As the multitude of varied, accent-laced voices filled the air, the smell of an earthy, traditional red European wine wafted past my nose creating a sense of comfort and belonging that enveloped me like a big, worn, quilted blanket. For the first time I felt at ease in an atmosphere that one would think would elicit opposite feelings – a dirty, hole-in-the-wall restaurant with roaches that crawled by the tables with unsavory characters popping in and out while shouting nonsensical ramblings and the veil of night signaling that people needed to be on their guard when walking home. There was barely enough food to fill our bellies, and we brought in our own bottle of wine as money was extremely tight and it was always a group effort to pool it to be able to afford even the cheapest place in the neighborhood to eat. But that moment stands out as when a life of hope began.
Moment of Belonging
The moment I speak so fondly of happened around my first month in New York City in the fall of 1993. I was still living at the YMCA because in the pre-internet days, where else does an 18 year old girl stay when she knows no one and knows nothing about the city? I had connected with a group of theater people who came from around the world to experience New York City and who transplanted themselves in the East Village, a place where burgeoning artists, poor laborers (many times the artists and laborers were one in the same) and criminals would live together in a mixture of electric energy, raw talent and stressful anxiety. By the end of that year I moved in with roommates in the gritty area of Alphabet City in the East Village and picked up an array of jobs that ranged anywhere from housecleaning to legal proofreading… I didn’t care as long as it was honest work and I could continue to live in the only place that has felt like home and learn as much as I could about a plethora of subjects from the people who had varying backgrounds.
When I was young, I was one of those people who did not fit within a box as my home life was bleak with a drug addicted mother and a removed stepfather who fell into a deep depression and so there was no communication. It was as if I didn’t exist, and sometimes I felt so invisible I constantly questioned my existence; I would desperately try to reach out, not knowing why these supposed guardians would not speak back when I tried to engage. At the time, I didn’t understand that one was a removed drug addict and the other was someone who was buried by his own denial of reality; the rest of my family I did not know, and much later, when I did try to reach out, I got a reality check of why my biological father and mother were so messed up. Statistically, I guess I was supposed to go down a path of drugs and alcohol but it never happened – maybe in part because they had nothing to do with me and I was forced to find my own foundation in life. Eventually I faced my own reality which was painfully clear to all of the people around me, that my biological family did not want a relationship, especially if I wanted a relationship based on the truth.
Finding people who did not belong anywhere else, because they were biracial, gay, or came from a dysfunctional background, seemed miraculous to me because I didn’t know such a community existed. Somewhere where you weren’t judged by your lineage or background but it was just a matter of how hard you worked and if you were supportive of the community as well as willing to live under tough conditions; it was the first time in my life where that fear of being judged for having no roots to speak of melted away and I was free to be myself.
I have never lost sight that there are many kids and people out there struggling with so many different types of challenges that have a potential that rise beyond their “problems”. Perhaps they are even being accepted in their homeland as many times a person can be restricted even when she is embraced for her superficial factors yet ignored for the truth in her heart. Sometimes the qualities of some people, as well as some grape varieties, are never known as they just haven’t found a platform to allow them to be heard or tasted. And sometimes, an unlikely match like a bookworm like me and the dangerous East Village of the 90s come together to build a symbiotic relationship.
Virginia & Petit Manseng
I actually tasted the white French grape variety Petit Manseng over a decade ago but it was a half bottle of sweet wine from Jurançon, in South West France – 135 miles south of Bordeaux City – a wine appellation that is said to have been around since the 14th century. But most of the world has never heard of such a grape, even some of the most ardent Francophiles – as some rightfully confuse the much trendier Jura wine region in eastern France located between Burgundy and Switzerland with Jurançon in the South West. Petit Manseng is the noble grape in Jurançon that has small, thick skinned berries with high acidity that will typically yield a small amount of liquid so making high quality sweet wines at varying degrees of sweetness, produced by either late harvest or allowing grapes to shrivel on the vines, is common place.
Petit Manseng’s sibling, Gros Manseng, will many times make the dry wines of Jurançon. As you can tell by the name it is bigger and produces larger yields and not as difficult to grow and hence makes it a more logical choice for a larger amount of plantings. I never bothered to look for dry Petit Manseng dominated wines in France, let alone in other countries, as not only are the sweet wines so wonderful but I simply didn’t think they existed.
While I have been dipping my toe in the wines of Virginia I was shocked to find that they have embraced this variety to such a point that not only do producers make half bottle sweet wines but they make dry wines from this difficult yet highly elegant variety as well. Actually, Virginia produces a wide range of grape varieties which seems appropriate for an area that helped to establish the United States of America, a country that now takes new meaning as one of the most diverse countries in the world.
Whether it is a little bit of Petit Manseng in a fun Pét-Nat, adding some zing in Viognier, oak fermented varietal wine or a sweet wine made from air-dried grapes, Virginia producers are not only displaying the many beautiful facets of this lesser known variety but even during the Virginia Wineries Association 2019 Governor’s Cup, from which I was happily sent some bottles of the top winners, Petit Manseng reigned in the white wine category and so they are placing their energies into placing this grape at the forefront of their wine region.
Where Do You Belong?
I think it is difficult to know where the best place to live is, as many have asked me over the years, thinking they would like to live in New York City. It is certainly not for everyone and I don’t blame those that leave as it can be relentless in the continual battle to survive here but of course there are many who find a way to do so with sacrifice – it is not hard to sacrifice when you can’t imagine home to be anywhere else in the world – so if you can imagine your home being somewhere else than NYC, maybe it is not for you. But there is no other place that can compare to one where you are understood, loved and celebrated and I have seen many people throughout almost 30 years of living here go back to a home that gave them all of that and more. To me there is not a “best place to live” but the “best place to live for you”.
But just like Petit Manseng, some people travel a road early in life that doesn’t allow for a wider acceptance, as France certainly has other appellations and grapes that dominate, even in the sweet wine category, and there seems to be very little room for this exquisitely elegant grape to shine, although it does have its small following. And Virginia takes pride in adopting “secondary characters” from the Old World such as Petit Manseng since they note that they are halfway between Europe and California and so they are the bridge to introduce the U.S. to those promising varieties that fall through the cracks of what is popular to plant, making lush yet structured wines that have the “subtlety of the Old World with the boldness of the new”.
When I found myself with my husband in one of our parks in the East Village last weekend listening to an impromptu amplified concert of a band that had a mixture of a bunch of musical influences while being surrounded by a true melting pot of people from various walks of life, I thought to myself how nice it is to be able to spend a lot more time “at home” because you get to forget that other places put you in a box – and many times the wrong box. Sometimes the harsh reality of assumptions from a world that has a need to immediately categorize you, whether they are being kind or unkind, is exhausting.
As I looked around at some children running around listening to the music in the park, I thought to myself what the world might look like when they become adults… maybe not looking a certain way, or having an unorthodox upbringing, or not having a clear race or gender will not be such an issue among the wider world as it was when I was young. We will treat each other according to how we act and what we say – love or hate, community or competition, acceptance or judgment – and we will form groups based on our most inner values instead of some shared superficial label that does not necessarily speak to a shared character. And maybe, just maybe, one day Virginia will become the next up and coming American wine region and will put Petit Manseng on the map. In this vast, messy yet exciting land of opportunity, crazier things have happened… and drinking a glass of Virginia Petit Manseng is certainly a lovely reminder that America is at its best when it loudly holds up those people and things that would fade into obscurity anywhere else… anywhere else except the U.S..
Tasted on October 6th, 2020 – I was sent these wines almost a year ago and I have stored them in my wine fridge – it has been a tough year in NYC so still catching up on many things.
2016 Horton Vineyards, Petit Manseng, Gordonsville, Virginia: 90% Petit Manseng, 5% Early Pick Viognier and 5% Rkatsiteli. Dry white wine with a pretty floral note intermixed with white pepper that has concentrated peach cobbler flavors on the palate with textural complexity and mouthwatering acidity. $25
2016 Michael Shaps (Virginia Wineworks), Petit Manseng, Charlottesville, Virginia: 100% Petit Manseng. Dry white wine with, initially, a smoky minerality that evolved into a field of wild flowers with fun dried mango flavors and a rich body that had a crisp acidity and intense energy that lifted the full flavored palate. 2017 vintage is $30
2016 Michael Shaps (Virginia Wineworks), Raisin d’Être, Charlottesville, Virginia: 73% Petit Manseng and 27% Roussanne. A half bottle of sweet wine. This sweet beauty certainly has intense concentration and decadent fruit flavors but it doesn’t seem that sweet with that fierce acidity bringing vitality to it. Golden color with flecks of copper that has an incredible stony minerality that danced among the candied ginger and marmalade goodness; lush body coated the palate yet the zingy, spicy finish made it easy to go back for many more sips. Raisin d’Être has mainly Petit Manseng that has been dried in their tobacco barns and the process increases the sugar from 28% to 36% and it essentially raisins the grapes, hence the name; Roussanne is blended into the wine post fermentation. 2015 vintage is $25
Tasted on August 9th, 2020 – This was not part of 2019 Governor’s Cup but I was sent this sample a few months ago.
2019 Early Mountain Vineyards, Pétillant Naturel Blanc “Pét Nat“, Madison, Virginia: 71% Malvasia Blanc, 26% Muscat and 3% Petit Manseng. Light bubbles with kaffir lime and citrus blossoms on the nose and zingy lemon drop flavors with a good amount of fleshy peach that had a hint of chamomile tea on the finish. $32
Pét Nat is a natural wine that is lightly sparkling as it is made in the Méthode Ancestrale method: The wine begins to ferment like any other wine but then it is placed in bottle to finish the fermentation in bottle with a screw cap closure and hence bubbles are created by the fermentation; the residual lees created by the end of fermentation create a slightly cloudy color.