Articles in Drinking

The Humboldt Highball cocktail alongside a bottle of Byrrh and a glass of the aperitif at Denver's BSide. Credit: Ruth Tobias

No, Byrrh isn’t some murky variant spelling of beer; in fact, it’s wine. More precisely, Byrrh Grand Quinquina — to use its full name — is a French aperitif that’s been showing up in bars around the United States after gathering dust in obscurity for decades. Based on the red wines of Roussillon, France, as well as fortified grape juice, it’s flavored with a blend of botanicals, primarily cinchona bark (which contains quinine — hence the name), to strike a refreshing balance between fruitiness and bitterness.

Thanks to Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz — the cool kids’ importer these days — Byrrh is now available in nearly all 50 states. The more I began to spot it on cocktail menus around Denver, where I live, the more curious I grew as to its allure and applications. Three local bartenders were gracious enough to explain it all for me.

The patio pounder

For Alexandra Geppert, who handles operations at The BSide — a funky, free-wheeling new hangout in Denver’s Uptown — Byrrh’s raspberry and nutty flavors lend themselves to easy-breezy libations such as the Humboldt Highball, which also contains simple syrup, lemon juice and club soda.

Featured on the late-summer drink list, it drank like a zippy pop that, she joked, “You could have 40 of in one sitting.” But for cooler weather, Geppert suggests deepening the flavor with a distinctly herbal liqueur. Here is BSide bartender Daniel Bewley’s recipe:

Humboldt Hibyrrhnation

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

A Byrrh cocktail from Bistro Vendôme in Denver. Credit: Ruth Tobias

The Byrrh Martini, left, and Black Spring from Bistro Vendôme in Denver. Credit: Ruth Tobias

2 ounces Byrrh

¾ ounce Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur

½ ounce lemon juice

½ ounce simple syrup

Club soda

Directions

1. Shake the first four ingredients together in a cocktail shaker. Strain over ice into a Collins glass. Top with club soda.

Geppert also loves to fancify the tavern tradition of a shot and a beer chaser by offering a more cultivated pairing: “a craft beer and a taster.” To that end, she proposes sipping a glass of Byrrh, with its round mouthfeel, alongside a contrastingly “crisp beer, maybe one with a little bitterness.”

To that end, she proposes sipping a glass of Byrrh, with its round mouthfeel, alongside a contrastingly “crisp beer, maybe one with a little bitterness,” say a blonde ale or a pilsner.

The neo-martini

At Bistro Vendôme, a beloved French fixture in downtown Denver, bartender Jason Morden has been having a field day with Byrrh for the past few months. He recommends drinking it over ice with lemon zest before dinner, because “citrus really makes it pop”; afterward, he might pair it with a bit of milk chocolate.

And because to his palate “it’s reminiscent of Vermouth Rouge,” he also considers it “an amazing counterpart to gin.” Here’s his “hot and boozy” twist on a martini:

Byrrh Martini

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

2 ounces dry rye gin

1 ounce Byrrh

½ ounce lemon juice, plus peel for garnish twist

Directions

1. Shake gin, Byrrh and lemon juice together in a cocktail shaker. Pour into a martini glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

The rye sidekick

You’ll notice that the gin in the previous cocktail is made with rye, the spiciness of which nicely balances the sweetness of Byrrh. Morden uses that to his advantage in another cocktail, this one based on rye whiskey:

Black Spring

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

1½ ounces rye whiskey

1 ounce Byrrh

1 ounce amaro-style bitter

2½ to 3 ounces ginger beer

Luxardo cherries

Directions

1. Over ice in a Collins glass, stir the first four ingredients together. Garnish with Luxardo cherries on a toothpick.

Meanwhile, Kevin Burke — beverage director at sibling hot spots Colt & Gray and Ste. Ellie — compares Byrrh favorably to another fortified wine, Dubonnet Rouge. “With a lot of products, some cocktail types get up in arms that the European version is different than the American one,” he said. (Take absinthe as a prime example.) “Unfortunately, Dubonnet falls into this category for me. So when I see Dubonnet called for in a recipe, I have found great success in substituting Byrrh.” For example, “it shines in a Deshler Cocktail, which is great when you’re in the mood for a Manhattan but also want something new.”

Word to the lightweight: Burke likes a high-proof rye in the following recipe. Sure, “Rittenhouse 100 or Wild Turkey 101 will do in a pinch — but Willett 110 Proof or Thomas H. Handy Sazerac is worth the splurge.”

Deshler Cocktail

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 3 minutes

Ingredients

1¼ ounces high-proof rye

1¼ ounces Byrrh

¼ ounce Peychaud’s Bitters

1 teaspoon Cointreau

Orange twist for garnish

Directions

1. Chill a small cocktail glass.

2. Add cracked ice to a mixing glass, then add all ingredients except the orange twist and stir for 30 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.

3. Pinch the orange twist over the drink to express oils, then add and enjoy.

Main photo: The Humboldt Highball cocktail alongside a bottle of Byrrh and a glass of the aperitif at Denver’s BSide. Credit: Ruth Tobias

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The Jack-o-Potion combines cachaça and cranberry. Credit: Owl's Brew.

Halloween may mean trick or treating for the kids, but as adults we also like to get into the holiday spirit (or spirits, as the case may be). If you are thinking of hosting a fun cocktail party for your friends, how do you really blow them away? With delicious treats and cocktails, of course. Anyone can serve wine, or a simple vodka soda, but these fun and festive drinks will leave a lasting impression on your guests.

The liqueurs below easily pair with a few other ingredients to give your guests a great treat this Halloween.

Owl’s Brew is the first ready-to-pour tea mixer — it is fresh brewed in micro-batches and all three flavors are designed to pair with a wide range of spirits, as well as beer and wine. This “tea crafted for cocktails” is making craft cocktails accessible to the at-home mixologist.

Pick Your Poison

2 parts Owl’s Brew Pink & Black

1 part white rum

Garnish: Orange slice and strawberry

Brew-Haha

2 parts Owl’s Brew The Classic

1 part tequila

Shake with jalapeño slices

Spooky Garnish: Green sugar rim

If you are looking to put your mixologist skills to the test and want some nontraditional recipes and new spirits to try, we have pulled together some other interesting recipes. Cachaça is one of the fastest growing spirits in the country, so why not test these recipes during a fun holiday. Everyone will be impressed with your newfound skills this Halloween.

The Witches Martini combines cachaça, apple cider, elderflower liqueur and lime juice. Credit: Owl's Brew.

The Witches Martini combines cachaça, apple cider, elderflower liqueur and lime juice. Credit: Owl’s Brew.

Witches Martini

2 ounces cachaça (Cuca Fresca Prata used here)

2½ ounces fresh apple cider

½ ounce elderflower liqueur

½ ounce fresh lime juice

Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled shaker and shake well. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a cinnamon stick.

Jack-o-Potion 

This amazing cocktail is simple, but definitely a crowd pleaser. It is deliciously light and also very aromatic. Light the tip of the rosemary garnish for extra flare!

2 ounces cachaça

2 ounces cranberry juice

1 ounce fresh lime juice

1 ounce simple syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water)

Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled shaker. Shake well and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a fresh piece of rosemary with a fresh cranberry on the end.

Mama’s Bite Margarita 

This tequila is infused with pineapple, mango and chili peppers, which gives it a nice kick. Credit: Owl's Brew.

This tequila is infused with pineapple, mango and chili peppers, which gives it a nice kick. Credit: Owl’s Brew.

If you are really interested in kicking it up a notch, this drink is from Mama’s Boy brands. Its tequila not only tastes smooth, but has a nice kick and flavor to it since it’s infused with pineapple, mango and chili peppers.

2 ounces Mama’s Boy tequila

1 teaspoon agave

½ ounce pineapple juice

½ ounce lime juice

Shake and strain over ice with a  sweet and spicy chili rim

Main photo: The Jack-o-Potion combines cachaça and cranberry juice. Credit: Owl’s Brew.

 

 

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In London Cru's urban winery, workers led by winemaker Gavin Monery prepare Chardonnay grapes for pressing. Credit: Ian Sterling/London Cru

The way to make a small fortune in wine, they say, is to start with a large one. The phrase comes to mind as I taste the first vintage at London Cru, the eccentric, possibly uneconomic, but very serious urban winery in southwest London: the first in the UK capital.

London Cru follows a pattern of urban wineries such as 8th Estate in Hong Kong and New York’s City Winery, buying in grapes and vinifying them in the city. It is the brainchild of the keen young team that surrounds Cliff Roberson, a 74-year-old wine merchant of considerable renown.

He started the importer Buckingham Vintners in 1974, and in 1991 opened his flagship shop, Roberson Wine, in London’s Kensington district. By 2004, he’d sold all of his shares in Buckingham (by then one of the UK’s biggest wine companies, selling 40 million bottles a year) to the European wine group Schenk, to focus on the retail side of the business.

A couple of years ago, Roberson “got itchy” as he put it. When his right-hand man, Adam Green, suggested they set up a winery, he was interested.

“Ninety-nine out of a hundred businessmen would have run a mile,” Green says. “Cliff is that one in a hundred who saw the possibilities.”

From warehouse to urban winery

They enlisted as a partner an itinerant entrepreneur, Will Tomlinson. With a million-pound start-up fund, they equipped a former gin distillery in Fulham that served as Roberson’s warehouse with five open-topped stainless steel fermenters and a barrel cellar. The capacity: 2,500 cases, They hired Australian winemaker Gavin Monery, whose résumé  includes premium wineries such as Cullen and Cape Mentelle in Margaret River, Chave in Hermitage, and Remoissenet and Alex Gambal in Burgundy.

Australian winemaker Gavin Monery eyes the latest vintage at London Cru. Credit: London Cru

Australian winemaker Gavin Monery eyes the latest vintage at London Cru. Credit: London Cru

Roberson, a company with annual wine sales of 10 to 12 million pounds through retail and the restaurant trade, and with a fine wine broking arm, has access to premium producers in every wine region of the world.

“Most of the guys we are buying grapes from, we import their wines anyway,” Monery says.

So he can control harvest dates (they pick early for freshness), and quality. To ensure they get exactly what they want, they pay handsomely —  more than double the going rate, in some cases.

The first vintage, the 2013, consists of four wines: a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah from Roussillon, and a Barbera from Piedmont. Monery has sourced three more for 2014, a Syrah and a Garnacha from Calatayud in northeastern Spain, and a white English grape Bacchus, from Sandhurst Vineyards in Kent. Labels are minimalist: the wines are called SW6 (London Cru’s postcode) White Wine No. 1, Red Wine No. 1, and so forth. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, the UK’s Byzantine food laws forbid the mention of vintage or grape variety on the label.

A long journey by refrigerated truck

When the grapes are picked, they are transferred immediately to refrigerated trucks, which then make the 36-hour journey through mainland Europe, over the English Channel and into the winery. The trucks are key to the operation, Monery says. A fleet of such vehicles buzzing back and forth through Europe can’t come cheap. Is this a viable business model?

Renowned London wine importer and retailer Cliff Roberson has joined the production side of the business by launching London Cru, an urban winery in the UK capital. Credit: London Cru

Renowned London wine importer and retailer Cliff Roberson has joined the production side of the business by launching London Cru, an urban winery in the UK capital. Credit: London Cru

“Well,” Green says with a smile, “it’s not the safest or the most rational business plan you could come up with, but, equally, it’s one that we all thought was interesting. We are thoroughly aiming to offer our investors a good return, and they see the aesthetic pleasure of being involved, and of bringing something genuinely new to London.”

Indeed, it is aesthetically pleasing to be in a fully functioning winery — complete with pungent aromas of oak and fermentation — in the middle of London. And the wines themselves? I don’t know what I was expecting from French and Italian varietals vinified in Fulham by an Australian, but I found them fresh, bright, charming, and loaded with varietal character.

It’s a pity that the 2013 is made in such tiny quantities — far fewer than 1,000 cases in all, and they are down to their last bottles. There’s a small fortune to be made here.

London Cru wines

All about $24 (£15) , available from the winery’s website.

SW6 White Wine 1 – Chardonnay: Bright, fresh, rather exotic nose with nice creamy roundness, this mitigated on the palate by brisk and precise acidity cutting through crunchy apple and some high tropical notes. Charming.

SW6 Red Wine 1 – Syrah: Picked early at 12 degrees alcohol. Delicate white pepper nose followed by a savory palate with dark fruit topped with ripe black cherry. Soft tannins with grip dissolve into lovely mouth-watering juice. Excellent.

SW6 Red Wine 2 – Barbera: Ruby red hue, bitter cherries on the nose, dancing acidity, tannins that are dry, even dusty, quickly releasing gouts of mouth-watering juice leaving a memory of ripe fallen damsons. Fresh, wild and utterly beguiling.

SW6 Red Wine 3 – Cabernet Sauvignon: Aromas of leaf and nettle that swirl out of the glass like a genie from a lamp. Classic blackcurrant leaf palate, tannins with grip and heft, scent of menthol alongside the hedgerow fruit, lots of juice on the finish. The best of a very strong quartet of wines. Bravo.

Main photo: In London Cru’s urban winery, workers led by winemaker Gavin Monery prepare Chardonnay grapes for pressing. Credit: Ian Sterling/London Cru

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Shrubs, or drinking vinegars, are concentrates that can be used to make cocktails and other drinks as well as ad flavor to other dishes. Credit: Brooke Jackson

With the continued interest in fermentation and increased popularity in drinks such as kombucha on the rise, other types of unusual beverages are getting attention. One of these is shrubs.

Ever since a meal at Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon, revealed my adoration for drinking vinegars (aka shrubs), I’ve been on the lookout for the tarty, fruity concentrate wherever I’ve roamed. Finally, at a recent San Francisco Bay area food event, I saw a demure woman standing in a corner pouring tiny tastes of her homemade shrubs.

Christina Merkes, a classically trained chef and entrepreneur, had hit on some winning combinations of fruits, herbs and vinegar that drew a crowd to her like bees swarming the hive. The fig vanilla shrub had the deep flavor of that fall fruit, while the blood orange cardamom was a spicy citrus mouthful. and the cabernet was a smooth wine-country symphony. Merkes has a knack for unusual combinations of local, seasonal fruits and herbs. And she is onto something, as more and more mixologists, bartenders and home cooks explore the age-old process of making drinking vinegars and shrubs.

Shrubs started as means of food preservation

The custom began before the age of refrigeration, when fruit was mixed with sugar and vinegar for preservation. The resulting drink was served for medicinal purposes, as a fever reducer and blood thinner, and used as a replacement for alcohol as well as a mixer for cocktails. Smugglers added fruit and sugar to tainted barrels of rum they had hidden in the ocean as a way to mask the seawater flavor, and colonialists mixed fruit and sugar with vinegar as a way to preserve the harvest.

Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker came back from a trip to Southeast Asia, where drinking vinegars are a commonly quaffed beverage, and he put them on the menu at his restaurant. He felt the tart tonics would be the perfect foil for his spicy Thai street food, and they’ve proved wildly popular. He is most frequently credited with starting the shrub and drinking vinegar trend in the U.S.

Merkes was inspired to try her hand at making shrubs after a friend raved about a cocktail she’d had at a bar in wine country that contained pomegranate shrub mixed with bourbon and jalapeno. So Merkes embarked on a path of discovery, testing and mixing, balancing tart and sweet, and using her chef’s sharpened palate to come up with unusual and flavorful fruit, vegetable and herb combinations. She found basic recipes online, then followed her taste buds for new flavors to create.

One such recipe heats the vinegar for the infusion with fruit and the other uses a cold method. Merkes prefers not to use heat, saying the fresh fruit or vegetable flavor comes through better without it. Here are a few other tips from her for a successful shrub brew:

  • Sterilize the container before adding the shrub mixture.
  • Use white balsamic or apple cider vinegars or a combination of the two.
  • Use organic sugar, either white or turbinado, depending on the color of the fruit or vegetable.
  • Use only fruits or vegetables that are in season.
  • Store the shrub in the refrigerator, where it will keep for up to a year.
A variety of things can be made with shrubs, including a salad dressing (clockwise from right), a bowl of ice cream with fig vanilla flavor and fresh figs, a "soda" with apricot basil, and a dark and stormy using ginger drinking vinegar, rum, sparkling water, lime, mint and orange wheel. Credit: Brooke Jackson

A variety of things can be made with shrubs, including a salad dressing (clockwise from right), a bowl of ice cream with fig vanilla flavor and fresh figs, a “soda” with apricot basil, and a dark and stormy using ginger drinking vinegar, rum, sparkling water, lime, mint and orange wheel. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Drinking vinegars are incredibly versatile, beyond a refreshing thirst quencher or cocktail mixer, although that is what they are best known for. You can use them to make a soda by mixing 1 to 2 tablespoons of shrub into a glass of sparkling water and adding lots of ice, or add berry- or ginger-flavored shrubs to perk up iced tea. You can also swirl them into a glass of wine or sparkling wine for a riff on kir royale or wine spritzer. And shrubs are a natural in cocktails; barkeeps in the U.S. are coming up with all kinds of creative concoctions. For ideas, see what they are trying at Whiskey Soda Lounge at Pok Pok.

Merkes has come up with several cocktails, including one that is layered with bourbon on the bottom and top and black cherry and apricot basil shrubs in the middle and another that is a take on the original inspiration for her shrub business called The Marin Cruiser: pineapple melange shrub with vodka, lime, cilantro, jalapeno and sparkling water.

Other uses for shrubs include in salad dressings; whisked into mayonnaise for a sauce on fish; as a topping for ice cream, fresh fruit and cakes; and as a finishing sauce for grilled meat and poultry. Just as they used the technique in early America, drinking vinegar is a great way to capture the bounty of what is in the garden or at the farmers market right now before winter is upon us.

Merkes is still perfecting her recipes but expects to have her products available for sale in the next year. Pok Pok sells its drinking vinegar online, so if you don’t feel like making your own, check out one of their flavors.

As drinking vinegars continue to catch on, keep an eye out for them at local bars and specialty food shops. The flavors they can add to your favorite recipes will surely have you coming back for more.

Photo: Shrubs, or drinking vinegars, are concentrates that can be used to make cocktails and other drinks as well as add flavor to other dishes. Credit: Brooke Jackson

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The Wynkoop Bourbon-Barrel Aged Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout. Credit: Courtesy of Wynkoop

As a food writer first and foremost, I don’t go to the Great American Beer Festival for the booze so much as for the grub in the booze.

Pretzel stouts, macadamia nut porters, kiwi and taro-root India Pale Ales, a kumquat-honey double wit and a Märzen made with grits — for me, the Brewers Association’s flagship event, held annually in the fall in Denver, is a multicourse banquet writ liquid.

Granted, the more experimental the adjunct is, the harder the beer generally is to make and/or sell. Take Two Roads’ Urban Funk, a zingy wild ale the Connecticut brewery made with yeast that the Sacred Heart University biology department captured during Hurricane Sandy, of all things. Most of the following, then, are one-offs or highly limited releases with little to no distribution. So consider this your inspiration for adopting the slogan “Must-Have Beer, Will Travel.”

The meat and seafood counter

Champion Clam Bake Gose and Mas Cerveza: Here’s Gose in a nutshell: a sour wheat beer originating in Germany that’s brewed with a touch of salt as well as coriander. Here’s Gose in a clamshell: delicious. Down in Charlottesville, Va., Champion head brewer Hunter Smith starts with the recipe for his Face Eater Gose but eschews the pink Himalayan sea salt he usually adds to the kettle in favor of whole Rappahannock Olde Salt clams, which lend a briny grace note to the light-bodied, gently tart base. Just for kicks, there are hemp seeds in the mash too.

Smith has also collaborated with chef Tomas Rahal of Charlottesville’s Mas Tapas to make a beer tinged with the flavors of Spain — specifically the bones from one of the world’s great hams, jamón ibérico, and smoked pimentón (paprika) as well as smoked gray sea salt. The result: a distinctly savory and, yes, smoky but smooth ale that, at the festival’s Farm to Table Pavilion, beautifully complemented pan con tomate topped with sliced octopus, courtesy of Boulder, Colo., restaurant Basta.

Dogfish Head Choc Lobster: Its reputation for nuttiness notwithstanding, this Delaware pioneer hardly broke virgin ground when it began dropping Maine lobsters and cocoa powder into the boil for a robust porter two years ago. After all, chocolate porters and oyster stouts made with their namesake ingredients aren’t unheard of, and neither are dishes that pair shellfish with sweet elements like vanilla. That said, this summertime brewpub exclusive isn’t sweet at all. Imagine adding a splash of cocoa to some watered-down coffee and then drinking it in the proximity of sea spray. Somehow — and I’m honestly not sure how — it’s better than it sounds.

Wynkoop Bourbon-Barrel Aged Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout: Speaking of oyster stout — this isn’t. Denver’s craft granddaddy took to brewing with roasted bull’s balls as an April Fool’s joke in 2012, and the response was such that it now produces a small batch once or twice a year. The bourbon barrel-aged version I tried at the festival had all the roasty, toasty, moderately creamy qualities you’d expect, with the bonus of a mellow yet unmistakable meaty savor.

The Shady Character porter from Forbidden Root. Credit: Courtesy of Forbidden Root

The Shady Character porter from Forbidden Root. Credit: Courtesy of Forbidden Root

The garden

Moody Tongue Cold-Pressed Paw Paw Belgian: What Jared Rouben, the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef behind Chicago’s few-months-old “culinary brewery,” calls the “tropical fruit of the Midwest” — the indigenous, commercially scarce paw paw — rightly elicits comparisons to mango and papaya. In this ale, however, it shows as more crisp than juicy, more fragrant than downright fruity. (Better yet, Rouben’s also about to release — get this — a Shaved Black-Truffle Pilsner.)

Piney River Sweet Potato Ale: If you’ve had it up to here with pumpkin beer, this Missouri-made alternative could be your new jam. Forget candied “yam” — the palate is freshly rootsy rather than overly reliant on baking spice, while the initially creamy mouth feel finishes as crisp as the roasted skin of the real thing.

Jailbreak Made Wit Basil: Basil seemed to be the herb du jour at the festival, popping up at several booths, but this Laurel, Md., newcomer owned the stuff, loading a Belgian white with fresh, sweet, green notes without sacrificing the subtleties of wheat, citrus and coriander.

10 Barrel Cucumber Crush: Nabbing the gold medal in the Field Beer category, this Oregon- and Idaho-located brewery’s twist on a tart wheat Berliner Weisse absolutely bursts with lemon and cucumber, enhancing the effervescence characteristic of the style.

The wilderness

Scratch 105: The farm, the field, the forest: This Ava, Ill., outfit is leading the return to growing and foraging for ingredients, brewing one-offs that evoke their terroir as thoroughly as any wine. This year, Scratch brought only gruits — hopless, plant-based concoctions — to the table, including one that contained, yes, 105 ingredients, from several types of mushroom to wild bee balm and other flowers to various roots, yielding a gingery, savory, musky, wonderfully complex sensation.

The Forbidden Root display at the Great American Beer Festival. Credit: Ruth Tobias

The Forbidden Root display at the Great American Beer Festival. Credit: Ruth Tobias

Forbidden Root Shady Character: Like Scratch, this 3-month-old Chicago operation derives its inspiration from historical brewing practices, pledging allegiance to its botanical ingredients rather than conventional style. Take its porter, made with black walnuts and roasted chestnuts as well as licorice, star anise and black pepper — all of which express themselves in earthy, spicy harmony.

The complete dishes

Right Brain Thai Peanut: Heirloom beets, grilled asparagus, Mangalitsa pig heads. Traverse City, Mich., brewer Russell Springsteen will put just about any edible thing into his beer, but my favorite was this dead ringer for cold soba noodles. Made with peanut butter, Thai chilies, coconut oil and cilantro, it delivers a sharp kick in a velvet boot.

Short’s Bourbon Carrot Cake: I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that this Bellaire, Mich., brewery was the only one pouring three different beers made with marshmallows this year. Though its Key Lime Pie scored the gold in the experimental-beer category for its limeade-meets-lactose zest, the medal in my head went to the Bourbon Carrot Cake, with aromas of baking spice and dried fruit giving way to a mouthful of oak laced with cream — a boozy doozy.

Main photo: The Wynkoop Bourbon-Barrel Aged Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout. Credit: Courtesy of Wynkoop

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Small independent wine merchants, such as Jeff Woodard of Woodard Wines, in McMinnville, Ore., are a great way to educate yourself and learn about harder-to-find, small production wines. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

It’s a moment that happens often in the life of a wine lover. You taste a bottle of Pinot Noir that might be called life-changing, and you decide to set out on a new path: seeking out nano-wineries, those smaller, harder-to-access producers who are making something truly exceptional.

In Oregon, that’s where you encounter your first problem. Of the 545 registered wineries in the state, roughly half of those could be considered nano-wineries, or wineries producing fewer than 350 to 400 cases annually. Where do you even start?

“It’s not that small batches of wine are better,” says Jeff Woodard, a wine consultant for the industry and proprietor of Woodard Wines, an independent wine boutique in McMinnville. “It’s more about the people making these wines, the ones who are doing it out of passion.”

Indeed, people make wine in small batches for different reasons. For some, the limitations are financial. For many, it’s time constraints — they have full-time jobs, families and other commitments. But the wine bug doesn’t let up when you have a vision. Here, we’re talking about the winemaker as an artist, not necessarily tailoring a wine to fit a market but adjusting the inputs to wine-making based on what is interesting to them. For this subsection of winemakers, it’s more helpful to seek out the higher-level winemakers who are doing wines as a side project, developing their own labels alongside their careers in the industry, or who are small-batch by choice, because it’s the best way to oversee the process.

“There’s not any money in wine at this level,” Woodard says. “These people are doing it out of sheer passion for wine.”

Smaller producers face a number of challenges in finding you. For one, the finances are not always there to advertise. Access to customers is difficult. Very few have tasting rooms. And then there are the numbers. Distributors often won’t touch them —  it’s generally not worth the time to put smaller productions on their list.

So the answer is to go to them. Here are seven Oregon nano-wineries that are making dynamite wine, especially Pinot Noir. These are wine-makers well worth tracking down.

Antiquum Farm

If there is anything such as Slow Wine, Antiquum Farm is it. Farmed in Junction City by Stephen Hagen, who uses old-school farming methods, the vineyard’s grapes are processed by Drew Voit, an associate winemaker at Domaine Serene. The result is a Pinot Noir that is rigidly lively and intense, with a character that is completely its own thing, neither of California nor Oregon.

Matzinger Davies

Matzinger Davies is a wine about a marriage of two great winemakers: Anna Matzinger, the longtime winemaker and co-manager who helped bring Archery Summit’s Pinot Noirs to the top of every wine list, and her husband Michael Davies, the winemaker for A to Z Wineworks and for Rex Hill. Seeking to make wines with vibrancy, authenticity and integrity, the couple sources exceptional fruit from the Eola Hills to make an outstanding Pinot Noir.

Éleveé Winegrowers

Éleveé Winegrowers brings place-driven wines from a handful of micro-sites in the Willamette Valley. Married team Tom and France Fitzpatrick epitomize the ideals of the artist winemaker, growing grapes and embracing many of the unknowns of a changing climate in winemaking to create Pinot Noir known for its exceptional expression of terroir.

Thomas Bachelder

Thomas Bachelder is perhaps unique in the industry — a winemaker with his fingerprint in three grape-growing regions: Burgundy, Oregon and Niagara. In Oregon, where he worked for both Ponzi Wines and Lemelson Vineyards, Bachelder makes a lacy, densely textured Chardonnay with great minerality and tang.

Retour

Founded in 2005, Retour, a project of Lindsay Woodard, has been winning accolades through its hands-on approach to working with 40-year-old vines, with winemakers taking a meticulous approach, often choosing exact times of day to the minute to pluck grape clusters, sometimes with tweezers. The result is a Pinot Noir of the highest echelon, hailed for its explosive palate and succulent mouth-feel.

1789

Isabelle Dutarte had a career in the French wine industry before she started commuting between Oregon and France in 1993. She released her first wines under her 1789 label, a nod to the French Revolution, in 2007. Her Pinot Noir vintages frequently score high for their expressive red berries and delicately perfumed noses, as well as their ability to evoke a feminine harmony in terroir.

Copper Belt Wines

Originally called MotherLode Cellars, Copper Belt Wines, is a rare eastern Oregon winery based in Baker City, one that sources its much of its estate grapes from the highest elevated vineyard in Oregon, Keating Valley Vineyards. Its winemaker, Travis Cook, who works for Advanced Vineyard Systems, a vineyard management company in the Willamette Valley, makes standout big, bold reds.

Main photo: Small independent wine merchants, such as Jeff Woodard of Woodard Wines, in McMinnville, Ore., offer small batches of high-quality wine. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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Visitors enjoy the outdoor Sculpture Garden at the Paradise Ridge Winery in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, California. Credit: Paradise Ridge Winery

On a recent visit to Northern California, I wanted to see how art and wine mix in Sonoma County’s famed wine country. My sister, who works in public relations for the wine industry, took me to visit one of her clients, Paradise Ridge Winery. The Santa Rosa vineyard has a view of many appellations in Sonoma County. The fog, responsible for the deep flavor that imbues the Paradise Ridge Winery wines with their distinctive tastes, was just rolling in. There was a crescent moon. And as a complement to the divine Sauvignon Blanc I was drinking, the evening’s festivities included a tour of the winery’s sculpture gardens that change annually.

Marking the winery’s 20th year, the new exhibit in this natural outdoor gallery — the 20@20 Sculpture Exhibition —  is inspiring, with many pieces created by Burning Man artists. (Burning Man is a weeklong annual event that began in San Francisco’s Baker Beach and migrated to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada.) The food we enjoyed was from Rosso Pizzeria, cooked on site in a state-of-the-art pizza oven, and made with homegrown tomatoes, herbs and Sonoma County cheeses.

Sonoma theater production

The night also included the first presentation in the newly built “Field of Dreams” amphitheater, which had been created for Transcendence Theatre Company (TTC), a nonprofit theater company in Sonoma that brings Broadway stars to wine country to entertain in open-air venues. This year’s, “Oh What a Beautiful Mash-Up,” starring Stephan Stubbins and Leah Sprecher, both well known to “Broadway Under the Stars” concerts, was a funny, touching and uplifting evening and a great beginning for Walter Byck, a founder of the winery and the man behind the amphitheater, who intends to have the artists perform at the winery each summer.

Recently Transcendence was named Theater of the Year by Broadway World San Francisco for its 2013 Season. The company is made up of musical theater artists with Broadway, national and international tour, and film and television credits.
TTC’s summer season includes the “Broadway Under The Stars in Jack London State Park” and the “Transcendence Artist Series” concerts, as well as the Broadway Kids Camp, “Skits Under The Stars” community nights, and community service, engagement and education programs throughout the entire Sonoma Valley.

Through an innovative arts and parks partnership, TTC is partnering with a nonprofit park operator, the Valley of the Moon Natural History Assn., to bring live theater and cultural education programming into Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, Calif.

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The entrance to Paradise Ridge Winery in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, California. Credit: Paradise Ridge Winery

Paradise Ridge’s beginning

Paradise Ridge is a 156-acre estate owned by the Byck family, and established in 1978. The estate’s integrity was initially maintained by planting only 17 acres of vines in and around the majestic oaks and the other established trees, none of which were cut down.

With the severe drought currently affecting California, Paradise Ridge Winery and other vineyards across the state have put in place conservation measures to preserve their aquifer. Dan Barwick, Paradise Ridge’s winemaker and a member of the Byck family, says “the most important concern for the vineyard this year is maximizing water efficiency while maintaining healthy soils and vines.”

“One of the great fortunes of our paradise is that we are self-sufficient with the water for our vineyard, winery and all our hospitality efforts. Our water is completely independent and we use it mindfully, appreciating the scarcity of this natural resource,” Barwick says. “In the vineyard during drought years, we deeply soak the vines in the winter to allow the route system to deepen and spread so that when vines awaken in the spring they will be strong and vibrant. Our access to estate lake water allowed us do this in December and January, ensuring healthy vines as we moved into the 2014 vintage.”

“During the rest of the year, we water our vineyards in response to the needs of each vine, as opposed to a set regime of irrigation. We have recently overhauled our irrigation to pinpoint specific zones. We now have the ability to water only those areas as needed, as opposed to irrigating the entire block,” Barwick says. “These changes allow us to irrigate far more efficiently and save hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per year.”

Winery’s water conservation methods

Paradise Ridge Winery also had plans to cultivate a sustainable vegetable garden in 2014 to supply their winery, weddings and special events with produce, but because of the water shortage, they are delaying that venture.

The Herb Garden & Wine Sensory Experience established at the Tasting Room in Kenwood, Calif., by Annette McDonnell is a natural attraction for the winery. The idea of matching Paradise Ridge wines with various herbs is innovative. “Herbs like lemon basil, known to have citrus aromas often associated with Sauvignon Blanc, are also found in Chardonnays and Rieslings. The citrus will bring out the bright qualities in white wines while helping highlight fruit characters,” says McDonnell.

The sensory experience was created to showcase the chemistry of the wines and their relationship with herbs as well as cuisine. The garden has been divided into four areas and wine can also be broken down into similar groups:

Bitter – High acid, low to no sugar

Bright – High acid, low sugar

Savor – Moderate acid, moderate sugar

Sweet – Low acid, high sugar

The herb-and-wine experience encourages you to trust your palate when pairing wine and food.

Paradise Ridge Winery was a good way to begin my fun and educational trip through Sonoma wine country. The vineyard offered a complete wine-country experience: tasting superb Russian River Valley wines that had been paired with thin-crust pizza made with fresh herbs, taking in the magnificent view of the vineyard while strolling among world-class art in the outdoor gallery, and being entertained by Broadway stars performing under a crescent moon.

Main photo: Visitors enjoy the outdoor sculpture garden at the Paradise Ridge Winery in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, California. Credit: Paradise Ridge Winery 

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He invented the mai tai, popularized the margarita and nachos, and introduced American diners to morel mushrooms, sunflower seeds and green peppercorns before most restaurants included them on the menu.

These culinary accomplishments are credited to Victor Bergeron Jr., born in San Francisco in 1902. He opened his first restaurant, Hinky Dinks, in Oakland in 1934, serving up stiff drinks for 15 cents, accompanied by standard fare — beef, pork or lamb alongside two vegetables, potatoes and two slices of French bread with butter — for 20 cents. Hoping to offer something more exciting, he visited the well-known restaurant Don the Beachcomber to observe its combination of rum drinks, Cantonese foods and South Seas atmosphere. Bergeron immediately recognized a winning formula, which he sought to replicate — and in characteristic fashion, believed he could outdo.

By 1938, Bergeron unveiled his own Polynesian restaurant, Trader Vic’s. With travel to Hawaii, Cuba, Tahiti, Japan, Hong Kong and Mexico, he began a nearly 50-year career in which he evangelized the island lifestyle, reimagined “exotic” cuisines and promoted the rums of the world. By the time of his death in 1984, he had opened well-loved and steadily patronized Trader Vic’s restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles, plus locations as far afield as Tokyo and London, Singapore and Munich.

The Apostle of Rum

Although Bergeron’s status as inventor of the mai tai is contested by some, journalist and gourmand Lucius Beebe unequivocally christened him “the apostle of rum,” a title well earned by Trader Vic’s extensive drink menus and the contents of his cookbooks. In the first, “Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink,” published in 1946, he writes simply, frankly and with palpable enthusiasm for rum in an opening section casually titled, “About Booze.”

Just as Julia Child taught wine, Bergeron insisted upon only high quality and carefully chosen ingredients, distinguishing rums by country of origin and preferred brands in every recipe. He also playfully recommends a slew of concoctions. “Tall ones,” like the Dr. Funk and Haote Pikia, are “for those who like to sit around and shoot the breeze and sip on a good-tasting drink.” Others are “for good old American guzzling” and getting buzzed in short order, such as the Flamingo, which calls for 1½ ounces Puerto Rican rum, a dash of Angostura bitters, a slice of cucumber rind and enough 7-Up to top off a 12-ounce glass.

In his introductory pages, Bergeron, who eventually took on the persona of Trader Vic himself, posits that rum’s unpopularity, at least relative to other spirits such as gin and scotch, was due to its colorful past in which it was “the favorite libation of pirates, sailors, massacring Indians, beachcombers and loose women.” He assured readers that rum had “risen to the ranks of respectability” and “become the favorite potion of millions of civilized people.” For all his groundbreaking, the Trader’s distinctions between “primitive” and “civilized” people, “native” ingredients and “American tastes” would remain a problematic and recurring theme.

Trader Vic’s ‘American’ Food

While his 1948 “Bartender’s Guide” became a standard mixology reference work, Trader Vic’s mark on American cuisine is less straightforward. Borrowing liberally, he combined ingredients, flavors, techniques and methods to form what one food critic described as “more Trader Vic’s food than anything else.” Bergeron vehemently defended the quality of American ingredients and wine against the supposed status afforded by the likes of Russian caviar and French wine. He at times embraced tradition, preparing a variety of dishes using “Chinese barbecue ovens,” which burned white oak logs, rendering what many diners noted as a mild but memorable smoky flavor.

At the same time, the Trader also embraced ready-prepared foods. While other leaders of the food world bemoaned the de-skilling of the American housewife, Bergeron argued that with the help of convenience food products home cooks were actually developing in the kitchen, becoming more able to prepare simple and delicious food. He confidently predicted that the quality of frozen food would improve, citing a frozen prefab chicken dish he had eaten, stating, “If I was the finest chef in the world I couldn’t do it better.” Furthermore, after tasting “green enchiladas in an out-of-the-way Mexican Village,” prepared with canned soup and canned chiles, he proclaimed, “Without cans you can’t live!”

Trader Vic’s world travels earned him a venerated position as one who brought “exotic” and “foreign” delights stateside. He took pride in modifying dishes so that they were more “sophisticated,” his description for better suited to the American palate. In “Trader Vic’s Pacific Island Cookbook,” published in 1968, he altered dishes from Mexico and Texas, taking out oil that he deemed too fatty and chiles he considered overly spicy. In tacos, he substituted chopped beef for shredded to align it with “American tastes.” He spoke of his gustatory creations not as visionary fusion cuisine or reimagined tradition, but as “American food,” a way of eating that he predicted would eventually lead the world. Sure of American potential, he’s quoted quipping, “Think of all those poor little Italians having to eat Italian food every day of the year.” He even took his dishes to the sky, bringing salads dressed with fruit, good-looking and tasty steaks and handmade mai tais to United Airlines flights in the early 1970s.

Understanding Trader Vic’s

Perhaps Lois Dwan, restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, understood Victor Bergeron and his food best. In her numerous reviews of Trader Vic’s from the 1960s through the 1980s, she described him as neither snob nor purist, but simply dedicated to quality and a good time. Like others, she mused on what, if anything, was real or authentic about Bergeron’s persona, restaurants, drinks and food. She eventually concluded, “That the design is not particularly true does not matter.” She credited Bergeron’s culinary process, as he focused not on the structure of tradition or recipes, but rather “understanding the principle — the idea — of a flavor or procedure.” Grounded in what she called “understanding without condescension,” Dwan lauds Bergeron’s results as “one of the few original cuisines anywhere.”

In his 1983 review of Trader Vic’s, written to commemorate the restaurant approaching its 50th anniversary, Colman Andrews concurs. He summarizes the Trader Vic’s experience as “imaginative, eclectic, corny, comfortable, expensive, uneven and sometimes downright excellent. It is — always — great fun.”

The Trader Vic’s legacy lives on with U.S. locations in Emeryville, Calif., Portland, Ore., and Atlanta, as well as a number of international locations.

Main photo: Victor Bergeron Jr. may or may not have invented the mai tai, but he popularized tropical rum drinks. Credit: istockphoto.com

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