Sunday, July 24, 2011

Taste of Mendocino 2011

I started writing this post almost a month ago but it kept getting shelved. In the world of higher education, July is not a slow month for me and my wine writing had to take a back seat, so I apologize for the long overdue report on Taste of Mendocino. Nonetheless, I was so impressed by this event and the wines of this region that you all still should read on.

Prior to this event, if you asked me to describe Mendocino County I would bring up things like Redwood trees, Lake Mendocino where I took trips as a kid, and it was the first county in the United States to decriminalize marijuana. After getting the opportunity to attend Taste of Mendocino last month, I would still mention all of those things, but I would also tell you that it is a hidden gem in the wine world and that the people behind the wine are some of the friendliest and most down-to-earth folks you’ll meet.

Hosted in the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, Taste of Mendocino gathered over 100 wineries, breweries, food establishments, and vendors from Mendocino County and brought them all together in San Francisco. The Fort Mason Center is a collection of old historic buildings and piers that previously served the American military headed to the Pacific. Now it serves as an ideal venue for hundreds of events throughout the year. Picture a big airplane hangar and that is what the Festival Pavilion is like. For Taste of Mendocino there were rows and rows of tables, organized into AVA’s and many times the winemaker was on the other side pouring.

Before I jump into the wine highlights of the day, I think it is really important to note a few other things about Taste of Mendocino.
First, their use of social media was great and put me in blogger heaven. Becoming more and more prevalent is the use of Twitter at events like this. With their own hashtag of #TOM11, it was not uncommon to see people with their Blackberry’s and iPhones, tweeting their thoughts on the wine while standing with the winemaker. Even cooler was that Taste of Mendocino had a booth set up and was projecting their TweetDeck on to the wall so you could watch and read what everyone was doing and thinking in real time. Not only did it give us a chance to share our thoughts, it also gave some pretty raw feedback to both the event organizers and the winemakers.
Second highlight was the chance to purchase wine directly at the event. Far too often these events take place and there are wines you discover and love with no chance to buy it without making another trip to the winery. Don’t get me wrong, I am never opposed to trips to my favorite wineries, but the convenience factor went way up being able to purchase directly from the event. Many places were also equipped to handle credit or debit cards. With all of this going on, it was easy to fill my reusable wine tote.
One winery I knew I needed to visit was Pacific Star Winery. I learned of them one evening while watching an episode of “In Wine Country.” They were profiling Pacific Star because of how close they are to the coast and what impact that has on the wine. Since hearing about them, I wanted to visit and was happy to get the chance to meet winemaker Sally Ottoson at the event. Along with some commonly found varietals, I thought the real find was the 2007 Charbono. I felt fortunate to try this rare varietal and found it to be full bodied with notes of plum and spice. I found it difficult to describe this one....guess I’ll just have to keep drinking more of it.

I also had the opportunity to speak extensively with Kelly of Paul Dolan Vineyards. A producer of organic and biodynamic wines, Paul Dolan Vineyards believes that their wines “express the ego of place – the unique expression of a carefully nurtured piece of land, made manifest in each bottle.” The organically certified 2009 Chardonnay was a great combination of citrus flavors on the front and I found the finish to be really smooth as the pear flavors joined the party. Aged primarily in stainless steel with just a little in new oak, I really enjoyed the balance of this Chardonnay. This combination gave it a very crisp feel without being overly tart. Selling for under $20 this is a well-balanced Chardonnay that is super easy to drink.

The final highlight of the day came from Couloir & Straight Line Wines. Proving the power of social media, I stopped by this table because I noticed several other wine bloggers commenting on the Pinot Noir. As I approached the table, winemaker Jon Grant was chatting it up with some other visitors and as I started to listen in I got the feeling that this guy was saying everything we love at WestToast. Jon believes in front loading the work to produce the best grapes he can and then let them go to work to produce great wine.
A low interference approach to wine making, Jon believes in letting the terroir come through in his wines. Jon produces both the Couloir and the Straight Line labels, with Straight Line being great quality and great value wines. Straight Line is the “work horse” for Jon so that he can also produce exceptional single vineyard Couloir wines.
I know there is a lot of doubt that California can stand up against Oregon Pinot, and I’ll be the first to admit that I love me some Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley. But let me tell you, Jon is making some remarkable, lower alcohol Pinot Noir that tells a story about a place and time.
My next trip exploring this region will be for the Winesong! event, coming up in September.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Spirited Away Part III: Sound of Seattle

After two posts dedicated to only vodka, I wanted to up my game and check out something new. I trekked to the Emerald City to visit West Toast Managing Editor Josh Gana, and while there we Fortunately for us the distillery we visited not only made great vodka, but some other amazing spirits as well!

Located on 15th Ave W near the Magnolia Bridge, Sound Spirits opened last September to become Seattle's first (legal) distillery since prohibition. Josh told me that he had been riding his bicycle past the distillery since is arrival in Seattle, but had yet to step inside the tasting room doors. We started our day with a taste of what is old in Seattle, with Josh giving me my own private tour of the University of Washington campus (founded 1861), so it was time for us to check out something new.

The tasting room was funky and fresh with local art gracing the white walls, and display cases lined with bottles of the two main spirits offered. We were greeted by Craft Distiller Steve Stone's mother-in-law at the tasting room table. She offered us our first taste - Ebb + Flow Vodka. Josh commented initially that he enjoyed the smoothness, and thought it would be a lovely sipping vodka. I concurred - silky and smooth to start, I found the flavor warm and toasty with hints of vanilla, and a finish that added a nippy bite. While we were tasting we were greeted by Stone himself, who talked to us about the vodka. A barley vodka, Stone intentionally leaves in some of the flavors during the distillation process. Because of this, Ebb + Flow Vodka is best sipped at room temperature so as to not miss any of the profile.

We sampled the gin next. Stone explained that when making gin one starts with vodka, infuses it with flavor, and then distills it again. He stated that in order to be gin there must be at least 50% juniper. I absolutely love gin, and was very excited to give it a try. I found the nose wonderfully complex with citrus and spice mixed into the juniper. Upon tasting I noted a very light hint of lime, and when I mentioned this Stone suggested it might be the combination of one of the other ingredients mixed with the orange peel he uses. He told us that for his gin he uses a blend of juniper, cardamom, coriander, angelica, orris root, elderflower, and orange peel. I particularly enjoyed the cardamom. It gave the gin a broad spiciness and kept the juniper from being overpowering.

We were also invited to try two other spirits - an aquavit that tasted strongly of anise, and a cardamom-mint liqueur that Stone has dubbed "Vow of Silence." I particularly enjoyed this liqueur. Cloudy in color and texture, it offered the flavor of brilliant fresh mint at the front of the taste, giving way to the gentle burn of cardamom that left me licking my lips and wanting more. I decided to return at the holidays when Stone told us they would be bottling this beautiful gem.

After tasting we got a tour of the distillery. Stone showed us the tanks in which he ferments the barley for his vodka. It makes sense that he would choose this route as a distiller - he's been homebrewing for 20 years! He creates his own mash, sending the spent grains to a local farmer to be eaten by cows ('must be happy cows,' one of our fellow tourists commented). After the fermentation process what is left is beer sans hops. This is what Stone distills into his vodka. He uses two different stills, and the end product trickles down copper piping into jars right on the distillery floor. While in the back we were treated to the sight and smell of the spices Stone uses to flavor his gin. As he spoke one could see how committed Stone is to his art - and at this point I am completed convinced that craft distilling, as scientific as it might seem, is indeed an art.

Special thanks to Steve and the rest at Sound Spirits - we really enjoyed your space, hospitality, and, of course, your spirits!

Monday, July 18, 2011

They Make Wine There? Louisiana Edition.

I actually don't have a darn clue if they actually make wine in Louisiana. Standby... OK, so the intertubes tell me there is a small production coming out of the state and actually is a Mississippi Delta AVA. Hmm, who knew?

I probably should have known because I just spent one of the sweatiest weeks of my life there at a "conference" in "New Orleans". One of my express goals of the trip was to find this rare and obscure nectar, despite having done absolutely no research beforehand other than packing not less than 2 changes of underwear per day. After arriving at the hotel, connecting with fellow wine drinkers Jill and Kathryn, we set off on the journey.

Three steps later it was just too damn hot, at which point proximity became the driving factor. I pulled out my iPhone and did what any super-sweaty, marginally intelligent wino would do: opened Google Maps and typed in "wine" to see what came up. The nifty little pin popped up 0.6 miles away, indicating a place called the Wine Institute of New Orleans. We were off!

As we walked up Tchoupitoulas Street towards the Institute, I saw a sign out on the street simply saying W.I.N.O. This was going to be awesome. And yes, that really is a street name. No, I don't know how to say it. Quit asking questions while I'm trying to write! We stepped inside, and it was like the first time Jimmy Buffett walked into Margaritaville. Self serve tasting! I'll say it again, self serve tasting.

W.I.N.O. approaches the art of wine from a shop, taste, and discover perspective. Their staff describe it best when they say:

Ever order a bottle or a glass of wine only to be disappointed?

With so many different wine labels in such a vast and growing market, choosing is sometimes not a pleasure, but a dilemma…

If you’ve ever felt that wine bar regret, w.i.n.o. is your dream come true!

Dream come true it was! With over 120 wines available in the store, W.I.N.O. utilizes the state-of-the-art Enomatic wine serving system putting the user in control of the experience. We plunked down a credit card and received what can only be described as a magical wine tasting card in return, and we were left to roam the store. Find the wine you want, stick the card in the reader, and press a button to get either a 1-ounce, half-glass, for full glass pour. Drink. Pick another wine and repeat the process. Tastes ranged from $1.00 to $20.00 and the selection spanned the globe. We ended up with a delicious cheese plate to pair with our tasting and had a simply wonderful experience completely in control of our destiny.

Simple concept, right? Give consumers a choice in their experience and they'll be more satisfied. Not quite so simple. Northwest readers likely will recall an effort to install the Enomatic system in Dundee, Oregon a few years ago only to end up in a protracted legal battle with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission which resulted in the business being shut down. Alas, you really can get away with anything in New Orleans...

W.I.N.O. was an awesome start to the trip and is definitely a place to check out next time you're in the bayou.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

2Towns Ciderhouse Open House

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I've mentioned 2Towns Ciderhouse in previous posts, but it wasn't until their Open House event that I got to know about what goes on behind the scenes. You may be thinking to yourself, "Hey Rick, wasn't their open house, like, three weeks go?" To that I say "yes," and like a fine wine, I promise it was a good thing this article aged.

Nestled in the back of a business park off of highway 34 right before one would cross the Willamette into Corvallis, 2Towns Ciderhouse is the creation of Cider Maker Lee Larsen. Everything might seem all puppies and rainbows from my previous posts, but believe me, Lee is a man with problems. Tons of them. Luckily for him, they're all good problems. Where do I even begin?

Having grown up with a father who is a hobbyist small-production winemaker, Lee was familiar with what it took to create fermented beverages. Knowing that creating wine is rather expensive and time-consuming, Lee's wife purchased him a home brewing kit a few years ago and that's what started it all. Small extract beers turned into more complicated batches and then eventually dabbling in cider for fun. When he realized brewing was something he was passionate about, the time eventually came to make a decision. Should he open a brewery? He could, but one can throw a stone from almost any point in the Willamette Valley and hit a microbrewery. With competition fierce, discussions lead to starting a cider company. It was a gamble, but one this full-time financial analyst thought was worth taking.

Obviously, one of the most important ingredients for creating traditional cider is the apple. 2Towns, however, doesn't have an apple orchard. Luckily, one great problem about acquiring apples is that their either relatively cheap (especially compared to wine grapes) or absolutely free. That's right, some people who own apple trees will literally beg people to come and take away their apples. One of these folks with an apple problem happens to be Oregon State University. You see, they have a Food Science program and said program has a test orchard. With not much to do with said apples once they're grown, OSU has agreed to create a partnership with 2Towns where they work with the students who then produce the exact type of apples Lee wants. They also let him use their artisan press. If that doesn't seem overwhelming, things get worse.

Lee's next (good) problem has been his facility. While he initially believed that two 500 gallon fermenters would hold him over for two years, it turns out his conservative approach to purchasing equipment became a (good) problem in itself. After two months into his two year investment, production and demand outgrew his initial forecast. Some financial analyst he is! Confronted with the (good) problem of needing to make more cider, one row of fermenters had to be replaced with the steel beasts you see on the left. Oh and the remaining plastic tanks on the right? Those are either gone at this point or soon to be replaced by one more steel tank. Notice that they're kind of out of room? They pretty much are, which is why it sounds like their landlord is willing to make them built-to-suit space in an expansion project already in the works. They probably won't even have to build their own walk-in refrigeration unit this time.

Much of what fueled the previously mentioned (good) problem is the incredibly large distribution 2Towns benefits from for being such a new company. Want to pick up some cider and don't live in Corvallis? No problem! 2Towns distributes to over 60 stores in the Willamette Valley and increasingly more in Eastern Oregon. You can even order some online and they'll ship it to you!

They even do events:
Thursday, July 14
5:30pm Tasting at Wine Styles -Corvallis, OR

Saturday, July 16
3:00pm Tasting at Corvallis Market of Choice, -Corvallis, OR

Saturday, July 16
4pm-close A specialty 2Towns cider keg will be Tapped at Flattail Brewpub, -Corvallis, OR

Tuesday, July 19
6:00pm Promo Night at Suds & Suds -Corvallis, OR

Saturday July 30th
3:30-7pm Philomath Uncorked Wine Walk -Downtown Philomath, OR

Sunday, July 31
7:00pm Tasting at Moonlight & Music Festival -Brownsville, OR

Wed, August 3rd
2:30pm-9pm Taste of the County at the Benton County Fair, -Corvallis, OR

Sunday, August 7
11:30am Tasting at Albany Criterium Bike Race! -Albany, OR

September 2nd, 3rd, 4th
Bounty of Benton County Weekend - 2 Towns Ciderhouse will be at Afton Field Farms, -Corvallis, OR

October 6th, 2011
6:00pm Promo night at American Dream Pizza- Downtown Crowbar -Corvallis, OR
Raffles, Prizes, Schwag, and At least Four Seasonals On Tap!!!

Coupled with an incredibly supportive family, friends with a wide array of skills willing to pitch in, and unlimited growth potential in an untapped market, I don't know what other (good) problems Lee could face. What I do know is that 2Towns Ciderhouse is ran by some of the nicest people I've met in the industry and their enthusiasm towards what they do is unrivaled. Definitely do yourself a favor by checking out their cider. Heck, by the time you read this, it will probably be on tap at your local pub anyway.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Spirited Away Part II: Cold Shoulders

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Starting at home was a great way to get my feet wet in the world of non-wine (eek!). My next mission (as I chose to accept it) was to trek down to Northern California, home of West Toast Staff Writer Jesse Andrews. I drove through the night and slept out under starry skies for this assignment...and it was totally worth it!!!

After learning about vodka on my first spirited away trip, I decided to continue my education in spirits by sticking to what I know - or at least kind of know! I spent some quality time with internet search engines looking for other opportunities to taste vodka. I knew I wanted to do something interesting, unique, and informative. When I found Graziano's Ristorante and Vodika Lounge I knew I had a winner!

Vodka never looked so good

Just off the main drag in Petaluma, CA, Graziano's offers Italian food in a relaxed and inviting atmosphere, and, most importantly, it is home to Northern California's first vodka lounge. I would have been excited simply to go to this unique place to try vodkas and hang out with my friend, but when I read further I knew this was a must-do. The lounge is housed inside of a glass box that is super cooled to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Guests who wish to sample the over 80 options offered don faux fur coats to keep warm while enjoying a the chilly experience.

Amy braved the icy cold room without a coat...for a while

The day was HOT, and it was a bit strange to slip my arms into a heavy jacket when all day I'd been trying to keep cool in a sundress, but I was immediately glad to have the protection when we entered the lounge. We could see our breath, and the breath of our hostess, Amy, as she talked us through the selection. Beautiful bottles of vodka lined the shelves, backlit with a blueish-violet light, giving the vodka a surreal glow. A glass case stood to one side of the glass tasting table, highlighting several rare and expensive brands and handmade glasses. Amy explained that about half of the vodkas in the room were flavored, and that half were simply vodka - if you can call it simple, as we were soon to learn.

I knew that vodka could be made by distilling alcohol from many different sources, but here was the chance to actually see it. Rice, wine, potato, wheat...each label promised some kind of angle on this classic spirit. We asked Amy if there was any kind of protocol for vodka tasting - winos trying to make sense of a new world. She said she did not know, but suggested we start with the unflavored vodkas, and then move on to the flavored ones, sweetest flavors last (I looked online to see if there is indeed any organized way to taste vodka, and there isn't - now we know Amy!). That said, if you were ever to go out and taste a number of vodkas, I'd most definitely take Amy's advice.

In the heart of wine country a lovely vodka emerges

A basic tasting includes the choice of 4 vodkas - not tastings so much as shots of each one. We started by trying one of Petaluma's own - Stillwater Spirits' American Single-Malt Vodka. This was one of the featured vodkas lined up on the tasting room table for us to check out up close and personal. I really enjoyed this one - it was smooth from start to finish, with gentle tones of vanilla caramel mid-palette.

There were so many choices - who's a girl's best friend???

After that the options became waaay daunting. I listened to Amy talk about some of the featured vodkas. One that caught my eye was Baojing Vodka, for two reasons: one, it is made by distilling fermented rice - something I had yet to try; and two, it was filtered through 168 carats of diamonds. Remember how in my last article I mentioned that vodka could be filtered through a number of things...? Apparently diamonds are one such filter. That said, I did not find this Chinese vodka to be one of my favorites. It started smoothly, but burned through the middle and finish with hints of sake throughout. If you a person who wants a kick in your liquor this vodka is for you!

Jesse however opted for another smooth ride - Swan's Neck vodka. Amy told us this was her favorite of the unflavored vodkas in the lounge, and that she would always ask for it if it was available when she wanted a vodka drink. Out of San Francisco, CA, this vodka starts as wine made by the distiller, and then is distilled from there into vodka. It was incredibly smooth and sippable, with a light hint of chocolate throughout. If I'd been inclined to walk off with a bottle of vodka after this experience I would have gone with this one.

Graceful in flavor and in the bottle

From there we jumped to some of the flavored vodkas. I started with Pinnacle Whipped Cream - WHEW!!! Usually when I tasted flavored vodka I am searching for flavor amid the burn (Amy assured me I have just not been drinking the right vodka). Not so with Pinnacle. Marketed as a French vodka from White Rock Distilleries in Lewiston, ME, the Pinnacle line includes the Whipped Cream variety I tried along with 28 other flavors including Cake, Root Beer, and Butterscotch. The Whipped Cream was unbelievably sweet despite being 80 proof (danger!). It was velvety on my tongue, creamy I am sure more by suggestion that reality. The flavor was pure vanilla whipped cream as true as the flavor matching of Jelly Belly beans. I enjoyed it, but think I would probably grow tired of how sweet it is quickly. I would most certainly use this in decadent desserts!

Pinnacle was literally like drinking whipped cream

While I was drinking whipped cream in a bottle, Jesse picked out Hangar One's Kaffir Lime, another California vodka - this time from Alameda. Hangar One prides itself on being a craft distillery, and offers a straight vodka as well as a fruity lineup of Spiced Pear, Kaffir Lime, Mandarin Blossom, Fraser River Raspberry, and Buddha's Hand Citron. The Kaffir Lime was another sweet flavored vodka that offered no burn, but instead the sweet tart tang that reminded me of lime otter pops from when I was a kid.

I ended my tasting session with one of the organic vodkas offered (duh - of course she would). Offered in reusable bottles, 360 Vodka touts itself as being "the Planet's first ECO Friendly Vodka." I sampled the Double Chocolate - it was delightfully bitey with both bitter and sweet flavors throughout. The finish was sweet and lingering and reminded me of drinking Nestle's Quik when I was little. Jesse and I laughed about the fact that the last two vodkas we sampled were easily equated to childhood flavors - not sure what that says about us...or our childhoods.

Sold in swing-top cap bottles, 360 aims to reel in the hippie crowd

Jesse and I enjoyed our experience immensely - we learned a lot about vodka, were entertained, had great vodka to taste, and enjoyed the company of our gracious hostess - Thanks Amy, we wish you luck in your future!!! Afterwards we decided to cut the edge of our vodka buzz (we were drinking, not tasting) with some of the food in the restaurant. Jesse told me about how he'd been to Graziano's in the past before dances in high school!

We were spirited away to a land of chill and spirit

And, of course, the faux fur coats totally rocked!!!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Portland + Organic Beer = Great Pictures

Just a taste of what the Rose City has to offer. In case you missed it this year, mark your calendar for next year. Here's how North American Organic Brewers Festival describes it:
"Two of Portland's beloved industries - organic beer and sustainability - come together in an annual celebration designed to raise awareness about organic beer and sustainable living. We serve up organic beers and ciders from around the world, accompanied by live music, organic food, sustainability-oriented vendors, non-profits and a children's area - all in a beautiful tree lined setting that overlooks downtown Portland. Come visit the North American Organic Brewers Festival and see why we're Portland's best kept secret of beer fests!"

North American Organic Brewers Festival

It’s an event with a title that makes some people laugh -- Organic Beer, isn’t it all Organic most people ask. The short answer -- yes, these selections are just a little MORE organic. According to the event program all the beers in the NAOBF are either 100% organic, organic 95-99% or made with organic ingredients 70-95%. The EPA says that commercial agriculture is responsible for 70% of pollutions in rivers and streams around the country so I suppose drinking organic beer really does help.

Here’s how it’s defined by
“Organic certification has several different levels. The highest level of certification is “100 Percent Organic,” and is achieved when only organically produced ingredients and processing aids are used (i.e. no chemicals or pesticides). Next is “Organic,” which are those products that contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. The remaining ingredients must be proven not to be available in organic form in the quantity and quality needed for the product. The non-organic ingredients must be included in the USDA's National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. At present, hops usually comprise the non-organic component of certified organic beers, because some varieties can be hard to obtain in organic form.
Members of the American Organic Hop Grower Association (AOHGA) have argued that the National Organic Standards Board’s (NOSB) allowance of non-organic hops in organic beer has created an economic disincentive to grow organic hops. In turn, many brewers, some of whom are also AOHGA members, who produce beers with organic hops have argued that their costs are higher, and that there is a difference between their products and those produced without organic hops. The dynamic created by the NOSB, a regulatory catch-22, has slowed the growth of U.S. organic hop production by preventing the development of a feasible organic hops market in America. In December 2009, the AOHGA petitioned the USDA to have hops removed from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. As a result, in October 2010, the NOSB Handling Committee recommended a two-year transition period towards removal of hops from the list. By 2013, all beers bearing the word “organic” on their labels must be brewed with organic hops. The two-year window is intended to give brewers and growers time to secure organic hop stocks, and should result in the availability of a much greater variety and supply of organic hops in the long term.”

Anyway, back to Portland’s Organic Beer Fest. Accompanied by Craig, Melanie and Abbey we jumped on the Max Yellow line down by Union station for the ride across the river and up the hill to Overlook Park. There was a long line but short wait to get our ID’s checked and get in the gate. Then we quickly got our cornstarch glass and tokens (we got one for free since we’d ridden the Max up) and went to get in line for our first sample.

Here’s what I tried (and what my friends and I thought about them):

#1: Fish Tale Organic IPA (Fish Brewing Co -- Olympia, WA)
malt, wood, sweet, smooth hops

#2: Rose City Red (Lucky Labrador Brew Pub -- Portland, OR)
very mild first taste, bitter at the end

#3: Organic Black Lager (MateVeza -- Ukiah, CA)
burnt coffee, hearth, peat taste

#4: Hop, Skip & Go Natural (American Brewing Co -- Edmunds, WA)
crisp summer brew, bitter middle
My favorite of the day -- the only one I got a full glass of

#5: Green Lakes Organic Ale (Deschutes Brewery -- Bend, OR)
sweet smell (my scribbled notes started to get worse as the day went on and I can’t read the rest)

#6: Organic Acai Berry Wheat (Eel River Brewing Co -- Scotia, CA)
touch of sweet to tip of tongue, very similar to Leinenkugel’s Berry Weiss

#7: Galactic Imperial Red (Hopworks Urban Brewery -- Portland, OR)
sweet and bitter mix *biggest line all day was for this beer 9.5% ABV maybe ;)

#8: Rise Up Red (Hopworks Urban Brewery -- Portland, OR)
Light, a perfect beer for those who insist they only like large scale domestic products

#9: Spruce Budd Ale (Fort George Brewery & Public House -- Astoria, OR)
recommended by someone I met in another line, citrus taste, much lighter than you’d expect

Friday, July 8, 2011

Ballard's Three Courses and a Glass

One recent Saturday in pursuit of an eatery from which to watch the Second Ascent Twilight Crit, I discovered one of Ballard’s best kept culinary secrets: Portalis Wine Shop’s Three Course Dinner.

Located near the intersection of 20th Ave NW and Ballard Avenue, the bar at Portalis was a perfect vantage point to see the finish line of the classic bike race; add some great wine and an awesome dinner special to the equation and you’ve got the makings of a perfect evening.
The magic of Portalis is twofold. Well, for me it’s threefold as the ability to walk there from my domicile is a big plus, but for the broader audience I’ll focus on the two reasons you should visit.
  • Reason one: a phenomenal bottle selection with a reasonable corkage fee. In addition to a robust “by the glass” northwest wine menu, at Portalis you can bring a friend, grab any bottle off the shelf, and the staff will open and pour the wine for just $15 over the retail price. With hundreds of bottles available in the shop, there’s a little something for everyone’s palate.
  • Reason two: The rotational menu Saturday Dinner. Three gourmet courses for a fixed price; often at a very cost effective $25.00. We’re not talking burgers and fries, either. The Saturday of my visit I started off with a nice green bean salad, followed by a delicious pork tenderloin course, and finished with the star of the evening, a sweet corn bread and fresh berry dessert. The food was top notch, service great, and wine pairings spot on.
Next time you’re in Ballard, stop by Portalis whether you’re looking for a glass of wine, a gourmet dinner, a spot to watch a bunch of people in spandex ride around the block on a bicycle, or all of the above. You won’t be disappointed.

Managing Editor Josh Gana also covers wine for Seattle Pulp, a place to share the things Seattle loves. This article was originally published there.

Portalis Wine Shop & Bar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Spirited Away Part I: Starting at Home

So a while back it occurred to me that in my summer travels I will be in the vicinity of each and every other West Toast staffer. That got me thinking - why not do a series of articles where I venture out with my colleagues for fun, sun, and quality beverages? Thus the Spirited Away tour was born - 3 states, 6 trips, and a summer full of adventure!

To kick off my summer of spirited fun, I decided to take a trip just down the road to the newest distillery in Oregon. Located in Adair Village, OR, 4 Spirits Distillery opened just this year by offering Slaptail and Webfoot Vodkas. I attended their first public tasting on June 10 at Deb's Mixers in Corvallis. An avid wine lover, I usually relegate vodka to a sidebar in mixed drinks when I grow tired of pinot noir (and that is a rare occasion). Generally I find it harsh, and drown it with cranberry, orange, name it. But you know me, I am a sucker for local business, and I just had to try it out.

I was taken at the first sip. The vodka was unbelievably smooth, with soft hints of vanilla mid-palette. What I was most impressed with was the finish however - instead of the harsh burn I associate with the vodka's I've had in the past, this one stayed open in flavor, bringing the smoothness all the way through. Here it was - a vodka that made me give vodka a chance. I was thoroughly impressed. My friend Chris was equally excited, and picked up some bottles to have at the bar at Block 15 (note well locals - ask for Slaptail when you get your drinks there!).

I was also impressed with the conversations I had with Owner and Craft Distiller, Dawson Officer, and Director of Sales and Marketing, Sarah Wayt. I admitted that I knew little about the making of Vodka, being such a dedicated wine snob (or snob-ish I suppose). Officer treated me to a bit of a tutorial about why distilleries start with Vodka - fascinating. For those of you like me who know nothing (and I mean nothing) about the making of spirits, know that most distilleries start with vodka since there is no need to age it. It takes only 7-8 days start to finish to produce a batch, so if a distillery wants to get product out vodka is the way to go. Officer told us that there will be rum in the works in the future, and then on to whiskey. When chatting with Wayt she suggested that Chris and I come out to see the operation.

If you look back at the picture above, that was what greeted us as we pulled up to the distillery - a large industrial door, emblazoned with the 4 Spirits logo, greeting people in to the giant concrete building. Officer and Wayt also greeted us, and welcomed us into the tasting room and distillery space. It is probably a good point in the story to give you some history. The distillery is housed in an old building at Camp Adair, a decommissioned Air Force base. When I researched the base history I found that Camp Adair (nicknamed Swamp Adair) was home to the 91st, 96th, 70th, and 104th infantry divisions during World War II. At one point nearly 50,000 soldiers and their families were housed there at a time when Corvallis was a town of only 14,000. The building where the distillery is housed served to generate power for a massive radio communications operation. The history is given great credence as one enters. We were treated to walls covered with old photos showing the people who lived in the camp, mixed in with modern snapshots of Officer's own tour in Iraq.

That is the other part of the story of 4 Spirits. Not only does the space and place serve as testament to those who served so long ago, but it also as reminder and memorial to the veterans of our modern conflicts. Officer served in the Oregon National Guard 2 Battalion, 162 Infantry Brigade. The very logo we looked at as we entered the building is a composite of four soldiers with whom he served - and who lost their lives serving in Baghdad in 2004. Officer explained that he wanted to remind people that there are still soldiers fighting and dying in foreign conflicts, and that this should not be forgotten. Standing among these photos, under the hauntingly beautiful logo, in a building meant for supporting war efforts, there was no way to escape thought of those who are still out there serving - and those who are no longer for any reason.

Pictured left to right: still, filtering tank, filter, water tank, proofing tank, bottling machine

Just past the tasting room space we could see the place where the magic happens. Wayt and Officer took us behind the counter and talked us through the process of making vodka. I found the description to be demystifying and fascinating. Take a look at the photo above to see what I am talking about. First, undistilled product is placed into a 55 gallon still. Falsely believing that vodka is only made from potatoes, I was surprised to learn that one can make vodka out of pretty much anything - potato, rice, grains - even by distilling wine or beer. Officer uses ethanol to start, putting it into the still where it evaporates upward into the copper pipes, and trickles down through copper mesh. Some of it is caught during this process and pulled out, but some runs back down into the still to start the process again. Officer explained that it can be difficult to tell how many times a spirit is distilled for that very reason. During this time the distiller pulls out certain parts of the distilled product to remove undesirable flavors or impurities.

Second, the distilled alcohol is placed into a large tank and run continually through a filter. Vodka can be filtered in many different ways - at 4 Spirits they use charcoal. After that it is placed into the proofing tank, where it is kept at 20 degrees Celsius and water is added until it reaches 40%. Once proofed, the vodka goes to the bottling machine (affectionately dubbed R2D2). The filled bottles go to labeling where labels are put on by hand (either Slaptail or Webfoot - both are the same brew), and boxed up for distribution.

It was wonderful for me to not only be walked through the process, but to get to see it in action as well. A hands-on learner, it was such a treat to watch the vodka cycling through the filter, touch the bottling machine, and see the labels on the spool. Officer also let us in on one of the distillery's secrets - an ingenious move that adds both style and function to the space. If you want to know the secret to the 4 Spirits' sauce, all you need to do is visit and ask!

Officer shared that there are plans in the works to start making rum in the near future. Because rum needs to ferment during production, and requires some amount of aging, we won't be seeing 4 Spirits rum anytime soon, but I am most certainly excited. I hope to get a sneak peek for us in the future. Until then I will have to simply drink Slaptail (Corvallis here - must be a beaver) at one of the many local places that have picked it up (it is being featured in the drink 'slap happy' at Downward Dog).

Officer and Wayt welcome us to the tasting room

The tasting room is currently not open to the public, but you can follow 4 Spirits on Facebook and they will let you know when it is! I highly recommend a trip out there to see the space, meet the wonderful people, and, of course, drink the vodka. I celebrated a wonderful day full of kind people, interesting knowledge, compelling history, and excellent spirits, with my very first vodka martini, served to me extra dirty with two olives by Seth at Block 15. Of course I 'tailed it up!

Special thanks to Dawson and Sarah for their hospitality and excellent teaching. I am excited to see 4 Spirits grow in the future, and highly recommend you give Slaptail (or Webfoot) a try!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How do you celebrate?

With wine, duh.  And mythical eagle/lion creatures.

Here at WestToast, we’re firm advocates of the philosophy that you really don’t need a special occasion to open that special bottle of wine; opening the bottle is occasion enough.

That said, let’s be honest…there are always going to be those bottles that you pass over on the rack waiting for that moment of celebration, be it because the particular wine has sentimental value, ratings value, or just plain dollar value that scream “hooray!” when you touch it.

We’ve had plenty of cause to celebrate lately, so as a public service to you here’s a rundown of what we pour when things are going really well:
  • Col Solare: We’ve profiled this red Bordeaux blend a few times on The Oregon Wine Blog, and it truly is the default celebratory wine. Intended to be the best red blend in the state of Washington, Rick and I first experienced the 2005 vintage in honor of a new job, new roommates, and friendship (awwww). We’ve enjoyed the 2006 subsequently as a housewarming celebration and when Rick got a new job in Portland last year.
  • The Griffin: Moving down South to the Rogue Valley, The Griffin is another Bordeaux style blend produced by Willamette Valley Vineyards when they feel like they have the right fruit for it. You may remember this from the magnum birthday celebration of 2010; and more recently it had a leading role in celebration part 1 for Rick’s recent promotion.
  • Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon: This is one of those highly rated, expensive, hard to get wines that my Mom put under the Festivus tree this past year, apt timing as I had just gotten an awesome new job and was moving to Seattle shortly thereafter. Rick and I cracked open this 2005 vintage for my first night in Seattle and the bottle is still sitting on my bookshelf.
  • Woodward Canyon Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon: We were sold on this wine after our visit to the winery back in March, and it made the journey to Pullman, Washington in honor of the pending launch of and, hell, because we were seeing Ludacris in concert. It’s Luda, come on!
  • Woodward Canyon Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon: Rick’s promotion celebration part 2 called for a special bottle, and since I wasn’t there to enjoy The Griffin with him this 2007 vintage was the one. As I write this article, I’m sitting on the rooftop deck of my building still recovering from it’s awesomeness.
  • Willamette Valley Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir: Specifically, the 2006 vintage. For some reason, ’06 Oregon Pinot has a special place on my palate and this bottle was the perfect match with some grilled salmon to celebrate a friend’s recent move to California. It’s one of the wines that got me into wine.

Now, as you read through this I can see the dollar signs flicker in your eyes, and you’re right; this shit ain’t cheap, yo. To not give you a skewed view of the privileged lives of bloggers, there have been many, many, many $10 and $15 bottles to counterbalance the moments of celebration. We realize how lucky we are to have so many reasons to celebrate and the perfect wines to do so. At the end of the day, though, it’s the people and experiences that make a wine special, and these bottles are no exception.

What’s in your glass when you have something super special going on?