Visionaries on the Wine-Coffee Continuum

Visionaries on the Wine-Coffee Continuum

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Visionaries on the Wine-Coffee Continuum

The duo behind Barbichette is challenging the long-held boundaries of New York’s Finger Lakes region. To delicious effect.

BY LIZ CLAYTON
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID MALOSH

"The analogs between wine and coffee are really clear to me, and always were," says César Vega. "That same obsessive desire—to know, to smell, and to taste—applies to both.”

It was only a matter of time before Vega and Louisiane Remy, the duo behind the much-loved New York City coffee shop and roastery Café Integral, propelled themselves into the world of wine. Partners in work and life, Vega and Remy have run Integral—where they specialize in origin-focused coffees, and a unique commitment to sourcing from Vega's native Nicaragua—for over a decade.

Along the way they've built relationships with independent growers from distinct micro-regions, sourcing beans directly to share coffees with a true sense of place. This commitment—to the farmers and the terroir behind their base ingredients—has guided Vega and Remy during their great leap into wine.

“The nature of the business we were already in made us not afraid to try things."

—Louisiane Remy, Barbichette

The couple is focused and meticulous in their work. Neither half-ass anything. They discovered a kismet between coffee and wine equipment (stainless steel tanks, pumps, and hoses used for making cold brew), and began sourcing grapes from New York's Finger Lakes region. For decades, the area has held a fairly traditional winemaking identity and a renown for cool-climate grapes, especially Riesling.

During their first few years of winemaking, Vega and Remy would rent a truck and haul grapes for five hours back to their Brooklyn coffee warehouse. It's here that Barbichette was born.

Named for a popular children’s staring contest game in France (Remy hails from Brittany), Barbichette (or, “little beard”) began in 2019 as a pre-pandemic project, yielding 23 cases of wine to share with friends. By 2021, Vega and Remy had upped their production to 300 cases. Today the project is embraced by NYC’s most progressive wine bars and restaurants, from the Flatiron’s Michelin-starred Oiji Mi to Williamsburg’s famed Four Horsemen, the vanguard outpost of the city’s natural wine movement.

Barbichette’s guiding focus: applying an inquisitive, minimal-intervention approach to New York's Finger Lakes region. “We really wanted to work with Gewürztraminer,” says Remy, adding that here it’s considered “the other white grape” to Riesling, which Finger Lake producers have long leaned on to attract and satisfy tourists. Vega and Remy’s response was to make an orange, dry Alsatian-style Gewürztraminer called ’Chette Baker, a nod to the itinerant jazzman. This Gewürztraminer, like much of the fruit they work with, comes from the now-legendary Hermann Wiemer vineyards, currently on their way to biodynamic certification and among the most iconic and well-regarded vines in the Finger Lakes.

"We’re trying to make wines of style—not a specific grape. Wines like our Cabernet Sauvignon are so different; we wouldn’t want to surprise someone who loves [traditional versions of this variety] or alienate someone who doesn’t. We’re turning it on its head."

“We were offered Saperavi, which almost sounded like a dare at the time,” says Vega. Known for having some pitfalls—the grape can be high in acid and very tannic—Saperavi was brought to the Finger Lakes from Georgia in the '60s by Dr. Konstantin Frank. Now the region is home to the largest planting of Saperavi outside of Eastern Europe. True to form, Vega and Remy tasted as many examples of Saperavi as they could find (“Most were red wine with a capital-R," says Vega), then translated it through a Barbichette lens: leaving the grapes on their stems and gently foot stomping (they don't own a destemmer). Le Rouge, a deeply pigmented but gorgeously juicy red, was the glorious result.

“We were offered Saperavi, which almost sounded like a dare at the time."

—César Vega, Barbichette

As Remy points out, “We’re trying to make wines of style—not a specific grape. Wines like our Cache Cache, which is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, are so different; we wouldn’t want to surprise someone who loves [traditional versions of this variety] or alienate someone who doesn’t. We’re turning it on its head.”

It's why you won’t find grapes referenced on Barbichette's bottlings, just names like Tête Bêche ("head-to-toe" in French—that’s the Cabernet Franc), ¡Claro Que Sí! (“the obvious answer to ‘would you like some pét-nat?’” says Remy), or simply Le Blanc or Le Rouge.

Many of Barbichette's wines are aged in refurbished old oak casks, imported from Italy, which give the wines an approachability as soon as they're released, as well as the ability to age.

In the way of natural winemakers in France and beyond, Barbichette leans into old-school methods of fermenting wines with natural yeast, and ages its wines almost exclusively in old oak casks imported from Italy. Not exactly the norm in the Finger Lakes. “We don’t use sulfur and the wood breathes for us, so the wines find their legs quicker,” Vega says. “We tried to find a methodology that allows the wines to do what they need to do in the most frictionless way possible.” It’s a path back to the simplicity that’s being lost in the coffee world, where more hands-on techniques taken from conventional winemaking—like anaerobically fermenting the coffee at the processing stage—are becoming more popular.

Given their coffee presence, Vega and Remy’s wines had a natural entrée into the NYC restaurant world. On one occasion, Vega showed up to helm a coffee training at Frenchette, only to find the staff tasting wines with the winemakers of Les Capriades, several Georgian producers, and Tom Lubbe of Matassa. “Hearing them speak about their wines and then tasting them was revelatory,” Vega says. Vega went on to work a harvest at Matassa, in 2021, and Lubbe has become a mentor.

“I haven't tasted a lot of wine [made in this way] from up there,” says Justin Chearno, one of the country’s foremost natural wine advocates and the Four Horsemen’s acclaimed wine director. “It's obviously in the style of wine we all love from Europe, and grape varieties we've already been working with, but it’s also saying something about the terroir of the Finger Lakes, to taste these through their perspective and see where they want to go.”

As of the 2022 vintage, Barbichette's wines will be made upstate in the Finger Lakes, saving the anxiety of schlepping grapes through the Holland Tunnel back to Brooklyn. That said, after a bumper crop in 2021, the 2022 vintage in the region was very small due to late frost in the spring, which means that the Barbichette line-up will be slightly different. But there’s a certain endearing scrappiness to Barbichette that welcomes these sorts of challenges. Vega and Remy tag team everything. “César has a vision and the ability to figure out a way to achieve it, while I am precise and logical in finding the best way to make the pieces fit,” says Remy.

In other words, an ideal pair for a game of Barbichette.

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