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TN: The château on the hill (Oregon, pt. 5)

14 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon

(The original version, with more photos and the real secret to pinot noir production, is here.)

[Anne Amie entrance]Anne Amie – The former Chateau Benoit (the name lives on via a few bargain-priced wines) is perched atop a hill of vines, with one of the most expansive views in the entire Willamette Valley. The tasting room/visitor center itself is beautiful and artfully decorated. And so, I worry. Majestic views and elaborate interior design are rarely indicators of quality wine, except by historical inertia.

We’re here to meet Craig Camp, noted Italophile and blogger, but now general manager of the winery, and we’re several hours early. I’ve told Craig we’ll arrive in the afternoon, but a quick visit to Scott Paul has left us with some time before an appointment at a nearby winery, and since we’re in the neighborhood…

Anne Amie 2005 Pinot Gris (Oregon) – Ripe pear and hints of wood, with a juicy, chewy, and almost salty broth of overripe grapefruit infused with a little bit of anise. Feels off-dry, though I don’t know if it is. Strange wine.

Anne Amie 2003 Chardonnay (Oregon) – Smoked Calimyrna fig and sweaty oak with a sweet aspect countered by bitterness on the finish. The overall impression is candied and somewhat sickly, but then I’m rarely a fan of chardonnay.

Anne Amie 2005 Riesling (Willamette Valley) – Geraniums dominate a big, floral nose, rising from a wine full of ripe apple and tangerine. It’s crisp and fun, but the finish is distressingly short.

Anne Amie 2004 Pinot Noir “Cuvée A” (Oregon) – Intended as an early-drinking, inexpensive bottling, showing slightly stale and burnt notes on the nose, though it freshens considerably on the midpalate. There’s simple plum and synthetic strawberry fruit, with corn silk and an out-of-place buttery note on the finish. It’s decent, but no more than that.

Anne Amie 2003 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – Fragrant with roses and lush strawberry vegetation, somewhat green in the middle, but longer-finishing than its predecessors, and showing more breadth and potential; not everything here seems to have ripened at the correct time. I’d suspect this is better in other vintages (and, as it turns out, we’ll have the chance to find out).

Anne Amie 2003 Pinot Noir Yamhill Springs (Willamette Valley) – Raspberry, strawberry, and charming floral notes, which turn to red plums on a bed of decayed leaves on the palate. Just a bit sweet (I suspect it’s from alcohol, not sugar), which expresses itself more positively as soft plum on the slightly overpolished finish. Almost a really nice wine, but it lacks…I’m not sure how to express it, but perhaps that extra bit of conviction necessary to carry the complexity of pinot noir.

Anne Amie 2003 Pinot Noir Hawks View (Willamette Valley) – Cherry liqueur, ripe strawberry and plum, with a nice, fresh, flower pollen finish with softness and elegance. By far the class of the bunch thus far, and a really lovely wine…as long as one isn’t overtly averse to kirsch.

Craig is out, but expected back soon, so we settle into an outdoor table with some average local cheese and a bottle given to Theresa as a conference gift; a micro-lunch (neither of us are particularly hungry, especially after a marvelous breakfast at the Black Walnut Inn, and with a big dinner on the horizon).

Sokol Blosser 2002 Pinot Noir (Dundee Hills) – Sweet plum and orange rind with a boring, flabby structure. Understuffed. While it’s never actively unpleasant to drink, boredom soon sets in.

As we sit and sip on Anne Amie’s gorgeous terrace, overlooking both vineyards and the valley below, Craig joins us, bottles in tow. We’re short on time, but it’s an enjoyable (albeit brief) overview of the Valley, the soil types, and Anne Amie’s history and philosophy. Vineyards sloping down towards the winery entrance have a rough patch in the middle (amongst a cluster of müller-thurgau), which Craig labels phylloxera and which allows him to utter the line of the afternoon: “müller-thurgau is the leading cause of teen pregnancy.” He’s also brought the single most interesting wine of our visit.

Anne Amie 2005 Viognier (Oregon) – Very floral, showing honeysuckle and peach with a pretty, flower-dominated finish. Gorgeous, varietally-true, and somewhat of a revelation.

Anne Amie 2002 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – A small dip into the archives, showing a better (and, one assumes, more representative than the ’03) vintage of the basic pinot. This is very closed at the moment, showing hefty tannin that lends the wine a fairly bitter cast, but there’s soft fruit lurking underneath the structure. Too difficult to assess at the moment.

We do a brief tour of the cellar and a nearby vineyard, with Craig pointing out one of the fundamental differences between the Willamette’s various subregions: the soil. Here, it’s the grayish-tan Willakenzie, whereas in Dundee it’s a sun-baked brick red that gives the Red Hills their name. And he does us a final kindness by guiding us to our next appointment, a destination we might not have been able to find with our fairly indistinct map. The only lingering regret is that, in our haste to talk, tour and make our next appointment, I fail to purchase a few bottles of the wines I’m most interested in. Well, I’ll make it up to them next time.

(Disclosure: wine tasting, extra wine, several opened gift bottles from our tasting, and cheese provided free of charge.)

TN: Pinot, Paul & Volnay (Oregon, pt. 4)

[rabbit painting]

Scott Paul – It’s easy to miss Scott Paul’s brand-spanking new tasting room (and their even less-frequently spanked new winery, still in semi-skeletal form across the street), because it’s sorta tucked between what looks like a grain mill and a bunch of construction vehicles. As a result, we zip right by it the first time, and have to double back…which isn’t really much of a problem in the micro-village of Carlton.

The facility itself is bright but cozy, with the much commented-upon rabbit prominently featured on one wall, and fairly quiet. Most of the winery principals wander through at one point or another – Scott Paul Wright ambles, looking concerned (quite possibly over the state of construction across the road, given the quickly-advancing summer), while winemaker Kelley Fox strides purposefully through the room as if she intends to smash through the front door with her forehead. We don’t bother them, instead settling at a central table and perusing the tasting options.

Most pinot noir producers would not openly invite comparisons to Burgundy. Why that might be would vary from producer to producer, but the most obvious reason is that the wines are usually so different that their proximity will show one or the other in ill light. Not so at Scott Paul, for Wright owns a small, specialized Burgundy importing company, and presents these wines alongside his own. It’s a bold move.

Huber-Verdereau 2004 Bourgogne Blanc (Burgundy) – Lemon, apple and grapefruit with a flat, slate-like texture. Crisp and a little chewy on the finish. A nice little chardonnay, with no particular aspirations.

François Gay 2003 Savigny-les-Beaune (Burgundy) – Big, ripe and floral, showing dark plum and medium tannin with a heavy, seemingly alcohol-induced palate weight. A bit thudding. It’s actually not at all a bad wine for the vintage, but it’s really neither my style nor what I look for from a Savigny.

Pascal Bouley 2003 Volnay (Burgundy) – Juicy raspberry sours with a leafy finish. It seems overtly malic (or at least the acidity is slightly out-of-balance on the high side, possibly leaning towards the volatile), with strong, drying tannin. Turns to cran-raspberry juice on the biting, tongue-numbing finish. There’s potential, and fans of this style might find much to like here, but it’s most definitely not for me.

Scott Paul 2004 Pinot Noir “La Paulée” (Willamette Valley) – A selection made in the cellar, assembled from the best lots, and named after one of the bacchanalian wine dinners for which producers in Burgundy are famous. It’s restrained and aromatically repressed at first, but it can be coaxed both with aggressive swirling and retronasal agitation. There’s strawberry and concentrated plum on a foundation of sweet lead, which trends towards the gelatinous but then finishes with the emergence of seeds and a grace note of bitterness. The acid’s flawless, the balance is fine, and the finish is extremely long. A lovely wine in the first throes of its adolescence.

We mention to our tasting room host that we’d be interested in seeing what else from Scott Paul is available for purchase, and she responds by offering to open a second wine for us. This strikes us as kind and generous, though we’re not about to object.

Scott Paul 2004 Pinot Noir “Audrey” (Willamette Valley) – The pinnacle of what’s available in a given year, and again a cellar selection; this time named after Audrey Hepburn. That’s a lot to live up to. And yet, the wine surpasses expectations: beautifully soft and elegant, full of life, and possessed of hidden strengths expressed with delicacy. The nose is pristine, showing red cherry and lavender, followed by the gentlest of explosions on the palate: flowers and light red fruit. The finish is lithe, silky and seductive, with spices intermingling with a fine particulate granite texture, and lingers until the sensation can no longer be separated from the memory. Stunning, world-class pinot noir.

TN: Who’s the Boss? (Oregon, pt. 3)

[DDO sign](The original version, with more photos and a slightly cleaner look, is here)

14 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon

Domaine Drouhin Oregon – This is an absolutely beautiful and expansive facility sitting on a marvelous hilltop, surrounded by tightly-controlled vines. We’re here a few minutes before opening, and a guy is shuttling boxes of wine from his car to the open window of the tasting room. I can’t resist commenting that I’ve always heard it’s supposed to work the other way.

It turns out that our anti-thief is Mark Bosko, the tasting room manager, and it also turns out that he’s from Boston. He gives us a short spiel, which includes the rather uncharitable fact that the price of the “Laurène” Pinot Noir has gone up $15 as of this morning. Why would you share that with a potential customer?

DDO (as some people tend to call it) produces just four wines: a regular pinot noir and three prestige cuvées – one chardonnay, two pinot noir – named after winemaker Véronique Drouhin-Boss’ children. The “Louise” is made in micro-quantities and not on offer, but the other three are…for a fairly princely tasting fee that is not easily refunded. Even though we walk out with $150 worth of wine, only one fee is absorbed. That strikes me as a little larcenous, but it’s their winery, and no one’s holding a gun to visitors’ heads (or wallets). I suppose I could have requested special access, especially since I’ve interviewed Véronique – one of the most relentlessly nice and generous people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, and who once set up a memorable visit to their Burgundian cellars – but sometimes it’s nice to just get in, taste, and get out as efficiently as possible.

Drouhin-Boss is an involved but absentee winemaker, doing much of her work from Beaune via overnight-shipped samples, and there’s always at least one local talent on hand to oversee daily operations. Scott Paul Wright, long associated with the winery, has moved on to his own project (which we’ll visit later), and David Millman now fills this role, with Arron Bell as cellarmaster. Everyone wishes she would spend more time in Oregon – not just for her expertise, but because people appear to have great affection for her, both at DDO and in the Valley in general – but with her husband and young children in Burgundy, I’m sure it’s a difficult trip to make with any great frequency.

Domaine Drouhin Oregon 2004 Chardonnay “Arthur” (Willamette Valley) – Tight, showing fig, grapefruit rind and a hint of dusty gooseberry on the nose. The palate is more elegant but with youthful solidity; Rainier cherry and walnut skin flavors present as dry as a desert wind. This wine is stuffed to the gills with extract, but remains wonderfully textured and balanced throughout…a quality which really emerges on the finish. This is one of the best domestic chardonnays I’ve ever tasted.

Domaine Drouhin Oregon 2003 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – Chewy nuts, but otherwise pretty tight and oddly disjointed; a strange performance, or a strange wine? It’s hard to say, but there’s just not much here to judge. Mild taint? Perhaps, but our pourer pre-tasted the wine.

Domaine Drouhin Oregon 2002 Pinot Noir “Laurène” (Willamette Valley) – Sweet plum, strawberry and black mission fig with a deep undertone of black earth and traces of thyme and leather. Medium-bodied, though with a full and strong palate presence, turning to juicier blackberry and other dark fruit on the finish. Brilliant balance and structure.

TN: I’d like to bi another valve, Pat (California, pt. 6)

(The original version, with more photos and better formatting, is here.)

[tree]24 April 2006 –San Francisco, California

Hog Island Oyster Co. – Is it pigging out when a single person devours three dozen oysters? Oh, who cares…they’re terrific, especially the succulent Effingham Inlet oysters from British Columbia, which are so enticing on this day that my third dozen is 100% Effingham. And kudos to Hog Island for continuing to present a thoughtfully-conceived short list of oyster-friendly wine, beer and sake.

Uvaggio 2005 Vermentino (Lodi) – California vermentino? From Lodi? Well, sure, I’ll try anything once. Or twice, as it turns out, because this is eminently pleasant, alive with intense green fruit and flowers bolstered by reasonably fair acidity. Somehow, it reminds me more of sauvignon blanc than any Sardinian or Corsican vermentino I’ve tasted, but the flavors are just different enough to set it apart. It’s no Tayerle, but it’s a clean, juicy accompaniment to briny oysters.

Caffè Greco – Yes, that’s the accenting they use. This busy North Beach café serves up one of the biggest lattes I’ve ever seen, though I’m not sure as to the value of such a size, as the end of the drink is considerably cooler than most people prefer their coffee. As for the contents themselves: the weight is right, but they’re texturally gritty and very slightly overroasted (not to the typical Starbucks extreme, though). Plus, the milk could be a bit fresher. Despite the great location and authentic ambiance, this is a bit of a downer.

San Francisco Brewing Company – We join some of Theresa’s conference-mates (and, though most with us are unaware, her soon-to-be employer) at this sticky…anyone ever heard of cleaning fluid?…pub/restaurant with tons of slightly dodgy atmosphere. It’s trying for the perfect English pub feel, but it’s not quite spot on. There’s food, but we’re meeting friends later, so we stick to the brewed offerings.

San Francisco Brewing Company Shanghai IPA – Sweet and hoppy, with a coriander-scented froth. It’s long and properly biter, but a little odd; what’s with the sweetness?

San Francisco Brewing Company Andromeda Wheat – Seriously, what is with the sweetness? This is light, with particulate wheat grain and a soft finish. But the sugar stands out, and can’t even be knocked back with lemon. (On the bar’s menu board, this is listed as Andromeda Hefeweizen.)

A16 – In the wealthy Marina District, and packed to the gills from stem to stern and opening to closing, there’s little reason to expect continued high quality here…and yet, the quality remains, even with changes in the kitchen. The most common food-related complaint is that the pizza isn’t perfectly crispy, but the restaurant counters that the thin, fully-crispy crust people expect is Roman, not authentically Neapolitan…and that it’s the latter style that the restaurant is trying to emulate. In any case, their signature pizzas are excellent, with simply-presented toppings that feature both themselves and their foundation.

But there’s a lot more to this menu than pizza. An appetizer of tuna and artichoke is perfect in its simplicity and the interplay between the diffident greenness of the artichokes and the oily brine of the tuna, with the fishy elements of both binding the dish together. Asparagus with a walnut crema is deepened by a faint truffle note, and again works together to bring out the quality of the individual ingredients. And grilled calamari with ceci beans, tomato and fennel tastes as if it had been flung directly from the sea to the fire. Moving on to bigger plates, a heavenly, light-but-heavy gnocchi dish with peas and chili flakes sneaks up on the palate with its simple and pure appeal.

The only complaint I have about A16 is the din, which rises to conversation-obscuring levels for most of any dining period. But since this phenomenon is hardly uncommon in the restaurant world, it’s probably not worth complaining about.

A16’s wine list is very, very heavy on Southern Italian offerings, which means the majority of it will be completely opaque to Americans, who are rarely familiar with anything south of Tuscany. I have no problem identifying a few dozen wines I know and like, but on a list of this breadth I like to expand my horizons…and thus I enlist the help of Skye LaTorre, one of the three young wine specialists that assist A16’s wine director, Shelley Lindgren. (Of that quartet, three are women, which is both unusual and commendable in the often-conservative world of restaurant wine.) I give her my criteria: acid required, lighter on the wood, no goopy 2003-style wines, unusual is just fine, and anything earthy or mineral-driven is a plus. She literally hops with excitement, and scurries away to find something intriguing.

Dettori “Badde Nigolosu” 2004 Romangia Bianco (Sardinia) – 100% vermentino from a noted sub-region of the island, and Skye has definitely taken my encouragement towards the unusual literally. This wine is slightly cloudy, showing fat, spicy white melon and a powdery complexity on the palate that turns silky on the long finish. Like many Old World wines, it rises and falls in intensity proportional to the demands placed upon it by the accompanying food. Really, really interesting.

Marcassin 2002 Chardonnay Zio Tony Ranch (Russian River Valley) – Needless to say, this is not one of Skye’s suggestions, but rather a kind gift from a nearby table who notes the extent to which we’re geeking out over the wines. It’s extremely thick, showing wave upon wave of yellow fig – it’s more than a little monotonal – with a hint of peach, plenty of syrupy wood, and absolutely no finish. I suspect that people who like this style of oil wine would greet this with adoration, but I do not number among those people.

Viticoltori de Concillis 2003 Paestum “Naima” (Campania) – Also a gift from a neighboring table, and 100% aglianico. Dense, thick, and slightly woody, showing slow-braised blackberry, boysenberry and blackberry that turn to chocolate-covered jam on the finish. Again, probably yummy to some, but it tastes like a caricature to me. And where’s the aglianico? For that matter, where’s the Campania?

Argiolas 2002 Isola dei Nuraghi “Korem” (Sardinia) – A wine I know fairly well…but while Skye offers to exchange it for something else, no one else at the table is familiar with it, so we forge ahead. A blend of bovale sardo, carignano (carignane) and cannonau (grenache), showing roasted walnuts, roasted berries, red cherry and some earthy/loamy undertones. The wine is unquestionably thick, but balanced and nicely softened on the finish. It’s a bit internationalized, to be sure, but not in an offputting way.

Gaetano Pichierre “Vinicola Savese” 1994 Primitivo di Manduria (Apulia) – Bizarrely authentic and untouched by modern convention, this is dark red cherry and strawberry syrup with a gorgeous Mediterranean sweat character (better than it sounds, I suppose). It’s sweet, alcoholic and thick, with a short finish, but is fascinating enough in its uniqueness that other faults can be overlooked. Or not; it’s not particularly popular among my dining companions.

TN: And for dessert: Peru (Oregon, pt. 2)

[lavender & vineyard](The original version, with many more photos, is here.)

13 July 2006 – Portland, Oregon

Andina – A busy nuevo-Peruvian restaurant that’s surprisingly dressy at lunchtime; I feel a little out of place in my shorts. There’s no hint of this displacement in the service, however, which is almost top-notch (they bring me the wrong wine at one point), and quite knowledgeable about the food.

The space is airy and bright, though anything other than the window-adjacent tables is definitely second tier. I order a special ceviche (or “cebiche” by their spelling) of ono, which is overly tart (a little too much residual juice) but delicious, and surprisingly filling. That’s followed by a pair of decidedly mixed tapas: fine octopus on endive that’s rendered bizarre by the addition of a fruity, lavender-colored sauce (allegedly “Botija olive,” though that can’t be all that’s in there), and cheese-stuffed yucca, lightly fried and served with a cheese sauce that tastes uncannily like one of those cheese-in-a-jar products you’d find at a supermarket.

At least the wine list is good, with quite a few nice offerings by the glass.

Olga Raffault 2005 Chinon Rosé (Loire) – What I actually order is the JM Raffault Chinon Blanc (I even point to the wine list), but this will do in a pinch. It’s a light memory of strawberry, preserved in wax and dusted with chalk.

Ameztoi 2005 Txakolina (Northwest Spain) – Ordering this wine leads to an amusing exchange with the waiter, who informs me that I’m “the first person to ever pronounce ‘txakolina’ correctly.” I find that a little hard to believe, but accept it with a smile…which increases when I notice that he’s left this glass off my bill. I guess all that practice at Piperade finally pays off. As for the wine, it’s terrific, showing intense minted lime and a vivid, vivacious, crystalline texture full of zesty yet invisible bubbles. It’s not sparkling, exactly, it’s just alive.

After lunch, I stroll around town for a while, then collect both our rental car and my wife and head south, in the endless traffic jam that is the road to the coast, and also to and through the Willamette Valley. It’s the latter that’s our destination….if, that is, we ever actually arrive.

13 July 2006 – Dundee, Oregon

Black Walnut Inn – In a spectacular setting far above the valley, with Erath’s vineyards several steep downslopes and dense, mossy forest in the glade behind, sits this very new (our room is only two weeks old) and luxurious B&B-style accommodation. It’s removed enough to be strikingly quiet, with the only noises coming from the chickens in a nearby coop (they supply many of the eggs for breakfast) and the occasional resident cat scratching at one’s door. Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson are visible on any semi-clear day, while a five-minute hike across the property gets you Mount St. Helens and Mt. Rainier as well. It’s not cheap, but it’s about a third of what it would be in Napa…which somehow makes it feel like a bargain. Anyway, lodging options in the Willamette Valley are limited, and on short notice it’s either this or the Travelodge…

Red Hills Provincial Dining (276 Highway 99W) – As we’ll soon find, dining in the Willamette frequently means dining in a converted house. This, however, looks like it could be somewhere in the wooded hills of New Hampshire; it’s ultra-cozy, charming, a little kitschy, and perhaps just a wee bit on the dark side. Plus, there’s not exactly unlimited parking. Nonetheless, our server brightens the room with her cheery smile…and it’s soon dark outside, anyway.

The restaurant serves homey, French-inspired country fare, cooked very well, but lovers of plated complexity or refined restraint will probably shrug at the offerings. What they won’t shrug at is the (horribly-formatted) wine list, which is extraordinarily long and deep, and – amusingly – at its weakest when it comes to Oregon pinot noir. For example, an ’89 Trimbach CFE for $100 has got to be one of the great wine bargains of all time…assuming that it’s actually in stock. (More on that in a moment.)

I begin with an excellent pâté, correctly served with sharp mustard and cornichons, while Theresa rhapsodizes over her succulent crab cakes (the secret ingredient: Ritz crackers), and we both opt for braised rabbit in a very intense black olive and pinot noir sauce…one in which a few large sundried tomatoes are a completely unnecessary and distracting addition. The rabbit’s so good, however, it’s easy to ignore everything else.

Eyrie 1999 Pinot Noir “Reserve” (Willamette Valley) – Fully mature, showing dried cranberry and tart cherry steaming on the forest floor. Little hints of pine needle and very mild brett dance around the forest. A bit archaic vs. modern styles, but in a good and thoroughly enjoyable way.

We’re both too full for dessert, but a half-bottle of well-aged Maculan Torcolato at a ridiculous price beckons. Unfortunately, they don’t have it. Nor do they have a similarly-underpriced 18-year Macallan by the glass. The waitress makes up for having to disappoint me twice by offering a generous pour of 12-year Macallan on the house, but it’s not quite the same.

Macallan 12-year Scotch Whisky (Highland) – Grapey, oaky and a bit strident, with crisp caramel and some radish on the finish. I’ve always found this to have a significant burn on the palate, which is why I rarely order it.

TN: Like pearls before frogs (Oregon, pt. 1)

[old warehouse]

The writing’s on the wall

12 July 2006 – Portland, Oregon

Portland is a highly walkable city, relatively compact and easily-navigable, though one without many “sights” as such; most of what’s here can be experienced in a few days of decent weather. On the other hand, it has its unquestioned charms: a burgeoning restaurant scene, genial residents, good coffee, great beer, and one of the most amazing bookstores I’ve ever seen: Powell’s City of Books. It’s true literary heaven, and some might be inclined to never leave its confines. Otherwise, the city has a sort of funky, post-collegiate vibe that subverts even its most corporate neighborhoods. Though it’s hard to judge after a single visit, I suspect Portland might be one of those urban rarities: a better place to live than to visit.

The Governor Hotel – Charm and history vie with semi-modern amenities and odd discontinuities here; this is a hotel that can’t quite figure out what it wants to be. The layout is confusing, the rooms are spacious but a bit haphazard, and the bathrooms are full of unique fixtures surrounded by tile in desperate need of updating. It’s a good hotel, but it’s not a great one, and the prices suggest designs on the latter designation. The fake fireplace is a nice touch, though.

Pearl Bakery – Just the thing for a small, late lunch…though the focus here is really the bread, not what they do with it. A Black Forest ham & fontina sandwich is dominated by the wheat levain that surrounds it, but still succeeds on the quality of its ingredients, while Theresa’s chèvre & tapenade on demi-baguette is better-balanced (mostly due to the intensity of the Kalamatas). The coffee is most commendable, with a rich, dark, but smooth roast that recalls the best of New Zealand.

Thomas Kemper Root Beer (Seattle) – A blend of herbs and dark, sweet fruit from this Washington state soda producer that’s less aggressive than many such concoctions, but with a balance and a creaminess that really stand out.

[Pearl District fence]

First you accomplish paint fence

Fenouil – After much dithering over where I’m going to eat as a solo diner (Theresa’s got pre-conference schmoozing to do), I choose this classy French outpost on the Pearl District’s Jamison Square. The interior is sweeping and elegant, but the weather is stunning, and so there’s no question of sitting anywhere other than outside.

My initial waiter, however, leaves a bit to be desired. He’s French, and extravagantly corrects the pronunciation of the first three things I say (at least two of which were correctly-pronounced, just not with the regional variant accent he obviously prefers). Not a good start to the evening. Thankfully, he’s soon replaced by someone much better, a sparkling – and, it has to be said, very attractive – Chicago transplant with a real passion for wine. She’s much more fun…and if she’s similarly appalled by my French, she wisely keeps it to herself.

The restaurant’s take on cuisses de grenouilles – delicately fried, and served with a garlic/lemon sauce that effortlessly overpowers the typically taste-free meat – is solid, though I’m once more reminded why I tend not to order frogs’ legs: there’s just not much to them. On the other hand, what follows is a dish that is, quite literally, perfect: gnocchi with morels and cheese, given slight respite from its density by some unidentifiable acid (perhaps accompanying the morels?) and a final grace note of crunchy sea salt. It’s a stunning dish.

Argyle 2003 Brut Rosé (Willamette Valley) – Full and flavorful, with bouncy, energetic strawberries and a touch of potpourri layered over deeper, richer, earthier pinot notes; this is wine more than it’s sparkling, and is unquestionably the better for it.

Prunier 1998 Auxey-Duresses (Burgundy) – Just barely on the downslope, though it fights its decline all night. As with many mature Burgundies, it benefits from aeration, which seems counter-intuitive for such light, delicate wines, and yet time and time again proves to be true. The slightly hard edges of the initial presentation never quite fade, but they’re soon joined by gently-decaying red apple, red cherry and autumn leaves. Later, a hint of a mushroomy funk emerges, then retreats…after which the tannin begins to dominate the palate. For about ninety minutes, however, it’s a lovely wine; an elusive breeze caught, but never quite captured.

Dupleich “Château de Juge” 1996 Cadillac (Bordeaux) – Pine cone and coconut with bitter almond and a teasing, flirty sweetness. Delightful, if lighter than one might expect, and definitely not carrying the burden of heavy woodspice that weighs down so many of its sweet Bordelais compatriots.

TN: The color of memory (New Zealand, pt. 36)

[ostrich]Pigments of our imagination

The colors here are amazing. Water can be mirrored sunlight, the deepest nighttime sapphire, or a bright, sky-reflecting blue…and then the next day, a milky, luminescent turquoise. Sunsets are particularly exciting: brilliants streaks of fire appear and then vanish in the next instant as the sun transitions some distant and unseen peak or trick of the atmosphere…and in the final moments of light that glow over the western ranges, there’s a neon band of lime green. I’ve never seen its like anywhere other than here. Then there are the aptly-named Remarkables, with their bright tans, grays and browns claw-riven with darker greens and blacks, gradually transformed by the movement of light through forbidding blue-brown, rich and warming gold, and brooding dark blue…light and sun-drenched one moment, deeply shadowed the next, their jagged and razor-sharp edges fiercely ripping the heavens but softened by their nightly dusting of powdered sugar snow.

This morning, the palette is muted and gloomy; dark, wintry and urban earth tones subdued by deep blue melancholy from the sky. Queenstown is shrouded in low-hanging clouds that press down upon the sweeping mountain ranges and obliterate contrast, leaving a depressingly narrow chromatic range in their wake. But we don’t care that much, because we’re leaving.

Not for good, though. Just for the day. That is, if the weather cooperates…

Human nature

How do you go back to the place where everything changed…the place where the lens of your world reshaped itself and an unspoiled wilderness of perspectives was revealed in dramatic new light? And if you can point to the place, the day, the hour when all was renewed and reborn, can you ever really return? I asked this question at the beginning of this travelogue…a philosophical musing, perhaps, but also one with a physical answer. For the place was Milford Sound, visited on our previous trip to New Zealand, and that was indeed the exact moment when everything changed.

Nature works its charms in funny ways. I’d grown up in the midst of it, trapped in a pretty but isolated and lake-infested region of northern Minnesota, a manageable four hours from anything one could legitimately call a city but a seemingly infinite distance from the energy of the modern world. The scope of my world was narrow, its boundaries closely defined despite the limitless horizons visible on the endless flatlands around my home. I’d been raised “in the woods,” with its peace and its gentle rhythms all around me…and I desperately wanted out.

I’d leapt at the first opportunity for escape, retreating to urban and urbane Boston and, several decades later, was generally pleased with the choice. What I craved was not so much the pace or intensity of the city, but rather its complexity and its opportunity, the ability to choose from a wider palette of options than would ever have been available to me in my youth, and the energy of the people and institutions that drive the relentless modern hunger for change. In my subsequent travels, I’d soaked up the country and the city in equal measure, pleased by both in the surface way one experiences a place on holiday, occasionally penetrating to the heart of something deeper and more significant, but never losing the viewpoint to which my life had brought me.

Theresa had arrived at essentially the same destination, though by a very different path. A city girl through and through (from a place much bigger and grittier than Boston), she’d expressed a general preference for the quiet peace of the rural on our travels, but was fundamentally at a certain kind of war with nature and its fundamental indifference towards comfort and ease. It wasn’t that she needed any sort of pampering or coddling, but rather that the difficulties of the wild – the physical perils, the biting and stinging creatures, the lack of “facilities” – seemed to physically repel her. (Or, as she sometimes put it after a long day of fighting off stinging insects, maybe nature liked her a little too much.)

But at Milford Sound, New Zealand’s only easily-accessible fiord and one of the truly majestic sites of the world, the parameters of our worldviews came crashing down, replaced by a stunned yet exuberant revelation in the glories of an earthly paradise. We’d been in New Zealand for just a few days, most of them spent in Auckland, on driving tours with friends, wine tasting, or just ambling around Queenstown and its environs, so the long trip to Milford was our first real chance to escape the normal rhythms of a vacation. We’d decided to drive ourselves rather than take an insulating tour bus packed with fellow tourists, and had soaked up the ever-changing and always-breathtaking landscapes and vistas along the way. Barriers began to melt away, and change approached…until that moment on the fiord, when we were quite literally overwhelmed by the unleashed power of nature. We wanted more.

Since that time, our travels had changed. We’d settled into a decidedly non-urban mode of travel, finding (not always sensible) excuses to avoid all but the truly great cities of the world. We’d explored the wilds of our voyages and the wonders of our own backyard. We’d started to take notice of what was all around us…not the conveniences and the artifices and the constructions of man, but the persistent and encompassing warmth of the not-yet-defeated natural world…and found ways to include its richness into our lives. We weren’t ready to give up the opportunities of the city, but we were no longer trying to escape (or battle) its alternative.

Or, as I previously (and much more succinctly) put it thirty-five chapters ago: we’d changed.

Get back

But of course, “going back” is a notion fraught with the danger of disappointment. It is unquestionably true that nothing could ever replace that first moment of awestruck inspiration. What once seemed untouchably beautiful may, with new perspective, seem to have shrunk in both majesty and significance. And…the thought is inevitable…what if we don’t even like it the second time around?

There’s only one way to find out, and despite the still-vivid memories of our recent trip to Doubtful Sound, we endeavor to recreate our previous journey: the long drive from Queenstown, though Te Anau, into Fiordland and…eventually…Milford Sound, with many stops and side-trips along the way. All timed to miss the bulk of the tourists both coming and going, bringing us safely back to our beds as blue-black darkness blankets the mountains and the lake.

However, another danger looms: bad weather. The forecast is, admittedly, dismal. But we’ve had such great luck with the weather – avoiding predicted thundershowers on both Doubtful Sound and the Dart River – that we decide to chance the trip anyway. We’ve seen Milford Sound in the sunlight, but in the rain its waterfalls are reported to be majestic, its mist-wreathed cliffs ethereal. How can we lose? Besides, despite the thick clouds overhead, it’s not actually raining at the moment. In fact, the sun is starting to peek through a few cracks in the dense ceiling, with sharp beams of light falling on distant hillsides and glistening waves. Undoubtedly, the weather will clear and we will have another fantastic day.

Darkness, darkness, be my blanket

By the time we get to Mossburn, we are considerably less optimistic. There are no longer any breaks in the clouds, and in fact everything is decidedly darker…though not as dark as the westward road ahead. Undaunted, we press on.

Twenty kilometers from Te Anau, we’e in the midst of a full-fledged downpour. Timid drivers are pulling off the road at the every opportunity (and I can’t say that I blame them, for the combination of driving rain and gusting wind is more than a little hazardous). We discuss what to do, and decide that as long as the possibility of a break in the weather exists – fronts move fast in this exceedingly narrow country – we will press on.

Te Anau is frigid, blustery (with the expanse of its lake allowing chilly winds to roar down from the snow-capped Kepler and Murchison Mountains), and so rain-soaked that it feels like we’re in, rather than aside, the lake. Merely opening the car door is an effort, and one is immediately rewarded with a soak (and its attendant chill) that penetrates to the marrow. I dash into a tourist office to cancel our cruise reservation, which draws no more than a wry smile from the girl behind the desk.

“Thanks for the thought, but it’s not necessary. The road’s closed.”

“The Homer Tunnel’s flooded?”

She shakes her head. “No. The whole road.”

(Continued here, with more photos…and even some tasting notes…)

TN: Enophobia (California, pt. 4)

23 April 2006 –Berkeley, California

Wine tasting in Berkeley (con’t)

Sasha Verhage from Eno is the third and final proprietor at this mini-tasting and sale in Berkeley, and while he’s talkative and friendly I immediately get on his bad side for asking about the accuracy of the alcohol level listed on one of his labels (they’re 100% accurate, according to him). Oh well, my fault. As to the aforementioned labels, they’re decidedly different. Pretentious, perhaps, or individualistic and artistic…it depends on one’s state of mind, I suppose, but the cuvée-designated names (each of which appears to have a meaning specific to that wine…won’t they eventually run out of clever things to say?) lend credence to either interpretation. Personally, I suppose I lean towards the former given the other verbiage on the labels (check out the web site), but that might be unfair.

Eno 2003 Pinot Noir Fairview Road Ranch “The Great Promise” (Santa Lucia Highlands) – 14.1%. Slightly synthetic berries are all that can be coaxed from a rather closed nose. The palate is much better, showing lots of graphite, but I like my pinot to have an aroma. At this point, I’m thinking there might be some potential here…after all, this was their first stab at this wine.

Eno 2004 Pinot Noir Fairview Road Ranch “The Gifted One” (Santa Lucia Highlands) – 15.5%. Bigger fruit with a thick, sludgy texture and some clearly noticeable heat on the finish. Not for me.

Eno 2001 Zinfandel Teldeschi “Little Miss Dangerous” (Dry Creek Valley) – 14.9%. Light blueberry infused with mint leaves, and showing a barky finish. Not good at all, and unrecognizable as zin.

Eno 2002 Zinfandel Teldeschi “Caught Red Handed” (Dry Creek Valley) – 16.1%. Notice how the alcohol levels escalate as the wines advance in vintage? Anyway: Fuller-bodied than the 2001, showing big, juicy fruit and raw peanuts, and even a bit of earth. Not too hot, but extremely heavy. This is by far the best wine at the table, but still not anywhere close to a purchase for me.

Eno 2004 Grenache Eaglepoint Ranch “The Wild One” (Mendocino County) – 14.9%, and from a vineyard I usually like. This is high-toned (as grenache often is), showing raspberry syrup and zingy, acidic fruit jelly with just a touch of biting tannin. Maybe 75% of a good wine, but that missing 25% makes all the difference.

Eno 2004 Syrah Las Madres “The Matriarch” (Carneros) – 15.6%. Heavy, ponderous blueberry syrup. More like a dessert topping (minus the yummy sugar) than a wine, really. Maybe as the base for a sauce?

TN: I’d like to bi a valve, Pat (California, pt. 5)

23 April 2006 –Berkeley, California

Vintage Berkeley – A highly “designed” store that could easily fail from an excess of form over function. Thankfully, this isn’t the case. I’ve been sent here by Steve Edmunds for a bottle of Tayerle Vermentino that he finds particularly tasty (Steve has just started growing vermentino himself, and is in a full fit of enthusiasm), but spend some enjoyable browsing time scanning what seems to be a fairly unusual selection of wines…definitely out of the ordinary. One visit won’t reveal whether or not “unusual” equals “good” in this particular case, but if I lived in the area I’d certain take the time to find out.

Peaberry’s Coffee & Tea – I’ve asked a friend to bring me to some coffee “not from a chain,” and he beelines (as much as one can on these hilly streets) here. It seems more Berkeley than Oakland, at least to me, but the coffee’s very good and precisely made…plus it’s nice to not be supporting the merchants of charred beans and sticky, dessert-like “coffee” beverages. More seats would be nice, but this is merely wishful thinking as there’s no room for them. A good locale for those in search of caffeination.

Paul Marcus Wines – Located in the same streetside “mall” as Peaberry’s, and pretty much the opposite of Vintage Berkeley in its crowded clutter of wines. But the selection is excellent, the prices are reasonable, and the staff seems to know their stuff. His eponymousness is in the house, but we don’t speak.

Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant – A good selection somewhat mitigated by about a 50% focus on “name” wines and slightly high prices…which is not at all unexpected given the location. I’m here for the wine bar, which usually has a nice selection of different styles (plus, as I find out on this visit, the ability to open and pour any wine in the store for $6 additional corkage). However, today the selection of by-the-glass wines is heavily tilted towards overfruited, overoaked, and goopy styles in which I’m profoundly uninterested…leaving me with just one semi-palatable choice.

Texier 2003 Côtes-du-Rhône Brézème (Rhône) – Texier’s unusually ageable Brézème often has controversial levels of acidity, so I wonder if the otherwise highly-avoidable 2003 vintage might actually bring this particular element into a less controversial balance. In reality, ’03 does what it does to almost everything else from this region and this vintage: render the wine sludgy and ponderous. It’s big alright, with slightly syrupy blackberries, black truffle oil and a massive palate presence. There’s a bit of earth underneath, but mostly this is heavy, extremely ripe, a bit hot, and low in acidity. In other worlds, it could easily pass for New World syrah…the kind that I don’t much care for. I commend Texier for trying, but…

The Slanted Door – It’s possible that this restaurant has become too successful for its own good. Or maybe that’s just a selfish response, since it takes far too much lead time to get a table these days. One nice alternative is the bar, with a short menu and the full (and always excellent) wine list available via a very accommodating staff.

Of course, the wine lists brings its own problems. Or, more specifically, one overarching one: too many interesting options, such that it can be hard to narrow things down.

Coudert “Clos de la Roilette” 2004 Fleurie (Beaujolais) – Rough, earthy and aromatically difficult, with improved red cherry-based complexities on the palate. It would appear to have a future, but this notion is largely based on the wine’s track record, because it’s exceedingly cranky now.

Roussel & Barrouillet “Clos Roche Blanche” 2004 “Pif” (Loire) – Raw tannin and chunky red fruit gathered in festive little knots…a wine not yet coalescing into a full-blown party. Acidic in its rustic fashion, but pure and utterly delicious. I wish more people made wine like this.

While we’re drinking, we enter into some casual banter with the restaurant’s long-time star wine dude Mark Ellenbogen, who regales us with pre-dinner rush stories of the sublime and the outrageous. My favorite example, from critic Steve Tanzer and directed at winemaker Steve Edmunds: “Don’t you think these syrahs would be better with new wood?” Uh, no.

[Zuni Café]

Zuni rather than later

Zuni Café – The intention is to inhale a few dozen oysters at the Ferry Plaza’s Hog Island Oyster Co., but it’s closed. A brief consultation on where we might find an alternative source for excellent oysters (and a bonus wine list of some repute) leads to an obvious conclusion: Zuni, with its no-reservations bar area. We’re prepared to stand at the bar, but there are open seats in the corner, and so we watch the often bizarre pedestrian activity on its slightly dodgy stretch of Market Street while inhaling a rather shocking number of bivalves and a large dogpile of salty goodness in the form of fried shoestring potatoes with aïoli. Somehow, this coupled with the location and the fine, friendly but casual service feels so classically Californian.

Huet 2004 Vouvray Clos du Bourg Sec (Loire) – It’s still so young, yet it’s strong from first opening and grows throughout the evening as it warms and slowly oxidizes. The wine is a chalky river breeze stirring up already-turbulent soil, revealing mushrooms and dried wax residue in its wake. There’s amazing complexity and stunning length on the finish. An incredible wine barely out of the cradle, but already promising much.

My friend provides a bit of amusement as we’re deciding whether or not to order a digestif. “Is it still light out,” he asks.

I gesture. “Well, we’re surrounded on three sides by floor to ceiling windows, so…”

It appears someone should abstain. Unfortunately, I should join him; my California-produced pear brandy (I don’t get the name, but it’s an eau de vie-style clear beverage) can provide no better than watery, thin, overly sweet insinuations of stale pear.

Disclosure: the glass of Texier at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant was provided free of charge.

TN: Coffee, sausage, bathhouse, bait (New Zealand, pt. 35)

[Theresa & Lake Wakatipu at sunset]U2 brew

When I left Alexandra, it was sunny and a little hot. In nearby Cromwell, it was warm but cloudy. A half-hour away, in the Gibbston Valley, it was milder, but with returned hints of the sun. And just up the road in Queenstown, the air is decidedly crisp, and a light rain falls. None of these places are far from each other, yet the climatological differences (and their inevitable effect on viticulture) are writ large.

All that said, I’m not here for wine. I’m here for coffee.

Theresa, fresh from her relaxing day at the spa (and her even more relaxing post-spa nap) joins me on a dubious side street, rife with American fast food and truly tacky knick-knack shops, to try what is alleged to be the best café in all of New Zealand. That, as we’ve discovered, is a mighty strong claim, but we’re prepared for a thorough assessment.

It’s not easy to find Joe’s Garage (Camp St.) from the front, mostly because there’s not really a sign, nor are there street-facing windows to indicate what’s inside (there’s one in the back, alongside some outdoor tables, but no one would ever be back there unless they knew precisely where they were going). In this way, it’s a little like The Bunker in its self-conscious invisibility to passing throngs of tourists, and though the word on this place is definitely out, I suspect many are simply unable to locate this venue.

Inside, however, things are a bit more amusing. Joe’s Garage is a single, high-ceilinged room (that does, in fact, look like a converted commercial garage), with a studied mess of haphazard décor that suggests some sort of geographically indistinct road trip…a little Route 66, a little Paris-Dakar, perhaps even a little Southern Scenic Route…and the cornucopia of tchotchkes assembled along the way. In the room: a few small tables, a few stools at a bar, and that’s it. It is strikingly hip via its very indifference to the concept.

I note, however, that the entropy of the main room does not extend to areas behind the bar, where a four-person staff works in pristine, efficient precision. I take a quick look at the menu of breakfast-type comestibles (scribbled on a large board far above the bar), and order a “brat” and a flat white. Here is what transpires:

A sausage is plucked from a rotisserie, glistening and plump. It’s placed on a hot grill, while an even fatter roll is produced. This is toasted in its native state, then sliced open and toasted a second time, while the sausage is rolled and tossed around the grill until it has developed a fine sear on all sides. A canister of a smoky barbecue-type sauce is set next to another full of piquant, English-style whole grain mustard, and these are carefully applied to each interior face of the now well-toasted roll, after which the sausage is arranged precisely in a position to be enveloped by these condiments. The price for all this excellence? $5 NZ.

Meanwhile, the barista – unquestionably the most brooding and serious of the café staff, so much so that Theresa begins to refer to him as Bono – begins the process of making a flat white. With a series of fresh presses from the elaborate brewing machinery behind him, he assembles a lineup of cups and begins to work his art: an espresso here, a cappuccino there, and then a series of flat whites. A dark, almost inky shot of espresso is immediately pierced by a folded mixture of steamed and frothed milk, though top-riding foam is held back by the careful manipulation of a knife. The barista gently adjusts the direction and amplitude of his pour, leaving the finished coffee topped with a delicate leaf pattern traced in the tiny amount of foam that rises to the top of the cup. It is an absolute work of art.

It’s taste, however, that matters…and here, Joe’s Garage unquestionably surpasses its reputation. The bratwurst sandwich is in perfect proportion – meat, bread and condiment in satisfying marriage – while the coffee is utterly flawless and stupendously rich. Laughing with delight over our purchases at a freshly-emptied table, we have only one question: what took us so long to visit this place?

Learning to hate baths

We nurse a second pair of stunning flat whites, then head back to the house to change for dinner. Little do we anticipate the turn our evening is about to take.

(Continued here, with tasting notes and more photos…)