Thursday, July 22, 2021

By The Bottle: Zachary Sussman

Wine lovers on wine and the vinous life.


Zachary is one of the bright young stars rising in the world of wine writing. Not yet 40, he has a list of accomplishments that folks at 60 would love to brag about. He is a Brooklyn-based wine writer, educator, and consultant whose work has appeared in Saveur, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, The World of Fine Wine, and The Wall Street Journal Magazine, among others. He is a regular contributor to PUNCH and was formerly named the Champagne Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year. A thinker’s writer and a humanist as well, Zachary’s latest book (along with the editors of Punch) is The Essential Wine Book: A Modern Guide to the Changing World of Wine, with another one coming, hard on the heels, in November, Sparkling Wine for Modern Times: A Drinker's Guide to the Freewheeling World of Bubbles. At this rate, if he keeps going, he’s likely to out-write Hugh Johnson. Please welcome Zachary and enjoy a perspective from someone I admire and enjoy communicating with. 

What wines do you have standing up right now?

I’m cooking a chicken tagine for a dinner party tomorrow and pulled a few bottles from the wine fridge that I thought might make interesting pairings:

2013 Recaredo Corpinnat Terrers Brut Nature

2016 Château Lapuyade Jurançon Sec "Cuvée Dentelle"

1996 Ridge Zinfandel “Pagani Ranch”

What’s the last great wine you drank?

Can I pick two? Over July 4 weekend a very generous friend opened up a bottle of 2009 Stella di Campalto Reserva that blew my mind (my first experience with this producer, and now I get what all the hype is about). The other bottle that stands out in my mind was a 2005 Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet “Granite de Clisson” that had all the gravitas of a mature grand cru Chablis.

Are there any classic wines that you only recently had for the first time?

Sadly, given my age and tax bracket there are many, and many more that I haven’t had the chance to try at all. So many of the classic benchmarks of my parents’ generation are now out of reach for drinkers who came of wine-drinking age more recently, but I console myself with the knowledge that we’ve never had a more diverse and eclectic array of wines in the market to choose from.

Describe your ideal drinking experience (when, where, what, how).

After the past year-and-a-half of lockdown, any drinking experience that involves being able to gather together with friends and family sounds pretty ideal to me. Otherwise, I’m definitely at my happiest anywhere along the Mediterranean coast drinking the local white with whatever just got pulled from the sea.

What’s your favorite wine no one else has heard of?

Now that we’ve made such a fetish of the rare and obscure, it feels like everything has already been “discovered” and quickly commodified. But ever since I had the chance to visit the area several years ago I’ve been a huge fan of the wines of Colares, a tiny coastal DOC outside Lisbon that was once dubbed “the Bordeaux of Portugal.”  The area came close to extinction during the 20th century to make room for beach homes for wealthy Lisboans, but it seems like the situation is finally stabilizing thanks to the work of some intrepid winemakers there, including Francisco Figueiredo, who oversees production at the incredible local co-op.

What wine should nobody drink until the age of 40?

Ask me when I turn 40.

Do you count any wine as guilty pleasures?  

I’ve been known to polish off an entire bottle of Moscato d’Asti by myself at breakfast over a stack of waffles and scrambled eggs.

Has a wine ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

Like most folks working in the industry, many of my closest friendships came about because of wine in one way or another. I guess there’s something to its age-old reputation as a social beverage.

As for wine coming between me and another person, well, in 2012 a group of regular drinking buddies of mine organized a now infamous “Mourvèdre Night” in 2012, which featured several back-vintages of Tempier and Pradeaux Bandol (both red and rosé) and a bunch of other Mourvèdre-based wines from Spain, California, and beyond. All I’ll say is that consuming large quantities of 14+% ABV wines over the course of a hot July evening in a tiny, un-airconditioned Brooklyn apartment was probably not a great idea—feelings were hurt, glasses were broken, someone apparently threw up in the bathtub, and sadly that was the last “Mourvèdre Night” we ever had.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a wine recently?

That older is not always better.

What moves you most in a wine?

That thing that everyone probably just calls “balance,” or “harmony,” or whatever. But beyond that, the incredibly complex way that wine (above all other beverages) crystalizes a psychology of place. It sounds cliché, but especially during the worst months of COVID wine provided a conduit or access point to the outside world that felt essential in a way that it never did before.

How do you organize your wines?

Poorly. I have one big Eurocave plus a bunch of smaller fridges scattered around my apartment. (Until very recently, I used one as my nightstand). There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it, I just shove spare bottles wherever I can find space, then frantically unload them whenever I’m trying to find something specific.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever received as a gift?

It’s not wine, but wine-related: My father’s oldest childhood friend, who is like an uncle to me and sparked my interest in wine, gave me a bottle of Pommery Marc de Champagne he had been keeping in his cellar since the 1970s.

How have your drinking tastes changed over time?

I belong to the generation whose early interest in wine coincided with the rise of natural wine. So when I first started drinking, I definitely had a higher tolerance for certain funky, cidery flavors and aromas (as a badge of authenticity, I suppose). Not so much anymore. I still love and advocate for natural wines, but I’ve come to understand the critical difference between well-made natural wine and flawed natural wine. I think a lot of people my age can relate to that evolution.

Do you remember the last wine you set aside without finishing?

It was an egregiously oaky Dao sample (out of politeness I won’t name names).

What wine do you think everyone should try?

Sherry! Fino, amontillado, oloroso, palo cortado—all of it!

You’re organizing a dinner party. Which three people from the wine world, dead or alive, do you invite?

I’m going to have to pick three of my all-time favorite wine writers: A.J. Liebling (his incredible autobiography/culinary manifesto/life-in-Paris memoir Between Meals has probably influenced me more than any other), M.F.K. Fisher, and Richard Olney. Ideally, this meal would be hosted by Olney at his house in Provence.

What wines are you embarrassed not to have drunk yet?

Please see the answer to the question about wines I’ve only drunk recently. If I felt embarrassed by the number of great wines I haven’t had the chance to try I probably wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. 

What do you plan to drink next?

It’s just 10:30 am, so a cup of iced coffee.

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