This is an inteview conducted with Philippe Essome, also known as Fifi. Fifi is the wine buyer at the 10 Bells, New York’s premier spot to drink French natural wines. Fifi was reluctant to be photographed for this interview, so his lovely daughter had to stand in for him here.
This is part 2 of the interview, part 1 was featured last week.
It seems like a lot of different kinds of people come to 10 Bells. Some work in the industry, but others don’t. What do you think the non-wine industry people think of the place, and the wines?
We’ve got everything, a lot of them are repeat customers, but then there are those people who come because they think the place looks nice. Basically they don’t give a shit about the wine. Especially on the weekend, we have people coming and asking for glasses of Shiraz, and Pinot Grigio, so obviously they don’t know what we do.
What do you do when people ask for that?
We just pour them something. We don’t try to explain the whole thing, natural wines or anything like that. We just say, “ok you want to try some white wine?” We pour them something, and if they like it, they drink it.
What kind of reactions do you get to the wines?
Some people are surprised, there are good and bad reactions. But when people come asking for those generic wines, we pour them something that’s white and dry and crisp, and they go for it. Not all the wines we carry are funky. So it fits the bill for most of the people.
We try to ask them a little bit, try to get them to describe the wine they want. Sometimes we ask if they’ve eaten already, or if they’re going to have some food here. And sometimes they don’t know how to describe it, then we just pour them some wines to find something they like. Sometimes they start out asking for something crisp white and dry, and then they end up with carignan, and you don’t know where that comes from, but that’s how it goes.
How do you pick your wines?
I taste, I like, I pick.
Are there are wines you don’t like so much, but you pick them because you think a customer might?
Not really. Very rarely it happens. Sometimes I see something where the price is really great, and I can make some money on something. But I try to stay really focused on what I like. That’s not the best way to make money, by the way.
You think it hurts the profit, being like that?
It can. No matter what, when you see different wines and different prices, you can find cheap wines that you like. But bottom line, some expensive ones are expensive because of what went into it. They are finished so well, so beautiful, so complex. There are some wines I wish I could sell by the glass, but the price is just too high. We try not to have expensive wines by the glass at ten bells. Maybe I should? There are places like terroir where they have wines at 27 bucks a glass, but for me, I don’t know, I want to keep it on the level that’s something affordable, and as well I want to show that natural wines can be very affordable and drinkable. But I have been thinking about having one expensive wine. So far the most expensive is 12 bucks. Maybe I should have something at 14 or 15. I’m sure some people would buy it. But as long as I can have wines for 10 bucks, I think it’s a fair price for a glass.
What do you think about boxed wines?
I’m not against it. For those basic cuvees, wines that need to be drunk within a year, I think it’s good. For us, because of the cost, it’s great, it can really bring the price down. And the wines are very decent. [Fifi poured our From the Tank® box wine as their house wine for a long time]
Do the customers care it’s coming out of a box?
No, they don’t care much at all. It’s great for everyone really. Before coming to New York, when I was working in Paris in a restaurant, we had wines on draft, and it’s really the same thing. You can even have a draft system working off a bag in box system. It works just like the soda gun, just attached to the bag instead of the syrup. We wanted to do that at 10 Bells, but we just didn’t have the room.
You’ve done lots of visiting wineries now. When did that start?
Not too long ago, maybe about 3 years ago. My first visit was la Dive Bouteille [editor's note: the biggest professional all natural wine tasting], when it was in le Havre. I wanted to see what those big salons were like. Also not all the cuvées are imported, so it was about going there, and being curious about the other wines that don’t exist here. What’s nice these days, is if there’s a wine that I like, that’s not imported, most of the time the importer can bring some in just for me.
Any favorite places to visit?
At one point, I spent a week or so, I was in Paris and I went to Verre Volé, tasting shitloads of wine. When I found one I liked, I would write down the name and address, and then I’d take a car out there, with no appointment or anything. So I’d just show up, and say, “hello, my name is Fifi, and I’m running a French bistro in NYC, and I love natural wines, and I love your wine, do you think there could be a way for us to get your wines over there?” And everywhere I went the warmth of those guys was overwhelming. They always invited me to come in, they were cracking bottles, tasting with me, talking about the wines, about New York and vineyards, and the domaine. That impressed me a lot. They are simple people like everybody else, they don’t have a big head, these are guys from the country. They are dressed simply. When they are well-dressed and their fingernails are clean, like some at the Salon des vins de Loire in Anjou, with like 450 winemakers, all the ones that wear suits and ties, I don’t go see them.
What do you think about the state of natural wines in general right now?
Over the past few years, there’s a lot more demand for it. The movement is definitely growing. A lot of people like the idea of not using chemicals and all that. I think obviously there are some that are more opportunist, that are getting into it, because it’s going to help them to sell more wines. For instance, last year I went to Millesime Bio, a salon in Montpellier. They used to have around 200 winemakers, but last year they changed it so you don’t need to be certified organic, now you can be in it if you’re in the second year of conversion. So the number of winemakers jumped to almost 500. And I tasted wines that were crap. Two years is not enough to convert your soil. Also that eliminates a lot of good wines, people that are not even trying to become certified. I was talking with a guy who was saying that the commissions who go to the wineries to taste the wines said they were embarrassed because there are lots of people cheating, using chemicals. So a lot of them will not earn the certification, but they’re still allowed to be at the salon, saying that they are in conversion. It’s getting very confusing. That’s part of why you have a lot of people not understanding what natural wine is. A lot of people get lost.
What are your plans for the future?
Retail! We’re looking for a space in this area, it has to be close to 10 bells. We’ve been looking for a year and a half. That would be more or less the same wines, but more of a selection. One problem with 10 bells, I’m frustrated with the space. I’m stuck with 100 references. If I had more room, I would go with 200 or 300. I’d just like to have more wine, it would be a lot more fun. Gamay is my favorite red grape, so I’d love to have like 15 different beaujolais. But to have 15 out of 100 that would be way over the top. But in a wine store, I can do that. I have to be more selective with the wine bar.