The ever-loving treasure hunt of natural wine can take you to some wild and wonderful places, but it's also often an exercise in frustration. To wit: I've written rapturously previously about discovering natural wine through the Australian wine scene, but many of the top minimal intervention wines made in Australia never leave the country, and almost none of it comes to America.
Happily that's changing. America's mainstream wine writing triumvirate—Jon Bonné, Eric Asimov, and Lettie Teague—are helping drive interest in the New Australia, fast undoing the stigma of its “Yellow Tail moment” and piquing interest in the new generation of Australian vignerons. Of particular interest for natural wine fans is the work coming out of Australia's Basket Ranges, a wine region clustered outside the city of Adelaide and home to the wines of Jauma, Gentle Folk, Ochota Barrels and Lucy Margaux, whose founder/winemaker Anton van Klopper is a sort of global ambassador for the New Australian wine moment.
If you're already converted to the wonders of natural Australian juice, or simply Aussie curious, there's an event happening on July 30th in Brooklyn worth your attention. It is the first North American dinner party from Otis Armada, “a group of Melbourne-based creatives who are committed to exploring, re-contextualizing, and celebrating the ritualistic aspects of communal dining.” Part art installation, part wine-soaked group supper, Otis Armada teams with chefs to produce thought-provoking dinner experiences with wine as a focal point. Past events have ranged from a Sydney celebration of seasonality (featuring skin macerated rosé created by influential Australian wine personality Mike Bennie) to a seriously severe riff on brutalism in Melbourne, featuring the raw wines of Italy's Cantina Giardino paired with dinners served on a corrections facility trey.
All a bit wild and chance-taking, yes? For the Brooklyn event, Otis Armada have teamed with the chefs at North Brooklyn Farms for an evening of compare and contrast on the duality cross-continental dining in 2017. Guests can expect deeply rare wines from makers like Bobar, Gentle Folk, Chapter Wine and Frederick Stevenson, many of which are being served in North America for the first time. It's called “What A Croc,” and uses the subtle differences between the crocodile and the alligator as its central theme. (I warned you this was all a bit wild.)
Tickets are available now via EventBrite for the all-day party on July 30th. But soft! Between the reptiles and the natural wines and the weird brutalist dinner party jailhouse events past, I simply had to learn more. And so I spoke digitally with Gus Carmichael, the founder / producer of Otis Armada, just as he'd landed in New York for the event. Read on to learn more about the wines on offer, discover the submerged roots of this party's swampy conceit, and ponder the inclusion of a classic reptile-themed outdoor water amusement.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Describe Otis in a nutshell for people who are unfamiliar with it.
Otis Armada is a bootleg dining series conceived from the desire to offer something honestly different.
Not different in some existentially challenging sense; different to the same old things that we think hospitality venues are getting away with far too easily these days. In a nutshell you could say we're seriously unserious.
Tell us about a specific past event that you feel captures the Otis spirit.
Otis. Brutal. saw us respond to the theme of the 20th century Brutalist movement by delivering an experience cemented in produce and beverage that was untainted by looking ‘pretty'—as a Brutalist never lets form take precedence over function. An example of this was serving our first paired dish in prison-standard food trays.
Of course, this philosophy manifested heavily in the beverage pairings with a list of wines that were 100% uninterrupted in the winemaking process. France's Pierre Rousse (Languedoc) and Italy's Cantina Giardino (Campania) to name a couple. Because who ever said natural winemaking wasn't brutal?
Why choose New York for your first North American event?
To us as diners New York has always been the culinary trail blazers, some exciting new dining concept in our city probably isn't new in NYC. As such it would seem the logical place to try out our own concepts of consuming and try to draw comparisons. I think Sinatra wrote a song about it…
You talk about the concept of “two correlated eating cultures that are worlds apart”—expand on that for us; how are the cultures between New York and Melbourne different? How are they similar?
The first main differences are history and identity. History had always depicted the indigenous people of Australia as hunters and gatherers similar to the rest of the world, when in fact the aboriginal tribes were some of the first recorded agriculturists; cultivating edible crops in the most barren of places*. Sadly this wasn't exactly carried into our identity in post-colonised Australia. Our identity as preparers and eaters of food hadn't progressed too far beyond that of her Majesty's Kingdom until the vast cultural revolution spurred on by migrating nations. This occurred exponentially in the latter part of last century with Melbourne becoming the home for scores of Vietnamese, Chinese, Greek and Italian migrants.
Which ties into their similarities, both cities owe much of their rich food scene today to the traditions and cultures of the people that moved there. Where both cities take cues from their own cultures in dining, it is fair to say that were it not for the embrace of external methods and ingredients our scenes would be far more bland than they are today.
*See Bruce Pascoe's ‘Dark Emu‘ for more on this fascinating topic.
I'm dying to know which wines you'll be serving—whose on the docket for the event? Will you be offering bottles for sale in addition to tickets? Will some of these wines be appearing commercially in America for the first time?
The driving force behind the beverage offering for What a Croc! is to bring wines that no one in the states would have ever tried before. To achieve this we've brought over wines from producers currently not on any American importer portfolios. The Yarra Valley's ‘Bobar' and South Australian legend Frederick Stevenson to name a couple. These exclusive wines can be drunk as part of the feast, however the bar will be splashing around tonnes of tubes of other Aussie gear before and afterwards.
There is a general growing buzz on “New Australian” wines here in the States, but access is still an issue. Are winemakers and distributors in Australia working on advancing this?
It's funny, we say the same thing about a lot of New American wines that we're dying to get our hands on! I guess a lot of this gap comes down to the vigorous taxing schemes of our government and the distribution laws (that I still don't understand) of yours. Winemakers are certainly working closer with distributors to have their wines sold over here at the casual price point they were intended to be. This charge being led in NYC by one of our faves Tom Shobbrook (drink his wines!).
Those wines are brilliant. But in the same breath, Australian wine is perhaps the most stigmatized and abused of any wine origin on the American market, thanks to a twin hydra of Yellowtail in every 7/11, and $100 wretched Parker point Shiraz in every wine shop. How do events like Otis combat this? Is it simply teaching by showing?
Australian's are becoming far more aware of varieties, processes and red flags for that sort of wretched gear than they've ever been. They're also prepared to pay a little more when they know something may be of better quality. For us it is not as much of an issue of combatting than simply highlighting the differences and hard work that goes into passionate, honest winemaking. It's sad that the sum of our exports has been diluted to that shit but hopefully we can change that!
Will you collaborate with local chefs on this event, or work with your own team from Australia? What parts of the event as a whole are collaborative?
Yes! This will be a cornerstone of the croc/gator dichotomy drenching this beast of a dinner party. Kenneth Monroe and his team from the North Brooklyn Farms will be designing a menu to bounce off and mesh with the wines we have brought along. Otis Armada is always a collaboration at heart so you could say the whole event will be a hot pot of lots of people ideas.
There's a brunch bar and a ticketed dinner—is this like an all-day hang?
Correct! Both before, during and after the event the North Brooklyn Farms will be open to the public serving food, beer and exciting wines to keep it splashy!
What will the environment be like? Have you gone out and purchased a couple Crocodile Miles?
Picture a swamp that could entertain your family and friends for hours on end in. Unfortunately we did not get our hands on those stunning creations (they were standard issue back in the day), but things will definitely get slippery as the party progresses.
Which wine are you most excited to pour?
An incredibly fresh natural Rose of Heathcote Schioppettino, Malbec and Lambrusco from Heathcote blended especially for this event by our great friend and collaborator Jarad Curwood of Chapter Wines.
Thank you, and chomp chomp.
Photos courtesy of Otis Armada.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder of Sprudge. His writing has appeared in T Magazine, The New York Times, Seattle Metropolitan Magazine, and Willamette Week.