January 21st, 2011
This date will live on in wine and food infamy for me. It was a day filled with memories and purpose. As I continue down this life/career path in wine, things happen that remind me of why I love what I do and why I wanted to start this blog.
The day began at 6am, cellphone alarm blaring, me scrabbling to get ready as I needed to be at Jesse’s by 7am. Neither of us could remember the last time we had to be up this early,
probably harvest last year. What the hell are we doing up this early? Oh yeah, we’re following our passions. I had the pleasure of tagging along with my friend Jesse Skiles of Fausse Piste fame on a day trip to Seattle. Jesse had a business meeting with a potential distributor for his wines in Seattle. Jesse poured six of his wines to a couple of wine industry veterans, who taste thousands of wines every year from around the world, not to mention the amount of the local wines that they get to taste. So, they don’t BS with tasting wine. They’ve been around the block. It was great fun watching these guys really sit up and take notice of Jesse’s wines. It was his 2009 l’ortolan Roussanne (SOLD OUT) that absolutely hooked them, and this was BEFORE he got to his stunning reds. After the tasting, they worked out a handshake deal with Jesse right there on the spot. I can’t emphasize how rare that is, especially in these economic times. Distributors are just not taking on new ‘unproven’ brands. Clearly, they see what a jewel Jesse’s wines are. Smart choice, gentlemen.
A celebration was in order.
We decided to check out some of Seattle’s better known wine shops to see where Jesse could send people when his wines are eventually available in Washington. On our second stop, we came to be in the depths of Esquin Wine Merchants (visit here). I had always wanted to visit to Esquin as I had heard of it through various wine channels. Sometimes, in these massive wine shops, it is easy to be confused by all of the options. Where to begin? What is it that I am actually looking for? Did I even want to buy anything? I should look for something obscure. There was this crazy orange wine from Georgia (the country, not state) that I still have found memories of. [Special thanks to Germain at the Amelia Wine Bar in San Francisco for introducing me to the "Phesants Tears" Unfiltered Rkatsiteli (the grape) wine.] I wonder if they have it here? No, they didn’t. Damn.
OK, I must rewind the story a bit:
The drive from Portland to Seattle is about 3.5 hours depending on the weather and traffic. It was raining cats and dogs, so this was going to be a slug of a drive. It was a great time to catch up with Jesse. Lots of talk about wine, food, travel, and always music. Jesse had asked me if I had been up to Walla Walla lately and asked when the last time I had talked with Tom Glase (owner/winemaker at Balboa Winery) was. I had mentioned that Tom and I talked in early fall just before harvest kicked in. So, we had verbalized the words “Tom Glase”. The universe would remind us of her eternal powers, by producing Tom Glase in the flesh at the end of our meeting with the distributor (Tom and Jesse now share a distributor in Seattle.) I remember Jesse and I looking at each other with shocked expressions. We talked about Tom, and then , BAM, Tom appears hours later. Spooky. Of all the people that could have shown up as we had literally just finished the tasting/meeting, it was Tom that walks into the conference room. He looks at us all, grabs a glass, takes a big gulp of Jesse’s wines, and says “Wow, that’s good.” Wine is a Conduit….this is all I could say to myself.
When Jesse and I arrived at the Distributor’s warehouse, we had to take the stairs to the offices upstairs. There was a shelf of wine right next to it and I remember looking at this group of wines each time I was coming up or down. It was as if the wine gods were sending me a “LOOK HERE” message. I mentioned this to Jesse after the meeting and that this producer was one that I had been dying to try for many years, I just never came across it. The wines are tough to find and I have never seen them anywhere here in Oregon. Jesse hadn’t seem them before either and he only vaguely remembers hearing about them. The name of the producer was now verbalized and sent out into the universe…………..Pyramid Valley. Surely, the universe must have been satisfied by just producing Tom Glase for us, but apparently not, the joke was still on us.
OK. Now back to Esquin Wine Merchants.
So we really weren’t there to buy anything, just look around and see what they had to offer, where Jesse’s wines might be placed. I kept being attracted to the Chile, Argentina, New Zealand row of wines for some reason, and there at the end of the aisle, right near the entrance to the store, were those same Pyramid Valley wines I had seen at the Distributors just hours before. So, I had to pick one up, touch it, read it, get to know that bottle. I mean, here it is Jeff, you’ve always wanted to try this, you’ve never even SEEN a bottle before. Could a purchase be more obvious? Jesse came over and we discussed the Pyramid Valley wines again, recalling our earlier conversation. Thank you, Wine Gods. Now which one to buy? I was in a white wine mood (odd, since it was all grey and gloomy outside) so we were looking at the 2008 Riverbrook Riesling and the 2007 Kerner Estate Pinot Blanc they had. Neither of us had ever tried a Riesling or Pinot Blanc from New Zealand, so we really couldn’t loose. Besides, this was Pyramid Valley, does it really matter which wine you start with? At about this time, a very attractive redhead (who’s name I failed to get) asked us if we needed any help. I said “No, I think we’ve decided on one.” In hindsight, I should have said “Yes, we’re a couple of idiots, can you help us?” Stupid me. I decided I wanted to try the Riesling, in part, because we had talked about Oregon Riesling in the car on the ride up. I went to pay for the wine and thankfully, the attractive redhead was there at the check-out (double entendre) counter. She made some glowing comments about the Riesling and the producer, but mentioned that she preferred the Pinot Blanc. Touche! I looked up and saw Jesse scramble over to grab the Pinot Blanc. Nice move, well played, my friend. We left Esquin with two bottles of Pyramid Valley wines, both ga-ga for the redhead and wondering what the hell were we doing back there, not getting a name? Now what? Well, we’re in Seattle, Jesse landed a distributor for Washington state, we’re armed with two Pyramid Valley wines, it is getting late, we are hungry, so let’s stay in town and grab dinner to celebrate. The decision of what to have was easy. I think we said “sushi” at the same time. After deciding on sushi the “where to go” was even easier: Shiro’s.
For you sushi lovers out there, I defy you to tell me of any better sushi restaurant in the USA.
So, we arrived at Shiro’s and we were trying to decide which wine to bring in, the Riesling or the Pinot Blanc? I decided on the Riesling, as it was my way of contributing to the celebration, and because I had envisioned a spicy albacore tuna hand roll in my future. As we walked in, there were only 4 customers in the entire restaurant and they were at the bar (which IS the best place to sit at Shiro’s.) It was only 5:30pm, so we felt pretty lucky to grab two seats at the end of the sushi bar. The menu’s arrived and after a quick glace Jesse had mentioned that we should just go for the “Chef’s Choice Sushi Platter”. This is one of the many things I appreciate about Jesse. He has great instincts for food and wine.
The young sushi chef was surprised that we had made such a quick decision, but he was ELATED that we wanted the chef’s choice. His first words were: “Do you eat everything?” Jesse let out an emfatic “Yes”, as if the sushi couldn’t come out fast enough. I should mention, that Jesse is also a very accomplished chef in his own right. I don’t think I have seen him so filled with anticipation over a meal. We finally had a moment to look around and we could see two very large (softball size) fresh sea urchins on top of the sushi counter. The chef (who’s name we didn’t get, apparently a theme of the day) placed a half of sea urchin shell (spikes and all) on our plate and arranged 6 of the fattiest, tastiest, most delicate slices of uni that I have ever had in my life, inside. Arranged around the rest of the plate were neatly cut and fanned cucumbers, lemon peel, pacific albacore, fresh salmon, red snapper, and yellow fin tuna sashimi that was all fresh from the sea that day. Here is one of the best things about Seattle. Fresh seafood.
We opened up the Riesling and were imediately impressed. The aromatics hit with wet stone and delicate flowers. But which ones? Now, part of the fun of drinking wine is finding the right descriptors (which are very individual in context) to the wine. Really, there are certain wines that I feel compelled/challenged to describe. So, after we bounced some ideas off of each other, it hit me: cover crop. If you have ever walked through a Bio/Organic vineyard in the summertime, you’ll know what I’m talking about. This Riesling literally smelled like cover crop (Dandelion, Horsetail, Chamomile.) Stunning. On the palate, the wine enters clean, like fresh spring water, then you taste the flora, then there is a well integrated level of exotic citrus. Exotic citrus? Ok, I have never been to New Zeland, but I would venture to guess, that there is a specific type of citrus fruit that they have down there that this wine tastes like. I do not have the life experience (never been to NZ) to accurately describe what I am tasting here. This is also one of the wonders of wine. The new flavors from around the world. Wine unlike any other beverage really should taste like a ‘place’….a bottle of wine should transport you there. There is something about the use of indigenious yeast that allows these flavors to reveal themselves. For me, being able to smell (and sometimes taste) elements of the specific parcel of land is one of the beauties of wine. This Riesling is continued proof that with proper agricultural and cellar practices, this can be achieved. So can visiting a place without actually being there.
So, after about 15 pieces of the most lip smacking sushi I have ever eaten and one empty bottle of Pyramid Valley Riesling, we were in a conundrum. What to do? Well, we all were hitting our stride (chef included), so instictually, Jesse just grabbed his keys, stood up, and declared, “We need the Pinot Blanc now.” YES!
Upon his return, the worrisome look on the chef’s face was replaced by beams of light. I don’t think he heard our exchange, so he was puzzled as to why Jesse had gotten up and left the restaurant so fast. To see Jesse walk back into the restaurant with another bottle of wine fired up our chef again. Clearly, at this point he realized that it was, GAME ON. Here is where wine becomes the international language. Our chef bounced into action, before Jesse even sat down.
This is where the meal and evening was elevated from amazing to sublime.
Pinot Blanc doesn’t get enough respect. I won’t bore you with historical context as to ‘why’ it doesn’t, instead I want to offer you a wine as an example of what ‘can be’ great about Pinot Blanc. The 2007 Pyramid Valley Kerner Estate Pinot Blanc. Really, go out and find this wine. It will challenge you on many levels. First, being the color. When you pour this wine into your glass it is cloudy, that’s because it is unfined and unfiltered. DO NOT BE AFRAID OF THESE WINES.
We both impatiently swirled and sniffed, we knew what the cloudy wine meant. It meant this was gonna be a show stopper of a wine. We are about to travel to New Zealand. Immediately, you could smell this wine. My nose is about 2 feet from the glass and I can already smell it. WOW! As I dove into the wine, I was picking up ruby red grapefruit, white peach, wild flowers, cover-crop (yahoo), minerality, and saline. It was a wine that completely changed the next time I raised it to my nose. I LOVE these “shape-shifter” wines. So generous. They’re wardrobe changing supermodels. This wine is killing it for us. Holy Mackrel (Spanish “Aji” to be percise!) We dove into about 10 more sushi combinations, most of which were roe inspired. Roe (fish eggs) are pungent, potent, and can be difficult to drink delicate white wines with. This Pinot Blanc had the balls to hold up to all of the different sushi combinations, but it also had the dexterity to compliment them. This was due to the unfined and unfiltered nature of the wine.
Towards the end of the meal, Jesse and I were feeling a bit guilty, we offered up the last glass to our hero chef. All I could say was “Oishii” (おいしい)
He smiled victoriously and accepted the last remaining glass of wine. After we left and were walking back to the car, it dawned on the both of us that one glass of wine didn’t really show enough appreciation. Jesse had a few bottles of his wine in the truck of his car and wanted to give the chef a few bottles. A gift from one culinary artist to another. I couldn’t think of a more fitting tribute to our meal. A gift for a gift.
I wish I knew enough Japanese to put into proper words what those 3 HOURS were like sitting there at the sushi bar eating and learning about all of the complexities of the artistry of sushi preparation, presentation, and of course gastronomic enjoyment. It would be borderline gluttunous to describe in detail each piece of sushi, each flavor, each unique sensory experience. I tried foods that I had never eaten or heard of before, never knew were even sushi options. Like wine, sushi is a much bigger world, it’s not just about Salmon and Tuna. But, to be in the company and mercy of a passionate sushi chef, was really an honor, and a education. Like wine, sushi is about the art of sharing. Our personal chef that night couldn’t have been more gracious. He gave us a very special evening, one that will go down in food and wine experience lore. We agreed that it was the best sushi we had ever had and that the Pyramid Valley Pinot Blanc was the greatest Pinot Blanc that we had ever had. We do not throw out the words ‘greatest’ too often. But, the sushi and the Pinot Blanc were deserving of such accolades.
We finally got back to Portland around 11:30pm.
17 hours filled with reminders of why we came to be in this business.