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I recently interviewed wine retailer Craig Perman with a couple of other wine people for my podcast, and he mentioned that he had helped Fat Rice build a Portuguese-wine-based list—helped in the sense that he took Fat Rice owners Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo to Portugal for two weeks earlier this year to visit small producers and taste what would go well with their Portuguese-Macanese fusion cuisine. Portugal is the eleventh largest wine producer in the world, though that's the kind of statistic that sounds good until you see how far behind their big three neighbors (France, Spain, and Italy) they really are.
Still, smaller player though it may be, Portugal is a country with a wine heritage ripe for discovery. And Fat Rice is taking the challenge of creating and teaching customers about a Portugal-driven list seriously, including launching Wednesday wine nights which offer affordable tastings of rare wines and ports, and a series of winemaker dinners that kicks off this Sunday with Joao Roseira of Quinta do Infantado, a winery located in the Douro region. (Get tickets and more info here.) I spoke with Conlon about how you go about building a wine list to pair with food that has a Portuguese heritage, but is predominantly Asian.
Michael Gebert: How did you initially think about wine working with your food?
Abraham Conlon: I think once we really committed to the idea of Macau cooking—because that wasn’t really our goal when we opened, it was just sort of being the X-Marx restaurant—after we really committed to the idea of Fat Rice, that this was going to be an exploration of the food of Macau, we said, what are going to be the beverages, what’s going to be the perfect thing with the food? And Asian food, typically, it's lighter Belgian ales or Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, everybody knows that.
But for us there is that inherent nature of the Portuguese wine style, especially in the north, that really lends itself to a lighter, lower in alcohol, refreshing wine. It's not high alcohol—the reason you don't want high alcohol is that high alcohol with spicy foods increases the perception of spice on the palate, it doesn't wash it away. For me, sometimes the best part of the bite is that cleansing moment of the beverage, as you're getting ready for the next bite.
And when we looked at Portugal and Macau together, we saw that there were some similarities. You go to Macau or Hong Kong and you have this gorgeous seafood culture there, and so does Portugal. It comes out of the ocean and gets tossed in a wok and steamed for a couple of minutes, and those favors pair naturally the lighter wines of Portugal. It's also why they liked it, the Portuguese, when they got there—it was like home, the abundance of beautiful seafood.
How did you approach the process of making a serious list?
When we really committed to this [foodwise], we also decided to have a serious wine program, like other restaurants do for French or Italian food. The thing is, Portugal’s really where Spain was ten years ago. There are some large houses, the Alentejo or Douro houses, but the little guy gets left behind. And I think that's what we wanted to focus on, the little guys, and taste the same effort in their wine that we do with our food. We do our research, we taste and refine, and it would be a shame to just say, bring in any Portuguese wine just for the sake of having some Portuguese wine.
Craig [Perman] just does a great job, I mean, he lives his profession more than anybody I know. He's out there—he's out there. He's in these places, speaking to the producers and making these connections, and I wanted to do the same thing. People ask me about him and I say Craig is a guy who has a store on Washington, and he doesn't pour no bullshit. That's it! You never go there and taste a wine and go, eh, it was okay. He has a great palate and he goes to the winemakers like we go to the farmers.
What was the atmosphere when you went to the winemakers in Portugal?
It's like any region with a depressed economy—a lot of people just want something that will get them drunk. I don't know if they care yet. But there is this push from winemakers who see that wine is key to Portugal's economic growth.
People are like, oh, it's a hard trip, you have to go around drinking wine all day . . . well, it was serious. Craig does not plan light trips. Literally, we descended in Lisbon at 11 [AM] and within an hour, we're at Quinta do Chocapalha, outside Lisbon, tasting five or six wines. We're done, OK, let's get some lunch and then drive two hours to the next one. It's not a sightseeing event. We went for two weeks, and Craig drives a tight ship.
We got to see a great cross section of the country, and there's no better way of learning a people and a culture than through their food and wine, by visiting and being welcomed into people's homes, just by showing our interest in their wine. I want us to have the best Portuguese wine selection in the country, and to be able to show that the best of Portugal can stand up to France or Italy or Spain. I mean, everywhere has crappy wines.
Did these smaller producers have any reaction to the fact that you were really shopping Portuguese wines for Asian dishes? Did they get that?
When you say Macau, they get it.
The thing is, when you say Portuguese food, what is it? It’s everything that they've learned along the way. We were in the Douro, and we were having roast pork or something, but on the table we're having farofa, which is manioc, yucca flour [from South America], which is a staple on their table. Chile pepper is a staple on their table, which a hundred years ago it wasn't.
They weren't shocked at all, I think they thought it was interesting that we were doing a restaurant based on Macau. They were happy. Much like the small producers, there is this sentiment in Portugal that, we did a lot for the world, and nobody really knows about it. Everybody knows the Spaniards, and the Spaniards didn't do shit! That's how they think. They are this little place that accomplished a lot and has been forgotten.
I thin Macau is the ultimate culmination of that, the last place. They think, we've been to Angola, we've been to Mozambique, we've been to Brazil, we've been to Goa in India, we've been to Southeast Asia and Japan. And, ultimately, China, that’s the place where, we've got it all now! That's why our food is so rich, it has everything. Maybe not everything, but it's enough for us here to play with.
So what did you take away about Portuguese wine, from visiting these smaller producers in particular?
Well, terroir. Letting the land come through in the wine, and let it do what it do. I was kind of blown away in the Douro by how small, how stocky and resilient some of these vines were in this super-rocky soil. Instead of mass irrigation, they'd set up these buckets to catch and use the rain as much as possible. Not try to overfeed them with water.
For the small winemaker, there's kind of this hope, that they can do great things and make money. But they also see the big producers, and they know they can't compete. Like with importers. Importers don't want to bring in a pallet of wine. They want to bring in a container. It will probably take some kind of cooperative movement, there needs to be this kind of scrappiness that says, we're doing the best wine and nobody knows about it yet.
That was a big lesson for me, you can't just make the wine and ship it to the United States. Craig does a great job of working his connections and saying, oh you're bringing in this wine from this place, throw a couple of palettes of this on there for me. You can't be both an importer and a retailer, but he finds the wine and then works through his connections who he already buys from, to import it and makes it work. But he does all the clearance, and the label design, speaking with the winemaker to say, you have to put this on the bottle so it will get approved here.
I think the biggest thing that I learned of the Portuguese wine we tasted and winemakers that we met is that the makers are truly passionate to make world-class wines from "indigenous" or traditional grapes. They have an uphill battle against the big producers of Alentejo and the Douro, that have the potential to overshadow and water down the truly great wines of the regions. It's much like what has happened with other up and comer regions, that mainly just grow French varietals and put animals on the bottle for the American market.
It's like the radio, we only hear what they want us to hear, and if we want something better we have to seek it out ourselves. The small producers are the true craftsmen and women, and they need our help. I mean, that's not just Portugal, but everywhere.