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.

June 12, 2012

West Side Steakhouse - NYC, part 3 (and last)

Vincent Wine Company wines are distributed in New York City by Todd Wernstrom of Ice Bucket Selections. The wines are in a few restaurants so far, such as SHO Sean Hergatt in the Financial District. But one of the nice surprises of my recent trip was lunching not once but twice at the West Side Steakhouse, which currently has the 2010 Vincent Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge.

The West Side Steakhouse, on 10th in Hell's Kitchen, is an unassuming but elegant place that is more about substance than flash. While I wouldn't hesitate to come here for a fancy dinner, I like that it's low key, friendly rather than stiff. And the food's really good (and I'm not just saying that because they carry my wine).

Todd and I stopped by my first day in town to meet the lovely Ilona (at right, bad photo, sorry) and husband Nick, the proprietors, and enjoyed some nicely juicy hamburgers for a late lunch while talking wine and restaurant business. Todd and I agreed to return the next day for a more elaborate meal with a mutual friend who connected us earlier this year. We wanted to eat some steaks and taste a few other things in Todd's portfolio of US wines and small producers he direct imports from France.

The lunch turned into a three hour marathon of wine samples and some appropriately rare cuts of beef that I look forward to enjoying again on my next visit to town. For starters, we tried a Champagne that Todd imports, a producer that I believe is otherwise not in the US and that apparently was part of the original group of producers that started the Special Club where Champagne producers bottle special wines in similar squat bottles you should try whenever you can.

The NV Nomine-Renard Cuvee Nomine was an excellent surprise. Todd loves Champagne and said it was good, and on opening I liked it for its crispness. But with time in the glass and a little rise in temperature, this Champagne was exactly what I want. Finely balanced between apply crispness and broad yeasty, brioche flavors, lively in the mouth with persistent length, this isn't a powerhouse but such a fine, elegant Champagne. I expected this to be good and sometimes that's a hard position to be in. In this rare case, the wine was even better.

Then we moved on to a pair of Oregon wines I knew from Todd's web site but had never seen in Portland and certainly never tried. The producer is the Grand Dalles, a vineyard I've since visited outside of The Dalles and will write a bit more about. For now, imagine rolling hills of wheat outside a dusty city on the Columbia River about 100 miles east of Portland. In the middle of this windswept scene there's a dramatic, uninterrupted slope covered in syrah, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, even riesling vines, struggling in a way that good wine grapes should.

The 2009 Grande Dalles Riesling Leroy's Finest (named for the initial vineyard manager) was initially powerfully petrolly, with a sweetness somewhere in the spatlese range but with an alcohol level more in turn with Alsace. After the Champagne, it took a minute to adjust to, then I couldn't get enough of its piercing acidity and ripe apple and mineral flavors. As with Riesling in general, some people will love this wine, some may hate it. I'm in the former camp and encourage you to seek it out. Todd said the soon to be released 2010 is quite different, and that would make sense. 2009 was a hot year, 2010 much cooler. This 2009 showed the broad texture of a warmer year. 2010 might have more focus. I'm curious to try it to compare.

With my perfectly cooked New York Strip (you know, when in Rome...), I really enjoyed the 2008 Grande Dalles Home Place, a mostly Tempranillo blend with Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Again, at first the wine provided a marked change of pace and its new French oak aging was certainly apparently. With lunch and air time, a tobacco and tar quality emerged that made me think of Spain's Ribera del Duero. A loose comparison for sure, but apt I think.

Around 3pm we said our goodbyes and it was off to the subway to continue my NYC wine shop crawl. Yet a  few weeks later, I'm still thinking of this place. Doesn't that say it all?

June 11, 2012

Wine shops of Manhattan - NYC, Part 2

After the pouring at Chambers Street, I spent much of the next three days walking and training to the wine shops of Manhattan. As many as I could fit in anyway. Special thanks to Dr. Vino for his enormously helpful map I recommend it highly. I used it extensively to find shops worth visiting, and some perhaps not. My goals - wine geekery, naturally. But I wanted to visit places that have my wine, places I'd like to have my wine, and places I wanted to see if they might want my wine. See a theme? I was on the wine schlep, but I really enjoy it.

In no particular order, I visited shops downtown, including Frankly Wines, around the corner from Chambers Street. It's a small shop that has a well chosen selection of things, including several from the Jura and lots of natural and natural-esque wines.

Fun to see Vincent on the racks
I went over to the East Village and up to Union Square to visit shops like Astor Place and Union Square Wine Merchant. Astor is a classic and I chatted up a clerk about Oregon wines, a frequent point of conversation in place of pushing myself and my wines. This was reconnaissance. My distributor doesn't have much wine to sell but next year and beyond there should be more. The cold room at Astor was amazing. Union Square was also impressive. Lots of Burgs and a good selection from Oregon. Didn't catch anyone's attention but I was in a hurry. I also stopped at Warehouse Wines. The shop is warm and there are "bargains" but some I'm sure are spoiled. I'm testing Dr. Vino's advice. $30 Gouges Nuits St. George 1er? I couldn't resist. The bottles looked new to the shop, capsules spun, etc. I'm thinking the low price is more about the 2007 vintage than compromised goods. We'll see.

If you're on the Upper East Side, check it out
On the Upper West Side, I breezed through Acker Merrall. Then hit 67 Wines and Spirits and found the expansive upstairs. Had another nice chat about how Oregon wines sell - favorably it seems. Then to Nancy's Wines for Food, no longer owned by Nancy (at the counter in the pic above). They have my wine and it was nice to introduce myself and chat a bit about the lingering effects of the 2008 financial meltdown. I felt naive. In Portland, of course we were and are affected, but things in NYC seemed still so raw. It was a common refrain at other shops and even with family in the area who speak of '08 like it's still happening. Which it is. Strange times, these. We're a bit insulated in Oregon.

One of Crush's treasures
lso made it to the Upper East Side, to see the sleek Crush, the old school Sherry Lehmann, the stalwart Garnet, and made my way over to First and Vine, another smaller shop that has my wine. Had a lovely chat with the owner about the times and what wines are moving, like that. Got another report (there were many) of how my distributor is great to work with. All told, a great visit and I'm so grateful for the support I've gotten in New York so far.

The spoils
Along the way, I picked up a few bottles to stash in my luggage for the return trip. Chidaine Montlouis Brut, Ramonet Chassagne, the aforementioned Gouges and a rare to Portland anyway bottle of Olga Raffault Chinon Blanc. Yes, all French wine. Not cheap but not ridiculously expensive. All for research purposes that I swear I'll write about when I get around to opening them. Really. Promise.

Of course, looking at the Dr. Vino map there are days and weeks worth of stores I missed. They will have to wait for another trip. And there there are the on premise accounts. We tried to get to Dovetail and a few other places like SHO that have my wine or soon should. Unfortunately, nothing worked out this time but, again, I have little wine available in NYC still so we'll save those appointments for next time. I did have two lovely lunches at the West Side Steakhouse in Hell's Kitchen. More on that next time.

June 01, 2012

Chambers Street - NYC, Part 1

So I'm back from New York City and reflecting on a busy few days working the market there, which was great, and catching up with a place I've missed for too long. How incredible to spend my time going from wine shop to wine shop, and even pouring for a buyer at Chambers Street Wines with my distributor Todd. It means a lot to me to even think that that shop, of all shops, might possibly bring in my wine, at some point anyway. To be there would means a lot to me, as silly or uncool as that might sound. But maybe the whole reason for going to New York this time was to finish something from my last visit. You see, I'd never actually been inside Chambers.

My last trip to New York was nearly ten years ago, fall 2002 when I had an unusual visit to town. I used a certain name your price online service to get a cheap flight for the weekend for a college friend's wedding, and ended up with flights that got me into Laguardia on Friday just before midnight and left at dawn Sunday. The real problem was that I needed to be in Westchester county and had no money for a car, so I planned to train up there in the middle of the night, hoping to be met by another college friend who wasn't sure I'd be on that train. All I knew is that we had a history of appearing for each other in times of need. I got off at Chappaqua, the train departed, it was 2am and deserted. Except for Mark standing next to his car in the empty parking lot, grinning. Seeing him there was a great feeling at the end of a long day.

So I got a little sleep, we went to the wedding up the Hudson valley the next day and came back to Chappaqua for dinner. Now I needed to figure out a way back to Laguardia. Mark couldn't take me, the train didn't run early enough and a towncar was out of the question. My bright idea? Take the midnight train back to Grand Central and wander the streets of Manhattan for the night until it was time to take the subway to Queens. It would be just like my studies in Europe, where I got in the habit of taking long, late night walks through empty streets of London and Vienna, seeing the city a little differently than most people do.

Where did I want to go? Honestly, Chambers Street Wines. I didn't care that it was the middle of the night, the store long closed. Chambers had opened up the year before, not too much before 9/11, and I knew about it from Wine Therapy, the precursor to Wine Disorder, the most New York-centric wine discussion forum on the internet. Sorry inside joke. It's not just a forum, is it.

The Doghead, Robert Callahan, was the operative behind Wine Therapy and did the early website for Chambers. I loved reading his write ups on so many Louis/Dressner French imports that they featured, that you couldn't find on the west coast, that I was and remain fairly intensely interested in. I think they had Clos Roche Blanche Gamay for $7.99 or something, too cheap for most people to take it seriously. Those were good days for inexpensive, unknown wines.

With a bag over my shoulder, I took the subway downtown, got out at Chambers Street and went searching. And I couldn't find. Me. Direction boy. I can't recall not being able to find anyway. This was before smart phones and I didn't have the exact address, but it's a small area and I figured I'd find it. No luck. And all I wanted was to peer in the window like a dog locked out for the night. Even that would have been sweet for an irrational wine geek.

So I looked around and thought, what now? Of course, ground zero. World Trade Center. It's just a few blocks south and when I got there it was crowded. Remember, it's nearly 2am Sunday and, for the darkness, it looked like a decent afternoon's crowd at Pioneer Square here in little Portland. The flood lights were on the site, just a big pit then, but I'll never forget all the people, no one really saying anything. It's not like any other place.

I took my time there, reading the installations, remembering my first trip to New York as a teen when I had to wear a borrowed jacket at Windows on the World because of the dress code, mostly thinking of that day. Finally I turned away, walked down Wall Street and saw that something was getting back to normal in this town, two very drunk professional looking guys peeing on the steps of Federal Hall.

It was around 2:30am now. I was tired, I couldn't stop thinking about 9/11, the city was alive and deserted at once. I thought I'd walk out onto the Brooklyn Bridge. So over to the bridge run up, cyclists passing me occasionally as I went up the plank walkway, out onto the old bridge I'd never seen this close. Near the middle, I sat down on a bench, exhausted, the cars passing by, more bikes, some people once in a while, the early fall night air still warm or at least not cold, the river below and the giant buildings of lower Manhattan right there. I sat for nearly an hour, just thinking.

Heading back downtown on this trip, in the daytime, to pour at Chambers Street, that was sweet. I don't remember everything I was thinking about on the bridge back then, but it was October and I knew a late harvest was coming. I thought I might not be in New York in October much if I kept dreaming of making wine beyond my home experiments at the time. But I wanted to come back, at some point, with my own wine.

So here I was, at last. One of millions on the island on a mid-week day. But it felt special. And by the way, Chambers is at no. 148. And I'll be back long before another ten years pass.