Thursday, December 28, 2006

December Cooking With Washington Wines

On Christmas Eve we had raclette. What is a raclette, you ask?

Raclette is a staple of wintertime in Switzerland. It is a cheese dish related to fondue, and perhaps the earliest form. The most famous and best Raclette cheese is made in the alpine villages in the Swiss Alps. A cow's milk cheese that is similar to Gruyere in texture (semi firm and with small holes) and the same mellow and nutty flavor with excellent melting qualities. I have found that most Swiss-styles of cheese works fine if you cannot locate the Raclette cheese. The cheese is brought to the table and melted in one of the raclette grill trays (or can be melted under a broiler) for making the dish. The melted gooey goodness is served with boiled potatoes and side dishes of tiny cocktail onions, dilled pickles, and gherkins. Diners scrape the melting portion of the cheese onto a bit of mashed potato, and add a spicy relish to each bite. The name raclette comes from the word racler -- means to scrape.

If you have the raclette grill (mine is a T-Fal from France -- note the little trays of melting cheese underneath) then the upper portion can be used as the "community grill." I served mushrooms, bell pepper chunks, zucchini slices, cherry tomatoes, an assortment of sausages (Italian and smoked Brats) and wooden skewers to prepare shish-ka-bobs. Along with Swiss-style cheeses, boiled baby red potatoes, gherkins, mustard, paprika, and sliced baguettes for toasting crostinis.

I wasn't sure how this new dining element would be received Christmas Eve amongst family and friends, but everyone got right into it and had fun designing their meal. I will definintely do it again and maybe even include the fondue pot for the real feeling of Swiss après-ski dining. In fact, it would be great to use for an informal New Year's Eve party. With the variety of meats and vegetables I made life easy for food-wine pairing and provided several wines (all Washington wines) for my guests to choose from (besides Tom & Jerry hot toddies).

Happy 2007 and may your new year be full of wine, cheese and chocolate!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Saviah Cellars - Star Meadows White - 2005

I have never been a fan of Semillon, but this Bordeaux-style blend works for me. A classic mix of 57% Sauvignon Blanc and 43% Semillon from Saviah Cellars was easy on my palate. Flavors of fresh stone fruit shows through with a background of citrus. Of course, this is a perfect wine to serve on a summer day, but I think it can be paired for holiday entertaining as well as those cold winter nights you just want to stay in front of the fireplace with comfort food and a good book.

Saviah's Star Meadows white blend makes a perfect pairing with an antipasto plate of artichokes, smoked salmon, prosciutto and sharp cheeses such as Gorgonzola and blue. Chicken soup and especially winter chowders of clams or oysters would also pair well. The crisp citrus of this wine would definitely favor crab legs with drawn butter. And if we are talking winter entertaining, cheese fondue is a natural with this wine! And -- I would even continue the wine with a dessert of creme brulee or a tart made of stone fruit or pears.

Okay - this talk of food and this elegant blend of wine is making me hungry. Sante!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Garrison Creek Winery - An Exercise In Perseverance

Winston Churchill said: "If you are going through hell, keep going."

It has been a five year battle with litigations over permit restrictions, but Michael Murr will finally build his winery.

It was a very controversial proposal, which ended in March 2005, when the Washington State Supreme Court turned down a final appeal by Murr for the winery to be located in Walla Walla County's southeast exclusive agriculture zone. The Garrison Creek Winery will be located at the Les Collines vineyard on Hood Road. While the original conditional-use permit required Murr to apply for a building permit within a year from the permit's approval, he received an extension.

In 2000 Murr asked that the county amend the zoning laws to allow wineries in the exclusive agriculture zone (the minimum lot size is 120 acres) and to allow his design for his proposed two-level, 15,000-sq-ft main floor and 10,000-sq-ft cellar. The current and approved design is much smaller. Opponents argued that it would open the exclusive ag-zone to increased traffic, litter, and changes to their rural view. Supporters countered that the winery with tasting room would be an addition to the local growing wine industry and would create minimal impact to the ag-zone. If I remember correctly, sitting in a few of the planning meetings, it is okay to have a pig farm, dairy, rock quarry, and private air strip in the lovely and exclusive ag zone, but you cannot have a winery. Hmmm -- for esthetic reasons and wind drift, I would pick a winery any day over a pig farm and a rock quarry.

Eventually a conditional-use permit was approved but the county commissioners in their wisdom decided to give Murr limits on the number of events allowed he could have at the winery and in fact that he could only sell wine - not the logo hats, glasses and other souveniers that wine lovers want to buy. Basically, Murr was not allowed to operate his winery like the other wineries in the valley and with conditions. From Walla Walla Superior Court to the Court of Appeals, to make a long five years short, last year the Washington State Supreme Court turned down Murr's final appeal.

I sat in on some of those planning meetings. If anything, it was an education on when people get an idea in their head, especially an idea that is not true, it is hard to get it out of their heads. If you have ever played the game of gossip, it indeed was in practice during those meetings. Some opponents needed to brush up on their homework. They had heard that Murr was going to turn his winery into a outdoor amptheatre and those "wine-os, drunken lovers of satanic rock and roll, would ruin the area!" Then the gossip-mongers claimed Murr was going to turn his winery into a reception hall for weddings and the farmers would have to halt all farm practices during the bridezilla's events. The question needed to be asked, "Why would someone like Murr want to fiddle with a high maintenance ventures like wedding receptions and concerts? He doesn't. All he wanted to do was make wine from vineyards that he co-owned in the exclusive ag-zone.

Then came the problem with litter - more untruths and hysteria. The wine tourists would litter the ever so pastoral area with their empty wine bottles! Umm -- I don't know about you, but how many wine afficianados drink $35-50 bottles of wine in their car and toss the empty out the window? I haven't met one yet! Besides, if you want to complain about litter, the opponents overlooked the constant litter of beer cans from high school kids who had been driving out in that area for decades - DECADES! In fact, to reassure I was correct, I took a drive out in the area the day after one of the planning meetings and viewed the usual display of empties myself -- the usual litter of beer bottles and cardboard beer containers. Then came the drunk driving allegations - those damn wine-os would be out on the roads driving drunk. To nip that comment in the bud, state patrol and local police reports were obtained on DUI arrests during the past wine event weekends when the area was full of wine tourists. No drunk driving arrests of wine-os were reported.

Okay - how about this complaint? The locals who lived in the ag-zone didn't want to hear semi's from California coming in all night long bringing grapes into the winery. HUH? That's right -- HUH? Then came the personal accusations about Michael Murr. The opponents didn't want some "slick Soprano, cigar smoking, three-piece suit from New York City ruining their county." His accusers didn't have a clue Murr was sitting in the audience -- quiet, unassuming in his jeans, jean jacket and boots. Michael, far from being a "slick cigar smoker", a youthful-looking, athletic-minded and a generous man whose roots are strong in Walla Walla. A philanthropist who gives to the Walla Walla community and a graduate of our local high school that he has been so generous to.

In rich historic farm communities, like Walla Walla, change is hard. The older I get, I am not near as flexible as I use to be and I need to stop this. Those things that we love so much I believe that to keep them perpetuating, we have to allow change - growth. Those of us who do not want change have to remember that someday we will die and we cannot smother what we love and we cannot take it with us. I am reminded of a fraternal organization where some of the older members bristled at change and fought tooth and nail to keep their lodge the way it had been for decades. As membership declined they were not willing to bend and make the concessions they needed to procure new and younger members to keep their lodge, the lodge they so loved, alive. Those who tried to make change were met with opposition and often it meant viscious and annonymous letters were sent to their employers and even wives. Ironically, those who fought change and willing to destroy livlihoods, they forgot their ritual promises of brotherhood.

The end result - change didn't happen. The older members, who did not want change, eventually got their way and the younger members gave up -- the lodge did not meet the change gracefully and now membership has dwindled - worse than ever. Many of the opponents of change are now dead and selfishly took what they loved so much with them. I hope to never do that to future generations. I want them to love what I loved.

Winston Churchill said: "To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Precept Brands Buys Waterbrook

The largest privately held wine company in the state of Washington has acquired one of Walla Walla's largest and oldest producers, Waterbrook Winery.

Precept Brands in Seattle is the third-largest wine company in the state of Washington. Founded in 2003, Precept is known for affordable Washington state labels like Pine and Post, Washington Hills, Avery Lane, and WAWA (screw top for $2.99) and imports such as El Paseo and Ciao Bella. It recently partnered with Charles Smith of K Vintners in Walla Walla, to market his second label Magnificent Wine Co., which includes House Wine, a red table wine and a white table wine.

The Pendulum label, a red blend of eight varietals, is also a co-produced project by Allen Shoup of Long Shadows and Precept. Andrew Browne, CEO of Precept Brands and Shoup were rivals when Shoup was CEO of Ste. Michelle and Browne was CEO of Corus Brands (formerly Columbia Winery). And it just so happens that Columbia Winery is just across the street from Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, WA (note that Columbia Winery is not to be confused with Columbia Crest - a Ste Michelle label).

Precept Brands will take over sales and marketing for Waterbrook, but the tasting room on Main St. in Walla Walla will remain the same and Eric will remain involved in the production of the wines at the winery on McDonald Road in Lowden, WA.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Roll Out The Barrels - Holiday Barrel Tasting

Another Walla Walla Holiday Barrel Tasting has come and gone -- I think this is my sixth, maybe seventh, barrel-tasting weekend. It was another very successful year. Compared to a couple of years ago, the weekend draws fewer customers per winery, but sales are higher. I think what this means is not that there are fewer people coming to Walla Walla for barrel-tasting, but that there are so many more wineries now to choose from. Also, the weekend seems to be drawing more serious wine lovers than ever before.

The Holiday Barrel Tasting is an excellent time for the novice wine consumer to learn more about wines, because the winemakers are usually on hand to answer questions and provide wine samples. It's also a great opportunity to taste and buy first releases, and quite a few wineries offer discounts on at least some of their wines. There are also winemaker dinners and other special events in town connected with the weekend.

This year many wineries charged each person a $5 tasting fee. At first I had some concerns that the fee would keep visitors away, but my concerns disappeared when I realized that if you put a $20 bill in your pocket and visited four $5-fee wineries, you would taste a lot more wine, and probably have a lot more fun, than if you spent $20 in a wine bar or restaurant. The $5 fee also covered the special foods that most of the wineries provided with their wines at barrel-tasting.

If you are in retail long enough you have lots of stories to tell no matter what you are selling. I have often said that the prerequisite before you receive your high school diploma is that every student should work as a cashier at K-Mart or Walmart, especially during the holiday season. I think it gives a great understanding and appreciation for the often under paid person who has to face the general public and their purchasing foibles. It could make us be a better customer.

Nothing surprises me anymore during these special event weekends, especially those that ask for the "Sixth Degrees from Kevin Bacon Discounts." An example from one visitor, "I work for Acme Chemicals and one time delivered some chemicals to a vineyard in the Willamette Valley and now I always get 30% discount from all of the wineries in the world and I want my discount on this bottle of red table wine." Another visitor: "I am a rollerskating car hop for Be-Boppers Drive-In in Kalamazoo and my bosses wife's brother's neighbor is thinking about carrying some wine some day in a new business. Can I get an industry discount?" The devil on my shoulder wants to say dripping with sarcasm, "Duh --- sure! Why don't we just give you 95% discount and in fact, here -- just take a couple of cases of wine for FREE because you are so damn special!" But the angel on my shoulder only allows me to smile.

How about the young man who informs me that he is very much an experienced wine drinker and knows just about everything there is to know about wine? When I begin to pour him a glass of the red, he puts his hand over his glass and exclaims, "No! I only drink whites. I cannot stand reds." Later I over-hear him tell his friends (who are not the wine experts that he is), "Wow! This is the second winery that I have been in where they use wood barrels." The devil on my shoulder thinks, "Amazing aint it? Who would have thought to put wine in wooden barrels? What will wineries think of next?"

I think it is important that winery staff members needs to chug a bottle of wine just before closing to prepare themselves for the customers who arrive during the "bewitching hour" (always 17 minutes after closing ) so we will think the late visitors jokes are funny. Why is it the more purple their teeth are they think they are Robin William's and Joan River's love child?

It sounds like I am complaining - right? Not at all. These are the stories that eventually make me laugh and makes me appreciate and love our visitors. I loved listening to our visitors from all over the United States telling me how beautiful the wines are in the Walla Walla Valley and lovely the city is. I love hearing about their experiences at our fine restaurants and B&B establishments. I love the wine newbies who are eager to learn and taste the wines. I love watching them as they leave with another notch on their wine glass - a notch of wine confidence and knowing I helped them. I loved meeting new friends and catching up with old friends.

I love the fact that while I viewed the mornings as miserable, gray and bone chilling, visitors to our valley reminded me how beautiful and perfect the day was in Walla Walla with the white and crystal flocked bare trees - like a scene out of Currier and Ives. I thank them for letting me see what they see and for getting me in the holiday spirit. I couldn't have done it without them.