Winemakers Have Terroir, Too

Winemakers Have Terroir, Too

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Winemakers Have Terroir, Too

At L.A.’s laid-back Stir Crazy, Mackenzie Hoffman rethinks what it means to make, and drink, natural wine.

BY JEAN TRINH
PHOTOS BY ELIZABETH DANIELS

“Winemakers have terroir, too,” proposes Mackenzie Hoffman, former drinks maestro at Brooklyn’s globally-acclaimed The Four Horsemen and now partner—along with Providence restaurant alum Macklin Casnoff and Columbia Records vet Harley Wertheimer—in stalwart Los Angeles cafe Stir Crazy. Last May the team relaunched the 30-year-old coffee house, maintaining its name but converting it into a modern bistro—and offering a fresh take on what it means to make, and drink, natural wine.

“We kept the name Stir Crazy because it’s equally weird and catchy,” says Hoffman, adding that she and the team wanted to continue the venue’s history as a space for community and warmth, with a new attention to drinks and food. While Hoffman and Casnoff each hail from Michelin-starred backgrounds, at Stir Crazy they sidestep fine dining. Instead they channel the comfort one feels when dining at home, amped up with a dining and drinking experience that, the team hopes, surprises patrons.

Brand new is Hoffman's natural wine program, which considers how a producer's terroir—which Hoffman sees as encompassing not only a wine's natural environment, but the conditions of the winemaker's personal life—impacts a vintage. Hoffman’s wine list serves as a reminder that winemakers are people whose wines don't exist in a vacuum. Both are living and breathing and change often, she says.

“What does a wine taste like from a newly-divorced vigneron? A winemaker expecting a child?” she asks, offering a reminder that reducing winemaking to how a winemaker handles climate conditions (for example) ignores the full picture of the winemaker's life. It’s an idea that drives Stir Crazy’s wine list, which is largely comprised of bottles from European producers that Hoffman has been drinking for the last decade—all from growers who prioritize creating a symbiotic relationship in the vineyard between all forms of life, and those who ferment with native yeast. The bottles that have given her “aha” transportive moments are now on offer at Stir Crazy.

“I use the metaphor of collecting many artworks from a single artist over their career,” says Mackenzie Hoffman of her producer-focused wine list.

“I use the metaphor of collecting many artworks from a single artist over their career,” Hoffman further elucidates.

Beyond fermenting with native yeast, Hoffman’s main filter is featuring farmers who prioritize adding life to a vineyard. Many of the producers she stocks care for their land with "tinctures, biodynamic sprays, [and] organic additions to promote a lively ecosystem, [and] respect all possible flora, and awaken diversity,” she explains—as opposed to "adding pesticides [and] herbicides to castrate the vineyards and put shackles on Mother Earth." She further defines "responsible farming" as "spending 40 years with your vineyards, learning more and more about them each and every year. Listening to them. Learning from them. What do they need? What do they not need?”

In the spirit of nature and its unpredictability, Hoffman is also empathetic toward producers who need to make adjustments to their practices due to climate change, like having to filter—or add a little sulfur to—their wines. Many of her bottles are from France, but also Italy, Austria, and Switzerland, a culmination of her favorite wine producers over the last decade.

“What does a wine taste like from a newly-divorced vigneron? A winemaker expecing a child?”

Before Stir Crazy debuted, Hoffman set a goal for herself: to eventually carry a different wine for every square foot of the space, of which there are 500. Currently, she has amassed 150 selects. Some vintage bottles come from her own personal collection, and she takes pride in offering these pours at affordable prices. On Stir Crazy’s opening by-the-glass list, she poured the 2017 vintage of white Burgundy Maison En Belles Lies ($18/glass), while the bottle list currently offers the 2017 vintage of California Chardonnay Les Lunes Linda Vista ($69/bottle).

But Stir Crazy’s beverages run the gamut of a $6 Trumer Pils to a rare $1,238 bottle of Chateau Rayas’ Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Right now Hoffman is loving Marguet’s Champagnes that come from France’s Montagne de Reims region. She describes the wines as expressions that pair well with food because of their lower dosage (or sweetness) and “tasting of tension,” meaning complex layers of flavors that subtly keep evolving as one tastes.

She also loves Weingut Tauss from Styria in Austria, which Hoffman visited in 2018. “They're mostly growing Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, so that's an incredible example of a familiar grape but unfamiliar place,” says Hoffman—a topic she likes to discuss with guests. “If somebody asks for Sancerre and you give them a Styrian Sauvignon Blanc, it's like day and night in texture and aromatics.”

When it comes to Stir Crazy's food, Casnoff’s concise menu firstly focuses on high-quality ingredients, and secondly takes inspiration from the flavors of his native L.A.’s many cultures. Hoffman describes the cuisine as "delicious Sunday-night home cooking after a trip to the farmers' market." It’s simple and unpretentious, with appetizers like tinned anchovies with herbs, and marinated tomatoes.

Casnoff is currently sourcing carrots from John Givens Farm, one of his favorite growers in Santa Barbara County. He roasts them, then adds a beurre monté made from juiced carrots, alongside chili and hazelnuts. It's a parallel to how Hoffman handles the wine list: take something familiar, add a small but distinctive twist.

The team works in tandem when it comes to wine and food pairings. One of Casnoff’s go-to dinner party dishes that he also serves at Stir Crazy is a savory tart. He uses high-quality, finely-milled flour from Cairnspring Mills in Burlington, Washington, to make a laminated dough that, when baked, becomes flaky and puffy. He adorns it with sliced summer zucchini and a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese, and then seasons it simply with salt, Espelette pepper, fresh thyme, and olive oil.

Hoffman enjoys pairing it with a 2021 apple cider from Domaine Dandelion—a small natural Burgundy producer whose wines are nearly impossible to find. The cider—with its fine bubbles, mineral taste, and apple-y brightness—marries with the buttery crust of the savory tart.

The cider—with its fine bubbles, mineral-y taste, and apple-y brightness—marries Casnoff's buttery-crusted zucchini tart.

Stir Crazy itself is also a perfect pairing with L.A. “We’re rooted in the farmers, we’re rooted as locals, and we’re rooted in place, specifically,” says Hoffman. “It's nuanced and it’s not overdone at all. I think it fits in quite nicely because it's very accessible, thoughtful, and familiar,” she adds.

The team’s reinterpretation of what elevated comfort food and drink can be matches the tiny renovated restaurant’s clean aesthetic, influenced by late-19th and early-20th century European all-day cafes. There's an open-format stainless steel kitchen, eggplant-hued leather banquettes, walnut wood accents throughout, white eyelet-lace curtains, and warm lighting from “seemingly century-old sconces,” says Hoffman.

It’s a casual, no-reservations place where Hoffman and Casnoff may personally touch tables to share stories about ingredients or wines.

“I think that as specific as fine dining gets, because of the spectacle of it, sometimes you miss some of those moments,” admits Casnoff. At Stir Crazy, diners are encouraged to linger around and savor those experiences, as if they’re at an old friend’s house.

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