Drink Big. Seeking Truth in Wine with Michael Madrigale.
“Where’s Burgundy?” asked Michael Madrigale of Bar Boulud, when he interviewed for a job at the Burgundy Wine Company. “I don’t understand the concept here. I thought Bordeaux was the best wine in France.” Yet despite his brutally honest naiveté, his interviewer liked his energy and so she called him in to trail for a day. “I met these two people,” Michael continued, “one wore wrestling tee-shirts and could wax poetic about Chablis like no other person.” The other was a communist in his mid-60’s. After a half an hour, Madrigale said, “I loved this place. Whatever they were doing, I wanted to be a part of it. It was there that I fell in love with Burgundy and got to know Burgundy. It was a gift.” Within a year or so with the company, Michael left New York and moved to the motherland itself.
Working for a year in the vineyards at Domaine d’Arlot, Michael set to studying wine his way, cycling from vineyard to vineyard, with dirt beneath his fingernails and wine in his glass. “Most of the things in the world are BS,” he said, “but wine is fucking real. If it’s fucked with, you can taste it. The realer stuff, the stuff made with honesty, it shows in the bottle. I think that’s part of the reason why I got into it so fast. There are some really amazing things in wine that just make life better.
“I think of my 23-year-old self going to Astor Wines and buying half bottles and reading Wine for Dummies,” he said. But that’s not what enabled him to nail blind tastings at Burgundy Wine Company. “I just knew I had a knack for it. I’m a sensitive guy. Memory is linked to sensitivity and remembrance…When I taste it, I remember it because it makes me vibrate.”
Fast forward a few years later, Michael became the Head Sommelier at Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud, where he instituted NYC’s first “Big Bottles” program. “I really wanted to learn what older wine tastes like,” he said. “This big bottle thing is almost my imagining my 23-year-old self getting the chance to taste these old wines, not at $350 a bottle, and that’s still the motivation that keeps me doing it. If you’re aware enough of what’s going on, you should come to Bar Boulud and taste these wines because you’re not going to get a chance to taste them otherwise, especially not at this price point.”
Taking to Twitter (with 11.2K followers) to showcase the big bottles he pours each night, Michael abhors those who use it for self-promotion, most especially folks like the woman who that day had posted a photo of herself in the tub with a bottle of wine. “Does you own a part of the winery?” he ranted rhetorically. “Are you trying to show us that you know about wine? Is this about your body?”
Wanting to bring wine to the people in ways that would have benefitted his palate fourteen years ago, Madrigale takes to social media as a path toward inclusion. “I don’t want to say, I’m the best, look at me, look at what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s more like, Come on in guys, this is cool.” Without a critical mass of younger people who were into wine in 2001, Madrigale and his TEW rep, Chris Wilford, found each other and befriended older folks with great cellars and appreciative palates to supplement their curiosity.
Establishing the Big Bottle program in 2009, Madrigale (James Beard Finalist 2014) loves to parade the bottles through the dining rooms at Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud. Once he starts pouring, the diners’ desire becomes contagious and the format sells itself. “To create something out of nothing,” he said, “a normal thing of going to a restaurant, to get some sort of reaction from people is great. And when you have wine in large format with age, well stored, it’s better than a 750. It’s fresher, it shows younger.”
Taking the middle ground in terms of terroir, Michael has a less radical approach than most. “The whole terroir stuff is important,” he said, “but I have to laugh sometimes when people taste wine and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, this is Clos des Mouches and this one always has a hint of honey in the aroma.’ That kind of stuff makes me laugh. Like it’s preordained that you get this type of aroma in this vineyard, and that’s just how it is. I do not believe that whatsoever. I think there’s a certain expression of place in every vineyard, everywhere in the world, but there is also the hand of the winemaker, which influences and somewhat enhances or changes the wine itself. So the fact that every single winemaker who owns a certain parcel will have this certain hint of honey on the nose, it is wrong. It is totally wrong. It’s only at the highest level that you get such an expression of terroir, so strong, where there’s no sense of manipulation or winemaker’s hand in it. And that does not happen all of the time. It’s actually the exception to the rule in my opinion and that’s why people who swear by terroir are fooling themselves.”
None of this is to say that Michael is solely a champion of elusive bottles. He finds greatness in the rich and rare, just as he does in bottles that perform to expectation. “There’s a lot of different ways to judge something as great,” he said. “All of them are valid for me. I’m not one of those guys that are non-enthusiastic about non-expensive wines. I love inexpensive wine. I get so excited when you have a wine that’s inexpensive and delicious. That is something for me, that is fundamental for wine appreciation.”