Being a part of the crew at the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta is pretty awesome: there’s wine, wine and more wine (this year, I got to taste the vertical of Ridge Monte Bello–1984, 1995, 1999, 2007, 2009 and a barrel sample of an unfinished Monte Bello); great food (I loved a cheese tasting with 9 or 10 cheeses, each paired with a different Champagne); and lots and lots of fun folks to meet–Paul Draper, Gerry Dawes and the highlight of my week, Jean Trimbach. As a writer, conducting interviews for stories is something I do frequently, but interviewing Jean for the December/January issue of Local Flavor magazine was especially delightful. I loved his sense of pride in his family’s history and wines and his views of the relationship between Mother Nature and her stewards–farmers.
Every job has its own benefits and drawbacks, but when it comes to being a sommelier, the perks are especially glamorous. Imagine, for example, being behind the scenes during a long day of wine seminars at the 22nd annual Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta. The drawback is it’s your job to get more than a thousand wine glasses polished in preparation for the day’s events. The perk is that you get to taste all the wines and, when the workday is over, you don’t have to go home to frozen pizza. Instead, you find yourself at a table seated next to Jean Trimbach, a member of the family that owns Trimbach Estate, one of the leading producers in Alsace, France. That’s what happened to me—lucky me! Mr. Trimbach (I’ll refer to him as Jean, so as not to confuse the man and the estate) poured taste after taste for me from an ice bucket filled with tall, slender green bottles. The first wine had flavors of lemongrass, flowers and spices, with a racy minerality and acidity. The next wine had a unique smoky complexity, opulent texture and a beautiful amber color. Another smelled so rich you’d think it was dessert in a glass: honey, exotic fruit and overripe pineapple.
Jean had just treated me to some of France’s very finest white wines, right here in Santa Fe, at Il Piatto. For a wine geek, this is akin to meeting a popular singer or TV actor while walking in your hometown: Trimbach wines are well known throughout the world and are considered to be some of the highest quality, complex and collectible wines, able to age in the cellar for decades. Jean’s visit to town, along with the presence of other illustrious names in the food and wine world, is a nod to the caliber of Santa Fe’s culinary scene. With the help of our talented sommeliers, chefs and our unique Wine & Chile Fiesta, Santa Fe is becoming a more serious place for food and wine.
If you’re not quite as geeky as me you may wonder what makes Alsace wines, in particular those made by Trimbach Estate, so special. Alsace is a winemaking region in northeast France right across the border from Germany. In fact, this region fluctuated between German and French ownership for centuries. Vineyards here sit at the foot of the Vosges mountain range, which protect the vines from wind and rain and make Alsace France’s driest region. Grapes here are able to become very ripe, and this results in the success of several grape varieties as well as an array of different styles of wine. The four grapes that perform best here are Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat. Don’t let these varietals scare you away: most of the wine made in Alsace is dry and only wines made in the styles of Vendanges Tardives and Sélection de Grains Nobles have any sweetness, although once you taste them you’ll never want to drink anything else with dessert!
The Trimbach firm has been around since 1626. Winemaking techniques have been passed down from generation to generation, as well as prime vineyard land. The estate owns grand cru vineyard sites including the very famous Clos Ste. Hune, which has been in the family for more than 200 years. The firm is dedicated to sustainable winegrowing and attention to the soil as well as low yields, which is believed to produce higher-quality grapes and wine. Trimbach also has a dedication to nature, which Jean says is the true winemaker. “We do nothing. It’s Mother Nature that decides. At the end of the day, we are farmers. We are not growing potatoes but still we are farmers and we depend on Mother Nature. We have to be extremely kind with Mother Nature because as you know, if it doesn’t happen in the vineyards, it will never happen in the cellar.”
Frédéric Emile, Jean’s great grandfather, was the first person in the family to promote Alsatian wines outside the region. In 1898 he entered the firm’s wines in an international wine show in Brussels and the estate became famous after the wines were awarded the highest honors. Jean continues the tradition by travelling the world in order to teach people about Alsatian wines and carry the Trimbach name forward (Jean’s brother, Pierre, is the winemaker and also oversees the care of the vineyards). “I’m travelling the world,” Jean says in a charming French accent when I ask about his role in the family firm. “Alsace as a region exports only 25% of its production. We export 90% of our production.” Like a proud father he explains what it’s like to bear the responsibility of history and tradition. In order to maintain the firm’s high reputation, there is no other option but to make really, really good wine. “Every year we have to come out with great wine. It’s like a three Michelin star restaurant. It has to perform extremely well, lunch and dinner, lunch and dinner, all the time. So for us, it’s the same. Every vintage has to be impeccable.”
That the firm is succeeding in its mission to maintain the quality of the wines while promoting them—and Alsatian wines in general—around the world is illustrated by the quality of the restaurants where you’ll find Trimbach wines on the list. Proud of his family firm’s achievements, Jean says, “We are the only Alsace winery supplying all 26 three Michelin star restaurants in France. Likewise, we are in all the three Michelin star restaurants in New York: Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Daniel, Eleven Madison Park and so on.” The fact that so many restaurants and wine shops in Santa Fe carry Trimbach wines speaks to the high caliber of our culinary scene. Geronimo, Compound and Coyote Café have Trimbach wines on their lists, and Bistro 315 serves Trimbach Pinot Blanc by the glass. The wines are available at Susan’s Fine Wine & Spirits, Kelly Liquor Barn and Kokoman Fine Wine & Liquors a short drive away in Pojoaque. Sommeliers in Santa Fe recognize the high quality of the wines and our chefs recognize the great food pairing potential of Alsatian Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer.
The response from Santa Fe’s culinary community to Trimbach wines has been more than positive. While in Santa Fe during this year’s Wine & Chile Fiesta, Jean took part in a luncheon hosted by Coyote Café with Dakota Weiss, executive chef at the W Hotel in Los Angeles, who prepared a four-course meal to pair with Trimbach wines. Jean was impressed with the quality of the food and enthusiastic about how well the wines were received. He exclaimed, “People were really impressed and amazed by the quality of the food, the quality of the wine, the beautiful pairing, and many, many people asked, Wow, we didn’t know these wines before, where can we buy them? We have to let people taste the wines, spread the gospel!”
Tasting is indeed the best way to spread the gospel of Trimbach wines and Alsace wines in general, and now is the perfect time to put your olfactory senses to work. The holidays offer a great range of food to pair with the many varietals and styles of wine produced in Alsace. Gewurztraminer’s powerful tropical fruit and floral aromas and flavors can stand up to spicy food. Riesling is a great complement to food that’s rich; its fresh, bright fruit flavors and high acid can counter rich butter sauces or harmonize with fruit sauces. Pinot Gris, which can be neutral and somewhat unexciting when grown in other parts of the world, here produces wine with a unique smoky character, perfect for pairing with BBQ or grilled seafood. And if you want something to drink with dessert, don’t look any further than a Trimbach Sélection de Grains Nobles, a rare sweet wine full of rich honey and orange marmalade flavors.
So what does Jean think of the caliber of Santa Fe’s culinary scene? He is impressed, saying, “I think the level of food here is quite high, and this is why the Wine & Chile Fiesta is known as well. And the wine lists, there are many, many good wine lists around.” Not to mention Santa Fe’s warm, sunny climate and proximity to the mountains—reminiscent of Alsace. Jean says warmly, “I could live here. The mountain is very close, the air seems to be very pure. And as I said, the restaurant scene seems to be impeccable. And so that suits me very well.”