Thu 6 Mar 2014
Anyone who has read Rockss and Fruit, the blog written by Lyle Fass, knows that he is enthusiastic, opinionated and articulate. Meet him in person, and you understand what a force of nature he is, a man of seemingly boundless energy and zeal for a particular sort of vinous purity and intensity. A little more than a year ago, Fass, who worked in retail for almost 20 years — a well-known figure at the distinctive Chambers Street Wines in lower Manhattan — launched Fass Selections, an online entity designed to get fine European wines into the hands of consumers at reasonable prices by by-passing the three-tier system. Such a scheme is possible for an importer only because in the state of California, since Jan. 1, 2012, it is legal for an importer to sell wine via the Internet and via direct mail without requiring the importer to maintain a physical retail location or to hold a beer and wine wholesaler license (California Business and Professions Code section 23393.5). So while Fass, a fourth-generation Brooklynite, lives in that borough of New York, the business itself is registered in the Golden State. His take on the three-tier system is that it is “beyond imperfect.”
In frigid mid-December, after a round of delayed flights, I met Lyle Fass at the improbable Michelin one-star Lan Sheng Szechuan Restaurant in Manhattan’s Garment District (60 West 39th Street), a bastion of retro 60s modernist decor inhabited by legions of lunch-going office workers intent on — I’ll say frankly — some of the most riveting Chinese food I’ve ever encountered. Odd as it may seem, the German and French wines that Fass, 39 by the way, brought to taste were terrific with this spicy and profound fare.
What does he look for?
“Wines that express a terroir, that show freshness and acidity, that show purity.” Fass travels to Europe several times a year, using his contacts to find small artisan producers that embody these criteria. He is especially fond of Burgundy and Beaujolais, several regions of Germany, and now Champagne.
How does his system work?
All it requires in the way of brick-and-mortar presence is a warehouse to store the wines before he offers them on his website. Because inventory is low, he doesn’t need a lot of space. Once the wines are sold, Fass has already moved on to the next offerings. “Inventory,” he said, “is the scourge of the industry.”
“All the business is conducted by email,” he said. “I contact the producer and put the wine on the website. I get the orders from customers and send an invoice to the producer, who gets paid before the wine leaves the winery. We outsource the packing and shipping. I deal with farmers. They don’t know how to do invoices.”
His goal, over the next five to seven years, is to find 35 to 40 producers “that I’ll work with for a long time.” He acknowledged that the first two or so years of a start-up are tough. “We had some unexpected expenses, but we also have low overhead. 2015 or ’16 should be the breakthrough.”
While the wines are sold individually at a bottle price, Fass discounts prices in four or six bottle-groups.
The following wines were tasted at lunch with Lyle Fass. They represent the kinds of wines he sells but might not necessarily be available now.
Weltner Rödelseer Küchenmeister Trocken Sylvaner 2012, Franken, Germany. Ineluctable and ineffable earthiness; peaches and lemongrass and camellia; sea salt and salt marsh; pea shoot and lemon balm; ethereal texture and structure; heaps of scintillating limestone. Absolutely irresistible balance and authority. Excellent. About $27.
Müllen Kinheimen Rosenberg Riesling Kabinett 2002, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany. 7.5% alc. Medium gold color with faint green highlights; otherworldly purity, intensity and beguilement; totally fresh and appealing; lemon verbena, thyme, grapefruit and tangerine with backnote of pineapple; layers of limestone and shale-like earthiness yet sun-kissed with leafy hints of apple, lychee and fig; a golden beauty, for drinking through 2018 to ’20. Exceptional. About $20, a Wonderful Value.
Laible Durbacher Plauelrain “SL” Riesling Trocken 2012, Baden, Germany. 12.5% alc. Pale gold color; jasmine and honeysuckle, peach and yellow plum fruit; spicy and savory; offers the energy of bright acidity and limestone minerality with the seductive power of a lovely almost talc-like texture, resulting in a winsome marriage of refinement and animation; pinpoint balance and integration. Drink through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $25.
Irancy is one of those places that you hope never disappears, absorbed into some larger appellation because it’s obscure and little wine is made. Nominally linked to Burgundy but lying southwest of Chablis in a picturesque hidden valley, Irancy produces red wine made from pinot noir grapes and a small amount of rose; the local cesar grape is allowed. Though wine has been made in Irancy for more than 1,000 years, the tiny region was accorded AOC status only in 1999. The Thierry Richoux 2010, Irancy (13% alc.), is one of the purest yet most unusual expressions of pinot noir I have encountered. This is 100 percent pinot noir that sees only old passage barrels, so there’s no tint or taint of new oak. Intense medium ruby color; scents and flavors of mulberries, red currants and blueberries tinged with licorice and cloves and a distinct mossy-loamy quality; this is a lipsmacking tasty wine, for which a bastion of dusty, slightly leathery tannins and brisk acidity provide support. Rustic in the best sense of a country wine that represents its place and grape with style, character and integrity. Now through 2018 to ’22. This was intriguing and evocative with the restaurant’s camphor-smoked duck. Excellent. About $20, marking Great Value.
A different perspective on pinot noir is the Hervé Murat Les Tuvilains Beaune Premier Cru 2010. Murat launched his Burgundian domaine in 2005, not an easy task in a region where vineyards are divided and subdivided and lost and regained through inheritance and where established land is expensive. Les Tuvilains in one of the smaller and lesser-known Premier Cru vineyards of Beaune; it was planted in 1947, and Murat owns half a hectare, that is, about 1.28 acres. This is classic, offering a medium ruby color with a hint of garnet; aromas of macerated and slightly stewed red and black cherries and currants with a hint of lilac and fruitcake and a spare, supple, sinewy structure through which clean acidity cuts a swath. Dark and dynamic. 12.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $39.
The Battenfeld Spanier Mölsheim Riesling 2012, Rheinhessen (12.5% alc), is a dry riesling of tremendous tone, presence and character. Radiant medium gold color; replete with spicy apple, stone fruit and yellow plum elements, but fruit is almost superfluous — I think I’ve never said that before — in the face of its dense, almost chewy texture, its resonant crystalline limestone and shale minerality; this is a riesling that comes close to being tannic; huge dimension but real cut, swagger and detail. I mean, holy fucking moly. Now through 2020 to ’25. Exceptional. About $23, practically a Give-Away. .