HOW A WINE BECOMES A CANDID WINE
TLDR: Wine exists to make us happier than we were before we popped the cork. Happiness may be subjective, but it's a beautiful and pure goal that drives the process by which we find and select wines for our offer. Our selections rely on the input and experiences of our team and we evaluate wines as a group. Finding happiness in a wine we might represent is key to our process. This is the motivation behind the tagline I wrote for Candid when starting the company in 2005: "We make wine lovers happy". - Damien Casten
The Happy Meter
Instead of numerical ratings, I rely on my imperfect but powerful measure of the dopamine and serotonin released when I encounter something I find to be wonderful, exciting, satisfying, and above all else, beautiful. It is an idea that first occurred to me not in a cellar or at a tasting, but on a mountain in Vermont. More recently, I've learned that there are real and significant connections between the idea of the Happy Meter and genuine psychological well-being. (That makes me so happy).
My Happy Meter epiphany occurred while I was attending cooking school in Vermont, but it wasn't in the kitchen. I'd arrived in VT after living in France for four years, close enough to the Alps that I had become spoiled with weekend trips to some of the world's truly great ski slopes. Vermont's Green Mountains felt like the minor leagues in comparison, but hey, I thought, not every glass of wine can be a Grand Cru Burgundy, right?
I was utterly, completely, and thrillingly wrong.
On one of the first days out, adrenaline coursed through me as I bounced off moguls, cut through trees, and sometimes even landed upright in the fresh powdery snow. The air was clear, clean, and cold, the sun was bright and the sky was as deeply blue as anything I'd seen in the Alps. I remember high puffy white clouds were buoyant and uplifting like the snow they had dropped hours before.
Profound, unencumbered joy is what I experienced on that day at Mad River Glen*. It still gives me chills. On a scale of one to 100, I could not have been any happier. It reminded me of the different happiness I had found in France, but the surprise I felt at unexpectedly finding such joy in this place made me even happier. I remember it as if I were a balloon inflated with so much happiness that I might pop if I didn't let some of it out in the form of shrieks and hollers, even while I skied alone.
The feeling was not then, nor has it ever been tied to my skills as a skier relative to anyone else. My elation was tied to where I was on that day and in that moment. That realization was huge for me to allow myself to feel so good.
I also had fallen into the trap of putting a ceiling on the pleasure I expected from a given situation. Instead of looking forward to a great day where maybe the sky would be the limit, I'd capped my anticipated joy, sure it wouldn't be as good as what I had known somewhere else. The Happy Meter focuses me on the immediate and allows me to just taste what is here and now.
*I am forever grateful to Mad River Glen for the lesson learned that day, and will be forever amused that I ever thought it was anything other than one of the greatest mountains in the world.
Les Ultra Vins
Diving more deeply into the world of wine, using only personal happiness to evaluate a bottle quickly is, I came to recognize, and incomplete and intellectually unsatisfying test for anything beyond the effects of alcohol. Developing one's technical knowledge is the best way I have seen to build confidence and derive deep pleasure from wine. The systematic tasting approach developed by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust is a great place to start.
I've come to think of the WSET tools as the technical portion of Olympic Figure Skating. They won't be shown in primetime, but they are part of any high-level competition.
My formal training in wine was devoid of tests and certifications but full of glorious wine. To complete my program at cooking school I returned to Paris for an internship. Within days of arriving, I stumbled across a wine shop open late on a Sunday evening. Allain Audry, the owner hosting a small, private party, graciously invited me in when I knocked on the window. He offered me a glass of something red and left me to browse, unintentionally "blinding me" on the wine. I swirled. I tasted. I thought. I considered. When he returned, I delivered my deeply flawed conclusions.
Bemused, Allain appreciated my interest and gently told me how far off the mark I was. For the next two years, on my off days from restaurants, I worked at the aptly named "Les Ultra Vins" in exchange for wine, knowledge, and invitations to countless tastings from Paris to the Loire. I sat at Allain's feet, took notes, tasted, and listened. Allain had what I still think was among the greatest collection of wines in France at that time. His physically tiny wine shop called in the 11th was packed but had only a small fraction of his impossibly broad and deep selection of wines from across France.
A native of Sancerre who demanded precision in both winemaking and farming long before the latter was understood to be as critical as the former, Allain consistently found the best at every price point. A 3 Euro wine from a Coop that tasted like it cost a lot more sparked as much joy as rare Bordeaux. His store and cellar occupied a central place in the Parisian wine scene of the early 2000s. Sommeliers from most Michelin-starred spots in Paris bought and shared wine alongside local wine lovers. I received boxes of Champagne, hand-delivered by an aging Jean-Mary Tarlant, discussed the challenges of 2003 with Nicolas Joly and Denis Vacheron, talked terroir with Guy Bossard, and dove into more magical bottles than I deserved, some with recognizable labels and many that were undiscovered by the public at large.
The more that I tasted, the more the technical bits fell into place, but what really happened for me during my time with Allain was a consistent and joyful exposure to truly great wine. Early on in my time there, a neighbor ran to his cave to retrieve a 1990 Domaine Gramenon Cuvée Mémé. I had no idea what it was other than sublime. Later on, Allain stopped a tasting of top Bordeaux on a warm summer night, insisting that the wines needed half an hour in the fridge, and I learned that an ice cube in your wine really can make it taste better. This is where I first tasted older (much older) Muscadet, Chinon, and Chenin; where I experienced the glory of Didier Dagueneau's wines with a decade in bottle.
We Make Wine Lovers Happy.
Initially, my internal test of whether a wine was a "Candid Wine"was always the same. Could I pour this wine for Allain Audry and make him smile? Would this bottle make the most exacting and knowledgeable wine-lover I've ever met, happy? This is the bar I had in mind when I wrote our tag-line in 2005. "We make wine lovers happy" is meant to speak to all of our wines. It is aspirational and it is a challenge to me and to our team.
Today our winemaking partners often provide the same litmus test at the highest level. Visiting Klaus-Peter and Julia Keller after a stop in Champagne, I brought a bottle of Cuvée Nicole Vielles Vignes. Klaus-Peter exploded with delight, saying "oh great, we love Moncuit and we just drank our last bottle!" I was both elated by the response and secretly a tad disappointed that I hadn't introduced them to a new pleasure. Visits from Fred Scherrer in turn spark extended conversations about older Riesling and Muscadet, while Chad and Bree Stock, MW have a particular penchant for Austrian Grüner and Chenin from the Loire.
All of this begins when we open samples with our team at the office in Chicago. With all of our combined experience in the world of wine, does the bottle in front of us have a spark that makes us smile? Perfection is not the goal. We relish winees that will be terrific on Wednesday with a minimal budget just as we are humbled to evaluate some of the world's greatest bottles when given the chance. Each has their place, and each wine-lover is on a different point in their journey. Having a wide range of wines, from different regions, at different price points and from as many different grapes as we can find allows us to be confident that we can meet wine-lovers at any point on their journey with something that might just make them as happy as part-time ski-bum in Vermont.