Notes from the Cellar blog
Sometimes, the nuts and bolts of take over. The day-to-day, devil-in-the-details side of things becomes everything. The means turn into the end and the raison d’être vanishes in an ocean of work that feels like…work. Lost in the changes, as jazz folks say.
And then, unannounced, with no gift wrap (don’t the best things always come unadorned, anyway?)…a reality check. One of the good guys comes calling, bag packed with bottles of goodness: character, soul, passion and inspiration. Glasses gets swirled, releasing wafts of far-away places, seasons composed of days, nights, sun rain, wind and the hard work that turns them into liquid goodness. It’s an epiphany, an old friend, a favorite teacher with a remedial class in the finer points of the bigger picture—(that particular bigger picture being among the more rewarding reasons I get up in the morning and march off to work ...hi - ho!).
Today’s lesson is in the alchemy of syrah, grenache, carignan and mourvèdre, the blood of the Languedoc, the translators of its inimitable terroir. Two wines in particular grab my attention, both grown by rock solid, inspired, brilliant men – two humans as different as the astonishingly singular terres they farm.
Artisan – vigneron Jean-Pierre Vanel is a man of letters with the soul of a poet, or a pianist. His aim is to “make his terroir speak, accompanying it, without leading it.” His biodynamic – farmed vineyards are in the Pézenas appellation, where the rolling hills of the Mediterranean plain meet the foothills of the Cévennes, in the decaying basalt lavas of ancient volcanoes. Jean-Pierre’s grenache-based “Fine Amor” is a lovely case in point for his view of grenache as the pinot of the south, a crystalline, pure expression of cool raspberry and cherry fruit wrapped around brooding, introspective tones. It’s a wine that offers the pristine tones of an aria sung by in alto voice, with a dark funk of earthy decadence. It’s gorgeous, a wine that begs contemplation, and sip after sip.
100 clicks west by southwest, in the heart of Minervois, the tiny village of Félines smells like nowhere on earth. A heady mélange of typically Languedocien garrigues attains an incredible intensity. Wild rosemary, thyme, truffle and green oak, cistus and Mediterranean pine, with a streak of schist that rises from the ground to add its earthy voice to the mix. Michel Escande, sorcerer to Jean-Pierre’s poet, soothsayer of vines, translates the sauvage perfume into his wines. “Esprit d’Automne” is an introductory course in Minervois magic, while “La Féline” steps up to graduate level, all that wildness lacing dark, ultra-dry, pure fruit essence – a marriage of earth, sky, fruit, blood and soul. It’s astounding, the essence of the place and the good earth, only possible when a grower forsakes ego, in favor of the soul of the vineyard. Michel says, echoing Jean-Pierre: “learning to be quiet, that’s a vigneron’s most important job. Learn to be quiet, in order to begin to listen, to try to understand the signs…”
Inspiring, beyond numbers, a challenge for words – and a great reason to “go to the office”!
I love this gig.
The Accomplice and I like to hang at a cool little place called Bar Avignon in Portland. There’s great food, an inspired wine list, and a chalkboard with a list that bears the simple heading “We Like”. I like that. It’s a list of random things, good things, diverse things, flavors, smells, moments, textures and of stuff that has a particular flavor. Like good wine, they’re things that are particular, that aren’t at all generic, that reminisce of a feeling, a moment, a taste…
These aren’t quite full – on Marcel Proust Madeleines. No sensory time-tunnels to way back then. More like little tastes of things that you remember both vividly, stuff that’s pretty much a part of your “now” – and others that still linger, albeit with a little more distance, like a street you haven’t taken in a while, a song you haven’t heard since back when you used to play it all the time. You get the idea.
Alora, with apologies to Julie Andrews, a few of my favorite things…
Ponderosa pines, sagebrush, warm, rocky dirt and a river running through it.
The smell of rain.
The smell of rain coming, after a long stretch without.
The first sip of steaming, strong French press on a dark, cold, rainy, morning.
Falanghina. From honey to orange peel to sea salt. Unction with an edge and older than Rome.
Simple, but Sturdy Côtes du Rhône, an eruption of just-ripe raspberry and cherry fruit, with wind blown garrigues and the dust of warm stones.
Lager. Real lager, all pure malt, clean water and just enough hops to make it all sing. Fresh as a high mountain stream.
The simultaneous “wow” at the first sip of something amazing, shared with a good friend.
Jamon, Manchego and sturdy, earthy tempranillo for breakfast.
There's more (plenty) to come. Stay tuned…
For aficionados of that wonderful engineering of hops, malt, yeast and water commonly known as beer, the Left Coast is pretty much paradise. An unstoppable tide of creativity, energy and alchemy offers a torrent of brewed pleasure, an embarrassment of fermented riches. The brew wave is a seemingly irresistible force, raising its own hell or high water mark with danged near every keg. Out with the old, in with the brew, what could be better than beervana?
Well, how about old school? An original, back-to-where-we-never-left, rootsy, where-it-all-started, uncompromisingly steadfast, just plain good beer. Not über, not imperial, not over-the-top, not new and improved. Like well-built wingtips, modest lapels and classic cravats, real quality never goes out of style – and beer is no exception.
The Accomplice and I swung by Anchor Brewing for a tasting and tour last week, on one of those incomparably fine autumn days that San Francisco does like nowhere else. A fabulous day, for which Anchor’s line-up provided the perfect exclamation point. We’re talking delicious. Delicious enough to have even my jaded outlook raving long after the two pint buzz was long gone.
Those guys do it right – and have been doing it for a long, long time (they’ve been Anchor since 1896, while the brewery actually dates back to 1851, when Gottlieb Brekle arrived from Germany and hung out a shingle with the family name). Rising like a Phoenix from a major earthquake, several devastating fires, prohibition and various other challenges, Anchor is a force to be reckoned with—not to mention part a serious part of San Francisco’s cultural heritage. And it’s all about the beer. From the original Steam Beer to Old Foghorn Barleywine (first of its kind on the Left Coast) there’s nothing particularly fancy going on – just really, really good beer. You like dry-hopped beer? Liberty Ale was pretty much the west coast’s first IPA, dry-hopped then, dry-hopped now, without making a big fuss about it. Porter (hey porter!), one of the first, still one of the best. For the purist, there’s even lager, (yep,really, really good lager), as pure as the Sierra mountain water from which it’s made.
A friend summed it up best, sipping from a bottle of Steam Beer awhile back: “Mmmmmmm, tastes beer-y! Wow. Damn, that’s good! I could drink that!”
And so could I. Think I will...
Headed over the hill last week to taste through and decide on blends for a project we’re doing with Terra Blanca (two very delicious wines that everybody will want to be drinking).
It’s that time again. Wafts of autumn around the corner and the golden, lonesome light of the sun saying “adios” as it rides south serving as a reminder that there were only two more days of summer in the bank. 36 degrees at Snoqualmie pass underscoring that note, then Cle Elum and the Kittitas Valley waking up to one of the finest late summer bluebird days, ever.
Harvest is another one of those delicious paradoxes: a festival of ripeness, of arrival, the sum of a year of rain, wind and sun packed into clusters of possibility awaiting passage from real time to a record of time past. Fruit: ripeness, acidity, brilliance—and vine: fading, leaves the dark, dulling green of late summer, betraying the wear and tear of bearing fruit and a season’s hard work done. Life and its passing having a cocktail as their trains pass in the station. And so on.
For the humans who variously aid and abet the vines or “make” wine from them, it’s show time. There’s an almost palpable adrenaline buz, and a sense of heightened awareness folded right into the general state of being thrashed that comes with long work in short time.
Later, with two mighty danged fine wines finalized, I point my land rocket in the direction of The Gorge, taking the back way over highway 221. Just at the top of the hill, heading out of Prosser, the sky opens up, damned near big enough to go toe-to-toe with Montana’s, and there, all on its lonesome, is a big, fancy-pants sign welcoming me to the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. Which is a good thing to know, because that there isn’t a vine in sight—and you can see long, long way in that big, wide open emptiness. Which gets me thinking…
As the six or seven of you who read these occasional scribblings are probably aware, I’m solidly on Herb Quady’s bandwagon. Being more than a little jaded, curmudgeonly and generally hard to impress, that’s saying something, (at least in my little universe it is). Herb’s the real deal, an evolving product of his own intellectual curiosity and the desire to always do your best and do better today than you did yesterday. All of which seem to scarcer and scarcer currency these days.
Ergo, I was stoked when The Accomplice signed us up for a winemaker dinner with Herb at Corkscrew in Portland. Herb’s wines, great food, muy bueno. And it got even better. We arrived to find that Quady North wines weren’t soloing, but were sharing the bill with wines from Leah Jørgenson Cellars. Hmmm, something new, with not so much as a scrap of hearsay by way of a clue. And astoundingly, impressively delicious, as it turned out—not to mention a great dance partner for Herb’s wines. A pleasant prospect, quite franc-ly.
First up was a “blanc de franc” – a blanc of cabernet franc, made with grapes from Herb’s vineyard, a texture of fine silk walking a tight wire of taut acidity, beautifully creamy and bright at once, a beautiful wine – and not the kind that’s made by lucky accident! Next up, Quady North rosé of cabernet franc, picking up a little texture, just a touch of weight and a hint of glycerine making a perfect foil for bright red fruit. I’m not a fan of hyperbole, but I don’t mind saying that this wine ranks right up there with some of the most delicious-est rosés I’ve had. Ever. You know that life is good when you want to do the first two courses over again…
Then, a thickening of the plot (while the textures continued on precise, crystalline and racy, but no less generous for it). Jørgensen’s “Tour Rain” a gorgeous, “can I have another glass” rendering of Touraine Rouge, blended of cabernet franc, once again from Herb’s vineyards, and Gamay, from a “sworn secret” source. Amazing, pure gamay, pure franc, dancing so seamlessly as to highlight one another, while impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins… What could possibly follow that – but Quady North cabernet franc? This wine is among my favorite renderings of the grape, showing old world style with the élan of State of Jefferson terroir. Think bright red fruit with that cabernet franc edge, that racy je ne sais quoi, notes of mineral, brush and sweet tobacco that swirl into a texture that just keeps evolving in the glass…
Later on, The Accomplice and I exited into the warm, post – deluge Portland night, a few bottles heavier and plenty impressed. It’s always great to drink Quandy North wines, and a bonus to discover a new favorite. Refreshing to note, too, that far away from the world of ratings-driven, demographically engineered, corporate same-old, same-old, there are plenty of passionate, curious, independent, character driven producers who are making exciting, vibrant, honest wines that truly reflect the character of the Northwest. And we'll drink to that!
It’s always a joy to re-discover a favorite thing, something put aside for a while as you occupied yourself with other things. Like a great book that a whole new realm of truth with the benefit of time and experience, old friends re-encountered offer a fresh epiphany in a familiar wrapping. Déjà vu, sort of.
On Tristan Shout’s counsel (“you should taste this amigo”), the Accomplice and I opened a bottle Lacroix Vanel “Fine Amor” 2011 the other night. I love this wine, always have, being the Grenache fiend, Languedoc head that I am. But you know how it goes, there’s always a veritable boatload of other tasty stuff to titillate your senses, and sometimes those favorite things fall by the wayside. But what a treat! As lovely as we remembered it, but even better, more focused, more delicate, more complex, lovely, lovely, lovely.
Jean-Pierre Vanel thinks that Grenache can sing with that precocious alliance of power and grace that most of us think is the exclusive domain of pinot. Evidently he’s onto something, as this wine shows the beauty and restrained depth of cool, just-ripe, perfectly balanced fruit, yet still carries the terroir nuances of hot climate garrigues and the decayed basalt minerals of the eastern Languedoc. Think cherries, and early morning-picked raspberries, infused with wafts of cistus, wild thyme, juniper…and a hint of dry, late summer grass. Drink it with fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes, grilled coho, savory rice or pasta dishes, mushrooms, salads… and don’t forget that it’s perfectly OK to put a little chill on red wines, especially on warm days!
Truth is a good thing. B.S. isn’t. Ergo, a day that brings illumination is a plus in the ledger. Any day that banishes darkness, shatters a myth or three and outs the fallacy of conventional wisdom with an abundant splash of light is a jackpot. Do all that while discovering amazing new wines is downright transcendent. It’s astonishing how much new stuff there is to be found in the Old World. For example…
The mention of any part of the former Yugoslavia has always conjured visions of a gray, barren, cold place. Oppression, gloom, poverty, blah, blah, blah. Guess not. In reality, other than an abandoned checkpoint at the border, there’s nothing that distinguishes Slovenia from the lushness of Friuli except perhaps the road signs announcing directions and names of towns in both Italian and Slovenian. If anything, it gets a little more idyllic, while wine-wise, there’s every bit as much Friuli in Slovenia as in Italy. It just happens to be called Brda, and the names of the grapes undergo an orthographic permutation or two.
Malvasia is a sweet dessert wine from Spain, right? Well, yeah, but it’s also Malvazija, dry, lush, but precise, generous but with the agile tension of that’s typical of white wines from Brda. Brisk acidity makes for tremendously age-worthy wines.
The word tocai, tokay or tocaj brings visions of empty Gallo Tokay bottles littering back alleys on the wrong side of the tracks in my childhood. Skid Row Bourbon. I know better, love tocai, but will never completely lose the downscale connotation that the brothers Gallo’s misappropriation hat wrought. The point is moot, however, as the Hungarian government has successfully lobbied the European union to ban the use of the word “tocai” in any orthography, arguing that consumers may confuse tocai with Hungary’s famous Tokaji sweet wines. Henceforth, look for “Friulano” in Friuli, pinot gris in Alsace, Sauvignonasse in Brda, and so on.
Meanwhile, Gallo’s various permutations of Skid Row Bourbon now bear other names. There are revolutions, there are evolutions…and some things just fade away.
Make a wish, you never know…
We’re a little bleary. A little worse for the wear and the tear. Thirsty, too. 12 hours, two airplanes and 9 time zones later, we hit the autostrada, Slovenia – bound. Suddenly, right about the point where the Veneto segues to Friuli, I’m seized with a strange new jones…ribolla gialla. Strange --but fortuitous. “Dang, but I’d sure like a glass of ribolla” I exclaim to Joshua and The Accomplice. “Well, I think you’re in the right place” replies Joshua. Yup, whether Friuli or across the border in Brda, we’re heading for ribolla gialla paradise. As the lush countryside flies by, I’m savoring the thought of nutty, floral, lush-but-brightly focused, cool goodness. “The only thing better than ribolla, would be ribolla with bubbles” I announce to my companions. Which might not be quite so easy, I imagine. Still…
An hour later, all checked in to the hotel, I step downstairs to meet Joshua for a little sip of something, before we head off to dinner with Aleks and Marina. Surveying the scene on the terrace, I spy an empty bottle of something sparkling at a just-vacated table. Peneca Rebula Brut, the label simply states (rebula is Slovenian for ribolla). “Hey look” I tell Joshua, pointing at the bottle. “Crazy, huh?” Of course we have to try it. We sit, order a bottle, half expecting to be underwhelmed. Instead, we’re pleasantly amazed – it’s delicious, refreshing – and astonishingly inexpensive. Who needs Prosecco? This is way better – not to mention cool as all get-out (a little prosciutto on the side, and we’re talking paradise). Best yet, by noon tomorrow, we’ll have found the source – with just time and paperwork standing between a thirsty wish and sparkling ribolla in Seattle.
Riesling... When well-expressed, there’s really nothing quite like it. How can you capture the magic of a Spring day in a few words? Well, you truly can’t. Like the boundless litany of those amazing things that don’t lend themselves to adequate description, those things that German philosopher Kant counted among the sublime, the stuff that leaves puts you in your place and inspires awe, riesling has that un-seizable je ne sais quoi that can prompts sip after sip, as you try wrap your brain and palate around that thing you can’t quite name…
Like a spring day. If it were possible to seize the essence of a Spring day and bottle it, you’d have a long, tall, cool bottle of riesling. That breeze-blowing-across-a-meadow freshness, bearing the scent of fresh clover. Fruit that ranges from peaches to apricots to apples to limes, perfectly ripe. But above all, the cool, rocky sweetness of a mountain stream, pure water rushing over stones offering a bracing, stony raciness, bright, sleek, refreshing, good… Easy on the rain cells, too. Until global warming ruins it all, many rieslings, especially German ones, offer a user-friendly alchol content of less than 11%--sometimes as low as 8%. Meaning you can enjoy a bottle, then another, with brain cells and lucidity intact.
And, that second bottle won’t compromise your retirement or your kid’s college fund. Great riesling, even imported, can be had for an astonishingly modest outlay, especially geven the quality. Start close to home, with Milbrandt vineyards astoundingly delicious dry riesling – a ridiculously affordable $10. Or check out Cor Cellars or Gilbert Cellars rieslings, both stylish, superbly balanced examples of the Washington riesling at its most expressive. Or, experience classic German riesling from the Mosel with Grunhaus QbA – walking a tightrope of lush, generous fruit and dry, minerally raciness.
It’s been said that all wine roads eventually lead back to riesling. Why wait for the road to take you there? Like spring and the heart, riesling tastes of possibility – and like all those roads, the possibilities and the pleasure are virtually endless.
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.