February 26, 2012

October 7, 2001

Many things were happening on October 7, 2001. As usual, summer had become fall in the Willamette Valley. The grape harvest was on, and St. Innocent winery was apparently finishing two days of harvesting Anden vineyard, what was then the upper part of what had been and is again the great Seven Springs vineyard, split briefly due to family issues. My beloved San Francisco Giants were finishing up a disappointing season. The war in Afghanistan began. And I took my first and only drive to Mollala, OR, to pick grapes to make my first wine.

When I'm out pouring my wine for the public, one of the most common questions I get is, "how long have you been making wine?" The answer is not necessarily so simple, though it's not as complicated as the other main question I get, "how did you get into wine?" With that one, I can cite any number of epiphanies, a sequence with which readers may be familiar. Being maybe five years old and going on a day trip to Napa during a big family reunion in San Francisco back in the 1970s, the scent of wine soaked wood from the cellar at Inglenook a memory that's never left me and never will. Or studying in Europe during college and traveling to the remarkably picturesque village of St. Emilion in the Bordeaux region. Or later that year living with in Austria and getting schooled in the dry white wines of the Wachau and Weinviertel by my Austrian hosts. Or the bottle of '86 Steltzner Cabernet that my brother poured for me on my first night of a cross-country road trip after leaving college. Or, or...there simply wasn't one epiphany. It's complicated I suppose.

But how long have I been making wine? I usually answer "since 1999," when I first volunteered in the cellar of a California zinfandel and syrah producer then just transitioning from home wine making to the professional ranks. As I've written, that experience provided the model for my own garage wine making before I joined the professional ranks in 2009.

Really, the first day I truly made wine, my own wine, was October 7, 2001, a dry and mild but cloudy Sunday that was otherwise unremarkable at the time, at least that morning, but became one of the most significant days of my life. And keeps on returning in ways I never expect.

I was a new homeowner then, with an unexpectedly large garage that seemed perfect for making wine. I had found a listing for pinot noir grapes outside of Mollala at a local wine making supply store and drove down the valley to pick some hundreds of pounds of grapes myself, the Giants game on the radio in the car on the drive and, later, on my boom box in the vineyard rows as I picked. Slowly. Very inexperienced.

I knew very little about making wine at that point. I was smart enough to ask the grower on the phone when the last sulfur spray had been but innocent enough to take the answer at face value, especially when I arrived to find the vines covered in sulfur dust. I knew that wasn't good but didn't know why, so I went for it anyway and found out the hard way why that was a huge mistake. Sure, the terroir of Mollala may be less than ideal for pinot noir, but the wine sucked because that sulfur reacted with yeast during fementation to create powerful (and powerfully bad) aromas called mercaptans. You know, what they put into natural gas so you can smell it. So you'll know something's wrong and call the gas company before an explosion. Unfortunately, wine is a nice proving ground for mercaptans. This wine succeeded on that level only.

I shouldn't be too hard on myself. The fermentation was otherwise fine. All the sugar converted to alcohol, the wine had good color and enough body to, in theory anyway, make a decent drink. It just smelled and tasted like boiled cabbage under a sewer grate on a summer day. Dank. Nasty.

Happily, I didn't give up. If wine making is about one's quest for new mistakes, for all the things that could possibly go wrong in the process with occasional genius along the way, I was off to a wonderful start. Still waiting for the genius of course, but it was a good start.

I kept bottles of that wine for years, occasionally getting the courage to open one to see if anything positive had happened to that horrible stench. No, it never did and the final bottle went down the drain maybe two years ago in a fit to rid the cellar of this and other failed experiments that had finally outlived any seeming usefulness.

I sort of wish I still had a bottle of that first wine, not because it would be any good. Rather just to see it, to know it was real, which of course it was but now is just memory. Instead, I have other things to remind me.

Take the 2001 St. Innocent Pinot Noir Anden Vineyard, a stray bottle I've held for many years waiting for the "right time" to open. As I've written, I'm clearing through many of these random bottles and the other night it was time for this wine to receive its due. And oh my god, if my first wine was that bad, this is incredibly good. A bit tannic but otherwise remarkable, astonishing even. Wine that tastes like nothing else but Oregon, with the masculinity of Seven Springs vineyard and a savor that only the best Oregon wines ever show. This bottle was too good for Friday pizza night at home.

Of course, I had none of this on my mind when I opened the bottle. It was just another wine I'd waited on too long, or thought I had anyway, that seemed to need opening. Now. I poured it and immediately the scent made me laugh. This is why I make Oregon wine. This smelled unlike anything else in the world, unlike any other place in the world. The words I use may not be so distinct, but the wine utterly is. Cherries, black tea, a sense of green moss on a forest floor otherwise covered in brown leaves and needles, dry and earthy the way hummus smells, ashy in a way that convinces me it's most or all Pommard clone, like Burgundy but nothing like the Cote de Nuits or Cote de Beaune, if that makes sense. This is simply Oregon, and lovely.

Then I turned the bottle to read the back label and found the pity stats winemaker Mark Vlossak likes to print. When it was picked, how long it was aged, when it was bottled, etc. And the pick dates here were October 5 and 7, 2001, bringing back that latter day in a flood of memory that I've been thinking about all weekend.

That crazy day when I heard on the radio about the start of war on my drive home, wondering for more than a moment if I wasn't a presumptuous fool for making wine in the face of such catastrophe. But it's what I do. And that's the day it really all began.

February 20, 2012

Dinner at Southpark

I had the opportunity a few nights ago to dine at Southpark restaurant in Portland. It's not the newest or flashiest restaurant in town but I love it just the same. I suppose I'm biased because they put my 2009 Vincent Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir on their list last year and did well with it. In truth this was a special place for me long before that, and not just for the crab cakes I seem to order on almost every visit.

This particular evening saw a collision between two of my worlds - my winery and my day job at a certain urban university in the heart of downtown Portland. This occasion was a visit from a new leader at the national organization that's affiliated with our faculty union, of which I'm treasurer. I thought it would be fiscally prudent to bring a bottle of one of my latest releases to share with dinner. Ok, I wanted everyone to try my wine, fine, I admit it. Happily, they loved it and, in all modesty, so did I. My 2010s are really rounding out and I couldn't be happier with them.

Of course, one bottle wasn't enough for the group, and I was asked to select another. Why not keep it in the family? So I ordered a bottle of the 2008 Grochau Cellars Pinot Noir Willamette Valley. Astute readers will remember that this wine, the 2004 vintage, struck me at a dinner at Higgins several years back. I'd heard of this John Grochau character. We had mutual friends but I'd never met him. That wine led me to contact him, taste a number of his 2005s then in barrel and write about them on this site. I thought John was doing really interesting work with grapes from the Willamette Valley and beyond, and before I knew it I was helping with harvest. Then he moved into Portland to make wine in the city and I kept helping him, then launched my own label on his bond, then became partners with two other friends in Guild Winemakers. And through it all we became friends.

That's a long way of saying...now you know why I don't write about his wines here anymore. Until now. The server pulled the cork and decanted the '08 GC and it was rocking good from the start. Good enough to tell you why I shouldn't write about it but am anyway. John's been barrel aging his wines longer in recent years, not to give any woodiness to the wine (that happens quickly in barrel aging anyway), but to allow for more evolution in the wine before bottling, more curing to use my own words.

The results are really nice. I love the deep fruitiness of the '08s in general, with good structure and savory qualities perhaps because alcohols were more moderate in this year. This wine has all that, with a scent of Douglas fir like you might find morel hunting in the coastal hills (oh my god, it's almost morel season). Plus there's a lovely mix of fresh fruit, cured meats and other interesting qualities from a bit more barrel aging. Overall, there's lovely balance and depth, richness and restraint, and as I'd hoped, everyone at the table loved it.

There you have it. A lovely evening at Southpark that I had to write about. I hope you'll understand.

February 19, 2012

Demanding wine

I'm pretty easy going and I appreciate how easy some wines are to understand, to satisfy in a way.

Still, the most compelling wines are demanding. They need something from you and, in the right case, I find myself happy to go where the wine leads. I'm not looking for wine to "perform," a word I hear too much. Wine isn't a show dog. I want the wine to compel me to act, to respond.

This 2004 Domaine Confuron-Cotetidot Vosne-Romanee is a good example of demanding wine. Powerfully complex aromatically, hard-edged texturally, there is no sign of any greenness that makes 2004 notorious in Burgundy.

Instead, this wine has an alluring perfume, wild to be sure and perhaps to the chagrin of the brett police. This isn't clean wine but it doesn't seem dirty to me either. Rather, it is full of iron and oaky spice to complement the red fruit flavors, floral like a syrah from the northern Rhone that you'd suggest was Burgundian.

The palate is tannic, there's no getting around it. But I find the tannin toothsome, not drying, the wine cleansing where overly soft, fruit-sweet wines finish syrupy and not refreshing.

With food, the tannin immediately seems a non-factor, though the pleasing edge to the wine remains. And I find myself holding the glass, smelling the perfume and setting the glass down without sipping. Exhaling, thinking of that fragrance, classic Burgundy like a Burberry scarf. Unmistakable.

February 13, 2012


The cellar clean out continues, with some hits and several misses. Some disappointments we should have seen coming. Others have been surprises. "Good" wines that simply weren't good, or didn't age well, or were overly brett infected or otherwise bitter. Sure, there have been good bottles but too many haven't turned out well. I find myself overthinking about why this is.

Then after a busy day for everyone today, we had a ziti and salad from the grocery store. Easy, pretty good, but better with a glass of red wine. Something simply fresh and delicious, perhaps more if one were lucky. So down to the cellar and I find the last bottle of 2005 Neudorf Pinot Noir "Tom's Block" Nelson, from the northern part of the southern island of New Zealand. No thinking was necessary. This was the wine.

The match was almost perfect. Baked pasta and red wine is about as good as it gets on a February night, no? And this wine delivered. Spicy black cherry flavors, a gravelly earth undertone coming out over time in the glass, good freshness at seven years old, this wine made me stop in the middle of dinner to remark to myself how good it was, how good it made the meal. Really, what more could you ask for in a wine?