Island Relief

Balcony view at the Boatyard Inn

I was veering into the exit to Harbor Avenue a couple weeks ago, listening to a segment on NPR about Washington apple harvest festivals.  The host described a Whidbey Island festival called Apple Day and Mutt Strut, where people gathered to taste apples and freshly pressed cider, and dressed their dogs in costume for a contest.

The festivities were next to the Langley Farmer’s Market, which stood adjacent to a nursery a few miles from where we were staying at the Boatyard Inn.  They were a casual community affair, and despite not getting a costume for our puppy Nora, she was awarded “Best Trick” when I got her to lay on her back for a treat.

We returned to the main drag and went inside a winery called Ott & MurphyHeavy rains outside gave me a sense of coziness sitting indoors I have nary felt since my childhood.  A flight of wines, a cheese terrine, a salumi platter, and a bottle of Grenache later, we encountered a flavor that was a gateway into our next stop on Whidbey Island.  It came in the form of loganberry liqueur drizzled on a Chocolate Espresso Tart, tasting like thin, silky syrup.

“It’s from Whidbey Island Distillery,” the winery owner David Ott said in his gentle voice with a mild raspiness.  “It’s nearby, and I think they’re just releasing a raspberry liqueur too.”

We nearly missed our turn into the Heising household the next day, where Whidbey Island Distillery co-owner Steven invited the three of us inside to see his copper still named “Bubbling Betty.” It was a project he and his wife Beverly had undertaken as their retirement, making liqueur out of surplus wine from local wineries, then adding local loganberry juice and raspberry juice to produce their two current offerings.

Bottles of whiskey lined the table by the door.  “Most of those are just to see the color behind our labels,” Steven remarked.  “We’re hoping to produce our own whiskey soon.”

“Have you thought of producing grappa?” I asked.  “Since you’re dabbling in brandy already…”

“We’ve thought about it, but not everyone has a taste for grappa, plus you need to add sugar when you make grappa, which would mean we would have to buy more, rather than use products that would otherwise be wasted.  We’re trying to make something as natural as possible.”

While tasting their spirits, Beverly eyed Nora and asked if we had been to Spoiled Dog Winery, just up the road.  “You can bring your dog in there,” she said, smiling.

Pinot Noir vines at Spoiled Dog Winery

With two bottles of liqueur, some infused chocolates, and a couple branded shot glasses given as gifts for our anniversary, we set off for the winery before heading back to the ferry.  Spoiled Dog Winery was up a hill, its tasting room behind a modestly sized field of Pinot Noir vines.  While we tasted their wines, Nora played with their elderly Australian Shephard named Blue. We tied a red scarf from the winery around her neck as a memento for our weekend of relief from the chaotic election season.

Our yellow lab Nora playing with winery dog Blue

“I love how this town is pretty much all small businesses,” Carla said as we were nearing the ferry.  The statement epitomized Whidbey Island to me.  There had not been a Subway, Pizza Hut, or even my beloved employer Starbucks in sight.  Our only distractions came in the form of our eyes fixed on our puppy and the serene island views, and our taste buds that were seduced by various libations of comfort.  As with any fulfilling trip, the worst part is knowing I can no longer say I have been there and done that, but must instead long to return once Whidbey Island Distillery releases their whiskey.

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Waters at the Water

I have been living in Seattle for nearly two months, renting a new house with my girlfriend since the beginning of August.  Last weekend was the first time I put the responsibilities of moving aside and relaxed with old friends at a wedding celebration on Vashon Island.

Taking the Ferry to Vashon Island

The party was scheduled from noon Saturday until noon Sunday, and was nearing its end.  We were packing our belongings, thinking we would soon head back to the ferry, when my friend (and our host) Clark came to us and said “so guys, we were thinkin’ of going to the beach for a little while…”

The first thing I noticed upon stepping onto KVI Beach was endless patches of sea beans.  In spite of my penchant for foraging, I would sooner climb a mountain than lay out on the shore, so I had not seen these salty morsels in their native habitat.

Miniature geysers squirted from the sand, and someone indicated they were clams.   Ever since reading Hank Shaw’s entry on digging for geoducks, I had been waiting for this moment.  A little help from Clark and two sore arms later, I was out of breath and sipping a Syrah from Waters Winery alongside some sea beans as Clark filled a bucket to hold the four large horse clams—at the time we thought they were geoducks—we had dug from the sand.

The bounty of Horseneck Clams

We all gathered on a blanket for a picnic after the dig.

“Guys,” Clark said, “this is Molly and my wedding cake.”  He opened a large button of soft goat cheese covered in lavender, rose petals, and coriander.  “It’s called River’s Edge True Love Chevre.”  Since they had such a small group of people with them when they got married a year ago, a traditional wedding cake was not what they were after.  They had instead chosen something special they could revisit and re-taste.  I cut off a knob using a chunk of bread, and topped it with some smoked salmon and sea beans, then sipped my plastic cup of Syrah.  I could say the marriage of saltiness, lush juicy concentrate, creamy fat, and flowers was an indescribably beautiful taste sensation.  But I tend to believe such ideal pairings achieve greatness because of their setting.  The cool, crisp air and bright, vast landscape of solitude with many of my most cherished companions made a quiet afternoon into a rare weekend’s memorable end.  A cup of Washington’s finest grape is merely the final piece of the puzzle, the one that completes the image so you may begin piecing together the next set of flat jigsaw blocks.

 

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.

“To Life” with Charles Smith

It was the first time I had seen my friend Kevin since April, when we were at a house party hosted by Pioneer Wine Company and Charles Smith Wines.  This time we found each other at the same house for a an after-party for Pioneer’s portfolio tasting.  I reminded him about the night before I flew to Walla Walla, Washington and saw Charles Smith’s newly opened downtown tasting room.

“Oh yeah,” Kevin said, “how’d that go?”

“Well,” I responded, smiling, “I wasn’t able to coordinate my flight to get a ride with him from the airport.”

“What about that party?”
“It was awesome.  So much fun.”

Charles Smith began producing wine in Walla Walla in 1999, and released his first vintage under the K Vintners label in 2001.  Since then, he has developed other labels and projects, and opened a tasting room in downtown Walla Walla when I visited in April.

The tasting room was a simple and spare lounge, a few couches and tables, boxes lying around, lots of open space, and a bar for pouring with his signature graphic design behind it, alerting people to available products.  It felt like a place to relax and drink wine, rather than stop, taste, and purchase, as is the goal of many tasting rooms.  Having spent four years in Walla Walla as a college student, it gave me a sense of how the town has been changing over the last five years, and how people from my younger demographic were becoming part of the wine scene in Walla Walla.

That evening, the relaxed lounge became a vibrant bar for its opening dance party.  A giant pan of paella with the most refreshing flavor of saffron stood in the back while Danzig’s former bassist pooled through his vinyls and played old school rockabilly and the staff popped and poured, plowing through some of Smith’s finest fermented juice.  Smith’s entire library of wines was available that evening, everything since 2001 by the bottle, with a selection by the glass I had never seen in a tasting room.

Former bassist of Danzig spinning

 

I first met Charles Smith years ago, when I was walking my dog and dropped by the tasting room where I worked to say hello to my co-workers.  After a few glasses of wine, we went to the K Vintners tasting room to hang out after closing time.  Charles sat on his porch, and my dog was becoming noticeably thirsty.

“Um, is there any chance she can get some water?” I asked.

“Yeah man,” Charles responded, and came out with a pot full of water.

Charles Smith has a reputation for being big in every way.  Big personality; highly concentrated wines; in-your-face labels; long curly hair; a rockstar lifestyle both in his past and now selling wine.  He also possesses a down-to-earth friendliness whenever I have spoken to him, which I venture to say is the actual foundation of his bold traits; he is a promoter of the spirit of life in wine.

When we encountered each other at the party in Dallas, I reminded him of the story when he gave my dog water, knowing he wouldn’t recall it.

“Oh, was I nice about it?” he asked.

“Yeah, man.”

Just as the smell of a wine can influence the flavors on my palate, my memories of someone such as Charles Smith evoke pleasant memories of fun and friendship.  While they remain fresh in my mind ever time I look at one of his labels, it is a challenge to convey these intangible tastes to those unfamiliar with Smith’s charisma.  A common challenge, and perhaps the linchpin for anyone selling, promoting, and serving wine; a fine opportunity to reminisce about these anecdotes.

 

Second two photos by Adam Sachs