13 April, 2022
As mentioned before, Romain Cole’s »Es brutal !« is an inspiring, well crafted and beautifully designed book that features interviews, in French, with various winegrowers and -makers in Catalonia, the French and the Spanish part of that region. I wanted to find out more about the author so I got in touch with his publisher Cambourakis in Paris who forwarded my request to Cole. We agreed on speaking via Zoom on 12 April, 2022, at 10 a.m.
Hi! How are you?
I’m good. How are you?
Fine, thank you.
You’re living in Sicily now and have your own garden, with vines and fruit tree, is that right?
That’s right. What are we doing at the moment? Bottling, a sparkling wine. And we’re working the soil, in our vineyard. Most people on Sicily use a machine for that. I don’t like that. The machine is noisy, intense, hard to work with. I looked for something softer and found a fork-like tool named grelinette. You put it in the soil and move it back and forth. It gives oxygen to the soil. Intense work, long days…
You have a journalistic background that has nothing to do with wine.
I was a film journalist, editor-in-chief of a movie magazine that was published by a chain of cinemas. Basically, we were doing marketing – for the films that chain was screening at its cinemas. I had signed up with a different idea. I had wanted to create something like Entertainment Weekly or Empire. What had previously been a lot of fun, I had taken a lot of photos for the magazine, too, which I always enjoyed as it gave me creative freedom, turned into something quite serious – and frustrating. And then Covid arrived and the magazine shut down, just like the cinemas were closing their doors. I lost my job, all freelancers had to go. I had been unhappy anyway but losing the job added to my depression. I didn’t have any money on the side, just debts, my wife and me were expecting our second child, I was turning crazy in our little apartment! Soon we’d be a family of four! We needed to move. Also, I wanted to raise my children in a place where they wouldn’t have to stare at masks all the time. My wife and me had already started filming short documentaries…
… documentaries about what?
About people making natural wine– in Sicily, the first one which came out in March 2018, in Champagne, May 2019, and then in Catalonia, premiered in November 2019. We had taken a little camera and a tiny microphone with us and just started interviewing winemakers, portraying them, asking them questions, only showing their heads. Simple, straightforward, effective, beautiful. The camera was never moving and the microphone was always placed at the same spot. Through my editing I managed to let the interviewees talk to each other. There’s a great documentary by Bertrand Blier called »Hitler, connais pas«, from 1963, when he was in his early twenties. Blier you might know because of his comedy-drama film »Les Valseuses« from 1974. In »Hitler, connais pas«, which translates as »Hitler, I don’t know«, young people talk about their lives, growing up after the end of the Second World War. These interviews, the eight ones in Catalonia, formed the foundation of »Es brutal !«. After we had returned to Paris I met Frédéric Cambourakis, who works independently, publishing a broad variety of great books, really fantastic, and told him that I had plenty of material left which could be put in a book. He himself is a big lover of natural wine, wants to plant his own vineyard soon, and also releases the quite successful »Glou Guide« for affordable natural wine and shops who sell it. He liked the project immediately.
The internet connection breaks down. Next, I see Romain in his kitchen where he has now moved to from his bedroom. He turns the phone around and shows me the view from his kitchen window. Their house seems to be facing Mount Etna. Stunning!
Your book really does work like a manual, a manual for thinking about wine. And for making wine, too. It’s inspiring and informative.
I wrote it for you. You work in the film industry, so did I, we are of the same age, I think, you live in a big city, I lived in a big city, you are passionate about natural wine and so am I. I myself needed the book to cross the line. To change my life. I haven’t gone to a wine school, I don’t know how to work in a vineyard. But as I was working on the transcript, writing down the words of others, three or four months, every day, for ten hours straight, I was learning. Learning, deeply, whilst writing. I couldn’t recite the book but I often refer to what was said to me when working in the vineyard. The book has been very helpful. All day, every day, I’m digesting the knowledge shared inside it. Its content is in my head all the time.
It’s quite a change, working in the vines, being outside all day, when previously you were mostly sat at a desk, right? You must be in your fourties, like me… Do you find it tough?
Yes. It is tough. But it’s also rejuvenating! Paris is the city of opulence. I was eating a different kind of cuisine every day, always drinking very good wine, always out and about. I still am overweight but some of the fat is now being turned into muscles! Not only my mind, also my body needed a change. My back hurt, I had many problems that related to me being overweight. Now I enjoy my body hurting a little bit, hurting from the work outside. A downside is that sometimes I’m so tired in the evening that I have trouble keeping up with my sons. »I want you to be nice and quiet tonight, please« – this doesn’t make sense to a three-year old.
Please tell me more about your orchard, your vineyard.
I knew I couldn’t handle two or three hectares on my own. So we bought a smaller plot. Half a hectare, 6.000 square metres, to be precise. The vines are very old, some are pre-phylloxera, which means that they are more than 100 years old. The family, who owned the garden before us, had taken out some vines in the 1970s and 1980s and planted fruit trees instead: We have 50 olive, 18 nut, seven apple, six plum and five pear tree. At sea level, it gets very hot in summer. My father is English, so I roast in the sun quite easily and needed to be a bit higher up. Our place is elevated, almost 1.000 metres above sea level. The vegetation is half mediterranean, half mountainous, we’ve got chestnut tress that are typical for this kind of altitude and olive trees right next to them. Very unusual!
The grapes, what kind of cépages do you have? And what kind of wines are you making?
Cépages: mainly Nerello Mascalese. And then Grenache, Carricante, Grillo and Grecanico. Red and white mixed in the same plot, like in the olden days! I work by hand, on my own. I still need to find out what kind of vigneron I’m going to be. So that’s why I’m trying to make as many cuvées as I can. Do I like making a pet nat or not?
So what have you tried out so far?
We’ve made a wine which is typical for the region, it mixes red and white grapes, in the same vat. Ten days of maceration, followed by the pressing, done, you leave it alone. It’s called »Tutto passa«, which means that everything passes. I was also thinking of everything from the soil passing into the glass… The grapes for »Tutto Passa« we bought. Here, you can buy grapes for very little money. And they are of the highest quality! As we’re on the Etna you can’t use machines. It’s all cultivated by hand, by people who have worked the land for something like fifty years. They are making wine for themselves and sell what they have left – it’s all 100% organic. You are allowed to buy very small quantities which means an experiment can be undertaken easily. Out of the grapes from our vineyard we made a white and a red wine. The red is called »E la nave va« which is the name of a movie by Federico Fellini from 1983. It also means something like »everything passes«, »and the ship sails on« is the literal translation. Our orchard is called »La Nave« so we found it fitting. It’s also the story of our family, somehow. We boarded the ship and now we’re sailing, in the middle of the sea, the four of us, not knowing where we’ll end up. Then there is an orange wine called »Heffalump«, named after the bad-guy-elephants in »Winnie-the-Pooh«. The Etna is a little bit like an elephant, and when you drink that specific wine, you see elephants, too. The pet nat I had mentioned before will be called »Fare bingo« which translates as »winning the lottery«. And there are plenty of micro-cuvées, too, 20 to 100 bottles each. A rosé, a so-called Brutal!!!, a very intense red and a cider. Most of the wines should be available from next year on, for decent prices. Here’s us on Instagram.
Have you thought about the label design yet?
Wait, let me show you the label for the white that we did…
Oh, it looks beautiful. Just a really nice font on good paper, and that’s it.
We made the labels using an old Heidelberg, a vintage but meticulously maintained German printing machine from the 1960s that I found in town. I asked the shopkeeper whether it was still used. It was but only by a few people. He might be closing his shop soon so I might actually buy it. It was the Banyuls-based winegrower Manuel di Vecchi with whom your friend Thomas is friends with and who is featured in my book, who had made me aware of this machine and of doing everything yourself, by hand. He is very clever, very inspiring, ingenious, fun – a beautiful intellectual. Well, he told me he wanted to buy such a machine to make books. So suddenly I was aware of it and had the idea of using it for my labels – printing labels by hand, without the interference of a computer.
I’d love to visit, one day!
With pleasure! I will then introduce to some great winemakers on the Etna.
So far I only know Frank Cornelissen.
Frank is great but his bottles are very expensive. Check out Vino di Anna! They are a couple, Anna Martens and Eric Narioo. Eric is one of the biggest importers of natural wine in England with his company Les Caves de Pyrene. For me, these two are the leaders of the natural wine movement on the Etna.
I’ll check them out. Thank you so much for your time!
Thank you, Martin!