When I was working in retail, we were the type of shop that wore our nerdiness on our sleeve. Talk of the latest case deals sent us on the express train to yawn-ville. Talk of the latest importer to launch in the market, well, that was a different story. They say that the eyes feast first, and spending an afternoon in anticipation, browsing the offerings of the latest portfolio, certainly whet our appetites. What new regions, producers, grapes or stories would enlighten our day?
Fifi didn't offer us a formal portfolio. In fact, as of now he doesn't even have a website. Many of the wineries that bear his stamp are so small that they also don't have a website. Whether by accident or design, Fifi carries a certain mystique.
Perhaps it's because he's known by just one name. Or maybe it's because the wines he imports carry the ethereal qualities of nature unencumbered.
Fifi, known also by his birth name, Philippe Essome, only imports what he deems "authentic" wines. Like the "pastoral" ideal that Derek Trowbridge attaches to his project, authentic is a way to work around the pesky concept of "natural wine." Authentic indicates the lightest touch: no pesticides, natural yeast, minimal sulfur, if any. Authenticity is proven not by how well a winemaker's vision dominates the finished product, but how well that vision fits with the unexpected plans of nature.
Like the winemakers he represents, Fifi is no stranger to going with the flow. He moved to New York from his native Burgundy with the intention of becoming a mixologist. Finding work in restaurants serving only beer and wine, however, his path was set in a different direction. His ambition allowed him to work his way into the role of wine buyer, even general manager, but it wasn't until he tasted dozens of natural wine that he felt the profound connection to nature as expressed through terroir. That certain something clicked, and his role as authentic wine ambassador was set.
Since then, he's become a fixture of the authentic wine scene in New York with his humble, yet internationally renowned wine bar, 10 Bells, and his expertly curated bottle shop. Moving into the role of importer felt like a natural next step, as many of these authentic winemakers sit undiscovered in their small corners of the world. They rarely make wine for the money, rather, for the passion of a life more in tune with the natural cycles of our planet. I'm reminded of Derek Trowbridge's musings on the balance between business and artistry.
"I've always wondered, which comes first the artist perfecting his craft or the satisfaction of his expenses?" Trowbridge says. "It is a difficult dance to start something, anything, from scratch, and then to bring it as a new category, it takes much time to educate others on what you do and why it is relevant, and this is a barrier to success, but the satisfaction in this case is perhaps in the artist maintaining his conviction towards the purity of his subject. This is what motivates me."
I think it's fair to say that Fifi shares the same motivation. He notes that the mission of 10 Bells is as much education as it is the typical entertainment one gets from going to a bar.
"Some people do enjoy these wines; some other people don't. It can take a while to understand these wines; it took me a year. I got converted. Now it's our duty to explain to people why we chose these kinds of wine, and that diversity is the key. There are hundreds of varietals. You can have a favorite but be ready to explore"
We're happy to announce that Fifi is coming to town this week to showcase his selections and celebrate the flavors of authentic wine. Join us midweek as our friends at Harvest Wine Market and Woodland Wine Merchant host tastings of the Fifi portfolio.
Harvest Wine Market: Wednesday Sept. 13 - 5:30-7:30pm
Woodland Wine Merchant: Thursday Sept. 14 - 5:00-7:00pm