Notes from the Cellar blog
Montana got nothin’ on this sky. You know you’re in a big, wide open place when the earth tips up and you climb a few thousand feet without the slightest sensation of having gained a single meter. It’s a sky so big that the mountains seem like little more than gentle rollers, the highway signs warning of winter snow the only obvious clue that you’re ascending.
Over yet another scarcely perceptible pass the horizon falls away a few degrees and the Citroën Steed gallops downward* through a broad swath of those cool – looking pines that you never see in our neck of the nuevo mondo. At Aranda de Duero, we take 90 degree left and head west, through what could easily pass for the high desert agricultural land of Eastern Oregon or Washington on a sultry hot summer day. Sort of.
Just a few kilometers further the road bends a few degrees further left and another subtle transformation takes place. We pass from flat, high desert farmland into a broad bottom land, soft shoulders at the sides of the draw showing the imprint of millennia of water. This is it, the storied Duero, that further on up the road goes all chameleon, slips into Portuguese and calls itself the Douro. Heading west, we’re literally listing to Port.
Mere instants later, around another bend, we pass vines. I can smell them. Jon scoffs, says that I’m hallucinating (although he doesn’t phrase it nearly so kindly). It occurs to me that Jon looks a lot like the cartoon character, Butthead (this explains a lot). In any case, my eyes confirm what my nose knows -- vines, baby, vines. We’ve entered Ribera de Duero, among the viticultural world’s more storied rising stars. Refreshingly, there’s not a faux castello or high-end SUV in sight. Jon sums it up perfectly, in words any adolescent could grasp -- Spain is cool.
Soon, the highway dovetails with the river, cloaked in lush greenery that stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding, dun-colored, parched hills. We roll west, through a nearly deserted river bottom strangely reminiscent of Texas. Nothing stirs, the entire landscape is in a torpor, baking in the mid-day heat.
Soon, we’re passing wineries. Interestingly, they bear no resemblance whatever to the Old World knock-offs that line such storied thoroughfares as Highway 29 or Silverado Trail back home. Makes sense. After all, this is the old world (been there, done that, invented it a few centuries back, moved on). These aren’t cover tunes, they’re originals, architectural statements (occasionally a little grandiose, but don’t tell me that Napa or Walla Walla’s most grandiose edifices aren’t built on ego, more often than not without an original thought to stand on).
Whatever. Any similarity to the American Southwest or the New World (period) vanishes as canter into Peñafiel. Hi-ho Silver, forget the Alamo, this sure don’t look like Texas, amigas y amigos. This is the madre of real deals. We have an hour to kill before we’re due at Vega Sicilia, so we head on up the hill to the castle, to have a look around…
*Conrado, despite his avowed disdain for anything French, drives the Citroën stagecoach like John Wayne. Perhaps it’s an Iberian thing, a way with horses, or maybe Conrado would say that the Spanish were meant to master the French, who knows…
Who can argue with two mornings in one day? Particularly when the first is one of those incomparable Seattle summer mornings that nearly defy description – and the second dawns on you in someplace you’ve never been. A little bleary, a little worse for the wear and the tear, sure. But I get my second (third? fourth?) wind when Conrado, Laine and Jon(athan) are there to meet my new amigas, the dynamic duo of Portlandians Annie and Toni, and me.
In mere moments we’ve mounted our Citroën steed and accelerated onto the autopista, leaving Madrid and a cloud of metaphoric dust in the rearview. All we lack now is sustenance… but we’re not lacking for long, as Jon, ever the prepared Boy Scout soon provideth. Jamon and Sherry, baby. Does it get any better? (Perhaps, but if it does, this’ll do just fine until better gets here.) Sure, prosciutto is pretty fine stuff, but when it comes to ham, jamon is the goods, the acme, the ne plus ultra. Add a glass (or two) of Manzanilla Amontillado, bewitching, yeasty, slightly nutty, a dry hint of sea salt, marine and arid all at once. As close to heaven as you can ask for, on a Tuesday morning. I renew my new year’s vow to drink more sherry.
Until now, my impressions of Spain are a collage of scraps from a few history books, a Hemingway novel or two, synopsis and a few tunes from Carmen, and an old movie version of Man of La Mancha (don’t even ask which one). Pretty standard stuff for an Americano – and quickly re-filed in the fiction stacks of my cabeza as the real thing unfolds in front of my sunglasses.
Think arid, high desert – sort of. It’s hard to say whether it’s more verdant with an arid accent or more arid with strong notes of greenery. Whatever, while it’s essentially a vast mesa, it’s a mesa that’s liberally punctuated with undulations, folds, creases, river valleys and a relief of mountain ranges, sudden, looming granite fortresses. Part Okanagan, part Palouse, part high desert, eastern slope of the Cascades, part Yakima Valley. All stitched together into an expansive, intricate tapestry of terra firma.
Real-time, in-person geography has a way of making you mighty hungry and thirsty. Lucky for us, there are tortillas de patatas¸ that oh-so-satisfying alliance of eggs, olive oil and potatoe-y goodness, that’s as ubiquitous as jamon. And zumo de naranja—the most delicious orange juice I’ve ever had. Anita Bryant eat your heart out. This ain’t the Texaco off the interstate, and we’re sure as heck not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Café all around and we’re good to go. The morning is still young, and the day’s vino is still down the road a stretch. Onward!
We travel for romance, we travel for architecture, and we travel to be lost.
Travel. There are as many reasons to budge from home and hearth as there are means of conveyance and places to go. But the accumulated miles in my rearview have led me to the notion that travel is best when the magic carpet yanks the proverbial rug from under your world, sets you adrift, throws open the doors and windows in your brain and leaves you more than a little bit lost, bewildered and flying by the seat of your intellectual and emotional pants. It should leave you speechless, lacking appropriate, adequate or accurate adjectives to begin to seize even a drop of the flood that breaches your mental seawall.
Spain… Miles Davis did “Sketches of Spain” -- not essays, not pictures, documentaries nor anything finished or in at all definitive. Sketches. Ideas, notions, impressions. If it worked for Miles, damned if it doesn’t work for me.
Iberia… It’s Europe, but just barely. The Pyrenees throw down a gauntlet at the peninsula’s point of attachment to the continent --a dramatic geographic, cultural and linguistic barrier. At the edge of the Old World, romance language wears a sultry, syncopated rhythm, shedding latin formality like a veil, while the dancer weaves between the Old World’s cold reason and the hot breath of Africa.
Wine… when you have to stick close to home base, choose well and it’s travel in a glass. When you’re travelling, it’s the extra dimension, high harmony, subtlety of texture and richness of color that tells the rest of the story.
Yep, just back from a week of being thoroughly enchanted in Rioja, Ribera del Duero and a tease of the Basque country. (And I do mean enchanted, in the most awe-struck, blown-away, bewitched sense of the word). And after all, as a writer, Quixotic tilting at wordmills is what it’s all about -- the part where the rubber meets the road, that speechless, no-words-to-describe-it place where you stare at the blank page and find a way. Onward, then. Stay tuned…
Risotto is not a solo affair. Not that it can't stand alone, can't deliver sustenance and satisfaction sotto voce. Quite the contrary. But it's at its best, sings the most expressively in its role as primo pare excellence, a bridge between the antipasto's summoning of palate and appetite and the savory, satiating majesty of the secondo. It offers creaminess as counterpoint for bright flavors and savory richness alike, who return the favor by bookending its lovely, nuanced simplicity. Elegant, simple, eloquent. Art in the kitchen, with inimitable Italian style.
Just as risotto shines in the company of other dishes, its charms are all the better enjoyed (and prepared) in good company. It's a labor of love, and as we all know, the fruits of love need to be shared (which applies to the stirring as well as the savoring). What could be better than a glass or two of lovely wine and a great friend to laugh with (and spell you at the stove while you fire up the grill) in anticipation of a feast?
It's been ages. Maybe it's the effort, the vigilance and the uninterrupted attention that good risotto requires. Perhaps it's the possibility of failure, the chance of chalky mediocrity or a gooey mass of glop, that make the task seem daunting. But, the idea dawned the a few weeks back while tasting an enchanting pinot nero vinificato in bianco (pinot noir vinified as white wine) -- and it won't go away. It's haunted me, along with fantasies of morels and white truffles, for days now. Finally, I'm hungry as hell and can't take it any more. The funghi can wait, but risotto can't. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Time to learn, practice, perfect. And to eat and drink along the way.
The table is set. literally and metaphorically. My good friend Brooke (aka The Teacher) is en route, with what turns out to be an astounding assortment of vividly flavored verdura from her garden (and the critical stick of butter I forgot). The shallets are minced, the stock is a-simmering, the Parmigiano Reggiano is grated and the rice awaits, shimmering like a dish of small, ovoid pearls. There remains but one box to check, one puzzle to solve, a small riddle, but nonetheless quite likely the crux of the affair: what shall we drink?
Stefano Inama's lovely, lovely Vin Soave? Or Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco Vecchia Modena? Something to refresh our palates and offer a just-so accompaniment to the rice, while setting the stage for grass-fed beef on the grill ... which of course begets another set of delicious possibilities to ponder.
A fine dilemma, non? How lucky are we?
Stay thirsty, amici. Ciao.
June. It’s raining. Hm. We shouldn’t be surprised, really. It does that here. But we hear stories about all those other places... Heck, everyone knows that the sixth month on this side of the planet is pretty much the down-payment on full blown summer. It’s a fact – except where it isn’t. But every once in a while, the planets, the ocean currents and the winds align to give us a textbook June, the kind we see on TV. So we start thinking that that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and get the blues when we awaken to a hard rain on a June morning and discover that it isn’t.
Well, alright then. Keep Calm and Carry On (with a bottle of rosé, or pinot, or Beaujolais). Step outside, make like a husky and sniff the air. It’s absolutely delicious this time or year, we all know that. Add a kiss of rain to the profusion of awakening verdura and it’s just that much better. Just as certain wines and beers marry well with particular dishes, so it is with the seasoning of the seasons, as it were.
Rain and rosé? You bet. A breeze of bright, fresh berries, notes of spice, a tangy note to play counterpoint with the cool goodness from the skies… Oregon pinot -- notes of forest floor, minerals, wild raspberries, just- ripe cherries harmonizing with damp firs, cedars, salt air, maybe a slab of salmon on the grill. Mmm-hmmm. Beaujolais – taut, expressive, exuberant fruit wrapped around a core of granite minerality… Or a fine pale ale, or pilsner. Really, the possibilities are as plentiful as raindrops.
Don’t wait, do it now. The sun’s is going to come out – and you’ll have to save it for a rainy day.
Tout ce qui mérite d'être fait, mérite d'être bien fait. (Anything worth doing is worth doing well).
-- Le Corbusier
This is what it's all about. The real deal. Wines that are the fruit of a place.Wine that are about soul and character, wines that are made by people who think and care enough about that kind of stuff to operate on the principle that that's what always comes first. Do it well and the ducats will follow.
It doesn't hurt, of course, to have a couple centuries' worth of tradition, a rare grape variety and a unique method of vinifying it in your quiver. But just as you can't hit a belt-high fastball for a home run unless you swing the bat, all the tradition, history and rarity in the world don't make a milliliter of difference unless someone has the vision, passion and energy and courage to dispense with conventional wisdom and have a tilt at the windmill.
Clos Cibonne dates to 1797, when the Roux family purchased the property from Jean-Baptiste Cibon. Following André Roux's modernisation of the estate in 1930, the wines of Clos Cibonne became known as some of Provence's most distictive rosés. After a brief period of decline in the 1980's, Roux's granddaughter Brigitte and her husband Claude Deforge took over management of the proporty and began to reestablish of the considerable reputation of the domaine.
The soul of the estate is in the vineyard -- the native Tibouren grape, which André Roux believed to be ideally suited to the soils and climate of the region. Situated less than 800 meters from the sea,the vineyards lie in a natrual amphitheatre that promotes ideal maturation of the grapes. Following harvest,the grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks, then aged under fleurette, a thin veil of yeast, in 100 year-old, 5,000 liter foudres.
It's a lovely composition: rare grape, a traditional, but nowadays unique method of vinification and a commitment to quality and character. The result is nothing short of mesmerizing, a lovely weave of sleek, but perfectly-ripe, bright raspberry, strawberry and citrus flower notes interlaced with hints of yeast and sea salt. In short, a lovely, seductive taste of Provence ...
"La Québécoise" is on the phone. Nicolas Boiron of Domaine Bosquet des Papes is in town, and presently in her car. Do I have time for them to swing on by for a meet and greet and tasting? Hmmm. Really, I don't. I'm up to my neck in boxes to check, running hard just to stay five steps behind. But then, this isn't just any winemaker "ride-along," not even just any Chateauneuf du Pape producer. Bosquet des Papes is, in my humble estimation, the real deal -- traditional, classic, old world, the soul of the southern Rhône. I'll make time.
Funny, wines like that almost always seem to be made by quality humans. Assuming the role of accompanist, playing a supporting dole to vineyard and terroir isn't a role that's well suited to hyperactive egos.. Nicolas is no exception. From handshake (the grip of hands that are well acquainted with real work) to au revoir, he's affable, unaffectedly gracious and modest -- charming as only someone who's comfortable in their own skin and who has no hidden agendas can be. A perfect example of the difference between "winemaker" and vigneron.
The wines are, not surprisingly, pure pleasure. We begin with a lovely treat, the 2005 blanc, essentially sold out, with only a few bottles to be had, but open for tasting juste pour voir. Think Provence on a warm, late Spring day, with notes of apricot, lemon essence, almond blossom honey and that characteristic southern Rhône foundation of stones. It shows the richnes of 6 years of bottle age, but is still crisp and taut, voluptous and agile at once. How many bottles can I have?
The 2009 Chateauneuf du Pape "Tradition" is classic: mostly grenache, with healthy dollops of mourvedre and syrah, seasoned with dashes of vaccarese, counoise and cinsault. It's bursting with red fruits wrapped around a core of brooding, dark stone fruit. An undercurrent of sun-warmed stones harmonizes with garrigues and a whiff of pepper. It's a complete, muscular wine, beautifully marring generosity and structure. While $50 retail certainly isn't a pittance, given the impressive quality of this wine and the going rate for comparable offerings, it's a bargain.
The cuvée "Chante le Merle" is the fruit of 80 to 90 year-old grenache, syrah and mourvèdre vines. It's a heady wine, grounded by brooding stoniness and dark fruit essences that offer enchanting counterpoitn to the raciness of its red fruit confit, lavender and spice notes. Wow.
Finally, "A la Gloire de Mon Grande - Père" is a monumental exhibition of of 100 per cent old vine grenache. Its' a lavish magic carpet, dark cherrry and wild raspberry fruit, with threads of lavender, spice, garrigues, pines and stones woven into a fabric of captivating, poetic depth.
allof which serves to evoke acute pangs for Provence. It never fails to amaze me, this lovley magic that captures, the aromas, flavors and the very soul of a place in a glass container. While the only complete cure for the jones it fuels is to actually go there, tasting wine like Nicolas' is without a double the next best thing to being there. A pretty damned fine interlude to the day's toil, too. It's people and wines like this that make this pretty cool métier. And speaking of work, back to it. Au boulot!
Just below the letterhead on Domaine Borie de Maurel's price list are the words: "Vignerons - Paysans." Neither word really translates very well, but the rough equivalent in English is "Peasant Vinegrowers." While the French is far more accurate in all its many levels of nuance, both pack a lot of meaning.
Vignerons-Paysans. I like that. Two words. Modest words, humble words, words with their feet planted firmly in the dirt. Words with more nobility by accident than all the money and the marketing in the world could ever imagine. Honest words, direct and and strong as a handshake with a work-callused hand.
There is no word in French (or Spanish, or Italian) for "winemaker." Italian producer Stefano Inama puts it very eloquently when he observes that the closest one can come to "making wine" is to labor in the vineyard, to work the soil, to prune the vines. Ask anyone who makes their daily bread aiding and abetting the transformation of grapes into one of life's loveliest pleasures what it is they do, and they'll reply that the best they can do is to pour love and energy into the vineyard, then intervene as little as possible while the magic happens.
Awhile back, a generous friend gave me a couple bottles from one of Woodinville's more exclusive addresses, an institution whose unabashed self-worth is reflected in both the price of the bottles (if you have to ask...) and the self-congratulatory verbiage on the back label. These, of course, are Wines made by Winemakers. Not to be confused with vine-growers (farmers) and certainly not peasants (anything but). Winemakers. Skilled, well capitalized, equipped with the and capable of turning agricultural raw material into luxury goods.
Wines like this, and the attitude that creates them, are certainly no anomaly. They're pretty standard stuff, really, a universal theme. From the gated faux "Chateau" to the invitation to join the "Select," "Reserve" "Prestige" or "CEO" club, to the Promethean "Winemaker" who boasts of "barrel programs" while name-dropping exclusive vineyard sources, the subtext is that the "right" wine, with the appropriate credentials is one of the trappings of upward mobility. Having an accepted label on one's table is among the de rigueur trappings of having gained admittance to the promised land. For those of us whose Horation alber aspirations may not have yet landed us among the 1%, a familiarity with the proper intoxicants is the wink and the nod that assures onlookers that, if not yet past the gates, we're certainly in the driveway and admittance is all but a done deal.
I'm not likely likely to drink those two bottles anytime soon, and will probably end up giving 'em away. I've had the wine before. All the parts are there in pretty much the properly proportions and there's no denying that it sings the notes correctly. It tastes okay, in a luxury wine sort of way, but it's not delicious in that je ne sais quoi kind of way. Let's just say that it just ain't got no soul, baby.
You just can't make or buy that stuff. You either have it, (or get it) or you don't. It can be anywhere, from Prosser to Lyle to Geyserville to Alba to Regua to Sablet to Félines-Minervois, but it has nothing to do with the right address or fancy digs (it seems to have a lot more to do with farming than finery).
In fact, what great wines have in common is in the people who grow them. Call it character: modesty, humility, strong hands that know the meaning of hard work, and a respect that runs to reverence for sun, rain, wind and soil--the sort of character you'd expect from someone whose business card might say paysan.
...all in a day's work.
Don’t make a fuss, just get on the bus. 28 hours down, 5 to go, give or take. It’s off to work for a while, a tasting with 30-ish producers from the Roussillon, followed by a dinner featuring a menu of Catalan dishes. Despite my glassy-eyed, just-wanna-go-to-sleep state, I’m excited, looking forward to exploring some new wines and satisfying my by-now raging hunger with Mediterranean flavors. Not to mention getting started on the home stretch, at the other end of which waits the big prize: sleep.
The second (or third, or fourth) wind is holding up well, though. Earlier, arriving at the hotel, I follow the tried and true routine: resist at all costs the overwhelming desire to get horizontal for a while, instead put on the running shoes and head out for a half an hour. An insult to the system, every footstrike feeling just plain wrong and requiring an effort of will – but that pays dividends once you’re done. Lungs cleansed with fresh air, blood nicely shaken (not stirred), it never fails to set me right. A quick shower to wash off all the airport juju and I’m good as new, sort of.
Out into the sun for a stroll to the Place de la Comédie to meet my comrades du jour, David, a wine writer from Austin, Andrew a sommelier from New York City(who over the next several days mysteriously becomes “Anthony” at odd intervals), and Jack, an importer from New Orleans, for a quick beer. Sitting in a café, outdoors in the late winter sun, who knew a mere Heineken could taste so damned good? Soon, the beers are replaced by a nice bottle of Domaine l’Hortus, from the nearby Pic St. Loup appellation, which just serves to underscore the sense or having arrived here. We drink and talk, the conversation ranging from Robert Parker (including indictments on what Bob hath wrought, and apologia for Bob the man) to Andrew’s tales of epic bottles, to politics. Jack saves the day, with a mention of fly fishing. Soon, we’re swapping stories of our favorite rivers, leaving the other two to run laps around the same old, same old wine guy track.
Later, acceptably cleaned-up for dinner, it’s on the buses with the rest of the Sud de France invitées, a interesting assortment of Russian, American, Chinese, Korean, Swedish, Polish, Japanese and Canadian wine importers, restaurateurs, retailers, distributors and writers, all similarly jet-lagged and slightly dazed. Off to the Maison des Vins de Languedoc for the Roussillon soirée, effectively a warm-up for the coming three days’ work.
The wines are quite good, for the most part, although just a few strike the sort of resonant chord that inspires poetry or purchase orders. Many have a Walla Walla or Red Mountain-esque ripeness that would undoubtedly play well back in the ‘hood, although with these wines, the sun’s sings in harmony with a counterpoint of firm acidity, the refreshing voice of Mediterranean breezes. As I taste, among the riper, more extracted wines I note another striking similarity to the fruits of Washington’s hallowed wine grounds – price, as in not at all timid, and seemingly directly proportionate to the level of extraction and/or oak aging. Wines that, as Randall Grahm once aptly put it, qui se Parkeriser très facilement. Indeed. The tariffs are perhaps not quite as dear as the back home, but relative to rest of the Languedoc, rather bold. Hmmmm.
The best of them are a dream. A Catalan reverie, a carrefour, a crossroad, a rond-point where sun, mountain, sea and centuries of tradition meet, merge and send palate and soul on a journey – à toutes directions! With food, they’re a revelation. And did we say food? There’s charcuterie – saucisses, jambon; cheese – lovely sheep’s milk and rustic cow’s milk cheeses; fruits de mer – oysters, shrimp, and best of all, fresh white anchovies spiced four different ways. An amazing daube (stew) of veal, olives and herbs is amazing with both a dry, spicy, deeply colored rosé and with a heady red, built on a sturdy, rather sauvage foundation of old vine carignan. Combined, they’re an alliance that’s seems made in heaven, this particular piece of heaven’s real estate, at any rate.
They also provide a soporific magic carpet ride. Just a drop of lovely Muscat de Rivesaltes as an exclamation point (or an ellipse?) and I’m hotel-bound. Sleep beckons enticingly, and there’s work to do tomorrow. It’s been a fine day.
The world is your oyster...
Once your plane has managed to give the slip to Charles de Gaulle’s not insignificant gravitational forces, it’s barely an hour’s flight from Paris down to Montpellier. Just time enough for another chorus of the instant coffee blues, the turn of a page or two, maybe a quick snooze. Just an hour, but a world away, really. It’s worth noting that, as just about any native of the south will tell you, you’ve only just now arrived in France (“Paris, c’est pas la France.”).
Talk about magic carpets. In less time than it takes to watch a Rick Steves episode, you may as well have changed planets. Behind is the Europe where the North Atlantic calls the climactic tune and a cast of Celts, Gauls, Teutons, Anglos, Saxons and Normans wove the cultural fabric. Ahead is a place that bears the footprints of Greeks, Phoenicians, Vandals, Visigoths, Saracens and Romans. Not to mention a culture inspired by the Cathars, who had the cheek to thumb their noses at papal authority and had a whole crusade* launched against them for their trouble.
Thirty-some-thousand feet has a homogenizing effect on light. At that altitude it’s pretty much the same wherever you go, one big melting pot, the composite shade of the whole, wide world. (It’s down on terra firma that light meets terroir, assimilates, and becomes "local color.") As it descends through a thin veil of cloud, the plane is immersed in an illumination like nowhere else on the planet. It’s light that can make a person wistful, bring on bouts of everything from poetry to painting to impromptu wine-drinking -- and maybe even make a man crazy enough to cut off his ear.
The sensory conquest begun with the eyes is complete as my nose capitulates. Even in the jetway, mixed with wafts of jet fuel, the aroma of the littoral, the coastal flatland, all salt air and marsh plants is woven with that of the hills, rocks and garrigues blown coastward by the northwest wind. It’s a heady welcome.
Moments later, bag in tow, I find Valentine, Prune and the rest of the Sud de France contingent --evidently nearly everyone on the just –arrived flight from Paris. Group assembled, out the doors, into the late winter sun, under the row of alternating French tricouleur and red Croix Cathar flags flapping in the crisp breeze, and to the waiting buses.
At the first rond-point, one of my favorite things -- the ubiquitous “Toutes Directions” sign confirms that yes, you can get everywhere from here. Bienvenu, indeed. How cool is that? Despite the 26 hours that’ve passed since I awoke to a rainy Ballard morning, I’m amazingly energized. Good thing, too -- there’s still work to do. But first, there are a couple priorities to attend to: a chair that isn’t in motion -- and a beer.
*The real deal, complete with mass burnings at the stake and the wholesale slaughter of women and children.