Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Populist Baron of Booze

David LeClaire w Wash wines.JPG

Wine World Warehouse, a 23,000-square foot facility just off I-5 on NE 45th, is the largest wine store in the Northwest. Six months from now, when the Washington Liquor Control Board is supposed to close its 700 or so retail outlets, Wine World will also become Washington's largest independent liquor store. Yet its owner, Seattle sommelier David LeClaire, is not thrilled.

LeClaire launched his superstore a year ago, taking over an expansive space that once been the University Plaza Hotel, and, briefly, an OfficeMax outlet. He had spent the previous decade as a savvy producer of Seattle wine events, with a politician's touch and a marketer's dream list of writers and tastemakers; before that, he'd spent a decade as the wine steward at the Painted Table in the Alexis Hotel.  With backing from a group of private investors and the energetic support of a get-it-done chef named Lenny Rede, LeClaire assembled shelves that display 8,000 bottles, including wines from 500 Washington wineries. He's a hero to wine producers who leveraged his hard work as a consultant into a position of retail prominence.

Wine World interior
Let's flash forward for a moment, to June 1st, 2012, the day after the state goes out of the retail spirits business. Two out-of-state liquor giants, Bevmo (from California) and Total Beverage (Maryland), will have their grand openings. No one knows yet just where they'll be located, but they've already sent scouting parties. "They even came to see me," LeClaire admits. "How could I say no?" Bevmo has 77 stores in the western US, Total has over 100.

LeClaire, now 50, grew up in Escanaba, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a town of some 13,000 souls. When Wal-Mart opened a 24-hour superstore on the west side of Lincoln Road, he recalls, the townspeople responded with unusual solidarity to support their local merchants, among them Elmer's County Market, on the other side of the highway. Elmer Dagenais, who died last year at the age of 94, was the sort of old-fashioned shopkeeper who doesn't exist anymore. He'd trust his customers to settle their bills when they'd get a paycheck. Even more importantly, Elmer would hire local teenagers, give them their first jobs and teach them the value of community. And plenty of times, he'd be standing right beside his kids, LeClaire among them, helping bag groceries.

"Treat your customers with respect, appreciate their business and thank them for shopping at your store." Those were Elmer Dagenais' words, but they're also David LeClaire's.

LeClaire voted "no" on Initiative 1183 to privatize Washington's liquor business, not because he wanted to keep the state stores open or because he sympathized with the union workers who'll be laid off, but because he didn't like Costco's "clear the deck" approach, which he fears will "decimate the little guys." 

As owner of the only freestanding wine shop in Washington to meet I=1183's minimum size of 10,000-square ft for liquor sales, LeClaire certainly isn't going to turn away from the opportunity to sell spirits. He intends to sell far more than the "Top 100" brands, especially in categories like Scotch, Tequila and Sherry. He'll showcase the Northwest's increasingly ambitious micro-distilleries. He'll continue to have partnerships with outside event planners, and hold tastings and host private events at Wine World. But he's deeply worried about the effects of privatization on smaller wine shops in small towns around the state. "What's going to happen to the independent wine shops in Hoquiam or Montesano once the Wal-Mart in Aberdeen starts selling liquor?" he asks. It's an ethic you don't see very often.

Before the November election, LeClaire was warning of "changes buried in this initiative [that] will crush or at the very least severely impact small wine wineries, small wine stores, and small grocery stores." The voters, though, were so anxious to get government out of the liquor business that they approved I-1183. "We are going to benefit handsomely," LeClaire admits, "but a no vote would have been in the long-term best interest of the entire community."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

My (Bitter) Amigos

There's a whole tequila thing, I'm finding out. On Queen Anne, the latest place is called Mezcaleria Oaxaca, a distill-your-own sister to Carta de Oaxaca in Ballard. Jay Friedman reviews it, favorably, on Voracious.

There's a lot of cactus out there, just waiting to be distilled, and not just in Mexico.The cactus in the photo, in case you're wondering, was growing in Italy, on the limestone plateau called Murgia, in the region of Puglia (the heel of the boot). Those catci, they're everywhere! Just like grapes.

Sure, there are minor differences, but when push comes to shove, basically, the cactus gets chopped up, boiled and distilled. (I can hear the purists hissing.) The Italians stick with grapes, but in Mexico, the firewater called tequila has always been a point of pride.

The folks at Riazul were kind enough to send me a vial of their Reposado, along with a recipe sheet.

What caught my eye tonight was a cocktail called the Bitter Amigo, equal parts reposada, dry vermouth and (this is the part I noticed) Campari. Shades of the classic Negroni! The traditional Negroni is made with equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. Here, because the Riazul Reposada is already on the sweet side, the less aggressive dry vermouth is called for.

I'm a purist when it comes to cocktails, but I could get along with this one just fine.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Glass or Two with Karen & Andrew

Dornenburg & Page.JPGYou know you've looking at a good team when they finish each other's sentences. Even better, she talks for two minutes, and when she stops, he picks up. Without sounding the least bit scripted, they stay on topic. She talks about flavor, he talks about food. They make you want to read the book.

Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg last breezed through Seattle three years ago (!!), when they were promoting book Number 8--"What to Drink With What You Eat." Now it's Number 9: "The Food Lover's Guide to Wine." They've added a few new tricks to their repertoire. There's a list of 250 wines (varieties, origins) complete with flavor profile, recommended pairings and best producers, so you'll never be intimidated by a wine list or wine shop again. Condensed example: Sancerre. Citrus & grass flavors, goat cheese, Henri Bourgeois. There are useful sidebars, too. Chris Miller of Spago talks about wines from Washington's Red Mountain AVA ("rustic tannic structure"). There's a list of 150 wines under $15.

When it comes to actual wine and food combinations, Page and Dornenburg aren't dogmatic. Foie gras doesn't automatically mean 100-year-old Sauternes (though that does remain Page's iconic wine pairing). Sparkling rosé works very well, as does a California red.

Book cover w wine glasses.JPGWe've come a long way. The USA is now the world's largest consumer of wine, albeit we drink but a piddling amount, per capita. Still, wine has been made in every state of the union for the past decade. Barack Obama has a thousand bottles in his cellar back in Chicago. The nation's official dietary guidelines recommend a glass of wine a day for good health. And yet, only a quarter of Americans drink wine at all, let alone with dinner.

Page and Dornenburg have their own heroes, the sommeliers who recommend specific bottles to restaurant-goers. Not the ones who look down their noses because you can't pronouce Montepulciano, not the ones who look at the brand of wristwatch you're wearing to guage now much you're going to spend, but the ones who truly care, who see themselves not just as salespeople but as guides on an exciting tour of the world's vineyards. No less than the chefs, it's the sommeliers who will lead us to a better future.

New York City's a tough place to live. It's crowded, it's hectic, it's expensive. When you're on deadline, you order in. Fortunately, there's a wide array of cuisines for Page and Dornenburg to choose from, everything from Mexican to Indian, from Italian to Thai. And of course the busy writers have a glass or two with dinner. And what's in the bottle? "Well, we're always running out of Riesling," Page confides.

Food Lover's Guide to Wine, Little Brown & Co., 352 pages, $35.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Years in Provence

Faverot estate.JPG

THE LUBERON, France--Peter Mayle once lived in one of this region's hilltop villages, waxing romantic about the lazy expat life, waiting with bemusement for the local tradesmen to show up and finish tiling the shower. Not so François and Sally Faverot, who left London after a career in the restaurant business and bought a rundown property at the base of the limestone cliff.

The Faverots set about turning one wing of their manse into self-catering holiday cottages equipped with kitchen, bath, living room, fireplace and two bedrooms. Booked solid throughout the summer months, popular in the off-season as well with writers and painters. The vineyard, which François planted with traditional Provençvarieties, covers 18 acres and produces 25,000 bottles annually.

Courtyard.JPGThe best wine is called General, half syrah, half grenache, and could easily pass for a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, at least the old style of Châteauneuf before the boundaries of the AOC were vastly expanded and the quality vastly diluted. Ironically, Domaine Faverot flirts dangerously with volatile acidity, the hallmark of the old-style. The grenache, François explains, achieves its phenolic ripeness through a spontaneous interior fermentation, so his wines have high volatile acidity from the start. His neighbors, who prefer to play safe, look closely (and skeptically) at the lab reports for the General. It wouldn't be the end if, one day, they refused to accord Faverot the AOC Luberon certification, though; he's got plenty of private clients--and visitors--who love his wines as they are.

François had an ancestor who distinguished himself in battle and was rewarded by Napoleon with a title and land in Brittany. He could have lived the life of a nobleman, but instead he's in Provence, making wine, while Nancy takes care of the holiday cottages. A great summer spot for families who want a private pool; a great winter spot for writers who like quiet solitude. Not such a bad life after all, eh?

Domaine Faverot, 771 Route de Robion, 84660 MAUBEC, France, +33(0)

Our visit to Domaine Faverot was part of a trade show organized by the regional tourism authority of Provence. Photos courtesy of Nilesh Kale, Black Grape Holidays.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bordeaux Takes the Bus to Paris

Bordeaux at Paris bus stop.JPGPARIS--You may recall that our trip to southwestern France last year featured a number of ideas to promote the wines of Bordeaux to a wider public. Not the five famous Grands Crus Classés (Marguax, Latour, Mouton, Lafite, Haut Brion), but ten thousand or so "lesser" châteaux within the strictly defined boundaries of the Bordeaux appellation.

We're going to take the liberty of quoting our dispatch dated October 12th, 2010:

"There's a marketing plan in the works for Bordeaux, a ten-year plan not for the two or three dozen famous names but for the other ten thousand. The campaign will target casual drinkers who don't care a drop about terroir; it will capitalize on the elegance suggested by the term "château." There will be music, there will be wine, there will be romance.

The tagline: "And the bottle on the table is Bordeaux."

You read it here first."

The only hitch is the headline, which reads "Bordeaux: Des Vins, Un Style." And it translates as badly as it reads in French: "Some Wines, One Style." But the art direction and taglines seem on target: "Aromas of fruit, flowers and spices: the aromatic palette of Bordeaux wines is infinite." Figs, berries, kiwis, licorice, dried leaves, not bad. Still, I liked my headline better.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Just a Small-Town White in a Red Wine World

vino_bianco.jpgFRIULI, Italy--It hasn't been tried before, an international summit like this on the opportunities and challenges facing the country's best white wines. We're not talking about the bulk pinot grigio, you understand, but the most prestigious wines from this region in the northeast corner of Italy, on the border with Slovenia). The daylong conference was organized by the Collio wine producers, and drew a good crowd of local winemakers, consultants, marketers, importers, exporters and restaurateurs, along with a dozen or more journalists. The panels--once the public and industry officials made the obligatory welcome speeches--talked about technical issues in the morning and marketing in the afternoon.

The challenge was expressed by a grower who didn't attend. Edi Keber, whom I called the "Commoner-King of Collio" in a post last year, looked out from his winery this morning and surveyed the landscape, where vineyards and whitewashed houses share the sun-drenched hills, where Italy blends into Slovenia without so much as a border fence. "I could make and sell 50,000 bottles of pinot grigio here, but I would betray my heritage. What grows here is unique. Several varieties, but one wine." It's as if the very blend were a single grape variety. Nobody much cares that Bordeaux grows half a dozen red grapes, Keber points out. The same here. "One wine, and it is virtually autochtonous. It is Collio."

Collio vineyards.JPGItaly exports four billion euros worth of wine every year, more than any country, but less than two percent of that comes from this region, formally known as Friuli Venezia Giulia. FVG wines are nationally acclaimed as excellent, everyone agrees, but they don't have a coherent story to tell the export markets.

Prof. Francesco Venier.JPGFrancesco Venier, professor of business administration at the University of Trieste, points to FVG's grab bag of appellations and grape varieties, which end up with some 168 varieties and protected denominations spread over 25,000 acres. Collio, for all its efforts, is one small appellation but allows almost a dozen varieties and blends--all white--to carry the name. Venier urged the wine makers and government officials to develop a more coordinated and efficient system of leadership ("Cluster Governance") that would permit more flexibility and encourage more innovation.

The marketing sessions drew plenty of attention, ranging from specifics (using gel packs instead of refrigerated containers, for example) to broad advice regarding Asian and American markets.

Becky Sue Epstein writes, Paul Wagner tastes.JPG"Making good wine isn't enough," said Paul Wagner of Napa-based Balzac Communications, who participated by videoconference from the US. The competition is overwhelming and the sales people are overwhelmed. A single distributor can carry more than 5,000 wines; Wine Spectator gave 90+ scores to nearly a thousand Italian wines. "So you need more than a good wine," Wagner told the audience, "you need a good story."

And because of the message-killing inefficiencies of the three-tier wine distribution system, wine makers need to tell that story themselves.

Less than a quarter of all Americans even drink wine (about the same percentage as own passports), Wagner pointed out. Americans do their "traveling" by going to the movies or drinking imported bottles in restaurants. They want to fall in love with their wine, yet most wine marketing is based on the false notion that Americans want wine education: enology (barrels), chemistry (fermentation) or geology (soil structure).

Wrong! says Wagner. This may work in emerging Asian markets, but to sell in the United States, you need to sell the romance of travel, sell the romance of wine. Sell the story of vineyards on sunny, foreign hilllsides; sell the story of a wine maker walking through those vineyards, touching his grapes. Sell the story of nonna's recipe for homemade pasta and the family dinners enlivened by a special bottle. It's not about facts, it's about feelings.

Antonio Galloni, the Italian correspondent for Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate, agreedd that more work is needed to create an identity for wine from Friuli. "The sommeliers in New York restaurants are young, they have no wine prejudices and are happy to become ambassadors for serious white wnes along with the appeal of Italy's la dolce vita lifestyle.

Patricia Felluga, president of the Collio-Carso consortium, would certainly agree. "We need tourism," she said. The winery she owns, Zuani, is adjacent its own, wine-centered restaurant, Luka, to attract visitors. (In Napa, Wagner pointed out, a single winery sells one million bottles of wine at full retail to passers-by.)

Josko Sirk.JPGJosko Sirk, who owns Al Cacciatore della Subida, the region's best restaurant, sees a solution: the world's first bi-national appellation, a DOC that would include most of the Italian state of Friuli Venezia Giulia along with the vineyards of Brda, on the Slovenian side of the border. "They work well, they are serious, their wines are good," says Sirk. "And the publicity for Collio would be fantastic."

There's no doubt that the wines of Collio and FVG could use a stronger identity outside Italy. Only one winery (so far) has its own sales rep in China, where only ten percent of wine sales are white wine. Burgundy and Bordeaux do well in China, as long as it's their reds. New Zealand's sauvignon blanc is making inroads; its bouquet is aromatic and fresh. German Rieslings, well known and appreciated. Premium white from Italy? Yes, as it becomes more famous, and comes with a unified story: "The future is white."

It's all very well for the locals to be self-congratulatory about the excellence of their wines, but they need to do more for the gorgeous lady in the silvery-gold lamé dress, whose delights they're praising. Right now, she's standing all by herself in the corner, ready to strut her stuff. She needs to step into the spotlight, she needs to be invited to dance. The world is waiting.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What's in a name?

Flying across country, 30,000 feet or so, head above clouds, Bloody Mary in hand, iPad on lap. Wi-fi as well, bouncing around the ionosphere @ $12.95 for the duration of the flight. And so, in this contemplative mood, I ponder a few questions.

Names, for example. Jamie Boudreau, barman extraordinaire, has a new place on Capitol Hill which John Sundstrom once called Licorous. In French, that would be liquoureux, sweet. In English, it becomes a pun on licorice. Boudreau continues the game. He named his place, but the logo, as you can see, is a cannon. Does this mean he can't spell? Or does the name signal an intention to follow a strict canon of cocktails? Or maybe Nikons aren't welcome? The subtitle of the (very pleasant) bar is Whiskey & Bitters Emporium, which has a a bit of an Old-Fashioned (get it?) ring to it. Still, I wish the graphics designer or whoever spec'd the Classic Typerwirter font, had actually spelled it Cannon.

That confusion isn't nearly as dumb as the new pizza joint on Queen Anne, the one that took over from Sezoni. Yes, Domino's sells lots of pizza, but calling your shop Domani isn't going to get you a lot of accidental walk-ins since there's a real Domino's about half a mile north. I've got to think it was that the owner liked the Italian sound of Domani without realizing that domani is the Italian word for tomorrow. Do you really want your pizza delivery business to be called Tomorrow? As Annie sings it, your pizza's only a day way. The Italian version of the lyrics: tomorrow never comes.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Decant Take The Bubbles With You

Decanting the Rich Reserve at Veuve Clicquot1.JPG
Decanting Veuve Clicquot's Rich Reserve, France 2007

The bubbles, that is. In some Champagnes, they're what you want. Why else bother? But sometimes, you want fewer bubbles.

Here's Sam Sifton, outgoing (and out-going) restaurant critic for the New York Times, on decanting a brut rosé at Per Se. He's skeptical, but the sommelier knows what she's doing.

Dessert w Rich Reserve.JPG"The sommelier brought Champagne, a brut rosé from H. Billiot, which she then poured into a giant decanter and swirled theatrically, over and over again, to dissipate the bubbles. She said this would highlight the flavor of the pinot noir grapes in the wine, and make it a better pairing for the food.

"I called shenanigans then. I was laughing as I said it, but I used language inappropriate to any restaurant. My mother would have slapped me, no lie. .

"But the sommelier only laughed. It was as if she had heard a pigeon swear in the accent of a Bowery Bum. "We'll see," she said, and poured the wine. "I think you will like it."

"We swooned. Swirling brut rosé Champagne in a decanter to dissipate the carbonation before eating burrata is standard operating procedure for all of us now."

I first encountered the practice of decanting Champagne at Veuve Clicquot's private townhouse in Reims over a decade ago. You figure they ought to know what they're doing. And they decant the Rich Reserve, to reduce the distraction (and the acidity) of the bubbles and to highlight the wine's luscious flavors. With dessert, as shown.

By the way, if you're curious about Veuve Clicquot's practice about releasing its best Champagnes in vintage-dated bottles, read this.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Leftover wine?

Snooth has an exhaustive article about that leftover wine, ending with the obvious.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Clubby in Spain, Democratic in Seattle

Txoko dinner at Txori in Belltown, 2008
The Wall Street Journal's admirable online food & drink section had an interesting story this morning about txokos, which it described as all-male bastions of culinary invention and clubby dining.

In Spain's Basque Country, perhaps, but not in Seattle.

Carolin Messier and her ex-husband Joseba Jimenez di Jimenez used to run monthly txoko dinners at their Belltown pintxos bar Txori (pintxos being Basque tapas). Coed, lively, and open to all. Txoko, Messier points out, literally translates as "corner" in Basque and refers to places where men gathered to cook and enjoy their own food and drink, gastronomic societies, in other words.

"This spirit of preparing and enjoying good food can be appreciated at Txori," Messier wrote in an email newsletter three years ago, "but don't worry, women are very welcome!"

Alas, Txori is now closed, but Messier remains at the helm of Harvest Vine in Madison Park, where the Txoko tradition continues!

Harvest Vine, 2701 E. Madison, Seattle, 206-320-9771

And now a couple of boozy photos, since this is a blog about booze.

Negroni at Txori

Digestivos at Cafe Iruna in Pamplona, 2008

Friday, October 7, 2011

Behind the Bar:

Dry Soda, Perlini, Scrappy

We Americans spend more money on soda than on real food. And it gets worse when you include flavored waters, energy drinks, and fruit juices, not to mention coffee and tea, and leaving aside beer, wine and spirits. We are a nation built on liquids enhanced with artificial flavors and sweeteners, and we're getting bulkier every day.

Sharelle Klaus
Into this fray, six years ago, stepped a local woman, Sharell Klaus. A foodie, yes, but primarily a high-tech consultant with four little kids. She set out, very deliberately, to create a new category of "natural" carbonated beverages (water, cane sugar, natural flavoring, and phosphoric acid) that would pair with food. She called it Dry Soda.

At the time, there were basically three flavors of canned soda: cola, lemon-lime, and root beer. So she thought about it for a while and came up with four candidates: Kumquat, Lavender, Rhubarb and Lemongrass. (She would soon add Vanilla and Juniper Berry, drop the Kumquat when it turned out that not many people knew what a kumquat was; she substituted Blood Orange.) Each flavor required a lot of experimental formulation in her Tacoma kitchen, a thousand batches each, Klaus says. 

Now 42, she's grateful for the guidance she received from a food scientist and a beverage industry consultant. Turnstyle Studio of Ballard, back then a startup as well, designed the appealing logo. Dry's flavors are developed in association with a company in California; the bottling is handled by an outfit in Portland. "Building a beverage brand is very expensive," Klaus acknowledges, so, in addition to its own sales team, Dry Soda has hired a savvy, $2 billion national food broker, Acosta, to make sure Dry gets onto the right grocery shelves and into the right restaurants (like the French Laundry).

There's an air of Energizer Bunny around Klaus. On the day she was named one of Seattle's 15 Women of Influence by Puget Sound Business Journal, she was launching a new flavor of soda, Wild Lime (think 7-Up on steroids) at Dry's headquarters in Pioneer Square, then hopped the red-eye to South Carolina to launch a new venture with Urban Outfitters. She'd been hoping to run in the New York Marathon next month, and hired her daughter's soccer instructor to be her running coach, but she concedes she's run out of time. "I'll have to put off the Marathon until 2012."

And then we have Evan Wallace, former physicist and ex-software engineer, who lives in a condo at the Market and spends a lot time in his "living room" downstairs, the Zig Zag Café.

Evan Wallace at Zig-Zag
Wallace is a tinker and inventor with a fondness for bubbles and abhorence of flat Champagne. How to keep the sparkle in a sparkling wine? Icy cold temperature helps; an airtight stopper helps, but really, once the bottle has been opened, the only way to keep the contents perfectly fresh is to exactly recreate the conditions in the bottle before the cork was popped. Wallace's solution, patented as the Perlage system, is to encase the entire bottle in a clear safety enclosure, and then repressurize the headspace of the bottle to its original state. At $200, it's an item for serious consumers of fine Champage.

But wait, there's another product from Wallace's company that will add sparkle to your bar: it's called Perlini, a kit (in a Mafia-style metal attaché case) that includes a shaker, a pressurizer, and a dozen CO2cartridges. (Also $200.)  Here's a video that shows how the system works; here's another one of Seattle bar guru Jamie Boudreau using Perlini to make a sparkling Negroni.
Miles Thomas makes Negroni at Branzino

Boudreau's new place on Capitol Hill, Cannon, is also at the forefront of another trend for craft-cocktail bars: homemade bitters, which he keeps in glass pitchers atop the bar.

Finally, for bars that don't have the time to brew their own, there's Scappy's Bitters, a local company founded by Miles Thomas, who went from tending bar at Branzino to the forefront of the bitters trend. (Technically, if it doesn't contain bitters, it's not a cocktail.) But bitters have gone way past the dark-and-dodgy days of Angostura's, first concocted two centuries ago in South America and still brewed in Trinidad. Scrappy's comes in a handful of flavors (orange, lime, grapefruit, lavender, celery--ideal for Bloody Mary--and chocolate). Demand has been intense; Thomas keeps moving to bigger quarters (he's currently in Fremont) but the product remains handmade.

The Perlini allows bartenders to produced a greater range of flavors without resorting to traditional mixers. Dry Soda allows non-drinkers to enjoy the flavors as well. And Scrappy makes it all (bitterly) worthwhile.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Duke Picks His Bourbon

 Woodford Reserve certainly seems to be doing alright for itself, with a few dozen high-profile "preferred partner" relationships around the country, including two in Seattle. The brand didn't even exist 15 years ago; now it has sales of 200,000 cases. It's not your grandfather's bourbon (that might be Early Times, or Jim Beam--six milliion cases a year!) or your rich uncle's, either (Jack Daniel's, perhaps, though that's Tennessee, not Kentucky, but ten million cases nonetheless). These days, it's all about small batch bourbon, and Woodford's, along with brands like Knob Creek and Bulliet, are reviving the sagging fortunes of the spirits industry. Woodford's parent, Brown Forman, is the nation's oldest wine and spirits distributor, and their marketing plan for Woodford involves creating "personal" barrels of bourbon for this elite group of buyers.

Chris Morris, Master Distiller
Usually, the top brass at the participating restaurants or hotels travel to the picturesque town of Versailles, as The Metropolitan Grill's staff has done the past couple of years. That's Ver-SAILS, not Ver-SIGH, by the way. (We wrote about Met Grill's Manhattan contest last month.) But Duke's Chowderhouse, a chain of six local restaurants, has been a preferred partner even longer, so this week Woodford's master distiller, Chuck Morris, left Kentucky's bucolic bluegrass country and brought his barrel samples to the Duke's at Southcenter. A Seattle institution, Duke's is just shy of 40 years old, and still run by its founder, Duke Moscrip.

Duke Moscrip
"Bourbon, by law, is 51 percent corn," the genial yet professorial Morris reminded the tasting panel, whom he called "steely-eyed veterans." Woodford also includes 18 percent rye and 10 percent malted barley in its recipe, and uses old-fashioned, copper pot stills to create its bourbons, which are aged for at least four years in white oak barrels. By the time the tasters arrive, there are some surprising variations between barrels. The afternoon's assignment: taste eight samples at full strength, drop four, then taste all six combinations of two-barrel blends, pick a favorite.

It's an exercise that would be familiar to blenders of wine and concocters of Champagne. The final choice will combine two specific barrels of Woodford Reserve to be labeled as Duke's personal selection, 360 bottles altogether. Barely enough to last a year. Duke's isn't known as a bourbon bar, though; it's where you go for chowder, fish and chips, or planked Copper River salmon, sitting on the deck in good weather. (It can get crazy; the relatively small Alki store takes in $20,000 on a nice day.)

As for the boyish-looking Morris, who is 54, he'll return to bluegrass country, where Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. Does he own horses himself? "No, thank goodness."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

It's not about the bottle

Proletariat wine.JPGHere's an idea you're going to enjoy. Premium wine by the glass, at your favorite restaurant, that costs a lot less because it comes from (wait for it) a keg.

Cheap wine's been sold like this for decades. Premium wine, a different story altogether. (Nor is this supermarket box wine, another category that's also trying to shed its image as bottom-of-the-barrel dregs). It's wine that would retail in the high $20s, but, says Darin Williams, you won't find it on the shelf in a wine store. "It's not about the bottle."

Williams is the founder of Small Lot Co-Op, a wine sales and marketing enterprise in Woodinville that gives his 20 or so clients, all smaller-scale wineries, access to the same services (financial, administrative, merchandising, client service) as bigger outfits when it comes to their prime target: Seattle-area restaurants. 

In January, Williams and Jordan Robinow (Small Lot's operations and account manager) hatched the business plan for Proletariat Wines (they'd already licensed and bonded the name). Then they called on Sean Boyd, the owner of the tiny (1,000-case) Rotie Cellars in Walla Walla, to come up with proprietary wines for their keg program. (It's not just surplus juice, like Trader Joe's Two Buck Chuck.) The result, Proletariat--a wine for the people, right?--aims for that sweet spot: a premium by-the-glass pour.

Proletariat logo.jpgAre you a traditionalist who Insists on seeing the bottle before you order a glass? No problem. Proletariat provides restaurants with etched carafes. But that almost misses the point. With the wine in a five-gallon keg (a standard 1/6th barrel size), there's no spoilage, no waste, no barrier between the wine and the cutsomer's glass.

Expect a generous, six-ounce pour of white to cost $10, a glass of red to run $14 or $15.

Proletariat has nine wines at this point, starting with a superb sauvignon blanc from the Wahluke Slope. There's also an excellent pinot noir from Oregon's Archery Summit Vineyard, and a Bordeaux blend from four vineyards in the Walla Walla region. Daniel's Broiler liked the cabernet sauvignon so much they bought the whole lot.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Cocktail Contest, You Say? That's the Spirit!

Lots of new cocktails out there, lots of new cocktail-related concoctions. It's a huge new business, catering to fussy drinkers, bored drinkers, adventurous drinkers. We've got a series of posts about this in the pipeline (as it were). Here's the first, about the most traditional American spirit of all, bourbon.
Metropolitan Grill's head bartender Rob Nokes

Didn't we just do this? (Memory plays tricks on us professional drinkers, ya know.) But yes, we did, last July.

And now a new crop of entrants, and a new, custom-blended bourbon from Woodford Reserve. This year's version is a little less spicy, a bit lighter-bodied, yet still oaky in the nose. The GM of downtown Seattle's prime steakhouse, Josh Anderson, exec chef Eric Hellner, and the Met's sommelier, Thomas Price, headed to Versailles, Kentucky, earlier this season and made the pick at the Woodford distillery.

"Running out of glassware!" calls the creator of Manhattan #1, a 13-year veteran behind the bar named Steve Alexander. His concoction includes Fernet Branca, Peychaud bitters, a splash of Maraschino and an orange zert, kinda like a Negroni with bourbon instead of gin. "The most Manhattan-y," says a nearby discerning journalist. "The least bourbon-y," thinks another blogger.

There's another contender among the traditionalists: head barman Rob Nokes, using the robust Woodford Reserve, Lucid absinthe, Italian vermouth and Fee Brothers Cranberry Bitters. "It's a Sazerac-style drink," says Nokes, who's been taking care of bourbon connoisseurs at The Met for two decades.

And in the end, wouldn't you know it was the most traditional concoction that won. Bravo, Mr. Nokes! Thanks, Met Grill! The Met Manhattan No. 5 will be available for $14 starting this weekend; it's a steal, considering that last year's winner cost $15. ("It's the economy," says GM Anderson.)

Steve Alexander at work

Two final observations before we stumble off into the night. First, three of the five contestants were professional bartenders, and their entries were along classic lines. Two were by Met Grill servers, and they veered severely toward the sweet side. Does this mean that servers think customers want sugary drinks? To be followed up.

Second, there are now 4.7 million bourbon barrels in the state of Kentucky, several hundred thousand more than there are actual residents in the state. The president of the Kentucky Distillers Association says there's "an explosion" of small-batch and single-barrel products. Good to know.

"Bourbon is a great value," says Met Grill GM Anderson. A premium bourbon costs less than half as much as a single-malt Scotch. The winning Manhattan No. 5 goes on sale this weekend for $14, down a buck from last year.

Metropolitan Grill, 820 2nd Ave. Seattle 206 624 3287

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Allegrini's Single-Vineyard Valpollicella

Allegrini's Palazzo della Torre outside Verona

The Allegrini family owns a splendid hilltop property outside of Vernoa, in the Valpolicella region of northern Italy, whose pergola-trained vineyards are planted mostly to Corvina grapes. On the flatlands, Valpolicella wines are light and acceptable for everyday drinking; it's on the hills that they have the potential for more character. Allegrini produces its best wines here: Amarone, using the traditional ripasso method, and a 65-acre, single-vineyard Valpolicella named for the estate's Renaissance villa, Palazzo Della Torre. About a third of the harvest isn't fermented right away but is kept aside until January, when the dried and highly concentrated grapes are added to the new wine and fermented again. The resulting wine is aged for 15 months in small casks.

As it happens, we saw this "passito" technique used in Emilia Romagna  when we visited Italy in the fall of 2008. Here's what the grapes  looked like, on the right.

You could think of the Allegrini wine, which retails for about $20 in Washington, as a "Baby Amarone." But it's a serious bottle on its own, as the winery's Marilisa Allegrini demonstrated at a culinary event this week. It was called "Cookoff for a Cause," and featured three chefs competing for their favorite charity.
  • Sabrina Tinsley of La Spiga (where the event was held) prepared a duck breast stuffed with prosciutto and Parmigianno-Reggiano.
  • Emran Chowdhury of Cantinetta wowed the guests (well, me, especially) with his braised oxtail and ethereal ricotta gnudi (dumplings).
  • Mauirizio Milazzo of Barolo won the top prize ($5,000, for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) with a rabbit meatball braised in red wine.

Chowdhury, Allegrini, Milaszzo, Tinsley

More pictures, including the dishes, in the album. Thanks to Joe Kennedy for the camera!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Croft Pink

Hey, I'm trying to say nice things here. Croft Pink, basically a rosé from the Douro Valley, released by the venerable Port house of Croft and retailing in the mid-teens. I'm drinking it right now, chilled, on a warm afternoon, (yes, with ice cubes).

But tell me, am I the only one who finds these flash sites so annoying? Bad enough they make you fake your birthday, but who's the marketing genius that sells the liquor companies on fancy-dancy screens with techno music?

I like this wine. It's perfect for this moment, with a handful of cashews while my steak and baked potato are making themselves ready. What bothers me is the notion that no one will drink it unless they are pre-seduced by Adobe.

And don't get me started on the music.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Washignton to get a new wine research center

The Washington Wine Commission today pledged $7.4 million over the next decade toward the construction of a wine science center on the Richland campus of Washington State University.

Baseler & Betz.JPG
It doesn't hurt that Ted Baseler, ceo of the state's largest wine company, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, is also chairman of WSU's board of regents. "All of the world's great wine regions have a benchmark institution to conduct research into grape growing and wine making, Baseler said. "The Wine Science Center will enable us to properly educate our industry's future leaders."

The center is expected to be a gathering place that will spark innovation, fuel economic development, support local, regional, national and international collaboration, and provide a catalyst for research breakthroughs, according to the Campaign for Wine website. (That's Baseler on the left in the photo, standing with Bob Betz, founder of Betz Family Winery, at the annual picnic for the Auction of Washington Wines.)

The industry's contribution will be raised through assessments on grape and wine production, beginning with the 2011 harvest. Says Kent Waliser, general manager of Sagemoor Vineyards and chairman of the commission, "This critically important project....will be seen as a significant milestone in the evolution of our industry."

The research and teaching facility will house the WSU's rapidly expanding viticulture & enology program led by Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling. The new building will be situated on land donated by the Port of Benton, developed by a new public development authority to be created by the City of Richland), and will be turned over to Washington State University.
Marty Clubb, president of the Washington Wine Institute and owner of L'Ecole Nº 41 Winery, says that the research expected to take place at the Wine Science Center will help ensure the continued growth of the state's wine industry in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

With over 700 wineries and more than 40,000 acres planted statewide, the Washington State wine industry contributes more than $3 billion annually to the state economy and $4.7 billion annually to the national economy. Additional information from the Wine Commission in the PDF linked to this page.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Happy Hour for Happy Dogs

We assume, don't we? that our pets lead untroubled lives. After all, "It's a dog's life" doesn't refer to an existence of misery and starvation. Domesticated animals in Seattle households are, by and large, well cared-for, and respond to humans with gentle affection. What a pleasure, then, to be able to offer pet owners an afternoon of chilled libation (called a "dogtail," woulnd't you know).
All this tonight on the sun-drenched patio between the Pan Pacific Hotel and Scraps Dog Lounge. Among the visitors, Randy Hale (drinking a $7 Salty Dog) and her 9-year-old chocolate labrador, Dylan. Also on hand, a beautiful golden labradoodle named Yafi.
Happens the second Thursday of every month, we're told. Not just Salty Dogs, but Greyhounds and Whippets, too.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


I am not, I swear, nasty by nature. I actually liked the old V Bar on Second. When the Splash website made its debut, I tweeted about its terrific food photos.

What you see here is a low-light cellphone image of something the Splash Happy Hour menu calls "Pesto Arachini" (correctly spelled as arancini on the website). Six marble-size rice balls in tomato goop atop a bed of wilted spinach. Not a basil leaf in sight.

Fine, it's only four bucks. But it does not give hope that owners Brian Fetty and Frank Leung have a clue about food. And it does not bode well that the clientele at 10 PM on a weeknight consists of employees on their days off.

Am I being too harsh? Dunno. Belltown blogger David Nelson likes the grub just fine.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Wine Guru Larry Stone Returns

Larry Stone worked his way through school (UW, chemistry) selling wine at the Red Cabbage (long gone). His uncanny palate, his encyclopedic knowledge, and his ability to sell wine to international connoisseurs as well as waterfront tourists propelled his career. Stone was a hometown Seattle guy, the sommelier at the Four Seasons Olympic when he won the title of "World's Best Sommelier in French Wine & Spirits" in the late 1980s, and has dwelled ever since in a celebrity realm: Charlie Trotter's, Rubicon, the Coppola wineries, and, for the past year, Evening Land Vineyards.

Evening Land is a project develped by a New York lawyer and Hollywood producer, Mark Tarlov, that combines Oregon and California vineyards with French viticultural know-how. The wine making consultant is none other than Dominique Lafon, the rock star winemaker of Burgundy.

Lafon's involvement (in Oregon's Eola Hills) is chronicled in Katherine Cole's brilliant Voodoo Vintners, but there's a followup that's not in the book.

"The Demeter people [who hold the copyright on the Biodynamic name and whose imprimatur is law when it comes to Biodymic certification] came to the vineyard and told Dominique he'd have to do something differently," Stone told me during a visit to Seattle this week. "The tisane was in the wrong cow horn, or something. And Dominique told them, hey, this was his vineyard, and he knew best for his vineyard, and they could go eff themselves." Which is why Seven Springs isn't an official BD. (One is tempted to add, "TS, suckas.")

Stone was in town for an appearance at RN74 for the first in a series of wine dinners (scallop, squab, strip loin, vacherin, served with five Evening Land wines). As it happens, Stone was a mentor to RN74's wine director Rajat Parr.

Next up: Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat.

Mundane Monday: Bloody Mary

Behold the Kanon Bloody Mary, "official" beverage of Escape to New York, a three-day music blowout held on Long Island this past weekend. (More civilized than Seafair, I suspect.)

The recipe, by Steven Bustos of The Fat Radish in Lower Manhattan, should serve at least four brunchers or inebriate one.

4 cups of organic tomato juice
1/2 tsp celery salt
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
2 pinches salt, 2 pinches pepper
Sweet splash of Sriracha sauce
1/2 tbsp horseradish

Stir together and combine with 8 ounces Kanon Vodka. Serve over ice, garnish with celery and pickles.

Did we mention that Kanon Vodka is made from 100% organic wheat, distilled in a continuous, single column and mixed with fresh spring water? Sorry, we should have. You should check out Kanon's elegant website, too, which will send you to the liquor store in quest of lovely Föks (which, it turns out, are naught but Friends of Kanon).

We should note, however, that the organic tomatoes still need regular salt, celery salt, soy sauce and Worcestershire. Plus a goddamn salty cornichon as a garnish. (Thanks to Amanda Harding of Peoples Revolution PR for sending this along.) I'll try it shortly, though I'll probably use Ebb&Flow vodka from Seattle's own distillery, Interbay-based Sound Spirits.

Mundane Monday is a series of posts about less-than-exciting news.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Supper in Belltown

It looks like swank may be making a comeback in gritty Belltown. Some recent examples:

That's Marco's Supper Club, now closed, to reopen soon under the inspired leadership of the Black Bottle team: Chris Linker, chef Brian Durbin, and designer Judy Boardman. The original Black Bottle is staying put at First & Vine. The new outpost is just half a block to the south.

Two blocks east, meantime, we can expect the opening at the end of this month (or so) of Henry and Oscar's Supper Club. It's an outpost of Mark Stern's admirable cinema (at First & Wall), The Big Picture, in the space in the Centennial Tower at Fourth & Vine that was occupied for many years by Shallots Asian Bistro.

Seattle Times photo by Mike Siegl
Back on Second & Blanchard, where Restaurant Zoe stood before its move to Capitol Hill, Spur chefs Dana Touch and Brian McCracken wasted no time in taking over the space and announcing that the name would be the Coterie Room, a supper club for grownups.  

So, looks like Belltown's going to be a weekend destination again for eggs benedict and mimosas.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Oregon's Voodoo Winemakers

Katherine Cole.JPGIn the mid-80s, one spring afternoon, I stood in a magnificent vineyard overlooking the Loire Valley in the Savennières appellation of central France, listening to a mild-mannered investment banker turned gentleman farmer (corduroy work pants, dress shirt, well-worn blazer) talk about cow horns and phases of the moon to explain what he was doing to his mother's vineyard. It made little sense to me at the time (and I was not alone, believe me), but the wine itself, La Coulée de Serrant, was incredibly focused, an expression of chenin blanc that I had never tasted. Similarly impressed two decades later was the distinguished wine journalist Robert Camuto, who devotes a chapter to Joly in his book about independent thinkers in French wine country, Corkscrewed.

In the interim, Joly has become the guru of the biodynamic winemaking movement. His book, Le Vin du Ciel à la Terre (Wine from Sky to Earth), has been translated into nine languages. He describes the four tragedies of modern agriculture (herbicides, chemical fertlizers, interfering with the vine's sap, and "technology" generally--commercial yeasts specifically) that replace the grape's natural flavor with genetically engineered substitutes.

And Joly, for his part, had fallen under the spell of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian cultural philosopher who attempted to reconcile science and mysticism, and, in 1924, came up with the concept of biodynamic agriculture. (Earlier, Steiner had developed the theoretical basis for the Waldorf schools; he also wrote plays and political books. Hitler attempted to discredit Steiner, after his death in 1925, because he called for better treatment of Germany's and Austria's Jewish citizens. Biodynamic practices were banned under the Nazis.) But in the last decades, Steiner's agricultural manifesto has taken on a life of its own, especially among the most elite wine growers.

In addition to Joly's Coulée de Serrant, several of the leading vineyards in Burgundy, the famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti among them, converted to biodynamic viticulture, and in the summer of 2001 the DRC's feisty, diminutive co-owner Lalou Bize-Leroy arrived at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., to address the annual meet-up known as the International Pinot Noir Celebration. The scene is recounted in detail by Katherine Cole in Voodoo Vintners, her new book about biodynamics in Oregon.

Within weeks of Bize-Leroy's talk, several wineries began incorporating biodynamic practices in their viticulture, and six months later the indusry established a formal biodynamic study group. The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association made Oregon its home, and Demeter, an international organization that actually owns the trademark of the term biodynamic, and has the exclusive right to certify farms as biodynamic, has since established its American headquarters in Philomath, Ore.

Seattle-born Cole, who now lives in Portland and writes about wine for The Oregonian, takes her readers on a guided tour of vineyards run by cast of Carhartt-wearing characters. They may only farm five or six percent of the state's vineyards, but they produce an outsize share of its best wines, especially the elusive pinot noirs for which Oregon has become famous. Many of the practitioners come to the wine-grower lifestyle with what Cole calls "good genes, good fortune, good work ethic and good credit," the good credit being particularly important, in my view, in an industry with 800 competitors state-wide. (When I wrote the first guidebook to the nascent Oregon wine country in 1981, it proudly proclaimed to cover "All 37 Wineries"!) So far, 68 vineyard properties in the US are Demeter-certified, 16 of them in Oregon.

So what's the point of biodynamic, or BD (as it's called)? Above all, it's a respect for the land and its connection to the cosmos.

Prior to the original planting of a conventional vineyard, Cole points out, earthmoving equipment uproots trees, bushes and boulders, then smooths the soil. Weeds sprout among the vines, so the grower spreads herbicide, which kills off benign cover crops that might restore nutrients to the soil. Meantime the roosting spots for birds and insects have been bulldozed, so there are no longer any owls to eat gophers or birds to eat larger insects. This calls for pesticides, which in turn curtail the aerating and phosphorus-releasing capabilities of earthworms. Fungi move in, the dirt gets rock-hard, lifeless and brittle; the farmer tills the rock-hard soil, dispersing dust and whatever organic matter was left. Without humus to store moisture and nutrients in the topsoil, the vine droops, gets sick and attracts pests, for which the conventional solution is, you guessed it, chemical fertilizers, "a steroid shot straight to the vein of the plant, pumping it up for now but setting it up for a future heart attack or stroke."

True believers have several homeopathic remedies: Preparation 500 (a cow horn packed with the manure of lactating bovines), Prep 501 (a cow horn packed with ground quartz); 502 involves yarrow flowers, 503 camomile, 504 stinging nettles, 505 chopped oak bark, 506 dandelions, 507 valerian, and 508 a giant cauldron of tea steeped from horsetails rich in silica. There are strict prescriptions as well for their application (burying the cow horns in the vineyard during specific phases of the moon among them). But how much of this is legit, how much is quasi-religious ritual, how much of it is voodoo?

Matt Kramer, the conscience of Oregon's wine industry, thinks of BD as a sort of kosher practice. Steiner himself modeled his theology on the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia. But lunar planting cycles are paleolithic, recognized in Mesopotamian times, and well understood by farmers of medieval Europe. "Agricultural engineering" was originally part of the industrial revolution in England (a market for threshing machines to replace the farmhands who'd gone off to factory work in the cities), but everything changed with the advent of the First World War and the appearance of synthesized ammonia that could be used as an explosive or as fertilizer. In post-war Europe, Steiner's voice was a lonely, though not entirely solitary exortation, against "progress." (Hermann Hesse was an ally.)

So by the time all this gets down to Oregon, what do we have? Consultants, for starters. True believers, it goes without saying. Neighbors who roll their eyes. But nothing really unusual. "Biodynamic farming," says pioneer Bill Steele, owner of Cowhorn Vineyards in Jacksonville, Ore., is 60 percent canopy management, 30 percent tillage and 10 percent everything else." As Cole says, that's about as banal as it can get.

The voodoo isn't far away, though. Kevin Chambers, who runs Oregon Vineyard Supply as well as Results Partners LLC, sticks a vertical 8-foot piece of PVC pipe in his vineyard; inside is a copper coil. "It's a radionic field broadcaster," he tells Cole, without a trace of irony.

Not surprisingly, there's a blog devoted to debunking BD. It's "bad science," says its author, a California wine grower named Stu Smith, who supports sustainable organic farm practices instead.

"Those who don't understand biodynamics--and don't understand voodoo," writes Cole, "use the term in reference to the preparations: the buried cow horns, the hanging stag's bladders...they're thinking Louisiana voodoo." But in fact it's more like Haiti's voodou, a nature-worshipping belief system, not agricultural but spiritual. Are its viticultural practitioners batshit crazy dreamers or brilliant wine makers?

Cole makes it clear that Voodoo Vintners is not a guide to individual wines. Still, she obviously admires Bergstrom, Belle Pente, Beaux Freres and Brick House. (All "B"s, as is Burgundy! Woo-woo!) In the end, Cole seems content to introduce the reader to BD's practitioners and practices; Voodoo Vintners is meant as a guided tour, not a manifesto. The faithful may complain that Cole lacks commitment, but the rest of us can agree that she gives us a great ride.

Voodoo Vintners, Oregon State University Press, 192 pages, $18.95

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Varro: Paid Up? Or Shut Down?

AUGUST 5th UPDATE: Captiol Hill Blog says it's all over. RIP, farewell, ciao, bye-bye.

Couple of days ago, there was a document affixed to the door of Varro, a newish bar at 12th and Pike, demanding $20K and change in rent. It's known as "Three-Day Pay Rent or Vacate Notice," and not to be trifled with.

Thing is, aside from the eyebrow-raising $5,871 in monthly rent, there's also $550 for "amortized back rent," which strongly suggests that, um, the landlord was willing to cut the tenant some slack way back when and recover the missing payment(s) over time.

But wait. Varro's only been open since April. May was late, and June & July hadn't been paid. So it looks like the owners of Varro haven't ever paid rent, doesn't it?

Who are these guys? And what exactly are they up to? Capitol Hill Blog says Varro "was concepted as the first in a chain of lounges based on the Italian theme." That wold be the theme of neighborhood bars and caffès where you drop in before lunch for a latte and a cornetto, for an afternoon espresso and an early-evening aperitivo. Right, except that no neighborhood bar I've ever set foot in has a DJ turntable and mixing board next to the front door.

The owners are listed as Glenn Walker,Christopher Hurt and Josephine Baik. They're being advised by none other than Rich Troiani, longtime senior operating manager for the Mackay Restaurant Group, whose reward for faithful service was a restaurant named for him. (That was Troiani's, a shortlived downtown steakhouse that Mackay opened on the site of Flemings. The restaurant is gone, chef Walter Pisano returned to Tulio's, Troiani himself became an independent consultant, but the website lives on.) Why someone like Troiani would get involved is a mystery. How someone like Walker would get involved is less of a mystery; he once envisioned a sort of hospitality subscription service called White Tie that morphed into a moribund charitable foundation. At any rate, Walker has no restaurant experience, and it looks like no one ever told him that you gotta pay the landlord even if you don't have customers. Well, they did have some customres, and an active Facebook page. On the other hand, you can figure that any licensed eatery that sells Krug Grande Cuvée Brut for $285 is probably more of a bar than a restaurant.

Tonight there was a handwritten sign inside Varro that says that the rent's been paid and that the place will be open "tomorrow, Friday." This is being written on Saturday, and Varro is still closed. If the landlord wants to call the cops, East Precint is right across the street.

Meantime, the joint's for sale. $200K, apparently. Please send updates in the comments.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dinner on God's Mountain

It's called God's Mountain, at the top of an unmarked driveway off Skaha Lake, a 14-room private hotel with a spectacular sunset view.

From time to time, they have dinners here, prepared (because there's no kitchen) by an outfit called Joy Road Catering. "Joy" is actually Dana Ewart, a young woman with an intuitive sense of taste and texture, and a caterer's ability to roll with the punches.

Clouds and showers? Set up on the covered veranda. A couple of last-minute guests? Bring up another table from the basement. No bouquet of flowers? Peonies in a jam jar. The result, as you can see, is a convivial table for 36 diners, convened to showcase the wines of Blue Mountain Winery.

With the Brut Rose, appetizers of mussels and pissaldiere. With the sauvignon blanc, a salad of shaved fennel and goat cheese. With the chardonnay, seared scallops. With the pinot noir, roast pork. The sun came out (as it has off and on all day) and there was some talk of moving back down to the edge of the bluff overlooking the lake, but the consensus was to stay put, on the terrace, bathed in the last rays of the sun, with the music of clinking glasses and lively conversations between guests who were strangers half an hour earlier.

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