This is a personal story, and I doubt anything I’ve ever had published has contained as many first-person singular pronouns as this one is sure to carry.
That may become tiresome and off-putting for you, but I’ll risk it because I wish to speak truly.
In early spring of 2011, Ned Swain, a Maine wine distributor, called me to ask if I “want to go down to New York City and meet a crazy Slovenian winemaker.”
I had to pay my way, and didn’t really have the time to take off from work, and I knew nothing of Slovenia or its wine or this winemaker in particular. But there was something in Swain’s simple request that poked at me, and I said, “Yes.”
We met at a restaurant, soon joined by Jean-Michel Morel, winemaker at Kabaj, his partner Tomo Ceh and a representative of Kabaj’s U.S. importer named Stetson Robbins.
Over dinner, we all tasted the wines and talked. I learned about the region in northwest Slovenia, the indigenous grapes there and Morel’s unconventional (though very traditional) approach to making wine.
I was drawn immediately to these people. I was fascinated by the wines and the whole story behind them, even though they were difficult to get my head around.
There was something intimidating about the strange flavors I was tasting, a dissonance between color, structure, aroma and taste.
It was A Moment: the shifting ground, confusion, tug at the heart, headiness, humility, awe — all signaling the birth of something new. I wasn’t immediately “taken by” the wines; it wasn’t that simple. Rather, maybe we can say that I was “given to” them, as in a mentorship.
Several months later, I was to be traveling in Europe for work, and a quick look at the map showed that I could maybe pull off a quick side trip to Goriska Brda, the region in Slovenia where Ceh and Morel lived.
I stayed at Kabaj for 30 hours or so, soaking up (um â€¦ yeah) everything I could about the wines, the land, the culture, the people.
Morel and his wife, Katja, operate a little B & B there, and their teenage daughter, Tina, looked after a bunch of younger kids and animals running around.
Since then I’ve drunk the wines that I hauled back from my trip. I’ve written about Kabaj for this newspaper and for a magazine. Some influential sommeliers in New York and California have gotten behind the wines. The journal Wine & Spirits named Kabaj one of their Top 100 Wineries of 2013.
In an admittedly minor context, these somewhat weird Slovenian wines have taken off.
The importer Stetson Robbins’ parents live on Peaks Island, it turns out. So about a year ago Robbins moved from Los Angeles to New York, and he visits Portland periodically. And when Morel came to the United States this past October, mostly to be feted at the Wine & Spirits party in San Francisco, he made a stop in Portland.
I helped organize a casual tasting of the wines with some well-made traditional Slovenian food.
Morel was there with his daughter Tina, now about to exit her teens and every bit the sophisticated international promoter of her native culture.
Only 20 or so people showed up, but every single one of them was blown away, and I was put in mind of Brian Eno’s famous comment about the first Velvet Underground album, that only 30,000 people bought it but every one of them started a band.
What was so remarkable about the tasting? I think the wines are terrific. But it was Morel himself, the power of his personality and straight-up realness of his entire being, that stole the show.
His English is OK, and we caught probably 70 percent of what he was saying. The phrases that emerged intact — “it is the way of the old times,” “this is the whole life” — were cryptic, intense, not narrowly informative.
They spoke from a place we, in our culture here, no longer have access to. We’re too fast and distant and all knowing. Everyone drinking the wines in Morel’s presence knew what was up.
I want to raise a fist for cultivating this web of relationships, this richness of context. I can’t enter that web through reading. I can’t enter it with a buyers’ guide and point scores. I can’t enter that web on the Web, despite Facebook’s or LinkedIn’s utility for keeping in touch.
I can only really connect through embodied interactions, over time, with people, places and things.
And look: I have no illusions that very many people have the opportunities I do to travel and meet others.
This is more a manifesto for connections, at whatever level we can make them. The important thing is to trust in the process of welcoming a stranger, someone or something that doesn’t fit the templates.
That in itself is a rejection of commodity culture, of the notion of wine as a lifestyle choice or series of entertainments. Despite the name of a popular wine journal, we are not meant to be wine spectators.
Nor hoarders: Like anyone, I get caught up in the vast number of wines there are to learn about, taste, own, drink, describe. It’s a materialism both worldly and spiritual, and no less injurious for being high-minded and geeky.
It can be good to not have so much variety in one’s life, to remain increasingly true to decreasingly much, to go deep rather than wide. The traditional-culture sensibility we regret having lost — the sensibility that was so magnetic in Morel that night at the tasting — might be regained by a newfound acceptance of limits, a contentment that finds comprehension by not chasing comprehensiveness.
Part of me will be over there exploring the vast world of wine. Another part will be over here, following vintage after vintage of Kabaj until the day I die.
Wine is not the only realm with dual power — to tempt toward anxious materialism and guide toward a freer approach. When Morel was here, he brought me a Kabaj T-shirt that simply reads, “Wine Connecting People.” It’s so true, but the subject of that slogan is less important than the verb, and what I’ve written here is a prayer to connect with whatever raw materials are at hand.
A fuller spectrum of Kabaj wines is now available in Maine, thanks to many people’s work. I’m in it as a custodian, for the long haul.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog is soulofwine.com, and he can be reached at [email protected]