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Pork and Pinot

December 26, 2012 Leave a comment

porkbeet

A week ago, with Joel home for the holidays, we had Burgundy at home night. Gail cooked beef bourguignon and we opened a bottle of 2000 Burgundy (Morey-Saint-Denis premier cru from the Monts-Luisants vineyard). Tonight Gail made another feast, pictured above. The dish is pork with beets, apples, kale, onion, and garlic—additional flavoring courtesy of chardonnay, fresh rosemary, and fresh thyme—served over pasta.

Accompanying the food was a bottle of Porter Creek Winery‘s 2009 reserve pinot noir. I had planned for weeks that once Joel got home, we would drink our bottle of Morey-Saint-Denis with one meal and one of our Porter Creek pinots with another. Tonight was the night for Porter Creek.

porterpinot

I have written about Porter Creek before, starting with our 2008 visit. I won’t repeat myself. See this link, for instance, describing our wine club shipment last April, or the link I included there to a 2009 NYT column by Eric Asimov on California pinots. Well, let me quote Asimov once again:

For me, wine’s place is with food, and that’s why I had begun to despair of so many California pinot noirs. Their power and sense of sweetness were overwhelming at the table. But it turns out that more than a few California producers share my feeling, like Ehren Jordan of Failla and Thomas Brown of Rivers-Marie, Joe Davis of Arcadian and Alex Davis of Porter Creek. Almost to a person, they make no secret of being inspired by the wines of Burgundy.

See also this short note in the San Francisco Chronicle two years ago on Alex Davis. Here is his description of tonight’s wine.

Our 2009 reserve is a special selection originating from the steepest parts of the Fiona Hill Vineyard. It was vinified with one third whole cluster fermention and 40% new French oak barrels. The result is bolder, broader-shouldered wine with serious aging potential.

The wine was both delicious and a perfect complement to tonight’s meal. We have another bottle of the reserve, so we do have the option of waiting to discover its aging potential. I don’t know if we have the patience though. My bet is that the next time Gail makes beef bourguignon, we’ll be opening it. If only we had ordered more while it was still available.

Categories: Family, Food, Wine

Living in the Limelight

November 29, 2012 Leave a comment

I wrote a series of posts four months ago about our trip to Walla Walla, the centerpiece of which was our two days of behind-the-scenes winery visits. (Day one here and day two here.) In addition to the kindness of winery owners and winemakers in showing us around, we were also blessed by the patient guidance of local wine expert and businessman Philippe. He is the owner of Oak Tradition, purveyor to the trade of barrels, corks, and much more.

Our first stop on day two was Rasa Vineyards. At the time, I wrote:

It is run by two brothers, Pinto and Billo Naravane. Both left the computer industry to start up the winery, Pinto on the business side and Billo as winemaker. As at the wineries the day before, we were the beneficiaries of extraordinary generosity, as Billo spent over an hour with us, telling us stories about the winery, his career path, and the individual wines as we tasted them. He had studied applied math at MIT, then moved on to Stanford for a Master’s in electrical engineering and to Texas for a Ph.D. But he left the PhD program partway through to begin work in the computer industry. When the time came to leave it all behind for wine, he headed to Davis for another Master’s, in their famous wine program.

The mathematical backgrounds of Billo and Pinto are reflected in the names of some of their wines. My friend Paul makes it a point, whenever he encounters a wine with a name that — by intention or chance — has a name with a mathematical connotation, to photograph it and post to Facebook. This is how I first met two Rasa wines, QED and Principia. On first arriving at Rasa, I was delighted to see them. As Billo explains, Rasa is the rare winery that doesn’t display their own name prominently on the label. The conceptual wine name takes pride of place. This is a risky marketing strategy, as illustrated by my lack of awareness of who exactly produces QED and Principia. But Rasa sells what it produces, and is happy to proceed this way. You can see more of their beautiful labels here.

The brothers make more than just attractive labels. The wines were excellent. We bought more of theirs than anyone else’s, including two bottles of the 2008 Creative Impulse, a cab/merlot blend that was our most expensive purchase of the trip. They will need to lie down a while before we open them.

In addition to Creative Impulse, we bought a bottle of Principia and a bottle of Living in the Limelight. They’ve all been lying down in the basement, happily ignored. However, on receipt of our latest club shipment of Porter Creek pinots two weeks ago (see here for a post on last spring’s shipment and links to earlier posts on Porter Creek), I reorganized our reds, prompting me to decide that we should start tasting some of the Rasa and other Walla Walla purchases.

Thanksgiving gave us a natural opportunity. A week ago, I brought up the bottle of Living in the Limelight. What is it? I didn’t remember. The name gives no clue. But the label does say petit verdot, and the website explains:

The 2009 Living in the Limelight comprises of 90% Petit Verdot, 5% Cab Franc, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Petit Verdot, a classic Bordeaux varietal, is typically cast in a supporting role – providing acid and color to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-dominated wines.

But this Petit Verdot is so compelling, we had to put it in the limelight. In this wine, Petit Verdot is the main actor with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in supporting roles.

Clever.

More important, the wine is superb. I lack the vocabulary to describe it adequately. Fortunately, the winemaker has no such problem:

This wine is a rarity: a Petit Verdot with finesse, power, and complexity. Blackberry, black plum, dark chocolate, with hints of vanilla and rose petal on the bouquet. Intense notes of blackberry and black cherry on palate, supported by tobacco, dark chocolate, earth, and tar notes. All of these flavors are beautifully focused and framed in substantial, yet silky tannins. The balance between medium-plus acidity, 15% alcohol, fruit extract, and tannins is superb. The finish lingers with pure blackberry and dark chocolate notes. No doubt many will prefer the fruity exuberance of this wine, but properly cellared this wine will gain further complexity as it ages.

We will order more. Then we can be patient and enjoy the complexity.

Categories: Wine

Our Latest Stryker Wine

October 21, 2012 Leave a comment

I have written before about Stryker Sonoma Winery in Geyserville, California (actually, a short distance outside Healdsburg on the way to Geyserville), which we visited on our Healdsburg trip four years ago. Tim Hardin, their winemaker, describes their style as

guided by a youthful enthusiasm and tireless dedication to the pursuit of quality and pleasure. We are a fun-loving group with a slightly irreverent attitude with respect to the traditional methods of producing and marketing wine. We go to considerable expense to grow and produce pure, balanced wines that are fully extracted, rich in complexity and exude depth of character. These wines are enjoyable in their youth, but also reward those with patience.

The wines of Stryker Sonoma are truly handcrafted, making use of both old-world traditional methods and the judicious integration of modern tools designed to allow for gentler handling of both fruit and wine. Our approach is sometimes risky, but the resulting bold, forward style is what we like to drink and we have found a growing following that also appreciates these wines.

The focus of our winemaking efforts is centered around the Cabernet family of varietals. Nonetheless, we also have a keen interest in Zinfandel and Chardonnay. Our annual production is roughly 7,000 cases, consisting of many small lots averaging in size from 200 to 400 cases each. Most of our annual production is sold directly to consumers from the winery’s tasting room and through our mailing list and website.

Of the wines we shipped home from the many wineries we visited during our 2008, our favorite was Stryker’s 2003 E1K. It has long been sold out, but the webpage still works. We learn there that “this Bordeaux-style wine represents our signature release. The concept behind this program is to showcase the incredible character of Sonoma County’s mountain grown grapes. All of the fruit used in this blend is sourced from vineyards located at elevations of one thousand feet or higher, hence the nickname ‘E 1 K.'”

A couple of years ago, we ordered a few more bottles of E1K, drinking the last for Joel’s birthday a few months ago. We also joined Stryker’s wine club, receiving our first shipment last March. I wrote about it at the time.

This week we received our second shipment, two bottles each of three different wines. Along with the wine comes a newsletter in which Tim Hardin describes each wine. Here’s what we got, with excerpts from Tim’s notes.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, Monte Rosso Vineyard, Sonoma County: 2012 marks the tenth anniversary of our Estate & Winery. During the 2002 harvest, I brought in an exceptional crop from Monte Rosso Vineyard and decided that we would age 50 cases … for our Club Members. I’ve released this library selection exactly 10 years to the month. This wine shows us just how age-worthy our wines have become.

2010 Merlot Estate Alexander Valley: It’s been four years since we’ve produced an Estate Merlot. When it comes to selecting grapes for our Estate wines, I have specific criteria in mind for the harvest in order for a wine to qualify for our Estate program. 2010 far exceeded my expectations. … A young Merlot, yes, but worth opening. Enjoy now or hold until 2017.

2007 Cab Sauvignon Estate Alexander Valley: I found this wine needed a good hour of decanting to allow the aromas and flavors to be fully realized. … An excellent wine today, and an exceptional bottle in a few year’s time. Enjoy now or hold.

The 2004 E1K is sold out too, except in magnum and double magnum sizes, but the 2005 E1K has just been released. We added two bottles to our club shipment.

We will hold the merlot for a while, and perhaps the 2007 cab as well. We are eager to try the 2002 cab and the latest E1K. If you’re down that way, I highly recommend a visit to the winery.

Categories: Wine

Walla Walla, 5

August 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Whitman Mission National Historic Site

Three weeks ago, we were on the wine tour in Walla Walla that I wrote about in my posts titled Walla Walla 1, 2, and 3. These covered our drive over there and our two days of winery touring. I never wrote Walla Walla 4, about our drive home. But, to the extent that a fourth post about the trip was needed, my friend Russ has now been kind enough to supply it, at his blog Stance and Balance.

Russ offers several valuable complements to my account, including a link to this charming story about our wine guide extraordinaire, Philippe Michel. Recall that Philippe owns Oak Tradition, purveyor to the industry of barrels and more.

Now that I’ve returned to the subject, I’ll fill you in on the last day of the trip.

We began it at the breakfast buffet in the dining room off the Walla Walla Hampton Inn lobby. Once again, we were surrounded by Little League baseball teams from suburban Seattle, in Walla Walla for a statewide tournament. On getting food and taking seats, I filled Gail in on some remedial reading I had done the night before about French wine regions, and my thoughts on where the Walla Walla wines fit into this picture. I then mentioned a winery we visited in north Sonoma County on our Healdsburg trip four years ago, Silver Oak, maker of high end Cabernets. I recalled that this is all they made, but Gail thought they made merlots too. We went back and forth on this, until a fellow sitting alone two tables away intervened, assuring us as a long-time Silver Oak customer that they make both. This was a special moment, one of those rare occasions when Gail could shut me up by appeal to a higher authority. She was very happy.

A few hours later, during our drive home, we told Cynthia the story and she compared it to the famous Annie Hall scene in which Marshall McLuhan appears from nowhere to tell a pompous blowhard that he understands nothing about McLuhan’s work. I, of course, was playing the blowhard role. Here, see for yourself:

As Gail drove, Cynthia and I did independent research on our phones, finding no evidence that Silver oak makes merlots. So there! I may be a pompous blowhard, but I also may be right!

After breakfast, we checked out and drove through town to Whitman College, which we had never seen before. From their website:

Whitman is the premier liberal arts college that combines academic excellence with an unpretentious Northwest culture and an engaging community. Since becoming a college in 1882, Whitman College has a history of graduating ethical, accomplished leaders. The tree-lined campus is home to an intellectually dynamic, diverse, active and supportive community. Students find a balance at Whitman between challenging academics and developing meaningful and enduring personal relationships through an involved campus community.”>Whitman is the premier liberal arts college that combines academic excellence with an unpretentious Northwest culture and an engaging community.

Since becoming a college in 1882, Whitman College has a history of graduating ethical, accomplished leaders. The tree-lined campus is home to an intellectually dynamic, diverse, active and supportive community. Students find a balance at Whitman between challenging academics and developing meaningful and enduring personal relationships through an involved campus community.

I didn’t know much about Whitman when I moved out this way a few decades ago. In fact, I probably knew nothing. But I learned quickly. One of my best and most engaging students that fall turned out to be an alumnus, having come all the way from Hawaii to attend it. Since then, I’ve met many alumni, and a colleague of mine moved there a few years ago to become the president. I wasn’t about to leave town without visiting.

On the other hand, we had a deadline. I needed to be back in Seattle and on campus by 5:00 PM. Thus, as much as I wanted to see the sights on our way home, we couldn’t linger anywhere. The result was that we drove around the edges of the campus, parked, wandered into a big grassy area surrounded by dorms and academic buildings, then returned to the car and headed out of town on Highway 12.

The other site I had long anticipated seeing if I ever got to Walla Walla was the National Park Service’s Whitman Mission National Historic Site, which is just off the highway about seven miles west of town. The NPS website doesn’t seem to do a good job of summarizing the history. Here’s a bit of it, from wikipedia:

Whitman Mission National Historic Site is a United States National Historic Site located just west of Walla Walla, Washington, at the site of the former Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu. On November 29, 1847, the family of Dr. Marcus Whitman and others were massacred by Native Americans of the Cayuse. The site commemorates Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, the role they played in establishing the Oregon Trail, and the challenges encountered when two cultures meet.

In 1836, a small group of Presbyterian missionaries traveled with the annual fur trapper’s caravan into “Oregon Country”. Among the group, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding became the first white women to travel across the continent. Differences in culture led to growing tensions between the native Cayuse people and the Whitmans. Their mission became an important stop along the Oregon Trail, and passing immigrants added to the tension. A measles outbreak in 1847 killed half the local Cayuse. Some of the Cayuse blamed these deaths on Dr. Whitman. Dr. and Mrs. Whitman were killed along with eleven others; Forty-seven other mission residents were taken hostage. The deaths of the Whitmans shocked the country, prompting Congress to make Oregon a U.S. territory, and precipitated the Cayuse War. In more recent times, the site has been excavated for important artifacts, and then reburied. A memorial obelisk, erected fifty years after the event, stands on a nearby hill. The historic site was established in 1936 as Whitman National Monument and was redesignated a National Historic Site on January 1, 1963.

The site has a park building with a small museum and an auditorium. Out back, a hundred yards behind the building, is the mission grounds, with the shape of each mission structure outlined in stone where it actually stood. A walkway loops around, with signs explaining what’s what. For instance, as you look at the plan of the Whitman home, you can see where Marcus was shot, and where he died after running outside. There’s a path leading back to the hill and the memorial obelisk.

Our friend Julie had told us the day before that one of the really cool things at the site is the Oregon Trail wagon wheel tracks. Gail mentioned these to the ranger when we first arrived, and she quickly disabused us of the notion that they’re real. After talking with the rangers, we split up, Gail and Cynthia checking out the exhibits while I watched the ten-minute video. I thought the video gave a good overview, so I urged them to see the next showing, during which I visited the exhibits. Then we headed out back, looked at a stagecoach that’s on display, went farther back to the mission site, and took the loop. We had been lucky with the weather the previous two days, but this was going to be a hot one, and it was already hot and humid. Between that and my hurry to get back to Seattle, we didn’t linger. We will next time.

Back on Highway 12, we reversed our route of three days earlier that I described in my first Walla Walla post. West to meet the Columbia River at the Wallula Gap, northwest and west along the Columbia to the Tri-Cities, through Pasco (with Kennewick on the other side of the river), over the river into Richland, then a climb out of the Columbia River Valley and on to the Yakima Valley.

Once in Prosser, the easternmost Yakima Valley town and a major wine center in its own right, we stopped for lunch. Had I not been in a hurry, we could have visited — among others — Hogue Cellars, Desert Wind Winery, or Kestrel Vintners. Instead, we filled the car with gas, then went looking for a restaurant where we could get excellent food with minimal wait. And you know what? We found just what we needed, right at the corner of Merlot Drive and Chardonnay Avenue. A place called Subway. It’s pretty cool. You go in, choose your bread, choose your meats and cheese, choose whether or not to have the sandwich toasted, then you get to select all these vegetables: lettuce, tomato, onion, olive, pickle, several kinds of peppers. And what an assortment of spreads! Different mustards, mayo, oil and vinegar. Bottles and bottles filled with options. Plus, it’s really good! The staff is friendly. The lighting is warm. They have — get this — wallpaper with New York City subway maps. It’s great fun. I’m going to have to see if there’s any place like it around here.

We left filled and happy. Soon we were nearing Yakima, and the cherry stand Tobae had discovered through an internet search the night before. We pulled off. They had four varieties of cherries, plus peaches and assorted other fruit. Everything looked and tasted good. We bought several pounds of cherries, then continued our journey.

In Ellensburg, we switched drivers, Gail taking us the final 110 miles into Seattle. There was traffic on I-90 once we got into Bellevue, slow going across Mercer Island and through Seattle, then we got off onto local roads for the final stretch. Home at 4:45 PM, just in time for me to unload our wine from the car and head to work.

Categories: History, Travel, Wine

Walla Walla, 3

July 30, 2012 3 comments

Pepper Bridge Winery

[Last week, we drove to Walla Walla in eastern Washington to tour wineries. I wrote about the drive over here and about the first day of winery touring here. This is a continuation of the second post, which introduced the dramatis personæ. Recall that among them was the wine expert who accompanied us: Philippe, owner of Oak Tradition, purveyor of barrels, corks, and much more.]

Tuesday began with our daily Hampton Inn breakfast. It was much like Monday’s, except that the sausage patties and potatoes were replaced by biscuits and gravy and the cheese omelet turned into a meat omelet. Selection was plentiful, but of modest quality. Little League families were everywhere.

At 9:45, we met up again with Philippe, and with Jay of Imbibe Wine Tours, for the drive south to our day’s first winery. The Walla Walla Valley crosses over the state line into Oregon, and our first stop was just north of the line. A failed attempt to navigate the eponymous State Line road, which turns to gravel and dies just where we wanted it to continue to the winery, led to a temporary excursion into Oregon. This is one of those places where the only way you know you’re in a new state is that the cars suddenly have different license plates. By the way, given the integration of the wine community across the state line, there is an agreement between the two states under which Oregon residents who cross over to buy wine at the local Washington wineries have sales tax waived. It took me a while to catch on to this, and to why we were asked at each winery if we were Washington residents. Once I understood, I restrained myself from saying no, Oregon, but it was tempting. Of course, if called on it, I would not be able to produce suitable ID.

We did eventually arrive at

5. Rasa Vineyards. It is run by two brothers, Pinto and Billo Naravane. Both left the computer industry to start up the winery, Pinto on the business side and Billo as winemaker. As at the wineries the day before, we were the beneficiaries of extraordinary generosity, as Billo spent over an hour with us, telling us stories about the winery, his career path, and the individual wines as we tasted them. He had studied applied math at MIT, then moved on to Stanford for a Master’s in electrical engineering and to Texas for a Ph.D. But he left the PhD program partway through to begin work in the computer industry. When the time came to leave it all behind for wine, he headed to Davis for another Master’s, in their famous wine program. Now he heads the wine program at Walla Walla Community College.

The mathematical backgrounds of Billo and Pinto are reflected in the names of some of their wines. My friend Paul makes it a point, whenever he encounters a wine with a name that — by intention or chance — has a name with a mathematical connotation, to photograph it and post to Facebook. This is how I first met two Rasa wines, QED and Principia. On first arriving at Rasa, I was delighted to see them. As Billo explains, Rasa is the rare winery that doesn’t display their own name prominently on the label. The conceptual wine name takes pride of place. This is a risky marketing strategy, as illustrated by my lack of awareness of who exactly produces QED and Principia. But Rasa sells what it produces, and is happy to proceed this way. You can see more of their beautiful labels here.

The brothers make more than just attractive labels. The wines were excellent. We bought more of theirs than anyone else’s, including two bottles of the 2008 Creative Impulse (pictured in the middle), a cab/merlot blend that was our most expensive purchase of the trip. They will need to lie down a while before we open them.

We had the place to ourselves until the arrival of a mysterious visitor, who at first was content to hang back and listen. Eventually it emerged that he’s a professor of philosophy and religion at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who is doing research on wine culture. He was there to interview Billo, though soon he joined our group and chatted with us.

Wines purchased and behind schedule, we headed on down the road to

6. Northstar Winery. I wish I could offer some enthusiastic comments about our time there. Something may have gone awry with the scheduling. In contrast to the other seven places we visited, no one was available to provide any inside glimpse. Rather, we came into the wine tasting space, stood at the enormous bar, and received the standard wine tasting offerings. Northstar is owned by Ste. Michelle, the giant of Washington State winemakers. The vineyards and building were beautiful, but the wine tasting space was larger and more commercial than the others on our itinerary, with a large retail space offering t-shirts, hats, etc. Which is to say, it’s all pretty standard, what lots of big wineries offer visitors, just not what we were receiving elsewhere.

We must have tasted eight wines. The pourer told us the year and constituents of each as she poured for us and other visitors too, the bar becoming sufficiently crowded that a second pourer joined in. Pretty early on, we got absorbed in our own private conversations, paying only minimal attention to the wine. Philippe showed us one of the retail offerings, a bottle opener that pumps gas in to push the cork out. He coaxed our pourer into demonstrating, then he bought one himself. I figured if one of the valley’s leading wine experts thinks it’s worth buying, we should get one too, and we did. Our lone Northstar purchase, at the lone winery where we bought no wine.

Lovely grounds. A great place for a private party. But we drove off indifferent to the wines.

7. Garrison Creek Cellars. What a gorgeous place! We seemed to be on the eastern edge of the valley’s plantings, though I may not have gotten the geography right. The vineyards went up to the foothills of the Blue Mountains. And these are among the largest vineyards in the valley. But the building. Wow!

We were met by Laura, a young woman who introduced herself as the assistant winemaker. She brought us into the enormous barn-like structure that houses the winery, where they had set tables and chairs up for our lunch. When she proposed that we could move out to a small patio in the distance instead, looking out on vineyards and mountains, we readily agreed. Lunch was a repeat of the day before, courtesy again of Olive Catering. The same mix — and it’s a good one — of sandwiches, with chips and dessert. Once again, Philippe took advantage of our time all together to share his wine knowledge, as we studied samples of oak with varying grains and learned about barrels and corks.

Laura came out near the end and told us a bit about the winery’s history. It revolves around three men who grew up together in Walla Walla and went their separate ways. One, the football star, was looked at by some of the Pac 10 schools, but went instead to Harvard, and eventually to Wall Street, where he made the money that made the winery possible. He re-united with his buddies, then spent 7 years fighting zoning ordinances before being given permission to build his dream building on the existing site. It is a copy of a historic barn nearby in Oregon, and once we went in for our tour, we could see this was the ultimate no-expense-spared design and construction. Oh, that’s right, maybe one of the high school buddies was in construction and handled that. I forget the details. But no matter. It’s quite a place.

Garrison Creek Cellars

Laura took us into the wide open space of the barn, where a wine tasting bar sits in one corner, and then downstairs to the barrels. They make 1000 barrels a year. Talk about a boutique operation. Garrison Creek doesn’t exist to make money. We had become accustomed to stacks of barrels four or five high. Not a stack is to be seen here. Just one level. And, as Laura assured us, no barrel gets used twice. Why? Why not? They can afford it. One use and it’s sold off.

I should back up and explain that the immense acreage surrounding the winery is a separate operation, co-owned by the Harvard alum and some other partners. It is a major provider to the region, selling about 98-99% of its grapes and saving the rest for its premium wines. If the grapes don’t meet Garrison Creek’s specifications one year, they just don’t make wine that year. Maybe it doesn’t quite come to that, but I’m pretty sure Laura said so.

Down in the cellar, we tasted wine from two barrels. And what a beautiful cellar it was, a concrete bunker with barrel ceiling. Then we went back up, only for someone to remind Laura that we missed the Library, so back down we went to see it. The Library holds cases of every wine they’ve ever made, and it gave us some ideas for what we might do with the old wood storage area of our own basement.

Upstairs again, we tasted the wines at last. You know, I don’t have strong memories right now of what we thought. The labels are masterpieces of simplicity and elegance, with a texture that photos don’t reveal. We bought a couple of bottles. We’ll open them in a few years and I’ll let you know.

Due to a shuffling of the schedule, our last stop was back across the valley, immediately adjacent to Northstar, so we headed back that way to

8. Pepper Bridge Winery. To the left is a small building housing the tasting room. To the right is the larger winery building. They must actually connect, but appear at first to be separate. We entered the tasting room, where a young man was hosting a couple. After a short wait, an older gentleman showed up, Norm. He would spend the next hour-and-three-quarters with us. What a fascinating guy! And, again, a most generous one.

Norm, as we learned, is one of the pioneers in the wine business. He was in construction for many years, running the giant company that built the Kingdome and State Route 520, to mention two Seattle landmarks. Then he left it behind for the wine business in the Yakima Valley. He worked with Hogue Cellars in Prosser, Canoe Ridge in Walla Walla. Big ones. And when I say work with, I gather that this means running them. I think I heard him say he was on the board of one, chair of the board of another. But he tired of big-time wineries and left them behind for small, higher-quality wines. He is co-owner with that Harvard guy of the vineyards that surround Garrison Creek. He owns or co-owns, I’m not sure which, other vineyards as well, such as the one surrounding Pepper Bridge, and maybe Seven Hills across the line in Oregon. (I’m looking it up now. I see that Seven Hills is jointly owned by Pepper Bridge, Leonetti, and L’Ecole No 41, or at least it was.) Norm may have some other agricultural holdings as well. Plus, he makes wines, or his Swiss winemaker Jean-François Pellet does.

Norm met us, then took us from the tasting room to the winery, down to the level where they have the initial storage tanks, then down another level to the cellar with the barrels. This is a bigger operation than Garrison Creek, maybe 5000 barrels a year, and they are stacked. We spent quite a bit of time down there, then out towards the back to an open work area where we talked about the machinery and the operation and met Jean-François. Upstairs to the higher work level, more information, then up to the top and over to the tasting room, where we took seats around a coffee table. Norm had some business to attend to temporarily, so the young man at the bar came around and got our tasting started. Then Norm came in, we all talked some more, and tasted some superb wines.

Norm’s grandson was in the midst of a tight Little League game, going into the last inning all tied, and Norm shared the reports with us as calls came in to his cell phone. We also had a lovely view south over the vineyards and into Oregon. At some point, one of Norm’s partners in a nearby winery, Amavi Cellars, came by, as did Jean-François, who serves as their winemaker too. When we bought some wine, Norm and Jean-François signed the bottles.

For the second day, we ended our winery touring on a high note. The visit was great fun. But it was time to head back to the Hampton Inn. Once there, we said goodbye to Philippe and Jay, then to our special travel companions Julie and Stan, who had to get back to Seattle that night. The five of us were on our own.

We had a few ideas for dinner, but one place couldn’t take us until 8:00, and so we settled on T. Maccarone’s, part of the trio that also includes Olive Catering, which made our lunches, and Olive Marketplace and Café. No sooner had we sat down and studied the menu than Philippe showed up with a colleague. Our farewell had been premature. After a quick exchange of hellos, they headed to the bar.

To start, I had the spring salad with vegetables (fava beans for one), farm egg, and grain mustard vinaigrette. Gail had the T Mac and cheese. I thought both were excellent, but the T Mac and cheese was a bit much for an appetizer, which is why Gail shared it around. And it was way rich, all the more thanks to the truffle oil. Then I had the bolognese, with house made pappardelle. Great on flavor, but also a bit much, and almost lasagna like, as the pappardelle stuck together in thick layers. Gail’s main dish was halibut, served on coconut rice, in a bowl with green beans and greens. I tried a taste. Excellent once more, but the presentation made getting to all the constituents a bit difficult.

For dessert, we left T Mac’s, turned the corner, and went down Main street to Bright’s Candies, a delightful traditional candy and ice cream parlor. So many temptations! But the pasta and salad left me more than full, so I passed it all up. After ordering, we sat outside in the enclosed sidewalk area, where yet again we encountered Philippe, heading our way after leaving T Mac’s.

By the time we were ready to leave, Bright’s was long closed, and we were in the way of their final cleanup. Back to the Hampton Inn to conclude a special day.

Categories: Travel, Wine

Walla Walla, 2

July 29, 2012 1 comment

Walla Walla Vintners

[This past week, we drove to Walla Walla in eastern Washington on Sunday, spent Monday and Tuesday touring wineries, and drove home on Wednesday. This is the second in a sequence of posts on the trip. You can find a post about our drive over to Walla Walla and first evening here.]

Monday, our first winery day, began with Hampton Inn breakfast in the dining room off the lobby. It’s part of the deal when you stay at a Hampton Inn that breakfast is included. And we weren’t alone in partaking. Joining us were Little League baseball teams from Seattle suburbs Woodinville and Mill Creek that had come to Walla Walla for a state-wide tournament. They were pleasant kids, around 10-12 years old. And breakfast, well, what’s to complain about? It’s free. And the selection is excellent: egg and cheese omelet, sausage patties, potatoes in one station, with oatmeal nearby; toast your own bagels and English muffins and toast in another station, with pastries and make-your-own waffles; cold cereals, milk, juice, hard-boiled eggs, citrus and pineapple fruit mix at a third site. But the quality doesn’t exactly equal the selection.

At 9:30, our nine wine tour participants gathered for the first time. Recall from my earlier post that we had bought this tour at an auction, with everything included. Joining us were friends Russ, Tobae, and Cynthia. As part of the deal, we got to have the company of Julie and Stan, an archaeologist/geologist couple who, happily, happen to be friends as well. (She’s the director of the museum whose dinner-auction we attended; buy the auction item and you get the director too!) Jay of Imbibe Wine Tours would be driving us around. And Philippe, owner of Oak Tradition — purveyor to the trade of barrels, corks, and much more — would be our wine expert. Given that we all couldn’t fit in the Imbibe Tours vehicle, two at a time would take turns riding with Philippe.

1. Walla Walla Vintners. This was our first stop. And like all but one of the eight winery stops we made, it was special. No simple walking into the tasting room, sampling the standard suite of wines, and heading out. We got behind-the-scenes insights at each place. Here, Judah took us out to the vineyard to look at the vines themselves. We spent about 45 minutes learning about the different grapes, soils, micro-climates; the dry farming they choose to do, in a location that receives sufficient rain most years to allow this, though most valley wineries irrigate at some point in the season; the pruning of the vines; the crew that does it; and so on. The setting was beautiful, with the Blue Mountains in the near distance, and famed Leonetti vineyards starting just a couple of hundred yards away at the edge of the Walla Walla Vintners plantings.

What’s the story with terroir? This framed much of our discussion, with Stan giving us his own wisdom, based on a lifetime in geology and some reading on the issue. His own view: the minerals aren’t really going to make a difference in themselves. What counts is the water, how much is absorbed, where the vine sits with respect to the slope, how much water drains off, when the frost comes, what the microclimate is. Stan also gave us a lesson on the geology of the region, most notably the Missoula Floods, as touched on in my previous post.

Then it was time to go into the tasting room and try the wines. Oh, actually, Judah started us there with a Sangiovese that we brought out with us to the vineyard to sample while we talked. That’s not a typical wine of the valley. The principal grapes are those of Bordeaux: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, etc.

2. Buty Winery. Next we drove back toward town and on north to the airport, adjacent to which are old Army buildings from World War II, some of which house Buty. One small building is home to the tasting room, where David gave us detailed explanations of the current releases in their Buty line and their more experimental BEAST line. (Buty is a family name of the owners; BEAST, well, they couldn’t resist.) We tried several reds and a couple of whites. I thought we had quite a thorough tasting experience, and expected us next to head to the next winery for lunch, so I was surprised when David closed up the tasting room in order to walk us two blocks over to the building where they make and store their wines. We tasted a wine still months away from bottling, looked over the barrels of wine, and learned more about what the winery does.

3. Waters Winery. On to Waters, a ways out of town, and again in a lovely setting. And time for lunch, before learning anything about the winery. We sat outside in a small patio area, where we were served a most delightful lunch provided by Olive Catering, with Waters’ wine as accompaniment. Olive Catering is an extension of Olive Marketplace and Café, in the heart of Walla Walla. They provided us with sandwiches (prosciutto, salami, chicken, turkey, vegetable), chips, water, and a dessert tray (brownies, lemon bars, a pistachio tart concoction). As we sat outside on a glorious day, in the heart of the Walla Walla Valley, mountains in the distance, Philippe filled us in on the history, tradition, and economics of the wine barrel business.

Shortly after we began our lunch, in what had been the most peaceful of settings, things got real noisy. But our seeming bad luck was good luck as well, for it was bottling day. Waters, like all the wineries we visited, is a small operation. A winery we would go to the next day produces 1000 cases a year. More typical of the wineries we visited is a production of 3000-5000 cases a year. Waters was somewhere in that range, maybe 3000. At that level, it doesn’t pay to have your own bottling equipment. Instead, you pay one of several mobile bottlers in the northwest to come by with a bottling truck, an entirely self-contained operation, provided you supply the wine and the labels. Maybe the corks too.

More on bottling soon. But first, some arithmetic. As Philippe explained, there are two traditional barrel sizes, 225 liters and 228 liters. Let’s go with 225. At 750 ml/bottle, that’s enough wine for 300 bottles. And at 12 bottles/case, that’s 25 cases. So 40 barrels yield 1000 cases. A 3000-case operation requires 120 barrels of wine each year.

Waters Winery

After lunch, we bypassed the Waters tasting room and went straight to the larger nearby building where all those barrels sit. Our guide, the assistant winemaker, took us to the two principal barrel storage areas to taste wines out of the barrel from 2011 grapes. Then, the bottling racket proving irresistible, he led us out the open door to the truck and got the bottlers’ permission for us to poke around.

That was great. A hose ran from the building to the truck, where bottles were automatically filled, then corked. We were able to climb a small stairway to the side of the truck, where we could see the bottles make their way from the corking area to our left to the labeling area to our right. In-between, two men put on those wine bottle top things whose name I can’t remember and a machine sealed them tight. Once the label was put on, the bottles made their way to the rear of the truck, where men put them in boxes, which a tape machine sealed shut. From there, a conveyor belt brought the boxes to a ramp, which they slid down to a level area, where more men lifted the cases off and stacked them on pallets. At about 80 cases per pallet, or almost 1000 bottles per pallet, each of those pallets represented a lot of money.

Waters hadn’t planned a tasting for us in the tasting room itself, but we stopped by briefly on the way out to sample and buy some. (We’d been buying at every winery.) Then we loaded up and moved out.

4. Forgeron Cellars. We drove straight into town, where an old forgery building serves as the home of Forgeron Cellars. Once again, as we entered the tasting room and were met by Anne, I expected no more than a standard winery tasting. Anne kept mentioning that Marie-Eve was supposed to join us, and would once she got off the phone. But rather than wait, she started us off with a tasting of some of the wines and a history of the winery. After ten or fifteen minutes, Marie-Eve did join us. She’s the winemaker, and co-owner. As the webpage about their wine making explains:

After earning her masters degree in enology and viticulture at the University of Dijon, Marie-Eve Gilla received practical training at local Burgundian wineries and vineyards. In 1991, she came to the United States to further her winemaking experience. Intending to stay for just a few months, she realized the incredible opportunities available in the wine industry. Now after more than ten years of making premium wines in the Northwest, she has come to appreciate the incredible growing conditions we enjoy in Eastern Washington.

Marie-Eve

Marie-Eve took us back to see all phases of their wine-making operation, from the area outdoors where the grapes arrive and are crushed to the initial storage tanks and the barrels. She had quite a lot to say, as did Philippe. At the end of our walk, she and Anne had wine and cheese waiting for us, along with still more wines to try. They were so generous with their time and knowledge. It was a great visit.

We had a short ride back to our hotel, then took a break before heading into town for dinner. Gail had decided days earlier that we should try Whitehouse-Crawford, which by all accounts was one of Walla Walla’s top restaurants. It’s closed on Tuesdays, whereas many other restaurants close on Mondays, making Monday the obvious night to go there, and so we did.

The restaurant is housed in an old lumber planing mill and furniture factory (see here for the history), rebuilt in 1904 after a fire. Almost torn down in 1988 for parking, it was rescued and restored to house the current restaurant, as well as a winery. Sharing the space is Seven Hills Winery, which is run, if I got the story right, by the sister and brother-in-law of our driver Jay. From within the restaurant, there are interior windows looking into the winery, which adds to the character of an already character-filled restaurant. It’s really a wonderful space, with high wood ceilings and historic photos on the walls.

Walla Walla Valley is home, of course, to more than fine wines. There are, for instance, the famed sweet onions. We didn’t have to work hard to reach the decision that we should share a basket of crispy fried sweet onions to start. In addition, I had the warm spinach salad with smoked trout, bacon, grilled onions and mustard vinaigrette. For my main dish, I went with the Oregon beef tenderloin steak with red wine sauce, mushrooms, and shallot-thyme mashed potatoes. (The grilled pork shoulder with harissa, cilantro, carrot puree, and spring vegetables sounded good, and there was Copper River salmon too.) Gail had a wild mushroom pasta dish that I don’t see on the online menu. Everything was superb.

I decided to skip dessert, but everyone else ordered. By that point, a once-packed restaurant had mostly emptied out, yet we waited nearly half an hour after ordering for dessert to show up. I don’t know what the problem was. Gail had a peach dessert that again isn’t on the online menu. I took a small taste and would happily have eaten more. Except for the delay, it was a perfect evening. A perfect day too, for that matter.

Lunch and dinner had spoiled us. Hampton Inn breakfast just wasn’t in the same league, and we were sure to be disappointed come morning.

Categories: Travel, Wine

Walla Walla, 1

July 29, 2012 1 comment

Wallula Gap, Columbia River, Washington State

In my final post on the Tour de France last Monday night, I mentioned that watching the closing stage of the race delayed our departure for Walla Walla, where we would be touring wineries in the Walla Walla Valley of southeastern Washington. We did get there, in time for dinner last Sunday, and returned to Seattle Wednesday late afternoon. Between the trip and subsequent catching up on other things, Ron’s View has been quiet. Time to crank it up again.

I’ve long wanted to go to Walla Walla, as much to see that part of the state and visit the Whitman Mission National Historic Site as to taste the wines. But I’m not a big fan of driving, so we never got around to heading over there. When a fully-arranged trip was offered as an auction item three months ago, I realized that this was our chance. By buying it, we could be sure at last to make the trip. And so we did.

Sunday was driving day. Monday we visited four wineries. Tuesday we visited four more. Wednesday we took a quick walk around Walla Walla’s Whitman College, drove west a few miles to the Whitman Mission, then headed home. I’ll say more about each, in separate posts. This post is about Sunday.

Our Sunday drive got off to a slow start, thanks to our need to watch the cycling and then the conclusion of the men’s Open Championship golf from northwest England. We were hardly 20 miles into our 278-mile drive when we pulled off in the Seattle suburb of Issaquah for lunch. And a fine lunch it was, at an absolutely mobbed Panera. Who knew that that’s where everyone in the neighborhood goes on a Sunday afternoon? It was discouraging, getting back in the car an hour into our trip, to realize we had made such little progress.

As we continued east on I-90, I was stunned to realize that I couldn’t for the life of me remember the last time we crossed Snoqualmie Pass, the major pass through the Cascades. Once over it, we left the clouds behind for good. One of the wonders of driving across the state — which I have done so rarely — is the dramatic change one encounters in geology and climate. As we continued east to Ellensburg, the landscape got drier and drier. This I had seen before, but at Ellensburg we left I-90 for I-82, which initially dips southward to Yakima, and almost everything in the remaining 170 miles was new territory.

The 35-mile stretch down to Yakima is spectacular. It is almost entirely undeveloped, courtesy of the US Army and the firing range that runs from I-82 east all the way to the Columbia River, and from I-90 south to Yakima. The road travels up and down and up and down and up and down, over the Manastash and Umtanum Ridges, making one final descent into Selah and Yakima.

We pulled off in Yakima for gas, and to see the city, the first time for me and the first time since early adulthood for Gail. Various cousins of Gail’s have lived or grown up there. We didn’t see a whole lot, but did drive the length of downtown, and got to visit an am/pm convenience store. Then it was back to the freeway and on through the farming towns I have stared at so often on the map, and had taught students from, but had never seen: Wapato, Toppenish, Sunnyside, Grandview, Prosser. This is wine country now, home to a long list of wineries, but country we will have to wait to spend time in.

Once out of Prosser, the road climbs again, as it continues east 30 miles to the Tri-Cities: Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco. We crossed the Yakima River one last time as we dropped into the Columbia River Valley, the Yakima’s final destination. This was a familiar stretch for me. Seven summers ago, I flew over to Pasco one morning for a four-hour meeting at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the huge US Department of Energy research lab associated to the Hanford nuclear site (where plutonium for atomic bombs was made for decades, starting during World War II). From the airport that day, I drove over to Richland, had some time to kill, parked at some small park I found by the Columbia, walked along the river for a while, grabbed an early lunch at a Subway that seemed to fill with PNNL staff shortly after I got there, then headed up to PNNL for the meeting, after which I headed straight back to the airport and flew home.

Thanks to that visit, as we drove down into the valley, through Richland, and over the Columbia River, none of this was ne to me. But Gail hadn’t been past Yakima before, so she was seeing the Tri-Cities for the first time. Parched though the region is, it looks like it has its attractions, starting with the Columbia itself. As the Columbia flows south, it separates Richland to the west from Pasco to the east. But then the Columbia makes a sudden turn eastward, becoming the line between Pasco to the north and Kennewick to the south. On the east side of Pasco, the Snake River flows southward, joining the Columbia at the edge of town. This is a historic confluence, the point where Lewis and Clark arrived at the Columbia two centuries ago, and we could see it plainly off to the right as we drove east on US-12 over the Snake. We will surely want to explore it next time we get over there.

For the next 20 miles, we followed the Columbia downstream as it curved from an eastward heading to southeast to southward, until we could see in the distance as dramatic a geological formulation as the Columbia offers: the Wallula Gap. We would not pass through it. US-12 veers east just before entering it, with Walla Walla 30 miles away. We stared at it in awe, learning only the next day how important it is to the geology of southeast Washington. For the gap plugged up the immense flow of water from the Missoula Floods 15,000 years ago, a flow perhaps as large as that of all today’s rivers in the world combined, one that removed the loess covering eastern Washington and produced today’s landscape.

It’s quite a story, but I’m not the one to tell it. Fortunately, joining us on our trip as of the next morning was our geologist friend Stan, gifted teacher and author of a best-selling standard text. As we stood in a vineyard looking out at the Blue Mountains, he recounted the dramatic days of that long ago flood. But this lay ahead. On Sunday, we drove away from the gap in ignorance, knowing only that it sure looked dramatic.

From the Columbia Valley, we made one final climb. Soon we saw our first Walla Walla wineries, Woodward Canyon and l’Ecole No 41. And then, ahead to the left, there was Walla Walla’s state penitentiary. That was our cue to get off US-12. A couple of miles on local roads and we pulled into the Walla Walla Hampton Inn, five hours after leaving home.

What next? We still had dinner to eat. And there in the parking lot, emptying their car were our tripmates Russ and Tobae. Once we were all settled, we agreed to eat in town at Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen. Russ looked at the menu as we talked, but I didn’t ask him about it. I just imagined the place was a standard middle-eastern restaurant, which sounded good to me. We arrived to learn that it was fully booked, but we could sit at one of the tables in the small enclosed outdoor section on the sidewalk, which we agreed to do. Only on looking at the menu there did I realize that it’s an upscale place, and only the next day did I learn that it’s considered one of Walla Walla’s two top restaurants.

For good reason. It’s excellent. Three of us went with the evening’s soup special, an intriguing blackberry gazpacho. Gail had a fingerling potato appetizer that she raved about. Then three of us had the leg of lamb, described on the online menu as having spiced basmati rice, pistachios, yoghurt, cilantro, and raspberry harissa. I can’t remember if that’s quite right. I do remember that it was delicious.

Pretty good day.

Categories: Travel, Wine