Articles in Drinking

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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Rieslings from Michigan, Oregon and New York are excellent with fall foods. Credit: Tina Caputo

When most people think of great Rieslings, their minds wander to Germany’s Mosel, Rheingau or Alsace wine regions. There’s a good reason for that: For centuries, German producers have been making some of the world’s finest white wines from Riesling grapes.

But did you know that there are also some beautiful Rieslings being made in the United States? Cool-climate wine regions, such as those in New York, Michigan, Washington state and Oregon, are just right for growing Germany’s signature grape.

In Washington, the country’s largest producer of Riesling wines, the grape is grown mainly in the eastern part of the state, in the Columbia Valley appellation. Washington Rieslings are typically ripe and floral, with peachy notes and a touch of sweetness.

Oregon grows far less Riesling than its neighbor to the north — the variety was pushed out when Pinot Noir took center stage in the ’90s — but Riesling is making a comeback in Beaver State vineyards. Most of it is planted on the western side of the Cascades, where there’s plenty of rainfall. Compared with Washington Rieslings, Oregon’s tend to be higher in acidity.

Riesling grapes also thrive in the eastern United States, most notably in New York’s Finger Lakes appellation. That’s largely because the region has a truly cool climate (some would say freezing), and its eponymous lakes keep the vines from freezing in the winter, and prevent them from getting overheated in the summer. The resulting Rieslings have incredibly vibrant acidity that lends itself to both dry and sweet styles.

Although it’s lesser known than the Finger Lakes, northern Michigan is beginning to gather steam as a Riesling region. The best examples come from the Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula, which benefit from chilly temperatures and close proximity to Lake Michigan. Michigan Rieslings are clean and crisp, with plenty of acidity to balance any sweetness.

A perfect wine for fall

Although American Rieslings, especially the crisp, drier styles, are wonderful to drink in the warmer months, there’s something about them that’s perfect for fall. This is especially true at the dinner table.

According to restaurateur Amanda Danielson, co-founder of the annual City of Riesling festival in Traverse City, Mich., Riesling is a particularly good match for fall foods. “Riesling’s acidity has a cleansing effect and makes each bite taste like the first,” said Danielson, who owns Trattoria Stella and The Franklin restaurants in Michigan’s Riesling country. “The apple character in many Rieslings evokes memories of fall and, if accompanied by some residual sugar, can pair beautifully with multiple courses. Think butternut squash soup and apple salad with lardons. Many Rieslings will also pair nicely with roasted birds, from chicken to squab.”

With Thanksgiving just over the horizon, what better way to bring local flavor to the table? With styles from bone-dry to lusciously sweet, there’s a great American Riesling to pair with every dish on the table.

Here are six delicious Rieslings to try this fall:

Tierce 2012 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling ($30): This wine is a collaboration between a trio of Finger Lakes winemakers: Peter Bell of Fox Run Vineyards, Johannes Reinhardt of Anthony Road Winery and David Whiting of Red Newt Cellars. Made in a dry, austere style, the wine has aromas of petrol (a classic Riesling characteristic, and a positive one), citrus and orange blossom. It’s crisp and tangy, with lovely mineral notes.

Blustone Vineyards 2013 Leelanau Peninsula Riesling ($18): This wine is an excellent example of how pretty the Rieslings from Michigan can be. It has an enticing peachy aroma, with just a suggestion of sweetness on the palate. Tanginess, crisp acidity and mineral notes provide perfect counterpoints to the wine’s richer elements.

Chehalem 2012 Chehalem Mountains Riesling, Corral Creek Vineyards ($29): This wine from pioneering Oregon Pinot Noir producer Chehalem needs a little time in the bottle to come out of its shell, but fans of subtlety will enjoy it right this minute. With a slight petrol aroma, it’s crisp and quite dry, with notes of granny smith apples and stone fruits.

Gill’s Pier 2013 Leelanau Peninsula Semi-Dry Riesling ($16.95): Along with a pleasant sweetness and some peachy notes, this Michigan Riesling has plenty of bracing acidity and zesty lemon-lime flavors to balance its residual sugar. The wine finishes with a bright kiss of lime.

EFESTE 2012 Columbia Valley Evergreen Riesling ($20): This especially fine Washington state Riesling has aromas of apples and mineral, along with bright, tangy flavors of citrus fruits and green apples. The wine is crisp and dry, with a lemony finish.

Black Star Farms Arcturos 2012 Old Mission Peninsula Winter Harvest Riesling ($15/375 mL): Although this is not an ice wine — for that, regulations require that the grapes freeze on the vines before picking — this Michigan beauty has similarly luscious characteristics. The wine has wonderful aromas of apricots and honey, with flavors to match. It’s intensely sweet and viscous, yet expertly balanced.

Main photo: Rieslings from Michigan, Oregon and New York are excellent with fall foods. Credit: Tina Caputo

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A traditional English high tea consists of hearty rustic fare. Credit: J.M. Hunter

For the British, tea is not just a hot beverage; it is a meal. The most delightful meal of the day, in fact, but the word embraces a wide variety of meals and occasions. It can be served at any time between 3:30 and 6 in the afternoon, around a kitchen table or in a drawing room with elegant chairs. Whether afternoon tea, high tea or some more exotic variant, confusion often arises as to exactly what each involves. The only constant is the tea (to drink).

In the second half of the 20th century, tea, as a meal, declined. This was partly because cakes and other teatime goodies received bad press health wise, and partly because the lives of Britons became more hurried, often to the point where we no longer even stopped for a cup of tea, let alone a proper meal. Recently, this trend has reversed. We are more interested in baking, some healthier ingredients have moved to the fore and the importance of family meals has been widely recognized.

Afternoon tea featuring scones with clotted cream and jam, center, and a Victoria sponge at left to complement the tea in a fine china cup. Credit: J. M. Hunter

Afternoon tea featuring scones with clotted cream and jam, center, and a Victoria sponge to complement the tea in a fine china cup. Credit: J.M. Hunter

Tea as a drink was fashionable in Britain by the late 17th century, but it did not refer to a meal until 1840 when Anna, the duchess of Bedford, felt a “sinking feeling” and ordered cake to be served with a cup of tea. At this time, a long gap without food occurred between a light lunch and a late dinner. Anna was a close friend of Queen Victoria and influential in aristocratic circles, so tea and cake rapidly became very popular. The queen herself enjoyed a meal at teatime (Victoria sponge, a pound cake sliced in half and filled with jam, cream or both, is named in her honor). It began as a meal of the leisured classes, those with the time and money to be able to sit and relax during the afternoon. It was often called “low” tea, as the participants sat on comfortable low chairs in elegant drawing rooms. With time, the meal developed and sandwiches were included, typically finely sliced cucumber between paper-thin slices of bread. A wide range of dainty cakes and pastries followed. Cream teas with scones, clotted cream and jam originated in Devon and Cornwall, where clotted cream is chiefly made, but are now available countrywide.

The 19th century Industrial Revolution in Britain brought about the rise of “high” tea, spurred by urbanization. Builders and factory workers often worked considerable distances from their homes and returned hungry in the early evening. They fell into the habit of taking a meal at about 6 p.m. sitting around a table, usually in the kitchen. This was a much more substantial affair than the low or afternoon tea of the aristocracy, and it became known in contrast as a high tea. Everything was placed on the table at once, including pies and cold meats, tarts and salads, jam, honey, toasted tea cakes and hearty fruitcakes. The richer the household, the more there typically was. One of the best types of high tea is in a farmhouse kitchen, with homemade bread, newly churned butter, and a feast of fresh and simple food.

An article in the Daily Telegraph of 1893 describes it perfectly: “A well-understood ‘high tea’ should have cold roast beef at the top of the table, a cold Yorkshire pie at the bottom, a mighty ham in the middle. The side dishes will comprise soused mackerel, pickled salmon (in due season), sausages and potatoes etc., etc. Rivers of tea, coffee and ale, with dry and buttered toast, sally-luns, scones, muffins and crumpets, jams and marmalade.” A light supper, such as a sandwich, followed later in the evening.

High tea is often associated with northern areas of England, where it is called “meat tea,” and Scotland, where it is simply called “tea.” “Tea” meant the same thing in Australia and New Zealand. This could cause misunderstandings when guests were invited to (afternoon) tea but turned up several hours late, expecting a more substantial meal.

A glance at the table will quickly show which type of tea is being served. Even the china is different. Afternoon tea uses fine china cups and saucers, usually filled with fine tea, while high tea uses mugs and a large brown teapot, usually filled with a stronger brew of tea.

Strictly speaking, afternoon tea fills the gap between lunch and dinner, but it’s rarely vital to one’s survival. High tea, on the other hand, is a necessary meal, eaten when typically artisan workers return. Nowadays the divisions are blurred, with food such as scones and sponge cakes appearing at both meals. The very adaptability of tea has caused this confusion, but whatever we call the meal, it is one that we British believe we would be much poorer without.

Main photo: A traditional English high tea consists of hearty rustic fare. Credit: J.M. Hunter

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Conversations with more than 50 distillers over the last two years have changed me. No, I haven’t had a liver transplant; I’ve undergone an adjective-ectomy.

I’ve spent most of the last 25 years writing and editing, and a little less of that time drinking, so it’s not surprising that a word has taken on outsized importance. It’s a word I would like to see banished from all discussion of spirits. And that word is … “smooth.”

Hold on one stinkin’ minute, I can hear you thinking, isn’t that the (Johnnie Walker) Gold standard? The sine quaff non of distillers everywhere? As a matter of fact, no. And if you’re looking for smoothness in your glass you’ve been sold a bill of goods.


Before embarking on the research for my recently released book on craft distillers, I would not have questioned the assertion that smooth was the height of perfection. Ah, for a simpler time.

Dan Farber, co-owner of the world-class brandy producer Osocalis, in Soquel, Calif., is one of the best makers and agers of brown spirits in the country. As such he’s at the top of a very small group. It’s a group, just by the way, that does not include very many bourbon producers since most are somewhat indifferent to the making.

The big guys use an industrial process, and what ends up in a $20 bottle may well have started out as the very same liquid as, say, a bottle of one of the delicious but overpriced and impossible to find Pappy Van Winkle bourbons. As for the aging, when you’ve got a seven-story high, football-field size warehouse full of bourbon, odds are that a few of those barrels will be sublime. Small producers do not have these luxuries, so they have to take a more careful, hands-on approach.

Farber characterizes smoothness as a “trivial thing” and “entry-level stuff.” What’s he’s going for — and the proof of his success can be found in everything he makes, but particularly his XO brandy — is brown spirits that have “the flavor of the beast that they came from, yet also have all these new things.”

Those new things come from aging. And while we’re on the subject of banishing words and sloppy thinking from the booze world, if someone says they’re able to speed up aging by using small barrels, run the other way. Sure, you can get more wood character more quickly, but why would you want to?

“Smooth” is not just Distilling 101; it’s also the path away from complexity. Milk is smooth. Aged spirits should be complex.

Are Farber’s brandies harsh? By no means. But when they’re in your mouth, and for many minutes after, nerve cells are firing in all directions. I defy anyone to take a sip of any Osocalis product and have nothing more interesting to say about it than “smooth.”


Jake Norris is an original partner in Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, one of the first and best small, independent American whiskey producers. (He left Stranahan’s shortly after Proximo, the owners of Jose Cuervo and other brands, bought the company.) He’s now at Laws Whiskey House, the most promising new whiskey distillery in the country. The fear Norris expressed to me, about a year into production, was that his whiskey was too smooth.

“The danger might be that it’s almost too balanced. In the beginning,” he said, “it was overly smooth and I was afraid it was going to lose character, so I [adjusted the distillation] so you get that slight astringent suck on the tongue. It’s got a little bit of teeth so it can sit in the barrels longer, meaning two to five years. If all of this is done properly, it can go to possibly six or eight years, maybe more. I don’t know if I would try that.”

Not every small, independent spirits producer (and very few of those who make aged brown spirits) is making stuff as good as Osocalis or Laws. Almost none can afford to use large barrels and wait until time and good wood have worked their magic. What every one of them can do is tell you honestly what they’re trying to do and how they’re going about it.

If they say their whiskey is smooth, however, feel free to explain to them that that’s exactly how you like your shaves, babies’ bottoms and gravy. But not what’s in your glass.

Main photo: “American Spirit” author James Rodewald wants to change how we talk about booze. Credit: Marella Consolini

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Grapes from the morning pick at Flowers’ Vineyards. Credit: Courtesy of Flowers’ Vineyards

Sonoma County conjures up pastoral images of California’s bucolic wine region — vineyards and creameries tucked along back-country roads dotted with farm stands and rustic garden shops, cows grazing in pastures, herds of sheep roaming in meadows.

And then there’s the other side of the Sonoma wine region, the rugged, extreme coast that hugs the Pacific Ocean. The newly established Fort Ross Seaview appellation is ensconced in this pocket of the larger Sonoma Coast American Viticulture Area, or AVA.

Perched on mountainous terrain, Fort Ross Seaview’s fog-blanketed vineyards appear to cling to sunny mountain ridges, some as high as 1,800 feet, pushing through the dense fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean.

The areas above 900 feet are blessed with a longer duration of sunlight and are in fact warmer than the surrounding land below. This warmth, combined with the tempering effect of a cool maritime influence, creates a perfect growing season for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, varietals widely planted in the region. The grapes enjoy gradual ripening with no dramatic ups and downs, which results in balanced sugar and acidity levels. Although noted for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the region is also planted with Zinfandel, Pinotage and Rhône varietals.

The wines of this extreme coast are low in alcohol and packed with bright fruit flavors, complex minerality and bracing acidity.

Sonoma County AVA the newest in popular wine region

On a recent visit to the Sonoma coast, I trekked out to visit this isolated and challenging site that received its own AVA in 2012. The Sonoma County AVA brings the total for the county to 17 appellations.

Fort Ross Seaview’s 27,500-acre appellation includes 18 commercial vineyards, and more than 550 acres are planted to vineyards by such noted vintners as Marcassin, Martinelli, Peter Michael and Pahlmeyer. The area has five wine labels, among them the region’s pioneer, Flowers & Winery.

The AVA’s only tasting room open to public is at Fort Ross Vineyards. Coming from Sebastopol, it took us more than an hour to get to Fort Ross Vineyards, the first destination on our trip. The drive along Highway 116 that connects to Highway 1 was spectacular, taking us through the hamlets of Guerneville and Monte Rio along the Russian River. The dramatic coastline winding through the coastal town of Jenner brought us to the Fort Ross tasting room, which is tucked away in the mountainous landscape between the towns of Fort Ross and Cazadero.

San Francisco-based owners Linda and Lester Schwartz purchased the 975-acre Fort Ross property in 1991 and later planted 50 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinotage. With Jeff Pisoni on board as winemaker, they launched their first commercial release in 2000.

The 32 different parcels of small vineyards are perched at elevations ranging from 1,200 to 1,700 feet. The tasting room is enveloped by evergreens in a forest-like environment and sits at an elevation of 1,000 feet.

As we tasted the lineup of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on a mid-August afternoon, the fog hung thick below the tasting room’s terrace. We were clearly above the fog line.

We savored the three different styles of Pinot. The 2012 palate-caressing, drink-now Sea Slopes showed hints of strawberry, while the 2010 signature Fort Ross Pinot reflected the region’s terroir, with layers of complexity, smoky blackberry notes and firm tannins. Lush with cherry notes, the silky-textured 2009 Reserve Pinot was indeed cellar-worthy.

Chardonnay mirrors the coast

The zesty 2012 Chardonnay had bracing acidity and minerality reflective of the extreme coastal terroir. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, the Schwartz family paid homage to its signature Pinotage grape (a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault) and imported the budwood. Grown in the cool, coastal climate, the 2009 Pinotage showed a Pinot Noir body but with rustic brambly notes.

Our next stop was at Flowers Vineyards, renowned for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Walt and Joan Flowers pioneered this rugged area when they planted these two varietals in 1991 at the Camp Meeting Ridge Estate Vineyard, and they released their first commercial vintage in 1994. The winery is now owned by vintner Agustin Huneeus of Napa Valley’s famed Quintessa Winery.

Rising up just 2 miles from the rugged Pacific Ocean cliffs, the Flowers property is breathtaking. The vineyards, heavy with fruit, are spread out on elevations ranging from 1,150 feet to 1,875 feet. Our guide and host Michelle Forry informed us that this mountainous range was at one time a sheep ranch till the coyotes wiped them out.

Flowers follows organic and biodynamic practices on its 80 acres of vineyards, 30 acres on Camp Meeting Ridge and 50 acres on Sea View Ridge. The entire mountaintop ranch totals 648 acres.

The well-known San Andreas fault runs nearby, Forry said, and its geological movement has influenced the Camp Meeting Ridge and Sea View Ridge vineyards. Through time and cataclysmic events, the ancient rocks and weathered marine and volcanic soils have helped control vine vigor, resulting in distinctive coastal minerality with bright fruit, signature characteristics of Flowers wines. And it’s this expression that has made me a longtime fan of Flowers’ wines.

Pinot Noir with a lovely finish

We tasted the 2011 vintages of Pinot Noir from the two estates. The Camp Meeting Ridge Estate Pinot showed bright red fruits accented with acidity and minerality. The Sea View Ridge Vineyard had a deep brick color (due to the volcanic ash in the soil) laced with cherry notes and a lovely lingering finish.

The classic sea-salt minerality of Camp Meeting Ridge vineyard was reflected in the 2011 Chardonnay, layered with cardamom and citrus fruits. The 2012 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay also showed the signature minerality laced with pear and apple.

Because the AVA is just 2 years old, you might not see the Fort Ross-Seaview name on bottle labels yet. In fact, Flowers does not intend to use that appellation name on its labels.

“For us we are Sonoma Coast first,” Forry said.

Main photo: Grapes from the morning pick at Flowers Vineyards. Credit: Courtesy of Flowers Vineyard

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Italians like to linger at the table, during and after a meal. Dessert is leisurely. Sweets are served along with a dessert wine or liqueur, not with coffee or tea, as is done in the States.

It’s only after dessert is finished that espresso and a so-called aid to digestion — digestivo — like grappa is served.

Here’s a glossary of Italy’s most popular desserts wines and liqueurs. One of my favorites is limoncello, a versatile liqueur terrific to cook with and drink. I drink it icy cold and always add a splash in fruit salad.

limoncello

Fruit salad makes a good pairing with limoncello. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets”

Amaretto

Amaretto, “little bitter,” is a sweet almond-flavored liqueur cordial.

Amaretto is an ingredient in hundreds of dessert recipes and is also paired with all sorts of Italian sweets, especially crunchy amaretti cookies. One of Italy’s best selling brands of amaretto is Disaronno Originale.

Amaro

Amaro is the term for a general category of bittersweet digestive, after-dinner drinks thought to aid digestion. Amaro, which means “bitter,” is generally made from various spices, herbs, fruits and alcohol. Popular since the Middle Ages, monks originally created these drinks as a medicinal remedy. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of amaro in Italy, with each region, city, and even village claiming its local specialty.

Asti

Asti, a sparkling dessert wine, is made with the Moscato Bianco grapes from the Langhe, Monferrato and Roero areas of Piedmont.

In Italy it is served in bowl-shaped glasses, rather than the thinner champagne flutes. The thinking is that the narrow flute exaggerates Asti’s sweetness, concentrating the liquid on the tip of the tongue, where the sweet taste buds are. It’s traditionally paired with yeasty cake like panettone.

asti spumante

Asti, a sparkling dessert wine, is made with the Moscato Bianco grapes. Credit: Consorzio dell’Asti

Asti Moscato

A dessert wine made in the Asti region of Piedmont using Moscato grapes. It’s less bubbly than Asti.

Barolo Chinato

An after-dinner digestivo from the Piedmont region, made with Barolo wine that has been steeped with spices such as cinnamon, coriander, mint and vanilla. It is a very smooth, aromatic beverage that pairs beautifully with chocolate.

Brachetto d’Acqui

Red sparkling dessert wine produced in the Piedmont. It is a blend of  Aleatico and Moscato Nero grapes.

Galliano

Bright yellow liqueur that’s a mix of dozens of herbs and spices. First made in Livorno in 1896 and named for 19th century Italian war hero Giuseppe Galliano. Used in cocktails, and as an after-dinner digestivo, it’s also a terrific flavoring for various dessert recipes.

Grappa

Grappa is a fragrant spirit, 75 t0 120 proof, made from the grape skins and other solids left over from the wine-making process. The name most likely comes from the Italian for bunch of grapes, grappolo d’uva.

In Italy, grappa is enjoyed after dessert, served in small, tulip-shaped or short grappa glasses. It is also exceptional paired with Italian chocolates. A splash of grappa is often added to espresso to create caffé corretto.

Limoncello

A lemon liqueur from the Amalfi Coast, Calabria and Sicily. Made by steeping lemon peels in alcohol and sugar, it can be enjoyed at room temperature, but I prefer it icy cold. Try adding a little heavy cream for a rich, smooth liquid dessert.

Malvasia delle Lipari

An amber-colored DOC dessert wine from Sicily with an apricot-honey taste and lovely aroma. Starting in the late 1960s in compliance with the European Economic Community, Italian wine was regulated. To earn DOC status (Denomination of Controlled Origin), a wine had to be made from grapes from a particular defined area and pass strict tests for standards in alcohol content, flavor, aroma, color and more. It ensures that the consumer is drinking an authentic wine, not a counterfeit, or adulterated one.

Marsala

Marsala is a DOC golden-colored fortified wine made with grapes grown in the Marsala region of Sicily. Marsala is made both sweet and dry. The dry is enjoyed chilled as an aperitif, while the sweet is sipped at room temperature as a dessert wine.

Marsala is used extensively in Italian cooking, especially in making sweets such as the classic zabaglione.

Moscadello di Montalcino

A DOC dessert wine from the Montalcino region of Tuscany made with aromatic white Muscat grapes. It is produced in three versions: still, sparkling and late-harvest.

Nocino

Nocino is a dark colored digestivo, made from unripe green walnuts.

Passito

Passito is dessert wine made by pressing partially dried grapes, dried to concentrate their sugar and flavor. One of Italy’s most acclaimed is Passito di Pantelleria from Sicily.

Sambuca

A colorless digestivo liqueur flavored with star anise. Sambuca is splashed in coffee, or served neat and with topped with three toasted espresso beans called con la mosca, “with flies.” Besides giving a little caffeine kick, chewing on the beans highlights Sambuca’s flavor.

cantucci+vin-santo

Vin Santo is often paired with cantucci, a crunchy almond biscotti. Credit: Corsini Biscotti

Vin Santo

Vin Santo, “holy wine,” is a smooth amber-colored wine made from Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes. Although made in many parts of Italy, it is most often associated with Tuscany, where it is often paired with cantucci, the area’s crunchy almond biscotti.

Main photo: Asti  is paired with panettone. Credit: Consorzio dell’Asti.

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