Water for Chefs—James Rigato, Mabel Gray, DETROIT
"Dayuuuuum, Michigan." — everyone who likes drinking wine.
June 13, 2016
Chef James Rigato is chef-owner of Detroit newcomer Mabel Gray, where the handwritten menu changes daily and the Michigan-grown pride runs deep. Rigato credits his “fairy godmother of wine,” badass Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon, with inspiring his love for wine at the earliest possible (legal) age. And while he laments rosé being “taken over by bros,” he still plans on drinking a lot of it this summer.
Would you call yourself a wine drinker?
Totally. I get frustrated with the wine community, though; there’s a very annoying culture of pretentiousness there. I love wine, I love winemakers. I love the idea of craftsmanship, of a working farm. Wine is fantastic — it’s usually the people in between that screw it up.
Paint the whole picture of your bangin’-est wine experience, REAL or IMAGINED.
I was over in France for harvest in 2009, and I got to crush the grapes barefoot in my underwear. I got to pick gamay on the side of a mountain in the Auvergne. I’m not going to glorify it and call it an apprenticeship; it’s fucking farm labor. But it was all natural wine, and all natural agriculture and hand picking, so we were really a part of it. I mean, I lost thirteen pounds doing it. It’s not romantic.
I saw the farmer last January, and he brought a bottle of the wine we made. I hadn’t tried it before then. It was cool to drink it and reflect and go full circle, six years later.
Bubbles or Burgundy?
Burgundy is so played out. Bubbles all fucking day, on any occasion, with any food – spicy food, fast food, junk food, no food. For me, I want Burgundy for a specific pairing. I can’t just be like, “I want fried chicken. Let’s drink some pinot noir.” Bubbles go with everything.
Have you experienced a wine pairing that you felt truly elevated your food?
For me, wine is an ingredient in a meal. I don’t think about it in terms of exclusivity. I like wine to be inclusive, so there are a thousand pairings that stand out in my mind. I do think Larry Mowby has an amazing blanc de blancs. I think he’s one of the best sparkling winemakers in the country. There’s real vulnerability in Michigan agriculture; we have aggressive weather and huge [diurnal range]. The first time I had a blanc de blancs from Larry Mowey, I thought I was drinking grower Champagne. But, I really can’t limit it to just one. I think that in the last five or ten years I’ve really adapted to thinking about wine as a component. It’s not food versus wine — it’s food and wine, and wine is food. It’s a farm product, and it’s part of the meal.
What makes you like a wine? What makes you not like a wine?
I think balance and temperature are the two most important and overlooked considerations when it comes to wine. When you taste a wine as a sommelier, you’re not sitting down and drinking a whole glass of it. It’s like when a chef tastes a soup; it’s one bite and, “Oh, it needs more seasoning.” But if you sit down and eat a whole bowl of it, it’s way over-seasoned. It’s the same with drinking ten ounces of wine. And if I have to drink any more seventy-three-degree red wine I’m going to punch someone.
If you could drink one wine RIGHT AT THIS VERY MOMENT, what would you want?
It’s fifty-one degrees out, and I drank a lot last night. So, I’d probably say a half glass of sparkling wine with bitters. I’m fairly hungover.
Want to be able to say you knew them when? There’s something brewing (fermenting?) in the most cutting edge of the cutting edge domestic growing regions at the moment: the Northern Midwest. Grape growing’s nothing new ‘round these parts, but cheap land, climate change and dreams of the next Napa are driving prospective winemakers to the shores of the Great Lakes and beyond. While grape geneticists at the University of Minnesota continue to tinker toward vines that can withstand the region’s extreme weather, producers determined to make their mark look toward the chilly climes of Northern France for inspiration.
It’s no surprise, then, that the sparklers from Michigan native Larry Mawby are Champagne-like in both build and bubble. His award-winning blanc de blancs is produced from 100% Chardonnay grapes grown on the Leelanau Peninsula, the picturesque vacationland smack in the middle of Lake Michigan. Crisp, lean and mean, it’s a venerable competitor in the fizzy arena of New World wines.
Get ye to the Michigan wine trail, kids, or lose your hipster wine cred.