Water for Chefs—David Levi, Vinland | Portland, MAINE

The diaries of chefly oenophiles.

January 11, 2016 ● 3 min read

People have called Vinland, and Chef Levi himself, controversial. The cozy restaurant across from the Portland Museum of Art sources all of its ingredients from within the confines of Maine’s borders, and Levi is known for shining a bright light on the darker corners of our food and restaurant systems. Things you won’t find at Vinland include cane sugar (irresponsible production), olive oil (ain’t no olives in Maine) and black pepper (ditto), to name a few. What you will find is creative food, warm service and a carefully curated wine list comprised of wines that aren’t made by Mainers, but that reflect the spirit of sustainability, transparency and commitment to craft Levi and his team work hard to achieve every night.

Calling anything utopian is dangerous, but Portland has something damn close to it in Vinland. 

Would you call yourself a wine drinker? Why or why not?

I wasn’t really a wine drinker until several years ago, when I started getting into natural wine. I was in Venice, where my family’s from, and my uncle brought this bottle — I don’t even know what it was. It was completely different from anything I’d ever had before. Industrial wines never appealed to me, but these wines were alive in a way I hadn’t experienced. 

Paint the whole picture of your bangin'-est wine experience REAL or IMAGINED. 

I’m not sure it’s ever possible to say something is the best experience, or the best anything. That day in Venice was probably one, and I’ve had nights here at the restaurant — late nights — with Zev Rovine and Frank Cornelissen or Sébastien Riffault, drinking and talking, that were really what this is all about, I think. There was one night a few years ago with Zev — we were here pretty late, we’d had a bit of wine, and Zev said to me, “Look, these bottles you have on your list, they might be organic or whatever, but they’re not natural in the way you think they are.” And he opened a bottled of Robinot, and it was like, “Okay, this is something else.” And we rewrote the list, and it’s been totally natural ever since. 

Have you experienced a wine pairing that you felt truly elevated your food? 

I think it’s something that we do every night here, or we try to. One dish of ours I would be happy to eat every day is the Raw Beef, and it’s amazing with Cornelissen’s 'Contadino.' Pierre Frick’s Pinot Blanc with our Monkfish and Sunchokes. I can’t say exactly why the pairing works, but it just does. Something happens that’s just amazing. You can’t always articulate why something’s so good, and that’s ok.

What makes you like a wine? What makes you not like a wine?

Industrial wines — really, what they do to the land, how they’re being made — there’s really just no excuse for it. I just can’t understand it. But that’s not to say that all natural wines are good. I’ve had some natural wines that are really messed up, and that’s a conversation that’s happening within the natural wine world now that’s interesting. We’re getting away from the idea that all natural wines are one thing and all industrial wines are something else. I think it’s a good conversation to be having. I think a little bit of volatile acidity is ok sometimes. A little bit of brett is ok. But it’s not binary anymore. 

If you could drink one wine RIGHT AT THIS VERY MOMENT, what would you want? 

It’s very rare that I drink before sundown, but if I had to, I’d definitely go white or rosé. Something light, at least in profile if not in alcohol… I was going to say Le Péteaux (aka Foutre d’Escampette) from Domaine de l’Octavin, or maybe Cornelissen Susucaru if it’s been open for a solid forty-five minutes. That wine, when it’s first opened, it’s nice, but it doesn’t really do anything until at least forty-five minutes.



Domaine de l'Octavin ‘Foutre d’Escampette,’ Arbois, Jura, France


We have been waiting (im)patiently for one of these chefs to mention a pét-nat. Why, you ask? Because we’re selfish. Also, though, because there is possibly no other style of wine as gloriously refreshing, as gulpable, as undoubtedly joy-inducing as pét-nat.

In a wine world currently wrought with arguments about natural versus industrial, somms versus winemakers, and good versus evil, pét-nat is the kind of purely pleasurable wine that has the capacity to simultaneously quench one’s thirst and restore the innocent intentions with which we all showed up at this party. Pét-nat, short for pétillant naturel, is in its simplest form a bottle-fermented sparkling wine. Low in alcohol and often left with just a kiss of sweetness, the soft fizz and freshness of these wines have the capacity to transmogrify you into your teenage self, gleefully gulping the stuff at a bonfire party, your mind locked not on right and wrong, but making out. Basically, pét-nats are adult sodas. They’re also brunch wines, picnic wines, beach wines and bocce wines.

This one, from the far-flung Jura region in Eastern France, is from a husband-and-wife team that makes up Domaine de l'Octavin, a tiny estate producing some of the most interesting natural wines in the region. As a bonus, ‘Foutre d’Escampette’ translates roughly to “Eat my dust,” an appropriately juvenile taunt for the kid in all of us.