If You Could Have Dinner with One Winemaker…

We walked toward the entrance of Victor Tango’s, concerned for a moment that we were running late.  As we neared the door, our hosts for the evening appeared, Chuck Weintraub (Owner and Broker for Wineright Inc.) and Randal Grahm (Owner and Winemaker for Bonny Doon Vineyards).

Randal smiled as he introduced himself to me.  “Nice hat,” he said, pointing to a large black beret I was wearing with the name of his red wine “CONTRA” written on it.

“I knew he’d wear the hat,” Chuck remarked.

Weeks into my position as Associate Wine Specialist for Whole Foods, Chuck visits the store with wines from Bonny Doon Vineyard.

“I just can’t quite tell you how great it feels to be selling these wines again,” he proclaims.

There are few California wines I regard as beyond the crowd-pleaser category, so my eyebrows go up with intrigue upon tasting these wholly original wines for the first time.

“Adam, you seem quiet,” says Chuck.  “I’m wondering what you think.”

“I’m really impressed by this rosé,” I respond, referring to the Vin Gris de Cigare.  It has a surprisingly dry and crisp flavor profile I have not experienced since my first tasting room job.  Vin Gris is the pink version of Bonny Doon’s flagship wine, Le Cigare Volant, a reference to a 1954 decree that no flying saucers can fly above Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Here was the alien Californian cleverly concocting a Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend and a rosé version of the wine.

I dive into these wines head first, with a chance encounter days later of Randal Grahm’s collection of newsletters Been Doon So Long at Half Price Books.  I had kept an empty bottle of their European Syrah Domaine des Blaguers in my house, not recalling it as a Bonny Doon wine but more interested in the label drawn by Ralph Steadman, the focus of a previous Why Wine? post.  As I read the book, Randal Grahm sounds like a kindred spirit, someone outside the norm in his home of California and its wine business.

Six of us sat at a table toward the back of the restaurant and the night began with two different bubbling beverages.

“Randal has brought a bunch of wines that are not available in Texas,” Chuck began, “so this should be fun.”

He poured glasses of sparkling cider made from apple, pear, and quince, and finished it with a splash of dessert wine to add sweetness.  The cider tasted like dry champagne without heavy-handed yeastiness.

“Are you growing the fruit for this cider yourself?” I asked him.

“Not yet but we’re hoping to grow the pears and quince.”

Then came sparkling riesling.  I took my glass and smelled, and immediately turned to Bianca, my superior and the buyer at our store.

“Bianca I could sleep in this glass,” I said.  In retrospect, a glass of liquid lends itself more to swimming rather than sleeping.

“Yeah, we need this wine,” she responded.  “New Year’s resolution for the store.”

Food began arriving, and kept arriving throughout the night as the restaurant manager and wine buyer joined our table.  We tasted an Albariño, Dry Muscat, Syrahs, a Nebbiolo, and many more.

At one point the topic of stelvins came up.  Most people I know refer to “stelvins” as “screw-tops,” but the simplistic designation of this term bothers me as much as the term “foodie,” for which I prefer to say “epicurean” as I prefer the word “stelvin.”

“Wine ages better with stelvins,” Randal declared.

“Really?” I asked, my eyes widening.  “Because I have always told customers the exact opposite.”

“Oh no.  We have done experiments.”

After dinner, Bianca asks if I am not too tired for a nightcap at the Libertine Bar.  We sit at a stool as she drinks a digestif, me with a Deschuttes Stoic Ale in front of me.

“So what about the whole cork versus stelvin thing?” I ask.  

“There’s a lot of information coming to light about it,” Bianca notes.

“Because I have seriously told customers a stelvin means the wine is ready to drink and a cork means it should be aged.  But tonight Randal told me the exact opposite.”

“Well what we want with wine is controlled spoilage.  There’s a book called To Cork or Not to Cork that tells the whole story of each closure method.”

Toward the end of dinner, my boss Casie asked Randal how he went from sweeping the floors of a winery to the owner and winemaker for one of California’s most respected vineyards.

“Well, I came from a very privileged background…”

Casie brings up his comment afterward, and points out the perception that people think those with Trust Funds never need to worry about money.

“I distinguish between someone with a privileged background versus someone with a trust fund,” I say.

“What’s the difference for you?” Casie asks.

“I’ve been privileged growing up,” I explain, “but once I became an adult, there was not much money to my name.  Someone with a trust fund has that luxury.  It was also hard doing things my parents didn’t understand when they were financing my education.  Strangely they’ve been most supportive of my career in the wine industry.”

“I think your parents realize you’re serious about what you’re doing,” Bianca says, “and they see their persistence and work ethic reflected in your struggle, so they respect you more for it.”

“Interesting,” I respond.  “I can see how that may be the case.”  I think about how our conversations have made tonight’s main event seem more significant for all of us.


Last Week at Owen Roe

The air is laden with clouds and light rain, the most common weather in this part of Oregon.  I am getting closer to St. Paul, about an hour outside of Portland, passing roadside produce stands and fields of peppers and corn.  My destination is Owen Roe Winery, a boutique winery that sources grapes from Washington and Oregon to make artisanal wines with wide Texas distribution through Glazers.  Texas broker Chuck Weintraub suggested I visit them during my trip to the Pacific Northwest, as he sensed I would be drawn in by the location and his longtime friend, winemaker and former Dallasite Aaron Berlin.

The winery is tucked away with a small black and white sandwich board of a sign.  I am introduced to Aaron upon my arrival.

“So you’re coming from Dallas?” Aaron asks rhetorically.  “You look like you’re straight out of the Pacific Northwest.”

I scratch my chin, my face unshaven after three days at my college reunion in Walla Walla.  “Yep,” I remarked.  “Texans don’t know what to make of me, because most of them I know don’t make it up to the Pacific Northwest.”

We walk toward an alcove with a table of wines to taste.  When he pours a glass of Kilmore Pinot Noir, I ask about the origins of the winery name.  Named after Irish Gaelic soldier Owen Roe O’Neill, Irish owner David O’Reilly was inspired by O’Neill’s loyalty to his kin, a mindset he strives to utilize at his winery.  Aaron describes examples of this generosity, such as the opportunity for staff to make their own wine using the facilities, and lunch prepared by an on-site chef each day for staff and visitors.

Owen Roe O'Neill, Irish Gaelic soldier and source of the winery's namesake

We taste the remaining wines, ending with the recent release of 2010 Sinister Hand, a Grenache-based blend that shows with a restrained and juicy gentleness, just emerging from its shell with youthful vigor.  He asks if I want another glass of something before he shows me the production facilities, and I revisit the Kilmore Pinot Noir.

“I’m excited you like that one so much,” he remarks.  “I was nervous about this vintage…”

2010 Sinister Hand, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre

We remove bungs from barrels of white wine, mostly chardonnay.  The odor is initially overwhelming, an ammonia that numbs my entire palate for the glass of wine in my hand.  Intense aromas of banana, overripe mango, and passion fruit come through, manifesting themselves restrainedly together in the bottle, free of lees and wood, when we return to taste some newly opened bottles from the production facility.

He shows me projects from former on-site chef Jesse Skiles, now crafting wines for his label Fausse PisteOne vat holds grapes macerating in their own juices, and another is equal parts Syrah and Viognier piled in individual layers as an experiment to see how separating them in such a way will affect the flavor.  I taste raw viognier grapes, juicy syrah grapes, and somewhat more rough-skinned merlot, all of them sweeter than I would have predicted, hinting at the concentration that may come through as they ferment.

We hop in my rental car and drive ten minutes to one of their vineyards producing grapes that currently go into their Sharecropper Pinot Noir.  Aaron is worried many of the grapes have been consumed by birds and pests, since they had not covered the vineyard with netting yet.  He is pleasantly surprised when we arrive.  The grapes are tart, not quite ripe, and few seem to have been lost to the unwanted predators.

One of Owen Roe's nearby vineyards with Pinot Noir grapes

We head back, and I taste the Sharecropper Pinot Noir with a lunch of pasta mixed with brussel sprouts, corn, and braised pork shoulder.  I then head downstairs to speak with Aaron one last time before I depart.  I ask him what prompted him to leave Dallas for Oregon and how he specifically became the winemaker at Owen Roe.

Unable to survive solely as a musician, he explained, he eventually took a job at specialty wine store Pogos and started reading some magazines about wine.  “I thought ‘this is cool,” he said.  “People drink good wine often; they eat well.  I’d like to be a part of it.’ ”  He left Dallas in 1998 and took a job at Argyle Winery for three years before securing his current position at Owen Roe.  Though it took awhile to regain financial stability, he explained, “I’m happy now.”  Twenty minutes passed quickly, and I shook hands with him and headed to the airport.


“So,” Chuck said as we took our seats at a table with Randal Grahm (of Bonny Doon Vineyards, the focus of my upcoming post), “how was Owen Roe?  I bet it was nuts with production going on…”

“It was actually very laid back,” I responded.  “A very casual visit.”

“I want to hear all about it.”

As I reach the end of this chronicle, I wonder what I can tell Chuck that will intrigue him so.  My visit felt relaxed and everyday at its core, with no big surprises or monumental stories.  Perhaps Aaron’s comment when we first met alludes to my slight confusion about what excites people so much.  In all my college years living in wine country, many of the wineries do not lend themselves to tours, and merely want to produce good wine and sell it all on-site.  Owen Roe is an exception insofar as their wines have wider exposure, yet their facility feels like a departure from their unique packaging.  The winery and its team are a no frills bunch simply trying to get the most out of what they do, and bring that same spirit to one another, day by day.  Perhaps this mentality seems natural to me, but may be more unusual than I realize.