Grapes & Grains at Sarver Winery

November, 2016 – The elements were all there: darkness, dimness, dampness. The huddle, shoulders pressed against winter’s edge, had just begun. Hibernation rituals demand intake. Food, wine, and beer for sustenance, occasional convergences to engage in decadent acts of indulgence.

My date tested the road as he whipped his borrowed Element around the downhill curves and charged up the side of the ridge, always on the lookout for deer. David Allan Coe sang “These Days,” a version of the song I’d never heard. We skidded up to the robotic gate, then trundled past the darkened rows of handily-coiffed grape vines. A bold three-pointer strolled across the high beams; he would eat well tonight, but not as well as us.

2016-11-06 Grapes and Grains - Social Media and Web Resolution -1027
Photo by Daniel Soule

Just in time, a glass fell into my hand and our herd moseyed away from tasting room at Sarver Winery to the place where the magic happens, a concrete-floored, brightly lit barn with the aroma of freshly-filled barrels. The smell is becoming more and more familiar at breweries, but it is still a shock to my system when presented en masse. A new barrel has the sharp, phenolic twang of drying paint, but the earthiness of its place of origin: the earth.

Tall stainless cylinders hosting the straw-colored whites lined the left wall, the far right corner boasted a brigade of rotund barrels, and a tented structure kept the Chardonnay barrels warm enough for the bacteria within to convert malic to lactic acid, an essential process for the style. A large metal apparatus behind us sat clean and quiet, its mastication complete for the season. And, to my side, a gleaming 12-pronged bottle filler awaited its kinky duty.

The aperitif; first light. Samples of young Muscat and Pinot Noir. The former bore hefty daphne and jasmine notes, like a cloud of flowers below the lip of the glass. The Pinot, served from a thief directly from the barrel, kept its secrets a bit longer as it doled out a series of fruit and wood tones; cherry, unripe pear, green and red apple. And this was just the opening act.

After a volley of questions (I don’t recall, my head was full of wine vapor and seeking the right words), we headed back up the hill and found our seats. The few sips of wine had got us jolly already; their plan had worked. We had just enough time before the food came out to meet our neighbors, one of whom, a master luthier, knew my friend from way back. Good tidings.

The dueling elements of this dinner, beer and wine, came out swinging in the first course. Chef Logan of the Mirepoix food cart (preparing his food out of another updated barn), had assembled a small reuben-esque bruschetta. Expectations already exceeded. The simple arrangement was smoky and sweet with a licorice accent from caraway and a bright finish provided by sauerkraut and tomato jam; artfully married. Sarver’s 2013 Riesling had pomme fruit and floral notes, and a deep, almost funky character followed by an exciting acidic pop. The pairing cauterized a theory that I’ve had for a while: smoke and fruit are great together. It makes sense. Alesong’s Autumn Farmhouse Ale, with its dusting of pie spice and sweet potato flavor, added an element of curry while the caraway’s flavor tied the food and beer together.

Here’s where it gets dicey. Wine and beer are running tandem along the same culinary track. Who’s betting on whom? Is it a game? How did this happen?

2016-11-06 Grapes and Grains - Social Media and Web Resolution -1042
Photo by Daniel Soule

The salad appeared silently before us, along with Pinot Noir and Tangled up in Blueberry. Ian and Matt pitched. We sniffed, sipped, swallowed.

Truly beautiful pairing is finding the fulcrum ingredient, the one that ties the proverbial room together. Without that element, the moment would lack any sort of grandeur. Expect your senses to be aroused, and seek out the pleasure points. The onset can be sudden; a waft of nuttiness where least expected, or an explosion as acid meets malt. It can be explained in simple terms, but we are complex beings eating complex food with the kind of intent only advanced apes possess. We’re beyond survival.

2016-11-06 Grapes and Grains - Social Media and Web Resolution -1046
Photo by Daniel Soule

Dollops of mascarpone held the salad down like ballast, and it only made sense to scrape off a portion of the cheese and stab a pickled blueberry on the way to the greens. It’s hard to accuse the kitchen of using performance enhancing ingredients when they taste this good. And so, a bite and a sip, rinse and repeat.

Something happened with the 2011 Pinot Noir; some sort of molecular mishap brought out strange, oceanic flavors that did not square up. Perhaps the tannins lost their alignment and veered off track when they met the maple vinaigrette. On the other hand, the fluffy texture and flavors from the Belgian yeast fermentation in Alesong’s Tangled Up in Blue gave the mascarpone room to stretch out. This was the only pairing with a clear “winner,” which will certainly make Mr. Van Wyk happy.

The first act wound up with a classic French mussel dish steaming in wine broth, bedazzled with tarragon and bacon. Pinot Gris and the recent GABF gold medal winner Touch of Brett. At the time, the Touch had a touch of Virginia ham in its fruity funk profile. The Gris was delightful, with sweet leaf, honey, and a soothing acidic finish. Upon consultation with the mussels, the wine reflected the tarragon and kept it all lush (as it were). The combination of smoky bacon and fruity, acidic wine touched a happy nerve, reassuring the senses. The Touch was challenging, as a savory seaweedy flavor happened. Ian took a moment to talk about acidity, prevalent as it was in this pairing, as well as the fun of drinking beer and wine in tandem, which only the most curious of beverage nerds would do.

*INTERMISSION*

2016-11-06 Grapes and Grains - Social Media and Web Resolution -1036
Photo by Daniel Soule

: A mid-meal prandial complete with Don Latarski’s jazzy fingersmithing; consulting with friends on “what’s good so far.” Giddiness. The loo. Woohoo.

Then the kitchen threw down a real challenge: curried chanterelle soup. Building a curry is like building a cocktail, which is liquid architecture. Taking a Syrah and a well-hopped Brett beer (Hop Farm) and layering them into a curry can be like adding a turret to either a castle (good), or to a McMansion (cheesy, goading, tactless). And in both cases the spice ruled. Without residual sugar to smooth out any wrinkles, the liquids deconstructed the curry into layers like a river reorganizing its rocks. The wine river made mushrooms into molé-hills. The beer river roiled and tumbled over itself, weaving hop spice with seed spice into a tropical tumbleweed.

2016-11-06 Grapes and Grains - Social Media and Web Resolution -1089
Photo by Daniel Soule

After all that, both parties backpedaled, returned from Asia. The food arena retained its richness, but the contenders played it featherweight. Rosé of Pinot Noir, Blackberry Gose; jam time. Fruit and rich meat, unexpectedly GGG bedfellows. With its redolence of raspberries, the Rosé edged out ahead of the Gose with a mean right hook and a winning smile; perhaps the red wine demiglace in the ring made some illegitimate side bets, game rigged.

Dessert is easy. Match big flavors, everybody “WOW”s and goes home and falls quickly asleep. But the best dessert pairings are as complex as they are decadent, which means avoiding doubly coating the palate with sugar and fat. A great savory pairing might be a Rothko, an elegant layering of elements, a great dessert pairing is a Mondrian: bright, bold, and satisfying in a different way than you expected. 

2016-11-06 Grapes and Grains - Social Media and Web Resolution -1092
Photo by Daniel Soule

Sarver went huge, levying its port-like Syrato’s brick & mortar sugar-tannin profile on the airy-yet-anchored dessert of lemon curd with baked meringue, juniper syrup, and raspberries. Alesong played it coy: Gin Hop Farm, aged in Ransom gin barrels (with their signature botanical profile). The referee scowled, but let it slide. Hey, if wine can play in wood, so can beer. The dessert had a lightening effect on both of its counterparts, but with different effect; raspberries and cream for the Syrato, and a kumquat creamsicle for the beer.

2016-11-06 Grapes and Grains - Social Media and Web Resolution -1101
Photo by Daniel Soule

Rolling and ecstatic, we privileged few shared our gratitudes, purchased bottles, and departed (after dutifully consuming the remnants of all wounded soldiers)… to the jam room. The night required a coda, a translation of the meal’s intense input to rhythm and harmony, cathartic output.

2016-11-06 Grapes and Grains - Social Media and Web Resolution -1095
Photo by Daniel Soule

Epilogue:

In Eugene and beyond, Alesong Brewing & Blending develops their beers with wine in mind, and sometimes just not just in mind. Co-founder Matt Van Wyk has led an educational crusade to get beer and wine drinkers out of their respective vessels and to understand the potential crossover opportunities. In Alesong’s beer, this mission manifests through use of wine barrels for aging beer, and by the introduction of wine grapes to the beer at different stages of fermentation; and also through dinners like this one. Van Wyk led a similar dinner with Anne Amie Vineyards at Grit restaurant in Eugene a few years ago while he was still with Oakshire. My initial exposure to this hybridization and collaboration was delirious and eye-opening; there are vast unexplored sensory pleasures that lie in the overlapping of these two culturally differentiated beverages.

At Sarver, every wine has a story to tell. Many stories are about the weather (“___was a great year”), but many others are an artistic expression; a meeting of mind and must. Like most artisan consumables, the drink is best consumed where it is produced. I emphasize best not because the wine is not good outside of the winery (it is), but because you can understand it better when peering at its origin from the patio, feeling the sun on your skin the same way the grapes do. And the more you understand something, the greater your capacity to enjoy it.

My thanks to Ian Etherton of Sarver Winery for the opportunity to write about this great meal. It took this long to digest but damn it was worth it.

Advertisements

Transfer

“I’m going through changes…”

Last week, an unexpected (yet anticipated) announcement hit me like a ton of bricks. And this week, months of expectation will morph into reality. I’m not having a child, and nobody died.

In fact, these are good changes, and related in some ways. My role at Northwest Brewing News is changing from “Columnist” to “Editor.” I’m movin’ on up, which I see not so much as an authoritative position than as a chance to get to know my fellow writers and put more connective lines on my own atlas of skills and creativity. I get to grow into. I get to learn a new language.

And now, the public news that my long term employers are selling the fruit of a dozen years of their lives (to a local individual with the best intentions for the business) means a new face, a new personality at the top of our strange totem pole. It means that I’ll be the third-longest employee, and that realization gave me pause (yesterday, in the car, leaving a brewery). Has it been that long? I still feel like a kid; the semi-unserious, easily distracted kid I’ve always been, I suppose. The best way I’ve been able to spin it for myself and other co-workers is the model of opportunity. A new rock is hurtling down towards our little pond, and it’s going to make waves. In some companies, people may say “shore up,” and prepare for a hard impact. That’s reactionary. If you can’t float on the waves, you’ll sink. Now is the time to put on our floaties. Flap those water wings.

I’m grateful for the changes. I can’t draw a straight line, nor can I live one. When new things don’t come my way, I go looking. Dip my toe in different ponds and see what nibbles.

 

Beer Eats Wine

A bunch of beer heads sit astride each other, all wagging on about combining clusters and casks. A cloud of information forms a pinkish mass above the seated cluster of glass clinkers who sip, listen, sip. The representatives are Mademoiselle Muscat, Mister Muller Thurgau, Madame Meunier, and Sir Syrah-Grenache. The tenor in the bottles is rowdier than the crowd, being wild and all. The only remaining question is jammed in between all the answers, trampled.

Muscat led off; Alesong 2016 Saison du Vin. Despite only meeting the grape upon its imprisonment in glass, the wily fruit presents itself in a poof, like you’ve unknowingly stepped on a patch of lemon balm in the woods: Where did that come from?

Muller Thurgau is a stand-in for a comically common distribution muck-up; we were supposed to receive Venetian shades of Pinot Noir, but Mr. Magoo will do. At three years in the bottle, Oakshire Hermanne 2014 has some wrinkles; closeted bottles are now turning into shag carpet, so keep it cool. The grape is all tied up in Brett, a tangle of rough twine, out there in the vineyard. Nevertheless, with a warm hand, the beer opens up, releases some of its prickle, and begs for peppery greens coated in perfect fat.

Meunier is a mystery. A blonde tart, some base humor. In fact, a rippling chuckle happens compulsively when the first whiff of Block 15 7th Anniversary hits the ol’ nostrils. This is the locomotive of the bunch, and it’s pulling off the rails. Multi-acidic stereo citrus with an off-disco backbeat and a high-pitched Hammond organ-ism turn the whole crowd on. The finish makes you go “hoo-whee!”

The G and the S of the GSM. Beer-GSM. Holy grapes, Batman. It looks and smells like a red wine, but Shilpi assures us that there’s protein in them thar bottles. Logsdon Sn4 Cuvee, brewed for Tin Bucket and available there at a high high price, is the sparkling lambiGSini of your dreams. Purple highlights and undertones underscore more purple; the prom dress that never was. It’s soda if you like dry, complex, expensive sodas with identity crises. It’s bubbly. It’s fun.

Encore! Surprise entrance by the nearly-ready-for-the-public Alesong Pinot Spontanee. It was rushed from the dressing room onto the stage, but it’s clear that this one can dance.

Beer and Vine Symposium is over, you may find cocktails at Le Bar. Pinkies up!

DSC02890s

The Session #93: Beer Travel

This is my first foray into group blogging (kinky). The Session has been going on for many years; I have been reading them for just a couple; now I find the opportunity to contribute. Excellent. Here is the topic, presented by The Roaming Pint (and my scattered response):

Why is it important for us to visit the place the where our beers are made? Why does drinking from source always seem like a better and more valuable experience? Is it simply a matter of getting the beer at its freshest or is it more akin to pilgrimage to pay respect and understand the circumstances of the beer better?

It so happens that I recently returned from just such a mission. It dawned upon me while writing an entry for The Bier Stein’s newsletter that travelling great distances to try beer is like going to my neighborhood brewpub, but with more history, culture, and canals.

I had made a Google map of all the breweries I wanted to hit, and brought along CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium, ever hopeful to meet my goals. Before leaving, I thought of the trip like a hajj, and was excited to step through so many old brewery doors, to feel the cobwebs brush my cheeks, and to proselytize to people about where I work in hopes of a deeper connection.

As it turned out, the act of getting to the beer was just as valuable as drinking the stuff. Our poetic limitations were transportation and communication: no car, no cell/smart phone– just an iPad with wifi. We relied on trains and trams, bicycles and our feet, paper maps and handwritten directions. The Guide was employed several times a day, and proved to be a sherpa worth its salt. Navigating the contoured streets and alleys of Belgian cities and towns broke us down; you have to get lost to find your way. Randomly spotting a good beer bar was satisfying; I felt like I did it myself.

“I made it!” I thought, and it showed on my face, as Liz would point out. In my head, walking through a door was like walking out of an Arctic blizzard; the hasp clicks and the screaming wind dies. Every pour was a new acquaintance, every acquaintance a new friend.

Tromping around the Belgian countryside, past fields of Brussels sprouts, cows, and hop trellises, you might imagine absorbing the local terroir and commiserating with your beer that way. Or breathing the air in Beersel, perhaps, would give you a preview of the flavors to come out of Drie Fonteinen’s barrels a few years down the road. It’s all in the mind, you know, so make the most of it.

Of course the beer is fresher; it is absolutely delicious, especially at a place like Het Waterhuis in Ghent, where they clearly take care of their draught system and glassware, or De Garre in Bruges where the owner is the bartender and pours beers like they were his kids. I got to admire a method of pouring that was not business-savvy, but made the beer better: from a height greater than 4 inches, plenty of foam that spills over; just before the foaming action peaks, it is scraped off the top with a flat knife so that the final bit billows and creates a lovely aromatic pillow for your upper lip. Dip the bottom of the glass in water to rinse, serve with a coaster and a nod.

Economically speaking, going to the source versus drinking at home is the same as going to the show versus buying the CD; the closer you are, the more your support counts. Personally, I feel more enriched having visited. I can attach memories of places to beers, which helps me in a number of ways:

-I sell beer as part of my job, and stories sell.
-I brew beer as a hobby, and now have a new challenge to brew a beer I feel is “legit” Belgian, to work the yeast the right way.
-Ray Daniels and the Cicerone website said it would boost my Ciccy cred to visit a famous beer brewing country. Oregon does not count as a beer brewing country yet.
-Time away from the drinking culture at home showed me just how ingrained beer is, and can be, in culture.
-I got to experience some flavors and textures I never had before. Nothing like a good old fashioned palate expansion.

[On the flip side, I’ve come back home with a renewed distaste for American IPA. I was slipping there for a bit (I actually enjoyed a can of Heady Topper from the mail!), but after that two week reset I’ve come to realize that the amount of hops being put into beer out here crosses the line from an entertainment dose to a medicinal dose (the subject of future rants, I’m sure). Somehow the general craft-swilling populace has adapted to the sedative quality of these beers, which are served by the entire pint rather than the moderate glass pours of the strong beers in Belgium. Or I’m just a sensitive little butterfly, I don’t know, I just don’t have the hop fetish that seems to grip the nation right now.]

Now I get to share stories with friends, to pass on the mystique. I get to open bottles and think “I was there!” How cool.

The Beer & Cheese Biz

How do you tell a story about pairing food? “Oh, you should have been there, in my mouth, as the Abbaye de St. Bon Chien broke holes like caul fat through the stinkiest cheese, so stinky you could smell it in your eyes, and it melted together like the Steadfast Tin Soldier and his parchment girlfriend…” Right.

I led my first beer & cheese pairing a couple weeks ago, so I’ve had a lot to process about the… process. As my own worst critic, I lose points for not filling all the seats (next time it will be pre-paid rather than COD), and for not being entirely prepared with a spiel about the nuances of eating and drinking simultaneously. (I’m not used to public speaking; when everybody’s quiet and starting at me, I wonder if they’re bored; and when they’re all talking I figure I may as well shut up.)

I tried to incite a sense of game– a solitaire or personal challenge– by using a scoring method I gleaned from pairings at Oakshire a few years ago. A grid was laid out with rows of beer and columns of cheese; each beer had a chance to be paired with each cheese, and a score of -2 to +2 filled in the corresponding boxes. Three elements of learning at work: deep thought about each pairing to develop a score; the best individual pairings would be readily apparent; and the total scores from each cheese and each beer would illuminate the most adaptable beer and cheese.

DSC00403

My success at getting the point across was in the B- range; the audience was 90% younger than I (20s), and largely inexperienced with pairing (obviously no fault of theirs; heck, I’m happy to have exposed them to the concept). I felt my job was to explain the intricacies of perception; how to taste food & beer at the same time, and how to look for resonance, contrast, and intensity levels in each item. Due to a spotty arrival rate, a 15 minute delay seemed to have made everybody hungry, so by the time I got started talking I felt rushed to get food in mouths. It was loud and hard to hear myself, so I moved it along, skimmed and stumbled over my bullet points, and didn’t get any real story in.

But everybody talked, about this and that; most utilized their grids– some even made artwork of them– and seemed generally satisfied at the end. The most well-received cheeses were , naturally, the most expensive. Ancient Heritage’s Valentine was a personal favorite, with rich creaminess and subtle funk; it brought some cream to the coffee of Pelican’s Tsunami Stout. The Full Circle Raw Sharp Cheddar was perhaps best at backing up the beers– I only chose one (Oakshire Amber) without a particularly strong flavor or set of flavors; perhaps a predilection to assume that other folks don’t enjoy subtlety as much as I.

In the meantime, I have discovered that Biere de Garde (at least my homebrewed version, which matches fairly well the flavors I recall from Tres Mont’s and Sans Culottes) goes well with a variety of cheeses, and so that style will make an appearance on a pairing list soon.

Of course, “If at first you have nominal success, do better next time!” as my inner old man says. Next time I’ll tell you a true story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DSC00403