In the book Le Vin en Question, journalist Hans Ulrich Kesselring asked Jules Chauvet, the father of natural wine-making, how he chose his profession. Chauvet, a third-generation French winemaker and chemist who died in 1989, didn’t extol on days spent in the vines with his grandfather or learning in the cellar at his father’s side. Instead, he answered only this: “I came to it naturally with the environment.”
The same might be said of his fellow Frenchman Phillip “Fifi” Essome, who sells the book at Passage de la Fleur, a 280-square-foot wine shop in Prospect Heights whose elbow-crook-shaped shelf space is entirely dedicated to natural wines. A co-founder of the Ten Bells wine bar in Manhattan, Essome now sells mostly French bottles, with a smattering from Italy, Spain, Georgia, Slovenia, Germany, Austria, South Africa and Chile — all made via spontaneous fermentation and without modern winemaking’s myriad methods of chemical trickery.
These wines, says Essome, are “more alive in a clean, natural, passionate way instead of one made more in, so to speak, an industrial way. The wine would not be tricked to fit a certain demand,” he continues. “They were, instead, expressing what they were — the terroir and the human working that land.”
Note that he’s not trying to convince us that they’re morally better or ethically responsible (although plenty of others would say just that). For Essome, really, it boils down to the fact that, to him, they simply taste better, and maybe more importantly, they smell better, too.
“What I want in a wine,” he exclaims, “is to have great aromas!” And the way to make that happen, he believes, is with a natural winemaker’s hands-off way of producing.
Just as with Chauvet, the trajectory that led Essome to that conviction — and to becoming one of the city’s expert purveyors and importers of these wines — was certainly an organic path. Except that Essome’s discovery happened far from his native Burgundian soil and in quite possibly the most unnatural setting of all: New York City.
Indeed, back when Essome was growing up in Burgundy — perhaps the most storied, collected and fetishized of all French wine regions — he never really drank wine at all. “I didn’t like wines. I thought it was crappy stuff. I was boozing,” he says, laughing. “I came to New York because I wanted to be a bartender and make cocktails — that was my goal.”
So in 2000, this son of a diplomat and real estate agent leapt from working in construction sales in France to standing behind the East Midtown bar of Le Bateau Ivre. But Bateau had only a beer and wine license, sequestering Essome to cork-popping instead of cocktail shaking.
“I didn’t know anything about wine,” he says, “but their list had 250 wines by the bottle and 100 by the glass, so I started to discover French wine.”
Essome left for a job as a waiter at the now-closed Le Père Pinard on Ludlow Street.
“At Le Père Pinard, I started as a bartender and rapidly became the wine buyer and then the [general manager],” he says of his time spent describing, popping and pouring wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and other French wine regions night after night. But even with all this newfound knowledge about wine, the drink itself still left him uninspired.
That is, until he met Arnaud Erhart, the pioneering chef and owner of the now-shuttered Red Hook restaurant 360, where Essome would trek weekly to hang out and sip.
“One day I had a wine that blew my mind — it was a Morgon from Jean Foillard,” he remembers of the Cru Beaujolais producer who was a student of Jean Chauvet, Essome’s hero. “With this wine, I had a blast of a vision,” he remembers. “From then on, I had something that opened in me, and I was ready to discover more.”
Essome learned the stories of the natural wine vineyards, the vignerons who tended to them and their techniques—or, in many cases, lack thereof.
“I went to France and met with the winemakers,” he says, “to see how things were made and done and what difference there would be — and everything was making sense.” Wine was no longer a commodity for selling, slurping and forgetting; it was an expression of a place and a time and a person.
It was also delicious: “The aromatics, the earthiness and fruitiness of these wines, they’re clean, lean and just kind of perfect.”
Eventually, he revamped the entire list of Le Père Pinard, shifting it to three-quarters natural wines from none. And in 2008, he opened the all-natural wine bar The Ten Bells with two partners, filling out the wine list with bottles he was procuring from like-minded importers like Jenny & Francois and Kermit Lynch.
By then he was on sojourns back home to France, discovering small, hidden gems of producers and adding them to his list, beloved both by natural wine enthusiasts and the New York Times’ wine writer Eric Asimov, who poured out high praise in a 2009 review.
But Essome had always dreamed of selling bottles, too, which New York State laws prohibit doing at retail for bars and restaurants. So last spring he opened Passage de la Fleur in a comedically small space on a still-scrubby stretch of Vanderbilt Avenue, eventually ending his partnership in The Ten Bells. (The place is so eensie, he recently bought a couch to leave on the sidewalk in front when the weather is pleasant, he says, “so I have a little more room.”)
Today about half of his stock is from small, first-time imports of French producers he finds on the driving trips he takes three or four times a year. As a result, the floor-to- ceiling shelves are chockablock with rarely seen bottles from Languedoc, the Rhône Valley, Jura, Alsace, Beaujolais, Loire and, of course, his native Burgundy, each with a story and an accompanying handwritten card to tell it. He also carries small-production, occasionally obscure spirits that are the stuff of cocktail geeks’ dreams, hailing from everywhere from Chicago to Grande Champagne in Cognac; wonky books like Chauvet’s; and Perceval knives from Thiers, France, with fanciful handles fashioned from wooly mammoth tusks or French boxwood for which he started an import company just to bring in.
Often, there among the merchandise is something for you to sip. Because to Essome, “talking is one thing, but it’s the wine that’s going to talk to you the most.” Kind of like the one that changed the direction of his life years ago, sitting at the bar at 360.
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Photo credit: Alan Gastelum