March 30, 2013

Valdespino Sherry

Sherry is all the rage these days with wine hipsters. It's a funny thing though - so much Sherry is essentially industrially made wine with huge bodegas cranking out oceans of wine, much of it only decent. Hardly the set up you'd think the hipster crowd would gravitate towards.

In the US, most Sherry that you can find is Lustau, so that the category is almost synonymous with this one producer. Lustau has some incredible bottlings, but much of their range is pretty standard stuff that fails to excite.

The line up
Lately I've been learning about another not small but high quality producer, Valdespino. Without even knowing it, I'd enjoyed a Cream Sherry from them many years ago, the El Candado Cream Sherry, complete with a small lock o
n the T-top cork. I remember enjoying it but the kitchy lock suggested more than anything in the bottle that this wasn't special stuff.

This past month, Sherry maven Peter Liem visited Portland and led a number of sessions around town about Sherry. Sadly I missed out on all of them but took it upon myself to try a flight of lovely Valdespino sherries that we have at the SE Wine Collective. These are all 100% Palomino grape wines with varying levels of fortification, as well as solera aging where older casks are topped with newer wines over time to preserve character year to year.

First, the Fino Inocente, full of flor character, flor being the film yeast that defines so much sherry. Casks of wine are intentionally left partially full, so that the flor grows thick in the wine surface, simultaneously affecting the wine and yet preserving it as a barrier to undesirable characters. Fino is bone dry wine, this one with a pale color and a pleasant nutty pear aroma. The flavors are clean, salty, with a finish like hard cheese, earthy and a bit fruity, crisp. 15% alcohol by volume.

Tio Diego
Next, the Amontillado Tio Diego, aged apparently for eight years under the flor, and more time beyond that so that there's tawny color. The wine smells rich, even sweet, with a touch of rancio mixed in with the yeasty flor, altogether a penetrating aroma. Rich in the mouth, starts a bit barrel sweet but turns dry with strong, focused acidity, nutty with a long finish. Wow. 18%.

Finally, the Palo Cortado Viejo Calle Ponce, richer still with a dark color from 8 years under flor and eight more years of standard barrel aging. Aromas of bananas and butter, not unlike a dessert wine. Intense flavors, rich but dry with more fresh nuts and lots of them, a warm finish from the fortification, very long. My only question is - when to drink something as intense as this? It's dry but like a dessert wine, so maybe with the right after meal pairing, or perhaps as an aperitif. For drinking, I prefer the Tio Diego, but this is obviously the class of the flight. 20%.

Later I bought a half bottle of Valdespino Oloroso Don Gonzalo VOS, that I'll enjoy soon and over time. One practical thing I love about sherry is that the wines are so stable in an open bottle, so there's no special rush to consume them quickly once opened, though a Fino to my taste is best as fresh as you can get it.

March 21, 2013

Epistolary wine

There are many stories about how I came to make wine. Sometimes I'm not sure which ones are real and which are fiction, not in a lie sense but perhaps wishful thinking. The epiphany bottle. The childhood scent memory of a barrel cellar. The book of tasting notes I've kept all this time. They all happened but maybe they weren't as singularly pivotal as they seem at times.

The story I've come to understand is most true, however unlikely, is the muse of strangely beautiful music, in this case Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet's now 20 years gone recording The Juliet Letters. For many Costello fans it seems the record is best forgotten, a one-off dalliance of a rock and roller posturing with classical music. It's hardly surprising given the vitiriol some Costello devotees save for anything not from the first several albums with his groundbreaking band the Attractions. It's as if anything since then is a slap in the face of that greatness.

I guess I see things differently. All that earlier music is wonderful, but the recording I keep going back to is The Juliet Letters (even more than King of America, which now seems oddly dated - maybe it's the hollow remaster from Rykodisc, whatever). The Juliet Letters is the most true to me, and my simple approach to wine. Even why I make Pinot Noir is best expressed in terms of this record. Lyrical. Acoustic. Quiet. Pure. Heartbreaking. Epistolary.

As is the case with so many significant things in a life, the recording came at the right time for me. It was something reflective I needed in that moment. I didn't love it at first and maybe that's where most listeners left off. The difference for me might have been my lucky attendance at Elvis and the Brodskys' performance at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus near my childhood home. Royce Hall to that point was a site of horror for me, the place my parents sent my brother and me for interminable theater performances for children. I've blocked out what we actually saw. I just remember any trip to Royce Hall would gladly have been traded for a few cavity fillings at the dentist.

Image stolen from

A dear old friend and Elvis fanatic was in grad school at UCLA and got us two student tickets right on the floor, maybe 20 rows back. We walked in, the horror of Royce Hall immediately exorcised when we sat down and I noticed the familiar, incredibly beautiful neck of Jamie Lee Curtis right in front of me. We'd all received pens from the ushers when we walked in and I mused out loud, why the pens? Jamie Lee turned around and answered - The Juliet Letters. Get it?

Uh, yeah. By the way, I love you.

Happily I didn't actually say that. She just smiled, I felt stupid and said, of course, and she turned around. In the moment I thought - wait, I knew your half-brother Nick, he was a childhood friend and he had recently passed away. I wanted to say something but obviously this wasn't the place. The show was about to start. I still think about him though, and when the curtain went up I was in a heightened place emotionally.

This concert was the best performance I've ever seen. The music, even Elvis' imperfect but incredibly committed vocals, blew me away. In the current vernacular, he owned it, dog. And I wasn't alone in the rapture. I've never heard an audience applaud like we all did that night, to the point where, after several encores, we pleaded for even more and the performers were visibly taken aback, saying they simply didn't have any more material.

They'd performed the whole record in two movements, then played a few of old Costello gems, Tom Waits' More Than Rain, and what was that, were they teasing us with The Beach Boys' God One Knows? Yes, they wound around into it, giving perhaps the most perfect song I've ever heard and maybe ever will. The crowd could not be silenced until the performers decided they'd sort of messed up one of the initial numbers and asked, in lieu of having anything else, could they play it again? Yes, of course.

I walked out of Royce Hall that night changed in a way I didn't understand at the time. I still don't, quite. I just heard the violin that night in a way I've never forgotten. My parents had taken me to see Pearlman at the Hollywood Bowl a couple times. I knew the instrument was singular. It's just this night it slugged me in the gut and hasn't ever gone away.

You see, Pinot Noir is the violin. It's the one. It's one note, long, singular, incredibly pure. It's a small chord, the growl of assertive bowing, weightless with finesse and muscular in strength. It's often overwhelmed in the rock and roll of new world terroir. It will change your life before you know what's happened.

It did for me. Not immediately, but I was searching for that sound in some part of my life, that incredibly beautiful tone, the lyric. I already had a passion for wine and it wasn't really until years later that Pinot emerged in me. But it did, and I moved to Oregon, to me the most exciting place for wine in the new world, even if so much of the wine world overlooks it in favor of the canonical classics. I'm not provinical. I love the world of wine. But this place is the one where I'm writing from.

And so, epistolary wine. We learned in college literature classes that epistolary novels are those typically written in letters. Les Liaisons dangereuses is a classic example and well worth reading. Likewise, The Juliet Letters is epistolary music, each song a letter, the concept apparently inspired by letters so many people around the world have apparently written to the mythic Juliet and mailed to somewhere in Verona. Searching for something.

Only some of the lyrics actually refer to Juliet or Romeo. Instead there are letters of all kinds, letters of suspicion, letters of lost love, a suicide note, even a letter that gets to the heart of the matter, admitting in the song "I Thought I'd Write to Juliet' - I don't know why I'm writing to you.

We don't always know why we write, but I know now why I make wine. Each one is an epistle, a letter home from the time and place, the year of the wine and ofmy life. These bottles are where I'm coming from, something I need you to know, written in the single note or powerful chord of a grape, so that twenty years later it's still there, ringing true, compelling, crying it hurts of its story so bad.

That's why I'm writing to you.

March 13, 2013

Farewell Bob Wood

Just a quick note tonight to remember my long time friend Bob Wood, who died this past week here in Portland. Bob was a wine lover and huge supporter of Oregon wine, and good wines of the world. He even followed this little blog and commented occasionally over the years. He was a crusty, no bullshit guy who loved his kids, loved golf, and hated all kinds of random things from cargo shorts, Crocs and Bieber to bad grammar and ostentatious wineries that I will leave nameless here (sorry Bob, but I like buying their used barrels).

Underneath all the crust Bob was a sweet man, even if he didn't let you see it too much. Our last communication a couple weeks ago was about another thing that drove him nuts - signs that state the obvious. This one, a picture Bob had just taken, means more now, though we emailed back and forth then about how our kids loved Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends. I didn't think anything more about it at the time, but now it's all the more painful to again say goodbye to someone without being able to say goodbye. They won't ever quite know what they meant and mean to you. I find that feeling impossible to reconcile, heartbreaking.

Sadly, the sidewalk ends this time somewhere in SW Portland. Farewell Bob. We'll keep up the fight while you're away, and keep making shitty Oregon Pinot in your memory.

March 01, 2013


Some of you may remember that, in addition to making wine as Vincent Wine Company and being a partner in another wine business called Guild Winemakers,  I have a day job in higher education. I know, how does all that work? Sometimes I wonder myself.

I'm committed to my career in higher ed and after a long, far too long time, I'm leaving my current job at a local public university to take a nice position at another local university, smaller and private. I couldn't be more excited. It certainly is something to celebrate.

Let's be clear - bubbles are not just for celebrations. It's a shame that Champagne and the world of sparkling wines are so often saved only to celebrate. Those of us who know better know that bubbles go tremendously well with all kinds of food, and honestly, short of some nasty cheap, sweet "champagne" out there, is there a wine category with more to offer at the lower end than sparkling wine?

Sparkling wines at reasonable prices from Italy, Spain, France, California, Oregon, even the state of New Mexico (Gruet!), abound on shelves across the US. I honestly don't know why I don't drink more of them myself.

Perhaps I too am guilty, and with the new job, what did I do? I went out and bought a bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose.

I didn't spend a ton, paying about $23, but it's true I didn't exactly cheap out. Still, the NV Clotilde Davenne Cremant de Bourgogne Brut Extra is astonishingly good bubbly worthy of celebration and even a simple dinner at home. It's excellent wine for some money but hardly too much.

This producer is located in the Chablis region, where the chalky soils suggest the unique terroirs of nearby Champagne. I knew nothing of the wine when I bought it. I just trusted a favorite retailer - Division Wines in SE Portland - and it's what they had in the cold box. I didn't expect it to be bad, I just had no idea how good this would be.

Pale in color with a lovely texture of bubbles and bright acidity, the middle palate was the key. A burst of energy in the mouth took this from pleasant sparkler to near Champagne in quality, and I don't say that lightly. The finish was pretty long and graceful, and the bottle disappeared rather quickly. This was irresistible wine.

The lesson? Bubbles are indeed great for celebrations. But when you can get a wine of this quality at this kind of price, a wine that puts a smile on your face so effortlessly, why on earth wouldn't you drink it more often? There's always something to celebrate, no?