Monday, May 25, 2009

Lamb Feast in Dundee

Do you know where your food comes from? These days the food on your plate has likely traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles to reach your table. Sure, it allows you to enjoy something almost, but not totally, unlike a tomato year 'round, but it comes at a cost. First, it's spent a lot of time and used a lot of fuel to get from where ever it was grown to where you are. This means that in the case of produce, it was likely picked before it was ripe, and it has probably been genetically modified to emphasize the ability to travel well, not necessarily to taste great. Finally, it's caused the production of food to be concentrated in huge factory farming operations designed for the mass market. Granted, this has given us access to some of the cheapest food in the world, but I think we've lost something in the bargain. I could list many advantages of locally produced food and wine, but for me, the advantages are getting fresher and tastier food, more diversity in selections, and knowing that we haven't wasted energy hauling food half way around the world. It also allows us to get to know the people who produce what goes on our tables.

Why am I going on about eating and drinking locally? Last Thursday, Rachel and I had a special dinner at The Dundee Bistro in honor of their 10th anniversary. Dundee is right in the middle of Oregon wine country and has been described as a little town with one stop light and three gourmet restaurants. Chef Jason Stoller Smith joined the Bistro in 2002 and focuses on regional dishes that highlight the best seasonal and sustainably farmed local ingredients. In honor of their 10th anniversary, they put on a 4 course lamb feast paired with Ponzi wines. The lamb all came from SuDan Farm in Canby, and owners Dan and Suzie Wilson (Su-Dan, get it?) were on hand to talk about their farm and share their passion for lamb. Rachel and I had a long chat with Susie before dinner started and found out about how their operation works and got some good recipe tips. I sat next to Dan during the dinner itself and got all my questions about lamb answered. In reference to wanting lamb that tasted "lambier" or gamier, Dan suggested that we may want an older animal. He said that he'd be happy to work with us to get a young sheep (about a year old) and provide us with parted and frozen locker lamb. I think we'll take him up on that as soon as we're done with the lamb we have (which is getting close).

The food was amazing. Jason chose to use less popular cuts of the lamb and present them in unusual ways. The first course was a pepper cured lamb neck that had been rolled into a cylinder, slowly braised, then cut into inch thick slices. The slices were then breaded and fried, and served with a leek purée and black truffle aioli. The lamb was tender and flavorful, although the leek purée seemed to be missing something. This was paired with the 2008 Ponzi Pinot Gris - a nice crisp wine with nice acidity.

The second course was a bowl of lamb shoulder polpettini (little meatballs) with Parmesan brodo (broth) with shredded asparagus and blue lake beans. The broth was rich and flavorful and the shredded veggies were cooked perfectly. The meatballs were good, but again, I was looking for perhaps bolder flavors. This course was paired with 2006 Ponzi Chardonnay Reserve done in 10% new oak. It was crisp with a smooth mouthfeel without being buttery.

The main course was a lamb shank confit served with English peas and a Niçoise olive and caper vinaigrette. The lamb was very tender and flavorful and the peas were cooked perfectly - firm but not crunchy. This course was paired with the 2007 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, a light elegant Pinot with a hint of smokiness.

The cheese course was last, and it was amazing. Jason had asked Dan for some lamb belly which he cured and smoked to create lamb bacon! He crisped the bacon and served it over Cypress Grove fromage blanc in endive with red grapes gremolata. Hmmm, was that bacon tasty! It turned out so well, that it will probably appear occasionally on the Bistro's bacon tasting menu (ya gotta love a restaurant with a bacon tasting menu!) This was paired with the 2006 Ponzi Vino Gelato - a nice, well balanced ice-wine style blend of Riesling and Muscat.

The portion sizes were perfect, so we were full but not stuffed, and the wine pours were such that we didn't have to take a cab home. It was a pleasure to get to know Dan and Susie, and I know where our next lamb is coming from. California bills itself as "the land of food and wine," but we have our own little slice of culinary paradise right here in Oregon.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Dobbes' Extended Family Event

Joe makes wine. Joe makes a lot of wine. In fact, in 2008 Joe Dobbes' company, Wine by Joe, was the 4th largest producer in Oregon. He makes some fantastic wine for his Dobbes Family Estate label and a good line of value wines for his Wine by Joe label. He also sells a lot of bulk wine to various clients. But in the middle, he makes wine for a number of smaller family wineries which they sell under their own labels. It's quite possible that one of your favorite Oregon producers is a client of Joe's.

On Sunday May 17th, Wine by Joe brought many of these small family producers together for an open house at the winery. It was a great opportunity to taste and compare many of Joe's wines made using different varieties of grapes from many different regions of Oregon and Washington made for different clients. There were 11 brands represented, each at their own tasting table, along with Dobbes Family Estate to make an even dozen. They also had their usual nice selection of snacks.

Aside from the good wine, the thing that impressed us most about the event was how well it was organized and run. They had staff constantly re-stocking the food table, emptying the dump buckets at each winery, supplying water for rinsing glasses, and generally ensuring that everything ran smoothly. It was impressive! I certainly hope that they make this an annual event.

Here's a rundown on the participating wineries:

Alexeli Vineyard was pouring a very nice 2008 Riesling (about 2% RS), and spicy but fairly ordinary 2008 Gewurztraminer, and a semi-sparkling Chardonnay that would have been very nice with a bit more acid.

Barron-Wahl Vineyards was pouring their 2006 Pinot Noir (dark fruits with a slightly funky nose) and their 2007 Pinot Noir which was light, fruity with a hint of smokiness.

Cliff Creek Cellars is one of our favorite producers of big warm climate red wines. They were pouring their 2004 Claret (a very nice Bordeaux blend), 2004 Syrah (very solid example of a warmer climate syrah), 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (very nice with chewy tannins), and the 2005 Merlot (good, but not exceptional).

Dobbes Family Estate was pouring a few of their wines: the 2005 Grand Assemblage Syrah (very nice with smooth tannins), a very floral 2006 Viognier, a light and pleasant 2007 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, and their very nice 2007 Grand Assemblage Pinot Noir.

Elstrom Estate Vineyard was pouring their 2007 Pinot Gris (somewhat weak but with a good finish) and their 2008 Pinot Gris (great fruit but a weak finish), an excellent layered, subtle and complex 2005 Pinot Noir, and a big, fruity 2006 Pinot Noir.

Fox Farm Vineyards was pouring a good, drinkable 2007 Pinot Gris, a 2007 Pinot Noir with good color, extraction, and slight caramel notes, and their 2007 Syrah with great black fruit, but somewhat simple.

Paschal Winery was pouring their 2005 Civita, a good red table blend, a very nice 2005 Syrah that was spicy with notes of black cherry, a good white table blend called 2006 Maya's New White, and their wonderful 2006 Sangiovese/Dolcetto blend that we had at Newport.

Quailhurst Vineyard Estate was pouring their 2004 Pinot Noir (very good prototypical '04), an interesting non-typical 2006 Pinot Noir with flavors of toast and caramel, and a 2006 Virtuoso White blend that we didn't care for.

South Stage Cellars brought their 2007 Pinot Noir (a bigger, fruitier PN from southern Oregon), the 2007 Monte Rosa (a nice red blend), a nice sweet 2008 early Muscat, and a fairly ordinary 2008 Viognier.

Trinity Vineyards brought their 2006 Pinot Gris (a bit light), a very nice 2006 Pinot Noir, and rather plain 2006 Syrah, and a really nice, crisp, and floral 2008 Viognier.

Vitae Springs Vineyard brought a very nice complex 2006 Pinot Noir with a long lingering finish.

Youngberg Hill Vineyards had a very nice 2007 Pinot Gris with good balance, although I would have liked more acid. They also brought a great lineup of Pinot Noirs: 2006 Natasha Block (light for an '06 but great fruit), 2006 Jordan Block (good, earthy), and a 2006 Barrel Select (dark with great extraction).

Monday, May 18, 2009

Pre-Memorial Day Wine Tasting

Memorial Day weekend is the big event in the Oregon wine lover's calendar. Nearly every winery in the state opens its doors and hosts an open house - many offering live music, barrel tasting, cave tours, tasty food, or other special perks. It's a great opportunity to visit many wineries that are not normally open to the public, but unfortunately things can get pretty crowded. However, for many years, the weekend before memorial day has been the time that those in the know have traveled out to visit those special wineries, getting to taste newly released wines or barrel samples without having to brave the crowds. More and more people are figuring this out, but it's still less crowded than Memorial weekend itself. Rachel and I ventured out this past weekend while the boys were at a swim meet in Washington, and had a whole series of wonderful winery visits.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take any pictures, but try to envision the perfect day in wine country - clear skies, temperatures in the mid-70's, bud break on the vines, and rolling hills of red clover. It really doesn't get much better than this. We kept gloating to ourselves, "We actually live here!"

We started out on Saturday around 11am and drove to Penner-Ash winery. We have tasted there once before, but aren't terribly familiar with their wines. As we drove up the dirt road to the winery, I was somewhat concerned that we might be the only people there, it being before noon and all. Not to worry - their parking lot was full and cars were parked all along the road. Fortunately a car was pulling out of the parking lot just as we got there, and we got a great spot. Because we are on their mailing list and had RSVP'd for the event, we were told "you can just bypass the pay station." I like that! They really put on quite an event. Upstairs they were tasting their 2007 Riesling (off dry and crisp), 2008 Viognier (yeasty and interesting) and the 2008 Roséo rosé (fairly interesting). Downstairs in the winery itself they were serving a variety of their released reds along with a bunch of barrel samples. Most of the released Pinot Noirs were 2007s, and while there are some really nice '07's out there, most are more toward the subtle and restrained side rather than in your face like warmer vintages. We're told that this is a more typical Oregon vintage, and I appreciate it for what it is, but in general I tend to prefer the warmer vintages. Our favorites were the Carabella Vineyard (bright fruit, rose) and the Shea vineyard (darker and earthier, but certainly more subtle than some years). They also had a barrel selection called Pas de Nom which was very elegant, refined, and smooth, but perhaps not worth the $90 they wanted as a pre-order. The 2008 barrel samples were fun in that they were tasting the individual clones before blending. We thought that the Pommard clones were all fruit up front without much on the finish, the 114 clones added "zing" but not much else, and the 777 clones gave big fruit and some smokiness to the wine. The 115 clone from Bela Vida vineyard was really wonderful, and seemed to combine good fruit up front with a longer finish. Finally, they tasted a 2006 Syrah from southern Oregon that was very smooth for a Syrah, almost like a Pinot. In addition to the wine, the snacks were incredible - great cheeses, a carmelized onion tart, and a strange cheesy french toast among others. This was a very well done event, and the price (free) made it perfect. We brought home a bottle of the 2007 Shea vineyard Pinot Noir.

Next, we headed over to Calkins Ln. Faithful readers will recall that I attended the Calkins Ln event last month to pre-taste some of the wines. Our first stop was Arborbrook. Again, because we are on their mailing list, we had received a complementary invitation. In addition to the wines I tasted in April, they had just released their 2007 Vintner's select Pinot Noir and were barrel tasting the 2008 Estate Pinot Noir. The '07 Pinot Noirs that had been released so far had been good, but not as intense as I had been hoping. The Vintner's Select (a selection of the 4 best barrels) was everything I thought had been missing from the other 2007s: much more intense flavor and more smokiness/earthiness. For the 2008 barrel tasting, Dave had 2 samples: one that had been harvested in early October and one that had been harvested in late October. The earlier harvest showed more structure and layers, while the later harvest was fuller and rounder - almost sweeter although both were fully dry. Then he blended the 2 together for a really nice wine. We bought futures for the 2008 estate (the first time we've ever bought wine futures) and look forward to a really nice wine.

After Arborbrook, we drove up Calkins Ln and in less than a mile came to Lachini. In addition to the wonderful wines that I tasted during the Calkins Ln event last month, they were also tasting some of their older "library wines." The current releases were inside the tent that they usually set up adjacent to the barn, but they were pouring the library wines out under a portable gazebo on the grass surrounded by the vineyards. Not bad, not bad. They were pouring 2003-2005 Estate Pinot Noir as well as the 2005 Giselel's Cuveé. We have tasted the 2003 and love it (still have a couple bottles left), but had never tried the '04 or '05. The '04 was very spicy and interesting, while the 2005 was layered and more subtle. We tried to buy both the '04 and '05, but they were only selling the '04 in magnums, and we weren't prepared to do that. Near the lawn area, Lachini has a wonderful flagstone patio surrounding a huge oak tree. We grabbed a couple of lamb-kabobs and a lemongrass soda and settled in under the oak tree for a rest. It was so quiet and peaceful sitting there in the vineyard!

As we were turning onto hwy 240, we saw a sign that indicated that Shea Cellars was open. The Shea vineyard has some of the best Pinot Noir grapes in Oregon and they sell to many of the top producers. We first experienced wine from Shea grapes in the memorable Panther Creek 2003 Shea Pinot Noir, and we tend to collect Shea Pinots whenever we can. Shea also use some of their fruit to make their own wine under the Shea Wine Cellars label. They were tasting their 2007 Willamette Valley blend Pinot as well as a very nice Chardonnay. In addition, they had a number of barrel samples of the 2008 Pinot. The Chardonnay and the released '07 Pinot were very nice, but not spectacular. We again enjoyed tasting the clonal differences in the 2008 barrel samples, but were just blown away when we got to the 2008 Homer sample. Homer is their biggest, best Pinot blend, and I remember tasting the barrel sample of the '07 Homer last year and not being all that impressed. Well, the 2008 was amazing - big dark Shea fruit, with earth, smoke and minerals - really a wonderful wine. Given that we'd already primed the futures pump at Arborbrook, we also bought futures of the Homer. It's going to be really fun to open a bottle every year and see how it's evolving.

Moving on, we headed south toward Dundee and stopped at Maresh Red Barn. The Maresh vineyard is one of the oldest Pinot Noir vineyards in Oregon and they sell their fruit to some of the top wineries. In addition, they keep back some grapes and have it made (often by these same top wineries) into their own label wine. We had a delightful Pinot Gris that was light and crisp with lots of acid, and a couple of very nice Pinot Noirs.

Finally, we came into Dundee and stopped at Le Cadeau/Aubichon. This was the first time we'd tasted there, and had a nice chat with one of the four winemakers. Basically, they have a vineyard that they've divided amongst the four, and each takes his blocks and makes a Pinot Noir in the style they want. It was interesting to taste the different styles that the various winemakers produced from similar fruit.

That was enough tasting for the day, but we still had an appointment at the Scott Paul winery in Carlton for their Grand Cru Burgundy tasting class that evening. In preparation, we headed to the Golden Valley Brewery for dinner (no, I didn't have any beer). I had Tim's favorite burger there (the blackened bleu burger) and Rachel had a nice Cobb salad.

We arrived at Scott Paul a little before 6 and sat down at the long front table. Scott was pouring a nice Puligny Montrachet as a starter. Scott then talked about the various villages in Burgundy and their associated Grand Cru vineyards. Interestingly, it is the vineyard itself that has the Grand Cru designation, not the wine. Some of these vineyards are owned by many different producers, and each farms his rows and makes his wine the way he wants. The result is that just because a wine has "Grand Cru" on the label, doesn't mean it's going to be good. It just means that it comes from a vineyard that has the potential to make great wine. We tasted through 6 different wines, and all but the first were just wonderful. However, at the end of the day, perhaps my palate just isn't sophisticated enough to believe that the $125 to almost $300 a bottle is worth it. We really enjoyed trying the wines though, and it was obvious they were great wines, but we didn't buy anything.

All in all, a nearly perfect day. Good weather, great wine, fewer crowds, and a nice day out with Rachel. We're still looking forward to trying a lot of good wine over Memorial Day weekend, and this was a great warm-up!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Winery Work

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. Later, I wanted to be an astronomer, then a photographer, then a musician, then a teacher, then a chef, then... You get the idea. Fortunately, I've been able to do all of these things as hobbies (except the astronaut). These days, I want to be a wine maker when I grow up, although I'm starting to think I may never grow up. Right now I am in the middle of making my first batch of wine, but it's really a small scale operation (about 5 gallons). So I really enjoy the fact that Jon Armstrong, winemaker and partner at Purple Cow Vineyards, lets me come and play cellar rat from time to time. Over the past couple of years I've picked grapes, helped on the sorting line and other jobs during crush, and worked several stations on the bottling line.

Last night Jon and I, along with our friends Doug and Cheryl, racked his 2006 Tempranillo out of barrels and into a tank in preparation for bottling. The concept is fairly simple: pump the wine out of each barrel, through a filter, and into a tank, then clean the barrels. We started out by loading up a small filter with several filter pads, connecting hoses, and pumping ozonated water through the system to sanitize it. We also cleaned a large stainless steel tank with the ozonated water. We then drained the water from the hoses, and inserted a hollow wand on the input end of the hose into a partial barrel of Petite Sirah. This particular barrel was on the top of a 3 layer stack of barrels and in a part of the winery where we couldn't bring a forklift to move it, so it meant climbing up on the stack and draining the barrel in place. Normally there's not much that needs to be done while the pump is doing its work, but because the hose was a little short, I had to climb the racks and stand next to the barrel and keep the wand at the bottom of the barrel to make sure we didn't miss any wine. Naturally we had to sample the wine as we worked! Petite Sirah is usually a blending grape (and Jon was blending about 12% into the Tempranillo) and adds some nice structure and color to the blend. By itself it was very chewy and tannic, with a nice simple dark fruit flavor.

After the Petite Sirah, we started on the 5 barrels of Tempranillo. Fortunately, they were stacked up at the edge of all the barrels, and Jon used a forklift to bring them all down to ground level. Things were proceeding smoothly until we got to the 3rd or 4th barrel. All of a sudden, the wine stopped flowing, although the pump was still going. We thought we had a blockage in the wand and rinsed it out - still nothing. We looked for obstructions in the pump lines and fittings - nothing. We finally took the pump completely apart and found wood chips in the inner workings. Doug and I rinsed everything out and re-assembled the pump ("did that go on the top or bottom?") while Jon and Cheryl rigged up a screen to put over the end of the wand so we wouldn't suck up any more wood chips. Fortunately the pump started working again, and we kept going. Jon said that wine making is about 90% cleaning things and 9% fixing things, so I guess we were doing it all. We drained the remaining barrels without incident.

While we pumped, we had the Blazers game on the radio (not so good) and did a little more tasting (very good). I got to sample the 2008 estate grown Tempranillo - Jon's first quantity harvest from his own Tempranillo grapes. It was lighter in color than the CA Tempranillo and had a nose very similar to the Kelsey Pinot Noir. However, it was immediately obvious after one sip that it wasn't Pinot. It was much fuller and richer, and had some of that nice fruity Tempranillo flavor. It's already fairly smooth, so Jon was thinking that it probably wouldn't need the full 2 or 3 years in barrel.

As each barrel was drained, it needed to be cleaned out. Apparently in the old days, you'd take a pressure washer and squirt around thought the bung hole until the barrel seemed clean enough. However, the winery has a very cool high-tech gadget to really get the barrels clean. It's a long nozzle connected to a pressure washer that you insert into the bung hole of an upside-down barrel. The device has a geared head that slowly rotates through a series of movements so that in 5 minutes it squirts a very high pressure jet of hot water onto every part of the inside of the barrel. It's very loud and every few seconds spews a cloud of steam from the hot water out the bottom of the barrel, making it look and sound very much like a dragon.

After all the barrels were drained and cleaned, we tidied up the winery and called it a night. Other than the poor Blazers losing their playoff game, it was a really great evening. This weekend the crew will do more filtering and bottle the '06 Tempranillo. I'm off to an early music workshop on the coast, so I won't be able to join the fun. I'm looking forward to tasting the new wine after it's had a chance to rest in the bottle for a month or two. Purple Cow Tempranillo is one of my favorites.