Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What was in my Met Market wine bag?

The six wines in my Met Market wine bag
The deal was straightforward: I'd get a six-bottle wine bag from Metropolitan Market and a budget of $150 to fill it up. All I had to do was explain the reason for my choices to the cameraman. And yes, they'd let me keep the wine.

So here goes. I pretended I was having friends over for dinner, so I'd want to start with a festive bubbly. Prosecco prices were well under $15, Crémant goes for about $20, but Met Market had its own, private-label Champagne on sale for $25. K-ching.

A bottle of white to accompany a crab appetizer, perhaps? There's an impresive, Rhone-style blend from Hedges Cellars, and moderately priced wines from Barnard Griffin and The Hogue Cellars, but what better representation of eastern Washington whites than Chateau Ste. Michelle's 2011 Sauvgnon Blanc from its Horse Heaven Hills vineyard. Two down.

Now for the reds. Over on the French side of the display at the Mercer Street store, there's a good selection of reasonably priced Bordeaux, but very little classified Burgundy. The better selection of wines, made in the Burgundian style from pinot noir grapes, are over in the Northwest section. Two Oregon classics: the Eyrie Vineyards 2009 and Adelsheim 2010, both in the mid-$20 range. Full of fresh berry flavors, yet lighter in body, these wines are ideal companions to grilled salmon.

Moving on to my imaginary barbecued-beef course, I looked for red blends from eastern Washington. (Could have done French Bordeaux or Rhone wines, obviously. Could have done Italian reds, Chianti Classico or Nebbiolo-based. Saved the Barbaresco Proddutori for another day.) Plenty of big cabs, merlots and syrahs on the Washington shelves, but dollar-for-dollar, I think there's better value in blends.

First, Brian Carter's "magic" wine, Abracadabra, blended from more than half a dozen varieties. Second, an excellent blend from Brennon Leighton at Efeste, his Final-Final (roughly sixty percent cabernet sauvignon, forty percent syrah). Both bottles retail in the high $20s, but the Abracadabra is on sale for $16, $11 off.

All done! Just under $150 with Met Market's 10 percent discount for six bottles. Once they've finished editing the video, look for it on this page.

Yes, it can be frightening to approach a supermarket wine section with hundreds of labels. But Met Market makes it easy; their wine department managers are very well-trained. Second, it helps if you come in with guidelines: a grape variety, a region, a winemaker or winery. But be flexible: the more rigid your requirements, the fewer your choices and the more you'll pay.

Romané-Conti and other grand cru Burgundies are expensive because they're from teensy vineyards that produce limited quantities of exceptional wine and are sought-after by connoisseurs all over the world. There's a lot more First-Growth Bordeaux, but plenty of "collectors" with more money than taste, often buying case lots as "investments." Nah, wine shouldn't be considered an investment in anything but your own pleasure.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Spreading Good with Every Glass

Martin Barrett, founder of Sozo Wines
Wine, nectar of the gods, is what the elites drink, an expensive indulgence for snobs. Martin Barrett has heard it all. He's a wine guy, former owner of Cana's Feast in Oregon, now living in Seattle and running inner-city social welfare programs.

Over a glass of wine one evening with his longtime friend Monte Regier--a human resources manager who'd just returned from a stint on a hospital ship in Liberia--the talk turned to the contrast between Africa's grinding poverty and America's pockets of poverty in a land of abundance. Barrett realized that for a dollar a day he could feed a hungry kid. Not in some distant land but here at home, where he knew well that there are too many hungry kids."This glass of wine," he said, "could feed a kid."

And so was born the concept of Sozo (a Greek word that suggests rescue), a unique project that shares the revenue from wine sales with local food banks.

Barrett understood that Sozo had to start with excellent wines, "but the last thing the industry needs at this point is another new winery." Yet, there's a lot of good juice out there, languishing, begging for a good home. Tasting tank samples around Woodinville that seemed to have some potential, Barrett and Regier discovered the talents of Cheryl Barber Jones, the former wine maker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, now a freelance consultant. She began working her "magic," blending stray lots so that the sum was greater than its parts.

In its first year, Sozo released six or seven wines, whites like riesling and pinot gris; reds like pinot noir, tempranillo, a Rhone blend, a Bordeaux blend, in addition to special bottlings for the Rotary Club. So far, so good. In fact, the Rhone blend was named best of class at the Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition last year and the Bordeaux blend won a gold medal; priced at $120, it sold out.

"Cheryl's crafted some amazing wines," Barrett says. So the "cause" is a bonus. There's a number in the lower right hand corner of the wine label, the number of food bank meals that the sale of the bottle will generate. Not a guilt-inducing "instead of" admonition thatyou could have made a donation instead of buying the bottle, but a satisfying "in addition to." Five meals for the riesling, 25 for the Bordeaux.

The biggest supporters have been local restaurants, over 70 at last count, from swanky spots like Canlis to neighborhood eateries like Magnolia's Mondello. There's no mention on the list that there's anything special about the wines, but each restaurant names its own charity (Canlis picked the None Will Perish foundation; Mondello named the Ballard Food Bank). Sozo writes the check, and the restaurant mails it to the beneficiary.

So far, the Sozo project has generated 70,000 meals for hungry kids. "People who work in the private sector think we're crazy to be giving away our profits. Yet the idealists in the non-profit world probably didn't have the discipline and analytical skills to make this happen." Barrett told me this week. "With Sozo, we seem to have created the best of both worlds."

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Efeste's Big Papa cab sauv

Thomas Price pours Efeste Big Papa at Met Grill
That's Seattle's newly minted Master Sommelier Thomas Price on the right, pouring us a glass of Efeste's astonishing 2008 vintage Big Papa at Metropolitan Grill this week. The occasion was the launch of the restaurant's new Met Prime program of humanely raised beef from Double R Ranch in the Okanogan Valley of eastern Washington: tender, flavorful cuts from cattle raised on a 60,000-acre spread near the town of Loomis. The Met's beef used to come from Nebraska; sourcing locally reduces the carbon footprint by over 40 percent.

But, hey, this is a post about the wine. Big Papa is one of Brennan Leighton's relatively few single-variety releases; he prefers blends. But the sourcing is diverse: Red Mountain (Kiona and Klipsun vineyards), Columbia Valley (Sagemoor), Wahluke Slope (Weinbau). Efeste (named for its three owners, Mssrs. Ferelli, Smith and Taylor), occupies a production facility in Woodinville where Leighton, a California transplant, has settled in. His approach is non-interventionist, a rarity in a world of ego-driven enologists who think their job is to "craft" a wine, and that success can be measured in "points above 90" on some critic's rating.

The Big Papa (which, for the record, did indeed get above 90 points from everybody) could be the ideal Steak House wine, rich in the mouth (almost 14.5 degrees of alcohol), flavors of blackberries and currants, a bit of spice in the nost as well, with big tannins that do justice to the meat. Vines that have been around for 30 years, so the grapes have none of the unpleasant, green astringency so often shown by younger cabernet. Minimal racking. Mostly new oak barrels. And above all (most important to me, at any rate), a confidence in indigenous yeasts. More than anything, indigenous yeasts are responsible for the concept of terroir, since they spring from the soil itself. You can't buy microbes like that from the corner store. On the other hand, you can buy a bottle of Big Papa for $95, or a glass for $24.

The Metropolitan Grill, 820 Second Avenue, Seattle, (206) 624-3287

Monday, June 4, 2012

Gallo buys Two Washington Wineries

Covey Run's lineup of wines
Gallo, the biggest winery in the United States, has announced it is buying two wineries in Washington: Columbia Winery (which began life as Associated Vintners) and Covey Run (founded as Quail Run).

It's the first foray into Washington for Gallo, which bought the properties from Ascentia Wine Estates. No price was given, but then, Ascentia is broke anyway and hasn't even been in business for the past year.

Gallo will take over the operation of Columbia's Woodinville facility and Covey Run's in Sunnyside.

"We have been watching the Washington wine industry grow for a number of years and consider these wine brands to be a key part of our premium wine strategy," said Roger Nabedian, who runs Gallo's Premium Wine Division.

Well, we've been watching Washington's wine industry ourselves, Mr. Nabedian, wondering how long it would take until the sleeping California giant woke up the fact that our juice is, simply, better. Don't worry about being condescending, though; we're used to being patronized.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Dale Chihuly's Urge to Collect Stuff

Dale Chihuly is something of a pack-rat, and now that he's rich and famous he can indulge his inclination. The new Chihuly Garden and Glass at Seattle Center, a $20 million project funded by the Space Needle, is a sort of corporate vanity project. They're careful not to call it a museum; it's more like an indoor-outdoor library of Chihuly's Greatest Hits (the chandeliers, ceilings, sunbursts and flowers; the forests, sea creatures, globes and reeds) on the former Funhouse site that's sure to become a treasured tourist destination.

Tucked onto the north end is a moderately priced restaurant called the Collections Cafe, which houses some 28 displays of Chichuly's personal stash of ephemera: ceramic dogs, bottle openers, Mexican ashtrays, pocket knives, inkwells, alarm clocks, vintage plastic radios, kitchen string holders (like Tom Douglas has at Cuoco), cast-iron dogs, fish lures, tin toys, carnival prizes, dollhouse furniture, shaving brushes, Christmas ornaments, and, hanging from the ceiling, a cacaphony of accordions, squeezeboxes, concertinas and stomach Steinways.

No one's pretending that these are carefully curated examples of, say, the perfect cast-iron bouquet doorstop. But isn't this the territory Tom Robbins satirized two decades ago in Another Roadside Attraction? Personally, I'm more impressed with Chihuly's talent as a draughtsman; three dozen of his colorful drawings adorn one of the walls.

No matter! Let's move on to the food and wine: custom bottles of Dunham Cellars chardonnay and syrah labeled Billy O "Mazie" and "Mighty," respectively, named for Chihuly's right-hand man, Billy O'Neill. Craft beers from local brewers. Regional fare designed by Seattle's pre-eminent menu consultant, Jason Wilson, and executed by former Hunt Club exec chef Ivan Szilac under the watchful eye of the Needle's exec chef Jeff Maxfield. For a 50-seat restaurant, the kitchen is way overbuilt; that's because it will also handle catering for the Glasshouse, a spectacular, new 40-foot-tall conservatory appended to the building. There, under a 100-foot vine of red-yellow-orange-amber glass blossoms, Seattle swells will find their new fave gathering spot for prestigious parties.

But watch out! Chihuly's latest purchase, announced to a gathering of writers sampling the Cafe's fare, was described as a warehouse full of milkshake mixers.
Collections Cafe, 305 Harrison, Seattle, 206-753-4940 Collections Cafe  on Urbanspoon