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Anders Frederik Steen

Interview by Madeleine Willis
Photography and video by Robbie Whitehead
Video edited by Bernat Granados
Music by Roger Sena

Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
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Our last morning in Valvignères, Anders dropped us a pin; it was a while after they’d got there already, but at the time we were still schlepping around the breakfast table. Business and pleasure were starting to blur. We threw our bags in the car and eventually located the ranks of Ardèche natural winemakers working their way through the vines; the sun high above, they armed us with secateurs and gave us a crash course in pruning that doubled as entertainment for the old hands. That day was a show of solidarity for two winegrowers who’d started the conversion to organic, much to the ire of locally established non-organic producers, and by this stage we were about ready to throw in everything and swell their ranks indefinitely. In 2016, Anders Frederik Steen and Anne Bruun Blauert made that move, leaving their native Denmark to continue the winemaking started here by Anders in 2013. At that stage, he was better known as cofounder and sommelier of two Copenhagen institutions, Relæ and Manfreds, which garnered equal parts praise and criticism when they first opened for pushing a new kind of ultra-seasonal, organic cuisine paired only with natural wines. Their impact on Nordic fine dining is now talked about in the same breath as that of Noma—where Anders also trained as an apprentice sommelier. Anne, meanwhile, built her career as a social worker in prisons and caring for victims of sexual assault, but after the move became fully implicated in the winemaking. Every year they all but start from scratch, never repeating the same cuvée twice, but varying their presses or macerations or the blend of grapes, depending on the fruit itself. And it works; the bottles sell out before they’re even released. Unlike these city kids with idle fantasies of bucolic life, the couple have put in the hard yards and it shows, their wines carrying fistfuls of complexity and whatever quality it is that makes your head hang low, nose in the glass, in a form of visceral entrapment. As much wine as I might like to consume though, the real reason we came is the stack of Anders’ notes that arrived on my desk a few months ago, around 200 pages of recopied diary entries, scraps of reflections dating back to 2013 and that first foray into winemaking, the whole process as it unfurled, with all the doubts and wrong turns, appraisals of other wines and eventually their own, of the work of a sommelier, and eventually the new ruminations of those who’ve reached the top of their game and are looking for the next mountain. For the three days we visited, the wine and conversation flowed—about the book we’ll be making from the notes and everything in-between.

Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Poetry Is Growing in Our Garden, Anders Frederik Steen (2021)
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Poetry Is Growing in Our Garden, Anders Frederik Steen (2021)
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Poetry Is Growing in Our Garden, Anders Frederik Steen (2021)
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Poetry Is Growing in Our Garden, Anders Frederik Steen (2021)
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Poetry Is Growing in Our Garden, Anders Frederik Steen (2021)
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Poetry Is Growing in Our Garden, Anders Frederik Steen (2021)
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Poetry Is Growing in Our Garden, Anders Frederik Steen (2021)

This is a pretty big change from Copenhagen; what was it like to move out here?

Anne: Around 2015 I came with Anders and worked with him for a week and that’s when I thought, ‘OK, we could live here’. Maybe we could do this differently, so it’s not something that steals time away from what we’re already doing or spending time with family. What if we could integrate those things? For me, I’ve been around restaurants all the time, but I was never drinking wine like Anders; we’ve always had the same interest in going out, eating, and drinking nice wine, but it wasn’t my main interest when we moved here. In the beginning—I don’t know what I was thinking. I was thinking, ‘OK, we’re going to take it one day at a time’. Also, because Anders had worked so much in the restaurant business, I had a love-hate relationship to wine sometimes, and especially the culture around wines.

Would you say you’ve settled into it now?

Anne: At the time I was ready to do something else; social work is something I chose because it has such an important role in society, but all the bureaucracy became difficult. It became more about the system. The thing I love about winegrowing and winemaking is the work in the vines, and the act of creating something and seeing the result; when you come from social work, it can be hard to see that so clearly, you take such small steps. So, coming out here, we had two different approaches. I think the good thing for us has been that I’m more like a normal consumer. When we talk, in the end it’s often like, ‘What do we actually want to drink?’ I think it’s been important to say to Anders, ‘You have the drive to create something, but the consumer shouldn’t be afraid to drink it!’

Anders, when you were at Noma, it’s the best restaurant in the world, the most prestigious. Do you have freedom in a place like that? Or it’s so hierarchical and at the top of its game that you’re actually quite constricted in what you can do?

Anders: As a sommelier? We had huge freedom. There was one guy who took responsibility, the chef sommelier. But there were two of us young guys underneath him and he constantly asked us to push the limits. Of course sometimes he said, ‘No guys, too much’. Often even. But often what made it interesting is that we did push it too far, and then he took it down a little bit. But this play of having two young guys that really wanted to push it far and the older guy with more knowledge who could smooth it out was a very good combination.

What do you mean by pushing it too far?

Anders: Maybe being too precise in the pairing with a serving. A wine can be the perfect match for a dish, but if there are 20 courses, there are 20 glasses of wine, there’s also a story being told in the meal that you need to continue. We, the young guys, tended to forget the bigger picture and only focus on the one wine and the one serving.

As a sommelier, do you think it’s part of the job to challenge people somehow? Or to say, ‘I have this client, this food, what can I do that’s interesting? What can I bring to this?’ The value you bring is to push it a little.

Anders: Maybe pushing it, yes. But at the same time, no. You shouldn’t make it crazy just to make it crazy. You should make it better. I think the sommelier and the guy seasoning the sauce are the same person. Both are filling out the small blank spots where the chefs aren’t cooking well enough or where the products don’t express themselves in the way the chefs want them to. The cooking at Noma involved maybe three, four, five ingredients, and Relæ had even fewer sometimes. So even though that’s what the chefs wanted, there’s a lack of something; when you cook a dish with pepper, olive oil, and beetroots—that can be a dish, but there are blind spots where the flavours are not enough, and there, with the wine, you can simply pull out or push down flavours. The sommelier creates this smooth, nice curve of flavours that makes the meal more interesting.

They create the narrative.

Anders: They create the story. In the kitchen, people talk about it all the time. They say, ‘We’re serving six courses. How do courses number one and two fit together?’ But it doesn’t matter. The most important thing is how does the wine served for course number one fit together with wine number two? Because people drink a wine, eat the food, finish the glass, get a new glass. They taste the next wine, they get the dish, they eat the dish, they finish the wine, they get a new wine. And so on. Also because now when people go out, they need to take a photo before they eat. That’s also complicated, because it adds another glass of wine for the sommelier.

Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen

I went to a restaurant once and they said, ‘Alright, you need to go to the toilet? Take a phone call? You need to tell us one course in advance. As in, you need to plan your toilet trips because we need to let the kitchen know because it slows down the whole production line’. It was really intense. But now it would be like, ‘OK, toilet, business call, photo shoot, Instagram uploads? Schedule it in’.

Anders: The experience of eating is changing. And that’s also where it becomes, I can’t say less interesting, but if you’re serving as a sommelier or cook or winemaker or whatever, it becomes interesting when people are taking it in. More and more often, people eating and drinking in restaurants aren’t doing that; they go to get the photo for their Instagram.

Would you say that restaurants are adapting to that?

Anders: They are, because they’re creating these beautiful places, or labels that are better visually. You can sell things with a nice label, and restaurants are known for a dish you want to eat, just because of the pictures you’ve seen. The first one—I mean, it was a good dish—but the first one was the French chef Michel Bras. He was known for his vegetable dish, and he created a new type of cuisine. I was growing up as a chef admiring a guy for his cooking, and the only thing I’d ever been in touch with were pictures of his dish. I’d never tasted it, but I knew at that time he was the one figure of cooking.

And you formed a whole opinion, a whole belief system around that.

Anders: Yeah. I started to cook, following his ideas without knowing what it even tasted like. Eventually I went there and I ate the dish and it was good. So I was lucky! It was before Instagram; you bought a book, and when you were a young apprentice, you read the whole thing in one evening, you went back to work the next day, and the next evening you read the whole book one more time. Now you look at pictures on Instagram and you see, ‘OK, he’s putting the things like that. I want to do the same’. They’re making visuals, and the knowledge expresses itself weakly. Like winemakers don’t make wine anymore; they make labels and come up with cocky names. And we do that as well. The important thing now is that what’s behind the label or the picture has to be really good, like the experience I had at Bras’ restaurant. I hope our wines live up to this standard too; that’s at least what we’re aiming for.

Products have become relational in a way, because they live in a universal environment. It becomes more about what this thing is in relation to other things and other people. Maybe someone never even tastes your wines, but they feel they relate to it somehow because they’ve seen this person taste it, they’ve seen it in this restaurant, or whatever.

Anders: Yeah. But the non-real reality is a real thing even though it isn’t real. We also know we want to put our wines in certain restaurants—not in the hands of certain people, we don’t pay attention to that. But I pushed very hard in the beginning to create this interest. But how do I say? The way people create a relationship is also a two-way thing, because wines have no value if people don’t relate to them in return. They only become interesting when people start to take them in emotionally or flavour-wise. If they don’t like them, if they find them boring, they become just another wine. Once they start to activate some kind of emotion, it becomes interesting. That’s where it becomes like music or art or architecture—we can listen to music and it’s just a piece of music, or we can listen to music and we start to cry. With wine we rarely start to cry, but we—

Depends how many glasses you’ve had.

Anders: True.

Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen

Let’s jump back a little. You were cooking, and then you wanted to complement your cooking experience by training as a sommelier. What pushed you to do that in the first place?

Anders: I wanted to be a better chef than all the others. Everybody else was going to Arzak, El Bulli, all these things in Spain. I thought if everybody’s going and I go too, I’ll just be one of the other guys. Wine interested me, so I thought, ‘OK, I’ll take one or two years and see what it brings me’, then I can go back and cook. But the wines just simply grabbed me.

And after leaving Noma you opened Relæ together with a few colleagues?

Anders: You can imagine, you’re two young sommeliers who’ve been working at Noma with all that pressure; we created Relæ to be independent and free. Very fast, we realised that we’d be under the same pressure, but we started out with the idea that we shouldn’t gain a Michelin star, we shouldn’t have ambitions to be on the 50 Best Restaurants list. All these things that come with running a top restaurant like Noma, we wouldn’t be a part of it. At the same time, we were two young guys without our maître sommelier to calm us down—that’s not the right word—but in the beginning it became too much, I know. It was too much teenage revolution and too little wine menu.

The clients were also saying, ‘What is this?’

Anders: The clients were lost, but they went to have a good night out, so they were normally very happy. But I think I experienced it more as industry people that either didn’t like it or found it too strange. The criticism from those guys, or colleagues, was tough. But at the same time, I see now that people are moving in the same direction.

Anne: It’s funny because Relæ and Manfreds had success from day one. They never had an empty restaurant, not one evening. There were people criticising it, but I also think sometimes that’s an image of the restaurant business turning against its own people, because there’s so much competition and jealousy in restaurants, too. There was a lot of criticism, but people were still coming. Of course when you open something that is so different, you’re sensitive as to whether people like it or not. People saw them as new players, and everybody was like, ‘What the?’

Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen

And now people actively search out natural wine, or this kind of dining; they feel they want more somehow, and some wine producers, some ways of buying or drinking wine can give you this feeling because you have producers who are intentionally giving you that.

Anders: Yeah. But it can also become a product from a factory where people produce wines with these kinds of emotions and labels and names, like what happened to coffee. People would get their coffee from some little roastery, and then we got Blue Bottle Coffee from San Francisco, and then a few years ago Nestlé bought up a majority stake.

What’s natural wine going to be in 20 years?

Anders: The same, sadly. It’s funny because when we opened Relæ, it was probably the first restaurant in the world with a Michelin star and only natural wine. And we had colleagues in Copenhagen who came, had dinner, drank the wines, and called me the day after to tell me how stupid I was, how I was wasting my talent on stupid fucking natural wines. They told me that I couldn’t see my own potential. I should stop serving these shitty wines and get back in line with German Riesling and Burgundy and Châteauneuf-du-Pape for the main course, because that’s the way we work. I said, ‘Guys, you haven’t understood what we’re doing. We try to follow the flavours in the dishes, our responsibility to nature, and so on’.

However many years later, all those restaurants have natural wine. They don’t call me and say sorry, and it’s not because I want to be a dinosaur and romanticise it like that. But in any evolution we need to acknowledge that it starts somewhere and there’s all this work leading up to it. When it just becomes mass production and it loses its soul, it becomes uninteresting. Natural wine isn’t about ticking boxes. It’s all the emotions that go into it. I mean, riding home on my bike from Relæ, we were two guys working together, a Swedish sommelier and me—we had an agreement that if we’d had a rough night, we could call each other. Sometimes it was 2am and I’d call him, he’d pick up the phone, and I’d be crying on my bike on the way home because some owner of another restaurant had been visiting and was telling me off. And I wanted to get it out.

Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen

Why would he tell you off?

Anders: Because he thought the wines were shitty or the matches were bad. He didn’t understand what we were doing, and often it was all the older guys that I respected a lot. It was tough. So sometimes when I see, for example, Valentina Passalacqua in Italy, employing people from Africa and Eastern Europe, paying them one or two euros an hour, taking advantage of them because they’re immigrants, they’re living under a plastic sheet in this field illegally—how can I say it? She’s not just being incorrect towards them, she’s stepping on me, too. We created that market for her, crying home on our bikes, or in the vineyards or wherever we were—100 or 200 people created that market for natural wine. Now she’s just cashing in and paying those people two euros an hour. So, I mean, it’s good for nature, it’s natural wine, it’s organic farming. Perfect. But there are so many things, all the emotions, the human respect that have to be in line as well. This attitude she’s representing makes me sad.

At what point did you decide to make your first vintage?

Anders: I started making wine in 2013. I wasn’t finished at Relæ and Manfreds, but I did the harvest. I went back to Copenhagen around October, and it was clear that I couldn’t do the two things. There was a growing disagreement with my partners about where we should take the business. I thought we should stay small and make things better than they already were. They wanted to grow bigger and make money.

In the notes, you talk about becoming disillusioned with restaurants.

Anders: It was part of that period. I disliked the industry for being competitive. Copenhagen’s the city where I started cooking and making my life in restaurants; there was a big, collective feeling, and within a couple of years it disappeared. Then I went to France, I was with winemakers, and they were just so happy to receive us. We’d be eating lunch at a winemaker’s place, like Gérald Oustric, and he’d say, ‘You should taste this, it’s one of my good friends, he’s just starting to make wine’. Or, ‘This guy is struggling, please buy some bottles from him’. There was this collective feeling that I knew from before. I thought, ‘Wow. Why is it dead where I come from now?’ But the initial plan was just to make one or two vintages and then go back and run the restaurants.

Why only one or two? What would you get from that?

Anne: I think for you and Gérald it was a funny project, and also sometimes when you think long term, you’re like, ‘OK, what machines do I need, what am I going to do? Or what kind of investment will I need?’ But doing something short term you’re like, ‘If it fails, it fails’. At least you had fun, you know? But I think it got into you; you couldn’t let it go. Maybe that’s what happened. And Gérald wouldn’t let you go maybe.

Anders: That’s for sure. He was a mentor in many ways, and still is, but he’s also a friend. His eyes are full of light, and his sister Jocelyne is the same—very caring and generous people. At that moment, it’s really what I was missing in Copenhagen. So we did that for a couple of years, and then it was clear that the one-year project had become a two-year project, then a three-year project. I think it became very serious very quickly. Serious in the sense of responsibilities—grapes that took one year to grow, that took several years to vinify. Now it’s in the bottle, we still need to pay attention to it. I also saw our wines only reaching a certain level, being good every year, but never moving above this invisible—

Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen

Plateau?

Anders: Yeah, and that finally became our decision to move here.

What about now? Do you want your wines to be in the same places you were working in before, or paired in the same way that you were pairing wines as a sommelier?

Anders: I don’t dream of our wines being in Noma, for example, though it would make sense if they are. I have ambitions for our wines to be where things are moving, where I think people—no matter where they are, or what they’re doing—are moving towards the edge. With the wines, I want our work to be pushed so far that the people who are pushing it further are picking up on it as their own material.

Anne: I think there are two sides to this. That is one side, but for me the main ambition is to show that it’s possible to make great wine and be organic and make it in a way that’s not using chemicals, and to push that limit. I know for Relæ and Manfreds it was already a big step for people to change. Even though natural wine is hype and everything, the main purpose is to make people think more about what we’re drinking and eating. As winegrowers, we have that responsibility. I think there’s more to it than just putting glasses on the right tables because, of course, the ‘right’ consumers will already be at that table. If we cut it all down, I think it’s about being a good winegrower, and a responsible winegrower. Then also to make something people like to drink.

What do you think about conventional winemakers who criticise natural wine because there’s minimal intervention; you ‘let the wine do what it wants’. They’d say you ‘don’t put in the work’. It’s an agreement and a disagreement all at the same time.

Anders: But I agree with them, because we let go of something that might be better. At the same time, if we don’t have a quality primary product, the grapes, we couldn’t make what we’re making.

What about faults? Is there a limit to how many faults a wine can have?

Anders: I don’t think there’s a limit to how many, but a limit to how big they can be. When volatility becomes vinegar, it’s too much. When tannins cover for structure, it’s too much, same thing when acidity covers aromas. But faults in a classical sense—that’s also what I don’t like. In a classical sense, faults are things that you can control, but didn’t: there’s volatile acidity, acetic acid, all these things that you can prevent with chemical sulphur, enzymes, filtration, all these things. But acidity from the primary fruit you harvested too early? They don’t see it as a fault. For me, that’s just as much a fault. Just like sulphur or artificial aromas, which cover up the original flavours of the grapes.

Anne: Then, for example, our South Korean importer said people there love Gérald’s wine because it has a complex flavour profile, one that needs more explanation to be sold in Europe. But in Korea, it’s like ‘Wow’—they already have a reference from the profile of kimchi. But, again, it’s about the levels.

Intention is maybe a consideration as well.

Anders: But also, I feel when we push ourselves to our limits, when you become somehow vulnerable, that’s both where it becomes interesting and also dangerous. For example, the 2016 Hey You Girl with the Brown Shoes On we drank just before dinner—it’s a wine that many people don’t like, because technically it’s not finished, there’s still sugar left from the grapes, it’s a wine with much bigger potential. But I really feel this wine has 120 percent of its potential right now. When we release a wine like this, I feel I need to defend myself, because I enjoy it. So if people don’t like it, it’s OK, but it hurts me very much. Whereas the first wine we had, if people don’t like it, I’m alright with it; it’s an easy wine and I know that I’m not pushing any limits. Faults can also be a way to tell a story about what we’re doing and what we want to communicate. There’s no blueprint for how to understand things, and often when we start to understand wine, categorise it, force ourselves to find answers, we start to misunderstand it as well. That’s the thing that goes around my head all the time. I force myself not to try to understand, to avoid the risk of misunderstanding. It leaves space for intuition alone.

Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen

But you can’t deny the fact that you’re putting some kind of expert skill into what you do.

Anders: Yeah, I think that’s important too. In winemaking, or with the greatest artists in any line of art, architecture, music, whatever, the only ones that are really pushing the limits have a classical background. They know exactly their own limits and when they’re pushing them.

So that’s what you mean by the edge, and constantly moving towards it?

Anders: If you look at jazz musicians between World War I and II, they would probably say the same. They were doing music nobody understood, that was not taken seriously. And for sure they were very, very skilled musicians, so they had the same ambitions, but they didn’t want to make classical music. They wanted to make whatever they wanted; they wanted to represent freedom. And that’s what natural wine is about.

OK, let’s do a quick-fire round before we wrap up, the stories behind some of the wine names. First, Cette Main Légèrement Serrée m’a Laissé Perplexe [This Lightly Squeezed Hand Left Me Perplexed].

Anders: Physically, there are two types of handshake. There are many, but two that are too tight. One can be dominating. You give a handshake, and the other guy tightens his hand to tell you, ‘I’m the one in control’. I always find that awkward, because I’m not into that game. And the other version, for example, is when you say hello or goodbye to a woman and sometimes they don’t let go, and you slide your hand out of their hand, and you feel, ‘What’s going on?’ It immediately starts emotions, good or bad. There are so many words hidden in a handshake. With all that in mind, this cuvée is from 2017; at that point, I wanted to make something light and drinkable, but complex. But 2017 was a very warm, rich vintage, like 2015. In 2015 when I started making the wines I had no clue as to what was going to happen to me, to the wines, to the whole thing. I didn’t see the signs, I didn’t know how the grapes were reacting to the heat, and how the wine would finally be. When I tasted the wines later during harvest, I realised it was too late. I took decisions that I shouldn’t have taken. But when it came to those conditions in 2017, I was really aware of this. So the wine is to say, ‘I know about this handshake, this rough kind of handshake from 2015, but now I’m older and can cope with this’. That explanation was just as long as the name.

Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen

Excellent. Next. Hey You Girl with the Brown Shoes On.

Anders: When you go to a dinner party or a reception, or when you’re a high-class person, you don’t go to a party in brown shoes. You go with your high heels or your stiff black shoes. And often the most interesting people are the normal people that go to a party in brown shoes; they’re the people you want to talk to.

I have brown shoes on, check. Last one, Ce N’est Pas Mon Chien [It’s Not My Dog].

Anne: It’s because every year all the harvest workers come with all their dogs, and everyone says, ‘That’s not my dog’. But then last harvest, our dog Odan made another one pregnant, so that time it was our dog. It’s not that deep.

That’s alright, that was good. Last question: the more you work with wine, do the hangovers get better or worse?

Anders: I think in terms of volume, for me at least I drink a little bit less. It’s more constant, but a little less. In the restaurants, sometimes you drink too much.

For the record, Anne is shaking her head.

Anne: We drink so much more here than we did in Copenhagen! We never drank wine there for lunch, for example; here it happens often.

Anders: Then the answer is yes, because I feel very few hangovers.

Apartamento Magazine - Anders Frederik Steen
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