Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Americans in Burgundy offer a great way to buy Burgundy wines online

Burgundy residents Eleanor Garvin and Dennis Sherman of Elden Selections
Rarely will I blog about an online wine club or store. It has to be special, or I would tell you to just go to Wine-Searcher, where I am US Editor, and which puts almost all the nation's wine stores at your fingertips.

I think Elden Selections is something special. Based in Burgundy but run by Americans, Elden is an online-only wine shop that offers a relatively narrow but deep selection of Burgundies made by small producers. The company, which ships throughout the U.S., specializes in "affordable" Burgundies -- it has 30 wines under $35 -- though its strength is wines priced a little above that, about $50-$60.

Here's what I mean by narrow but deep: Elden offers wine from only 33 producers. But, from each of those producers, it offers multiple wines. Moreover, the Elden website offers the kind of context that you rarely get from Burgundy.

Burgundy vigneron Agnes Paquet; her wines are on Elden
Each producer has its own page, explaining the vigneron's background and philosophy, and the terroir of their vineyards. This is not something Burgundians just tell you because you ask, even though it would help their business.

My experience with Burgundians is this: Me standing across a table, saying, "Tell me about your wines," and them responding, "Here, taste this." And that's it. Which is great, if you're standing across a table from them, but considerably more difficult when you're trying to figure out which of three Monthelies to buy on your phone.

Dennis Sherman and Eleanor Garvin are the founders of Elden (Eleanor-Dennis) Selections. They moved from Maryland to Burgundy in 1983, doing cooking jobs before buying a barge that they used for river tours. On the tours, they served lunch, along with wines they sourced from small local producers.

"People would say, how could they get these wines back home," Sherman told me by phone from France.

In the 1990s, Sherman set up a side business exporting some wines. It was bare-bones: a newsletter twice a year. Customers had to order a lot at a time, and get a legal letter allowing them to import the wine for personal consumption. The change in export controls after 9/11 killed that form of the business.

But Sherman had at least one wealthy, loyal customer: Irish-born entrepreneur David Miley. Miley lives in Maine in summer but had bought a winter house in Ocala, Florida, and wanted to stock it with Burgundy.

Miley contributed the cash to beef up Elden Selections: a lot of cash. He bought a six-room 400-year-old manor house in Burgundy, Domaine de Cromey. The business model for it isn't much different from the barge: guests stay there, eat good food, and drink wine from local producers.

"We do Burgundy house parties," Miley told me. "Great food, great wines, and we take them to various cellars. People who go on these trips are wine customers forever."

It was Miley's idea to expand the wine export business beyond their roster of former guests. It helped a lot that Sherman and Garvin have now been in Burgundy for more than 35 years. It takes time to form relationships there.

Natalie Oudin and her father (and now her employee) Jean-Claude Oudin of Domaine Oudin in Chablis
"We had probably 10-15 small producers for the first 15 years we were doing this," Sherman said. "Now, when we turn up, I can say to people, look at the website. Look who we're working with. We have some producers who, though they're not well known in the international market, the producers here know who they are. When you grow up in a small town, everybody knows everybody. That's what our life is. It's small-town Burgundy."

Sherman has been doing this so long that he has seen evolution in a region where little seems to change.

Two generations at Maison Capitain-Gagnerot
"I work with Maison Capitain-Gagnerot," Sherman said. "I worked with the grandfather. It was one of the first places I worked with. We've been like family for years. The father -- he's always been willing to take chances. He ripped out (the vines for) an Aloxe-Corton premier cru red, one of only four Aloxe-Corton premier crus, and planted white. Now it's the only white Aloxe-Corton premier cru in the world. The father did that. He said the soils were right for white. The other producers thought it was crazy, but now they're talking about it. Then the son said, I'm going to take it biodynamic. The father said, fine."

Elden Selections sent me six wines to try out their wares. The whites were very different, as Burgundy whites tend to be. The reds were more of a type: fresh, lively, balanced. I liked them -- I like fresh, lively, balanced Pinots Noir -- but I wondered whether Dennis had chosen them for me because I live in California and, unlike some Burgundy fans I know, I like the taste of fruit in my wine.

"There's no doubt, that when I chose those 6 wines, I was imposing my taste," Sherman said. "For me, white wines, the fascinating thing is that you can have such variation in style. You can have such variations in minerality. Most people in the general market haven't even tasted a simple pure Chardonnay. Just going half a mile down the road, you can find such a difference, in whites. For reds, the great wines, the ones that are all collectable, nobody drinks them around here. The average Burgundian doesn't ever see those wines. The idea that you're going to drink an older Burgundy, it depends on how you buy and how you build your cellars. Over the years, I've developed a taste for younger Pinot. I like to get them at the stage that you're describing them. You can appreciate it young. But if you go with that idea that you can buy a case, you can also watch it develop."

In fact, buying by the case is exactly what Miley did, and it's how he became entranced by the business. (You don't need to order a case today, but you'll get free shipping if you do.)

David Miley
"It's difficult to build a cellar of Burgundy from wine merchants," Miley said. "They might have some vintage and not another. You don't know when they have it. You might be disappointed.

"To me, there's two types of wine drinkers," Miley said. "There's wine drinkers and wine collectors. There are people who only buy highly-sought names. If it's Domaine Romanée-Conti you want you can get that a lot of places. (This seems like the right spot to point out that if it is DRC you want, Wine Searcher is your friend.)

"Then there are people like me, who like drinking Burgundy," Miley said. "I believe that if a winemaker makes a great Grand Cru, his entry-level Bourgogne is not going to be shite. We follow the winemaker. Dennis has been working with some of these producers for 30 years. You don't have to spend $65 a bottle a day. Most people don't. I get that. If you get to know the producers, you get to know their style. With 3 or 4 producers in red and whites, you can put together a cellar that won't kill you financially. You can have a variety of vintages. And you don't have to leave Burgundy. You don't have to go to WSET. You don't have to take all these courses.

"We have this little inside joke, that the higher the Parker point rating, the less we're going to be interested," Miley said. "It's impossible in our view to put a point rating on it. We want to present these wines to people. We say, send it back if you don't like it. We'll refund the money. That gives people comfort in spending $700 on a case of wine. We want to expose them to these regular drinking Burgundies."

All of the Elden Selections wines I tried had alcohol under 14 percent, which means they are subject to the punitive 25 percent tariff imposed by the US last year. I asked Dennis if he had asked his producers to either make, or label, some wines at 14.01% to avoid the tariff. (Tolerances in label law would make this legal.)

"No self-respecting Burgundian would do that," Sherman said. "I'm asking people, with the 25% tariffs, can they share in the pain. Some of them have said, we aren't able to go to 14%. Some of them are at 13.5% and you can declare 14%. They say, we can't do that."

Here's a link to the Elden Selections website. You can tell them I sent you, but -- to be clear -- I won't get any money. I just think it's worth checking out, and I liked the wines. If you like Burgundy, you will too.

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Bob Rossi said...

""We have this little inside joke, that the higher the Parker point rating, the less we're going to be interested," Miley said." This endeared me to Miley. I'll at least take a look at the web site.

jo6pac said...

Bob Rossi

My thought also;-)