Technically, I should be writing a dispatch from behind the counter for this post, a musing about life in the retail wine trade. But those portfolio tastings that I wrote about back in September are back with a vengeance, so I haven’t had much time behind the counter to think about life behind the counter. So instead, you’re getting a musing one of my favorite new fringes of the wine world: piquettes.
Piquettes are one of those new old things – a blast from the distant past that’s finding homes on shop shelves across the country. If you swim in the natural wine waters, you’re probably already familiar with these delightful new arrivals to the scene. Yes, delightful. I’ll be the first to admit that the word “delightful” gets thrown around a bit willy nilly. But the best piquettes are indeed a delightful rainbow of liquid yumminess.
If you haven’t heard of them… let’s start at the beginning. Or at least the most recent beginning. If my memory is correct, the first piquette I ever had was back in 2018. It was from Wild Arc Farm, the living-the-dream project of former city kids Todd Cavallo and Crystal Cornish. They literally bought the farm in 2016 and have been busy with the day-to-day reality of the dream. Planting vines and veggies, converting the old barn into a winery and a tasting room, and tending chickens. For the first couple years, Todd was commuting to the city for his non-farm day job, making deliveries during his lunch hour.
I first tried the Wild Arc wines during one of those lunch hours, sitting in a downtown NYC coffee shop, discretely sipping from a wine glass I was toting around in a Jenga box. This may sound a little shady, but as a seasoned wine professional, I’m willing to do what I need to do to track down a new wine.
But back to the Wild Arc Farm itself: It’s in Pine Bush, on the west side of the Hudson River, tucked away down a long path up from a long road in the middle of nowhere. The day I finally made it up to visit, it was misty and rainy, green and verdant, and the sort of place where you might expect to see a Hobbit wandering around barefoot. Alas – these misty Hobbit-friendly knolls are also the sort of place that makes organic viticulture tricky…but not impossible. And if you’re living the dream, you may as well make it the impossible one, no?
Todd and Crystal’s home vineyard vines will be organic from day one, but baby vines take a few years to bear fruit, so in the meantime, they’ve been sourcing fruit, initially from the Finger Lakes and Long Island and more recently, they managed to convince a few Hudson Valley grape farmer friends to move toward organics, making the wines really, truly local. But “local and organic” is just part of the dream. Another part is to be affordable. Like under $20 affordable. And working organically on a tiny scale up here in the Hudson Valley – that dream would seem to get into tilting at windmills levels of impossible.
Except it doesn’t, because Todd found a happy place where history and sustainability intersect with affordability. (I’m itching to draw a Venn diagram, but I need to get this column filed!) That happy place has a name: it’s called a piquette. (Finally! I get to the piquette!!) Or if you’re a cider person, it’s ciderkin. It’s a very old school (like one-room schoolhouse old school) method of making a slightly alcoholic drink that back in day, was a safer beverage choice than water.
While Todd is the man who actually made the wine, I should note that the piquette seed was planted by Tristen Gild, hybrid rare book dealer/wine slinger who read about these wines in book from the 1970s, Leo A. Loubère’s The Red and The White. His conversations with Todd evolved from a wild hypothetical to an actual bottled product.
The basic method: Take the pomace left over after wine production. (The non-technical term would be “the gunk that’s left in the tank after you press off the wine.”) Add water and let it steep. Press the water-steeped gunk into another tank or barrel (at which point it will be flavored with memories of the original wine or cider.) This would then have been bottled and given to field workers and, yes, children. But Todd adds a few extra touches – he adds about 15% finished wine to the mix to stabilize it, and then pops it into the bottle with a small bit of wildflower honey. You won’t really taste the honey, but the sugar kicks off a very light fermentation which gives the final wine a bit of a sparkle.
The result is delicious – and dare I say delightful. Charming and juicy and delicate and low enough in alcohol (about 7%) that they are really, truly thirst quenching. If there really were such a thing as Hobbits, they would approve. Over the years, Todd has bottled a range of “single variety” piquettes as well as canned versions. Some remind me of lightweight negronis, some are more like kombucha, and some are like ready-made wine spritzes. Now, I can hear what some of you are thinking: That doesn’t sound like very good wine. Well, if you’re expecting these to taste like wine, I can understand. But…it’s not wine. It’s PIQUETTE!
Now, where things really get dreamy is the price. The initial bottlings from several years ago were $14.99, but as glass prices have crept up (and as the reality dawns that it takes a lot of work to scrape that gunk out of one tank and into another) the prices have crept up – but Todd’s are still under $20, which is wildly affordable for something local, sustainable, and tasty (and bonus: highly Instagram-worthy.) It’s possible because Todd is taking a page from old school farmer-texts and making use of a wine by-product that would normally be discarded (or hopefully, composted.) This second “crop” of wine also helps keep margins in check for his other wines, keeping them from hitting the $35 - $40 mark.
When I first tried the Wild Arc Farm piquettes back at that coffee shop, my Jenga-box in tow, I half joked about piquettes and ciderkins sweeping across the Hudson Valley. Maybe I would start a side business of popping into wineries post-harvest and asking to abscond with their fresh tank gunk. Well, that dream didn’t happen – but piquettes have swept across the Hudson Valley – and beyond. Small wineries across the country – and really, the world – are making piquettes, in bottles and cans and in all colors of the rainbow.
Alright, enough dreaming.