Notes from the Cellar blog
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 alcohol 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.
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, unpretentious, 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.