Between Two Cities with Bill Fitch
“It’s humans making things with the earth,” said Bill Fitch on wine, “trying to preserve the beauty of the earth, the diversity of the ecosystem and creating a new aesthetic that’s based on ethical ideas. It doesn’t matter how pretty something is. Good aesthetics are rooted in good ethics, and I think that’s a wonderful idea that isn’t talked about because no one wants to talk about that kind of thing.” Spending his time between New York and Paris, two thirsty cities with opposing views on the consumption of wine, Bill has been responsible for the wine list at Vinegar Hill House since its inception in 2008.
Before there was June Wine Bar and before there was the Wythe Hotel, there was Vinegar Hill House and Diner. A destination for natural wine lovers that takes one through the quiet cobblestone streets of Vinegar Hill, not far from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the path to Vinegar Hill House is a lot like getting to know Bill Fitch himself. Thoughtful and worth the walk, the path is warm, inviting and rewarding, but one doesn’t get there without intention.
“Natural wine is like one of the last bastions of real culture, where it’s not tainted by big agriculture, by commodity, by capitalism in general,” said Bill. He could almost say the same of Vinegar Hill House. “In Paris, there’s more of an anti-corporate, anti-capitalist ethos. Whether the wines are good or not, they’re good because they’re not made with chemicals. It’s a part of the political consciousness. They’re so much more driven to do something ethically good, and not so concerned if the wines are mousy, where as here, it’s more fashion driven.” Also, he added, people realize that the corporate conglomerate plays a serious role in the dumbing down of French culture.
In New York, one has access to wines from around the world, as opposed to Paris, where the options are limited to mostly French wines. And while the secularization of natural wines has led to to tighter allocations, it’s a challenge that Fitch welcomes. “It’s so trendy,” he said. “And the thing is, what’s trendy now, I’m really into. It’s great what natural wine is doing to the wine world. It’s fantastic! It’s not like there’s one great wine from each appellation. There’s a lot of great wine to work with. It’s driving my education. I used to have to hunt for these wines and I was able to buy as much as I wanted. But now I like being in the position where I can’t have it.” It turns wine buying into an act of writing poetry, inspiring creativity from constraint as a poetic form. “It’s not the same in Paris, where there’s just French wine,” he added, which ends up creating its own problem because then you find similar wine lists all over town.
Discussing the likes of Max Léglise, Bill said, “A quarter of the book [Une Initiation à la Dégustation des Grands Vins] is training you how to actually not listen to other people. To not be subject to suggestions from other things. It’s really fucking hard, and the way that people arrogantly access wine, to me, it’s amazing that they even smell shit. It has such a huge subjective element to it. To me,” he added, “the most fascinating thing about wine is the aesthetics and how we access this beauty. Is it even beautiful? And is it the wine itself or is it all the other baggage. Our sophistication? What is it, and why don’t we do the same thing with juice or cider or beer?”
And while natural wine in part is a reaction to corporate culture, as Bill summarized the thoughts of Jonathan Nossiter in his recent publication Insurrection Culturelle, coolness also runs the risk of becoming un-done as it turns into just another commodity. “It’s kind of like Nirvana,” he said. “Nirvana was based on a decade of amazing music. I’m a huge fan. I fucking love them, as well as the bands that they drew from. But the industry commodification killed it. “
Easily bored as buyer, Bill rotates his list at Vinegar Hill House with some frequency. With limited storage space, the list can only be so long; but as a sommelier, Bill aims to bring pleasure to the people. “I try to keep it affordable for me,” he said. And as it becomes increasingly difficult to get the wines he once so easily accessed, Bill now spends his time seeking indigenous varietals from places less known. Sure, there’s Pouilly Fuisse and Macon in lieu of higher-end Burgundy, and St. Joseph instead of Cornas, but there’s also indigenous grapes from Greece, Hungary and Moravia.
Of the mind that wine has become a form of “incestuous self-congratulatory hyper-sophistication”, Bill has his own views on the subject of wine. “The real sophistication in wine,” he said, “is humility.”