Friday, March 7, 2014
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 … 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.
(Continued on page 2)