out my dad's number instead- touche! There was the experienced sommelier with whom I sat on a wine marketing panel-- he suggested to the winemakers that "it doesn't matter what the shape of the bottle is, just put a monkey or little animal on the label and women will buy it." And all this in the 21st century. My work environment is not always so draconian; in fact, 99.99% of the people I work with/wait on are incredible and inspiring human beings, but once in a while a situation makes me shake my head and wonder how far have we really come since the 1940s?
The 1943 article clearly defines Elizabeth's female role at the time, and how she was expected to carefully interact with men: "She... has learned the knack-- the envy of many a wife-- of being respectful yet not obsequious; of getting her way without offending male vanity." The article went on to report her big secret about how to not offend the men she waited on: "One reason she gets along so well with the men... is that she sticks to things she knows something about." Interestingly enough, the article barely mentions her specific skills as a sommelier: what makes her selections special, what wines did she recommend? Instead, most paragraphs sensationalized the fact that a woman was performing this job. At work, she was not even allowed to have her own identity-- they had her change her name to the female version of her predecessor: Francine/Francois respectively. I cannot imagine what Elizabeth's (I mean, Francine's?) day-to-day stories must have been like in the 1940s, especially in the aftermath of the Times article.
I question myself and wonder if my own post about Elizabeth (and this title "NYC's first female sommelier") is also a sensationalism of her sex. By making a big deal out of it, am I just feeding into the same hype that I find distasteful in the 1943 article? I've thought it through, and I've come to a peace with myself. I'm writing this because it is special that she was the first woman to break into a classically male job position in Manhattan; and when you are the first of an underprivileged group to break through a career barrier, your example helps to change the rules of the game. Her unique place in history signals a change in culture-- or a willingness for culture to change. I don't think she was special simply for being a female sommelier-- there are thousands of female sommeliers in the world right now, and our jobs are no different from male sommeliers. But she was special for being the first. Because she bore the brunt of the sensationalism and was on the receiving end of press attention for being a female sommelier, those of us who have followed have not had to deal with it as much, and we've been able to focus more on our jobs, instead of on our femaleness.
I wanted to know more about Elizabeth. I wanted to paint the full picture-- a real flesh-and-blood person who contributed to her field; not merely a "Francine" who did her best to avoid offending "male vanity."
I started the research process. Every living thing leaves an imprint on the Earth in one way or another, and I was sure if I looked in the right places, I could find Elizabeth's paper trail. I culled each detail from the article and created a time line of her life. I got a birth year range, the approximate year she was married, and I knew she had worked in Bermuda. I ran these dates through census records, marriage records, and ship/plane passenger logs to Bermuda. I came up with a few possible hits, but nothing conclusive. I was missing key details that would help me identify her. I needed her maiden name, or her husband's first name. I needed a birthday-- anything that could turn up a census record. The way I saw it- if I could find her descendants, I might be able to contact them, find out more, maybe even get a photograph of her. There had to be more than just this newspaper clipping!
After a week of searching I had nothing-- not a single census record or travel record. It was as if she never legally existed on paper. When you do research like this, you have to keep an open mind. Sometimes, people creating the search data banks from the census records will type a name wrong, read the census-taker's handwriting incorrectly, scan the wrong side of certain documents-- I've found tons of clerical errors in the past, and even made a few myself. It can be pretty messy. Perhaps she was in the files somewhere, but was not turning up in any searches because of a misspelled name, or a space in the wrong place...
But you also have to keep an open mind about life's uncertainties and how these may have affected the person you are trying to find. Perhaps her husband Mr. Bird died shortly after the article was written. If she re-married, there would be no records to find for an "Elizabeth Bird," it would be under her new surname. Also, what if her given name was undesirable, and Elizabeth was actually her middle name? If Elizabeth was a middle or nickname, she would not turn up in any legal searches.
And what if she told an untruth in the article? When asked her age, the reporter notes that she replied, "Put it down as 35." Was she 35, or slightly older? If so, how slightly older? I began to check records for Elizabeths born between 1897 and 1907-- I couldn't imagine her stretching her age by more than 10 years. Several Elizabeth Birds popped up, and though none of them might be my girl, I decided to follow up on all of them.
The Times reporter mentioned she is a "native New Yorker." In all of my searches I assumed she had been born in New York, and I had disregarded other possibilities. What if she moved to New York as a baby but still considered herself a native? What if she moved to new York as a baby but her parents never told her because they didn't want her to deal with the difficulties they faced with their own immigration processes? There were so many What-Ifs.....
Research has a funny way of unfolding, though. If you are open to it, a seemingly tiny or unimportant detail can unlock endless doors. Sometimes simply re-reading your own notes will lead you to a "eureka" moment.
I started fresh the next week and re-reviewed the documents I had collected. I had found three Elizabeth Birds living in NYC during the 1940 census. When I looked closer, I realized that one of them was too old to be our Elizabeth, and one of them was a widow in 1940-- this could not be our Elizabeth Bird, since in 1942 she was still happily married and had been for 16 years.
I looked into the third Elizabeth Bird. At first I was discouraged, because on the census it stated that she had no occupation and no income. Was this a different lady? I wondered if it was common practice at that time to keep waitress jobs under-wraps to avoid paying taxes on the income... I thought back and in all my genealogy research I have never actually seen "Waitress" listed as an occupation on a census record. Perhaps it was common practice not to mention it-- kind of like how I never considered "babysitter" my occupation while in highschool. I also figured it was possible she was not working at the time of the census and got the job at the Algonquin a little bit later (the Times article appeared over two years later, in 1943, after all).
I decided to seek out her descendants, and contact them to see if I could confirm her identity. I did a little research and discovered that this particular Elizabeth Bird had a daughter and a son. Both had passed away. She also had grandchildren and great grandchildren-- If this was our Elizabeth, might one of her grandchildren have a story or photo from her days at The Algonquin?
In the meantime, I headed to her former place of work. Most of us rush as fast as we can through the hustle and bustle near Times Square and Rockefeller Center, but next time you are on 44th Street, between 5th & 6th Avenue, look up to see the Algonquin Hotel. It was here, 70 years ago, that Elizabeth worked as waitress. She had 22 years of waitress experience, and when Francois-- the Algonquin sommelier-- retired, she asked for the job.
The Algonquin is a storied hotel, and a bastion of Manhattan history. When you enter the lobby, you instantly feel it saturated with personality. The lobby cats meander around amidst the palms and ferns and snuggle with the receptionists. The long-time employees have their own profiles on the Algonquin's website. Music from the 1940s plays in the background and echoes off the dark wood paneling and marble floors. The Algonquin gained notoriety for the Round Table club of writers that met there each day for lunch in the 1920s. Dorothy Parker was one of the famous regulars and her name still drifts about the hotel, haunting many a conversation.
The Algonquin has historically been a special place for women. Not only were they the first to hire a female sommelier (our Elizabeth), but they were the first Manhattan hotel to officially welcome female guests traveling alone (i.e., without a male chaperone).
I naively approached the reception desk-- of course they would be as interested in this as I was.
"Hello, I'd like to speak to a manager."
"In regards to what?," the receptionist said as she pet a lobby cat that had curled up next to her phone.
"I'm writing an article about an employee that worked here back in the 1940s, and I wanted to see if there were any records I could take a look at."
"Let me call the manager."
She called the manager & explained what I was looking for. "What is the name of the employee?"
"Elizabeth Bird," I clarified. My heart began to beat faster-- I was sure that I would find the answers I was looking for here at The Algonquin.
"Elizabeth Bird." she echoed into the phone to the mystery manager. 1 second pause. "No, we don't have anything on her."
"But... but, this is really important!"
"I'm sorry, but I have some information on Dorothy Parker if you want?" She shrugged. The cat she pet gave me a surly look.
I was shocked. Obviously, the manager on the other end of the line hadn't gone through any records to see if there had been an Elizabeth Bird- how could they have in 1 second? I swallowed my pride. It's difficult to accept that something so important to you might be of zero consequence to someone else.
I glanced back. "This is not the last you'll hear of me, Algonquin!" I thought. I sent a flurry of query emails to the addresses listed on the Algonquin website. I am still waiting for a response.
Contacting Elizabeth's Possible Descendants
Without the hotel's help, I saw Elizabeth's descendants as the only lead left. I got the names of her possible grandchildren and literally spent hours searching for them on social networking sites and in on-line phonebooks. I found a few phone numbers, but most of the numbers were old, out-of-service, or had changed to fax numbers. I sent a few messages through linked-in, but wasn't sure if I'd get any responses. But the sun was setting on the day, and I still hadn't made contact. There is always a point in the research process when you start to feel a bit insane and have to question the basis of your own tenacity. You must ask yourself why you care so much about someone who is long-dead and virtually unknown. As I was about to hit "send" on my last email, I thought "What am I doing? I have one day off work at the restaurant, and I'm emailing people I don't know about a woman from the 1940s!" If you can work through this point in your research and truly commit yourself to finding the answer, then, I think, it must be a story worth telling.
For me, I already saw Elizabeth as a household name (for sommeliers anyway). I truly believe that Wine is an emerging discipline, and that right now, bloggers and wine writers are drafting the founding documents that the next generation of wine writers will build upon. Elizabeth Bird will be a part of the story, and these emails and phone calls on my day off will make that happen. History isn't what happened. History is what writers say happened. Without someone to write about her, she would be left out of the story, and I could not allow her to be overlooked.
Bleary-eyed, I did one last phone search and came up with a number. "What the heck!" I thought, and dialed. Then something wild happened...
A voice answered!
I hadn't really thought about what to say. In an instant I realized how crazy it would sound to say, "Hi, I have some questions about your grandma." If someone called me and said that, I might hang up. I'd be suspicious that they were phishing or trying to steal my identity. A small eternity of panicked silence went by that was actually about 1 second. Then, I got a blow of energy and took a cue from Elizabeth herself: I boldly asked for what I wanted, as she had done for her sommelier job a lifetime ago.
"Hi, my name is Erin Scala, and I am writing a piece about your grandmother Elizabeth Bird. I'm looking for some details about her, and a photo if you have it. Elizabeth was the first woman to work as a sommelier, or wine steward, in Manhattan."
Thankfully, the Elizabeth's granddaughter gave me the time of day. I tried to be as transparent as possible; I explained my purpose for calling, and by the end of our conversation, she seemed interested in Elizabeth's possible role in history. We exchanged emails, and I sent along copies of the documents I had collected.
But as of yet, we have been unable to confirm with 100% certainty that her grandmother Elizabeth is our sommelier Elizabeth. But maybe one day a link will turn up...
Restaurants in the 1940s
I love the last few sentences of the New York Times article: "The maitre d'Hotel, Raul Viarenzo, was reluctant. He questioned her carefully and decided to give her a tryout... That was six weeks ago. Today he is wondering why he was so worried about her ability." Especially in the climate of the time, Viarenzo could have easily laughed off Elizabeth's request. Though in retrospect his reluctance seems unfair, the truth is that he gave her an unexpected chance, and, while doing so, he took a risk and broke the status quo of the time. I'm sure he had to clear his decision with the hotel owner, Frank Case, and perhaps Case-- ever the brilliant marketer-- gave her the job in hopes for a media blitz along the lines of the New York Times article-- perhaps he even arranged for the article to be written. Standing apart from the crowd had worked to get press for The Algonquin in the past; breaking the status quo is something that Algonquin owner Frank Case was not afraid to do on a regular basis!
Algonquin Dining Room circa 1960
But there must have been more. It couldn't have been merely a press stunt. They wouldn't have opened up this job to Elizabeth unless she showed true potential to be a fine sommelier. She most likely cited her previous sommelier experience in Bermuda. She probably spoke with tables about wine on Francois' day off. Often the roles of "waiter" and "sommelier" overlap, and in her 22 years of waitress experience she most assuredly recommended bottles of wine to guests.
There are hints that Elizabeth knew her stuff. When it came to food & wine pairing, she is quoted as saying, "After all, you don't serve the same wine with fish that you do with beef. It's like telling a man to wear an overcoat in July." The article mentions that Elizabeth was a great cook, and that her interest in taste and food helped to drive her interest in wine. The writer also points out that she was well versed in vintages due to her long experience in the industry.
And the dining environment of Manhattan was as dynamic as ever. Just 50 years prior to Elizabeth's tenure as sommelier at The Algonquin "the sommelier" was barely a profession in the United States. In fact, a la carte dining as we know it had not yet come to the United States, and American guests who traveled to Europe relayed horror stories about interactions with sommeliers who ripped them off-- an air of suspicion surrounded the sommelier.
In Elizabeth's day, the a la carte menu had just started to gain popularity in Manhattan due to the success of the French-owned Delmonicos: the owners had set up their menu like the a la carte French menus back home, and by doing so they revolutionized dining in Manhattan. In the early 1900s, you'd be hard pressed to find a restaurant that wasn't serving tavern-style, cafeteria-like stews and roasts. But at Delmonico's, they had a menu with numerous items on it from which you could choose your selection; Delmonico's had an entire kitchen staff ready to cook you a meal to order. The excitement of a la carte dining must have creeped a few blocks over to The Algonquin Hotel. Frank Case must have dined at the neighboring Delmonico's on occasion and been inspired to emulate the things they were doing. Perhaps he was even moved by Delmonico's to start his own wine cellar (after Prohibition, of course) and hire the sommelier, Francois.
The Great Depression also took its toll on The Algonquin. In 1929-- just 14 years before Elizabeth became the sommelier there-- a man ordered dinner, finished his coffee, took out a revolver, and shot himself in the Algonquin dining room after loosing all his money. She must have heard of this incident.
As Elizabeth got her job at The Algonquin, WWII raged in Europe. Returning soldiers and those on leave must have come back exhausted, wounded, with horror stories and a taste for European wine. She must have spoken to many of them as she took their orders and opened their wine bottles, as they attempted to have a few hours of elegance before shipping out again.
During Elizabeth's lifetime, she witnessed WWI, The Great Depression, Prohibition, and WWII. She must have lost so many friends and neighbors in the wars, she must have listened to the radio with fear as news of Nazi invasions broke on the airwaves. She also must have heard the soldiers' stories about the restaurants and wines in France, she must have been entranced by tales about the great winemakers in Bordeaux and Burgundy.
She also had her own welfare to worry about. Perhaps Prohibition is what led her to travel to Bermuda and work at a hotel there-- I'm sure she could have made a better living selling alcohol and food in Bermuda, rather than simply selling food in the US. If a 2nd Prohibition ever came to the US and cut my pay in half, I'd probably move to the Caribbean too.
The Time Line of Elizabeth Bird
And here we are-- we've gone around the track and returned to the starting line. Despite all this searching and postulating, in a way, we are back where we started. We have a few facts, but the rest of her substance has sifted through our fingers, and Mrs. Elizabeth Bird remains a shadow. Still, I can't help but marvel that her career move back in 1943 helped pave the way for me and countless colleagues to have the jobs we do today. I feel that the best way I can pay homage to her is to shine a light on her place in history. Here are the facts about Elizabeth Bird; I will continue my search to fill in the blanks:
1900-1907 (probably 1905)
Elizabeth was born. In 1943 when the reporter asked her age, she said, "Put it down for 35," implying that she was actually a little older than 35, so I placed her birth year at some point from 1900-1907.
1921 - she became a waitress - In the 1943 article she stated that she had been a waitress for 22 years, which places her starting year close to 1921.
1922-1940 - worked in Bermuda- at some point during this time period she traveled to Bermuda and worked as a hotel waitress. While there, she studied a book about wine and was promoted to sommelier.
1927- Elizabeth married Mr. Bird. In the 1943 article she mentions that she has been married to the same man for 16 years placing their marriage at approximately 1927.
1943- Approximately April 12th, 1943, Elizabeth becomes a sommelier at the Algonquin Hotel.
1943- May 24th 1943- the New York Times publishes the article about Elizabeth.
The Act of Searching
There is only so much I can tell you about this special sommelier, because she is no longer here to tell you herself. But, for me, the process of chasing Elizabeth Bird is as important as her story. I cannot imagine the joy an archeologist must feel when they uncover the first layers of dirt on an ancient site-- what secrets will the ground give up? In a way, I felt the same way when I stumbled upon the Times article about Elizabeth-- except instead of the earth, I was mining a few quotes from an unknown woman who, in her own small way, changed the world.
By placing what little we know about Elizabeth against a backdrop of the political, cultural, and economic landscape of her time, the hazy picture of her comes into focus. By chasing Elizabeth Bird we give her moment in history a place in the timeline of the sommelier profession; in the act of searching we honor her contribution to our field.
Anonymous (1887) "The Bill at Bignon's" New York Times. 10 April 1887.
Soyle, Henry J. Enumerator (1940) "S.D. No 47; E.D. No. 24-325A; Sheet No. 3B." Sixteenth Census of the United States: 1940. 6 April 1940.
Anonymous (1943) "Woman Takes Job as Wine Steward." The New York Times. 24 May 1943.
Bakas, Rick (2011) "The History of Restaurants & Dining." Wine Country Eating.
James, Margery Kirkbride. (1971) Studies in the Medieval Wine Trade. Oxford: Clarendon.
Miller, Tom. (2012) "The 1902 Algonquin Hotel -- No. 59 West 44th Street." Daytonian in Manhattan (Blog). 21 April 2012.
Parr, Rajat and Jordan Mackay. (2010) Secrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World's Top Professionals. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Steinberger, Michael. (2008) "A Turn of the Corkscrew." Slate. 2 January 2008.
The chocolatier scene in Manhattan is creative, inspiring, and inventive. Chocolatiers all over the city make whimsical treats, and the world of chocolates often overlaps with savory flavors, pastry concepts, mixology, and wine.
I see chocolatiers as an elite group of pastry chefs, known for their creativity and ability to work well with such a finicky product. They work at a unique intersection where all flavor concepts are viable: a chef may rarely get to work with cacao, but a chocolatier will work with any of a chef's main ingredients on a given day. A pastry chef may send out for truffles, but a chocolatier must know how to work with all sorts of pastry concepts. A bartender may never use chocolate behind the bar, but chocolatiers work with alcohol on a regular basis.
Chocolate has always overlapped with beverages; it has been drunk as a beverage for several thousands of years, and only over the last few centuries have solid chocolates emerged as a mainstream concept.
Especially when considering chocolate's beverage-oriented history, it is interesting to see how today's beverages have influenced the production of solid chocolates. When it comes to drink-inspired chocolates, sometimes a chocolate will be inspired by a particular wine, at other times, a chocolate will emulate a popular cocktail. It is popular to fill chocolates with booze and ganache. Tea powders or essences might be used, or chocolates might be meant to artistically resemble or evoke the idea of a beverage.
Here are a few of my favorite drink-inspired chocolates from around Manhattan:
At Bond St. Chocolates, the chocolatier is a former restaurant pastry chef veteran. She is not messing around with her Elijah Craig bourbon chocolates, or her rum chocolates. Once you are good and buzzed off of these, it is interesting to ponder the gilded chocolate mini-statues she makes of the Buddha, Mary, and other religious figures.
The shop is very tiny, and the chocolate making area is right behind the counter, so you can always smell what fresh chocolate is in the works.
Green Apple and Calvados Caramel from Chocolat Moderne
<--- Here is Chocolat Moderne's Green Apple & Calvados infused caramel.
They also make one called "Player," filled with Peaty Single Malt Scotch flavored caramel.
Chardonnay Oak Smoked Chocolates at L'Atelier
<-- L'atelier makes this interesting chardonnay and oak-smoked chocolate.
Caipirinha Chocolates at Marie Belle
At Marie Belle, they offer several cocktail-inspired chocolates.
Here is their "Caipirinha" made with white chocolate, cachaca and lime---->
They also have a "Mojito" chocolate made from rum and mint.
Frangelico Chocolate at Marie Belle
<--- At Marie Belle they also have some chocolates inspired by spirits, like this Frangelico chocolate.
Xocolatti Interior and Sake Truffle
<--- At Xocolatti their wall is lined with chocolate boxes; you feel as if you are literally inside of a chocolate box! They have a blue-tinted sake flavored truffle.
Champagne flavored chocolate at Royce
Royce chocolates are a bit different- these come from Japan, and you can purchase boxes of chocolate covered potato chips, green tea flavored chocolate bites, or Champagne flavored chocolate.
Kee's is one of my favorites in the city-- these chocolates are always homemade and fresh. Their drink-inspired chocolates include: Cognac, Green Tea, Mango-Green Tea, Mint Mocha, and Champagne.
Maison is old school and professional-- all the employees have perfect posture and are always buttoned up. The chocolates line up ever so perfectly, and the service is on point; but you might want to let lose when you have a bite of their "Bacchus" chocolate made with rum and flambe raisins!
<---Bacchus - Rum & Flambe Raisins
Pollak vines just before budbreak 4/13/13
Pollak Vineyards in Virginia (Monticello AVA) makes a variety of wines that have helped to pin down typicity in Monticello AVA wine. In the last 30 years, Virginia's number of wineries have grown from 30 to 200, and Virginia is now the fifth largest state producer of wine in the country. In these three decades, Virginia has gone through a great period of experimentation, and the state has begun to settle into a few varieties that express themselves well here. (primarily viognier and cabernet franc). Pollak has helped to guide this trend, and Pollak is also well known for helping to identify another variety that works well in Virginia: petit verdot.
Petit verdot is very late ripening; so late, that it is often used in small percentages (3-4%) in Bordeaux blends because the full crop doesn't always make it (though reports are coming in from Bordeaux that this is changing due to global warming, and that petit verdot is being blended at higher percentages).
Virginia's climate is so unique-- it's one of the rare places in the world where petit verdot can fully ripen (in a good year!). The summer temperatures are hot and the humidity is high-- in deep summer the grape growing conditions can be literally subtropical. What saves the day in Virginia is the relatively cool spring and fall that encourage the grapes to maintain their acidity.
In fact, petit verdot can ripen so well here that many growers produce 100% petit verdot bottlings. In the late 1990s the winemaker at Jefferson vineyards was the first to do this, and many other producers have followed suit.
The petit verdot at Pollak is by far their most vigorous grape variety in the vineyards. They graft it on a very un-vigorous rootstock to try and slow it down, but it is still their biggest producer.
But vintage variation in Virginia is drastic and can affect the outcome of all their varietals: some years, Virginia will have a great growing season (2010). But there might be hurricanes (2011, 2012) or tropical storms (2008) that bring with them intense amounts of rainfall. Or their might be earthquakes (2011). There could be an extreme draught (2007). You just never know what the year will bring; and the contributing factors can range from pressure depressions over the Atlantic to tectonic plate movement, to spreading drought conditions in the Carolinas.
Pollak vine - Pollak logo
Pollak's logo imitates their vine training methods.
Pollak tasting room and winery
They make the wine underneath the tasting room. The tasting room staff is great (we loved Barry!).
Benoit Pineau is their winemaker; he took the reigns from Jake Busching who recently moved to Grace Estates.
Some of my standout favorites were:
Pollak Vineyards viognier 2011 (Monticello, Virginia)
95% steel, 5% neutral French oak.
classic viognier flavor & aroma, dried apricots, bright acidity
Pollak Vineyards pinot gris 2012 (Monticello, Virginia)
12 hour cold soak
great texture- the cold soak gave this some great flavor complexity and some light tannins.
Pollak Vineyards cabernet franc 2010 (Monticello, Virginia)
this is from a great vintage in Virginia, so is an example of what can be made in a great year
powerful structure, bold tannins, tart acidity
Pollak Vineyards petit verdot 2010 (Monticello, Virginia)
great vintage, lovely wine-- well balanced
Pollak Vineyards "Mille Fleurs" 2009 (Monticello, Virginia)
This is an interesting fortified late harvest viognier (17.5%) made in the style of a white port, but sweeter due to the late harvest.
They first ferment the late harvest viognier with native yeast, then they fortify this with estate brandy. Because of Virginia laws, you cannot have a distillery on site at a winery, so Pollak sends some chardonnay/viognier wine off to be distilled nearby.
sweetness from the late harvest, but balanced with acidity and a refreshing bitterness
Just outside the tasting room you can take a bottle or snacks on the lawn by the lake.
Local Economy Integration & Waste Reduction
What I love about Virginia agriculture is the serious focus on the entire range of available agricultural products. Especially in the Charlottesville area (the Monticello AVA) there is a heavy focus on the environment, recycling, and waste reduction. This mindset carries over into vineyards, and many wineries make secondary products: honey, vinegar, jams, etc. out of vineyard waste and from the diversity of agricultural products that are available on the land.
<--Pollak makes these great vinegars and they also promote a range of local jams.
There are some fantastic farms, creameries, and beekeepers in Virginia, and it's great to see the array of locally made products in the tasting rooms. Pollak offered this McClure baby swiss from Mountain View Farmstead Cheeses (all made with raw milk from their herds in Fairfield, Va).
Deer in Virginia
New Zealand and Oregon have hungry birds to deal with, Western Australia worries about kangaroos among the vines... in Virginia, deer are one of the biggest vineyard threats. If you look to the left of this pictured row of vines, you will see a 12-14 foot fence in the background. Its sole purpose is to keep deer from eating the grapes.
The high deer population is both a blessing and a curse. It's an indicator of the swaths of forrest land that make rural Virginia such a special place-- you can easily see a group of deer on a daily basis if you live here. They also are a great source of food-- lots of people here grow up on local venison.
But deer also destroy our gardens-- everyone who gardens must construct a huge fence, and those who don't try all sorts of tricks, like hanging deodorant-soap bars on your plants to keep them away, or spraying certain oil essences on your plants that deer find unattractive. Night driving is always a danger; I personally have had many close calls when it comes to hitting deer on the road, and deers are a common victim of roadkill.
I find it amazing that Pollak has constructed this tall fence around their vines to keep out the deer! It is a testament to how serious deer damage can be to a vineyard in this area. But the hard work and deer-proofing is worth it!
These are caraffungile: drinking vessels used by Italian-Americans who moved to NYC during the late 1800s/early-mid 1900s. Caraffungile were used by those who emigrated from Southern Italy (mostly south of Rome and into Sicily). The vessels resemble decanters; they have pinched sections along the neck that act as grips, and the top fans outward to create a drinking lip. I've included a regular wine bottle (750ml) in the back right to show the small size of these vessels.
Our uncle has a few of these family heirlooms, and for years I've heard legends about these things. When we went over for dinner, much to my delight, he brought them out! I had never seen anything quite like them! You hold them from the pinched portion of the neck.
They are hand-blown-- you can see the punt marks on the bottom, and the slight waviness that occurs in handblown glass. There are no producer markings on either one.
This looks so much like a decanter, but it's purpose is a consumption vessel.
We began practicing pouring wines into them and drinking from them-- you have to hold them almost vertical to get the wine into your mouth. I was having so much fun-- it reminded me of the porrons in Spain. And much like a porron, drinking from this type of vessel eliminates the aromatic component of the wine drinking, which is probably why these are no longer in use today. From an empirical point of view, I thought it was interesting to taste the wine without smelling it-- it forced you to focus on the wine's texture in a completely different way, and the experience was quite different.
My husband's great aunt told us how her husband had whittled down a cork into a tiny point and used it as a stopper for his.
When these were common in the Italian-American NYC neighborhoods (like mine in Pelham Bay and certain areas of Brooklyn), it was part of the local culture for people to make wine each year and store it in barrels or other vessels in the basement. My neighborhood is a great example: many houses still have pergolas in the backyard adorned with vines (I have two!). People without vines could buy grapes from nearby. Our local grocery store still sells demi-johns for fermenting during the harvest season, and making your own wine is common in the neighborhood. Many people have halved wine barrels as planters in the front yard-- relics from this bygone era. Sometimes, on a warm summer day, you can hear older Italian women singing arias in the backyard-- it's beautiful.
In the mid 1900s the standard 750ml wine bottle wasn't as ubiquitous as it is today. Since it was common for people to have barrels of wine in their homes, it also makes sense that people would have personal, portable drinking vessels as household items-- similar to how we carry our stainless steel coffee mugs to the cafe for a morning cup of joe. If you look at the tops of these glass vessels, the opening is just large enough for the mouth of a wine barrel spigot.
<-- This one has a wider mouthpiece, which was much easier to drink from.
The wider mouthpiece on this one also resembles a funnel (which helps when filling this up at the barrel). I consulted the family elders about the word "caraffungile" and they believe that this word is "carafe" + "little funnel"; pronounced in Napolitano dialect. My spelling here is a phonetic version of what they heard growing up, so it is possible that the proper written spelling could be different.
[*if any Italian dialect experts are reading this and have ideas, please chime in on the comments section!]
The green one above belonged to my husband's late grandfather (pictured here, b. 1916). In WWII he was a decorated lead motorcyclist for the front line Second Armored Division who saw action in North Africa, the invasions of Sicily and Normandy (Omaha Beach), the Battle of the Bulge, then on through to Berlin. When the war was over, he returned, married, and would, from time-to-time, drink wine from the green caraffungile pictured above. He favored Opici Barberone and Villa Armando Rustico; but his father (my husband's great grandfather) made wine from scratch.
My father-in-law remembers:
Grandpa had a huge wooden wine press in the dirt floor basement of the 3 story apartment building on Pacific Street off Atlantic Ave. Grandpa would get his grapes in Jersey and after the initial pressing, my Aunts would have to stomp the residue. They didn't much like that chore. Grandpa made his wine for the neighborhood, and Italians were allowed to legally make wine during Prohibition because it was considered a cultural exception to the law. Grandpa's wine was red and dry, and much sought after (he didn't care for white wine). One of his sayings about making wine and fermenting wine was "You can't cook it too much and you can't cook it too little." Grandpa would bottle it in whatever was handy (I mostly remember Heinz ketchup bottles). Grandpa's family were farmers in a rural town just outside of Naples which is where he probably learned how to make wine.
At our most recent family dinner when the caraffungile came out, they brought with them all sorts of memories, and the Grandmas at the table began telling us about parties they used to have in the neighborhood. We started passing around the caraffungile and practiced taking sips without dripping.
But the caraffungile was more of a private drinking vessel-- brought out at home, when drinking alone or at dinner. These were not used much at parties or larger gatherings.
I wondered out loud about why we never use them anymore. Ever-practical Grandma leaned over and patted my hand. "I never liked it," she said, "because I didn't think it was sanitary."