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.

Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

"Haywire" Gets Straightened Out

Pyramid Hefeweizen's new label
It was a classic case of New Coke. Three years ago, and with the best intentions (of differentiating its product from the other Hefeweizen beers in the marketplace), Pyramid Brewery changed the name and look of its signature beer to "Haywire."

Seemed like a good idea at the time. The beer didn't change, and the new name would bring new drinkers to the brand, people who couldn't pronounce the four German syllables (HAY-fuh-vight-sun).

Bad idea. The backbone of a brand is its loyal customers, especially the ones who pride themselves on knowing how to pronounce it (think of your friends who still call it "Foe" when they order Vietnamese noodle soup) and who enjoy the beer's wheaty-yeasty taste. Never mind, for a moment, that Pyramid's own staff refer to it as "Hef" (as in Hugh).

Pyramid began life in 1984 as Hart Brewing Co. in Kalama. It was purchased five years later by a Seattle investment group (among them, John and Peter Morris, whose better-known venture at the time was Fratelli Ice Cream). The new owners moved the operation to Seattle, next to the baseball stadium, opened outlets in Portland and in Berkeley, changed the name to Pyramid and got themselves listed on NASDAQ. Along with pioneers Red Hook (distributing nationally through Anhaeuser Busch) and Widmer Brewing Co. of Portland, it was one of the Northwest's pioneer beer companies.

But Pyramid was acquired last year by North American Breweries, a relatively large group of regional beers, based in upstate New York, and found itself under a centralized brand management whose barley-counters realized they had a problem. After the initial howls, in 2008, of "What did you guys do to my beer?" subsided, sales of Haywire fell off drastically. Pyramid's prime asset had gone sour. So, with a combination of sheepishness and bravado, Pyramid brought back the Hefeweizen name this week. "We're reconnecting Pyramid Hefeweizen with the rich tradition of craft brewing in the Northwest," said brand manager Ryan Daley.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Pope of Prosecco

Meet Pierluigi Bolla, scion of one Italy's first families. They used to own the giant, highly respected Bolla winery outside Verona, which they sold in the mid-1980s, to their American distributor, Brown-Foreman. Pierluigi's brother until recently was chief executive of Barilla, Italy's largest pasta producer. And he himself runs Valdo, the fourth-largest producer of Prosecco, the iconic sparkling wine from the Veneto.

Prosecco is made from the glera grape, with the sparkle coming in a second fermentation that takes place in large, stainless steel tanks called autoclaves; it's known as the Charmat method even though it was invented by an Italian named Martinotti. Sparkling wine is made all over northern Italy, but it can only be called Prosecco if it comes from a delimited area of the Veneto; the best comes from two DOCG regions, Valdobbiadena and Conigliano. Valdo, founded in the 1920s and purchased by the Bolla family in the 1940s, makes more Prosecco, 10 million bottles, than all the fancy Franciacorta producers put together! (There are several posts on from my visit to Franciacorta last December. I'd link to them if I could figure out how to do it on the iPad.) Ten million bottles is also substantially more than the entire output of the Collio, where I visited just last month.

Impeccably turned out in a Brooks Brothers blazer, blue Oxford button-down and tie, Dr. Bolla presided over an Italian-style lunch at Serafina (bruschetta, calamari, ravioli, tuna, espresso). "Our biggest export market is Germany, then the UK," he said. "We've only been in the US for the past year, but we have some wonderful new products coming into the market." Like many, he was seduced by the potential of China, but abandoned that market after 20 frustrating years. His best sales are still at home; Italians drink three out of five bottles of Valdo.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Albariño, Alvarinho, It's All Good

Hey, it's 8:30 in the evening and I still haven't had dinner, but I looked in the fridge just now and found a bottle of Albariño that the Martin Codax people sent me last week. And damn, that's a fine drop.

Martin Codax (the name has all sorts of accents that I'm too lazy to reproduce) was a poet and court composer in 13th Century Spain (hence the lute on the label). This particular Albariñocomes from Gallicia; in Portugal, the same grape is called Alvarinho. Either way, the name is supposed to come from the words alba (white) and Rino (from the Rhine), the theory being that German monks brought the grape to the Iberian peninsula.

Grown in the Rias Baixas in the northwest corner of Spain (and along Portugal's northern border), Albariñogrows on trellises that elevate the grape to prevent rotting. The result is a highly aromatic, straw-yellow wine that has flavors of apples and tropical fruit, with a touch of herbal notes. It would be perfect with shellfish, if I had any shellfish in the fridge, but no, just one bottle of Albariño.

The Martin Codax sells for about $15. For the usual disclaimers, read this blog's footer.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Barrage Cellars at Tulalip BBQ

It could have been a weekend get-together at the foot of any highrise apartment complex: fire pit, barbecue wagons, kobe beef sliders. It was, however, a wine tasting on the patio of the Impulse Lounge at the 350-room Tulalip Resort Casino. They do this every month or so, under the tutelage of the resort's sommelier, Tommy Thompson, whose guest this time around was Kevin Correll, the owner of Barrage Cellars. As the wines were poured this cool, early-summer afternoon, executive chef Perry Mascitti and his crew stood ready at half a dozen grill stations (steak, shrimp, pizzas, sliders, Cuban corn).

Correll hasn't given up his day job at Boeing, where he essentially teaches people how to build airplanes. But he's applying the elements of his profession (breaking down a vast, complex process) to a no-less daunting craft: making wine.

His winery produces two whites (riesling, chardonnay) and several reds (merlot, syrah, cab franc, cab sauv, plus a proprietary blend that's sold only in the tasting room), all quite respectable. The inky-black syrah was the ideal accompaniment to a rare slice of mushroom-topped New York steak and a playful deconstruction of a potato salad.

Barrage Cellars (a blend of barn and garage; nothing to do with the French word barrage. a dam across a body of water) is currently producing about 3,000 cases, not enough to be commercially profitable, but Correll's not worried. He's buying high quality grapes from good vineyards, and getting set up with hardware and French barrels. As long as he's on the Boeing payroll. he'll be fine.

Washington Wines Festival

Many events over three days. Last night, at Waterfront Seafood Grill, a so-called Magnum Tasting as the sun set slowly over Elliott Bay. Stunning wines from Leonetti, Quilceda Creek, Betz, Hedges, Dunham. Docs were, as usual, well represented. Dr. Richard Baxter, author of a book titled "Age Gets Better With Wine," and a blog called Health and Wine, serves on the organization's board.The Medical Director of Schick-Shadel Hospital was one of the guest sommeliers.  Explained Dr. Erick Davis, "It's my patients who have an addiction problem, not me."

Many more food, wine & wine maker photos on my Facebook album.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Chaleur Estate's "Serious" Blanc

That's Jay Soloff with the bottle of Chaleur Estate's sauvignon-sémillon blend at this weekend's "Pour on the Plaza," a charity fundraiser held at El Gaucho in Bellevue. (Does he look familiar? We wrote about him doing a turn at El Gaucho in Belltown  back in 2008.) Soloff was the sommelier there over 30 years ago, left to start a wine brokerage, and is now a partner and Exec VP for marketing for DeLille Cellars. Chaleur Estate Blanc is one of thier labels, and arguably the most serious white wine produced in Washington State.

It's the fifth vintage of this blend, roughly a third sémillon from Boushey Vineyards, the rest, sauvignon blanc, from Boushey, Klipsun and Sagemoor. It was a warm, abundant vintage, but there's less of it than there was, from the same sources, in 2008 because DeLille's wine maker, Chris Upchurch, treats the grapes as if they were ingredients in a premium red wine: low crop levels (three tons to the acre), whole berry fermentation with native yeasts, moderate use of French oak. Most white wines get little respect because they're based on high yields and quick-and-dirty winemaking; they sell at low prices because the wine makers don't make much of an effort at quality. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The proof of Chaleur Estate Blanc's quality is in the glass, and here the wine writers are having a field day. Dried apricots, figs, grapefruit, gooseberies, lemon, lime, hazelnuts, grilled bread, toasted straw, flint. No question that it has a rich and silky mouthfeel, and a lingering, nutty finish. At $34 a bottle, it's hardly a wine for casual drinking. Rather, it's as good as the white Bordeaux blends it emulates (names like Domaine du Chevalier, Château Smith Haut Lafitte, or Château Carbonnieux), yet it's only half their price.