Notes from the Cellar blog
Remember Zinfandel? Way back when, before it became hip, then un – hip, then hip again? When it was both an in-the-know bargain and a not-so-well-kept secret, inexpensive and a pleasure to drink because it was anything but polished and precious? Before Helen Turley raised the bar of flat-out wrongness with her single vineyard, über polished, über extracted, über oaked FrankenZin monstrosities? Cool, wasn’t it?
That was back in the day when Sonoma was cool, because it hadn’t yet been Napa-fied and Parkerized, those good old days when it was like Napa was twenty or thirty years before then, even before Napa itself got Napa-fied.
Ah heck. The good old days. In what must be a sure sign of impending geezerhood, the list of things that just ain’t quite the same, as delicious, as real, as honest, as straightforward or full of manufactured malarkey seems to grow by the day. So it never fails to make my day when I encounter California wines – especially from Napa and Sonoma that haven’t succumbed to the homogenization, Parkerization, commodification and corporate dumbing-down that are the hallmarks of the “industry” these days.
Like the Pedroncellis, a bona-fide, old-school, Sonoma County Italian family that’s been growing grapes and making wine in the Dry Creek Valley since 1927. It’s a winery that’s about anything but flash and glamour. No full-page ads in the wine Spectator, no faux Villa, no slick label design, no fussiness, no upward mobility wanna-be and no wizardry. Just a lineup that’s packed, from top to bottom with wines that are sturdy, well-built, easy-to-drink and made to go with food that’s similarly delicious. They’re just plain good –and made for everyday sort of people to drink, everyday.
Like their Zin, a textbook example of old-fangled, honest-to-goodness Dry Creek Zinfandel at its best. Bright and spicy, briary fruit just edging toward jamminess, but not quite. Notes of blackberries, raspberries and a suggestion of black pepper, medium-bodied and lively, balanced, juicy and just plain deliciously easy to drink. At a mere $16-ish dollars the bottle, it’s also mighty easy on the pocketbook – just the way Zin used to– and ought to be.
For those of you who don’t’ frequent the local bastions of big box grocery, you probably haven’t seen the obligatory displays of 14 Hands, Ch. Ste. Michelle, Sagelands, Hogue or Columbia Crest that serve to proclaim that it’s Washington Wine Month. That’s right folks, it’s that time again, once more with feeling, as we rally the troops and drum up sales by celebrating the fact that way up here in the left hand corner, we’ve got it all. Anything California can do, we can (and shall) do too.
That’s right. We can “make” wine. Take Washington grapes and make ‘em danged near indistinguishable from that Cali stuff. We can drop big dough on barrel regimens (a million bucks a year at one well-funded joint), get our grapes lip and gob-smacking ripe, polish our tannins as slick and smooth as Kenny G’s vibrato and boldly price our little start-up ventures with the best of the brazen. All that, and (unfortunately) not a lot in the bottle that says “Washington” except the fine print on the label.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m not crazy about Washington wine, when it’s Washington wine. Unfortunately, the spendy, trendy stuff that usually gets the press isn’t so much about what Washington tastes like as hat it takes to keep up with the Turleys, the Caymuses, the Opuses and the Screaming Eagles (Egos). What’s too commonly accepted as Washington “style” is usually not much more than a fairly well rendered California knock-off, at a correspondingly staggering tariff. Well, I’ve been to California a time or two, had a few bottles of vino from down that way, and I’m here to tell you, this isn’t there and that ain’t what Washington tastes like.
Now for the good news. Washington Wine’s best days are yet to come. Already, there are plenty (and counting) of honest-to-goodness, made-at-the-47th- parallel wines that are an authentic expression of Washington fruit and terroir – which is to say that they actually taste like “here.” Even better, they tend to be made by modest people who care about putting something balanced in the bottle, making wines that play well with food, wines that refresh, that invite a second or third glass and that can be had at a price that makes sense for everyday people to drink every day.(Imagine, wines that go out of their way to be good, un-pretentious, and that don’t require membership in a cult, a club or the 1% to buy! ).
More and more, wine drinkers are discovering the incredible elegance and character that Washington wines can express, taking advantage of the natural acidity that’s possible with our warm days and cool nights, the diversity of soils and microclimates, as well as our state’s many and unique terroirs. Without the cloak of new oak and overripeness that the Parker panderers prize, these wines dance on the palate, and pair well with the dazzling, delicious array of foods in the local larder. Best yet, without the expense of new French oak cooperage and the surfeit of ego generally required to lay one’s wines at the feet of the Advocate, these humbly delicious wines are also quite affordable! Enjoy the art of the state -- the best is waiting to be discovered, unrated and off the beaten path.
Thursday Miscellany. Please attempt this at home…
I’ve been meaning to read “A River Runs Through It” for a good long time. Tony Dollar came to the rescue with the gift of a copy recently, and I was hooked by the second paragraph. It’s a damned fine book, just plain lovely, written in the no b.s. prose of someone who loves the language and uses it like a treasured old hand tool – something for accomplishing a task, and not for showing off or puffing up one’s own ego.
Speaking of bulls**t, the following quote brings to mind the way the big boys play in the wine biz these day – something that’s been on my mind more than a little of late.
“Paul opened the trunk of the car and counted out eight bottles of beer. He said to Neal “Four for you and four for us. We’ll sink two of them in each of the next two holes for you. They’ll make you forget the heat.” He told them where we would bury the bottles and then he should have thought before he told them he would hide our beer in the two following holes where we would be fishing on our way back from the cliffs.”
“What a beautiful world it once was. At least a river of it was. And it was almost mine and my family’s and just a few others’ who wouldn’t steal beer. You could leave beer to cool in the river and when you got back it would be so cold it wouldn’t foam much. It would be a beer made in the next town if the town were ten thousand or over. So it was either Kessler beer made in Helena or Highlander beer made in Missoula that we left to cool in the Blackfoot River. What a wonderful world it was once when all the beer wasn’t made in Milwaukee, Minneapolis or St. Louis.”
And so it goes. Whether it’s the beer biz or the wine biz, these days it’s dominated by large, deep-pocketed, hard-nosed corporations whose means of competing is not to offer better value or service, but to amass all the products and force the competition out of business by any means necessary. One of the Gallo brothers once summed it up quite succinctly: “We don’t want market share, we want it all.”
The idea that the “end justifies the means” never quite took with me, and it’s a notion I’ve come to associate with large corporations and the sort of manifest destiny, scorched earth manner in which they do business. It’s global, it’s winner-takes-all, and it’s anything but local. On the other hand, I’ve come to define local as anything, from anywhere, that celebrates people, place, passion and that old-fangled idea of character – not to mention a good shot of integrity and a sense of fair play. Local is anyplace where a handshake means more than a thousand lawyers.
So there. Here’s to tasty beverages that don’t want to be everything to everybody, nor conquer the world. And to families, farmers, fairness, and so forth. Let’s drink to that!
Along with a host of ongoing, other projects in the self – improvement file, I’m using the arrival of a fresh calendar as fitting enough reason to renew last year’s vow to drink more Champagne and Sherry. That mission was a partial success, owing mainly to the arrival en scène of The Accomplice and the subsequent savoring of prodigious quantities of Manzanilla en Rama over the course of the Summer of Love (and Sherry).
But there’s aplenty of work yet to be done and The Champagne Project needs more than a little attention, I have to confess. I promise to do better, however, and fortunately there’s no shortage of either opportunity, motive or means and we’re up to the task. Gaston Chiquet Blanc de Blancs was a fine way to begin, savored on both sides of the fleeting instant dividing one year from the next (poof! it’s gone…).
It's worth mentioning that the foregoing fizz was sipped from a Riesling glass – on purpose. Other than in the woodwind section or perhaps as oversize copitas, I detest flutes. Truly. And while I have to ‘fess up that there’s a generous measure of curmudgeonly crankiness in the intensity of that dislike, there are nonetheless good, solid wine reasons for it. Think of going to hear your favorite band play – in the local junior high gym. Or choosing AM over FM. It’s a matter of fidelity, and a wine that’s capable of expression deserves an instrument capable of expressing it, no matter what Martha Stewart has to say about it. “’nough said.
Finally, a blogger (a real one) I know advised me awhile back to ixnay the long-winded stuff in favor of little pearls (we hope). Brief insights, not articles. Alors, alright then. I’m gonna give it a whirl, and while it’s no prophylactic against pontification, it’ll definitely reduce the duration.
There you have it. Happy New Year. Onward.
Ever notice how life’s various little truths keep coming back to us, each time dressed a little differently, accent and demeanor evolving roughly proportionate to the ground covered in the existential rear-view mirror? It’s not unlike the way a great book, re-read with the a few years’ experience packed away in the archives, can tell, if not an entirely different story, at least the same old tale in greater detail.
Being “in the biz” means that a parade of bottles passes through the kitchen counter chez The Accomplice and I, some on missions of professional assessment, others seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of (our) happiness. In the past few months, that parade has underscored the astounding difference a little (or a lot of) “air time” can make in allowing a great wine to reveal its depth, strut its stuff and show all the facets of its various charms.
Astounding. Really. We're not talking just a little more nuance or a few more shades of flavor, but a whole different wine. Enough so, that near the top of our to-do list for the coming year, right up there with “drink more Champagne” and “drink more sherry” is the one word imperative, “decant.” While you could just take my word (trust me on this), a sense of duty, a vague memory of Writing 101 and the need to spew verbiage prompt me to lend an example or three. (Thus reassured, feel free to go forth and decant.)
“La Noblaie” Chinon Blanc. I found a few bottles of this quasi-oddity (the Chinon appellation is 99% devoted red wines) in my “cellar” and pulled one out to investigate its progress. Right out of the bottle, it was lean, a little minerally, showing great acidity and a sauvignon-esque, rather than chenin blanc, character. While I flailed at finding positives, The Accomplice was unimpressed, advising “let’s open something else.” Case closed, sort of. The next afternoon, we each poured glasses of what had developed overnight into a thoroughly gorgeous wine—purely chenin blanc, with notes of honey, white flowers and perfectly ripe fruit, underscored by a steely mineral character.
Naches Heights Vineyard “Carmen.” Both tempranillo and mourvedre tend to come to an ignoble end at the hands of most Washington wine”makers” – who, in seeking to turn them into the wine equivalents of botox, silicon and steroid-infused caricatures. Not so with this muy splendido blend of 56% tempranillo, 44% mourvedre (monastrell). It was great, right out of the gate when Phil Cline dropped off the sample one afternoon, got better still that evening, and continued to show even more layers of smoke, fruit essences and wild brush as we tasted it over the next three days. Lovely, and appropriately seductive, given its moniker.
Domaine la Fourment Visan “Les Garrigues.” We opened this one literally fresh off the boat – a time when wines tend generally to be “shy” inversely proportionate to their overall character and potential. This cuvée of biodynamically farmed, old vine grenache was certainly pretty right out of the chute, showing plenty of promise, with notes of cherry, raspberry liqueur, river stones and garrigues. Time proved an enchantress, as the next 20 hours transformed a wine that showed hints of promise to an impressive sketch of what the final work would become. Think elegance, Burgundian texture, profound depth, character for days…
I could go on….and on. But the point is, that in addition to the usual candidates for decanting (Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello, great Bordeaux), just about any well-made, non-manipulated wine will benefit -- often greatly – from an hour two of “air time” – be simply opening the bottle in advance of serving, or decanting (preferable).
Interestingly enough, the aforementioned “manipulated” wines, even those of considerable pedigree, tend to show their hand right from the get-go. A fine thing for those who want pleasure on demand and ready-made accessibility – just the sort of thing for people who like that sort of thing, in fact.
But most great things aren’t free, don’t come in a blink of an eye, a click of the mouse, or a simple turn of the corkscrew. And that’s a good thing. Give that next lovely bottle an opportunity to unveil its charms in the spacious confines of the decanter – then enjoy both wine and metaphor. All you need is time and patience.
The real deal. The goods. No, fooling, no bs. There are a whole slough of ways to say it, yet probably not a single good definition. But you sure can tell when you’re in its presence, listening to who-knows-how-many year of accumulated knowledge and observations, walking the rain – soaked rows of a vineyard, tasting wine that’s an inspired alliance of vine, soil and the fruit of the four seasons.
The Accomplice and I pointed the carriage south toward Jacksonville, (Oregon, that is) a few days back for a dinner featuring the uniformly outstanding wines of Quady North, then to spend following day “tromping” with winemaker Herb Quady. As fine a 24 hour stretch as a a pair of generally jaded wine biz folks could ask for.
I’ve discovered over the years that the wines I find to have the most character, the most depth, the most authenticity, are the work of people who are only “winemakers” because the English language doesn’t have a better term for what they do. Rather than “make” wine, they orchestrate it, or “raise” it, as the French would say. Herb Quady says that the “impact of the person” is in the decisions made in response to the variables of vine, soil and climate. Take the voices nature gives and weave it into the most delicious, authentic harmony possible.
It’s a question of character over ego, quality over quantity, and being an all-around reasonable human and doing the right thing. Herb has it wired. You can taste it in the wines – and pretty much guess that they’re scrupulously made, from pruning to bottling.
Start with the rosé (lovely!), made from a designated vineyard block that’s just for pink wine, harvested early and direct-pressed. Or the syrah—syrah that tastes like syrah, sleek, spicy, balanced and delivering the sort of depth you find in the legendary reds of the northern Rhône, albeit with a State of Jefferson accent. Or, better yet, the cabernet franc – real cabernet franc, not some fleshy stand-in for over-the-top cabernet sauvignon. Nope, Herb’s is the real deal, with Chinon-like structure, balanced, focused, edgy energy, notes of red fruits (pomegranates, red currants), tobacco and spice… Impossible to do them justice here (more later, stay tuned), save advising that you take a flyer and treat yourself to what I humbly assert are, without exception, some of the loveliest wine being made in the New World these days.
Oh, and there’s Jacksonville, once the biggest city north of San Francisco -- reincarnated “mighty damned cute” in the estimation of the Accomplice. Until this past weekend, Southern Oregon was that place that I either flew over or drove past on the way to California. Pretty, but pretty much a question mark beyond the off ramps. Just a couple rain-soaked days (highly unusual) had me dusting off my trusty adverb “enchanting” and plotting with the Accomplice to go back. The wine biz is thriving, with some truly exceptional, character-driven wine being produced. We’ll be back. Stay tuned for the sequel.
You just never know, do you? On one of those cold, dark, rainy evenings that define both the autumnal fading of the light in these parts, La Copine (a.k.a. “the Accomplice”) and I were settling into a pre-symphony repast at one of our favorite haunts. With a couple glasses of white wine (a flinty Petit Chablis and an Albariño from Rias Baixas) to awaken our palates while awaiting the arrival of the first morsels of sustenance, we turned to the evening’s truly important decision: what bottle to both satisfy our thirsts and feed our souls?
Given that the evening’s first departure from the usual was already gracing our glasses, the stage was set for new adventures, the taking of a left where one might general take a right... Further, the turn-up-the-collar nature of the evening, the creases in my gray matter would generally have had me drinking something red and Mediterranean, right from the proverbial “get.” But the Accomplice, possessing not only a more refined palate, but a willingness to step out of well-worn habits in just about everything, expressed a desire for something racy, bright and minerally. The resulting lovely, eclectic beverages were proving with each sip to be as delicious as they were from well off "the usual" route.
“Aha!” “I love it!” “that’s perfect!” she said, pointing at the Domaine Tempier rose on the list. “And I’d love to try it with the oysters…"). Hmmmm, really? Well, yeah, I supposed, that wine is always fine-superb even, and great rose is truly delicious in any season. But with oysters? Briny, cold Northwest meets sunny Provence? I wasn’t entirely convinced, but given that the Accomplice has an amazing sense for such things, I thought, “why not?” After all, Bandol sits just over the hill form the sea—and the rosé would be perfect with the pork chop we were set to share – even if it didn’t pan out with the oysters.
It was splendido, on all counts, but especially with the briny bivalves. While the pale, pale salmon hue suggests a delicate wine, it’s actually quite rich, with hints of bright peach and pomegranate fruit accented with notes of spice. Zippy acidity and a kiss of salty sea air made the link of wine and oysters, the fruits of two far-flung seas, a luscious, if unexpected marriage.
It just goes to show that you never know. Even when you (or I should say I) think that you’re someone who thinks outside the proverbial box, there’s always another horizon -- and it’s always a good idea to try something seemingly out of the blue. And then there's the real moral of the story: always trust your accomplice…
Funny how some of the most wonderful flavors in the world are often also the most misunderstood. Flavors with character, the distinct accent of their particular home terre – and more soul than the waiting room in purgatory – flavors that have been unjustly tarred with bad press in the forum of conventional wisdom and that bear the ignominy of the of pseudo-sophisticate’s scorn.
I’ve had Beaujolais on my mind these days. New releases from some of the region’s best producers have been showing up in town almost weekly, and as our thirsts have been whetted, La Copine and I have had the opportunity to open a bottle or two. It’s been a treat, as always – one of those little pleasures that don’t cost a heckuva lot, but that provide a unique kind of loveliness that is beyond quantifying with any price tag.
Think ripe fruit. Not bursting with sugar ripe, but the almost tangy, vibrant flavor of berries or cherries when they’re at that solstice – like instant when sweet fruit, the earth it grew in and the sun that nourished it all seem to come together in a harmony so delicious that it’s best enjoyed at mezzo piano. Just enough volume to hear, the intrigue and allure of the flavors prompting you to open your senses and “listen” more intently.
Meanwhile, Beaujolais Nouveau is days away from making an appearance. Traditionally, this is the first red wine of the just completed vintage – and an opportunity to taste what a season in the vineyard has bestowed upon the region’s growers. Nouveaux or “primeur’ wines from honest, scrupulous growers can be lovely, youthfully bright expressions of the vintage that give a good idea of what the growers more “serious” wines will be like(although Nouveau from many of the region’s best growers are plenty “serious” in their own right).
Sadly, however, the good name of Beaujolais Nouveau – and the region in general -- has been trashed by the exploitation and marketing wizardry of Georges DuBoeuf, whose ersatz, factory-made, manipulated, wine-like product has come to virtually define the region by dint of its ubiquity. (If I were a Beaujolais grower, I’d lobby for M. DuBoeuf to be exiled for treason. Stripped of his French citizenship and given the boot. Adieu, pour toujours.)
But enough trash – talking. We’re here to talk about real wine. The nouveaux arrive today, and will vanish into waiting glasses before the year is done – but there’s plenty of gorgeous Beaujolais to be had year-round. And while great Beaujolais is delicious in any season, the contrast of its bright sunny fruit, with the smell of fallen leaves and the early dark and chill of an early evening is soul-warming. We’re thirsty now – and counting the minutes ‘til the day’s work is done…
Enjoy. Life is short – make every glass count!
I love words. From the cadence of a well – turned phrase, to the absurd randomness of surrealism, to a wicked double-entendre, to a metaphor that keeps on delivering in several dimensions, words can be as delicious to the brain as a good glass of wine is to the senses. How cool is it, then, when the name of a place seduces you like the waft of savory things in the kitchen, delivers in spades on the intrigue – and serves up astounding food and wine, to boot?
La Copine and I got together a few nights ago with some of our favorite Friends in the Wine Business to check out Renée Erickson’s cool new joint on Stone Way. That’s some mighty damned fine food, I tell you, and a wine list nothing shy of brilliant. Perhaps the only problem I could dream up is that it’s nigh on to impossible to choose from lists where everything makes you salivate. Tough, tough decisions, believe me – although we did manage to soldier on...
And then there’s the name. “The Whale Wins” is plenty clever enough on its own, fetching your curiousity with a quirky, not-too-stuck on itself kind of whimsy. It gets your brain a-wonderin’ -- then delivers the aforementioned fine victuals and potables (brilliantly) and keeps right on riffing.
Soooo… If the whale wins, then who loses? Judging from the 18th century era print that hangs in the dining room (and graces the web page), the short end of the stick goes to the whalers. The painting shows a whale shattering a whale boat, tossing occupants and gear aside like so much flotsam and jestsam. Damn, but I love that.
To my way of thinking, the whale represents inspiration and the pure, unabashed goodness of quality, honestly – raised food and wine. The whalers, on the other hand, represent the cyncicism, homogenization, and the drive to commodify pleasure, to turn food and wine and the joys of the table into widgets. The whale is the wine you can only describe in words, while the splintered boat is the 100 point rating system. The soon-to- drown guys and their harpoons are the big, belligerent distributors—the kind who tell you that you hafta have their products to be successful, the ones who’ll tell you that you can’t have a restaurant in Seattle without a bunch of big name Washington wines on the list – while the whale is a wine list that offers wines with soul, with character and a sense of place – and matches them with the foods they actually complement.
I could, as always, go on (and on). But I’ll cut to the end and just say to hell with the harpoons and that my money’s on the whale. And bravo to Renée. We’ll be back. Soon…