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. This is the second instalment of a two part interview. You can read the previous section here.
David Hurtado: The title really struck me because in architecture poetry could be thought of in terms of the root of the word: poiesis. Which is about world-building. It's about bringing something into the world. And so there's something really nice about this idea. That in creating wine, or creating a practice, you're also creating your own world. In your analysis of other wines you often write, “in my world, this is a good wine.” I wanted to ask also about this idea of 'structure'. It feels like there's an obvious connection to architecture there-- these fundamental things that need to be there for the building to stand or for the wine to stand. I'm curious if that if that definition has evolved and whether you think that those structures are specific to your 'world' or garden.
Anders Frederik Steen: When people are young and want to build a house or build a wine or build whatever they want to build, they think everything is possible. You could build something that isn't in balance and think it will never fall. And the older you get, the wiser you get. You get more and more conservative in a way. Not conservative, necessarily politically, but in your way of observing things. More realistic. The foundations, at least as I see them in wine, are things like acidity, saltiness, minerality, and oxidation. For me, they are cornerstones in wine as you might find in churches. In music, you have the four beat rhythm. Things that are so classically integrated in whatever structure you want to create that with these few things, you create solid ground. From there you can build whatever you want to build. You can do the most avant-garde music or art, or wine, or buildings, or whatever you want to build if you have the foundation correct. The way we work in the cellar, the way we cultivate our vines, is with one purpose. To produce wines that we like ourselves. With that said, it's also to create wines that we find the most interesting. Not only for us to drink, but also to express what we do. Understood in the framework of natural wine— or wine without anything added or removed— we want to build the most stable classical expression of what the wine should be. And 'classical' is maybe not the right word. Jazz, classical, and hip hop are all avant-garde in some way because they are built on classical ways of understanding music, for example.
DH: I think the use of the word classical had some resonance with me because I love the way that you return to a particular kind of chardonnay or a particular kind of cabernet as Archetypes of wine. And I think that's actually very prevalent in Napa-- that there's these particularly exalted wines. But I was thinking of them as classical buildings as well, like the Parthenon or Pantheon of wine. And so I found that metaphor really interesting because you eventually want to deconstruct those classical elements to add interest. But you are trying to make a structure that won't get blown away in the wind either. Something needs to be sturdy, but have interest too.
AS: I think you have a good point when you say you have to build something solid enough to not get blown away in the wind. That's basically what it's all about. I wrote about this in the book, but in my head I always have an Indian teepee structure in mind. It's a triangle. A pure pyramid shaped triangle. And when the crossed branches are stable you can add whatever you want onto it. And that's basically what I'm looking for in the juice or in the maceration of the grapes or in the wine that's aging in the barrels. Wine doesn't get blown away in the wind but it could blow away by the time that passes by. So if the wine is not solid enough, we cannot save it for two, three, four, or five years in barrels. We need to bottle it very fast, get it away, get it drunk, so we can move on. That's an unstable wine in some way. With stable wine you can make real wine. We can age it and bottle it when it's ready. We can save the bottles until they are perfect in balance and so on. And then we can ship them to wherever they want to be drunk.
DH: I'm curious how working with Anne has influenced your work. There's this romantic idea of creative partnerships— artists that have been with artists, writers with writers, architects with architects, etc. I'm wondering what it's been like to work with your partner.
AS: I think what is interesting when you work in partnership is that you can be completely honest with each other. Ego is less important. So what you get is more honest, or more naked in a way. We can talk very freely about what we like, what we don't like. When you mention writers and writers or architects and architects what makes them good is that you can present your material to someone that you trust 100% and you get a very honest answer, even if it's a negative critique. You can take it in and absorb it because it's from someone that you love. For us, it's the same way when we talk about the wine making. I'll repeat that we make the wine we want to drink ourselves. And it's a constant discussion when we do the harvest, the maceration, or the way we press-- what direction should we go? What do we want to obtain with this wine? What is the purpose of this wine? How do we see the capacity of the grapes? How long can we push it? And so on. And if you are there in a relationship where one is the boss and the other one is the worker or if its two friends together there can be a fight in egos. Who has the right answers? Who is getting their word spoken most loudly? Here it doesn't matter. I don't care if Anne has the right answer or me. The purpose is that we get to the goal together. I don't want to be better than her, I just want the wines to be the best. It's a less complicated relationship, I think.
DH: Relinquishing your ego seems like a really key part of making a creative partnership work. Your approach seems to speak to a method of trying to humble yourself when you approach something like land or wine.
AF: I don't think the most interesting thing in the wine is me or Anne or our names. The most interesting thing about the wines that we make is what is in the bottle. I don't consider myself as an artist or whatever. But if you need to do this comparison between wine or art, a winemaker is more like a curator. People that find art and put it up in the museums or galleries. That is our job. We need the wine to be presented in a way where it's understood the best, or exposed to places where they can be drunk by the people that like them. The most important thing for us is that our wines get to places where they are enjoyed by the people. It would be misunderstood to have our wines in a classical three star restaurant, for example. But to have it in a pizzeria in Brooklyn would be perfect. It's the people that understand what we do, or at least they find pleasure in what we do. Wines tend to go where they are drunk. So it's very easy product to to place in certain ways.
Interview by David Hurtado