Friday, March 29, 2013

Nectar Creek Honeywine

I'm staring at a 55 gallon barrel full of a golden, waxy substance. Sitting on top of it is what can only be described as the world's largest potato masher, its handle extending well into the air over my head. Next to the barrel, my host lowers a large vacuum-like pump into yet another barrel. What appears to be a second golden substance, this one fluid, races through the clear hose, channeled into a steel tank at the back of the room.

This is neither a strange made for TV movie on the sci-fi channel, nor is it some odd dream I had last night. It is a scene from my most recent foray into the grand world of Corvallis fermentation. A field trip to the home base of Nectar Creek Honeywine, where massive barrels of raw honey are slowly warmed by a heating element, pumped into steel tanks, and combined with water and yeast to make honeywine, or as some might know it, mead. The basic recipe is this:

Honey + Water + Yeast = Awesome

Heating element just about to start its work in warming 55 gallons of raw honey
 Pumping warmed honey into tanks for fermentation

Our hosts, mead-makers (meaderers? meadmasters? meadificators? meadmeiseters?) Phil and Nick Lorenz were kind enough to let us hang out in their space for a while, watch the magic, and taste their delightful beverages. Located in the Eastgate Complex off of HWY 34, one can drop in between 12 and 6pm Th/F/Sa to taste and chat. While Drew (of former Oregon Wine Blog glory) and I were there we got to see nearly the entire process (we declined to stay just over 3 weeks to see the finished product) of making a batch of honeywine.

Where honey becomes wine...

Each of the session meads boasted by Nectar Creek are made with locally-sourced Willamette Valley raw honey from Queen Bee Honey Co., and flavored with fresh ingredients. Currently there are three mead varieties (though we got to try a couple of tasty experiments as well):

Wildflower Session Mead: this has the simplest and cleanest flavor of the three. Light and crisp, it has a soft floral nose (as belied by its name), and a clear honey flavor. Just because it is made of honey does not mean it is sweet or syrupy. This mead is quite dry, and sparkles on the tongue with a hint of citrus in the finish. This is a great sipping beverage, or, as Morgan from Les Caves told me, it is an excellent mixer for a jazzed-up gin and tonic. Just be careful - it rings in at 6.2% ABV.

Drew enjoying the tasting

Raspberry Session Mead: with a vibrant berry color and fruity nose, this mead is packed with raspberry goodness. Again, not overly sweet, but tart in the way that fresh raspberries are tart. None of the flavor of the honey or flower is lost, just deepened and rounded out by the fruit. I'd sip this alone on a hot summers' day, or I might use it to soak a sponge cake, or make a fruity ice cream float.

The Raspberry Session Mead was by far the prettiest, and you know how I like pretty :)

Ginger Session Mead: we got a peek inside the cooler at the meadery, and saw the HUGE hands of ginger used to flavor this mead. It brings a spicy nip to the floral and honey flavors, and boasts a nose that is unmistakeably ginger. The warming finish left my mouth feeling clean and refreshed. Nick shared with us that this mead is excellent mixed with some whiskey, and I don't doubt it. I plan on taking my own bottle and adding a little sumthin' sumthin' in the near future.

A big thanks to Phil and Nick for being such gracious and informative hosts. Nectar Creek has been around less than a year, but it is clearly on its way to becoming a Corvallis (and Oregon) staple. If you are looking for something new, innovative, and tasty, I highly recommend!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

05-09 Griffin Creek Cabernet Franc Vertical Tasting

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My first wine tasting experience was memorable for many reasons.  My time working for Josh was wrapping up and he offered to take me up to Willamette Valley Vineyards to see what I might like.  I knew virtually nothing about wine at the time, but he insisted that if I was going to like any wine at all, WVV would be the place to find it.  He was right, but in a way that neither of us expected.

We tasted through whites I had never heard of, multiple pinot noirs, other reds with French names I couldn't remember, and then one red in particular that was super boozy and should not have been consumed in the same way as the previous pours.  While I still didn't know much, I was learning a ton and really enjoying the experience.  

Right as about we thought we were wrapping up, in comes an employee who looks like he just finished up either working in the vineyard or doing some landscaping.  He strikes up random conversation with us and asks if we've had the Cab Franc yet.  Even the woman behind the counter looked bewildered, so he pulls out a bottle of 2005 Griffin Creek Cab Franc from what was apparently a mystery compartment and pours some for the four of us; Griffin Creek being the Southern Oregon red wine label for WVV.  Like I said, I knew nothing, but I knew I loved this wine.  I wasn't alone either as we were all in a pleasant shock.  Josh left with a bottle and we've kept Griffin Creek's Cab Franc on our list as a perennial favorite.  

Fast forward five years and Josh has somewhat of a (good) problem.  Not only does he still have a bottle of 2005, but he has a bottle of every release up to 2009.  That's five years of Cab Franc just sitting around.  Sure, one could wait for the perfect moment to open them individually, but we had a better idea.  Why not try them all at once!?

So that's exactly what we did.  On March 16th, a few of us at WestToast (Josh, Andrea, and myself) along with friends (Erik, Chris, Megan, and Alyssa) gathered in one place with one mission: taste five years of Griffin Creek Cab Franc and tell the world what we think.  What you're about to read are the fruits of that labor.  

Before a single bottle was opened, Josh and I wanted to make sure we did this right.  This was kind of a big deal for us and we didn't want to be under prepared.  Each reviewer was presented a packet with tasting notes from each vintage as well as a sheet to write down their thoughts.  We also created tasting mats so people wouldn't lose track of which wine was what.  Big thanks goes out to WVV for offering free vector art of your wine label.  Accompanied with a rather extensive cheese plate, some fruit, small desserts, and copious amounts of water, we were good to go.  Onto the wine!

In case you were wondering, all of the Griffin Creek Cabernet Franc is Rogue Valley wine, primarily from the Fortmiller and Sundown Vineyards.  Good stuff.

The one that started it all.  A lot of the same ideas popped up in everybody's notes.  General consensus is that the 2005 has somewhat of a stronger earthy nose, but a surprisingly light and tart body.  Notes of blueberry and blackberry shined through with an incredibly smooth mouth feel.  Great on its own or paired with dark fruit.  We also agreed that if you have this on your shelf, pop it now or within a year. 

This one was quite the divergence from 2005.  Almost everybody picked up hues of tobacco and thought it was a lot more bold.  Pairing this with a steak or other red meat would be recommended over drinking it on its own.  After letting it settle for a bit, we all noted that it began to open up and the fruit itself started to shine.  I would recommend decanting this before drinking.  

2007 was more in line with 2006 than 2005.  Everybody picked up notes of leather and most made note of its spice profile.  Pepper, smokiness, and even "musk" were mentioned.  While it might make a decent cologne, this was the hardest one for us to wrap our heads around.  General consensus was to pair this with spicier foods or potentially white meat.  

"Oh wow."  This one made an immediate impact with the group.  This release had a very "exciting" nose with notes of tart black fruit and a sliver of leather.  It has a very smooth or "elegant" mouthfeel with cocoa notes as it dissipates.  Instead of many individual flavors, this release almost presents itself as a carefully formed blend.  Nobody recorded any negative notes and unanimous opinion was that this would be great to enjoy by itself or paired with cheeses.  

This release was somewhat of an odd ball in that it was really hard to compare to the previous four.  Instead of following along the lines of blackberry/leather/etc, this threw all of that out the window in favor of a huge dark cherry cola profile.  Multiple individuals noted this almost tastes like candy with a "fruit on fruit" theme.  A little bit of spice started to shine through as it opened up, but dark cherry is the main theme.  

Overall Impressions and Winner
After trying all five, we had reviewers vote on which release was their favorite.  Four different wines got voted as a favorite (sorry, 2007), but one in particular received half of those votes.  In a WestToast first, we officially declare the 2008 Griffin Creek Cabernet Franc as the winner of our vertical tasting.  This also isn't to say that we would recommend against any of the other releases  Every single release was wonderful in its own way, but 2008 completely won us over.  If you're into something a bit more fruit-forward then we can't emphasize enough how much you'll love the 2009.   Finally and surprisingly, cream puffs pair delightfully well with these big reds.

A huge thank you goes out to Josh for donating a chunk of his cellar and to everybody else who made it to the event.  We would also like to thank Willamette Valley Vineyards for digging through their archives and sending us tasting notes for each wine.  This was a really fun experience for all of us and we hope to bring you more vertical tastings in the future.  


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Rhone Rangers SF 2013 - Ticket Contest

CONGRATULATIONS to Gina Braden who submitted her entry via email for the Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting Ticket Contest. She enjoys baseball and BBQ'ing with a bottle of Shiloh Road Syrah!

This time of year is always a favorite of mine for so many reasons. Baseball season is almost here, more daylight which means great cycling weather, March Madness, corned beef and cabbage, and oh yeah, the Rhone Rangers San Francisco event at Fort Mason.  Last year was my first year at this event and I am honored to be going back and to have been asked again to give away a pair of tickets to this incredible event. So keep reading and find out how you can enter to win....I promise it will be easy.

First, let’s get you acquainted with Rhone and why they deserve their own celebration....because trust me, they do.
You have probably heard of a couple, but may not know they were Rhone grapes. For example, Syrah is a more common red Rhone grape and Viognier is a white Rhone grape that is growing in popularity. Other Rhones you may have had but are not seen as single-varietal wines as much, such as Grenache (pronounced “gruh-NOSH”), Mourvedre (“more-VEHD-ruh”), Cinsault (“sahn-soh”), Roussane (“roo-SAWN”), and Grenache Blanc (“gruh-NOSH blahnk”), to name a few. All in all there are 22 different Rhone grape varietals. Many have been used primarily in blends but some single varietal wines are definitely gaining traction.

Okay, so what is this event all about?

Friday March 22nd
A Sixteen-Winery Winemaker Dinner. Each table is hosted by a winemaker who will pour their wines to pair with food from Girl and the Fig. A la carte tickets for the dinner are $150 and participating wineries include (but are not limited to) Anaba Wines, Baiocchi Wines and Vineyard, Bonny DoonVineyards, and Two Shepherds.

Saturday March 23rd
10:00 – 12:45pm include two seminars led by Jon Bonne, Wine Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle
Seminar #1: “Old World Inspiration, New World Innovation” – This seminar will present four wines from E. Guigal alongside four wines from American Rhone Ranger members. This is a great chance to taste traditional and modern takes on Rhone.

Seminar #2: “Mourvedre, a Rising Star in American Rhones” – At this seminar you will get the chance to hear from multiple winemakers producing Mourvedre as well as taste their wines. This is one of those wines commonly blended into other wines but is making an argument that it should be the leading lady.

Grand Tasting (3:00-6:00pm) – This is the chance to taste and purchase over 500 American Rhone wines from over 100 of the Rhone Ranger members. Free shipping to CA and NV residents will be onsite for your purchases as well. A la carte tickets for the Grand Tasting are only $50, but if you enter the code RR-BLGCON you will get $5 off that price.

You’ve convinced do I get there?

Tickets are on sale now at the Rhone Rangers site and ticket prices are as follows:
Weekend Pass: $275 (includes winemaker dinner, seminars, and VIP entry to the Grand Tasting)
Saturday Pass: $150 (includes seminars and VIP entry to the Grand Tasting)
Winemaker Dinner a la carte: $150
Grand Tasting a la carte: $50 in advance, $55 at the door. - Don't forget to use the discount code RR-BLGCON for $5 off the advance price.

Yeah, but how do I get the FREE tickets you mentioned?

We are giving away two tickets to the Grand Tasting event on Saturday March 23rd. Since I told you this is my favorite time of the year, I want to know what do you love about this time of the year and what bottle of American Rhone do you celebrate with? For example, while out cycling I love swinging by Two Shepherds and enjoying some Grenache Blanc. Or I may partake in some Baiocchi Entre Nous Grenache/Syrah while waiting for my Oakland A's to take the field.

All you have to do is leave a comment with those two things and you will be entered to win. A winner will be selected at random on Sunday the 17th at 4:00pm (right before sitting down to corned beef) and posted to the site. I will need your name and email address so you can include those in the comment or email me at if you are the winner.



Friday, March 8, 2013

Washington Wine Snob? Don't Be

I was at a Seattle wine shop once and asked the owner what "local" wines he had.  He only had a few and I responded in surprise (Read: Acted like a local wine snob).  He then told me to appreciate wine you really should make sure you're drinking varieties from regions around the country and the world.  That's the open minded advice I hope Washingtonians will take into consideration this month - both for the good of your palate and to help fight hunger in Washington.

It's tough to talk about wine in Washington if it isn't wine from the Evergreen state.  I've found that people don't always listen, raise an eyebrow at you or even worse.  But I'm breaking the rules to talk about California wine, Sonoma County wine to be exact and it's all for a good cause.

Sonoma County has been wine country since the 1800's when Russian Colonists planted grapes on the Sonoma Coast.  In 1920 there were more than 250 wineries in Sonoma County but by the time Prohibition was repealed less than 50 of those wineries remained.  It was the early 70's when a new generation of wineries started in Sonoma County and wine consumption started to skyrocket.  Today there are 13 unique AVA's and more than 50 grape varieties in Sonoma County.  Many of those will be brought up to Seattle later this month for Washingtonians to enjoy.

On March 27 Wine Road will be on the road bringing A Taste of Sonoma to Washington.  The event at Hyatt Olive 8 in downtown Seattle will feature more than 70 wines from 25 wineries in Northern Sonoma County.  Wine Road was founded more than 30-years ago and includes wineries in the Russian River Valleys, Dry Creek and Alexander area of Sonoma County.  At the event you'll be able to meet winery owners and winemakers, hear live music and enjoy food and a silent auction.  The best part? All the money raised through ticket sales and the auction will help benefit Northwest Harvest.  Tickets cost $40, which means by buying a ticket to drink wine you will provide 180 meals to hungry people in Washington.

As you can tell from the first paragraph, I enjoy my Washington wine.  This month though I'm going to take the advice of that wine shop owner and keep my local wine snob nose down.  I'm going to step out of my comfort zone for a fun weekday evening of tasting and learning about the wine grown and made in Sonoma County where an estimated 40% of the the USA's Gross Domestic Product comes from.

Drink Up! You might just enjoy it - and remember your ticket is helping fight hunger!

*Sonoma County wine information from and

**This blog was originally written for Northwest Harvest's blog, the nonprofit that gives WestToast writer Andrea Flatley a paycheck.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Gems of SWFE

Last weekend, I attended the Seattle Food and Wine Experience, billed as "the premier showcase for wine and food in the Northwest. Experience a world tour of wine, beer, spirits, and all things culinary." Usually a skeptic of such lofty claims, I found this description to be right on the money and I'll tell you why.

I had two things working against me walking through the doors to the exhibition hall at Seattle Center. First, I rarely enjoy large wine tasting events because frankly they're just too crowded...I don't care for crowds...and it's nearly impossible to engage in a dialogue with the winery rep when you have 100 people waiting for a sip.

Second, I had absolutely no plan of attack. Typically I like to preview the exhibitors and put a game plan together prior to hitting up the event. I've been busy, so I didn't do so.

Despite my own hangups and rookie mistakes, I found the SWFE to perhaps be the best organized and presented wine event that I've attended. The event planners delivered and I walked away a happy, satiated, and slightly buzzed wine writer.

First off, let me give a little plug for public transportation. We all know that parking in downtown Seattle is a b*tch, and with all of the delicious libations at SWFE I wanted to fully enjoy myself. King County Metro Rapid Ride, despite what many people will tell you, got me to and from the event in a safe and efficient manner. Be safe, yo.

With my lack of a plan, I decided to wander around the exhibit hall, alternating some of my old favorites with some new producers...and sprinkling a delicious snack in between.  Throughout the day, a few gems from our old favorites stuck out that are worthy of further study:
  • Terra Blanca:  I always have and always will be a fan of TB's Onyx and some of the other wines, but their Arch Terrace label is one of the best values in the business  It's all Red Mountain all the time.  At this event, they were pouring a new Arch Terrace offering -- the Triple Threat.  A delicious red blend, it will soon have a place on my rack.
  • Willamette Valley Vineyards:   WVV had a special treat under the table for wine club members like myself, the Elton Vineyard Pinot Noir.  A gorgeous display of all that is right in Oregon Pinot, look for a specific feature on the Elton Vineyard in the coming months.
  • 2 Towns Ciderhouse:  I'm always a fan of The Bad Apple, but the treat of the day was the Cherry Poppin Cider, a hard apple cider fermented with sour cherries.
  • Bendistillery:  A new release, the Crater Lake Sweet Ginger Vodka made me crave a cocktail in the midst of the best wine in the Pacific Northwest.  That's saying something.
Also notable were the Block 3 Syrah from Smasne, Hedges DLD Syrah from Red Mountain, and the Vermentino from Troon Vineyard in Southern Oregon.

And last, but certainly not least, my favorite pairing of the true WestToast fashion...was an old fashioned glazed doughnut from Top Pot in Seattle enjoyed with Terra Blanca's Onyx.  Sweet, savory,'s only fitting that Seattle's best doughnut be enjoyed with one of Red Mountain's best bordeaux blends.

This event will definitely be on my list for next year, put it on yours too.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Baijiu? Mijiu? Trying New Things at Vinn Distillery


If you have not taken the stroll around Portland's Distillery Row, I highly recommend it. This up and coming section of SE Portland is filled with recycled industrial buildings with a broad range of businesses - restaurants, information technology, shops, bookstores, theaters, and, well, distilleries. I wrote about a number of the Distillery Row businesses last year when my friend Jen came up from Utah, so I am going to highlight one of the newest additions to this spirited crew (see what I did there?!?) - Vinn Distillery.

Owned and operated by the Ly family, Vinn's distillery is in Wilsonville, and has recently opened up their Distillery Row tasting room location. Walking in the most striking aspect of the space is the walls behind the counter lined with beautiful bottles of Vodka, Baijiu, and Mijiu. If you have not heard of the second two on the list, you are in good company. I knew nothing about Chinese spirits until arriving at Vinn.

Baijiu is an ancient Chinese beverage that literally translates as "white liquor." Like vodka it can be made from many different grains, and the folks at Vinn use rice. Our tasting room hosts explained that Baijiu is an everyday beverage in that it is used for EVERYTHING. Doing business, honoring ancestors, hosting guests, mixing name it, Baijiu probably has a place in it. We were told that there are over 18,000 places that make Baijiu in China (I have not had time to count them all), and only 1 in the United States. The Baijiu was both sweet and sour, silky in mouth taste, and lacked some of the acid aftertaste I associate with rice spirits. We were treated also to a Baijiu bloody mary, which was excellent.

The Mijiu was equally interesting. Vinn boats two kinds - one made with brown rice, and the other with black. Mijiu Ice (guess which rice) was lightly sweet with sour notes and a very floral nose. Mijiu Fire was darker and spicier with the same sour flavors. I liked both very much, and would definitely sip them neat or perhaps on the rocks. Their flavors are fairly delicate, so I don't recommend mixing with too much, but I think both would make a lovely spritzer with seltzer and lime.

Thanks to our hosts, and to the wonderful distillers who decided to bring a wonderful Chinese spirit to the Pacific Northwest!