Monday, May 25, 2009

Oh, the French! The view from Departure

Went to a French winetasting last week, for the trade. Ah, the trade! It was hosted by three large distributors, on the rooftop patio of the old Meyer & Frank building (now, it's The Nines Hotel, with the bar "Departure" on the roof with the patio. Left is a pic of the inside of Departure; here is some more info:

"The long-awaited lounge named Departure had its debut on floor 15 of The Nines hotel in early April 2009. Designed by renowned local architect Jeff Kovel of Portland's Skylab Architecture, Departure anoints the SW corner of the Nines with floor-to-ceiling glass views of the central city and Pioneer Square."

Sadly, I'm hearing that The Nines is having trouble booking as many as nine hotel rooms a night, so maybe you should run, not walk, to check out the Departure Lounge, in case it's in trouble already. What a great view!

The best part of this tasting was that owners from about 20 French (and one Italian) winery were there, pouring. Aside from collecting Bordeaux and having visited Burgundy, Alsace, Bordeaux, and the Loire Valley, I'm really pretty ignorant about French wines. Some of my questions initally drew surprised looks, but then the pourer/owner quickly recovered composure and politely gave me an answer. Maybe I supported their stereotype of Americans as ignorants; I don't know.

I have a bias against most French wines, and that bias was supported at the tasting. The vast majority of the wines (and they ranged from cheap to very spendy) were too thin, too sharp, too little nose, too unbalanced. Surprising, for a nation with so much wine history. I think it's partly the sub-optimal weather there, and partly the French's resistance to change (although that is changing).
Let us all be grateful for the fantastic wines that are findable in Walla Walla, Tri-cities, Yakima, and the Willamette Valley. You can find unbelievable quality at low prices, there.

As you might expect, the French didn't completely lose their national honor at the tasting; here are some of my faves from the Departure trade tasting:

1. Sommariva Prosecco di Conegliano: $15.50
As fate would have it, this was the only non-French wine there. This is Italian prosecco, and it is BY FAR THE BEST PROSECCO I HAVE EVER HAD (and I have had quite a few by now). It was poured by Cinzia (Cynthia?) Sommariva, with whom I spoke for quite a while--she is passionate about why their Prosecco is so good. Her family's vineyards are in the hills 50 km north of Venice, in the official DOC for Prosecco. Many other Proseccos are made from flatland grapes, or, worse, from outside the DOC. Her family picks the grapes by hand. The wine is made in stainless steel vats, and bottled monthly, enough freshly bottled each month to handle the demand. When you get the wine, you will first notice the classic and delicious yeasty bread aroma, coupled with lemon gelato--that bread aroma is found only in the best champagnes. In the mouth, it is fresh like you're picking fruit right in the orchard--green apple and some citrus--and oh so smooth! Nice finish. This one should figure heavily in your summer plans! And with lower alcohol and fewer calories than other sparkling wines, this is great for summer.

2nd favorite:2006 Jobard: Bourgogne Blanc: $27
Poured by Antoine Jobard himself, of Domaine Francois et Antoine Jobard. This is pure Chardonnay in the classic French style: minerals along with crisp fruit. Chardonnays were the order of the day at the tasting, and as you know, I usually won't choose a Chard for myself. I disliked almost every one of them I tasted. But this one was so utterly excellent that I must recommend it to you. It is so fruity--simply rampant with fruit--that it seemed slightly sweet, so I asked Antoine how much residual sugar it had, and he answered, "less than one" [gram per liter]. That is utterly dry, but it is a common palate trap--great fruit can fool you into thinking sugar. This is a rich, elegant wine, crisp with a looonnnnngg finish; to my mind a much better wine than their next-higher wine, which costs over $50! I think any California chard that could best this one would easily cost two or three times as much as this. Dive in! And if you're in the ABC club ("Anything But Chardonnay"), you should nevertheless give this a try.

3. 2006 La Tour Vieille, Banyuls Vendanges (500ml): $25
La Tour Veieille was poured by Christine Campadieu, who told me that her family's lands "plunge with the Pyrenees into the [Mediterranean] sea."This is a red dessert wine, made from Grenache and Cinsault. It has a great port nose, but it tastes fresh and alive; no oxidation whatever. I tell you, this would be DIVINE after dinner with a plate of assorted expensive cheeses and maybe some nuts and a little fruit, and Christine confirmed that that is exactly how she would enjoy this wine. It is not high-alcohol as port as (this wine's not fortified); it is just delicious.

4. 2007 Meyer-Fonne, Gentil d'Alsace: $14
Poured by Felix Meyer. He told me this is Pinot gris, Riesling, Pinot blanc, and Muscat. It has a fantastic, complex, multi-fruit and floral nose and is silky smooth and crisp and wonderful on the palate. It's $17.64 (plus S&H) at retail.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Ahh! Memorial Day Weekend tasting in the Willamette Valley

Just avoid the parking lot which is known as Highway 99, and you'll be fine. Scholls Ferry Rd to Hwy 210, to North Valley Road is a great route into wine country. Today, along North Valley Road, there were at least six signs for new wineries of which I've never heard. What is the upper bound of all this grape development, I wonder? Is this a grape juice bubble? Is the unending rush of people and their gold into grape and bottle going to finally implode, sending much of the industry into ruin?

For the answers to these questions, tune in again in, say, three to ten years.

2007 here started late--bud break and bloom were a full month late . But most of the summer was warm and many vines caught up somewhat, so that nearing the typical harvest date range, they were only a couple of weeks late. But then early and torrential rains came. Some growers panicked and picked unripe grapes. Others picked during the rain, which diluted flavors. Some few, however, waited it out, and were rewarded with a very unusual long, warm second summer. In sites where the grapes could drain well and were allowed to hang until mid-to-late October, the fruit was OK. Otherwise, it was a decidedly sub-par year. So selection is critical; if you choose poorly, the wine is thin, the color weak, even for a pinot.

I've tasted many 2007 Pinots. With few exceptions, there is only so much a talented winemaker can do with non-idyllic grapes. The White Rose Dreamcatcher is a special find; those vines are very old and on rather steep slopes; the wine offers up a complex nose and good fruit. Some say that "leaner" pinots need time to reveal their fruit, and I hope that is so. But aside from Dreamcather, I'm not buying the '07s. Hold onto your wallet until the 2008s are available. I will be watching the Beaux Freres 2008 Pinots, and will advertise them next March and June. They are fabulous now, even though bottling is months away. I suspect there will be many fantastic pinots from Oregon sporting the '08 vintage on their labels. When they're more widely available, my glass and I will soldier through a number of them, so that we can all load up on quality pinot.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sulfites in Wine Get Unfair Rap

The Wine Wizard wrote the following great response to yet another person who erroneously believes he has a sulfite allergy and thus cannot drink red wine. A model of sulfur dioxide is shown to the right.

Wine Wizard replies: It is impossible to make a sulfite-free wine, because wine yeast produce sulfur dioxide (SO2) during the fermentation process. Wines with no added sulfite contain from 6 to 40 ppm of sulfite, according to most experts. Check with your physician to make sure that you really are allergic to sulfites. Only a small percentage of the population (approximately 0.01%, or 1 in 10,000) is truly allergic to sulfites. These people lack the digestive enzyme sulfite oxidase and therefore can’t metabolize sulfites. This small percentage of the population is also asthmatic, so many doctors test their patients for sulfite allergies when a diagnosis of asthma is made. These individuals typically know they’re allergic from childhood and so know to avoid all foods and beverages that contain sulfites including, but not limited to, lunchmeats, processed salami, processed fruit juices, packaged seafood and dried fruits, as well as wine.
Sulfur dioxide gets a bad rap because of the government warning label plastered on wine bottles that is only targeted to this select group of consumers. Furthermore, many people blame sulfites for the group of symptoms commonly called the “wine headache.” These symptoms are often simply caused by the alcohol in the product. There has been some speculation in the medical community that histamines — a naturally occurring substance found in foods like canned tuna and wine — are a possible culprit of this “red wine malaise,” but there has been no conclusive evidence so far. Ironically, many consumers drink white wine, thinking red wines have more sulfites, when white wines typically do.
At the end of the day, using sulfites in winemaking is usually not a health issue. Judicious use of sulfite use can significantly increase the quality of your wine. International regulatory boards usually set legal levels at around 350 ppm total sulfur dioxide and most commercial wines are bottled with totals between 50-100 ppm. A little bit of SO2, used wisely, goes a long way and won’t hurt 9,999 out of 10,000 of us.

Chateau Montelena tasting

Just look at that winery! It was built in 1882--perhaps Napa Valley's first?--and has stone walls 12 feet thick in places. Famous for the 1976 "Judgment of Paris" in which its Chardonnay beat out the best French wines in a blind tasting, Montelena is famed for its cabs as well. So it was with great anticipation that I accepted David's very kind invitation to taste their reds at a event in which Montelena's Jim Barrett was the speaker.

Located high on Mt. St. Helena and in the high north end of the Napa Valley, it gets fogs and cool breezes spilling over from the Russian River Valley. This leads to night-time temps of just 50F, versus day temps as high as 100F, and that diurnal difference gives the wine more acidity, which you can taste. Also, we learned that not so long ago, wines would top out at about 8% alcohol, but the yeasts used today can push that to 12-15%, so wines have become much more powerful in the past few decades.

I thought their Chardonnay ($46 retail) was firm, fruity, and had good grip. The 750's can age for seven years. The '06 Zin ($27 retail; head-trained on 6' trunks and planted in 1972) was sharp with no nose at first, though later it opened to a nice bouquet. But it cannot quite stand up to one of California's super-zins, such as a Turley or a Hartford.

Then we jumped into the various estate cabs, from 1999 to 2005. I found some a bit acidic or thin. The '05 had a better nose than the other 2000's, with dark fruit and tobacco notes. The '99, though, was amazing: with an awesome bouquet, sweet tannins, and still tastes young.
I can buy these at Columbia Distributors, if you are interested.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Not a word you see every day. The Eastern Towhee is a ground bird, a "large New World sparrow." He's a beaut. Ours loves to dig up the bark mulch in my vineyard, presumably looking for worms. I will begrudge him a few of those, so long as he doesn't take an affinity for grapes.
This bird's call is "drink your teeeeeee," which isn't bad advice.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pop! Book!

This is off-topic for wine, but here it is:

1. A soda suggestion:

If you drink soda and know about the health dangers of artificial sugars and corn syrup and phosphoric acid, then give Pepsi Natural a try. It uses real sugar, kola nut, water, some naturally-occurring food acids and colors, and not much else. I found it hiding behind the refrigerated section, at Costco. It's good stuff; I hope it survives. It's much more like a real food, in huge contrast to mainline Coke, Pepsi, etc. It IS a sugar drink, to be sure, but if you're already drinking diet soda or corn syrup soda, you could benefit from avoiding the corn syrup (artificial; does not exist in nature; some think it can't be digested as sugar and is instead laid down as fat; in fact, some think it's partly responsible for the obesity epidemic), the aspartame (linked to seizure disorders), and the phosphoric acid (leaches calcium out of your bones) that are in the classic sodas. I'm not a doctor; do your own research.

2. A book recommendation:
If you like: mystery; cannibalism; cargo cults; goddess worship; fast action; aging, mistake-prone protagonists, organ theft, airplane theft, ocean maroonings; minefields; and extramarital sex, then I recommend a great book: It's "Island of the Sequined Love Nun" by Christopher Moore. It's awesome.

You Gotta Be Kidding: 32 wineries in Tennessee?

and at least one of them is a good one! We went to Jackson TN to visit some of Jane's friends, and found two wineries nearby: One was imminently forgettable, but the other, Crown Winery, is well worth a blog post:

If you often wonder: "Who are these people who found new wineries?", here is an answer: Peter Howard is a "British gas physicist" whose ancestors include the gent who named the types of clouds, and also include the shipbuilder to Peter the Great. Peter Howard married a former Miss Tennessee, and there you go.

The new winery building has a spacious tasting room and is built in the California Spanish style. It sits amidst a hilly former dairy farm. The winemaker is quite talented. Because of the humid summers (and the resulting disease pressure), they grow mostly hybrid grapes (please recall my earlier missives about the undeniable--and green--trend towards hybrids). I took a special interest in their Chamborcin, because that is a parent of Regent, which is taking a foothold in my own vineyard. Their Chamborcin is very nice: Bright fruits, good balance, very drinkable.

So, if you find yourself halfway between Nashville and Memphis, check out Crown Winery! And you have to go there, because it is a CRIME for them to ship wine outside of TN. You can thank some of the most corrupt politicians in the country for that little (unconstitutional) gem.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sunset High School Winetasting Fundraiser

On Saturday, May 2, Dave and Krista Jellison hosted a winetasting fundraiser for Sunset HS' Grad Party. It's a very worthy event that keeps the just-graduated high school seniors entertained (food, music, games, mock weddings, fireworks, poker games, rock climbing, etc.) in the high school all night, instead of drinking and driving.

Floyd and I managed the wine end of it. Between the admission prices, the silent auctions, and the wine sales (I donated the profits to Sunset HS), we raised somewhere between $1000-$2000 for the kids. Thanks to all of you who came out for it.

A big thank you, also, to my friends Kevin Kohnstamm and Joe Hirko of The Party Pros, in Hillsboro. Party Pros has more Reidel wineglass stems (10,000+) than anyone else in Oregon! They can supply all your party rental needs (tents, tables, tableware, jumphouses, etc.), and they gave us a discount since the party was for a non-profit entity (the public school).

Go Apollos!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jesus Turning Water into Wine: John 2:1-11

I saw Jesus, who turned water into wine. Really.

Picture a hard rainfall, at White Rose, somewhere SW of Dundee, OR. You're standing in a barn, surrounded by wine barrels. The double door is open, and the rain is sheeting down, obscuring the vineyards into a kind of twilight promise of phantom vines. You're grateful for the shelter. The light is dim. An air of surrealism pervades the place. If the Pillsboro Doughboy waltzed out from behind the barrels, it somehow wouldn't surprise you in the slightest.

Before you are two Hispanic brothers and a table with some wines on it. Spartan. Fitting. The younger brother, eager, talkative, knowledgeable, is handling sales, and the older one, taciturn, leaning back on the door jamb, watching you, is the winemaker. Through a fluke of tour bus dynamics and unknowable universal humanoid allocation principles, no one else is there. It's a planet of eight billion, and yet there are only the three of you. The rain beats out a winetasting dance. You sample the wines, all Pinots, ranging from $30 to $75. Some are forgettable, some are very good. It's clear from the conversations that the older brother, the winemaker, knows his stuff--it is fitting that he rose from field hand to chief winemaker in less than ten years. You love America, that it can provide such opportunities. Looking into your glass, you wonder where this winemaker grew up, how he came here. Which is more mysterious: the wine, or the winemaker?

Then, the winemaker, having sized you up as a person who understands something about Oregon Pinot, offers to pour you his own personal wine--he's the winemaker for all the wines at White Rose, but the owner has kindly allowed him to select from the best fruit and make a few cases all his own. So he brings out a bottle with a different label, "Dreamcatcher," with Native American art on it. It's got 2007 Vista Hills Vineyard fruit, which reached 23.5Brix at 800' elevation, a neat trick for grapes growing so high. This vineyard is right next to Domaine Drouhin and Domaine Serene, so you're in God's Country for Pinot.

The bouquet is unmistakable Oregon Pinot, but it's subtle--you want to keep smelling it, and each time it rewards you with something new: rose petals, licorice, black currants. It's like a time-release nosegasm. In the mouth, it's excellent, redolent of black fruits, very light on the oak--very balanced. The guys said it was bottled in Jan 2009, and would develop more complex flavors after another year or two in bottle. I believe that.

The best part? This little under-the-table gem is the least expensive of all the White Rose offerings.
I stress that this is a fleeting opportunity. He made hardly any of this stuff. If you open this wine, a year from now, for your very best friends, you can be assured that (a) they will not have had this anywhere else, and (b) they will love this wine. And each bottle is signed in gold ink by the man who truly turns water into wine: Jesus (as in, "Hey! Dr. Suess!")

What's special about White Rose is that they've got some of the oldest Pinot noir vines in Oregon--about 35-40 years old. And they limit crop to as low as one ton per acre. That allows supreme concentration in the fruit.

How Climate Change's Extreme Weather Events Affect Grapes and Wine:

  We (Epona) joined the Porto Protocol a year or two ago; it's a collaboration of grapegrowers and winemakers, worldwide, who are focusi...