Looking "Above Sea Level": an interview with wine connoisseur Aimee Hartley
Interview by Reemé Idris
For those who enjoy wine but have a distaste for the pretension that often surrounds it, Above Sea Level, a new events platform and magazine concentrating on wine by profiling the people and places that make it, is for you. The magazine was founded by Aimee Hartley, a wine marketing specialist who has spent a decade demystifying the industry to reveal how wine intersects with varying aspects of our lives. The issues are themed by location - the first issue, launched last year during The London Design Festival, was on California, and the next issue, with a focus on Portugal, will be out this autumn. I asked Aimee about her fresh approach to one of the world’s oldest industries.
Tell me more about Above Sea Level - how does the name reflect its approach to wine?
I founded Above Sea Level in 2016 to start a different type of conversation around wine. I felt like there must be people out there who were curious about wine and wanted to learn about it in a more natural way. Flavor descriptors, point systems, and glossy images of vineyards just didn’t portray what I loved most about wine: the people who were working their socks off to make wines with the utmost respect to nature.
The name is inspired by the fact that vines are often described in relation to how far above sea level they grow. They are subject to the laws of nature - aspect, weather, geology, proximity to mountains and the ocean - but also to the whim of the winemaker. I’m really interested in how nature, location, and people influence and shape one and other, and the effect this has on the character of a wine.
How can we learn about nature through wine?
As humans, we have so much to learn from nature: how it endures, transforms and prevails. Each year, winemakers have to work and adapt to changing weather patterns and environmental issues, like the ongoing drought in California to late frosts obliterating Chablis’ harvest in 2016. Unpredictable weather can make a year’s worth of work and income can quickly disappear.
What I love seeing is how a younger generation of winemakers are looking back to an older, pre-industrialized generation and simplifying the way they work. Less chemicals in the fields and a desire for wines to be themselves means that so much of the care and work takes place in the vines, as opposed to wines being manipulated in the cellar. The wine can be more expensive because it is made in this careful way. Even if you balk at the price of a wine on first glance, find out more about the producer, and if you can, support them and the work they’re doing.
Why have you chosen to focus on California for the first issue?
I was lucky enough to live in California 8 years ago, and my time in San Francisco hugely influenced my approach to wine. It was before the big changes happened in London’s own food and wine scene, and nobody had ever talked to me about wine and spirits in such a relaxed, engaging way. I could see young people spending money on wine, heading out to the wine country, experiencing it in a way that made more sense to me. I wanted to create this feeling back at home. There is also a sense of individualism, of doing things your own way, that is tied up in the American dream that is so mesmerizing about California. It had me from the moment I landed.
Before Above Sea Level, you had already created a content platform for an English luxury wine brand and a wine app for another. How did your curiosity and interest in wine transform into a serious business?
When I first got into the industry 8 years ago, I came from a marketing background. I was surprised that wine still had this slightly stuffy, staid image, and by how little time was given to creating experiences around wine that were more relatable. My transition into wine after my time in San Francisco was with Bibendum, a British wine distributor. They were great at giving me freedom to explore new ideas, and that’s where I developed the app, Plonk. I wanted to simplify the design and language around wine, using grape varieties and making suggestions of those with similar characteristics, to get people to experiment a bit more with the wine they were buying. I went on to help develop a digital platform for English sparkling wine brand Nyetimber. Telling stories about people and place is something I’ve always been passionate about, and it seemed to me that the wine industry needed this more than ever to start talking to a younger audience about wine in a way that was inspiring and made more sense. It’s a big part of why I started Above Sea Level, to help encourage that same idea.
We met at one of your wine tastings with a really great group of women. Can you choose any female winemakers, growers or sommeliers who have particularly impressed you?
Sometimes I feel uncomfortable talking about “female” winemakers - while I know that wine is an industry that has (or used to have) pretty male connotations, I think for the industry to keep moving forward, we have to consider female winemakers as simply winemakers. I hosted a night with Danielle Pender [the editor of Riposte Magazine] recently, celebrating female winemakers doing awesome things, and something quite special dawned on me. I chose winemakers who I had an incredible amount of respect for, such as Cathy Corison of Corison winery in Napa (a total legend!), Birgit Braunstein in Austria and Marta Soares of Casal Figueara in Portugal, because their wines represent something deeply personal, and do something that is hard to do. They are unashamedly themselves. Their wines are so much a part of them, that they have this power, but gentle grace to them that is so special. What that night taught me, in a room full of talented women, is that we are very lucky to have this ability, to be strong and vulnerable and ambitious, all at the same time, without one of these things overpowering or compromising the other.
Which restaurants, bars or wine shops have got you making return trips, both in the UK and Stateside?
Chez Panisse in California and The River Cafe in London will be two of my favorite restaurants in the world. They have a timelessness to them that I think any restaurant worth their salt desires to have. Incredible produce, cooked simply and with love. I love the Laughing Heart, a wine bar in East London run by the enigmatic Charlie Mellor, and 10 Greek Street, Lyles, Clove Club, Brawn, and Barrafina are staples on my London restaurant list.
Getting yourself to an independent wine shop, as you would do the butcher or greengrocer, is so important. The guys in these places really know their stuff and care about their selection. My friends Ruth Spivey and Ruth Osborne run the incredible Wine Car Boot, a quarterly event that brings together London’s best independent wine merchants into one space.
Lastly, what advice do you have for when someone feels overwhelmed by a wine menu?
Never be scared to ask questions or say how much you have to spend. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by wine, especially excessively long wine lists at fancy restaurants that mean very little on first glance, without the expert guidance of the sommelier. But those people have so much knowledge up their sleeve and always want to help. The industry, especially in London, has seen the rise of “casual dining,” and with it comes a much more relaxed, approach to wine and often with some of the most interesting wine lists. I have so many friends doing an incredible job of getting younger people excited about wine. It’s exciting to see wine culture taking a different form and for people to be able to find a way into it that makes sense to them.