The Earthy Side of Wine with Lee Campbell
“I think I’d sort of been faking it for a little while when I first got into wine,” said Lee Campbell of the Andrew Tarlow group. “I knew I was fascinated by it but I wasn’t quite sure why. I think I thought it was because I thought it was like taking an interdisciplinary course in a liberal arts college, where you have to study everything.” But when she went to a winemaker’s luncheon while working at City Hall Restaurant, a single sight synched her past with her future. “We were sitting in the Garden Room at this restaurant Provence in Soho,” she continued, “which is no longer there. And at one point, I looked at the winemaker’s hands and I think I really wanted to see hands that looked like they worked and his hands had callouses on them, his nails were a little fucked up and it made me happy! I thought, here’s this guy [Michel Chapoutier], he’s a very well known winemaker, with some of the top buyers in New York; but he’s still a working man. He’s still a laborer. And that was very important to me. To know there was a farm connection. Once I knew there was a farm connection, I felt much more at home in the wine industry. Because before that point, all I knew was the hoity-toity New York side: the buyers, the somms. They were often European, they were mostly men. It was a lot of dudes with accents, so it was nice to see that there was another side to it.
“If you’re European,” she continued, “and you grew up with vineyards in your backyard, then maybe you already know that. But as an American, we always saw wine as this other thing. It was such a luxury item. It was a little too good for us. We were always trying to prove ourselves within it, so for me, it all came together. It all made sense with my grandfather being a farmer.”
Growing up around farms and apple orchards in the Hudson Valley, Lee had a grandfather who raised pigs and farmed bananas and coconuts in Jamaica, and a grandmother who was an established culinarian, in Kingston. “There’s a part of me that’s very naturalistic, very inspired by Thoreau, and really wants to be a part of the environment,” she said. “I think that if wine didn’t start to show its more earthy side, I don’t know if I could have gotten into it.”
Moving to D.C. after graduating from the University of Virginia, where her peers were on track to become corporate lawyers and lobbyists, Lee found politics on a different path. She’s often spoken about a single meal at Restaurant Nora that inspired her direction “It was just this moment where I was looking at this menu and the language she used on the menu was different from anything I’d ever seen,” said Lee. “It was the first menu that I’d ever seen that spoke to all of the farms and purveyors, where she got everything. I don’t know what it was on the menu, but everything in DC has a political flavor, so I kind of feel like there was this opportunity for me to still have a mission and still have a political point of view, but do it in a world that I loved. All of a sudden, this little door opened where I thought maybe I could have a political point of view and do it with food, and because this Restaurant Nora was so specific in the food they were using, and even the wines they were buying (this was before I knew anything about wine), it just gave me this hope that I could have a real career in this. I was lucky but it was also timing.”
The next day, Lee knocked on the door and landed a job as Nora Pouillon’s assistant. As her entry into the culinary world, the position introduced Lee to the culinary minds of the time. “I figured out what I needed to know. Working with Nora, I learned what I needed to master. When I was working at Chambers Street Wines, that was a job that told me what I needed to know about wine.”
When she took over the buying position from Andrew Tarlow at Marlow & Sons, Diner and Roman’s (and now also Reynard), Lee had a foundation from which to grow. With her own personal history in her pocket, including positions at Vineyard Expressions, Terry Theise, Chambers Street, Provence and Gotham Bar & Grill, Lee had established her voice. “I think all I did was take that foundation and enlarge it. Enlarge it to all of these producers and all of these countries and all of these points of view that I’d been working with all this time,” she said. “For me, it’s about taking all of these experiences and simmering them down to one particular voice that nobody else has, and not trying to do what somebody else is doing.
“My point of view is that I have an opportunity, because all I do is wine, to explore and delve into new winemakers and not rest on the laurels of the relationships that we have,” said Lee. However, she continued, “Just because there’re all these new producers and all of these new wines in the market, it doesn’t mean you forget where your loyalties are. There are wines that you’ll always see in my list and that’s just how it is. These are people who have put me up at their houses year after year, and have saved the good wines for me, and I’m always going to repay that in a consistent way, and not get caught up in what’s hot for the season. That’s very important for me. Sometimes people get so obsessed over unicorn wines just to be hot and I don’t want to just be hot. I want to be interesting and I certainly want people to be able to get wines with me that they can’t get elsewhere.”
With selections that are mostly food driven, Lee also aims to match the wines with the personalities of her staff. “It’s really important for me to find out what wines they’re really enjoying, and what wines they’re really excited about and to make sure I’m bringing the right wines to the right place and to the right people,” she said. “They’ve also developed relationships with certain winemakers who’ve come to see them and talk to them, and in that way, I’ll try to keep the thread going.”
Take “somebody like André [Tamers],” she continued, “I know André, sort of, but I like him more than I should based on the time we’ve spent together because of my boys in North Carolina,” where De Maison Selections is based.
Known as a supporter of natural wines, Lee realizes the fact that “wine personalities” are partially to blame for the rap that the category receives. “I think that in an effort to sell ourselves,” she said, “I think sometimes, we’ve created much more fanfare than needs to happen. In some ways, I think the natural wine thing, we have to have something to talk about. Having said that, I think there are certain threads that I really do admire. I really like what Paul Greco did with Riesling. I think that opened this market up in a very important way. So it’s a balance. I think it’s okay to talk about certain things and promote certain things, but I think sometimes things become over-promoted. I sometimes wish we’d do less talking about things and more enjoying.”