Foraging for Flavor with Victoria James
THE DAUNTLESS SOMMELIER AND FORAGER EXPLORES THE WILDER SIDE OF WINE
STORY & PHOTOGRAPH: ROHAN KAMICHERIL
hen I first spot Victoria James she’s coming around a corner wearing forest-green pants, being led by a pup-sized but determined-looking dog. Her brown hair hangs in two pigtails in what I imagine must be the most practical hairdo for our outing: It is a bright July morning and James, who lives in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood, is taking me on a foraging trip into Inwood Hill Park, a hilly expanse of urban green at the northernmost tip of Manhattan (and home, notably, to the island’s last remaining natural forest and salt marsh). As she approaches, waving good morning, the little Shiba-Chihuahua mix eyes me quizzically. “This is Rocco,” James says, almost in greeting. Rocco, it turns out isn’t a forager. “He’s attracted to pretty, aromatic things,” she begins, but then changes tack with a laugh, “but, other than that I guess he’s actually pretty useless as a forager.” In addition to her own avocation as an urban forager, James is the beverage director at Cote and Piora, two New York City restaurants known for their ambitious and adventurous wine lists. She’s also the author of a new book on rosé (illustrated by her fiancé, Lyle Railsback, who works for the wine importer and distributor Kermit Lynch). As we make our way into the park, we cut through the scrubby lawn that skirts its border. The tufted, weedy field is scattered with assorted litter and rangy grasses. Spots like this are referred to as disturbed habitats, James tells me, those regions of forced meeting between human infringement and the natural order. “In the wild you wouldn’t see all these plants growing so closely together,” she explains. Pushing between the cracks in the tarmac are gangly bolting switches of shepherd’s purse, alongside curly dock, sweet dock, and clumps of burdock. James lists off the names, grinning as she quips, “lots of different kinds of dock, clearly.” As our path curves around the steep hillside into the park, the trees bend overhead, obscuring the bright sun. There’s an almost overwhelming sense of the greenness of summer hidden in the cool shadows. The nearby Henry Hudson Parkway seems to rumble underfoot, a constant purring reminder that we’re still within the limits of the city.
James has a keen sense for the underlying character of flavors; how they go together—even how they fight each other.
It’s hard, scrutinizing work for a novice to sort the dense foliage apart, but James has stalked these trails for years and she stops frequently to clamber over a low wall to get at a sassafrass tree or to squat down by a tuft of wood sorrel. As we walk, she reaches overhead and pulls a low branch close to inspect it. She peels off a small twig, crushing it between her fingers as she hands it to me. “Spice bush,” she says. “See how it has an almost lemony-spicy smell?” A little further she finds a more mature tree. She pulls another branch down and turns it over, revealing a rank of tiny green berries. “These will get much riper. They’re great to make a simple syrup that you can add to cranberry sauce. It’s sort of like lemon balm mixed with Christmas spices!”
James has a keen sense for the underlying character of flavors; how they go together—even how they fight each other. Her fascination with the strong flavors of the bittering agents she encountered on her earliest foraging sorties resulted in vats of homemade amari that she initially gifted to delighted friends and which, over time, have grown into a product line that she calls Aster, due for a launch later this year. It’s this appreciation for the far ends of the flavor spectrum—where the sour, bitter, astringent, salty, and pungent reside—that informs her approach to beverage pairings at Cote, the sleek Korean barbecue restaurant in Flatiron.
Wine pairing is an inexact art, which is not to say that it’s an imprecise one, just that its deployment requires a certain adaptability. Most conventional wine-pairing wisdom would founder in the face of the kind of meal one encounters at a typical Korean restaurant. Banchan, the assortment of small dishes of pickles, preserved fish, and the like that often crowds the table at many Korean restaurants comes in such a wide array of flavors that a single wine could hardly be expected to do all of them justice.
Rather than try to find a magic bullet beverage that ticks every impossible box on the table, James embraces the problem. “I sometimes suggest three different beverages,” she says, then quickly clarifies: “but not so you’re double-fisting your drinks like a crazy person.” Having a couple of different beverages at the ready in front of you allows you to jump around the menu and take different sips as dishes dictate. “It doesn’t even have to be alcoholic,” she adds. “I like to give people a mugwort tisane to go with the umami flavors of the meat, then maybe some wine, along with some beer. It’s just fun to play with all these different flavors.” She points out mugwort as we walk, growing in sprawling colonies along the side of the path, a favorite, she tells me, among Japanese and Korean foragers in the early spring.
“It was important for me to talk about rosé in a serious way. I wanted people to see it as more than just this basic-bitch wine!”
As we come to the intersection with another path, we see someone crossing ahead of us, pulling lustily at a leash with a reluctant pit bull at the other end of it. The dog, who has dug his front paws into the ground, is resolute and immovable. The profuse folds of loose skin from his neck are bunched up like a cravat around his puckered-up and penitent-looking face. James turns around and calls out to Rocco, who is rooting around in the leaf litter off the path. He comes bounding back to her so that she can clip his leash back onto his collar.
The setting seems so far removed from the world of fine wine and the city’s high-end bar and restaurant scene that I can’t help but wonder what brings the two together for James. Rosé, the subject of her new book, seems like the perfect embodiment of all the contradictions between these two worlds. “The thing is,” James begins, “Rosé’s sort of this darling in the sommelier community but it’s so maligned in the mainstream.” She’s referring, of course to the wine’s reputation for easy, expectation-free quaffability. “I just wanted to show that it was a serious beverage. The important thing for me was—Oh, here—we just found chicory.” James stops mid-sentence to pinch a purple blossom off a stalk of chicory. These are too mature to dig up for roots, she tells me, toying with the blossom in her hand as she rights her train of thought. She weighs a sentence in her head. “It was important for me to talk about rosé in a serious way,” she continues assiduously. “I wanted people to see it as more than just this basic-bitch wine!”
“Some people just want to eat mac and cheese—and that’s fine. There’s a whole culture for that. But there’s always room for growth and exploration."
There’s a narrow break in the fence at one of the high points of the park, overlooking the Hudson. We squeeze through, onto a rock promontory that overhangs the traffic and river below. “How about a glass of rosé?” James is already pulling a bottle from her backpack. After swirling the copper-colored drink in a small cup she takes a sip. She shrugs and raises one eyebrow in mild skepticism. “Warm,” she finally says. “Oh well,” she sighs, pouring it out into a nearby shrub. Despite its warmth it’s a charming drink, balanced, sparky, and much more aromatic than I’m expecting. Are tastes changing enough that more challenging wines—and rosés—will ever become the norm among drinkers? James thinks it’s certainly possible. “There are some people who’ll just always buy their wine at the grocery store,” she says. “Some people just want to eat mac and cheese—and that’s fine. There’s a whole culture for that. But there’s always room for growth and exploration. Rosés are becoming more adventurous, too—more interesting styles are always popping into the market.”
Rosé-making in the new world is in a particularly interesting place. More and more winemakers are beginning to buck the trend toward uniform, blockbuster wines in favor of wines that are expressive but still nuanced and that draw on more traditional ways of winemaking. “The new world is so new—and we really don’t have any wine traditions ourselves,” James opines. “So why not look toward the old world for influence?”
On the meandering walk back to the street we stop every so often for James to pick the occasional leaf or fold a small branch into her backpack. In a shallow gutter to one side of the path a thick bramble hides a peeking profusion of wild raspberries. James cups one of the small unripe berries in her hand, teasing aside the papery husk to reveal the fruit within. “These are just babies,” she muses fondly, “so the husk is there to protect them.”
She pats the prickly leaves back into place and we wander on, leaving the berries for another day, perhaps for another forager, some other blithe soul wandering the woods in search of its shaded, well-kept treasures.