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'Poetry is Growing in Our Garden': In conversation with Anders Frederick Steen

Anders Frederick Steen is a winemaker and author of Poetry is Growing in Our Garden (Apartamento: New York 2021). Anders began his career as a sommelier at Noma. He then opened Relæ and Manfreds in Copenhagen before relocating to Southern France to make wine full time with his wife Anne Bruun Blauert . Anders has become a cult figure in the wine industry by approaching the process as both a highly technical and an intuitive task. For the Cambridge Review of Books, we spoke about writing, family, wine (of course), and architecture.

A selection of Steen's boutique wines

David Hurtado: So you're at home. Your home is a thousand years old.

Anders Frederik Steen: Yes, 1080, actually. We are situated in a little village in the southern part of Ardèche— a region we can call the Rhone Valley. It's a very unknown region still in France. I started making wine in 2013 and we moved our family in 2017. In those years we bought this house and had it renovated because it was basically ruined at the time.

DH: What was the process of that renovation like? And why Ardèche and not Alsace? Or any other region?

AFS: We started out making wines here in Ardèche and in Alsace. Although, the choice of the region was maybe less based on winemaking and wine growing than the actual region. Ardèche, for me, is a very special region in terms of the other winemakers that we work closely together with. In France we talk about collectivity and spirit-- how people help each other, but without necessarily expecting anything in return. That said, in many regions in France, competition is quite pronounced, especially in the more rich regions. So if you go to Burgundy or Champagne— Alsace is changing, but it was that like that previous years before. Ardèche is known for being a very poor region. And it's a complex, funny, thing, but the less people have, the more they're willing to share, and that's really what's happening here.

DH: It’s an interesting concept to be doing a traditional practice like winemaking and to be trying to see how the reality of the globalized world starts to influence your approach. Have you thought much about the relationship between city life and living in a rural environment?

AFS : It's difficult to compare because they are two very different things. When I was living in a city I was searching for some kind of meaning. I tried to conceptualize myself as somebody that did something. I worked this job, so I was this kind of person or I saw these kind of people. I had discussions with a certain kind of people when I had my coffee in the morning in a special cafe that expressed who I am, holding the newspaper that I probably didn't read just because it communicated something. So in some way, living in the city with all the options that you have, you search more for meaning than for contentment in your life. For the countryside it's the exact opposite. When you talk to people here in France we never talk about who they are and what they do. We speak more equally. Even in a small village like this, there's no difference between the people in higher social levels, between winemakers and the people working in the vineyards. When they drink their coffee in the morning or the beer in the afternoon, they're pretty much equal people. I think people in the countryside are searching less for meaning in their life than for happiness. So it's about sharing the good spots to have a swim in the afternoon. You share what you know.

David Hurtado: It’s a really fascinating thought, that the labour that you do, rather than the brand that you cultivate, starts to define who you are. What you're describing is something more horizontal, maybe more democratic, about the fact that everyone in the countryside has to deal with the conditions of the countryside at all times. It's interesting seeing how that has translated into the wines that you make and something even like the design of the labels, where it seems like you're trying to strip away some of those layers of information that keep you further away from just tasting the wine. It's like trying to remove all the cultural baggage that you have to deal with before you can just have the experience.

Anders Frederik Steen: And that was one of the main purposes when we created the label in the very beginning. The idea was actually to make a really beautiful label with an artist. And we never found the right one. Not because we didn't like what the artists were doing but because it didn't fit with what we would express. And the labels became our second choice. It is the back label for other winemakers. And even though it took a lot of attention, it didn't take as much attention as a poster or some stupid words or half naked women or a golden castle or whatever you can put on the wine label because it was naked in a way. So the only thing that really spoke through was the wine itself. And that was what I really found interesting in the beginning.

David Hurtado: And would you say that you took the same approach to the design of the book ?

Anders Frederik Steen: The idea was to just strip down everything we could. It's eight years of notes concerning pretty much everything that went on in those years in our professional life. Also our private life, of course, but basically the professional life. I think to wrap it up in photos, graphic design, or whatever, would disturb this image. I mean, the title itself was a working title. It wasn't meant to be this title in the beginning. It was just a small sentence that came out of nothing. We used it for some time just on Instagram to explain what we're doing. The editor, liked it so much, but Anne and I tried to change it. basically they said from the editor's side, no, no, no. No discussion at all. We're going to go with this one. What I like about it is that it's so 1 to 1. Poetry is Growing in Our Garden explains exactly what we do. When we think about poetry, it is often about the words that make sentences or stories more beautiful than they are in reality. But maybe the reality is more beautiful than what we imagine. And that's what I think is funny about this title, is that, the garden could be the physical garden, it could be the vineyards, it could be the village, or the city or whatever it may be that you have around you. It’s an encouragement just to open up and observe what is going on around you.

Text and images by David Hurtado. This is the first of two instalments of David's interview.


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