December 28, 2012

Back to the beach

I grew up by the beach in Southern California, and from time to time I get to come back home for a visit. To see family, old friends, old places, to swim in the ocean and surf, maybe just to watch the sun set over the water.

This view from my family's condo on the beach is one of my favorites. When this what I'm seeing, when this is where I'm coming from, all is well.

On our most recent visit, we reconnected again with some dear  friends from San Francisco who happen to have incredibly good taste in wine. We talked on the beach and watched the surf while our kids played, then ordered in local pizza and enjoyed a simple dinner with exceptional wines. Wines worth writing about.

To start, the 2002 Clouet Brut Champagne, a producer I love though I rarely get to try, much less drink, any vintage bottlings. I probably say it too much, but for anyone who questions the existence of terroir, I give you Champagne. Even as a wine blended from multiple sites, Champagne is simply like no other sparkling wine. The gout de terroir is unmistakable. Here, chalk with maturing sherry and yeast notes, carried by energetic lemon and strawberry flavors, with good length and delicacy. Lovely, lovely wine.

Next, an interlude of sorts, a simple young Chenin blanc from Olga Raffault, the 2009 Raffault Chinon Champ-Chinon. Pale as you can see, young, lemony with a lovely beeswax quality and just a hint of the bergamot I love in Loire Chenin. Bergamot. The flavor deserves its own post, the orange blossom quality you would know from Earl Grey tea but maybe not anywhere else. I smell bergamot and am transported somewhere incredibly good, beyond reason, where are I can do is breathe it in and exhale, reflecting. There should be a bergamot perfume. Anyone with impeccable taste would wear it, no?

I picked up the Raffault earlier this year in New York, seeing it at Chambers Street and wishing we could find such a wine again in Portland. Perhaps it's available but years ago the 2002 version of this wine was remarkably easy to find locally. I remember having it for lunch with my parents at South Park restaurant, my dad a Chenin fan though not so familiar with Loire versions of the grape. Seeing it again made me think of him, of South Park, of the chance of smelling bergamot again. Perhaps it will emerge more here with time, but for now this wine was delicious if young and simple.


Then came a pair of exceptional,wines, in quality as well as rarity, both from the 1998 vintage. First the 1998 Chave Hermitage Blanc, surprising for its toasty rich oaky aromas and flavors (did Chave buy new barrels this year?), with a body and presence more like good aged white Burgundy than I expect from northern Rhone blanc. At first this wine showed a mature note that made me think of another friend who, upon tasting the '02 Chave Blanc earlier this year with me, suggested he thought it was quite mature and more than ready. To my taste, that wine was no where near mature but it was showing  a bit of age, as you would expect a ten year old wine. This 14-year-old wine showed considerably more age, not in a bad way but enough to make me think again - is Keith right to want these wines younger? No, not for my taste anyway. I prize the mature, sherried and marzipan notes of old white Hermitage. This bottle however was definitely showing more age than I expected. I loved it nonetheless and, based on experience with older Chave, it's just hitting it's stride and will stay around this plateau for a decade or more.

In comparison, the 1998 Valentini Trebbiano d'Abruzzo, from a village near my San Francisco friend's family home in the old country. He brought this wine back with him years ago when Valentini wasn't imported. This wine isn't something you'd expect to find in many places anyway, but when the wine wasn't even imported to the US, you have to figure this is pretty rare stuff. How was it? The wine of the night. Unusual and exotic smelling, bright yellow in color with an oxidized and hard to describe aroma, spicy, yellow fruited. The flavors followed and the length was exceptional. Many of these wines had leftovers to try on day two, but this one my friend smartly took with him. I may have finished it all the first night. Wow. This note does little to capture the experience. Let's just say, if you have a chance to try Valentini, don't miss out.

Don't we drink red wines? Yes, but with whites like these, who needs red. I wanted my friends to try something from Oregon other than my wine, so why not the 2007 Crowley Pinot Noir Gehrts Vineyard. I've found this to be one of the best wines from Oregon in 2007 that I've tried and tonight was no exception. Good richness for the vintage though perhaps lightening a touch in that last two years. Medium ruby in color with piquant strawberry and raspberry fruit, leafy sassparilla notes and pleasantly toothsome tannin, finishing a bit hard with enough density so that I think this wine will age and unwind very nicely for several more years. I've been on record saying the 2007s are lovely wines but not as ageworthy, generally speaking, as the vintage's fans sometimes suggest. Too many of the wines are so pretty at this point I'm not sure what more they'll give with time. This wine is an exception, and though maker Tyson Crowley is a friend, I think it's being fair to say this exceptional quality Oregon wine that you should try, regardless of vintage. Tyson's making really good stuff.

What to finish with? How about a birth year wine for one of our visiting friends, a 1970 Cantina Sociale di Sizzano e Ghemme Ghemme. This old nebbiolo from the Ghemme DOC was another purchase from Chambers Street a year ago in a nice offer of obscure old neb that I couldn't resist. And why not? The wines I bought were almost impossible to research, so I wanted to write about them, assuming they were worth it. So far, so good. Every wine has been enjoyable if not exceptional. This one was very good, freshening with airtime as old wines so often do, paradoxically. What is the science behind old wine seeming younger with exposure to air? Soy and bouillon aromas at first, then some fruit, mushrooms, bottle sweetness (a caramelized note), roses, and then gentle flavors with some fine tannin still gripping on the finish. Lovely and full of life while certainly somewhat decayed, in a good sense. Wine from a special year, this evening one with special friends who we don't see nearly enough.

No, we didn't finish all of these wines, not even close. And I don't have such a deep cellar as to open bottles like this regularly. But for this night, with these friends and with the thoughts wines like this provoke, all was just lovely and nearly perfect. We left swearing again it would happen again sooner than the last time. I hope so.

December 09, 2012

Giving thanks

It's been a while since Thanksgiving, but the wines we enjoyed have stayed in my mind. Thanksgiving is such a food and people centered holiday. I'm on record saying that I don't think Thanksgiving is great for your most special wines. Save those for their own days. If any day is simply about delicious wine, and perhaps a few experiments, Thanksgiving is it. This year we again did pretty well.


To start, the 2008 Rollin Pernand-Vergelesses was everything I'd been told (convinced?) when encouraged by a friend who sells the wine to buy it. He was right. This is serious white Burgundy, crystaline and so lemony, I can't stop thinking about this wine weeks later. The chardonnay I am making this year will be nothing like this wine, yet I can't help but be inspired by such expressive and refined chard.


After sampling a bottle of one of my own 2011 single vineyard Pinots, I opened two more wines to have with dinner. The first was this lowly, old Nebbiolo, something I wasn't at all sure would be worth drinking. I purchased this bottle last year from Chambers Street Wines, a throw in only because it's from my birth year. The 1969 Berteletti Nebbiolo is probably the lowest level  bottling of a not great vintage, not very old, from a not well known producer in a region good for this grape but no Barolo or Barbaresco. And the wine? I was shocked. I was more than alive. It was lovely. A touch of beef bouillon but still a little fruit and intact flavors. This is why we age wine, or purchased reliably sourced aged wine. With each bottle I purchased last year, I get more interested to open the rest. No duds so far.


The second dinner wine was an old Thanksgiving favorite, the 1994 Ch. Grand Mayne St. Emilion. This bottle came with us from California, the last of a purchased from the Wine House in San Francisco back in the late '90s. I remember opening one with Thanksgiving then, and again in our first year in Portland with my brother and another old friend visiting. I lost track of the others but knew the last bottle would fall on Thanksgiving. Mature, gravelly red fruit, gently oaky, delicious claret and an easy match yet again with the range of flavors on our table. What a lovely last taste of this wine.


Thanksgiving is a time for the classics, so we had Sauternes for dessert. Here, the second wine of Suduiraut, the 2005 Castelnaut Sauternes. I love this label for good value. The wine tasted golden, with sweet but balanced flavors, lots of figgy botrytis notes and good length. Sometimes lesser Sauternes are too bitter or sweet. Not this. Must find more.

A guest posted a picture of a few of these bottles on the table, quipping something to the effect of must be a winemaker's house. What can I say. This is all my way of showing thanks.

November 27, 2012

Night

I'm a night owl. It's surely from my mother. These days she retires early but in her prime she would be up well past my father's old 9:30ish bedtime. It's the same with me and this harvest it all sort of hit me at once how much I want and need the night.

For little kids, the night is essentially off limits. It's dark. It's late. It's many things and it seems none of them are much good for kids. I never liked that when I was young, like staring out a window on a rainy day thinking...someday.

Of course, there's Halloween, which might be my favorite night. Not for the costumes, though I admire a crafty costume maker. I'm just not a dress up guy (dealbreaker?). And not for the candy, which is great of course and my kids love the newspaper's candy bowl feature each October. Sure, it's crazy good to have perfect strangers give you free candy all night long. But kids can find candy any time. At least I could.

No, for me I now realize it was all about the night, as if day were simple land but night something different, under the sea, an unknown world beginning to reveal itself. I loved it, roaming with friends, seeing all the common places without the color of day or people or cars or everything else that should have been there. Should, if all you knew was the day time.

As I got older, regular day activities took on new life at night. My friends and I liked to night hike in the local hills, letting our eyes adjust to the dark and walking in moonlight like we were characters in fantasy books we loved.

Then I read about night surfing, how you could have just enough light from pier lights to surf after dark. It was cool, though the light was good only on the pier side and the rest of the ocean was creepy and dark. Just what I was looking for at 17, not so much now to be honest.

The dark forced you to pay closer attention, to slow down a bit or see things in shadows that you might ordinarily miss. And I loved it all, the quiet, the solitude, like our night adventures were extra time that no one was counting or waiting on, time that was all mine.

Those night adventures continued. There was the trip to Manhattan many years back roaming the streets all night before a far-too-early flight. Or rambles through European cities late at night when the trains had stopped running and I had no money for a cab. I'd just walk and end up seeing things you never see during the day, even if it was nothing at all. Think of the novelty of being able to lie down in an empty street, what during the day was a busy road. At night all the rules were different, as if words suddenly all had different meanings.

It's funny, just as you don't see little kids out at night much, you don't see older people. You don't see much of anyone, sure, but if you do see people, they're typically younger adults. Older people are home, in bed, too cold and tired to go out at night.

That better not be me, or at least it better take a while yet before I have to give up the night. Yet there aren't the opportunities to go out at night like there used to be. Not to clubs or like that. Just for a walk, a bike ride, a hike maybe, anything, just to be out long after the town is asleep. There's something special in that.

But what do I have? Harvest, where there's a ton of work to do in a relatively short time, where I'm in a facility full of other people wanting to use the same space and equipment as I do, where I have a day job, and where I just sometimes want some quiet to listen to music that won't make it over the din of winery compressors and other machinery.

I did plenty of work during the days and evenings, and my colleagues in the new winery are terrific. But I I found myself working especially late this harvest, watching my colleagues peeling away through the night as the city itself turned out the lights, leaving me alone. Alone to slow down, to pay closer attention, to listen and, as you might imagine, to think. There's so much happening during harvest and everything to think about, yet we often don't have the time to think. There's too much to do.

In the night, I did my punch downs, cleaned barrels, drained fermenters, washed out dirty fermenters, squeegeed the floor, you name it, I did it. I listened to my music, looking for a harvest soundtrack, my night music. There were some old favorites like Elvis and the Brodskys, but newer things too, like Robert Francis, especially his song Tunnels. Or Wilco's last record, The Whole Love, which absolutely destroys me, especially Black Moon. It's so good. And Birdy's cover of 1901, turning what might be a love song into an elegy, appropriately.

Somewhere between 1 and 3am I'd wrap things up. This wasn't every night of course, but several through the harvest. The winery dark and silent, alarm on and door locked, pushing me out into the emptiness of Division Street (in my memory it's always raining). Then maybe I'd go to Potato Champion for a long past midnight snack, or just home through the deserted streets, thinking of all so many things, what I have and what I want, need. What is and what probably will never be.

I have many, many things. But this harvest I got back something I missed and never understood so well. I have the night.

November 15, 2012

Come taste wine at our Urban Thanksgiving this weekend

If you're in Portland this weekend, come taste my new Vincent Wine Company wines at the SE Wine Collective.

All four of us in the facility - Vincent, Division, Helioterra and Bow and Arrow - are pouring and selling our newest wines. We're calling it Urban Thanksgiving.

Come taste, enjoy yourself and buy some wine for the holidays before you go. We'll have everything for sale.

Urban Thanksgiving details:
SE Wine Collective, 2425 SE 35th Place at Division in Potland
Saturday and Sunday, November 18 and 19, noon-5pm each day

Tasting fee $15

November 05, 2012

Harvest wrap

November's here and with it the end of the grape harvest. This year we brought in more than nine tons of mostly Pinot Noir grapes from five different vineyards. Now all the juice from that fruit is fermented into wine and safely in barrel, where it will age over the coming year.

Never mind the two barrels of Chardonnay - our first white - that aren't anywhere close to being done fermenting. That's just fine. With reds, we crush the grapes and let things ferment for a few weeks. Then it's time to drain off the new wine, press the skins to get every last drop and put everything in barrel. But with whites, we press the grapes right away and ferment the juice by itself in barrels, ideally over several weeks and even months. With reds, fermentation is relatively quick. With whites, it can (and should) take time. So we'll let that Chard go for a while and see what we get. Think art, science and luck.

Everyone always asks - how was this year? And I'm delighted to say that several people have already heard this was a great year, nearly perfect even. No, that was last year. Nothing we want to go through again, with a very late harvest in unexpectedly dry and mild conditions, but one for the ages. One you can never take for granted. One I trust will reveal itself in time, the wines still so young but so full of potential.

Of course, years like 2011 produce wines I love. Lithe, bright, full of energy, life giving. Years like 2012, with a historically dry growing season and harvest time heat and wind, make lithe, bright and energetic a bit challenging. The silver lining - more people still seem to like richer, fuller wines. If that's you, 2012 should be stellar.

In 2012, my goal as a winemaker was opulence mitigation (stealing a line from a friend). That meant grapes picked while they still had good amounts of acidity to give the wines life. Or fermentations drawn out over a three weeks to produce a broad range of aromas and flavors. And infrequent punch downs to make sure we don't overwork the wines, overmixing things like kneading a dough too much and making tough bread. Riper years like 2012 provide lots of flavor and color in the wines. My goal has been to not push things further still, to preserve the elegance of Pinot Noir while knowing confidently that everything the grapes have will make it into the wine, even with a very gentle touch in the winery.

Sure enough, I have stacks of barrels full of deeply colored, rich but structured wines ready for a winter hibernation. And shouldn't we all be? Harvest is a maddeningly hectic time of decisions and second guessing, organization and luck, hard work and moments of sheer joy. Now that it's done, I want to go somewhere remote and sleep. And sleep. All the way until spring.


October 20, 2012

The dog days of harvest

We're three weeks into harvest and it feels like summer in August. I don't mean it's warm, no, autumn is clearly here. It's just that some things are incredibly good. Some things are getting a bit old. And some things are sweeter as the season's days slowly start drawing to a close. Just like that August feeling, when you're mixed on the passing of time.

All the fruit for my winery is in for the season. I figure I'll have around 20 barrels of Pinot Noir in addition to the two barrels of Chardonnay, which incidentally was actively fermenting on its own in barrel as well as in a couple glass carboys of extra wine that I have. Nice to see foam on the surface of the juice. Smells clean and fresh. I can't wait to have my first commercially available white wine.

Meanwhile, my six fermentors of red wine have been similarly native and active. I don't add yeast to the grapes, instead letting fermentation spontaneously occur. It's never failed. This year the ferments have been a little too vigorous. I found it interesting to hear a colleague suggest the ferments are faster with higher pHs in the juice, meaning the yeast are happier in a lower acid solution. Makes sense. One fermentor of Armstrong Vineyard is done but I'm letting it hang around for a few days while two others from Armstrong finish up. I'll press them together.

The three others are at or just past the peak of fermentation. After we mostly destem the grapes, we let them sit untouched for several days until the native yeasts build in number. Then once the fermentor is putting off enough carbon dioxide to really notice, we punch down the fermentors once a day, twice if the temperature gets a little high. Punching down meaning mixing the grapes skins and juice around to release CO2 and heat and keep the top of the mixture fresh and clean.

I'm cautiously optmistic for the wines from 2012. It's too early to say how they will be, but the first finished fermentor is nice, with good density to the flavors and nice texture from the skins. I do know that I'll be really glad to drain and press all these fermentors, then clean and fill all my barrels in the following few days. At that point, I'll be done with harvest. And that's going to be in about ten days.

I love harvest, but that's something that has taken time to set in with me. I can't wait until it's done each year, but I'm working like a dog and I've found I enjoy it.

October 11, 2012

Harvest continues

I admit it. I wrote off the SF Giants in my last post. Now they've done the unthinkable and beaten the Reds three games in a row to take their series. According to Giantdynamics, harvest continues.

It turns out that all my Pinot Noir is already in the winery. I had thought the last of it would come in Wednesday, the day I supposed would be the end of the Giants season. Instead, conditions allowed for everything remaining to come in Monday, which worked out wonderfully.

So I'm all in, right? Wrong. I'm making a small amount of Chardonnay this year and that's coming in tomorrow. I'm getting two barrels of chard juice from another winery, just enough to play with for the winter. I've made Chardonnay before but not for a while and not for my commercial label. I'm curious to work with it.

What's in the winery, you might wonder? Six 1.5 ton fermentors full of Oregon Pinot Noir. Three of the bins are from various blocks in Armstrong Vineyard, from Ribbon Ridge. The 115 came in on Oct 2, then the 667 and Pommard came in Oct 6. Brix was a bit high here and acid a touch low, but the ripeness is terrific. It's way too early to tell, but I'd guess the wine here ends up brooding and rich.

My other three fermentors are one each from three different sites in the Eola Hills. All of these grapes came in October 8. Zenith was also a bit ripe and lower in acid than I'd like. Bjornson from higher up in the hills had similar ripeness but stronger natural acidity. And my newest site, Crowley Station, showed the cool west side of the Eola Hills with just 23 brix and 3.35 pH. Fairly ripe in a less warm year but downright modest this year. I'm excited.

At this point, only the Armstrong 115 has begun to ferment. I did 17% whole cluster in that bin, my first experiment with fermenting intact grape clusters amid the crushed grapes and juice. The others are just hanging out in various states of pre-fermentation purgatory, the waiting place.

Lately there's a nice lull in harvest, as a friend put it today. The weather looks grim for the next several days. Glad I just about have everything picked. And Giantdynamics be damned. Here's hoping the Giants can continue their dominance., because I hope the Giants run continues long after all the grapes are picked. Sometimes you have to deviate from the plan.

October 07, 2012

October returns

It's October again and harvest is on. Already I have half my Pinot Noir in the winery, with the rest coming Monday and Wednesday. But more on that later. First I need to look back a bit, in wine and baseball.

I wrote earlier this year about October 7, 2001, when I first made my own wine. I suppose this could be the eleventh birthday of Vincent Wine Company. It was the final day of the San Francisco Giants season and began my pseudo-scientific theory of Giantdynamics where grape picking should happen on the last day of the Giants' season. I haven't figured out if that day should be the start of picking, or the end, or the height, or just a day you want to make sure you bring in grapes.

Where did this theory come from? 2002. Giantdynamics seemed to happen by accident in 2001, then history repeated itself in 2002 and I saw a pattern. Only, I found myself picking on the final day of the infamous 2002 World Series, when the Giants lost Game 7 and the Series after leading big and losing Game 6 the night before.

This was my heartbreaking moment in baseball, as a fan anyway. I grew up an LA Dodger fan in the 1970s and 1980s. Who was my favorite Dodger? Dusty Baker, the same Johnnie "Dusty" Baker who managed the Giants in 2002, long after my conversion to the SF club. I loved it. My favorite Dodger, my original "guy," Dusty managed my favorite team.

Only Baker went to the mound in the 7th inning of Game 6 in 2002 and took out a dominant Russ Ortiz, and HE GAVE ORTIZ THE GAME BALL! I don't normally say this kind of thing, but that was an omen. That was a move against all that could possibly be good. I screamed at the tv "No! What are you doing??" Obviously it had no effect. The game wasn't over, far from it. The 5-0 lead quickly became a 6-5 loss, and the next day I picked grapes. And the Giants season ended.

So what are Giantdynamics? Essentially, good Giant seasons might be consistent with late harvests. Think 2002 and 2010. With the Giants playing late into October, so the grapes may have to wait. Then there are years like this year, a good to great year but one that is rapidly ending. Hot weather late in the growing season has rushed the onset of harvest. Meanwhile, the Giants easily made the playoffs only to be sitting down 0-2 in a best of 5 series against the Reds. And who's managing the Reds these days. My guy. Johnnie "Dusty" Baker, who somehow ended up in Cincy.

So I'm picking Monday and Wednesday this week. Looks like Wednesday would be Game 4 in the series, if it goes that far. I'm guessing it does, only to end that night, with all the grapes just in the barn and everything right in the realm of Giantdynamics.

October 01, 2012

Sauvage at Fausse Piste

After my new wine release event at the new SE Wine Collective the other day, a great friend from out of town and I went to Sauvage for incredibly good food and interesting wine, meeting up with his sister for a while. We managed to end up in the back with Jesse, where he's busy making his well regarded Fausse Piste wines from the 2012 harvest.

First Sauvage. If you haven't been here, go. Now. I'd heard good things from very reliable sources, and they remain reliable. We had a variety of dishes like wonderfully fresh beet salad, top quality oysters, the most tender boar ribs ever, pheasant, lentils Le Puy, all incredibly good.

Then there is the wine list. Fifty selections, all well picked, all available by the glass, all amazingly priced. Oysters? How about Domaine de la Pepiere Muscadet? For $5 a glass. How about meaty Cotes du Rhone from Eric Texier for just $9 a glass? It was great with the ribs. This place is a new favorite, not just for the prices. It's simply exactly what a restaurant should be, serving top quality food.

So Jesse Skiles is a chef and is the one behind Sauvage. He's also a winemaker of his label Fausse Piste, literally in the back of the house. I'd seen Jesse earlier at our winery, and sure enough he came by his place later to check on his ferementers. We tasted from a few, lots of whole cluster syrah from Washington picked at lower sugars than most, with good natural acidity.

Then Jesse showed us his skin fermented viognier, a few fermenters worth, that was exotic and appropriately structured. He's taking a very low intervention approach with everything he's doing and the results are delicious. I'm really excited he's now making his wines in Portland.

A restaurant and winery at SE 5th and Ash in Portland. You should definitely check this place out.

September 27, 2012

Harvest 2012 begins

It's been a long year since the last grape harvest, incredibly challenging but as far as wine goes, everything I might have hoped it would be if you spoke with me a year ago. At the time I was still selling my first vintage of Oregon Pinot Noir, from 2009, and I continued to sell that wine for more than a year from original release. Sales were steady but just not fast. I guess everything you hear about the wine business is true. It's not easy.

But I took heart in a friend's words predicting that year two would be much better, as things gained momentum, as I continued to work hard and tried to remain charming, sincerely so of course. Those words proved true and the 2010s sold in half the time as the 2009s, and the reality that this project might really be working began to sink in.

Now it's late September again and I'm releasing the newest wines, my 2011s, after several months of being sold out of the prior vintage. In truth, the secret to my success is to not make too much wine. Still, it's interesting how that prediction about year two proved so true. I think about it a lot.

And now my fourth harvest as a commercial wine producer approaches. It wasn't long ago that I was making wine in my garage, opening the door once a year to let friends, neighbors, even blog readers come by and try my home made (but I believe commercial quality) wines. I moved out of the garage and into a commercial facility in 2009. This fall I've moved the operation to the new Southeast Wine Collective on SE Division and 35th in Portland. Stop by the tasting room if you're in the area. It's gorgeous.

If you're in the area this weekend, I'm holding a public tasting and sales event at the new winery, from 1-5pm this Saturday. There is no charge, but we will have all the wines for sale if you're interested. I'm sincere though in saying that there is no expectation to buy. Come see the new winery and taste my newest wines. We even have a garage door entrance just like the old days here at the house in NE Portland.

And if you're in the area next Tuesday, the plan is to harvest the first small amount of Pinot Noir from the 2012 vintage. Fruit should be coming in over the next few weeks but it's always exciting to get started. Being in town, we're particularly convenient for those interested in volunteering to help sort grapes on days we're bringing in fruit. Let me know by commenting or email me. We'd love to have you.

And if you're not local but want to follow the progress of harvest, I'll do my best to update things here. I'm busier than ever but committed to blogging the continuing saga of this crazy wine business. Read the archives to see me as a greenhorn intern back in 2005, when this site began, and follow everything to now. We're up to about 600 cases of Vincent Wine Company this fall, with plans to keep growing. It all started here, so thanks for reading and please keep coming back.

September 16, 2012

Harvest approaches in the northern Willamette Valley

Sunday's no day of rest around here, especially mid-September when the weather is still warm (almost hot) and the grapes in the northern Willamette Valley are nearing harvest. Instead of a lazy day watching football on the couch (that was tonight, and the dominant SF 49ers were worth every moment), I went with a winemaker friend to several vineyards around our area that we work with. We walked rows, tasted fruit, picked individual berries to do quick sugar tests to see about ripeness, and generally shot the shit about what we saw and tasted and what we think will happen with the coming harvest.

The highlights? Ripeness is coming on fast, too fast I fear given a long dry summer that's not letting up any time soon. Instead of 80s and sunny, I could really go for some 60s and even a little wet, just to water the vines a bit. This late in the season it's normal to see some stress in the plants (locals, check your gardens and tell me if the tomato plants looks as vibrant as they did in July - didn't think so). A little water from the skies would be lovely. Not so much that we get rot or dilute flavors, rather just enough to slow the vines down a bit and draw out ripening.

Are things really alarming? Not at all. Every year around this time it's common to get a little nervous about all the harvest work we're facing. And if it's not too warm, it's too cold, or too wet or too dry or too perfect even and that can't last. No matter what, wine makers fret about stuff, so here I am. Really, things look great. But what else would we do if we didn't fret and gnash teeth about everything?

Armstrong Vineyard on Ribbon Ridge is the furthest ahead of my Vincent Wine Company sites. Lower leaves are yellowing as the canopy ages and ripening approaches. Berry samples in the 667 and 115 clone blocks were 20.3 and 20.6 brix, respectively. That's the measure of the sugar percentage in the grapes. Ideal is around 22 to 23 in my book, some want things higher (or much higher). A good rule of thumb is that you'll gain one brix a week, so we're a couple weeks out from picking. However, that's a very general average. Hot weather can accelerate ripening, dramatically so. Cold weather can essentially stop sugar accumulation. Rain can even knock sugar levels down through simple dilution. But given the average, I think we'll pick in two weeks. That means I better get a lot of stuff ready between now and then. I'm very excited about the new winery, but that adds some complexity. Imagine throwing a party in a brand new house. How can you help the guests when you barely know where everything is. We'll figure it out.

Moving south to the Eola Hills, Bjornson Vineyard was happily further behind. It's a slightly cooler area (little differences can affect wine dramatically, do note). It's also a bit higher in elevation. I'd usually expect picking dates at Bjornson to be a week or two behind Armstrong. And that's great. We don't want all the fruit to ripen at the same time. It's like a restaurant having to serve all the night's meals at once. Instead, it's nice to have a few weeks of harvest time so you're bringing in fruit gradually, perhaps even barreling down wine from early picks before the last grapes are in. Nice to use a given fermenter more than once in a season!

Then Zenith Vineyard, lower in elevation than Bjornson and usually a bit earlier to ripen but not a early as Armstrong (we did pick Zenith and Armstrong on the same date last year, but that was an unusual year). Zenith is a little unusual this year, with some lighter colored berries still that a few more days of heat will likely darken. As with Bjornson, things at Zenith were obviously not so close to picking, and that's great. We had flowering a bit late this year, and because we want the fruit to have good "hang time" from the day it's set from flower to berry, until the day it's picked, I'm happy to see the grapes take their time to ripen.

So how did things taste? Wine makers often talk about how flavors in the vineyard will most guide picking decisions, I'm delighted how things are progressing. Since the fruit's not "ripe" yet, obviously acids are pretty tart still (enough to remind yourself not to sample too much or you'll get an upset stomach). But what a delight to taste sweetness in the grapes, which until now are just hard, green berries throughout the summer that seem like they'll never be ready to pick. Really, flavors are tricky. Ripe grapes do "explode" with flavor in your mouth, but I think a lot of people wait for that explosion to get bigger and bigger...and the wines they end up with are similarly big. I'm looking for explosive ripeness but with the right acidity or energy to keep things fresh and brisk, not syrupy and cloying. We're making wine, not fruit juice, right? So I'll keep tasting throughout the growing season, but really it's not about finding fruit you want to eat all day long. It's about fruit that's just getting to that point, or getting to getting to that point, so that you have fruit that's going to make great wine, not just great fruit juice.

Really, I'm more focused on the health of the vine and the grape clusters. Is there mold anywhere? No. Mildew? No. Other issues that may affect wine quality? No, everything looks great. We just need to finish things off well and I think we'll have a lovely vintage. And instead of focusing on sugar, I'm more interested in following the pH of the grapes, to find that spot just before acids drop off quickly and pH shoots up. That's the time I want to pick, really no matter where the sugars are.

Oh, and I'm going to get Pinot from one other site starting this year, Crowley Station, on the west side of the Eola Hills, not far from Zenith but just too far to get to today. It was a long enough day and the 49ers weren't going to wait for me. I'll get back there soon but I'm sure it's in the Zenith or Bjornson time frame. Nothing to think too much about yet. Really, Armstrong will be first and that's enough to get me finalizing harvest plans, cleaning equipment, etc. The rest will fall into line. Is it time yet? I can't wait.

September 13, 2012

September

Late summer returns and I find myself at once in a familiar and changing situation. First, the change, all great, great news.

My winery, Vincent Wine Company, has moved from our home of the past three years to the Southeast Wine Collective, at SE Division and 35th Place in Portland behind the restaurant Cibo. This new urban winery and tasting room are going to be great. I couldn't be more excited about being part of this project. The Southeast Wine Collective is the brainchild of Kate and Tom Monroe of Divison Winemaking Company, which will be in the facility along with Bow & Arrow and Helioterra Wines. We have a gorgeous tasting room that's opening later this month and we're definitely going to bring wine and wine making closer to Portlanders and travelers alike. I'm so glad to have a place to call home, and a tasting room where people can try my wines. It may not sound like much but it's something. Something to celebrate, for sure.

And, I once again have wine to sell. After selling out of my 2010s earlier this year, it's been odd to not have wine to sell, not to mention not having to sell wine. It's been kind of nice actually. I've just had to make wine, and yes there has been other business to attend to and my Guild Winemakers project keeps me incredibly busy in what free time I have. Don't forget my day job. So you can understand how a break in the day to day selling of bottles and cases of wine was rather nice.

At this point, I'm only selling the 2011s to my mailing list members. It my annual first offering at the best prices of the year, including wines that may not make it to retail. That offer ends September 28, then the next day -- September 29 -- I'm having tasting and sales event at the new winery, SE Division at 35th Place, 1-5pm. Helioterra will also be pouring and the winery tasting room will be open as usual. Should be a great time.

After that I'll be getting bottles to local shops and restaurants again, though sooner than that I'm heading back to New York for a seminar and trade tasting my distributor is doing with another small importer/distributor. This is the first time I've been squeezing in a sales trip before harvest. It's the start of many I imagine (and hope, for my own success).

With all the change and newness, there's a familiar sense in the air. The days are quickly growing shorter, some mornings surprisingly crisp. It happens this way every year, but the feeling is always so new again, so fresh, like we're reliving something from Septembers past. Already I've had that sense of autumn from growing up in LA, a cool, dry day with long shadows but little else to suggest fall, which you might get around Thanksgiving but comes here in mid-September or so. Not really autumn, but something I had there that seems to pass through this town too.

In Portland, that feeling has come to mean something new for me. Harvest. And it feels great this year. My first grapes will come in by the end of September, maybe the first week of October. In the new winery, in a new neighborhood, with the same old me. I can't wait.

August 27, 2012

An old friend returns

Our friend Tim (Teeem!) from Seattle is in town for a bike mechanic certification program. He's a great guy whom we've known for years, a wedding guest even, one of a rarefied number. He also enjoys a little red wine and eating lots of meat. It's been nice to have him stay.

A few nights ago, I thought it was time to break out the 2004 Trignon Gigondas, which I bought with Tim several years ago on a family visit to Seattle. We had gone to a local wine shop to look around and I saw the Trignon. Notice the price tag, clearly a mistake at $13. Since when has Gigondas, at least decent Gigondas, cost that little? In my naivete, I mentioned to a clerk that the price seemed too low, and what was the response?

Ehem.

"Um, no, that's the correct price."

I persisted, surprised, as if milk were $.99 a gallon. "Really? I haven't seen Gigondas that cheap in years."

"Well, it's not mismarked. That's the correct price."

Um, ok. It wasn't, it still isn't, but I tried. So I bought it and saved a bottle until now, five or six years later.

So how was it? Pretty fantastic. Still fresh but maturing, in what us wine geeks like to say is a "really good place." Also not bretty, as I remember the' 95 being several years back in our SF days. I'm no clean wine freak, but brett influence on wine gets pretty boring after a while, like new oak. I find I open southern Rhones these days with trepidation. No worries here.

The flavors were full and juicy, with a mix of warm fruit, stones, lavender and other garrigue notes that defines excellent southern Rhone valley reds for me. I could sniff and taste a wine like this for hours, slowly, caught in a perfect moment and not willing to let go too soon. Or ever, if one could.

Randall Graham of Bonny Doon said something at the wine bloggers conference recently that's stuck in my mind. He asked what does wine show us about humanity, about beauty? And he suggested that wines that move us move us to poetic language. Not sure if that's true in my case, poetry anyway. But I know that feeling and this wine provoked it.

And at a price you can't beat.

August 26, 2012

#WBC12

Ok, finally a moment to recount the Wine Bloggers Conference 2012 that happened in Portland last weekend. I went into the event a bit skeptical about how professional the experience would be. Is it self-hatred? I'm a blogger, yet I feared that other bloggers might not be serious enough, whatever that really means. I guess I just didn't want to be part of some kind of shill fest of people looking to promote anything they could get for free, with each day devolving into a booze cruise party.

So how was it? Really good. The event attracted lots of bloggers, some more experienced and knowledgeable than others, as well as lots of other categories of industry people. Journalists, producers, publicists, vendors, and because it was in my hometown, lots of old and new friends who were a delight to spend time with.

Yes, there were sponsors providing lots of opportunities to taste their wines and otherwise hear their pitches. So what? We tried wines of Oregon, of course, and Alsace, Franciacorta, Greece, Mallorca, Sardenia, among others. Several were exceptional. Several were ordinary. All were worth my time.

I skipped the Thursday evening reception in favor of Friday's conference kickoff events at the Doubletree Hotel in Portland. There was a general tasting of wines of the world, a wistful keynote by Randall Graham, speed tasting of whites and roses (not my favorite moment to be sure), then field trips to various wine regions close to Portland. I was on the bus to Sokol Blosser winery in the Dundee Hills, where we learned about soils with Rolin Soles of Argyle and David Millman of Domaine Drouhin. Then we had a tasting in the cellar of several notable Dundee Hills wineries, more tasting outside with some delicious food from Red Hills Market and ice cream from Salt and Straw. Don't forget the beautiful scenery of the Dundee Hills, including the iconic tree pictured below that Eyrie fans might notice. Then back to the Doubletree for the sort of unfortunate night of many bottles. This was one of the weaker moments, with way too many bottles in a warm room where smaller, less formal gatherings would have been better.

Saturday saw lots of breakout sessions on topics like social media and what is wine blogging anyway. I enjoyed the learning sessions but then took advantage of Winebow's session on unusual grape varieties of the world, a blind tasting of seven wines led by Sheri Sauter Morano, MW, a terrific session host. Ever had Hondarrabi Zuri? How about Sauvignon Gris? Neither had I, knowingly anyway. Then there was an uncomfortable keynote by author Rex Pickett, who's a name dropper and terribly prone to talk about things he "can't talk about" and then keeps talking but doesn't say much and you're left wondering, what? Then more speed tasting of red wines, this more successful in content than the whites and rose. Then a break before dinner hosted and prepared by King Estate Winery. Not shabby, and I enjoyed good company at my dinner table.

I was especially impressed with the people who came to the conference. Lots of internet wine geeks from the pre-blog days, a few MWs at least, the organizer of VinItaly, you name it, I kept turning around and meeting people I was glad to meet and look forward to seeing again.

After Saturday dinner, there was more wines of the world to taste, then the official unofficial after parties in various hotel rooms. I stopped by the Chehalem Mountains Winegrowers Association tasting to say hello. Then I went to the Drink Alsatian event for the highlight of the weekend, a four year vertical of Trimbach's Clos St. Hune Rielsing. Oh my god, the '97 was magical and the others simply otherworldly. Sometimes I get jaded in the world of wine, but these wines were incredible.

Ok, that sounds like a lot of wine and it was. I spit pretty much everything until later in the evenings or at the Saturday dinner. I also didn't stay at the hotel but was smart enough to ride my bike the few minutes from my house. Two days was plenty, so I skipped the final Sunday morning events and called it a good conference. So good, I'm thinking I very well may go next year when the event is in Penticton, BC, which I happened to visit a year ago this weekend. A lovely place with special memories for me, though I won't be staying at the Holiday House.

August 16, 2012

Wine Bloggers Conference Portland

I've been wine blogging since 2005 but never really got into the whole blogging thing. You know, monetizing the site with ads and link exchanges and all that. Or going into the whole free wine solicitation thing. I've gotten a few sample bottles and books, but nothing much, and that's not what I'm really into doing.

My blog has been more a personal thing. Blogs are vain, so I initially referred to this as a vanity site, self publishing like the old vanity press days. Maybe I'm more comfortable with vanity now. I don't solicit the samples or have the ads. And I don't have an issue with baring my loosely wine-related soul on this page.

But I always knew sooner or later I ought to get a little more connected to wine blogging. Then I saw the Wine Bloggers Conference was coming to Portland this year, now this weekend. So I signed up and now I'm curious to spend my weekend in the company of other amateur writers (and a few legit ones).

My conference goals? That would require planning and a list, neither of which I do naturally. Still...
  • Meet other bloggers. If you see me, introduce yourself. 
  • Figure out why people wine blog. Is is just for the free samples? Is it ego? Is it a love of wine and this a medium to share that love?
  • Does anyone make money from ads on their sites? Don't worry, I'm not going that route. Just curious.
  • Is wine blogging serious? And what is wine blogging these days?
On that last one, there's a thread on Wine Berserkers about a producer actively avoiding professional critic reviews. Some people are critical, saying he's only doing it because he can. He's not like more people who rely on scores to sell wine. I think those people are mistaken, seeing established media as the only route to go. This in a new media forum even. The irony.

This producer isn't necessarily looking for "traditional" bloggers, if there's a blogging tradition. He's specified Cellartracker as one place he'd like see reviews, and ideally lots of them, rather than in The Wine Advocate or Burghound. Are Cellartracker users blogging? Or are blogs simply web logs with a pretty set layout and fuctionality?

I think it's more the former, so that blogging is wider reaching than many might think. And it's potentially more significant to consumers than many producers and even internet wine forum participants think.

But we'll find out more at the Wine Bloggers Conference. I'm hoping it's good and not an amateur hour shill show. And not just because I paid my money and want to learn and have fun.

Next year's event is in Penticton, BC, a place I've come to love. I wouldn't mind a reason to go back again, though I think I need to find somewhere else to stay than the Holiday House. I need to mix things up.

August 06, 2012

Argentenian malbec worth writing about

It is not snobbish to dislike so much widely available Argentinian malbec. Malbec is the new merlot. It is potentially great wine from a noble grape of Bordeaux, the Dordogne and the Loire. It's just being turned into a caricature of itself, purple and softly fruited, sweetish even when it's called dry, all for a comfortably broad internationalized market.

Of course, there is good malbec. You just have to dig a little.

I was visiting a local grocer and chatting with the wine buyer recently. I noticed he had a lot of South American wines and he readily told me how much value he finds in the wines, especially those from Argentina.

I told him my dilemma with Argentinian malbec and he was understanding. I said I don't like wines with so much fruit. I don't want dirty wines, just winey wines. Wines that taste like wine, not a creamsicle. So he told me about Patti - an old school producer - who's turning the reins over to a younger generation but still does things on a small scale.

He recommended the 2005 Carmello Patti Malbec Mendoza, for $25. That is a lot more than usual Argentian malbec, but it's worth it. The steward told me the wine was pretty ready to drink and he was right. It's deeply cherry red in color with a fresh but maturing, penatrating aroma, full of cherries and cherry pits, violets and tar.

The flavors are soft and full, cured fruit flavors mingled with older wood and gravel notes, purely malbec in its shades of what I know from Cahors and the Touraine in France. There isn't much tannin and I can see why this might be better sooner than later. For now, this is serious wine, elegant and rich, pure and complex all at once.

What I like the most is - this probably tastes like what Mendoza malbec really tastes like. Not fussed with, not dirty, ripe but not overripe. Just pure wine goodness that, finally, has me thinking I have a response when people ask me about Argentinian malbec.

July 29, 2012

Secret World


I loved Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Ponyo from a few years back. It’s the little mermaid story, fantastical, the ocean coming alive in a way you could only dream. It’s a “kids movie” but like all Miyazaki films, it’s not just for kids.

Given how much I liked Ponyo, I’m surprised that I didn’t realize there was a new Miyazaki film. The Secret World of Arrietty was already in second run when I took the kids to it some weeks back. It’s not Miyazaki exactly, but from his studio, written by the old man and directed by one of his acolytes. Secret World is the story of the borrowers, mythic little people who borrow trivial things in the night from the “big” people’s cupboards.

If you remember from my vinous distraction during Midnight in Paris, you can understand that I was momentarily taken away from my suspension of disbelief when the title character, a borrower daughter, rushes into her family’s little home beneath the floorboards past assorted big people things. Among them is a wine bottle with a colorful label I recognized as a southern French rosé.

The name escaped me, but I remembered that it had roses on the label and a quick image search helped me make the match. Ch. Coupe Roses from Minervois, in France’s expansive Languedoc region along the Mediterranean. I thought it would be fun to find the wine and see if it’s any good, or if the illustrator included it simply for its pretty label. Probably the latter, but perhaps not. This movie like all Miyazaki movies is about love, and rosé is in my opinion the purest expression of love in still table wine. Perhaps that opinion is shared?

Coupe Roses might be available in Portland but I couldn’t find it with what little free time I have lately. Then on a recent trip to Texas, there it was when I least expected it at Austin Wine Merchant (incidentally, that shop is vastly improved since my visit some years back – check it out). With temperatures near 100F, it was a perfect time for French rosé, so I made my purchase.

The 2011 Ch. Coupe Roses Minervois Rosé was delicious. Not special, perhaps a touch darker than I prefer my rosé, that greater extraction seemingly giving more black cherry flavors than the pure, crystalline notes of more pale pink wine. But it was delicious on a hot afternoon, and a lovely reminder of this sweet film.

There's a moment in Secret World that struck me particularly well. Arrietty has done the unthinkable and been seen by a big person, Sean, even befriending him in a way. Their connection is limited, and when he writes a simple note when she regrettably drops a sugar cube on her first borrowing, it seems that much more significant. The phrase – “you forgot something” – sticks with me.

I won't tell you how Secret World ends. It's different from Ponyo, but similarly a most unusual love story that complements the earlier film, perhaps less fictional. Check it out if that sounds intriguing. I’ll watch it again, and not just because the kids want to.

July 18, 2012

More Nebbiolo Vecchio

I finally opened another of the bottles of old nebbiolo from Chambers Street Wines in NYC. This one I'll admit I bought because of the label. Of course I trusted a Chambers recommendation, and Spanna is always good to see on a label. Riserva 1967, too. Apparently that was a good year in northern Italy and reserve should mean something, no?

But look at that label. That's what really got me. I liked it so much I bought two, and I'm glad I did.

The Guild crew met up at a house on Mt. Hood a few weeks ago to catch up on business. With the alpine air, the wine geek factor in the house and surely good food, I figured there would be good conditions for enjoying a wine like this, the 1967 Francoli Spanna Riserva.

I'm not sure if my co-conspirators felt the same, but I really liked this wine. It's not cocktail wine. It's something you savor a bit more, with a crowd so everyone can taste but no one has to drink the whole thing. A nice glass with a plate of egg pasta with mushrooms and cream? Really good.

This wine seemed more advanced than the '69 Berteletti Sizzano I had a few months earlier. Strange, '69 is considered a very difficult year and Sizzano is hardly a household name in towns known for their nebbiolo-based wine. Nevertheless, the color was no more than brick, the wine freshening up with air time. I find this commonly with old wine - give it air and you'll coax out more freshness and fruit than is often usually apparently right when you open a bottle.

I loved the tobacco leaf and strawberry preserve aromas, with aged notes of soy and mushrooms in there as well. Wines like this are often most enjoyable aromatically. That was true here. The flavors were delicate and holding together, but not as full and enticing as the fragrance. Still, a lovely drink with a simple dinner, a lovely 45-year-old drink that is.


July 10, 2012

Impossible Things


I finally finished the Steve Jobs biography that I began back in May in the terminal at JFK, waiting for my flight back to Portland.  I mentioned it here briefly. I was thinking about winemaking as biography, how it’s about telling another’s story without getting in the way. About asking good questions, not providing all the answers.

I still feel that way, but a winemaker friend thinks all the talk about winemaking being about getting out of the way of the grapes is bullshit. Winemakers make tons of decisions about their wines. There’s no getting out of the way, and he’s right of course. Choosing to do nothing is still a choice (spare me any quotations of Rush lyrics, please.) And really, we never do nothing. Even the most simple approach to making wine is full of choices. It’s not just the interventionistas.

So, too, with biography. Authors puts their name on the book, as they should. The questions they ask are their own, the words they write, even the stories they tell, even when the story is someone else’s. Their measure is accuracy.

In wine we call that terroir, a word that drives some people crazy, like it’s another word for bullshit. What is terroir, really, they ask. Well, what is Steve Jobs’ real story? Neither can be defined precisely, but I think it’s clear that Walter Isaacson’s accounting of Jobs is true to his subject’s terroir. Perhaps not the only story or even the whole story, but a truth, a good example of Jobs much as we might write that a particular Dujac is a good representation of Chambolle Musigny.

So what of the book itself? I’m a book group of one these days, so why not get into things here. I’m going against some feedback I once received that my wine blog is good because it’s about wine, not straying much into other areas. I haven’t exactly held that line and I’m fine with it. Let me know if you aren’t.

Call it cliché, but I found the book inspirational. My brother-in-law who gave it to me said Jobs really comes off as an asshole, not the genius saint portrayed in the media, and he does. So why do I come away from the book wanting to be more like him? Because he was focused. He got the big picture and the details at once. He embraced simplicity in design. He would tell you to be great at a few things, not mediocre at everything. Those are all things I admire. He also provides a nice story of how to bootstrap a business, something I’m doing on two fronts.

Above all, he did impossible things. And that’s what drives me, the seemingly impossible. Always.

July 06, 2012

More From The Dalles, with Jan-Marc

Destination Mt. Hood, in search of mushrooms
As it would happen, I paid another visit to The Dalles in recent weeks. First, it was to meet Scott and Stephanie from The Grande Dalles. This time it was a long overdue visit with fellow PDX Urban Wineries member Jan-Marc Baker of Jan-Marc Cellars (that's John Mark, if you're wondering how to say it).

Jan-Marc and I made wine in the same Portland facility in 2009, and I took an immediate liking to this skier turned chef turned winemaker, who also likes to forage for wild mushrooms. We'd long talked about his mushrooming adventures on the slopes of Mt. Hood, and he was kind enough to invite me along some time.

Jan-Marc and his wife Barbara also have some land in The Dalles, near some vineyards where they source grapes for their Portland-based winery. I thought it might be nice to tie in a little visit to the vines after mushrooming, and a few weeks back we finally managed to make it all happen. What a great day, even if we pretty much struck out on the foraging.

Bear evidence

Having never gone mushrooming myself, I imagined I'd be required to wear a blindfold and/or swear to secrecy about where we went. Neither was true, though I'll maintain professional discretion and say only that we were at some elevation on the eastern flank of Hood, in tall trees with a mostly clean forest floor, naturally clean. This wasn't recently logged or otherwise fussed with land.

JMB's porcini haul two weeks later

Did we find anything? Yes, lots of various, inedible but beautiful fungi, and a few morels of varying maturity and one young porcini sporting claw and/or bite marks from the lucky animal who ate some and left the rest for our amusement. That is, we found enough to show this was appropriate ground to search, but not enough to really do anything with. And not nearly what Jan-Marc found a couple weeks later when he returned and took home several nice porcini. Call it a bit late for the morels and a bit early for the porcini.

We did manage to find some bear shit. One thing I love about Oregon is how quickly you can go from city comfort to not just a nice hiking trail on a Saturday morning but honest wilderness. Bears equaling "wilderness" to me, city boy.

Old barn

Mushrooming attempts done, we made our way down several roads toward The Dalles, in search of tacos (asada, nice) and Mexican coke. Along the way we found an abandoned barn on the edge of a green wheat field, Mt. Hood striking in the distance. And we saw beautiful vineyards like Kortge, McDuffy and Hillside, all sources for Jan-Marc Cellars wine.

Sonoma county? Central Texas? Nope, The Dalles

Then we headed back up Mill Creek Road to Jan Marc's place, past some of the oldest vines in the Northwest, Lonnie Wright's The Pines zinfandel planted back in the late 1800s. This isn't just newfangled wine country, though most vines around here date back to the 1980s at the oldest. We didn't stop and walk through the old vines, but I'm hoping to at some point.

Jan-Marc in his element

Instead we drove up to Jan-Marc and Barbara's little cabin for a quick rest and then hiked around and then up the hill adjacent to their property. The reward? Stunning views from the top of Lonnie's Volcano Ridge Vineyard, a site planted in recent years that's steep and easy to see from the Baker's cabin.

From the top of Volcano Ridge Vineyard

What did I take away from this beautiful day? One, I love mushrooms and I've already gone foraging again. I won't be deterred by not finding much of anything. Yet. Two, The Dalles has some fascinating vineyard sites that are nothing like the nearby Willamette Valley. This is bigger red country, cabernet, zinfandel, tempranillo, perhaps even mourvedre? And three, Jan-Marc is a total bro. Always good hanging out with him, just soaking in a good vibe and an intuitive sense of where to be at all time. The guy always seems to have a smile on his face. I'm easy going, but I still have a lot to learn to that end.

June 24, 2012

Visiting The Grande Dalles

Soon after returning from my New York trip last month, I got an email from Scott Elder of The Grande Dalles wines. We share a distributor in NYC, Ice Bucket Selections. After being intrigued by two Grande Dalles wines that I tried on my visit, I was happy to get Scott's invitation to come see the vineyard.

The Dalles is a dusty town on the Columbia River about 90 miles east of Portland, full of orchards on the west side and expanses of wheat to the east. When it's cloudy and wet in Portland, it's likely sunny and windy in The Dalles. When it's sunny in Portland, it's sunnier still in The Dalles and probably still windy. This is the beginning of our land of little rain, a desert in the rain shadow of the Cascade mountains just a short drive from lush Portland. It's truly another world, for people as well as grapes.

Sometimes I think I'm stretched too thin with a family, a day job, two wine businesses and dreams. But I don't have a vineyard. Scott and wife Stephanie live and work in Portland, and nearly ten years ago they bought this land and began to plant grapes. If I remember correctly, they're up to around 30 acres planted. As their web site says, the vines struggle in this exposed, stark place, the land and vines accepting each other more than anything else. This couple has something incredibly special in this place, but clearly they have their hands full.

The vineyard was easy to find. A long, steep hill covered in young but already gnarled vines sticks out amid the rolling wheat. I pulled through the gate and Scott walked over, his crew of workers suckering the vines to focus the plants on growing and ripening fruit. We talked about our histories, mine in wine and his path via studies in France and general wine geekiness, a long study of soils that led him to his not exactly remote but still remote feeling place.

Stephanie and their young son were driving behind me on the road to the vineyard, so after introductions, we went up to the top of the hill where they have a small trailer on what one day will be a home site. The exposure here is extreme, the view of Mt. Hood and rolling hills worth taking lots of pictures. Which I did (and which you'd see here were it not for a freak thunderstorm later that day back in Portland that claimed my iPhone and all my recent pics).

Scott has lots of varieties planted. Syrah, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo are most of the reds, with Cabernet Franc not faring so well and soon to be grafted to other varieities and Pinot Noir of all thing on the north-facing backside of the hill but not yet bearing fruit. And there's Riesling, which doesn't immediately come to mind in this inland climate. But it's windy here, the soils are thin, the vines struggle, Riesling included.

Walking down the steep rows a bit, the Riesling vines small with small leaves, Scott tells me he's happy for four feet of vine shoot growth in a season. When Willamette Valley growers are hedging their vines to control growth, out here you take what you get. I pick up some of the sandy, rocky soil in my hand and smell it. Clean, earthy, something I sensed in the wines I've tried from here along with exotic ripe fruit.

We wandered around the more gentle slope on the north side, talking about living and working in the city and the challenges of growing grapes and making wine, of a falling out with an original partner and Scott's challenge of selling wine in Oregon not made from Pinot Noir. My challenge has been the opposite - how to sell Pinot Noir when it seems everyone is selling it. There is no answer, we both will continue the fight, though I do think Portland needs to take more looks at The Grande Dalles wines. Local people, seek out these wines.

We ended up back at the hilltop trailer, tufts of rye grass and not much else growing out of the hard ground. Scott and family were planning to hunker down for the night, and I heard later it was pretty windy but dry there as Portland experienced a record (and iPhone killing) deluge. I left a bottle of my wine for them and we promised to get together in town soon to taste each others wines together and continue the conversation of how all this can work.

We better do that, because I lost my photos and it turns out that bottle I gave them was corked. Not a great start for me, but I really enjoyed meeting this couple, seeing their land after tasting some of their wines, and I appreciate the wry sense of humor you find on their website. Scott's the eternal dreamer, Stephanie the recovering pessimist. Their project here is daunting, but great things come from challenges. I'm looking forward to following their adventure.