For the past three years, sommelier and wine educator James Sligh has been doodling maps of winegrowing territories in an attempt to show how the wine world’s borders have stretched—an evolution especially linked to the rise of the natural wine movement. It’s a transformation, Sligh discovered, that wasn’t being represented within canonical wine atlases. In iterating upon his doodles, his illustrations bloomed to represent those uncharted regions and winemakers whose work has only emerged in the last decade or so, and often a part of the movement we think of as synonymous with natural.
Inspired by the maps found at the front of fantasy novels (e.g., Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth or Ursula K. Le Guin’s of Earthsea), Sligh’s watercolor illustrations have an approachable naiveté, their skinny, stretchy fonts evocative of newspaper comic captions. The collection, called “The Children’s Atlas of Wine,” currently numbers around 15 and collapses geography as varied as the Atlantic Coast of Spain and France or as specific as Roussillon into singular, alternative surveys. Sligh, who until recently worked and taught wine classes at SoHo’s La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, launched his own online education platform, under the “Atlas” name, in partnership with Chambers Street Wines in New York.
“In appellation systems, the colored blobs on a map usually correspond to where people are making wine,” says Sligh, referring to the construction of more dogmatic atlases where colored sections represent specific regions. “But then there are these places that don’t work at all. Basically, where the color stops on the map is where all the people doing interesting work start.” He points out that atlases rooted in classic wine education won’t include many new producers working outside the boundaries of an AOC or DOC who have begun farming or making wine in these places specifically because they are more affordable than those within the appellation system. In plotting his illustrations, Sligh begins by working backward, making lists of some of his favorite contemporary producers located in a general geographic area, then dropping pins onto a Google map.
For his drawing of Emilia-Romagna, for instance, he plotted producers like Denavolo, Storchi, Cà de Noci and Marco Bertoni, and held these up to a current wine atlas to discover that none of them were included. “In Emilia-Romagna, the big revelation was just seeing where everybody was, which is not on the part of the map that looks important if you just look at the DOCs,” says Sligh. In Roussillon, he found that Calce, a village that doesn’t appear in a traditional wine atlas, has become home to some of the most important wine being made in France today, including producers like Gérard Gauby, Matassa and l’Horizon. “Calce doesn’t have a Villages designation or anything that would make you put it on the map unless your first principle was, ‘Where are people doing interesting work?’ and then, ‘Are there patterns?’” says Sligh.
The project and collection’s title is not only a self-deprecating nod to Sligh’s status as an amateur cartographer and artist, but also reflective of the approachable nature of his teaching style. Three times a week he holds classes via Zoom with titles like “Minerality?!” “Wine in Clay,” “Pinot X” and “Württemberg, Baden, Alsace.” Each class is accompanied by a suite of wines (shipped ahead from Chambers), while Sligh candidly holds forth on his desire to break through the semantics of wine vocabulary while using his maps to create a new frame of reference for those marginalized regions and experimental growers reviving grapes and soils that sit firmly beyond centuries-old rules and borders—qualities that line up with the natural wine movement’s inherent tenets. In creating his maps, Sligh hopes to represent those winemakers and growers who have been marginalized by the systems of tradition.
“I try to avoid drawing borders in my maps wherever I can,” he says. “Borders and rivers? Sure. But not lines in the sand.”