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.
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?
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.
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.
: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.