Articles in Viticulture

Syrah grapes at Lake Chelan Winery's vineyard near Manson, Wash. Credit: Roger Ainsley

If you live in Seattle, you summer at Lake Chelan.

It’s a requirement of residency, along with buying your pearl barley at the co-op and stoically facing down nine months of gloom each year. You load up the Subaru Outback and make the 180-mile trek across the Cascade Mountains to a narrow glacier-fed lake that cuts into those peaks for 50-plus miles. There you swim, boat and bake — or burn — for a few of the inland region’s 300 days of sunshine a year.

And increasingly, you travel from winery to winery, tasting local bottlings that are expanding in number and quality.

Summertime on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state, and the office is many miles away. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Summertime on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state and the office is many miles away. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Wine grapes have been grown on the lakeshore since the late 1800s. But Chelan is still an infant among American wine regions when it comes to commercial production, going back less than two decades. The 24,040-acre Lake Chelan American Viticulture Area — the 11th AVA in Washington state — is only 5 years old. It remains part of the 11-million acre Columbia River AVA, one of the powerhouse regions in a state that ranks 2nd only to California in U.S. wine production.

Lake Chelan Valley’s unique properties — including the lake’s cooling effect that helps counter eastern Washington’s relentless heat — have been attracting winemakers and growers, sandwiched among the area’s traditional apple orchards. From a handful a decade ago, the area now has more than 20 wineries with an upstart temperament and, sometimes, a quirky sense of humor. (The Hard Row to Hoe winery takes its name from an enterprising oarsman who nearly a century ago carried workers across the lake to an equally enterprising brothel.)

The lake’s wineries are bottling a wide range of grapes from Chelan and the broader Columbia River region, from Syrah to the obscure Picpoul.

Charlie and Lacey Lybecker know about both grapes — and about pursuing the dream of making wines on a small scale in a corner of Washington wine country.

The Lybeckers are in their sixth year of producing wines, for the past three years from Cairdeas Winery on Highway 150 near the town of Manson. Their operation says family owned and operated, down to 2-year-old Eugene in his father’s arms as Charlie passed through the tasting shed on a recent afternoon.

Cairdeas, which means friendship, goodwill or alliance in ancient Gaelic, is a dream still in the midst of being fulfilled for Charlie, 34, and Lacey, 31. They produced their first bottles in their home in West Seattle and were looking to relocate to eastern Washington wine country when Lacey came to Chelan on a business trip.

Getting in while Lake Chelan Valley’s young and growing

Two wines from Lake Chelan: 2010 Whistle Punk from C.R. Sandidge, a big, jammy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and Cairdeas Winery's 2013 Southern White, which includes Grenache blanc, Roussanne and Picpout. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Two wines from Lake Chelan: 2010 Whistle Punk from C.R. Sandidge, a big, jammy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and Cairdeas Winery’s 2013 Southern White, which includes Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Picpoul. Credit: Roger Ainsley

“As soon as we saw Lake Chelan, it was like there’s no other option,” says Charlie, who studied winemaking at Seattle’s Northwest Wine Academy. “It was really appealing to us to get in while it’s still young and see the valley grow and help it grow.”

Cairdeas reflects their passion for Rhone varietals — Syrahs, Viogniers, Roussanne — with the grapes coming from around the Columbia River AVA, some from Chelan. Their method for sourcing grapes is straightforward: When they taste a great wine from the region that reflects the style they are seeking, they find out where the grapes came from and go knocking at the grower’s door.

By next spring, however, about half of their six acres near the lakeshore will be planted with their own Syrah.

“There are some very high-quality grapes coming out. I think people are really experimenting a lot and seeing what types of grapes grow really well here,” Charlie says. “For my personal taste, I think the Syrah from Lake Chelan is absolutely the best.”

And then there’s Picpoul, an obscure grape that Charlie has used to advantage in his “new favorite white wine right now,” Cairdeas’ Southern White. “It’s an extremely acidic grape by itself but has great flavors and we use it as a blending grape,” he explains. The result: a bright wine with a broad palette of flavors that could work in place of Sauvignon Blanc with a simple grilled chicken.

The Lybeckers hope to tap in to Lake Chelan’s natural advantages, including as a wine tourist destination. As Lacey notes, the lake comes ready made with tourism infrastructure — lakeshore hotels, golf courses, water sports and winter snow skiing — that some Washington wine regions had to create from scratch.

Their goals are at once ambitious and limited: Having grown from producing 250 cases in 2009 to slightly over 2,000 this year, they figure on topping off at about 4,000 cases. Then build a new tasting room facing the lake. Add a picnic area and a pond. Maybe offer up farm dinners.

“We are always going to be a very small family winery,” Charlie says.

Adds Lacey: “We want to make sure we always have our hands in the process.”

Main photo: Syrah grapes at Lake Chelan Winery’s vineyard near Manson, Wash. Credit: Roger Ainsley

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2013 Château de Trinquevedel Rosé. Credit: Elin McCoy

When the weather is steamy hot, no wine is more refreshing than a chilled rosé. This 2013 Château de Trinquevedel, with its complex spice and cherry flavors with hints of refreshing grapefruit, will be delicious after Labor Day, too.

In the past few years, the meaning of rosé has changed from cotton candy sweetish plonk to a powerful symbol of summer in the U.S. Pink wine has become the sophisticated beach and patio drink, a fashionable accessory to the good life. Too bad so few people drink it during the rest of the year. Yes, I’m a fan of the seasonal approach to wine, but just because pale pink wine is gulpable and refreshing in July and August doesn’t mean we should drop it like a beach towel when we get back from our vacations.

Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week


2013 Château de Trinquevedel Rosé

Price: $17

Region: Rhone Valley, France

Grape: 57 % Grenache Noir, 11% Cinsault, 15 % Clairette, 11 % Syrah, 5% Mourvèdre

1% Bourbelenc

Alcohol: 13.5%

Serve with: Grilled fish, spicy Chinese noodles with chicken, barbecued pork chops

The Tavel region of the southern Rhône Valley, where Château de Trinquevedel is located, is unique — it’s France’s only all-rosé appellation. The land has a long history: Greeks planted the first vines back in the fifth century B.C., and rosés from the region were favorites of Louis XIV.

Built in the 18th century, the château is now in the hands of Guillaume and Céline Demoulin. Guillaume is the fourth generation in his family to farm these vineyards filled with the rounded white stones called galets roulés that also grace the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The hot sun and warm climate concentrate the grapes and result in rosés with more power and tannin than the pale, pale pink wines of the Côtes de Provence and Château de Trinquevedel makes a couple of different cuvées; this is their cuvée traditionelle offering, brought in by well-known importer Kermit Lynch.

In France, red and white wine can’t be mixed to create a rosé except in Champagne. That was reaffirmed a few years ago, after a controversial proposal by the EU minister of agriculture to permit mixing them met with giant protests from top producers all over France and she had to back down. Chateau de Trinquevedel uses a version of the saignée method, macerating grapes with their skins to pick up color. Then they draw off the free-run juice, press the grapes and add the pressed juice to the free-run.

The result is a serious, full-bodied rosé with a deep pink color that’s amazingly food friendly and rich enough to serve with all kinds of food, including spicy barbecued pork chops.

Sadly, at the end of the summer, wine shops usually stop ordering more rosé for their shelves. My advice is to stock up now.

Main photo: 2013 Château de Trinquevedel Rosé. Credit: Elin McCoy

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Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

The ax strikes the tree with a dry, hollow crack. The man wielding it carefully uses the edge of the blade to pry a thick piece of cork from the tree, then hands it down the ladder to a worker waiting below. In the surrounding forest, the crew continues separating the bark from the trees in the summer heat, until the day’s harvest is collected. There are no machines to do this work. It requires skill as well as physical strength, and the stamina to withstand 90-plus-degree temperatures, swarming flies and dry, thorny brush that tears at workers’ pant legs.

This was the scene I witnessed in late July, during the annual cork harvest in Coruche, Portugal’s cork capital. The harvest takes place each year between May and August, as it has for centuries.

Cork is the name for the bark of the cork oak tree (scientific name Quercus Suber L.), an ancient species dating back millions of years. Cork oaks grow primarily in Portugal, but also in France, Spain, Italy and Morocco. Because these unique trees have the ability to regenerate their outer layer of bark after it’s been stripped, there’s no need to cut down the trees in order to harvest the cork.

Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork, and the country is home to nearly 2 million acres of cork forest, or montado. Cork trees can live 500 years or more if their bark has never been harvested, and up to 150 years if it has.

In the wine world, people often marvel at the patience of grape growers, who have to wait three years for a new vineyard to produce a usable crop. That’s nothing compared with the long-range planning required of Portugal’s cork farmers. Once a cork tree is planted, it takes 25 years before its bark can be harvested.

The first year’s bark isn’t good enough for wine stoppers, so it’s sold at a much cheaper rate for flooring and other byproducts. It takes nine years for the bark to regenerate before it can be harvested again, and even then, it still isn’t viable for wine corks. Only after nine more years, at the third harvest, does the tree produce bark that’s suitable for stoppers. In case you’ve lost count, that’s 43 years of waiting!

Skill and strength

Watching the harvest crew in action last month, I came to understand why these are the world’s highest-paid agricultural workers. Stripping the bark is hot, difficult work, and requires both care and muscle. The harvesting is done mainly by men, known as descortiçadores (debarkers),who earn up to 90 euros ($120) per day wielding sharp iron axes called machadas.

As my guide, Sofia Ramos of the Coruche Forestry Association, pointed out, this work cannot be done by just anyone; it takes specialized skill to remove the bark without damaging the trees. The technique is passed down through generations, and is not something that can easily be picked up by migrant workers from non-cork-producing regions. “They have ancient knowledge,” she told me, “and that is very valuable.”

As I stood in relative comfort, but still dripping with sweat and swatting flies, I watched the workers strip the gnarly gray-brown bark from the trees, leaving behind smooth trunks the color of mahogany. Moving swiftly and efficiently, it took each two-man team about 10 minutes to strip a tree before moving on to the next one.

Although the harvest process appeared to be fairly simple from my vantage point, I learned that it actually consists of many distinct steps:

First, a vertical cut is made in the bark, while at the same time, the edge of the ax is twisted to separate the outer from the inner bark. Second, the cork is separated from the tree by inserting the edge of the ax between the cork strip and the inner bark, and twisting the ax between the trunk and the cork strip. Next, a horizontal cut is made to define the size of the cork plank to be extracted. Finally, the plank is carefully removed from the tree so that it doesn’t split (the larger the planks, the greater their value.)

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Portugal's "debarkers" are the highest-paid agricultural workers in the world. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

Once the tree has been stripped, it’s marked with a number, using the last digit of the year in which the extraction took place. This lets the forest manager know when the trees will be ready for the next harvest.

Each day’s cork planks are stacked onto tractor beds and transferred to a drying area where they rest for three weeks before being transported to a cork processing facility. There, the planks are boiled to remove impurities, trimmed, sorted, cut into strips and finally, punched into stoppers.

The next time I pull one of those stoppers from a wine bottle I’ll be thinking about Portugal’s miraculously regenerating cork trees, and the hardworking descortiçadores who harvest their bark.

Main photo: Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

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Mario and Emanuele Ragnedda run Capichera winery

“White Vermentino is the quintessential Mediterranean grape: It loves the sun, the sea and and the wind, and it marries perfectly with fish and seafood pastas,” says Giampaolo Gravina, one of Italy’s senior wine experts. If Vermentino is sometimes grown in coastal areas of Liguria (where it is known as Pigato) and Tuscany, it is most often linked with Sardinia, the second largest island in the Mediterranean, situated south of Corsica and west of Naples.

“The region of Gallura, in Sardinia’s northeastern corner, is Vermentino’s natural home,” Gravina explains. Here, in the province of Olbia-Tempio, the best grapes are made into Vermentino di Gallura DOCG wines, one of Italy’s most prestigious wine appellations. (Any wine bearing the DOCG label must be produced within a specified area and adhere to strict production regulations). As is so often the case with native varieties, Vermentino has found its ideal habitat over time: It is thought to have been cultivated in Gallura since the 14th century. The vines have adapted well to Gallura’s extreme growing conditions, he says: very poor, rocky soils of granite and sand, constant winds coming off the nearby sea, and forceful sun throughout the year.

Gallura’s stunning coastline, with its pristine fjord-like bays and sandy beaches, is never far from the vine-growing slopes. In 1961, Karim Aga Khan, one of the world’s richest men, decided to create a luxury tourist complex here in an area of coast about 20 kilometers (12 miles) long that would allow for some development while preserving the area’s natural beauty. He named it La Costa Smeralda (“the emerald coast”) and built a smattering of the world’s most exclusive hotels and villas along the shore around Porto Cervo. In midsummer, hotels such as the luxurious Cala di Volpe boast prices only moguls can afford, with multi-tiered yachts anchored at its secluded marina.

D.H. Lawrence wrote that Sardinia was “left outside time and history.” The island’s traditional gastronomic and cultural heritage is still very much alive, particularly in the areas inland from the sea. Sardinia’s interior is rough and mountainous, with much of the land suited only for grazing sheep, and is dotted with small stone villages in which time seems to have stood still. Meeting and visiting wine producers is a great way to access that culture. The annual Porto Cervo Wine Festival, held in May, is open to the public and offers a perfect introduction to Sardinia’s exciting wine world. Wine tourism is on the increase on the island and well-appointed cellars make perfect destinations for day trips from the coast.

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Capichera vineyards. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Gallura’s wineries are situated inland on higher ground, some 20 minutes’ drive from the glamorous hotels of the Costa Smeralda. Many vineyards have been reclaimed from the ever-encroaching macchia mediterranea, the mix of indigenous plants — including broom, euphorbia, holm-oak, buckthorn and myrtle — that results in impenetrable, evergreen scrub. These are plants that can survive the parched Sardinian summer.

“Gallura is not an easy place to grow vines or other crops,” says Emanuele Ragnedda, who runs Capichera winery near Arzachena with his father, Mario, and uncle, Fabrizio. “The terrain is uneven and rocky, with hillsides covered thickly by the macchia.” Vermentino vines can do without much water, too, but growers are permitted to irrigate occasionally in the hottest months to prevent the vines suffering from too much stress.

“Despite this climate, Vermentino is capable of maintaining considerable freshness and acidity,” Ragnedda says. “It is often marked, too, with an attractive saline quality that comes from the Mediterranean‘s salty terrain and sea breezes.”

Capichera’s top wine, Santigaini, is named for a single vineyard planted with six traditional clones of Vermentino whose diversity add complexity to the finished wine. It is partly cellared in French oak barrels and its older vintages are proof that Vermentino can age well into wines whose body and character are reminiscent of red wines.

“My family has been in Sardinia for 300 years, and was the first to make single-varietal whites of Vermentino in 1980 on farmland my mother inherited,” says Ragnedda as we walk through the leafy rows, surrounded by magnificent granite mountains. “We believe Vermentino is unusually flexible for a white grape, and can be adapted to different vinification methods.”

Vermentino is usually vinified in stainless steel vats without the use of barrels, and drunk within the first year or two: a perfect summer wine. Its attractive citrus and floral notes – often with hints of ginestra, the local yellow broom flowers – and lively minerality keep it refreshing and dry.

Vigne Surrau, a few miles north of Arzachena, is one of the most impressive wineries to visit, with well-designed modern buildings, a varied program of events, and artisanal cheese and salumi to enjoy along with the wine.

A cultural blend for Vermentino

“We wanted to create a place in which the culture of wine can meet the cultures of art, cinema and food,” says the estate’s owner, Tino Demuro. Here, too, Vermentino is at the forefront of the company’s wine production, with five versions that include a sparkling Metodo Classico Brut, three fine dry wines and a sweet passito, for which the ripe grapes are picked and dried for a month on racks to concentrate their sugars before pressing.

For those who enjoy seeing spectacularly situated vineyards, another recent wine estate, Siddùra, is a short drive west under the mountains towards Luogosanto. Here a new project has seen 19 hectares (46 acres) of macchia transformed into thriving young vineyards, most of which are planted to Vermentino. This ambitious enterprise is the result of a collaboration between German fashion businessman Nathan Gottesdiener and local Sardinian building engineer Massimo Ruggero. They’ve created a state-of-the-art cellar surrounded by vineyards that are now coming into full production, and that bode well for the island’s enological future.

 Main photo: Mario, left, and Emanuele Ragnedda run Capichera winery. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Main photo: Jean-Christophe Mau of Chateau Brown, left foreground, at London Cru. Credit: Richard Bampfield

The blame for the popularization of ABC — Anything but Chardonnay — can be laid at the door of former British Prime Minister John Major, who said in the late 1990s, “I’m afraid I’m an ABC man.” That was the decade of excess, when Chardonnays were sweet, ripe, creamy, larded with oak and with a texture so thick you could scoop it out with a spoon. With the PM pitching in to the debate, suddenly everyone realized they were sick of that style.

It didn’t dent sales. Any big distributor will tell you there have been blips in Chardonnay sales, but none serious. These pronouncements are often overhyped by the wine media’s desire for a story, and the fact that critics’ boredom thresholds are lower than the public’s.

Sauvignon Blanc has always had its detractors. The former Slate columnist Michael Steinberger, for example, mocked its “chirpy little wines wholly devoid of complexity and depth … a limp, lemony liquid that grows progressively more boring with each sip.”

Articles with titles like “10 alternatives to Sauvignon Blanc” are more and more common. How do we “wean ourselves” off the grape, asked Victoria Moore in the Daily Telegraph.

And it’s not just the columnists. “I’ll sell people a crisp and fresh white from somewhere else, like a Verdejo, or a dry Riesling,” said John Jackson of Theatre of Wine, independent merchants in Greenwich, England, with a loyal, local clientele. Jackson saw Sauvignon in the same position as Pinot Grigio a few years ago. “People are starting to move on, though they’re not as vocal about it as they were with heavily-oaked Chardonnay.”

Sauvignon Blanc’s momentum

There’s no evidence to suggest Sauvignon is in danger of even the smallest blip in sales. “It’s as strong as it ever was,” reported Paul Brown, who runs the on-trade side of major United Kingdom distributor Bibendum. At the Wine Society, a multi-award-winning mail-order giant, head buyer Tim Sykes said, “Sauvignon sales are growing apace, up over 15% year on year in volume terms, and they represent around 25% of our white sales.”

According to Bibendum, the status of Sauvignon Blanc is not only healthy, it’s growing. “Everyone thought it was going to fall off a bit, but it’s still incredibly strong. It’s even chipping into Chardonnay,” Brown says. “The trade wants people to try something else, but people still love it.” And what they want is the big style, “flavors that you can smell five yards from the glass.”

That style, in the wrong hands, can be tedious. The phrase “cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush,” memorably coined by U.K. writer Anthony Hanson, is beginning to seem pretty dated. That is why it was so refreshing to taste a range of Sauvignons  whose flavors, though unmistakable, were in a lower key than one  might expect, more complex and more varied.

Sauvignon Blanc tasting at London Cru. Credit: Richard Bampfield

Sauvignon Blanc tasting at London Cru. Credit: Richard Bampfield

The tasting (in July at London Cru, the capital’s first urban winery) comprised 32 wines from Australia, New Zealand, California, Chile, France (Loire and Bordeaux), South Africa and Turkey. They were tasted double blind, in identical clear glass bottles. All we knew was that it was Sauvignon, with or without Semillon in the blend.

Jean-Christophe Mau of Chateau Brown in the wine-growing area Pessac-Leognan organized it, including his own wine in the lineup. (Pleasingly, Chateau Brown won top marks from the majority of critics there.)

All the wines had oak treatment of some kind. Some were barrel-fermented, some spent 10 months in new French oak barriques, others far less time, 50% second-use barrels, others eight month medium toast, others 15 months in old oak. … With oak, the variables are infinite.

Looking down the list, a common factor was restraint. Where new oak is used, it’s sparingly, either in larger barrels, or for a small percentage of the blend.

“The trick is in the toasting,” Mau says. “We use 50% new French oak and a very light toasting, for eight months. You get less classic gooseberry flavors, if you can find the balance between acidity and flavor.”

The unexpected

The first surprise was the difficulty in placing the wines. I didn’t expect such freshness and restraint in the American wines, for example, although the New Zealanders showed their classic colors: gooseberry, robust sweaty aromas, nettle and grass. Surprising also was the complexity on show: judicious use of oak tempers the green pepper or asparagus flavors that people can find offensive, and bring more of what U.K. critic Sarah Ahmed calls “the Bordeaux style, more lemon oil notes — it’s a striking feature.”

“Limp and lemony … devoid of complexity”? Not at all. The best of these wines have bracing acidity and fine complex fruit. I noted the following flavors: apple, pear, sour apple, sugared pear skin, honey, apple custard, fresh hay, salinity, river mud, lemon, lemongrass, apricot, sweat, earth.

I used the descriptor “gooseberry” three times, “cat’s pee” not at all.

* * *

Top 5 Sauvignon Blancs

Prices are approximate; oaking regimes as supplied by winery

Larry Cherubino ‘Cherubino’ 2013, Pemberton, Western Australia

100% Sauvignon Blanc

100% new, 3 months aging

Delicate gooseberry and hint of oak on the nose. Sour apple and pearskin palate leading to tropical notes — sweet stone fruit. Long and elegant, very fine

Alcohol: 12.5% Price: $44 (£25.99)

Château Talbot Caillou Blanc 2012, Bordeaux blanc, France

74% Sauvignon 26% Semillon

35% new oak barriques, 35% 1 year old, 30% 3rd fill for 8 months

Unexpressive nose but quickly a lovely interesting palate with honey, freshness, salinity, good ripe acidity, mouthwatering sweet pear and peach and fine, sophisticated weight

Alcohol: 14% Price: $27-$30 (£15)

Château Brown 2012, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, France

64% Sauvignon 36% Semillon

8 months in medium toast barriques, 50% new, 50% 2nd fill.

Really fresh impression of intense chalky acidity, fine pear and apple (Granny Smith) with an almost tannic heft. The mid-palate is dry with promise of a dissolve to juice. Lovely, mouthwatering wine

Alcohol: 13.5% Price: $36 (£25)

Huia Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Wairau, Marlborough, New Zealand

100% Sauvignon Blanc

A portion was fermented in neutral French oak barrels.

Elegant refined nose with nettle and hint of green mown grass. The palate unmistakably New Zealand, with gooseberry, lime and more nettley, hedgerow flavors. Fine fresh acidity, fine weight

Alcohol: 14% Price: $15 to $20 (£13)

Yealands Winemakers Reserve 2013, Awatere, Marlborough, New Zealand

100% Sauvignon Blanc

30% fermented and aged in French oak barrels, 5% new

Classic sweaty nose with gooseberry, intense and powerful palate with dancing acidity. Lovely fresh, fearlessly classic Marlborough Sauvignon

Alcohol: 13.5% Price: $25 (£14.95)

For more tasting notes, visit Adam Lechmere’s blog.

Main photo: Jean-Christophe Mau of Chateau Brown, left foreground, at London Cru. Credit: Richard Bampfield

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Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

News travels faster in small towns than on social media, so when Parade Magazine announced last week that my hometown of McMinnville, Ore., was a finalist in a race for the Best Main Street in America, the town’s good gossip suddenly took on a national flavor. Parade praised McMinnville’s Third Street for its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms.

I hope when people come to town they discover that what sets McMinnville apart is the food —  not just the restaurants we love, but how differently people eat here. After all, Third Street is not just a quaint strolling village for wine-country tourists — though its antique storefronts, friendly people and the way every person crossing the street  stops traffic might suggest otherwise. Third Street, our Main Street, is the backbone for the food system, and all tendrils reach out from it.

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Third Street draws residents with its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms. Credit: Chuck Hillestad

Pride in food

Our restaurants use local food as a source of pride and a matter of fact. For Thistle, a farm-to-table restaurant of the highest caliber, sourcing local is its calling card, the ethos that drives its turn-of-the-century (as in, last century) menu. Thistle has received a lot of deserved attention for the almost holy way its chefs approach food, but the truth is nearly all of the great restaurants on Third Street source from home. Bistro Maison, where diners can relax in the most gracious service in wine country, uses local produce because there is simply no better way to coax out exceptional flavors using French techniques. Nick’s Italian Café has long used seasonal eating to give real Italian specialties a wine country kick, topping Neapolitan-style pizza with nettles from near the river or lacing sultry Dungeness crab through its lasagna. When you eat a patty melt at Crescent Cafe, you are tasting the owners’ own cattle. What we’re discovering as each year passes is a small-town food scene rising to the demands of an international wine public but still keeping the flavors, ingredients and traditions of this place alive.

The restaurant scene is easy for tourists to experience. It is not uncommon for us to meet visitors from Texas who flew in just to eat here. But McMinnville is also the first place I have lived where shopping at the grocery store seems to be an afterthought. If you want honey, you’re not buying it in little bear jars from the shelf, you’re probably getting it in two-gallon jugs from your honey guy. If you eat eggs, they are probably from your own chickens or from your best friend’s. Other places may make a fetish out of vegetable growing, but you don’t get points here for growing a garden. If you have the space, you are feeding your family from your backyard. Half of my friends are part of a full community supported agriculture (CSA) diet and eat according to the seasons. When my friend Jasper orders his Stumptown latte at Community Plate, a breakfast and lunch hotspot, he brings the milk from his own cow.

A culture of sharing

People here live truly hyphenated lives, with eggs in many, many baskets, and for most of them, their hyphens connect in some way to the food system. A chiropractor might run a sideline salsa business, a freelance tech guy might have his hand in kimchi, winery owners might share their homemade peppermint bark at a local food swap. Everyone has access to something special and everyone shares.

Usually, you don’t have a way to get at the fabric of a place until you’ve lived it over time, but for my family, McMinnville was a quick lesson. When we arrived here in December of 2011, I was two months pregnant. When our second child was born, complete strangers walked food into our kitchen every day for three full weeks. Not casseroles, mind you. Full roasted chickens. Lovingly tended sage and rosemary potatoes. Salad greens dotted with edible flowers. What McMinnville understands more than anything else is how to feed people.

People in McMinnville know how good they have it. Not all of Oregon’s small towns have the infrastructure or the climate to eat like this. A few hours south and far to the east, in other small towns, food scarcity is a real issue. In Brownsville, the last grocery store closed shop a few years ago and the town decided to cover over its baseball diamond with a community garden to help people have better access to food. Far to the east, some towns have to drive more than an hour to find a grocery store.

I haven’t decided whether I really want McMinnville to be the Best Main Street in America. The journalist in me gets starry-eyed at the prospect of having our ordinary lives valued on such a national stage. But the budding small-town girl in me keeps thinking about what it really feels like to come in second. In the moment, you feel so close to the prize that it feels like heartbreak, but afterward, all you feel is the drive for improvement, the room for growth.

Win or lose, as every small-town denizen knows, it feels good to be part of the parade. I’ve been in three small-town parades since I moved here and know now that it is like being invited to the table. The joy comes from feeling the energy of the crowd.

Main photo: Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay

Travelers who spend more than a few weeks in Italy likely will find themselves around a local family’s dinner table, sipping homemade liqueur.

Initially invented for medicinal purposes by 13th-century Italian monks, liqueurs (liquore in Italian) have become a source of regional pride, with Italians still drinking and customizing those original recipes today.

In Montelupo, a small town located on the lush, hilly outskirts of Florence, a trio of Italian herbalists have spent the past 15 years sorting through the bounty of Tuscan gardens to create fresh, updated versions of this quintessential Italian drink.

The group, improbably called the Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese (Natural Mycological Group of Empoli), originally formed to go wild mushroom hunting. This being Tuscany, however, they quickly were drawn to the abundant wild herbs, flowers and fruit — lemons, kumquats and apricots – that thrive in their backyard gardens. That soon led the trio to developing liqueurs.

AUTHOR


Zanna McKay

Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza

Limoncello, anise liqueur

Like all good Italians, founding members Pietro Terreni and Nicola Daraio grew up sipping anise liqueur at weddings and limoncello on visits to the Amalfi Coast. Member Andrea Heinisch, originally from Germany, enjoys limoncello and has been crafting variations of it since joining the group 10 years ago. For these three, making a liqueur presents a unique opportunity to be traditional and innovative at the same time.

Liqueur is typically made by infusing near-pure alcohol with natural flavors, then adding ingredients to sweeten the drink and dilute the alcohol content. Nearly every region in Italy produces a distinctive drink that uses local, seasonal fruits and herbs.

The simplicity of this basic liqueur recipe encourages creativity by even the most timid mixologist; and it is wonderfully adaptable to every environment and season.

Terreni sees the use of seasonal fruit as integral to the drink’s lingering aroma. “You have to pick your flavoring materials at the right moment,” he says, “because the summer sun and air all become part of the liqueur in the end.

“When I was little, we used to take fruit to our local pharmacy, where they would prepare it with pure spirits,” Terreni remembers. “Then, during winter when it got really cold, we would have a little glass of this liqueur with a few of the fruits or berries in it.”

Go natural

The group claims their liqueur blends retain their flavor and color longer than supermarket-made brands, because the group’s artisanal preparation methods call for the use of nonsynthetic flavors and colors. Natural ingredients hold up better once the bottles are opened. (Traditionally, Italians keep their liqueur in the freezer and pull it out when visitors arrive.)

Each member of the group has his or her own favorite recipes. For example, Daraio favors anything made with fennel (“good for digestion”) and a family recipe for orange-coffee liqueur. Heinisch has experimented with fruits as well as herbs that grow on her property. She recommends fresh mint (with about 1½ tablespoons of anise seeds), thyme (combine with 3 whole cloves, use equal measures of white wine and neutral alcohol and let it infuse for two months), rosemary (use white wine with 2 ounces of neutral alcohol, plus 2 teaspoons of lemon zest), and honey with a profusion of herbs (recipe below).

The three herbalists agree, however, that there is nothing quite like sipping homemade limoncello straight from the freezer after a leisurely lunch on a hot summer day. As the group surveyed the woods near Heinisch’s house, they contemplated ingredients for future concoctions, perhaps using rosehips and lavender. And that illustrates what makes a great liqueur: creativity, experimentation and locally grown ingredients.

Rather than sell what they make, the group exchanges batches — and recipes — with friends.

Tips from the experts

Advice for creating your own liqueur:

  1.  Use fruits, herbs and spices that are free of chemicals. It is best if these items are grown away from roads or grazing pastures, where they could be contaminated by vehicle exhaust, pesticides or animal waste.
  2.  Use ingredients that are in season, for maximum freshness.
  3.  Keep preparation areas and tools, including cutting boards, free of other flavors and chemicals. Jars and bottles should be made of glass and rinsed well. Make sure towels and filtering products (a cheesecloth or metal strainer are best) are cleansed of soap and bleach. (“When I first started,” Heinisch says, “I made the mistake of trying to filter with a regular, clean dish towel. The laundry soap dissolved with the alcohol, and the liqueur tasted like my soap.”)
  4.  Store liqueur in the freezer for best taste and texture.
  5.  In Italy, liqueur are usually made with 190-proof alcohol.

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From left, Andrea Heinisch, Nicola Daraio and Pietro Terreni discuss the art of infusing flavor into alcohol.

Cream of Wild Fennel Liqueur

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: About 2 (0.75-liter) bottles

This recipe comes from Nicola Daraio, who brought it to Tuscany from the southern Italian resgion of Basilicata. It tastes like caramel. Substitute water for the dairy and it is more refreshing but a little less indulgent, suitable for the end of a particularly large meal. Total time does not include 3 days to infuse flavor.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
  • Whole leaves and a few stalks of wild fennel; the leaves and stalks should just be covered by the alcohol
  • 4 cups pasteurized skim milk
  • 1 ⅔ cups sugar

Directions

  1. Wash and dry the wild fennel. Place the fennel in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid. Cover the fennel with the alcohol and let sit for three days.
  2. Put the milk and sugar in a steel pan, bring to a boil for about 5 minutes, then let cool.
  3. Filter the infused alcohol, mix with the milk-and-sugar mixture, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.

Lemon-Saffron Liqueur

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes (plus 15 days to infuse flavor)
Yield: About two quarts

Andrea Heinisch created her lemon-saffron version of limoncello as a winter counterpart to the traditional lemon-only recipe. The cinnamon and clove are classic holiday flavors, while the saffron balances out the tang of the lemons, creating a complex drink that warms you, even when poured straight from the freezer.

Ingredients

3 organic, in-season lemons
2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 whole clove
10 threads of saffron

For the simple syrup:

1¼ cup sugar
2½ cups water

Directions

  1. Wash the lemons, then zest them, taking care to get only the yellow rind, as the white pith is bitter.
  2. Place lemon peels and spices in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid and add the alcohol.
  3. Infuse for eight days in a dry, dark place, gently shaking the jar once a day.
  4. Make the simple syrup by boiling the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves.
  5. After eight days, add the syrup to the alcohol and lemon peels. Let mixture sit for another eight days in a cool, dry, dark place continuing to gently shake the jar once a day.
  6. Filter, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.

 

Honey Herb Liqueur
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes (plus six days to infuse the herbs)
Total Time: 20 minutes (plus six day to infuse the herbs)
Yield: 2 (0.75-liter) bottles

Each Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese member has a variation of this liqueur, which recalls the drink’s original medicinal purpose. Consider this a boost for the immune system, with a sweet, herbal taste. As much as possible, use fresh herbs.

Ingredients

3½ cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
½ cup honey
6 basil leaves
5 St. John’s Wort leaves
6 culinary sage leaves
Leaves from 3 small stalks of rosemary
6 mint leaves
6 black tea leaves
6 lemon tree leaves
6 bay leaves
6 chamomile leaves
6 juniper berries
2 whole cloves
½ teaspoon saffron
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the simple syrup:

3½ cups water
3 cups sugar

Directions

  1. Wash the herbs carefully, place them in the alcohol for six days, turning the container a few times each day.
  2. After six days, make a simple syrup by heating the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves, then add the honey as the mixture cools.
  3. Mix the liqueur mixture and the simple syrup, filter the infused alcohol, place in a fresh bottle, store in the freezer.

Main photo: Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay

Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza

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A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

The 2014 Auction Napa Valley-The American Wine Classic shattered last year’s record and raised a staggering $18.7 million over one weekend in June.

The auction was the brainchild of the late Robert Mondavi, known as the “Godfather” of Napa Valley. His vision was supported by the Napa Valley Vintners Association, and the auction was launched in 1981. To date, the group has invested more than $120 million from auction proceeds in Napa County nonprofit organizations.

As in previous years, 2014 auction lots were gilded with trips to far-flung locales in private jets or luxury yachts, flashy sports cars, magnums of pricey Napa red wine and the ultimate indulgence — dinner for 50 at the venerable French Laundry restaurant.

After all, this is the Napa Valley brand: touting high-end Cabernets and projecting a sexy, glamorous image. And it takes a village to stage an auction of this magnitude — an event that draws oenophiles from around the globe.

Napa Valley’s vintners are as diverse as its terroir. There are the stratospheric cult labels such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin and Araujo. Then there’s the other face of Napa: winemakers who are active participants in the auction but seek a lower profile.

After the adrenaline rush of this year’s auction slowed Sunday morning, I had the opportunity to meet one such winemaking family, the Biales of Robert Biale Vineyards, who are among the pioneers making up Napa’s historic landscape.

Clementina Biale, 82 years young, and her son Bob Biale greeted me in the matriarch’s Tudor-style house in the city of Napa. For 70 years, the family has farmed Zinfandel in Cabernet country. “Aldo loved Zinfandel,” Clementina said of her late husband while walking us out to the terrace overlooking vineyards planted with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Sangiovese.

Today, the Biales are continuing their family tradition of Zinfandel. Their annual production of 15,000 cases includes 12,000 cases of 14 vineyard-designate Zinfandels from various properties in the Oak Knoll appellation and 3,000 cases of Petite Sirah and blends. The wines reflect elegance and balanced fruit — none of the jamminess you associate with Zinfandel.

“Napa was full of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah,” Bob Biale said. Then Cabernet Sauvignon came along in the late 1960s. After Napa’s win at the 1976 Judgment of Paris competition, Cabernet became even more popular, he said. “Napans found that Cab grows well, so they pulled out all the Zinfandel.”

Biale family has humble origins

An active octogenarian, Clementina drives around Napa doing errands and going to church. She draws the line at driving on the freeway, though.

“I never went to university,” she told me. “I was happy to raise a good family. We had a good life, nothing fancy.”

A few times a week, Clementina visits the humble barn-like Biale tasting room in Napa, where her handmade aprons and bottle bags are sold among other items.

“Aldo always said you don’t need a million-dollar room to have good wine,” she said fondly about her husband, who passed away in 2009 at age 80.

Aldo Biale was born in 1929 on Napa’s Mount Veeder to Pietro and Christina, who arrived in the early 1920s from Liguria, Italy. To help Aldo learn English, the family moved to the valley floor and purchased its first 5-acre parcel in 1937. They planted Zinfandel and fruit orchards while also raising white leghorn chickens. Pietro passed away in 1942, leaving 13-year-old Aldo and his mother to tend the ranch.

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Clementina Biale with her son, Bob Biale, on the terrace of her house overlooking the 6-acre vineyard in Napa. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

In 1953, Aldo visited Italy for the first time and met Clementina in Piedmont. “He took me to a fiesta,” she recalled.

They married a year later, and Clementina arrived in Napa in 1954. She raised four children and helped out in the farming operation.

In his teen years, Aldo worked on the family vineyards, delivering fresh eggs in the community. At age 14, he figured out there was more money in wine than selling Zinfandel grapes at $25 per ton, so he started making homemade jug wine and sold it without a license until the mid-1960s. Aldo continued selling grapes until 1990, including to such companies as Gallo and the St. Helena Co-op.

Aldo also kept his day job, working for Napa City’s Water Department. He would come home at 4 p.m. and start farming till 10. “There were lights on the tractor,” Bob recalled. “He had chores for me and my brothers. Now I’m glad we grew up this way and learned from him.”

As we taste the Black Chicken Zinfandel, a blend from different vineyards, Clementina tells the story behind the label. The name was a code for the jug wine for customers who ordered by telephone. The Biale family’s phone was on a party line, meaning it was shared with possibly nosy neighbors.

Clementina had just arrived from Italy when she answered a call from someone asking for two dozen eggs and a black chicken. “I said to this fella, ‘We have no black chicken, we have white,’ ” she said, laughing. She soon learned it was the code for Aldo’s secret Zinfandel.

“But my father’s dream was to have a brand that was our own wine,” Bob said. That was realized when Aldo and Bob founded Robert Biale Vineyards in 1991. Later, a partnership was formed with Dave Pramuk and Dave Perry.

“We had a nice little team, but we still kept our day jobs,” Bob said. He worked with the cellar team crew at Beringer.

Bob reflects sadly about the old-vine Zinfandels that were pulled out and replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon. He points in part to Robert Mondavi for this conversion.

“He was right by planting more Cab varietal, which put Napa on the map,” Bob said. “God bless him, that Cab conversion has allowed us growers to actually make a living. But it came with a sacrifice by removing old Zinfandel.”

Standing by their Zinfandels, the Biales are part of Napa’s mosaic of vintners. Over the years, Biale wine has been poured at the barrel auction’s marketplace tasting. “I am considering participating in the barrel auction next year,” Bob said.

That Biale Zin is sure to stand out in a barrel room full of Napa Cabs.

Main photo: A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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