The poetry of wine
by Anthony Giglio
Who’s ready for another round of my favorite never-to-be-seen gameshow, ‘Wine Words Free Association’
(or WWFA—#IYKYK)? Here’s how it works: I’m your snarky sommelier host and I give you five clues, one at a time, to figure out which wine is being cleverly described. If you don’t guess it, I get to heckle you after each clue you miss. Ready? You have five seconds…go!
Your first clue: pool hair… Nothing?
Your second clue: fancy track… Really?
Your third clue: Jane Lynch… Oh, come on!
Your fourth clue: Sunday best… Cut! It! Out!
And your final clue is Tide PODS®… Do you even have a pulse?
The answer, obvi, is Weingut Matthias Warnung’s ‘Basis’ Grüner Veltliner from Niederösterreich, Austria—duh! OK, OK, Jane Lynch and laundry detergent might seem like over-the-top descriptors, but keep reading and I promise it’ll make sense.
Tasting wine is fun; writing descriptions about it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Or at least it wasn’t always for me when I was writing Food & Wine’s annual wine guide, tasting through several thousand bottles each year to review 1,700—all of which required 50-word completely ‘unique’ descriptions. I’d get weekly reports from my editor telling me how many times I repeated adjectives such as ‘juicy,’ ‘fruity’ and ‘tight,’ and I’d have to go back and get ever-more creative, such that ‘juicy’ might become ‘shirt-staining,’ ‘fruity’ could evolve into the whole ‘cornucopia’ and ‘tight’ might devolve into ‘last-notch-on-the-belt.’ Yes, I’m cringing too at that last one.
That’s why I was so delighted to read the wine list at Lil’ Deb’s Oasis in Hudson. That description of Grüner Veltliner, above, is exactly how it’s written by Julia Johnson, Lil’ Deb’s general manager. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and for Johnson that’s exactly the point. “The way we describe our wines may be confusing because instead of traditional descriptions we do what we call wine poems,” says Johnson, defining them as free-association riffs. The poems might look nonsensical or just fun, but Johnson points out that they’re directly rooted in the wine and the act of drinking them, just like any sommelier guide is.
“It’s free association, however it’s not totally free in that it’s directly connected to what the wines are and how they express themselves,” Johnson says. The only hard rules are that you can’t write a wine poem alone, you can’t use food words, and you can’t use traditional wine words. In other words, wine poems are a way to break down the traditional barriers of entry for learning about wine. So much of wine culture is rooted in elitism and a learned lexicon that’s intimidating and off putting to most people. Writing wine poems is empowering, in that it gives a pathway for people to talk about wine from a personal space, not a preconceived notion about what it’s supposed to be. It’s been said many times that there are no wrong answers in wine, but it certainly doesn’t always feel that way.”
How Johnson and her team arrive upon these poems is wonderfully democratic. “We all sit down together, the whole staff with family meal, or sometimes at the end of the night with guests, and we drink together and then free associate, thinking of feelings and sensations—but we try not to use traditional words,” she says.
When I asked Lil’ Deb’s chef-owner and creative director Carla Kaya Pérez-Gallardo about Johnson’s unconventional wine list, laughter ensued. “I’ll say that accessibility, generosity and inclusion have always been central to the ethos of the restaurant and our style of hospitality.” The restaurant’s ethos is felt so strongly that a book about it debuted earlier this summer, Please Wait To Be Tasted: The Lil’ Deb’s Oasis Cookbook, which Pérez-Gallardo wrote with Hannah Black and Wheeler Brown (Princeton Architectural).
“So much of what we do is rooted in community and it’s so important that all elements of the restaurant reflect that. We work with local farms, have a range of different kinds of pop ups where we help incubate ideas for all kinds of collaborators, and in the spirit of reciprocity. Sixty-nine cents are added to every menu item sold and donated to a range of different mutual aid programs each month.”
The way it works for Johnson is to figure out what feels new and exciting and through the lens of the menu. “We make tropical comfort food, food that makes you sweat from places that make you sweat, food that’s layered in bold flavors that may seemingly look simple but pack a wild punch. Our wines are meant to dance within that experience and add another layer to be explored.” To that end, Johnson takes lots of risks. “We’ll taste something we’ve never tasted before, put it on the list and then ask our guests to trust us and take us on,” says Johnson.
Johnson describes the whole process as a really grounding experience, to have to step outside of what you think you know and step into how you feel. This reflects her vision of service as rooted in connectivity and the personal. “At the end of the day, we drink what we like and aren’t swayed by popularity, trend or convention. Seeing is believing, and tasting is truth.”
Wine List 2.0
By Julia Johnson, General Manager / Wine Director, Lil’ Deb’s Oasis
[SPARKLING] LaDona, Los Pilares, San Diego—Muscat Blanc
kneepads, whipcrack, can-can, motor oil, secret tunnel, gusano
[WHITE] K Pi Castilla Y León Daniel Ramos Castilla y León, Spain—Albillo 2020
breakfast in bed, wind turbine, 10-step skin care routine, z train
[WHITE] Fledermaus, 2 Naturkinder, Franken, Germany—Müller-Thurgau, Riesling, Sylvaner, 2019
gel pen, palomino, chrysalis, milk bath, tall grass
[ROSÉ] Rose d’Eon, Jean-François DeBourg, Languedoc—Roussillon, France—Gamay 2020
painted desert, Bridgerton, arterial veins, corsage, miss sixty logo
[ORANGE] Macerado 69, Viñedos Herrera Alvarado, Marga Marga Valley, Chile—Chardonnay 2019
Old enough to know, young enough not to care
[RED] What Are We?, Swick, Oregon—Marsanne, Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc 2020
diving for pennies, heart in a cardigan, beaded necklace, first cigarette
[RED] Clai, Ottocento, Croatia—Refosco, Merlot 2015
cold plunge at Russian baths, trampoline fun park, EZ pass, loam