November 20, 2007

Thanksgiving weekend in Oregon

Has it been two weeks already? You might think I should post more often, but really I'm saving you from the worst of my posts.

Such as the one I wrote and never posted last week about my experience pouring wine at a winery this past Thanksgiving weekend, then later my experiences tasting at two different places.

I even mixed in some historical information about the beginnings of the Thanksgiving wine weekend tradition here in Oregon, when most local wineries hold open houses.

But it was dull. Really dull. So off to the virtual trash it goes.

Instead, let's just say I enjoyed pouring wine for a day at the winery where I worked this fall. The crowd was mostly fun, and there was the expected happy drunk person who confused me for someone she'd been talking to. Not that she noticed, as she carried on the conversation. Good stuff.

And I had an odd experience tasting at another winery where the flagship wine smelled like bank aids, which makes geeks shout out the word "brett!" only confusing newcomers not familiar with this controversial yeast and the smells it can create.

Who knows what caused the smell. Without a test, we can only speculate. But it wasn't pretty and I tried my best to be gracious and back away carefully. Friends I brought to this place weren't thrilled. But we had fun.

Tasting note for tonight is something initially lackluster that, on day two, might be showing some potential. That is, considering you can still get it for less than $7 a bottle by the case. It's the 2005 Seven Terraces Pinot Noir Marlborough, the second label of Foxes Island.

On night one, the wine is a bit confected smelling, with an odd herbal streak that makes me think this comes from highly cropped vines. In the mouth, it's a bit harsh and cola marked and generally unattractive. On night two, the wine is similar at first. But with some time in the glass there's a pretty fruit and earth aroma, even perfume. Yet the taste is still simple and charcoal chunky, with a slightly bitter grapefruit pith note and tangy acidity.

What to make of this? At the original $18 price, this is dreadful. For $7, it's not bad. But you can do better. Though a close out is hard to pass up, this ain't worth the liver.

November 13, 2007

Thackrey Library

I've met winemaker Sean Thackrey exactly once in my life. He doesn't remember me, of course.

The year was 1992. I was a 20-something guy living in Mill Valley, CA with my cousin, working in town at Peet's coffee and going across the street on my breaks to speand time in Don Pozo's wine shop.

I didn't love the place to be honest, but they had old wine magazines that I could stand around like an idiot and read for free. These were pre-internet days (don't be the one to correct that), and while you can now happily surf the wine web from a wireless connection in a coffee shop, in those days it required something like a public shaming.

I think the clerk dude felt sorry for me, and one day he offered me my first big wine break. How would I like to attend a big wine trade tasting at Greens restaurant featuring new release 1990 Burgundies? All I had to do was show up that afternoon and say I was with Don Pozo's. I think I said yes, my name's Vincent, thanks, wow. Or something like that.

Like they say of Olympic contenders, I was too young to know what a big deal this was. What a break.

Turns out I can't remember any names of the Burgs I tasted, but it was clearly a top tasting and I definitely had a Burgundy "epiphany" that day. I think I can trace the pinot noir thing for me to that day.

What about Sean Thackrey? Well, he was there too, pouring his wines named after constellations, Pleidies, Taurus, Orion. Thackrey was something of a cult figure at the time, and I think that's still true today. I enjoyed his wines and talked to him for a few mintues. He seemed like a good if not especially warm and outgoing guy, but that was fine. I liked that he seemed like an intellectual but also made earthy, delicious wine.

Now I see that Thackrey has what might be the coolest wine site out there, at least for us old wine loving English majors. It's the Thackrey Library, a collection of old and ancient wine texts going back more than 2000 years.

According to the website:
The object of this library is to present an anthology of early texts on the making and understanding of wine, with many, many others just thrown in because I think they're pleasures. These texts span the entire spectrum from obscure to more so. Some are known, although actually read only under academic duress; some are unknown altogether. The fact is, inexplicable though it may (and to me does) seem, that apparently no such anthology has ever previously been published, in print, on the internet, or anywhere else.
Many of the texts of course are in languages other than English. But pay special attention to The Countrey Farme, which the notes say is the first detailed description of the wines of France in the English. The book is Richard Surflt's 1604 translation of Estienne and Liebault's Maison Rustique, from a time when Shakespeare held court with the King's Men in London. If that isn't cool, what is?

Good for Thackrey for this invaluable website. Just wish my French were better.

November 11, 2007

Wine Blog Weirdness

When I started this modest web log, I was a little worried that people might receive it as some sort of self promotion tool.

Which it is, I can't deny. But self promotion wasn't and isn't my goal. I simply want to share what I am learning and think I know about wine.

I'm not qualified in any way to write about wine. I simply started doing it and continue doing it, and occasionally I get a nice comment from a reader. And that's nice.

But this site seems to generate more negative attention for me than positive, or at least it seems to be that way at times. I won't go into the details, but let's just say people can be pretty insecure if you write anything non-positive about what they're doing.

That's not just negative stuff, but even neutral or dare I say honest comments that people simply can't handle. I'm not into hit-and-run blogging, but I can't fake enthusiam well. Yet that's not good enough for some people, and it's even more annoying than it is pathetic.

The latest incident is only the strangest yet. I got a call recently from someone posing as a writer for a well-known wine newsletter based out of Maryland.

The individual, whose name didn't sound familiar (to say the least), pressed me about what I'd written about the grapes from one particular local vineyard that I had seen harvested this fall. I had written honestly that the grapes, like virtually all grapes harvested locally this October, had some rot and were "ok" but not great.

The caller referenced other things I'd written as if they were also about this vineyard's produce, which they weren't. Apparently this alleged wine writer wasn't a very careful reader. I was left wondering what the heck was going on. Who was this?

Well it turns out the winery who got those grapes that I saw got a nasty call from the vineyard owner. I guess harvest is over if we're on to bullshit like this. Isn't there vineyard work to do? Something, anything? Surely we don't need to perpetuate fraud to root out the source of such controversial comments as those of this little-read site.

It all leaves me depressed. I'm not interested in being a muckraker, but I want to be honest. Yet I know I have the difficult position of wanting to make my own commercial wine, so I don't want to piss people off in the local industry. More than one person has warned me to be very careful, which makes sense but at the same time leaves me wondering why I want in so bad into this business. Are people that ridiculous? I guess so.

Which leaves me wondering how much I can write about Oregon wine, the cause of all this weirdness. Of course, it's the very thing I probably know the most about and about which I have the most interest in learning more. Can I be only positive and call this blog anything but marketing?

One person suggested I simply write more about what I'm doing, and I think that's the right way to go. At least I can be honest with what I'm involved with and not risk compromising people who are kind enough to give me access to what they're doing.

Of course add a heavy dose of non-Oregon wine content. I suppose I've done a good bit of that to this point, so there doesn't seem to be a huge change in the blog. But I'll do my best to fulfill an original goal to catalog the best (as I see it) of the wine web. Things are changing all the time, but there are some really cool things I don't see mentioned widely that I'd like to share here. We'll see if you find it useful. And don't be shy. Comment, especially if you think it's as absurd as I do that this minor site would ever be a threat to anyone.

November 03, 2007

Home bottling at Wine Terroirs

I've mentioned the Wine Terroirs blog before, but I have to point out the latest post on what is one of the few must-read wine blogs out there.

Bertrand, the author and photographer, reports on buying bulk wine from a Loire winery and bottling it himself at home. I wish bulk wine sales were common here in the US as they are in many other countries. Bert mentions that it's not so profitable for the vigneron, so it's understandable that we don't have it. And I can't imagine buying bulk wine here as cheaply as he gets it. Pay special attention to the plastic bottles he uses to transport the wine to his cellar. And the bicycle in the background in the corking photo is a nice touch. Great work.

November 01, 2007

Blackbird wine shop

The weather lately has been sunny and dry, and this past weekend was September warm, the kind of weather that brings people together and makes for funny stories.

While I was pressing last Sunday in my driveway in shirtsleeves, a guy from Blackbird wine shop walked by. He was handing out fliers to publicize this new shop off NE Fremont street here in Beaumont village in Portland. I was helping my kids across the street and he walked up and asked if I liked wine. I laughed and said, are you kidding? Come with me.

Up the driveway we walked and I showed him what I was up to. And his jaw dropped and he said, I can't believe this. Can I take pictures? Out comes the cell phone, I'm posing next to the barrel I was cleaning, and maybe I'll be in the store's newsletter as an obscure neighborhood winemaker.

How's the shop? Not bad at all. In fact, great for the neighborhood but not a geek's paradise. Sure, they have the Muscadet of Marc Oliver and the Alsatian wines of Barmes Beucher. But it's more a great place to buy a last minute bottle than a must stop for wine geeks. You'll get a good producer and a good example of where ever the wine's from, but there's not much depth in the offerings. Not that there should be, and perhaps the collection will grow in time. Still, it's a good shop with well picked wines and I'm glad to see it in the neighborhood. And they have free tastings. How can you beat free?

Clean Up Time

I'm delighted to say...harvest is done. Sure, the latest pickers and the people who make things like Riesling might even still have some grapes out there. But for me, the season that began in mid-September when the first white grapes came in is finally done.

Last Sunday I pressed my 2007 Pinot Noir after fourteen days of contact time, or having the grape juice and now wine in contact with the grape skins and seeds. I expected to yield about 300 liters of wine, but I ended up with around 290, and that's with some heavy lees in one carboy of press wine. I could have pressed harder, but perhaps the grapes simply weren't as juicy as I expected. No matter what, I ended up with plenty of wine and I can only hope it will be at least decent.

"Pressing" might be a misnomer for the whole exercise of separating new wine from the skins. Most of the wine is free run, meaning it just drains out of your fermentation bin. In the winery, you pump or use gravity to drain fermentors. At home, I use a pitcher to scoop wine and skins into a basket press, allowing the wine to drain freely into a bucket at the mouth of the press pan that catches the wine underneathe the basket. The free run can be about 80% of your yield of wine. So pressing is only a small part of the wine you end up with, and in some wineries, press wine is hardly used at all.

After draining and pressing, I did something different this year. Instead of going to barrel "dirty," where you don't let the wine settle before putting it into the oak barrel, I gently poured the buckets of wine from the press pan into a few Rubbermaid bins. I filled a big one as high as I could with free run wine, then filled a small one with free run and another small one with press wine. The following night I bucketed the wine into a 5-year-old French oak barrel that I got in August at a local winery that has their barrels made especially for them in Burgundy. Only a bit of press wine went into the barrel, the rest going into a three glass carboys. After cleaning up everything, harvest was finally over.

Now I'm left with a lot of wine for a home operation. First, there's a barrel and more of Pinot Noir from 2006, still quietly going through its malolactic fermentation months after I expected it to be done. It tastes good for 2006, meaning it's riper than I'd like but certainly crowd pleasing. Then there's a couple of carboys of fermenting Chardonnay from 2007 as well as a carboy and more of 2007 Pinot Noir Rose. And of course, a barrel and more of 2007 Pinot Noir. All together, nearly 600 liters of wine, or...800 or so bottles.

Yikes, that's a lot of wine.

Meanwhile, a tasting note. Tonight, it's Dead Guy Ale from Rogue Brewing. I've loved Rogue since my brother brought home a "Rogue ingredients" bottling from a fair he attended in Humboldt County, CA. This was the late '80s I think, when Rogue was just starting out. Maybe that bottle of malted barley, hops and other things got me first thinking about fermenting stuff. This beer is delicious, smelling malty and clean with a bright but rich fruity, malty and hoppy flavor. Somewhere between a summer and winter beer, as you'd expect for a brew that's perfect for autumn. You have to love the Dead, no?