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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.

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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?

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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.

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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*

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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!

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Ritual Without Sacrifice

There is a brewer who stops by, uses us as an oasis on his trip back home to Oakland from Portland, where he drops off his beer. Sometimes we talk shop, occasionally the conversation meanders into beer ephemera.

To use the phrase “the joy of drinking” may sound strange, but our discussion turned to just that. Somehow we got into a small argument about how glass shape affects beer aroma. He very staunchly explained that it’s a myth, and cited an actual experiment in which somebody is blindfolded and different glasses of the same beer are wafted under his nose and he can’t tell the shaker glass from the tulip from that newfangled, hard-to-wash Sierra Nevada glass. OK, I guess I concede (and would like to try this myself). But it leads into further examination of how those glasses DO work. Because they do; it’s just not about the physics.

It’s all in the mind, you know and the mind loves a good ritual. I first heard about “ritualling” from my uncle, who seems to have invented a term called “qualiadelia,” which represents the practice of conscious ritualling as a way to learn about yourself and enjoy life. So of course I’d apply this to beer.

Hopefully you have a beer at hand. Think of how you opened the bottle, or pulled the tap; which hand do you use to lift the glass, and what is the first thing you do when it reaches your face? How do you hold different drinking vessels? Now, do you grip or sip differently in different contexts? Do you take more time to analyze your beer when you’re alone, at the bar, or at a party?

Whenever I see a picture of myself with a pint, my pinky is wedged across the bottom of the glass; they get slippery, and I’ve been distracted and accidentally let go before, so the pinky is security. As soon as there’s enough room, I start swirling to drive off carbonation (most beers are just a tad too bubbly for me) and send the aroma skyward. These rituals would probably happen whether or not I was aware; the fact that I am helps me enjoy the experience that much more.

Thinking hard about this one...
Thinking hard about this one…

Most beer lovers have a cupboard full of glasses, and can probably recount the acquisition of each (with varying degrees of detail). The act of drinking beer from a new or different glass changes the way we think about its contents. This is why the standard shaker glass has become a one-trick vessel; it’s so ubiquitous it’s no longer special, though you might drink saison from one in Belgium.

Of course, the shape of the glass affects the way a beer acts; long, tall glasses show off a beer’s head and rising bubbles, while wide chalices and goblets allow for more swirling to release aromas; all that adds to the ritual of drinking beer.

My brewer friend followed up his point with the fact that most beer judging is done out of small, thin plastic cups. Now I wonder whether or not beer would be scored better (and if judges would be happier) if it was all served in glass tulips.

 

To Be Young Again…

I’ve heard that certain captive fish will continue to grow until they take up their entire tank. Much like up-potting a houseplant, the Stein moved from its little fish bowl on E. 11th Avenue into the full-on aquarium tank of the Midtown building, and has grown into the space with astonishing speed. (Please forgive the mixed metaphors…)

My first glimpse of the “new Stein” was that of a dusty old mansion; white fabric ghosting furniture, piles of electronic detritus from the previous occupant. No real form or structure for ambiance, just an amorphous mass of restaurant innards. Just weeks later, the mounds had been sifted and sorted. The bar, kitchen wall, and walk-in cooler gave dimension to the shadows. A pool table was delivered and received its inaugural racking in the late-afternoon March sunlight. The space was calm on the surface, but jittered with potential. All of the decisions to be made, policies to be considered, employees to hire. How do you grow into a giant box?

Quickly, as it turns out. Opening day was an ambush, and left us boggled; happy, but boggled. The line out the door, the tiny letters on the TV-screen taplist, the kitchen working way overtime to keep up with prep and orders. The one advantage, and the one advantage that pervades our oeuvre: good beer makes people happy.
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Most days, two things happen:
1) A customer comes in to the “new Stein” for the first time since the move. The reaction is nearly always the same: “Wow. Good job, what a selection!”
2) A customer comes in, looks around as if revisiting a childhood home. “This used to be the L&L Market. There was a deli counter and meat lockers.”

The latter comment is a historical footnote in Eugene. Long’s Meats used to occupy this space; the picture below was taken from inside the front door, looking to the left where our beer cooler is now. Year is unknown, looks like the 60s.

longs meat market
“Wow, good job! What a selection!” (photo courtesy of a customer)

The shift from the [too] cozy “old Stein” (beer bar, gastropub, sandwich & bottleshop) into the high-ceilinged, 180-seat Beer Hall (let’s face it, it is a Beer Hall, Munich-style; evening lines to the door will probably be the norm) hasn’t been without its hiccups, but has also created an atmosphere you rarely find anymore. Not only can you meet up with ten of your friends, you can spread your arms without knocking over a beer. The “wall o’ beer” cooler is a monument, albeit harder to photograph than most. The servers are keen and always learning more about beer; some are getting into homebrewing, helping out at local breweries, generally dipping their feet in the wort. Food offerings have expanded to include a monthly beer style pairing menu. And most importantly, folks who were dissuaded by a lack of space (or claustrophobes for that matter) need not worry about finding a place to sit with some wiggle room.

There are a few invisible structures at play in the Stein, not the least of which is a challenge: maintain a huge number of beers without sacrificing quality. The beer selection is a point of pride, and takes as much work as maintaining bonsai– daily, attentive repetitions to ensure maximum freshness, and no-holds-barred infrastructure to make sure the beer is kept and served as it would be in a brewery. The food is no different; feeding a family of several hundred consistently good food is no easy task; as you can see on those [rather horrifying] reality TV shows where a celebrity chef “whips things into order,” communication and organization and strong team players are key.

Since the beginning, owners Chip and Kristina fostered a sense of family.  Of the 16 employees who worked on 11th Avenue in 2013, only one has left for greener pastures (a brewery). Many have worked for the Stein for more than three years; some are rounding their seventh. Those of us working more than 35 hours a week were offered health insurance (most accepted) that just kicked in.

The “one year!” mark is only significant because we say it is; we mark it as a passage of time and take stock of ourselves based on the events in that time. We use it to celebrate, to toast and reflect and think positively and marvel at the change that occurred. So that’s it. Here’s to good friends and good beer.