Nectar of the Gods – Traveling far and wide for the best wines and olive oil
Jean-François Bizalion has been sourcing olive oil from France, Spain, and Italy for 15 years; it’s the cornerstone on which he and his wife, Helen, modeled their popular French café and market in bustling Great Barrington. “It brings a flavor to this area that is foreign,” says Bizalion, who hails from Arles, a city in the Provence region of southern France. Or, in his native tongue, un autre monde—testament to his passion for traveling abroad in order to bring his bounty back to the Berkshires.
Bizalion procures olive oil from countries that border the Mediterranean, and the common denominator is the depth of history and culture that accompanies the olive trees and vineyards in that region—both dating back more than 3,000 years to the Phoenicians. It’s a collision of culture and cuisine, with Berkshire residents poised to glean the benefits.
Bizalion’s most recent “olive oil safari” led him to Portugal, a country whose vast Atlantic coastline places it outside of his usual sourcing region. The rich history with which the Alentejo region is infused piqued Bizalion’s curiosity. In March, he and Helen covered roughly 650 kilometers in 48 hours, scouring the vast and sparsely populated land for family-owned and -operated olive-oil producers spanning multiple generations. They happened upon a Swiss family in Serpa, who bought an old orchard a generation ago and rapidly cultivated an olive grove in order to enter production. The foundation of their operation hinged on the principles of Rudolph Steiner, who understood the farm as an organism inclusive of the people, animals, and plants inhabiting the land. It is a theory rooted in feeding the earth, not simply the crops that grow there.
This quest for progressive types of agriculture is a quality Bizalion shares with Mark Firth and Jenn Nacht of Bon Raisin Wines. The pair of Berkshire residents, along with Firth’s brother-in-law Christopher Nelmes, have cultivated a business from their eponymous search for “the good grape,” as their moniker suggests. Their collaboration sprang from necessity: When Firth left Brooklyn (and his stake in Diner and Marlow & Sons), he was unable to procure many of the wines he had been getting in New York. The few he could get his hands on came through circuitous channels. As Firth ventured to curate a natural wine list at The Prairie Whale, his restaurant in Great Barrington, he wanted to find wines that eclipsed more traditional varietals. And so, the seeds for his newest venture were sown: importing a selection of artisanal wines from conscientious, small-batch and often undiscovered wine makers. Eight years later, not only are these wines in the mainstream, but Bon Raisin has also introduced natural wines to local establishments ranging from the Red Lion Inn and Rubiner’s Cheesemongers to the South Egremont Spirit Shoppe—a fact that translates to accessibility for the consumer.
“It’s been made for years, a really old technique,” says Firth of this summer’s current trend, orange wine. This variety of natural white wine, whose hue comes from prolonged contact with the grape skins, is not found on traditional wine lists, which means customers are giddy when they find it’s available by the glass at Firth’s bar. This commitment to vin naturel is best defined as nothing added, nothing taken away. “All the components of a conventional wine without all the crap,” is how Nacht sees it. Commercial yeast, for instance, changes the way the wine will respond to environmental factors; sulfites, which are naturally occurring, when added stop the wine from changing. Firth and Nacht seek out wine producers who exercise minimal intervention, or letting the grapes do what they do naturally.
And they are quick to dispel any untoward reputation of natural wine being “barnyard, or kind of funky,” says Firth, who describes them as both highly drinkable and appealing. “With natural wine, it’s not ready until it’s ready,” says Firth. Which is why he seeks growers and producers who farm organically, many relying on goats to tend the fields and hands to pick the grapes.
That perspective unites him, on a culinary and philosophical level, with Bizalion. It’s a concept called terroir—French for earth— which, in a much larger context, revolves around the aggregate characteristics that gives wine grapes and olives their distinctive character. Soil, climate, and sunlight all contribute to an end product, meaning that there is little chance of replicating what happens, from one batch to the next, when making wine or olive oil. A super-hot and dry growing season, for example, translates to very ripe grapes which make for full-bodied wine; conversely, little sun and drought conditions translate to fewer grapes and less wine. The same variables govern olive oil, which means local importers must focus on what is constant: individuals who practice sound growing philosophies.
Firth and Nacht took their first trip to the Natural Wine Show in Montpellier, France, in January 2018. They attended a series of satellite wine shows, called wine salons, organized in large event halls. Assembled there are the farmers, grandsons who gleaned their knowledge from grandfathers, “who don’t stretch the rules and who keep things in check,” says Firth of the organic farming practices which are not as “jumped up” as they are in the States. This past January, Nacht met up with Nelmes (who lives in Paris) at the wine salons in France’s Loire Valley. “It’s such a tight-knit environment,” she says, noting the purpose of these trips is to find new distributors, most of whom have never sent their wine to the States. What drives Firth is a desire to avoid the damage commercial wine operations do to the environment. “It’s become a huge agri-business,” he says, pointing to the commercial pesticides and monoculture that is killing the bees and damaging the water supply. If he is thinking about it from a global, altruistic perspective, Nacht cuts straight to the chase: “I eat clean, so I want to drink clean.”
That said, clients are intrinsically curious about the backstory of the winemakers and how the wines are made. Take, for example, Remi Poujol. He moved to a tiny town in Languedoc, an hour south of San Pellier, a region known for conventional wine production. He followed his instincts of resorting to organic farming practices and employing Roman sandstone blocks to build his temperature-controlled home and winery. Meanwhile, his competitors carried on with conventional methods. “At first he was considered the black sheep—in his winemaking practices—and now he has become what we call a wine rock star,” says Nacht. While once inaccessible in the Berkshires, these wines are now close at hand thanks to the relationship that Bon Raisin has cultivated with Poujol and other natural winemakers abroad.
“It’s always good to meet the people you are going to deal with,” says Bizalion who is drawn to multi-generational farming operations. “Why do I like that? The grandfather is going to take his grandson into the field and teach him everything he knows.” This practice yields both quality product and honest transactions, qualities local foodies have come to value in the Berkshires. Then there are the health benefits of both wine and olive oil. When olive oil is high quality, it benefits heart health, joints, skin, and fights cancer. “It’s endless,” says Bizalion.
Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age, which is why at Bizalions they use it for everything, from vinaigrette and aioli to mayonnaise and Caesar salad dressing. There is a parallel between the Mediterranean olive oil business and the apple orchards in this area, says Bizalion. “When I miss the olive trees, from Provence, I go and see an apple orchard in the Berkshires.” The way a farmer prunes each tree and gathers his crop is what he finds most appealing. His pride and passion—fueled by a love of culture and the outdoors—intersect in the most basic of concepts: Know your farmer, know your food. “It’s about leaving something for future generations.”