Jesse Oberman, Taylor Archibald and Peter Hill have been part of Winnipeg’s food and drink scene for more than a few years. Their collective education is a hodgepodge of gigs at some of Winnipeg’s hottest restaurants, pop-up dinners, formal training in wine and spirits, and a lot of travel.
Two years ago, when Jesse and Taylor launched Élevage Selections and started bringing natural wines to Winnipeg, there were a lot of naysayers. Jesse says, “Natural wines are harder to ship, because they don’t contain preservatives. People also thought wine drinkers wouldn’t get it. These wines taste different.”
But steadily, they’ve been building a following. Wines they’ve sourced are popping up at restaurants and wine stores around the city, and Élevage hosts regular natural wine parties at Forth bar. “We are thrilled to have an amazing network of support here. The stores we work with have given us a real chance. And there are restaurants that have agreed to put our wines on their list and challenge their guests. That’s an awesome thing for us,” says Jesse.
Now Élevage is branching out in new ways. Taylor’s stepping back to take over management of Fenton’s Wine Merchants at The Forks, where he'll be making some major changes. Jesse is moving to England to continue his wine education. He’ll be back and forth between London and Winnipeg over the next year and a half. To help ease the transition, they’ve brought in Peter Hill, who was instrumental in bringing together the drink menu when Albert Street Cocktail Company first opened its doors.
I meet with Jesse, Taylor and Peter at Fools & Horses on a bright Saturday in the early afternoon. Jesse brings over four glasses and a bottle of red wine made by Escoda Sanahuja, one of the natural wines Élevage has made available to Winnipeg. He pours out the glasses, and remarks on the mould visible in the cork, telling me this is an indication that the wine has been stored in a healthy environment, where natural bacterias are allowed to grow, instead of being chemically sanitized.
The minute I empty my glass, he’s pouring again. Our talk rambles into the afternoon and I stroll home with a rosy flush and smile on my face. It’s not just the wine.
FULL: As we were tasting, you said you like wine that has something to say. What do you mean by that?
Jesse Oberman: The world of wine has become homogenized. Because of globalization and social media, we get to see what people are eating and drinking all over the world – it's amazing. But because of this, an “international style” of wine has come about. Before chemical winemaking was commonplace, wines had unique characteristics because of the places they were from.
Now you go to the Liquor Mart and want to drink a full-bodied red wine, you have tons of different options. Maybe you take three bottles home. They're all from different places, have different labels, and they all taste the same. I don’t really get it. If I’m going to spend money on wine and it always tastes the same, I’ll just drink beer, it’s cheaper! I think that wine can be really exciting and interesting, but only if it has a sense of place, and that’s what I mean by it having something to say. The wine says something about where it comes from, how it’s been made, who made it, and hopefully the wine will speak to you about the history of the place where it’s from when it’s made in a traditional and natural way.
FULL: Aside from taste and a sense of place, why is natural wine important to you?
JO: Natural wine, or wine made consciously as we’ve come to describe it, is important to us for a few reasons. The first reason is environmental. All three of us want to support agriculture systems that are sustainable, that are looking to use the same farmland for hundreds of years. A lot of conventional vineyards are practicing monoculture instead of polyculture, and they’re just wiping out the land. They don’t have topsoil that’s healthy because they’re killing all the life in the ground. We work with growers that have fully active farms with fruits and vegetables growing in between the rows of the vines; the vineyards are often surrounded by other fruit trees, and they build a healthy ecosystem.
When I was in California, my girlfriend and I visited Scribe Winery, who we work with. One of their vineyards is surrounded on all sides by plum trees, because they have a horrible wasp problem. The wasps are attracted to this specific plum tree that they planted, so instead of spraying, all they did was plant something else the wasps like to keep them away from the grapes and the workers picking them.
I visited a vineyard in Germany that had a wild boar problem. They built this amazing environment for the boars to live in that was about half a kilometre away. They move them there, and the boars have a great home and stopped chewing up all the vines. These people show that there are approaches to farming that promote sustainability.
To make wines in this way, you have to be more than just a winemaker, you have to be an intelligent, actively engaged human being. Making these wines is extremely difficult. The reason we want to work with these people is they’re inspiring to us. Meeting the people and developing the relationships is important.
The second thing about natural wine is the sense of place I mentioned. We think wine is an exciting drink only because it has a sense of place. We think these wines express “Terroir,” a French word that refers to how the factors in a vineyard — soil, sunlight, wind, and cultural factors — all play into what a wine is. There’s a sense of place in the finished product. Ultimately though, these wines are about flavour. All of these wines taste really unique.
FULL: How did you discover natural or conscious wines?
Peter Hill: I came from a nightclub bartending background. Through travel, I enjoyed experiences in restaurants and cocktail bars. I got more into craft cocktails from that.
Wine was something my parents don’t really drink, so it was always something that seemed very foreign to me, and I wanted to learn more about it. I really enjoyed working in restaurants, and I saw that as a hole in my knowledge. I started taking wine courses. Through that, I was exposed to different wines, got into a couple of tasting groups, got into tasting with these guys, and was introduced to conscious wine. That was a moment of epiphany. It made wine more approachable and got me very into it.
Taylor Archibald: I started out working at chain restaurants when I was a teenager. My family drank a lot of wine. It was always around, but basically in bag form. It wasn’t until I started working at Segovia and was exposed to their wine list that I started realizing I didn’t know much about Spanish wines, so I expressed interest in taking a course. Jesse took the course at the same time.
JO: After the course, I did a three-and-a-half-month solo backpacking tour through Europe in 2014. Through Banville & Jones, I got set up with a couple of amazing wineries. I stayed at Lingenfelder in Pfalz, Germany, which was a founding experience for my wine education. Rainer, the winemaker and proprietor of the estate, really preached the values of making wine naturally. What I came to understand from Rainer was the importance of traditional winemaking. I fell in love with the idea of Terroir and making wine with a sense of history and purpose through Rainer. He's a philosopher king, winemaker and farmer. He refers to himself as a winegrower, which is what most of the people who make wines like these do. The idea of making the wine to them is offensive, because they’re not making anything, they’re farming and growing and then they’re allowing the wine to make itself. They’ve produced a high quality raw material that they don’t need to add anything to to get great wine. When you have shit grapes, you have to add so much to it - yeast, colour, enzymes and so on - it becomes like cooking. These guys are not cooks. They are farmers.
After hanging out with Rainer, I went to Paris, which has just the most incredible natural wine scene. I drank my way through Paris, and then I went to Barcelona. I ended up going to this wine bar called L’Anima del Vie every night for a week. It’s owned by a French guy named Benoit who’s a well-known natural wine proponent in Spain. It just totally blew my mind.
I collected bottles through my travels and brought them back, and Taylor and I consumed them rapidly and we were like, “Cool, let’s go buy some wine.” We went to all the wine stores in Winnipeg, and we couldn’t find much of anything. We went, “This sucks, why can’t we drink this awesome natural wine?” The taste was the first thing that turned me on to wines like these, but when I learned about the environmental factors, and the global wine industry, that really got me excited. So we started the company.
FULL: How has your relationship with wine drinkers in Winnipeg developed?
PH: Winnipeg has a very young scene as far as natural wines go. It’s interesting to take the idea of a sense of place with wine and make it approachable for people. Understanding wine is seen as a big undertaking, and there’s a lot of bullshit around it. So to get people to understand and enjoy wine on that level is really fun.
FULL: There’s a sense of unapproachability around wine for a lot of people. I’m curious about how you work with that.
TA: People subscribe to the idea with wine that they need to know everything about it in terms of the technical stuff, and that’s the moat we’re trying to bridge. We bridge it by telling a story about the wine. By telling someone a story about how the wine’s produced, about the producer who made the wine, you put them in that place, and that does away with a lot of that hoity-toity feeling people have around wine.
JO: I think a lot of the pretension in wine comes from two places. One is that it’s often in a foreign language, and that immediately is hard to connect with if you don’t speak that language. And second, I think the idea of the tasting note has ruined wine for a lot of people. It had definitely ruined wine for me. I think it’s arrogant to tell someone what they’re about to taste and have them taste it, because you’re just setting that person up for failure no matter what. Taylor and I joke about this all the time, that my peach is his apricot. I drink something and I taste peaches, but he gets apricot, why would we have an argument about that? You taste it, it’s there to you. And that’s important. That’s your connection with what you’re consuming. Some people like food that’s saltier, or has more vinegar, everyone has different tastes. To tell someone that you’re tasting peaches and they don’t taste them, their reaction is, “I don’t get it. You’re an asshole. You’re pretentious.” This didactic experience, where I tell you what you’ll taste and then you taste it, I don’t see what’s enjoyable about that.
We avoid telling people what they’re going to taste when we pour wine. The structure of the wine, this nerdy wine-making stuff, it’s important for us to know as wine-lovers, but when we’re trying to connect someone to a wine, we tell the story of who made it.
For more information about Élevage Selections, including a complete listing of the labels they work with and where you can find them, visit their website. Check their Instagram page for announcements of upcoming wine parties at Forth.