Monday, February 25, 2013

Citation is Oregon's best pinot noir

Rossbach with 2002 Citation
Holding the bottle--an Oregon pinot noir from the 2002 vintage--is Howard Rossbach, who launched a brand called Firesteed some 20 years ago to take advantage of a world-class growing region hobbled by a fragmented, dysfunctional marketplace. Oregon's pinot noir producers were a fractious lot; there were famous names like David Lett, David Adelsheim, and Dick Erath, but no one had enough volume to become a category leader, and the small wineries wereforced to charge high prices just to stay in business.

Firesteed was born as a "virtual winery" in 1992, and for ten years used a facility in Rickreall (in Oregon's Eola Hills) to produce its wine, a careful but unassuming pinot noir blended from grapes grown under contract at vineyards throughout Oregon. Eventually Rossbach bought the winery outright, and began farming its 90 acre himself. He went on to purchase another 200 acres nearby, and continues to buy both grapes as well as outside wine (but only if it's better than what he's already got).

Firesteed has gone on to produce other varieties (notably chardonnay and barbera d'Asti), but Rossbach has a personal fondness for the pinot. The best stuff goes into barrel for 16 to 18 months, then sees up to seven years of bottle-aging. The result is stunning: unlike the pubescent, fruit-forward Oregon pinots we've become accustomed to, the 2002 Citation is a wine that's almost fully mature, the sort of wine you cannot imagine if you've never visited Burgundy and had the opportunity to taste from a private collection of Grand Cru wines. There's tobacco and bramble in the nose, an earthiness on the palate, a voluptuous mouthfeel. The winery started with 6,000 bottles, 80 percent of which has already been sold.

Older wines like this, unfortunately, don't do particularly well in competitions because they're so far from the mainstream, years behind the showy bottles that win shiny medals and fuel the media frenzy over Oregon pinot. But a wine like this might make you want to exclaim, like Scarpia, "Tosca, you make me forget God!"

Yet all you have to do is go to Metropolitan Market and pay $70, or travel to the tasting room along  Highway 99 15 minutes west ot Salem, where you only need to plunk down $60. Either way, it's a lot less expensive than flying to France.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Be still: how to make Big Gin

Let's begin by reassuring the State Liquor Board and the federal revenuers that the "still" in the photo is for show-and-tell only, acquired from so that Ben Capdevielle could demonstrate how distillation works. The botanicals in the boiling retort are real, though. It's a dog-and-pony show that Capdevielle took on the road this week for a class in gin-making. The real still, inside a grey clapboard house in Ballard, is a 100-gallon copper job from Vendome in Louisville, KY, a part of the country where distillation (licit and illicit) is an industry with a cultural history as important as, say, aerospace is out here.

The product of the legal effort (legal since the state gummint eased up on craft distilleries in 2008) is called Big Gin, produced by Capdevielle and his gang under a corporate umbrella named Captive Spirits. Big Gin is an aromatic spirit that falls into a category of gin generally referred to as "London Dry." That is, it's not overly sweet even with lots of juniper and orange peel in the nose. Compared to, say, Bombay Sapphire, it has nowhere near the perfume; it has none of the rose-water and cucumber aromatics of Hendricks. Captive spends more than other local craft distillers on its clothes: its gin is hand-bottled and sports an elegant label (by Chris Jordan of Shipwreck Design). All those botanicals, not cheap, either.

Captive will shortly release a second gin, aged in used bourbon barrels. The aging--a typical technique of a gin category known as "Old Tom"--mellows the flavors a bit and adds a hint of golden color. But the feds won't approve labels for gin that even suggest "aging," so the label will read, simply, Old Tom.

Capdevielle teamed up with the folks at Seatown (Tom Douglas's tourist-oriented snack bar at the Market) for the cocktail class. And using the show-and-tell still, with its juniper berries and botanicals bouncing happily in the retort, he explained that craft distillers use neutral, industrial-strength corn-based ethanol and infuse it with flavors. The orange esters, for example, dominate the first part of the distillation; how prominent should those flavors be? Each distiller's "recipe" (how much of this, how much of that) remains a closely guarded secret, even as their trade association, the Washington Distillers Guild, works with the Liquor Board to expand access to out-of-state markets.