French wine aficionados, soil geeks, and lovers of #chenincheninchenin, get to know our friend, Pascaline Lepeltier MS! Pascaline comes to us from Angers, France, located in the country’s Loire Valley region. Passionate about sustainable agriculture, hospitality, and ‘authentic’ wine, Pascaline shares what brought her to NYC, the differences between the American and French restaurant industries, and her personal stance on ‘natural wine’ with us in the interview below. Get to know Pascaline better, here!
Name/Company/Position: Pascaline Lepeltier / Sommelier and Managing Partner / Racines NYC
Where are you from: Angers, France
When did you first realize that you wanted to pursue a career in wine?
I took a sabbatical year when I was 21 because I wanted to think about what to do with my philosophy career. I started to work in restaurants and I really liked it; little by little, I realized what I really liked was the wine side. I then did an MBA in restaurant management and I was taking wine classes. When I was 25, after i finished my MBA, that was when I decided to go exclusively into wine.
At what point did you decide to pursue the Master Sommelier exam?
Almost as soon as I arrived in the US; I was supposed to move for six months, I arrived in June 2009. Shortly after, I met Laura Maniec, Morgan Harris, a bunch of people-- and I also met my wife, so we thought about me staying longer quite quickly. I got into the MS because I needed papers. At the beginning, I didn’t really realize what it meant. I was doing a lot of competitions in Europe; I didn't realize how much of an extraordinary task the MS exam was. So, I started in September of 2009, and I happened to get my Green Card six months before I got my MS! I passed the MS in May 2014, and I got my Green Card November 2013.
Describe the path that brought you to New York City.
I was hired by a company in France, a Belgian owned company based in Paris, and they hired me to develop a beverage program based on health. The goal of this company was to open a flagship in NYC; this was Rouge Tomate. I worked for a year in Paris for them, and I spent a bit of time in Belgium, because they had a restaurant in Brussels, so I was splitting my time for a year and a half. The restaurant opened in NYC in 2008, so I was doing a lot of back and forth between the three. We had a terrible start; it was the beginning of the crisis, and we had to let go of a lot of people and redo the restaurant, so they asked me to move in 2009 (to NYC) and I stayed.
What inspired you to collaborate on your book, The Dirty Guide to Wine, with Alice Feiring?
Alice is my American mum. She was one of the first people I met when I decided to work on the Rouge Tomate project. I met her in Paris in 2007, and we've been really close friends since then. I followed her first books, and we started to realize more and more that there was a disconnect between the way that we were feeling about wine and the way winemakers were feeling wine. We were making a connection more linked to soil type; we were finding proximity to the wine. Alice went to Alsace and found this crazy list organized by soil types, and she said ‘We have to make a book based on that!’ She talked to a bunch of publishers and people in the business who said it was a great idea, and when she talked to me, I was like, I want to be part of this. And she said ok!
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in working on the book?
First, it was tricky because we didn't want to write a scientific book or geologic book, we are not scientists, so the challenges were gathering data that could be used for the book, but also to link it to the feelings of the winemakers., The book is based on interviews and research with the winemakers directly, how they react to their soil. The difficult part was to make it technical, yet make an entry level book-- how do you combine both? And then of course, dealing with publishers. We were supposed to have a different book, full of maps and stuff, and I learned that the publishing part is hard. You start with one thing, you have a deadline, then they tell you you can’t use something, plus all of the corrections aren’t always taken into consideration.
What is the most important thing you've learned from working in the NYC restaurant scene?
You always have somebody better than you. You’ll always have someone who will know more than you, have more experience than you. It’s a city where you have to be super humble.
What are the biggest differences between working in the NYC restaurant/wine scene and Paris’ restaurant/wine scene?
The open mindedness of the guest. In New York, the guests are curious, they aren't scared to spend a bit more money and explore. I think it's getting a little bit better in Paris, I haven’t worked there in ten years, but I feel like it’s still very traditional and it's a shame. It can be very stuffy there, too, Also, it’s either very casual or very elevated, there is nothing in the middle. In NYC, there are lots of places that fall in the middle, which I think is great.
What are some of the current bottles/producers you are most excited about on your list at Racines at the moment?
We have so much! We have a lot of Loire that people don't know that gets me very excited, we also have some things that we direct import from all over France. We are continuing to look for the talent. As allocations are getting harder and harder, we are looking to find these new producers that we can still offer at a great price, as well as find older vintages.
Why do you feel so passionate about natural wine?
I'm feeling passionate about authentic wines that are alive, there's a very big difference. I think there’s a lot of marketing, lots of bullshit surrounding wine, especially in the natural wine world, and there’s a lot of lies, and I’m passionate about real farmers that are offering an alternative to the agro business. We as wine people need to stop believing a lot of the bullshit that winemakers want us to swallow, where they don’t farm soils the way they should. That's an ecological issue, and we are still supporting a certain system by buying some of these wines, and I really believe that the wines that are the most expressive are the ones that have the least additives possible, with only sulfur added at a reasonable rate. I’m more passionate about this idea, and it should be the norm.
How do you think the view of natural wine is evolving in our industry right now?
Unfortunately, it's not evolving the right way for me because it’s still stuck in this really stupid sulfur debate; sulfur or no sulfur, bad or good, and that’s just a false problem. I think that today, we are really lucky to work in a very successful industry that should be at the forefront of pushing to a transition in agriculture, and we should be proud to be part of that. The debate should be about that, the debate shouldn't be about sulfur or no sulfur, it should be to stop using herbicides. What about life? What about all these molecules that we don’t really know about, and how they'll get dissolved in the environment? That's the real question. The sulfur is a bullshit question.
Tell us a bit about your winemaking project, Chepika.
The project is based on that [above statements]. It's not so much a ‘wine project’ ; it’s more an ecological and political project. With Nathan, we aren’t going to make money out of this, and that’s not the point. The point is to say that in the condition of agriculture, instead of trying to grow vinifera, maybe there are alternatives, which are hybrids, and they can be a good base for everyday wine. Hybrids had a bad rep, terrible wine was made with them, but that’s not always the case. And if you take them seriously, you can make something delicious, and cheaper, and organic. That’s the whole project, to say it was possible. So we source the only certified organic grapes in NY State, from a family that’s been certified since 1971. They are table grapes and we add nothing, because we don't need to, so it's a style of wine based on what we could do with the grapes. It’s not us forcing the grapes, it’s us doing what we can do with what the grapes offer, without using any additives.
What has been the most rewarding part of Chepika?
To be recognized as a really good wine and also to provoke more debate this idea of hybrids as a quality wine, thanks to the work of Deirdre in Vermont and other people in Montreal, now, I think we're part of that movement to help to truly consider these varieties in a different way, as potential alternatives, especially with climate change.
What was a wine that changed your life and why?
1937 Yquem, because it’s a wine that, at 25, definitely made get into wine. Also, 1959 Haquet (Chenin), This is a wine that I tasted the year after I decided to get into wine, made with no sulfur and organic farming, from my region n France. It was the oldest example of absolutely no sulfur wine that I had tried, completely organic. The beauty and precision of that wine made me convinced that well farmed grapes don't need anything to really shine.
What is your go-to beverage aside from wine?
What do you love most about your job(s)?
If you had to work outside of the food + wine industry, which career path would you pursue?
Probably a philosopher, but the more I think about it, maybe a lawyer, to have an impact. But philosopher would be my first call.
Where are some of your favorite places to drink wine in NYC?
The Four Horsemen, The Ten Bells, Compagnie, The Modern, Legacy Records.
And of course, congratulations on your 'Best Sommelier in France' title! Can you explain to our American readers what the 'Meilleurs Ouvriers de France' title means?
The title is a diploma that was created in the 1920s to reward crafts that were not very famous or recognized at the time, where you have to show an expertise that is tremendous, and so the diploma rewards that knowledge and excellence in a particular craft, as well as your ability to mentor and to educate in said field. There are more than 200 fields today that qualify. Every three years, you are judged by the education ministry and your fellow MOFs, and you have different types of tasks that you need to show that you can really perform at the highest level in your field, as well as showing that you are a good manager, in terms of how to run a business and successfully have a business in your craft. You also have to show how you can teach and educate a new generation. It’s national recognition, given by the French president, and as soon as you become a MOF, you represent the country. You have a moral code that you have to sign, and embody that tradition and your country. For example, Paul Bocuse and Joel Robuchon were MOFs as chefs, for example.
What are you hoping to accomplish moving forward?
Using this diploma, I want to talk even more about ecological issues, showing that it’s possible to run a successful business in NYC while living with these core values of social sourcing and promoting education at the same time. We need to be involved in supporting the right way of farming and agriculture, it's so critical. It’s so critical. That’s my big challenge for the future.
If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring future MOF, what would it be?
Share. Share and work together, don't keep your knowledge for yourself. And listen.