Seattle Wine Blog

This blog is dedicated to commentary on all aspects of wine, especially short entries to help you find the best wines without the usual hype and spin. These are my frank, independent opinions, usually based on tasting wine at a public event, off the shelf or at the winery. "All creative acts must arise out of a specific soil and flicker with a spirit of place" -D.H. Lawrence

Monday, October 18, 2010

Oregon Pinot Underground

This year, it is not only Oregon that is waiting for sunshine, but the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma, as well. Fortunately, in Dry Creek the grape growers can wait for more sunshine. So far, though, one vintner described it as not only the worst vintage of the decade, but of many decades past. In the Willamette, where we met up with the Toveys on our way home to Seattle, the chances of catching up seemed grim. We will return to Dry Creek, but first I want to tell you about the The Pinot Underground.

If you have the bread it is easy to buy the big names in Oregon, but almost all of us are spending half of what we used to on a bottle of wine. Oregon has a reputation as a place where you can hardly get a bottle of Pinot for under twenty-five dollars and very little else for less than that price, too. But if you hunt and peck, you can find some great wine below that price point. Not everything in the underground is that inexpensive, but it is almost uniformly excellent wine.

Let's start with Panther Creek which is definitely above ground for everyone to see with a tasting room that is open virtually every day. Ken Wright, maker of Oregon's only "cult" wine, started here, but he has since moved on to God -like status at his two wineries in Carlton. His wines can be heavenly and it used to be that you could only obtain them by getting on the mailing list for which there was a long wait. Now for about $360 you can buy the minimum six pack of Pinot at the Tyrus Evan winery where he sells his non-Pinots from other Oregon wine areas such as Walla Walla. When I tasted four of the 2008 Pinots, I most liked the Canary Hill and Carter wines. These wines are not just above ground, they are in the Au Dela, in outer space, sometimes in terms of quality and definitely in terms of price. I you get on the mailing list you will be required to buy two six packs. I think the current mailing list price comes to $55 a bottle. You had better be a nasty banker or stockbroker to afford this one. BTW, Ken's Celilo Chardonnay is a fabulous wine with great minerality for about $30 a bottle and your don't have to fork over for a six pack

Panther Creek, on the other hand, offers vineyard designate wines at $30 to $50 a bottle and you don't have to buy a six pack. Not only that but they are on sale! Winemaker Mike Stevenson and Assistant Winemaker Bill Hanson make a half dozen vineyard designate wines and virtually all of them are superb. The 2007 Winemaker's Cuvee* is medium bodied and quite fruity - an excellent buy at $25 on sale. The 2007 Verde Vineyards* is also on sale at $25, while the Vista Hills*, Freedom Hill*, and Shea Vineyard* are all on sale at $35 and all are one swallow or one star wines, a score of 90 in Parker parlance. These wines have great fruit, bigger than medium body and are sure to please you.

Now, if you really want to go underground ask the very able Kendra if you can cop a few bottles of Stevenson-Barrie Pinot. Winemaker Mike makes this wine under his own label. While you can't taste it in the tasting room, trust me, it's great stuff. The 2007 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir** initially seemed well balanced with a nose of tobacco and leather. Over the course of four days it just kept getting better annd better - round softer, cherry smooth and cool. Initial note - OMG, WOW!  The 2007 Freedom Hill** was bigger with an initial nose of smoke and leather. Over four days, the  nose evolved into mint, herbs, cedar, and black fruit. This one could age for ten years, while the Shea will probably get better over another four years at the least. 

In the same underground den, the other wine making denizen  of Panther Creek Cellars, Bill Hanson, offers up four more beauties.The '09 Libra Pinot Gris is very crisp and fresh with a citrus nose and lemon/vanilla flavors. In the Italian Pinot Grigio style, it is the perfect oyster wine for under $20. The 2008 Willamette Pinot Noir** comes from the Eola Amity Hillls AVA and was fermented with the native yeast of the grapes. You might expect a wild thing, but in fact the wine is light and easy with fabulous black cherry fruit. The beautiful color is seductive and leads you right into nose of black cherry, forest and mushrooms. WOW! Definitely a couple of swallows and two stars and only twenty bucks. The 2008 Mystic Vineyard* is also in the Eola Hills. The brilliant garnet color is satisfying in itself. While there is little or no nose, this fairly big wine tastes of cherry, blueberry and plum. It was an amazing match with pate. Another swallow for this one - a great bargain at $25. Finally, 2008 Momtazi Vineyard* - fruit and licorice in the nose, spices, cinnamom, strawberries and cream  in the mouth with lots of structure and backbone. This is a keeper if you want one for the cellar though it tastes great right now. Only $35 for such a big wine. BTW, it's biodynamique and sustainable, too.

These are all fabulous wines. Impress your friends with your impeccable taste and ability to cop rare wines at reasonable prices. Screaming Eagle move over. To order Panther Creek, Stevenson-Barrie or Libra wines, call or email, Kendra, Mike or Bill at 503-550-1963 or email Twitter @panther_creek or Kendra @winesentry.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

More Knives, Forks & Stars

Baci reminded me of other great bistros in wine towns. Artisan in Paso Robles, also saved the day for us after a long hard day. We arrived late and were treated to outstanding food, service, and wine. Our underground winemaker friend, Jacob Toft touted us onto Artisan as one of the few places to taste his excellent Rhone style blends. Artisan is a good place to taste Paso wines including other underground wines. In McMinnville, Oregon, we so miss the old Nick's - a place where you could get fabulous Pinot Noir with only an $8 markup above retail to bring it to the table. We still fondly remember the 2006 Panther Creek wine from Bednarick vineyard - the nuance, the complexity! The new Nick's not bad, but the price list ( oops, slip, I meant wine list) is pricey.The  new kid on the block is Thistle. First trip to this funky, sustainable, organic, holistic, biodynamique hole in the wall was fabulous. There, we tasted the amazing Westrey Chardonnay. Second time around, a New York Times review seems to have gone to their heads. While most French chefs can be very accommodating, at a middle level a certain Gallic stubbornness is exhibited - "How would you like your lamb, Messieur? Saignant, merci! Bien, rose, donc. Medium rare! Fine, medium, then! So the Thistle in The Crown or is it The Crown in The Thistle decided that the Hanger Steak should be " bien cuit, that is to say, "well done," perhaps thinking that this version was more like a stew, which it was. Everybody else enjoyed their dinner. Walla Walla - home of wheat, onions, wine, banks, and two great bistros. Although Saffron tends to be crowded and noisy, the small plates are great. Brasserie Four has a simple bistro menu and a great wine selection. Last time around we had  a great 2008 Premier Cru Chablis from William Fevre at a very reasonable price. All four venues get one knife and fork and one star.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

One Knife & Fork,Three Stars

This is not a riddle. It was a dream of mine for many years and still is. Back in the days when we were poor students, we used to go to Three Star restaurants in France and look at the lunch menu (the lunch menu was usually much less expensive than dinner). My father once told me that during the potato famine in Ireland, the children got "point," that is, they got to point at the food, but the breadwinner got to eat it. I guess the point is, we got to "look" at the menu. That didn't stop us from deciding what we would have for entree, plat, et dessert or maybe we settled on the "prix fixe" menu. We made note of the cost and proceeded to a One Star restaurant, or as close to that as we could afford, and had lunch at "one-third"  the cost. That was back in the days of "France On $5 & $10 A Day" by Frommer who actually went to the restaurants in those days before he got rich. Anyway, we had many wonderful meals and many wonderful house wines that way and figured we saved the difference in cost between three stars and one star which amounted to hundreds of non-inflation adjusted dollars.

This culinary tripping led to the fantasy of the restaurant with the ultimate Michelin rating of one Knife & Fork and Three Stars. To this day, I still prefer the informality of a Bistro, Relais des Routiers, Brasserie or Cafe to the starchiness of white table clothes and waiters dressed up as penguins, though I must admit to having enjoyed some fabulous meals and wine in such settings. I never have realized the fantasy of 1KF&***, though I have found some fabulous 1K&F*, and even a few 1K&F** in France, almost always in the countryside in small towns.

Having dinner at Baci in Healdsberg made me realize that I have found several 1KFs with at least one star in the U.S. With Baci I may actually have scored my first and possibly only 1KF***. After a long hard day in the vineyards, we landed at Baci which initially appeared to be a traditional wood-paneled Italian restaurant behind a very plain exterior. Just reading the wine list was almost enough to revive us. A glass of 2007 Ramazzoti Dry Creek Chardonnay did the trick! The wine is unoaked and fresh with the perfect balance of fruit and stone. My wife was kind enough to share her glass of 2007 Gustafson Estate Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel - big, charming and old-fashioned in a style that is becoming increasingly rare. We loved it!

The Baci wine list is clever and in my experience unique. Baci offers "featured wines by the glass." Baci finds relatively new, small or obscure wineries and features their wines as glass pours and the prices are amazingly reasonable. This benefits everybody -  Baci has a great  list, the wineries get exposure, and we get to drink great wine at a reasonable price. In addition to Ramazzoti and Gustafson, Ardente from Napa and Mueller from the Russian River were featured wineries. The rest of the extensive wine list covers the waterfront.

The food - OMG! Perfectly prepared Carpaccio - thin, flavorful, melt in your mouth raw beef, shaved Parmigiano, Capers, Lemon, Extra Virgin Olive Oil - to die from, err, I mean "for." Insalate Baci - a perfect and creative chopped salad featuring Romaine, Carrots, Celery, Peppers, Cucumbers, Mushrooms, Italian Parsley, Lemon Balsalmic Vinaigrette. Segundo Piatti - Agnolletti D'Aragosta - Round, Homemade Pasta filled with Lobster,Prosciutto, and Ricotta in a Lobster Cream Sauce - truly to die from - fabulous - truly Michelin three star, Gault- Millau three toques (19), exquisite. Vitello Piccata - The best Veal Piccata I've ever had - for once the veal was not pounded to death and overcooked - actually pink and juicy in the the middle. I wish Shara was my personal chef - dream on...

You must get here before it is "discovered." The locals have already discovered it, now you must (don't forget you can fly directly into Santa Rosa from Seattle on Alaska Air) Check out their website: where you will find out the secret of this international style restaurant in a little town in Sonoma. How did Gustafson from Minnesota get on the list?  Owner Lsibeth Holmesford is from Norway. Chef Shari's family originally hails from Persia and he is a world traveller. Michael, our waiter,originally hails from the Czech Republic, but after 32 years in the U.S. he has not forgotten the European tradition of service - quiet, smooth, attentive, accomodating, impeccable - thank you, Michael! Let's see! Baci! Kisses! The motto? "Vorrei Coprir La Tua Bocca Di Baci, Per Dirti Quanto Mi Piaci"  My rough translation - "I would like to cover your mouth with kisses, to tell you how much you please me" Baci's translation - May I cover your lips with kisse to tell you how much I like you"  Well, I certainly like you! I think I love you!You guys must have been kissed on the forehead by God. OK, OK, so maybe it's not one knife and fork, maybe it's two. Per que, no!
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