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