It’s a cool fall day in Mystic, it’s raining, and I am sitting across a table from David Spencer – half of the husband-and-wife partnership, with Pamela Lynn, that opened Spencer & Lynn about a year ago. I’m here to talk about fall wine, but more often than not it seems that our conversation pivots instead around people.
“So, what we do is something that I think is a trend in New York, and a trend in the wine world right now — but it’s not a trend for us, it’s what we are passionate about – is sell wine that is connected to real people.”
Just steps from the Mystic River Bridge, on the Groton side, Spencer & Lynn is a cozy store with a focus on selling wines from small producers, with approachable prices, and a sensibility that favors individual expression, less intervention, organic and biodynamic winemaking.
“She’s from Guilford. I’m from Manhattan. So out here made sense, but, when we came here, you know, especially during the pandemic, the customer base changed right under our feet … we noticed that the tourists are 90% of our business for a good portion of the year, which changed the dynamic a lot of what we wanted to do. So, what we’ve been searching for is how to be local here, and this town is not — I moved here 12 years ago — this town is nothing similar to 12 years ago.”
Shipwright’s Daughter, Nana’s, James Wayman, the Oyster Club – the food scene in Mystic is suddenly garnering all sorts of positive press in Forbes, the New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Spencer points out, but “that’s not really reaching the local people. That’s for a larger national audience. It doesn’t help us connect.”
In part, Spencer says they are getting out into neighborhoods, and have shops open in Groton and Noank, with the idea of maybe eventually opening a store on the Stonington side.
“One block from the water and suddenly 10 miles north you’re in farmland. And the reason I bring this up – and it’s germane to the conversation is very simply, it very much dictates what you can sell. And that has been a lesson in the past few years of how to connect with your customers on a local basis, how everything in terms of demographics influences what you sell, and overall, how that has a real effect on your business plan. Yeah, do whatever you want. But a lot of things are not in your control.”
That populist sort of approach extends to a business model, according to Spencer, that tries to accomplish this philosophy “in every price point, in every style of wine,” buying wine not only from Rosenthal, Skurnik and Kermit Lynch, but also by working with “an immense amount of smaller books, that are one or two people in the whole state, and are trying to start small businesses basically.”
Those importers include Connecticut-based Transatlantic Bubbles, which Spencer calls one of the best importers of champagne in the United States.
The idea is to take these ideas – keeping the joy that people want in wine – and not support the corporatization of the wine world which, according to Spencer, “leads to a lot of problems in winemaking, and waste, and also a lack of diversity of grapes, people, wine, varietals and styles.”
It’s a philosophy that also shapes the way that, for example, The Wine Thief in New Haven and Madison sells wine, which Spencer acknowledges, but he says he takes it to the level where “it’s all we do.”
And as much as I enjoy talking wine with Janine Sacco at The Wine Thief — which over the last year has been pretty much all about offbeat grapes at the peripheries of Europe — I also like that when asked to suggest a series of “transitional” wines moving from summer into fall, Spencer points me this time closer to the center of the things, to Beaujolais and gamay.
“I love Beaujolais this time of time year… and I’ll drink rosé, white and red all day long.”
At recent $400 benefit dinner at Yellow Farmhouse in Stonington, Spencer says he paired a relatively modest $60 magnum – the equivalent of two standard bottles – with a Mexican hominy soup.
“Yeah, but that wine with a chill on it – that biodynamic, funky — but that poppy, pulpy flavor that I kind of love from that soft of a Beaujolais… very tart raspberry and just really refreshing. And that’s the kind of thing that people get surprised about and gets us excited.”
He lines up half-a-dozen bottles of Beaujolais, including a couple of rosés, on the table between us.
“This is not on the cutting edge of fun. But I will say this one of the things we’re really passionate about, like showing people an easy way into the world of wine. Gamay rosé – it’s like 3% of all wine production in Beaujolais, and it’s delicious.”
Spencer chooses two rosés — a Jean-Paul Brun 2019 Rosé d’Folie Gamay ($18) and a Domaine Dupeuble 2020 Beaujolais Rosé ($18).
“If you’ve never had a bottle before of any Beaujolais rosé, I’d recommend trying it, because it’s that very fruit forward … you’re going to get that strawberry seed, raspberry, a little bit of blackberry. Tart fruit. No sugar. You’re going to get a lot of acid, but you’re not going to get a huge amount of tannin. It’s incredibly refreshing and big and bold — think Carolina pulled pork sandwiches and something to chug along with it.”
In the case of the Dupeuble, says Spencer, you’ll get an easier, softer textural style – “fun, tart, refreshing and not complicated,” and with the Brun, “it is gamay on steroids. It is very opulent rich fruit, and sometimes needs a couple of months to calm down … all the big fruit and tannin that they expect from a light chill-able red, but they don’t want anything heavy, and they t want it to be refreshing.”
He explains that with Beaujolais you can get funky, personal wines, from smaller “old school” producers who have been biodynamic since the 1970s and at a cost that’s a fraction of what you’d pay elsewhere.
“The best wines in Napa cost, you know, $2000. The best wines in Burgundy $2500 a bottle. The best wines in Beaujolais? 70 bucks –top of the line — the best thing they give you.”
With these styles, which Spencer describes as “a bit on the natural side of things,” you open a bottle and you smell a bit of the barnyard, which some people love and others find a bit of turnoff.
A Clos de la Roilette 2020 Fleurie ($22), which Spencer says takes a couple of years to be drinkable – unusual for Beaujolais — is available in very limited quantities and arrived last week. A good pairing with duck, think rich, syrupy boysenberry.
His reason for suggesting the Domaine Dupeuble 2020 Beaujolais ($18)?
“Here’s the entry to Beaujolais, and that’s that,” says Spencer. “And it shouldn’t be any more than that.”
And from that wine, for just 40 dollars more, we leap to a Domaine Marcel Lapierre 2020 Morgon ($58), that Spencer describes simply as “the best. Period.”
As he puts it, Marcel Lapierre is the original, “it’s the perfection of Beaujolais with a chill or a light cellar temp, that I like to say is perfect with everything.”
And then Spencer takes that “old school” approach and then shakes it up, lastly, with a Domaine Chasselay 2020 Beaujolais is not Dead ($24), which he says embodies a generational change for a business that in the past was passed from fathers to sons.
“No respectable French winemaker, 70-plus, is putting ‘Beaujolais is not Dead’ on a label.”
The winemaker Claire Chasselay is part of a broader shift toward women in the business – according to Spencer nearly all of his employees at Spencer & Lynn are young women.
“’I love You, but I’m Thirsty’ is a cult classic at the moment, and ‘Beaujolais is not Dead.’ These are more funky, I’d say, than not. They’re very much that pulpy carbonic style, without being carbonic, that you get from Beaujolais Nouveau. That is, I guess, a love or hate style … but the young winemaking style also pushes towards boundaries on everything – how to restrain sugar as much. How to add less sulfites. How to extract more tannins and fruit, without going outside of the bounds of what Beaujolais should be. And how to make the entire thing soft and gentle without really touching it. None of these things are actually easy, but they are willing to experiment a lot.”
Open just a year, it’s pretty clear that Spencer & Lynn is a place to go for wine in Connecticut.