Peter Nelson’s career spans 20 years and all sides of the business—including cook, dishwasher, retail buyer and sommelier. He has been in charge of the list at Puritan & Co. in Cambridge, Massachusetts since 2014.
When we spoke with Vanessa Rea of Eastern Standard in Boston, she mentioned that the consumer interest in natural and biodynamic wines has noticeably risen in the last year. Have you seen that as well?
Absolutely! It’s just been kind of a grassroots thing. Listen, when I first started buying wine, I could have all the Frank Cornelissen wine I wanted. Now, I get a mixed case of the lettered wines, maybe a couple of these other things, and maybe one each of the rosso and the rosato. We’re into it and we have a couple of really good wholesalers that we deal with. It’s hardcore. Massachusetts definitely is part of the [natural/biodynamic] world and definitely has a lot of interest in those wines.
Do people seek out the unsulfured wines on your list? The Mas de Gourgonnier, which is unsulfured, clocked in at number two on your by-the-glass list.
[In 2018,] I started using the heading “No Added Sulfur” on the wine list for red wines, and we’re up to about 18 wines in that section. What I’ve noticed of late is that more people go to that section—it’s the second section on the wine page after rosé. A lot of producers are now on the softer part of the learning curve. Mas de Gourgonnier, they’ve been making wine without sulfur for, like, fifteen years, so they pretty much have it nailed down. But a lot of the other producers, they’ve only been doing it for a short time. So it takes a moment, and it takes some exchange of information. Five years ago, if I asked a producer of no-sulfur wines, “Hey, do you know so-and-so?” they’d go, “Who?” It could be someone right down the road from them in California or someone three tables down at Vinitaly, and they had no idea who these people are. Now, there’s more of a community and there’s more information-sharing.
The Mas de Gourgonnier comes from a beautiful property. Their wines are some of the best in Provence, and this wine is flawless. There’s no volatility, there’s no Brett. We have two fish dishes on the menu right now and it’s just such a perfect partner to those items. So the staff knows that if it’s a Saturday night and they’re deep in the weeds and someone asks “Well, what red wine do you recommend?” they can just bring it over.
I’d love to hear about the canned wine that you’re selling.
Mainly, the canned wines have been either fizzy or rosés. We don’t sell a ton of sparkling wine unless it’s by the glass. The Bonny Doon La Bulle-Moose de Cigare, we’ve done pretty well with that. I have the staff position these items as half bottles. I always buy at least one, sometimes two, and maybe more from Old Westminster Winery in Maryland. They’re hypersustainable in everything they do, they’re converting to biodynamics, they’re super, super minimalist. I work with their no-sulfur wines as well. And people just like the wines. Again, if you have a couple of people come in and they both want a glass of rosé, you can say “You know, you can get this wine which is actually really, really good, and it’s going to end up costing you a little less. And there’s so many other benefits to drinking wine from a can.” So, we move it. In a year, maybe ten 24-packs of cans.
You have a good concentration of Sicilian wines among your best-selling bottles.
I’ve been working with Sicilian wines since the late nineties, for a number of years in retail and also in restaurants. It’s been fun to be a part of the history in the last twenty years of Sicilian wine: Planeta getting all those great scores for French grapes, and then to see even Planeta come full circle to the local varieties. When I opened a store in 2000 in the North End, and there was Planeta and Diego Planeta’s cooperative, Mandrarossa. There wasn’t one wine here from Etna until Terre Nere around 2001. And there was one producer here from Vittoria, and that was COS. Sicily is a place that I’ve really grown fond of. I’m trying not to overdo it, but our guests just really like the wines. I could sell 15 cases of [Arianna Occhipinti’s] SP68 Rosso a year if I wanted to. But I don’t, because there’s not enough to go around. Everybody wants that wine. It sells out at the wholesale level within a week of it arriving in Massachusetts. I used to buy five cases of that and five of the white, and now I don’t buy as much, so that others can have it, I guess.