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.