Notes from the Cellar blog
Voilà. Seven* lovely things I’m looking forward to over the next week or so. Why seven” Purely random. Twelve seems a little too “dozen-y,” too “twelve days of christmas clichéd and may even weirdly allude to twelve - step programs. Seven is a nice number, prime and makes me think of brings to mind John Coltrane’s “Seven Steps to Heaven.”
Gaston Chiquet Blanc de Blancs (or any Gaston Chiquet, for that matter). I tasted this wine amidst an absurdly lovely selection of farmer fizz a few weeks back. It’s exquisite, amazing purity really set it apart from all those other very delicious wines. My notes say “as pure as mountain rain.” Can’t wait for those first few sips and that half-a-glass contentment.
Sangiovese. I’m not sure yet just which wine we’ll have with Wednesday’s standing rib roast with rosemary, peppercorns, etc. But that lean, structured, edgy, savory framework that surrounds a heart of cherries, iron and iodine gets me all dreamy.
Quality lager. I know it’s mid-winter, but I’m craving, and won’t be denied. It’s that purity thing again, all clean, crisp grain, mountain stream water and just enough hops. Dialed back on the alcohol, too. – so a person can actually have a second and maybe a third, without getting all stupid. Anchor’s rendition is amazing, very smart, as some might say
Amontillado. That amazing nuttiness that opens a rabbit hole of tobacco, licorice, earth and salt. Sets your palate up for sweetness, then delivers a dry depth that tells all sorts of stories.
Quady North Cabernet Franc Rosé. I think there are some bottles left at a couple of our stores. Man, but this is the goods—austere and generous all at once, creamy fruit that’s bright and edgy at the same time.
Domaine La Madura “Classic” Blanc (and rouge, too, now that I’m thinking about it). These are two of the prettiest, most delightfully honest, expressive, fascinating wines I know. There are probably more bottles of La Madura enjoyed chez nous than of any other single grower.
Leah Jørgensen Cellars “Oregon Tour Rain” (or Cabernet Franc Blanc). Can’t decide between these two, but these wines were easily my favorite Cascadian discoveries of the year. One of our favorite small distributors will, with any luck, be bringing these wines to Seattle next year. We can’t wait to share. They’re gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.
So, that’s more than seven. But oh well, it’s the holidays isn’t it? ( And I could easily have just kept right on going ‘til next Christmas). There’s just one more thing I need to add, and that’s the observation that every single one of these wines (in fact all the wines I happen to love) are made by people who have in common that they’re danged fine, sweet, honest, modest, just-plain-lovely, salt-of-the-earth people. After a certin number of solstices a person tends to figure out that life is just too danged short to waste a drop of it on anything but good food, good wine and great friends.
Buona festa, bonnes fêtes, happy holidays.
*(give or take).
I got a note from one of our wine stewards yesterday saying that a gentleman (a generous use of the word) had come into the wine department, muttering my name, looking at the ABV percentage on various Washington wines, saying I’d told him his wines had too much alcohol--and had stopped just short of causing a scene. Had I happened to talk to someone pitching us some wine?
Well, I hadn’t. Not yesterday, anyway. But we get lots of Washington wines submitted to us, on a regular basis—and I mean lots. Many are decent, some are quite good, some even excellent. (Unfortunately, because we have a finite amount of space and set a pretty high bar in terms of quality and value, only a small fraction of those wines ever end up for sale in our stores.) Others, on the other hand, are flawed, awkward -- and occasionally, really, really awful. Weird adventures in microbiology awful.
In any case, our “rejection” letter is a simple, generic note thanking the prospective vendor for their interest in PCC and stating that their product doesn’t fit our present needs. Most are understanding. Some want specifics, which we do our best to supply, as constructively as possible.
A few, however, don’t take it so graciously. This subset are convinced of my complete lack of any semblance of business sense or a competent palate, not to mention a striking resemblance between my personage and a particular human excretory organ (which, while perhaps a fitting observation, is nonetheless beside the point when the wine in question ain’t gonna fly in our stores).
My mother always cautioned that if I couldn’t say anything nice, I should just keep my piehole shut. It’s advice I try to heed – and when I just can’t help myself, I make it a rule not to name names, in public forums, anyway.
So. To you, Mr. Anonymous Angry Winemaker Dude: I’m not 100% certain, but I think I recall having tasted the “wines” you submitted. Whatever the exact wording of my response, it was no doubt a huge euphemism, a kind way of saying that your wines, quite frankly, sucked. And since we’re evidently not going to have the opportunity to mutter at one another in person, here’s the lowdown on your product.
Alcohol? Not a crime against wine in itself, but quite often just the first symptom of a wine that’s out of balance. Which encompasses a litany of ills: flabbiness, lack of acidity, lack of varietal (or any) character, palate heat and, well -- blatantly, unpleasantly, overbearingly alcoholic aromas and flavors.
Oh, and can you say VA? Nail polish and vinegar can be very good and useful—but not in wine. Fruit? That component in your juice was unidentifiable as any particular species, just a mass of overripe berry goo, a sort of overcooked jam – with some weird vapors of composty funk around the edges (maybe you’re calling that ‘minerality’ –whatever). Big? Sure, I’ll give you that. Monolithic, even. We’re talkin’ shock and awe, baby.
If you actually like and enjoy drinking the science-experiment-gone-wrong you’re peddling as wine, you have an advanced case of “house palate.” If you think that it’s worth the absurd, ridiculous, outlandishly ludicrous price you’re asking, you’re crazy, man. Nuts. Out of your mind. Gone pecan.
It’s been said that if you want to make a small fortune in the wine business, you’d better start with a large one. That’s advice you’d do well to heed, literally and seriously. Your wines were pretty bad, trending toward awful. No, let’s be frank – they were abysmal. (To be fair, one was almost palatable, interesting even—but only as a curiosity, a circus sideshow, a biological aberration, the wine equivalent of a two-headed monkey). All in all, they merited our most emphatic seal of disapproval.
There, done. Had to get that out of my system. This blog is supposed to be a forum to share sips from the endless river of amazing, lovely, unique, fascinating, wonderful labors of love and hard work that I get to discover from day to day – and the really, really cool people who invest their love, sweat and inspiration in nurturing them from vine to bottle. Thanks for enduring the detour. Back to more of the good stuff – stay tuned for the Christmas edition.
“Aromas of ripe, dark cherries and spice with a persistent note of blood…” Blood probably isn’t a word you’re going see used in a wine description anytime soon. At least not at your local grocer (or bottle shop, for that matter). No matter that there are times when it’s the absolute best word to describe what you’re tasting: iodine, iron, a little saline, a note of something essentially animal, very distinct—blood. No matter that it’s the very juice of life for every single living being on the planet, as essential as water, or air (not to mention the transmitter of the those two essential elements). Nope. In our clean, pristine, sanitary world, “bloody” just isn’t the sort of adjective we use for things we drink. Just too close to the the proverbial bone, too icky, I guess.
I’ve been on a bit of a sangiovese spree lately, drinking Chianti for the most part, a little of everything from Classico to Colli Senesi to Rufina to Colli Orientali – as well as a mighty nice, perfectly-aged bottle from Montecucco and lovely, lovely Brunello. All in all, a string of gorgeous wines, taut and lean, but no less assertive or generous for it – and all expressing the lovely little nuances that make each region subtly different from its neighbor.
Being from the same region and composed primarily of the same grape, all show rather remarkable similarity (go figure). In addition to various shades of dry cherry, spice and the Tuscan iteration of garrigues, all share a thread of iodine and iron, an essential earthiness, a saltiness that’s best described as blood. While threads of that texture are sure to be expressions of terroir, the bulk of the weave is in the grape – and its capacity to translate that singular terroir.
Sangiovese. Jove’s blood, literally. From the Latin sanguis (blood) Jovis (God). Metaphorically, we could riff endlessly on that (I’ll spare you just now), but appropriate and downright cool is that? Whether you grasp “God” as patriarchal or Matriarchal, no matter. Wine as God’s blood, Mother earth’s blood – an essential, inspirational, soulful infusion of goodness from the Powers That Be – whatever they be. So, be grateful, and drink up. I’m having another glass of this lovely Selvapiana Chianto Rufina.
It’s bloody good.
While gratitude is, of course, a practice that’s best done on a daily basis, the Thanksgiving holiday seems like a fine time to share a few wine guy reasons to be thankful. Voilà –just a teeny, tiny few seasonally appropriate things that make me glad…
Beaujolais -- real Beaujolais. There’s nothing like it. Fresh, vibrant, nearly pulsing with exuberance, the essence of sun become sweet fruit, wrapped around a core of cool granite. An old friend who always forgives me for running off to hang out with other wines, and welcomes me back with a glass way more than half full.
Winegrowers. As in farmers, or wine people who think like farmers. Modest, down-to-earth, ordinary human types who have calluses and dirt on their hands. People like Jean-Pierre Vanel, Kay Simon and Clay Mackey, James and Poppie Mantone, the Pouillons, Herb Quady, Keith Pilgrim, Remi Pouizin, Bill Powers, Robert, Corrine and Barbara Gross at Cooper Mountain, John Morgan, Barbara House and Liam Doyle at Lost River, Tony Dollar, Phil Cline, The Gilbert Family… and a whole bunch who I’ll catch the next time around.
“Everyday” wine. These are wines that are what they are, that taste like where they came from, that aren’t all fancied up to be some sort of luxury item. Because wine is something ordinary people should do, just about every ordinary day, and it’s less expensive to make (and has more character anyway), when it doesn’t try to be some fancy pants thing for fancy people.
My nose. An essential, of course, but I’m amazed at how much it teaches me as I learn to notice more and more smells, not just in wine, but out there in the world at large. The key to all sorts of Proustian magic. The world is your oyster—and your madeleine, too.
Friends. Because, nothing tastes as good solo as it does when you share it with your peeps.
Food. Italians have this nailed. Wine needs food to really sing the high notes—and food needs wine to truly nourish our souls.
And lots of other stuff. Stay tuned, more later.
Buona festa, bonne fête, happy holidays. Amen.
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!