Importers rule. Especially Chris Campbell.

October 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Reprinted from Portland Press Herald, Sept. 22, 2010

Many wine drinkers confess they often buy based on the label. Who can blame them? The variety of wines is so great, the guidance so untrustworthy. At least a superficial buy is based on one’s own reaction rather than second-hand opinion.

I fully support label-based buying, but it’s the label on the back of the bottle, which hosts one of the most important pieces of information about a given wine: its importer. Who? The importer traipses lonely wine regions looking for winemakers not yet represented in this country but – he thinks – should be. Then she makes a deal, thereby acting as crucial educator/middleman for us, the drinkers.

There are many importers with dollar signs for eyes. The important ones, though, are those with a clear, personal, passionate perspective, who usually share the following preferences: handmade/natural-process wines; smaller production; out-of-the-way winemakers. They also thrill at the prospect of finding something new, because they cherish discovery and want to push people into new spheres of experience. They barely ever mention point scores. Next time you find a wine you like, note the name of the importer (ask your shop for guidance if necessary) and start your journey: See if you don’t find other exciting wines you wouldn’t have otherwise.

To begin this line of inquiry, I can’t think of a better profile than Chris Campbell of C&P Wines. Chris has developed a far-ranging portfolio that covers every corner of Spain. He favors true sense of place over almost everything else, a relief in the current market where so much Spanish wine tends toward New World-emulating conformity (high alcohol, concentration, jam).

What does “sense of place” bring? Chris told me, “It brings purity of fruit. Distinctive flavors. Freshness. It comes only when winemakers spend most of their time in the vineyard and get out of the way in the cellar. We can all be more than consumers; we feel connected to the process.” Rather than rack up “big” wines designed to win awards, Chris wants to draw attention to the building blocks: “Y’know, before we talk about this Reserva (aged more than three years) for that once-in-a-lifetime dinner party, let’s appreciate the actual fruit in the Joven (“young” wine, with little or no aging) Younger drinkers are recognizing the value of vintage variation, place variation; they want to be surprised. The word ‘indigenous’ is bringing people in.”

The whole deal matters to Chris, as when he says, “I don’t work with anyone I don’t have a personal relationship with. When someone wants to send me samples, I usually caution them, ‘Maybe we should meet first.’ Because that needs to be in place before I commit to the wine.”

Philosophy of importing? “The guys I admire are Neal Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch, Terry Theise, J.D. Headrick. They all have an attitude, but they don’t impose a style. Their egos aren’t in the way.”

In Maine, C&P is distributed by Wicked Wines.

Ametza Txakoli 2009, Arabako, $19. Salt, rocks, herbs, rounded by apricot-tinged tenderness. Thrilling mint and lemon in an incredibly fresh white.

Sa Ra Da 2008, Almansa, $10. There is no better $10 red wine. Zippy tongue-tingling start, then soft and supple – a gentle spirit.

Valdehermoso 2008 Joven, Ribera del Duero, $12. RdD is a hotspot for overdone-ness, but this 12.5 percent-alcohol red is a shimmering exception. Lively but structured, it’s really like an uncomplicated but character-ful Bordeaux, with all the cedar, cherry, and soft tannins that implies. The Valdehermoso 2008 Roble ($17) is fuller-bodied, with more cocoa and spice and a longer, more biting finish.

Rejadorada Tinto Roble 2007, Toro, $20. Adult wine, but not austere. It shares traits with Napa Cabernet, of all things – cherries, eucalyptus, 14.5 percent alcohol – but with a balance and minerality Napa would kill for. Napa’s other motives for homicide: It doesn’t have the Rejadorada’s pencil lead, dust, licorice, smoke, stone. An unoaked version, the Rosum, goes for $15.

Many other great C&P wines are out there, including two I’ve written about previously: The Castellroig Xarel-Lo (a still wine from Cava’s grape, but there are brilliant Castellroig Cavas too), $9-Enanzos, and the Clos Lojen.

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