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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.

Fire and water (New Zealand, pt. 4)

The gift of morning

Mornings just don’t get much more beautiful than this one. Sun, blue sky, warm – but not too warm – air, and the freedom to do anything, everything, or nothing. Such freedom and its world of possibilities are truly a gift. Inspired, we express our gratitude for the gift of complete freedom by wolfing down several bowls of muesli and fresh fruit.

After all, what good is freedom if you’re not regular?

As we pack the car for relaxing, first-day-of-vacation beach slothfulness, Cliff (our host) emerges from his house toting a folding beach chair. “Here, you’ll want this,” he offers. Just then the phone rings; it’s Auckland wine writer (and friend) Sue Courtney, checking to see if we’ve arrived intact. And once more the refrain: New Zealanders are unbelievably nice, and though we should no longer be surprised by it, we are. Perhaps it’s the gift of the land they inhabit; a treasure in itself, and fertile ground for the cultivation of luxuries both prosaic and extravagant. Perhaps it’s remoteness from the more guarded, selfish centers of “modern” culture. Or perhaps it’s just the people, who approach life with an unstudied innocence that chips away at one’s cynicism and world-weariness. Either way, it’s exceedingly hard to be unhappy when it seems that an entire country is looking out for your well-being.

One with Onetangi

Onetangi Beach is a long, straight stretch of white gold gently lapped by a greenish-blue sea. Today, it’s completely empty, save for a few lonely seagulls. We park our car on the crumbling strip of sand-infused dirt between a narrow frontage street and the beach, park ourselves right in the middle of the sand, and begin the flesh-roasting process (though to be honest, we’re covered in enough high-octane sunscreen that a deep, dark tan seems unlikely). There’s no traffic, very little wind, only the soft murmur of waves, and even the gulls are mostly silent. It’s a little eerie, but it’s also profoundly relaxing, and every last bit of real-world tension drifts softly away, collected and carried to sea by the gentle motion of the tides and the winds.

We exchange brief naps and quickly restorative dips in the ocean, and oscillate between soft, sun-slowed conversation and the sweet silence of isolation. When hunger finally starts to gnaw, we climb back up to a street-side picnic table and unfurl a spread of garlicky green-lipped mussels and Ferndale “Brie” (absurdly simple, definably “cheese” but with no additional character beyond the bare fact of it) with a wine perfectly suited to the day and the location.

Onetangi Road 2004 Rosé (Waiheke Island) – Juicy raspberry goodness that’s big and slightly hot, but despite the slightly overweight character it’s a really fun, full-fruited summer quaffer. It will get you tipsy, though. I suggest a post-lunch layabout on an isolated beach.

There are no shops or hotels here, just a clean and functional public changing room/bathroom combination, but there is a manageable breadth to the waterfront, and so we decide to stroll from one end to another. Low-hanging trees shadow water-etched rocks on one end, boulders which conceal a collection of tidal pools and, behind, tiny little beach alcoves to which a few sun-bronzed locals have retired…perhaps fleeing the masses (which, today, are…I presume…us). At the beach’s opposite end, tangled vegetation supports a teetering cliff onto which a quiet, leaf-dimmed bungalow has been perched. And still, the great length of the beach remains empty. OK, it’s a work day, but come on…where is everybody?

(Continued here…)

The Belle of the ball

Belle Pente 2003 Riesling (Willamette Valley) – Clean, water-washed ripe red apple and ripe lemon with moderate sweetness. It’s good for a fruity expression of riesling, but (at least at this stage) it lacks further complexities of the mineral or floral variety. The balance is there, but it remains to be seen if the wine will develop into anything more than pleasant.

Belle Pente (pronounced “bell pont,” in the French manner) is a winery best-known for its often-striking pinots, done in a restrained, elegant, and – dare I say it? – almost Burgundian fashion. Pinot and riesling are often paired in the minds of terroir-obsessed oenophiles, but outside New Zealand it’s rare for a winery to make them both well. One does indeed hope for more here, but it will be a long while before we can tell if the problem is the site or the application…and anyway, it’s not like the wine is unpleasant or flawed in any way. It’s just not as good as the pinots. Alcohol: 13.7%. Web:

The cab is always greener…

Like all wine lovers, I have my likes and dislikes, and the wines I choose to buy reflect those choices. And like most wine lovers, I don’t much care for drinking bad wines. What’s fun, though, is crossing over to the “other side,” and tasting (mostly) well-made wines that fit the preferences of those with decidedly different tastes.

A recent holiday party gave me the opportunity to do just that. Below are some quick takes — I didn’t take formal notes at the event — on a lineup of wines that, with one or two exceptions, aren’t likely to make regular appearances in my glass.

Lafond 2003 Sancerre (Loire) – Reedy green citrus and grassy notes, though with the skin bitterness and lowish acidity characteristic of the vintage. In the context of many truly awful 2003 Sancerres, this one is actually half-decent.

la Poussie 2003 Sancerre (Loire) – Heavy, green, bitter, and acid free. See above.

Ladoucette 2003 Pouilly-Fumé (Loire) – Gorgeous, silky fruit with earthy elegance and the first stirrings of complexity. Beautifully balanced and long. I could drink this all night.

Paul Hobbs 2003 Chardonnay (Russian River Valley) – Simple and spicy peach, pear, citrus and white fig-like fruit with moderate oak spice and a reasonable dollop of acidity. Pretty decent, though chardonnay’s still not exactly my favorite grape in the world.

Belle Pente 2002 Pinot Noir Belle Pente (Willamette Valley) – Gorgeous, silky fruit with earthy elegance and the first stirrings of complexity. Beautifully balanced and long. I could drink this all night.

Relic 2002 Pinot Noir Alder Springs (Mendocino County) – Forceful pinot noir, dense and throbbing with heavy, leaden black and red fruit, plus streaks of plummy orange rind that make me think of an especially heavy Central Otago pinot. This will be very popular with some, and it’s not a bad wine, but I much prefer the Belle Pente.

Fanti 1998 Brunello di Montalcino (Tuscany) – Luscious, clove-spiced baked berries with not-insignificant oak and a relatively balanced finish. There could be less technology and wood thrown at this, and it would improve, but it’s a nice drink in its present form.

Brancaia 2003 “Il Blu” IGT Toscana (Tuscany) – The sangiovese is, as usual, overwhelmed by cabernet and merlot, but that said there’s merit to the wine; internationalized it is, indeed, but there’s plenty of juicy and fun fruit here.

Gaja 2001 “Magari” IGT Toscana (Tuscany) – Weedy bell pepper and seed pepper dust. There are interestingly floral aromatics, but the palate is disappointing, and a long finish doesn’t mean much when the flavors aren’t that pleasant.

Thomas Fogarty 2001 “Skyline” (California) – Massively overwooded and underripe at the same time. Horrid.

Tor 2003 Syrah Durell “Clone No. 1” (Carneros) – Incredibly thick and dense…a sort of chocolate-and-oak shake…and varietally anonymous. Kind of a waste of the raw materials, but certainly destined for popularity amongst the bigger-is-better crowd.