March 26, 2005

Preparing for Magnum Madness

There's an annual event here in Portland known as Manning March Magnum Madness. Manning referring to Marshall and Carolyn Manning, local wine people who always seem to be hosting can't miss wine events. March Madness refers to the annual US collegiate basketball tournament that produces some level of hysteria among our citizenry. And Magnum of course refers to 1.5L bottles of wine, perfect for larger gatherings. The event is held at the Manning residence in Portland and is open to any good natured person with a magnum of something fun if not special. It always draws a crowd.

So Magnum Madess is tonight. I have my bottle, the '03 Marcel Lapierre Morgon, a cru Beaujolais from Berkeley-based importer Kermit Lynch (who incidentially has just joined the 21st century with a website of his very own - well done Kermit). And I'm bringing some of my home-baked bread. Two kinds in fact, Pane Francese, which is Italian-style French bread, and Pain de Seigle, a rye bread that's actually the Seigle de Thiézac from Joe Ortiz's book The Village Baker. And in a weak attempt to match the generosity of the hosts, I'm also bringing a bottle of NV Broadbent Madeira Terrantez Old Reserve. Although it is officially nonvintage wine, the shipper estimates the wine is at least 40-50 years old if not from a single vintage in the 1930s.

Should be interesting to say the least. I'll report on the results should I return in one piece.

March 23, 2005

Tasting Some 2000s from Produttori del Barbaresco

This past Saturday I went down to Pastaworks on Hawthorne here in Portland for a little tasting of Produttori del Barbaresco wines with Aldo Vacca, Produttori’s Managing Director.

Produttori del Barbaresco is one of the top grape growers’ cooperatives in the world. Typically, co-ops pump out industrial quantities of mediocre wine. They are common in Europe as a steady outlet for grape growers who want to farm rather than produce wine. Over the years, more and more growers have been bypassing the co-op to produce their own wine, often with tales of how their special parcels were wasted in the co-op blending process. Yet many co-ops continue to thrive and the evidence is littered on supermarket shelves the world over.

High quality co-ops like Produttori del Barbaresco aren’t common, but perhaps they should be. In areas like Italy’s Piedmont, home to Barbaresco and its sibling Barolo, vineyards typically aren’t enormous and individual vineyard holdings can be divided over many growers. Think of Burgundy, but with vineyards scattered around hillsides over a larger area. So it makes sense that there would be a gathering place for growers to combine their produce to craft larger amounts of high quality wine. Production for many of Produttori’s finest bottlings is still relatively low, so I think of how tough some of the growers might have it on their own.

So on a whirlwind tour of America, Aldo Vacca is graciously spending his Saturday afternoon pouring single vineyard bottlings from the 2000 vintage. 2000 has a sterling reputation as a warm vintage producing riper wines than the norm. Everywhere I look I see the Wine Spectator’s “100 point” rating for the vintage in this part of northwest Italy. (Don’t ask me how one settles on a point rating for an entire vintage, no less a perfect rating.) These wines back up the reputation, both as a warm vintage that is very good if not great. In fact, tasting these wines left me a bit speechless – no mean feat. The wines are just that good and the prices, thanks to direct importing locally, are pretty darn cheap for the quality much less what you might pay in other towns across the US.

Herewith, the requisite tasting notes:

2000 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco
This is the normale bottling, a blend of some declassified wine from the single vineyard crus with the bulk coming from other holdings throughout the region. I tasted this a few weeks ago but add it here for comparison. Nice though atypically fruity Barbaresco with firm acid and tannin structure, some fragrance but not actually that impressive right now. For the money – low $20s locally – and the likelihood it will age for a few years, it’s still a good deal. Aldo says there are usually around 150,000 bottles made, which translates to approximately 12,500 cases.

2000 Produttori del Barbaresco “Pora”
Sandy soil, typically a more precocious wine. This year is no exception. Forward and lush, fragrant fruity aroma with some nice floral and tar notes, round in the mouth and actually tasting really good now. Not very tannic, this is for earlier consumption but probably will last longer than it appears.

2000 Produttori del Barbaresco “Moccagatta”
This bottling typically shows some mint or other pleasant green note, but that’s harder to find in such a ripe year. Gorgeous wine, the most typical and my favorite of the line up for its potential. Shy aromatically at first, then classic berry, rose, and tar aromas. Firmer structure than the others, both tannin and acid, with nice flavors and just a hint of spearmint. Needs time.

2000 Produttori del Barbaresco “Montefico”
Less than 5,000 bottles of this made, compared to around 15,000 with the other crus here. This wine is the most tannic as Barbaresco typically shows in its youth. Nice cherry and tar flavors, long and savory with great promise.

2000 Produttori del Barbaresco “Montestefano”
The big boy is bigger still in this large-scaled year. Tasted blind, I might have guessed this is a really good Chateauneuf du Pape. The aroma is roasted and warm, with an opulence missing in the other wines. I really liked this wine, but it’s not typical Barbaresco. Full and rich on the palate with some alcoholic heat, long and warm with a mélange of fruit and earth flavors. The wine has structure but it’s hidden underneath the wine’s fat profile. Very nice stuff.

Prices? Pastaworks is charging $35 a bottle for these, with at least one other retailer locally priced down to $32. Not chump change, but if you want top quality wine that can age, these prices are bargains.

March 09, 2005

A Tale of Failing (So Far) to Break into the Oregon Wine Industry

File this one under "getting schooled."

Lately I've been trying to get a little part-time job in the local wine industry. You know, schleping boxes or pouring wine for people in tasting rooms. Anything where I can make a little money, learn some more about the wine industry, and maybe make some contacts for my one day dream of producing and selling my own wine. But it's not as easy as it seems, and sometimes, given one recent experience, I wonder why I would wish the potential horror of working for idiots upon myself.

A few weeks back I see a listing for a tasting room position at a local winery, and I send in my resume with a chipper email saying something about how much I'd love to be part of the team, etc. I get a reply pretty quickly saying I'll have a phone interview in a few days. So the time comes and the interview goes well enough. But predictably the job doesn't pay much, in fact less than I'd even expected. How much? How about $8 an hour.

So I'm thinking to myself, why not do something more fun for free if I just want to learn more and make contacts? I mean, the money isn't ever going to be good and I have a fulltime job. It really didn't help things when the interviewer person rattled off some garbage about how the clones from this winery's vineyards were part of the select few asked to provide cuttings to replace all the French vineyards wiped out in the '70s. I think I missed that little element in French wine history.

Anyway, I kept my mouth shut and thought that, at the least, I'll just turn down the job. But wouldn't you know it, I can't even make the cut for $8 an hour. I get an email a week later saying I don't have the "marketing prowess" or "tasting room experience" to be one of the lucky 3 out of 75 applicants to get the job. This from a winery with a tasting room allegedly so slow I was encouraged to bring a book for down times between visitors.

So that's a little slice of the Oregon job market. I'll be fine, but what about the other 71 rejects? Could there really be that many people as insane as I was for applying in the first place? Are they blogging about their inner frustration? Will this tale of woe have a happy outcome? Stay tuned.

March 05, 2005

Portland Gets a Square Deal on Wine

Portland has a significant new wine shop, something called Square Deal Wine Company. It’s on NW Thurman, just west of NW 23rd in a lately hot little district with the old Food Front and the fairly recent St. Honore Boulangerie.

Dan Beekly is the brains behind Square Deal. The shop features nearly exclusively the selection of French and some Italian, German, even Austrian wines imported by Fleet Street Wine Merchants, an east coast outfit new to the west. Most wines sell below $30 with lots of $10 and $15 options, so you can taste through Europe for not a lot of scratch.

The selection is largely unfamiliar, even to the hardcore geek. Yet there are a few recognizable names. Among them, Prince Poniatowski of Vouvray and Francois Chidaine who has taken over the reigns at the old Clos Baudoin. Legends both, young and old. Which is a good sign. Evidently the selection will broaden somewhat with time. But as a friend suggested to me, Square Deal will have to hold tastings or other events to give people exposure to wines with which most people are completely unfamiliar. I think the wines might very well appeal to the foodies here.

Each bottle is carefully labeled with the guarantee that the wine was shipped at 56F. And the shop is cool to ensure the wine doesn’t roast on the shelf before you come in. Those are great things, so often overlooked in the wine trade despite the rhetoric on the importance of keeping wine cool. I just hope the cooling bill doesn’t sink them.

So I asked Beekly to pick out the best $10 red in the shop. He grabbed the 2003 Cave Jaume Cotes du Rhone. The shop carries a few higher priced wines from this same producer, which I had never heard of previously. So I took it home and found it to be delicious, if fairly light and herbaceous for many tasters weaned on thick and rich American wines. This little grenache-based wine has perfume, and its slightly tart flavor balances beautifully with roasted food. And that’s just what a good Cotes du Rhone should do.

So score one for Square Deal. I’ll go back and try some more, when I find some scratch of my own.