The line that hit me between the eyes was a quote lifted from an article I read in the August 2009 issue of W Magazine. The article was about Naples, Italy. The quote was from Mario Codognato, the chief curator at the Museo D’Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina, Naples’ museum of contemporary art. “Naples,” he said, “is the most antiglobal, and therefore the most avant-garde, of cities.”
The line stayed in the back of my mind for days, then it invaded the front of my mind where it encountered the majority of my other thoughts, subdued them, and made itself the interim king of my mind, a benevolent despot who ruled with the authenticity and compassion that live in simple truths. I thought about Santa Fe and why so many of us consider ourselves lucky to live here. Like Naples, we are an outpost, a frontier town that resists being homogenized by the corporate religion that intends to convert the whole world into one, big, monotheistic brand. I thought about rich people, too. I thought about the way they have to drive the same cars, collect the same art, drink the same wines, stay in the same hotels, and mouth the same hackneyed phrases about “free market” capitalism and “creeping” socialism. I thought about their sanitized mansions, their paranoid support staffs, their endless travel plans, and their collective belief that personal wealth constitutes prima facie evidence of personal enlightenment.
These are the global players, the savvy investors who know how to make money on the sound a pin makes when it drops on a marble floor in Shanghai. These are the people whose miscalculations were (and still are) subsidized by the American taxpayer, courtesy of George W. Bush, Henry Paulson, Timothy Geithner and, tragically, Barack Obama. These are the people who can gamble on anything—gamble and win—because they are playing with the house’s money. How did they pull this off? It was easy. They bought the casino, so now they are the house. Their money is the money that burns the coal, powers the grid, fires up the jets, melts the icebergs, and bribes the politicians who want to drag the Third World out of its regional heritage and turn it into a more reliable, less skeptical version of the American consumer. My hat is off to Mario Codognato for seeing through the distractions, and to W Magazine for printing his quote.
So what, exactly, does it mean to be avant-garde? This is from Wikipedia: The term was originally used to describe the foremost part of an army advancing into battle (also called the vanguard) and is now applied to any group, particularly of artists, that considers itself innovative and ahead of the majority. The vanguard, a small troop of highly skilled soldiers, explores the terrain ahead of a large advancing army and plots a course for the army to follow. This concept is applied to the work done by small collectives of intellectuals and artists as they open pathways through new cultural or political terrain for society to follow.
I read that and thought about John Sutcliffe, the Englishman, former British Army officer, and former restaurateur, who now makes wine in McElmo Canyon, twenty miles west of Cortez, Colorado.
Which brings us to the 2007 Sutcliffe Vineyards Signature Chardonnay.
In the glass, the wine looks like Chardonnay in a glass. It has a pleasing, pale gold color, and there is something special about the way that color manages to catch and hold the light, but the color does not prepare you for what you are about to drink. The bouquet, on the other hand, fires a shot across your bow. It informs you that any preconceived notions you may have about American Chardonnays are about to be blown to smithereens. On the palate, the 2007 Sutcliffe Signature Chardonnay tells you a story you cannot forget. The story travels from your mouth to your heart, and then it breaks your heart. The finish lasts until your heart is in pieces.
In 1986, 1989, 1991, and 1992, Andre Ramonet (of Domaine Ramonet in Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy) made a series of Batard-Montrachets that displayed (and still display) the rare combination of generosity and restraint that characterizes the 2007 Sutcliffe Vineyards Signature Chardonnay. Andre Ramonet’s Batards are legendary. Collectors pay hundreds of dollars a bottle for them at auction. John Sutcliffe’s Chardonnay is unknown. You can buy it from John for $32 a bottle or $375 a case. John’s telephone number is (970) 565-0825. If you want to read more about John and his wines, go to sutcliffewines.com.
After I tasted his 2007 Signature Chardonnay, I called John and asked him why he put the word “Signature” on the label.
“The Oh-seven Signature,” he said, and then he paused. “That wine came from a single acre of grapes. We got two-and-a-half tons from that acre. We picked over the grapes before we crushed them and put them in oak. We ended up with fifty cases. It’s not an apologetic wine. It’s a grand wine. We thought it so well represented our ambitions—that’s why we called it a signature wine.”
By “we,” John meant himself and Joe Buckle, the winemaker at Sutcliffe Vineyards. Here are John’s thoughts about Joe Buckle. “At first, I was making the wines. Ben Parsons came on as the winemaker in 2003. Joe Buckle came on in 2008. Ben started the 2007 Chardonnay. Joe finished it. Joe came from Flowers Winery, in Sonoma. He is the Charles Dickens of winemaking. He is completely and utterly authentic. His methods are absolutely traditional. He will not do anything that is without proper respect for the wine. He has immense respect for the grapes and immense regard for the farming. He is a first class bloke.”
The time will come when it will not be easy to buy the 2007 Sutcliffe Vineyards Signature Chardonnay. When that time comes, a few us of will have cases stashed in our cellars. The world will be a different place, but the wines in our cellars will be time capsules, memories of an era when we could still imagine that being avant-garde had its merits and that our chances of survival were good.
One Bottle is dedicated to the appreciation of good wines and good times, one bottle at a time. The name “One Bottle” and the contents of this column are ©2009 by onebottle.com. Joshua Baer can be reached at email@example.com. For back issues of One Bottle, visit onebottle.com.