Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Connection--Firesteed Cellars

          In 1998, Shellie and Bryan Croft were driving along a vineyard road in the Willamette Valley.  The Crofts were viewing possible vineyard sites while working for other employers.  At one point, Shellie vividly remembers turning her head to look over her shoulder.  She viewed an aging farmhouse in the distance.  At that moment, a shock of electricity went up her spine.  She had a moment of clarity viewing that home.
            She then turned back to the conversation in progress, the tingle up her spine dissipating as quickly as it started.
            Some part of Shellie must have known that years later, she would be living in that home.  She and her husband would be raising their children in the middle of those vines, calling that vineyard their farm as they tended to the fruit that would be Firesteed Cellars' wines.

Most winemakers feel a connection to their wines--a deep, profound link to the grapes, to the land.  Bryan and Shellie Croft of Firesteed Cellars have this connection; it comes from living on the land, raising their children in the middle of the vineyards, and watching the vines grow every day of every year.  However, Shellie sensed this connection so many years before.
Shellie got her start in wine during college in Chico, California, where she worked in the service industry to make money for school.  One weekend she found herself in Napa working a golf tournament.  By 1990, she was working there full time as a tasting room staff member for Silverado Vineyards.  At the same time, Bryan was a UC Davis grad who was also working at Silverado Vineyards.  The two met, fell in love, and got married in 1998, the same fateful year of seeing their future home.

They eventually moved north to Oregon and were working at a custom crush facility owned by Wayne and Mickey Flynn.  Firesteed was one of the custom crush accounts.  In 2000, Howard Rossbach bought the facility from the Flynns and turned the entire production area to Firesteed Cellars, with no more custom crush clients.  Rossbach retained Bryan as his winemaker and Shellie as the cellar rat, making this upcoming fall Bryan’s twentieth harvest in the wine business.
Firesteed makes nearly 85,000 cases of wine near Rickreal in the central Willamette Valley, every year using less and less outside-sourced fruit and getting closer and closer to being only an estate-grown producer.  Of course, Rossbach and the Crofts specialize in the Valley’s best growers:  pinot noir, pinot gris, riesling, and gewürztraminer. 
Shellie starts our tour in the lab to help us get to know these Firesteed favorites; she considers this area her domain.  We then follow her to the vineyards, literally just days away from bud break at the time of our visit. Though she considers this Bryan’s area of expertise, he is away that day lecturing at OSU.  I’ve seen the pictures of Shellie’s hard work in the vineyards, right by Bryan’s side, so I know she is very knowledgeable in this realm, as well.

We make our way back to the production area and then barrel room, to the exact spot Shellie suffered quite an injury several years ago when falling off a barrel stack while working.  Though this wound has healed, at the time of our visit she was nursing a cracked heel, another winery injury from this fall’s cellar work.  It is a reminder of the genuine hard labor it takes to make wine; this is not a profession for the weak or faint-of-heart—Shellie and Bryan are neither.

Amidst the barrels, Shellie lets us taste her “Shellie Chard,” the 2015 chardonnay still sitting on its lees.  This barrel is actually for the Citation label also produced by Firesteed; these wines are small-lots using only fruit from the Erratic Oaks vineyard, the spot Shellie and family call home.  The inspiration for Shellie’s chardonnay is a very early wine tasting experience she had in Napa.  She was blind tasting chardonnays, and one--with its light oak and unmistakable fruit--seemed so remarkable to her.  She remembers it as “Wine C,” which turned out to be a Kistler Chardonnay.  It is what set her palate for every chardonnay since.

All the Firesteed wines are excellent examples of their terroir.  I first fell in love with the Firesteed Riesling, made in a wonderfully dry style that still shows the characteristic apple and floral  notes with just a slight hint of petrol—my favorite.  Next, the Firesteed Pinot Gris is a quintessential example of the Oregon style—light with zippy acid and white fruits. 
I had my first taste of the Firesteed Rosé (from pinot noir, of course) after my visit:  a beautiful shade of pink--with hints of strawberry, grass, and honeysuckle--that makes me long for summer and a patio.  Finally, my other long-time favorite is the Firesteed Pinot Noir.  Filled with bright cherry, fresh strawberry, slight mint, and wet earth, it is has become my go-to pinot, an outstanding example of an Oregon noir at an amazing price point. 

The connection Shellie and Bryan have to Firesteed wines can be sensed in every sip.  Shellie knew this connection was meant to be nearly twenty years ago when she spied her current home for the first time, years before Howard Rossbach appointed her husband to be the winemaker at Firesteed. 

Raising their children in the middle of the vineyard at Erratic Oaks gives Bryan and Shellie Croft a deep appreciation for the vines that make Firesteed Cellars' wines.  The terroir is reflected so well in Bryan’s wines because he lives in that spot, in that place where his wines actually begin.  The distance between the land and the glass has never been as short as it is for Firesteed wines.  

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hidden Gems—Willamette Valley Surprises

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places! 
You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”

Deciding where to's not as easy as Dr. Seuss makes it sound
This is often a problem when traveling…for me anyway.  I’m a Type A personality.  Anal-retentive.  A bit of a freak planner. 

Sometimes too much so.

Planning every second of every trip is something I used to do, and something on which I have had to work as I age.  And I’ve done pretty well, if I do say so myself!
I no longer make plan after plan and appointment after appointment.  Mostly because I have had some of my best travel experiences through unplanned stops based on the recommendations of others. 

This is my newest way to travel:  less planning and more spontaneity.

Though it is much harder than it sounds--for me--this plan of action paid off on my recent adventure in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  I’m calling these unexpected treats off-the-beaten-path, hidden gems.  And they were great surprises!

McMinnville was the first surprise.  Okay, so this isn’t off-the-beaten-path or hidden, but having McMinnville as the home base for the majority of the trip was such a splendid turn of events.  My husband and I stayed just blocks from the adorable downtown area in the cutest historic rental (check for options), making navigating the region quite easy.
Our first treat came in the form of amazing restaurants in the historic city center, most on or near Third Street.  Spanish-inspired dishes awaited us at LaRambla, a quaint, tapas-style establishment.  To say the food was amazing was an understatement.  Our table of four shared lamb nachos, the fondue special, mussels in wine sauce, and fried empanadas, all paired with a great bottle of Domaine Serene Pinot Noir.  Though we were completely stuffed after the meal, we did share a glass of port-style, local wine from the extensive wine list which featured many Oregon options, as well as other wines from around the country and world.
Nick’s Italian Cafe was the next Third Street surprise.  It was another highly recommended spot by the locals, so we knew we couldn’t miss.  More delicious culinary options awaited our small group.  The crab lasagna was absolutely amazing, so amazing that it was featured in Saveur Magazine, along with Nick, owner of the establishment for all 39 years it has been in operation.  Another amazing wine list where we enjoyed a Willamette Valley wine (and Oregon beer) helped make the meal complete.  After, we moved to the back of the restaurant where the locals hangout.  Eventually, my husband started visiting with a friendly patron, who just happened to be a wine maker there for a cocktail.  Then our group was joined by Nick himself, conducting his evening check on his business.  A hidden gem for sure!

Downtown McMinnville was filled with shops and eateries of all kinds, but we found a great jewel in R Stuart & Co for wine.  Honestly, our group of four stopped there because it was open, and we weren’t yet ready for dinner.  However, these breaks often turn into the best experiences, and this was the case here.  We sat at a table looking out on bustling Third Street while we sipped on the three different lines of wines R Stuart produces in McMinnville.  The Love, Oregon brand had beautiful labels on the outside of the bottle with great wines on the inside.  My favorite was the Love, Oregon rosè, perhaps the prettiest bottle of wine I have seen for some time.  However, the R Stuart reserve pinot noirs were simply splendid examples of what the grape can do in the Willamette Valley.

Moving away from the lively town, we headed to more local-favorite wineries.  One such spot was White Rose Estate.  Nestled in the rolling vineyard hills was this picturesque destination.  A small producer of pinot noir, it could be easily missed…but it shouldn’t!  The tasting room was a unique find in, and of, itself.  After stepping inside, I felt I had entered a treehouse, suspended in mid-air.  The steep, enclosed roof added to the ambiance.  There were no windows, but there was also no need. The amazing pinot noirs deserved all the attention here.  Another special aspect was the out-of-house bathroom—no, not an outhouse, just out-of-house.  It added to the whimsical feel of being in another place and time, a place and time with fabulous Willamette Valley wines!

Not necessarily unknown or concealed, Sokol Blosser made my list for a special reason.  Yes, the wines here were amazing; yes, the service was top notch; yes, the surroundings were splendid; and, yes, the establishment was quite historic.  All of these were motives for visiting, but there was another, lesser-known purpose as well:  tasty food enjoyed in the outdoor areas.  Sokol Blosser has an in-house chef who creates great specials.  The customary cheese and charcuterie board pleased with every bite, but the chef’s house-made hummus and pita bread made a lunch with an amazing view.  These specials change daily, so multiple trips would be wise to enjoy all Sokol Blosser has to offer.

Further south in the Willamette was another hidden gem—Left Coast Cellars.  One late afternoon, my hubby and I were looking for a quick bite to eat.  Left Coast was another recommendation from natives, the highest honor in my book.  We parked and admired the breathtaking grounds.  Inside, we ordered a house-made sandwich to share as a late lunch.  We noticed a gray-haired gentleman working in the kitchen as we started our tasting.  We sipped on two different sparkling options, moved onto white wines, and ended with several excellent pinot noirs.  Our light fare arrived, and we enjoyed the food with the wines.  Soon, the gray-haired gentleman came out after noticing our Wyoming license plate.  This man working in the kitchen just happened to be a former resident of our neighbor state, Colorado...and the owner of the entire organic Left Coast Cellars property!  We had quite the visit about his background and the farm.  This was the last stop of our week-long stay, and that it was such an exceptional surprise seemed only fitting for our whole trip, a trip where the unplanned destinations seemed meant to be.

be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shae,
you’re off to great places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting. 
So…get on your way!”

Dr. Seuss may have said it best about traveling through life—there are so many places to go.  But many of these great places shouldn’t be found by planning every step of the way.  Many of these treasures will only be found by going off the usual path, being spontaneous, and listening to others.

Don’t by Type A, don’t be anal-retentive, don’t be…the old me.  Learn to go with the flow and enjoy the twists and turns life throws your way.  The best laid plans can be good now and then, but the hidden gems of travel just might be some of the greatest memories of a destination. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

A Classic--Ponzi Vineyards

As we wound our way up the gentle hillside, the overcast sky was barely letting the sun through.  However, the looming rain clouds provided one of the most beautiful views:  lush, green knolls in every direction we looked.

We passed houses and farmland, and then entered the sloping vineyards just before we glimpsed the gorgeous facility.  Modern, with a rustic feel, the wood and glass seemed to fit into the hill itself, part of the environment as if it had always been there.

But it hadn’t.  This was actually Ponzi Vineyards' new tasting and production facility.  Though these structures were only recently completed, it is the quintessential example of Willamette Valley wine—a family-owned winery that cares about the environment so much that it feels as if it is actually a part of the environment.

Dick and Nancy Ponzi were Willamette Valley winemaking pioneers.  They came to Oregon from California in 1970 looking for the perfect place to grow pinot noir.  Vines were planted and worked by the Ponzis, and as the children grew, they helped their parents work the vineyards.  The first commercial sale of wine was in 1976, and the entire Ponzi family has been involved on some level ever since.

Today, Dick and Nancy’s daughter Luisa is the winemaker, having learned the ropes from her parents and at school in Beaune, France twenty vintages ago. Luisa’s husband, fellow winemaker Eric Hamacher, and their children are active in the business and even live with views of the valley’s vineyards.

Luisa’s sister Anna is the president at Ponzi Vineyards.  She is the marketing force behind making Ponzi’s wonderful wines known around the world.  Anna’s family is also active in the winery life, especially her architect husband Brett, who helped design and build the new tasting room that opened in 2013.

Luisa and Anna’s brother Michael was active in the family business for nearly twenty years before he and his wife branched out to move to Italy and focus on another product:  olive oil.  

However, don’t believe for a minute that Dick and Nancy passed the winery to their children for a relaxed, retired life.  They are still active at the winery and have delved into other business ventures as well, including an early-Oregon craft brewery.  One of their accomplishments has been the Dundee Bistro and Bubble Bar, a restaurant with an outstanding food program featuring locally grown and raised products, known for excellent regional cuisine and an extensive wine list.    

The pioneer story makes this family-owned winery a classic, but so does the winemaking facility.  The winemaking was moved from the original, historic Ponzi vineyard site (which is still a working vineyard and winery) to the new facility—Collina del Sogno—in 2008, where 45,000 cases are made a year.  This is gravity-flow production; the grapes come in at the top level, move to the second level for fermentation, go to the third level for barrel aging, and end at the fourth level for bottling and storage.  Gravity does the work during these processes, meaning that the wine sees less oxygen and softer handling, leading to a high-quality wine. 

The new tasting room was opened in 2013 at the same site as Collina del Sogno.  The wood, concrete, and glass create a welcoming environment for tasting.  The windows let in clear views of the Willamette Valley while customers warm themselves near the indoor fireplace.  The Bocci ball court is just one place to spend time when the Oregon weather is beautiful.  The outdoor patios offer more amazing views of the greenery and vines below.  All of the winery offices are also located here, as well as a small museum area that chronicles the Ponzi Family’s story over the last forty-five years of making wine.    

However, all wine lovers know that the best wines start in the vineyards—Ponzi is no exception.  The vineyards are LIVE certified sustainable, “the world’s highest standard for sustainable viticulture.”  These environmentally-sound strategies can be seen almost everywhere:  from cover crops to compost, from organic pest control to eco-friendly glass.  Yet, the only other resource that is as important to the Ponzis as their grapes is their people, another vital part of a thriving winery.

The 2014 Chardonnay, aged in stainless steel, is a spectacular example of chardonnay’s tendencies to be a chameleon.  In the steel tank, the light, mineral characteristics show before the fruit, and then the tropical fruit shows through to the finish—a more Chablis-like example.

The 2012 Avellana is the other side of the chardonnay coin.  This wine, twenty-five percent aged in oak for twenty months, is full of butter and pear, richness and cream.  The tropical fruit finish ends the quintessential example of a quality, buttery chardonnay, all without being overdone or overripe.

Pinot noirs are showcased here, too, like the 2013 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, with the archetypal favorites of an Oregon pinot:  bright strawberry, deep cherry, crisp acid, and tasty eucalyptus.  From the bright color in the glass to the long finish, it is a perfect Willamette Valley pinot noir.

The Aurora Vineyard Pinot Noir uses fruit from the most prized vineyard site, situated at slightly higher elevations (300-600 feet) and planted in prestigious laurelwood soil.  This is a deeper, richer, darker wine with great fruit, but the wet earth makes this incredibly complex, while showing the characteristic signs of pinot delicacy.

Lest one think that Ponzi Vineyards is not a diverse producer, think again.  Indigenous Italian varieties are grown by the family, like arneis and dolcetto.  Rosés and sparklings are also made, and, recently, even a lightly-sparkling muscat was produced—a Moscato di Ponzi. 

Though Ponzi does make a select few unique wines from unique grapes, Ponzi Vineyards is the classic example of a Willamette Valley winery.  The Ponzis were early pioneers in the wine industry in the valley.  Still today, they produce excellent examples of the region’s top grapes.  The Oregon philosophy of caring for the environment is first and foremost for this winery, as is caring for the people who work there.  The gravity-flow winery is not specific to Oregon, but has become an Oregon mainstay.  The tasting room is new and modern, yet fits into its surroundings like it has been there for decades. 

Yes, Ponzi Vineyards is truly a classic—the perfect example of what a Willamette Valley winery can…and should…be.

Monday, March 21, 2016

And the Teacher Becomes the Student—Taking the Certified Specialist of Wine Exam

            I’m a geek.  No, really.  I am.  I love knowledge.  It is probably one of the main reasons I have been a teacher for 18 years—I love to learn. 
            Studying in college was hard, especially because I had children when I completed my undergraduate degree, yet I truly enjoyed the work.
            I went on to get a master’s degree.  Again, the workload was difficult, mostly because I was a full-time teacher with a family while doing this.
            Then I found wine.  The newest field of study was wide open to me…and what a wide world it was.  The more I learned about wine, the more I knew there was to learn about wine.  The vast amount of information to know was unreal; it still boggles my mind a little.
            However, I am proud to announce that I did reach one milestone in my wine education:  I passed the Certified Specialist of Wine exam.  Since I am a total nerd, I decided to share my study process.  Not that I am an expert in wine just yet—because again, I know how much more there is to learn—but I do consider myself an expert on education.  I hope to help someone else become a complete wine geek.

            Step one:  determining the right road.  There are multiple avenues to take for wine education.  The first step is to decide which one of the avenues to take.  I chose the Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators.  There were several reasons for this.  I live in a very remote part of the country—the Black Hills of Wyoming—in a town with just over 3,000 people, so options were limited.  The SWE had an online class option which I took this fall and found the “classroom” atmosphere very helpful. However, I still did several months of self-study after the class, as well as having studied different regions of the world on my own over the years.
            In addition to the option to have class companions, SWE also allowed the test to be proctored at any Pearson Vue testing center. Again, this was incredibly important for me.  Instead of having to find a class and test date that I may have had to take off work or travel thousands of miles to attend, I could study on my own and test nearby.  This ultimately gave me the flexibility to squeeze this coursework in my crazy, busy schedule as a mom, teacher, city council member, and part-time wine educator. 
            The Certified Specialist of Wine may not be the route others should take, though.  The Court of Master Sommeliers (which I did pass the intro level in 2013) is a great option for people already in the business or interested in restaurant service. The blind tasting and service portions of the exam are rigorous, and unless one is in the industry, it might be difficult to practice.  Also, exams are given only at certain times and in certain locations, not always fitting some schedules.  The Wine and Spirits Education Trust has multiple levels of education, as well.  But again, classes are only in specific places on specific dates, so for some, this is a difficult task.  I would have loved either of these options, as well, if they would have worked in my schedule.
            I also want to give a shout out to where I started my formal wine education:  the International Wine and Spirits Guild of Denver, Colorado.  I spent nine days straight, eight hours a day, prepping for a written and service test.  It was a wonderful first step and did earn me a sommelier certification.  I always equated this certification to the CFL (Canadian Football League), while The Court would be the NFL (National Football League). I learned the same information, it just wasn’t as prestigious a title.  However, IWSG now has classes in other parts of the country, giving some flexibility if one lives in the right area.  These classes can be taken on their own or used as a study program to prepare for other certifications, as well.
            Step two:  finding how to study. For many adults, studying is hard, mostly because it has been many years since they have had to do this on a serious level and because they hold full-time jobs with many other responsibilities, like families, homes, bills, etc.   Ultimately, good learning takes time, so creating time is the first step in studying.
            One reason it takes so much time is repetition is incredibly important.  First, get the study materials for whichever test chosen.  This usually includes some sort of text book or study guide.  Read.  Read every page of every chapter.  But have a purpose for reading.  First, read any chapter objectives that might be provided.  Then read actively by taking notes while reading.  Pause frequently to summarize.  My favorite method is on sticky notes placed in the book.  However, handwritten notes on notebook paper or typed notes also work.  (Using this technique, you just went through the information twice.)
            After active reading and note taking while reading, review the materials.  This can be done by rewriting/retyping the notes, creating a study guide, and/or responding to the information.  (Now you’ve had the information at least three times.)
            Next, create study materials for deep study, such as flash cards or sample tests.  I prefered flash cards because these can be taken anywhere, allowing for study on the couch, at the doctor’s office, or in the car.  My favorite place to study my flash cards was actually on the treadmill while walking/jogging.  No personal trainer is going to say this is okay, but you aren’t focused on getting in shape right now, you are focused on wine study!  Also, there is a lot educational research that says movement while memorization actually helps the entire process.  (Now you’ve reviewed the information four times, five times…a hundred times!)

            For deep study, I chose a country or concept every week (wine production one week, southern hemisphere the next) and skipped material I felt I already knew (like service since I already passed an actual service exam).  Then the final week, I purchased the workbook that accompanied the CSW text.  This was perhaps the most important step.  Every day I focused on one section each evening, working through the exercises and answering the quizzes.  This helped me do a final focus of concepts I may have overlooked.  The workbook also gave me an idea of what the SWE thought was most important. 

            Step three:  taking the test.  On to the way to the testing center, I actually tried to relax and listen to some of my favorite music.  (Keep in mind, my trip to the testing center was a “mere” two and a half hours—I mentioned the remote area in which I live, right?)  I did study a few ideas I thought may be helpful for one last look, like a review of all the French info, just because there was so darn much! 
Then I checked in for the test.  This included presenting two forms of photo id, scanning both my palms three different times, removing all jewelry except my wedding ring, and turning out my pockets to prove nothing was in them.  I was giving one laminated piece of paper and a wet-erase marker before entering my cubicle.  The noise-canceling headphones actually proved helpful, and after taking my time with the instructions, the hour-long test started. 
I worked through all the questions, flagging any about which I wasn’t 100 percent sure. After this, I went back to each flagged question; there were 17. After rereading and contemplating the answers, most were good, educated guesses.  However, there were nine about which I still wasn’t sure.  I had ample time left, so I went back and read all the other questions again, taking my full hour allotted for the exam.   There was no need to rush.

Step four:  getting the results.  Another benefit of this exam was the instant feedback.  After checking out of the testing room with my photo id and a palm scan, I presented my identification to receive my score:  92 percent!  I found it pretty ironic that it was basically the score that I had predicted based on the answers I did not know.  Several of the questions with which I struggled dealt specifically with geography; I knew this was one of my weaknesses and an area which I should have studied more…if only there had been more time!

My geekiness paid off, yet again, as I applied my teacher tendencies to myself instead of to my day job.  The study skills I preached to students were not only useful, they were absolutely necessary to pass the Certified Specialist of Wine exam, a test that covers the breadth of the wine world in depth.  I was quite proud of my score, but then I instantly wished I would have studied even more and missed fewer. Yep, such a nerd.  
I hope this helps any other wine lovers become a certified nerd too. Happy studying! 

Monday, March 14, 2016

More March Madness--Oregon Wineries

            It’s that time of year again.  The time when people go a little crazy.

On Sunday, sports fans everywhere waited with baited breath as they watched ESPN to fuel their craziness.  Instantly, they began planning their brackets, deciding who would win, who would lose, who would be the Cinderella team, and who would go all the way.

While everyone around me is going crazy with March Madness and the NCAA tourney that starts later this week, I am nursing a sickness, too.   My illness is just as serious, but comes in a different form. 

Hello, my name is Kara, and I have spring fever.  Bad.

How do I feed my fever?  No, I don’t look up win-loss records.  I don’t investigate shooting percentages.  Rebound records mean nothing to me.

My spring fever is only remedied by travel…wine travel.  

This time last year I was busy researching my upcoming summer stay in Sonoma by choosing the elite eightwineries of northern California that I wanted to visit.

The initial list was incredibly long, and whittling it down to just eight seemed almost impossible.  I made the final cuts after having quite strict criteria:  I would spread my choices between Napa and Sonoma, visit both historic and newer producers, choose producers who used diverse grapes, and taste only labels which I never had. 

My list was fantastic, and it led me on an incredible voyage of tasting.  I still hate to admit I never made it to all eight. Not because I didn’t try…but just because there were wineries everywhere, and others—many others—were added to my list. 

This year’s spring fever is being cured with a trip to Oregon, one of my favorite regions that just happens to produce large quantities of my favorite grape:  pinot noir.

My trip is much shorter, just a week.  The area to cover is large, over 150 miles long and 60 miles wide.  My criteria this year is a little more relaxed:  I am going to visit both north and south Willamette Valley and stop at early Oregon producers.  However, diversity in grapes is not a concern…bring on the pinot noir!  Finally, producers that I have tasted before are not only allowed, they are encouraged.  Winemakers whose wines I know well are actually top on my list.  New wines I have longed to try will be part of my eight, but that is not a must this time around.

Ponzi Vineyards—Ponzi qualifies as both an historic producer and one I have been dying to try.  Oregon pioneers Dick and Sandy moved to Oregon in the late 1960s and planted vines in 1970.  Wines can be tasted at the new facility which opened in 2008 or at the historic, original vineyard.  No matter, I look forward to stopping at this elite winery, though I haven’t decided which location I will be visiting just yet—I want to stop at both!

Domaine Drouhin—“French soul with Oregon soil” was the premise for the Drouhin family, long-time Burgundy winemakers, to search for the perfect New World location to make great pinot noir.  Several tasting options are available at the state-of-the-art gravity flow facility.  However, the comparative tasting between Drouhin wines from both Burgundy and Oregon seems an intriguing way to get to know this producer. 

 Penner-Ash—Lynn Penner-Ash studied at UC Davis and trained in Napa Valley, creating a very prestigious resume.  She then moved with her husband Ron to become the first female winemaker hired in Oregon.  In 1998, Lynn and Ron took the risk to open their own winery, Penner-Ash.  Though the focus here is on pinot noir, other wines are made from syrah, riesling, and viognier.  There is an absolutely beautiful view from the winery, but a hike through the vineyards is also a tasting option I may want to try. 

Sokol Blosser—Susan Sokol and Bill Blosser also graduated from a respected California university—Stanford—and then left the state to start fresh in Oregon in the 1960s.  By 1977, they were making their own wine from estate vineyards and raising a family on site.  Today their wines set the bar high for Oregon producers.  Farming is still in the Sokol-Blosser blood, shown in their demonstration vineyard for customers to see firsthand how vines grow each season.  Unique tasting options abound here with a vineyard hike and an ATV tour in the summer. 

Erath—Dick Erath started making wine in his garage in 1965.  From there he planted 23 varieties of grapes in the Dundee Hills.  Pinot flourished in Oregon, as did his eventual winery.  Erath and subsequent winemakers have created the quintessential Oregon pinot noir:  delicate, complex, fruit-forward, and earthy.  Though the winery is no longer family owned, it is definitely a must-taste experience, and even though many Erath wines are widely available, I am ecstatic to experience the winery and the pinot noirs not available to the masses. 

Firesteed Cellars—Firesteed is a much smaller and lesser-known winery than many on my list, but it shouldn’t be.  This is perhaps the one I am most excited about visiting.  I have developed quite a fun social-media relationship with Shellie Croft--wife of winemaker Bryan.  For over a year now I have watched the vineyard and cellar work at Firesteed, as well as gotten familiar with the Croft family.  Their riesling and pinot noir are available in my tiny state of Wyoming, but I can’t wait to meet the dedicated producers of these wonderful wines…and make a real-life social media connection. 

King Estate—The southern Willamette Valley also has wineries to visit, most notably, King Estate.  Just south of Eugene lies one of Oregon’s largest producers, as well as the largest organic vineyard…not just in the state, but in the world.  The on-site restaurant is known for using products from the surrounding area and organic produce from the estate gardens.  Of course, the wine is stellar and worth drinking in the beautiful tasting room with sweeping views of vines.  A reason, in and of itself, to go further south.

Sweet Cheeks Winery—To top off my eight wineries on my Oregon list is Sweet Cheeks Winery, another southern Willamette destination.  After growing grapes for other winemakers for over three decades, the producers decided to make some of their own wines.  Sweet Cheeks is known for its fantastic staff, beautiful views, and tasty wines.  Picnics are encouraged when the weather permits, and on Friday nights, live music adds to the entertainment provided here.  This also happens to be one of my Oregon friend's favorites, so I must see what she loves about Sweet Cheeks—other than the name that just makes me smile.
I have been bitten by the bug.  I have spring fever…and it’s a bad case.  While others cure what ails them with their basketball brackets and hours spent contemplating who will be successful in the NCAA tournament, I spend my time reading travel books and planning winery visits. 

To each his—or her—own, but travel is the one remedy for me, and this year, Oregon is the prescription.  I’ll take one trip and call the doctor in the morning.  

Monday, March 7, 2016

Cocktail Culture—Cocktail Tour of Downtown Rapid City

Behind the bar, two gentlemen are muddling, mixing, shaking, and stirring.  Ice chunks fly as citrus fruits are sliced into rounds and infused vodkas are splashed in to pretty glasses.  The flurry behind the bar isn’t some angry rage being witnessed…it is a frenzy, though…a frenzy of fun cocktails waiting to be appreciated! 

This is exactly what my girlfriends and I did on a recent weekend in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota:  we frolicked in the fun of unique cocktails.  Luckily for us, there are great places to get these libations, all within walking distance of great hotels, creating the perfect trifecta for cocktail enjoyment.

Vertex Sky Bar at the top of the Hotel Alex Johnson is the perfect place to start for tasty cocktails.  The interior of the bar is vintage art deco, a perfect throw back to the 1920s.  The gorgeous late afternoon sun reflects off the outdoor fire pits as the sky deck warms patrons’ bodies and the cocktails warm their hearts.

Any fan of the Moscow Mule knows that it is a great first drink for the night.  The light, refreshing citrus and ginger actually act as a palate cleanser prepping for the rest of the evening’s tastings.  Mules are also great drinks for the spring as days and nights begin to heat up for the season.

The next cocktail of interest is the Pineapple Upside Down.  Again, a drink that screams sunshine, the vanilla vodka, Malibu coconut rum, pineapple juice, and Grenadine create perfect sweetness for sipping, as well as create a fabulous-looking drink.

 The Blind Lion is a spot I always feel as if I should keep secret, yet it is such an entertaining environment that I want others to share in the absolute excitement of this hidden gem.  The ambiance of the speakeasy is taken very seriously; nearly every aspect is meant to catapult customers back to the days of prohibition:  phones are discouraged, conversation is stimulated, and drinks are authentic.  Do not come here when in a rush; each of the drinks is meant to sipped and enjoyed at a leisurely pace while reflecting on life’s pleasures. 

The Pear Side Car mixes pear brandy, orange sour, and house-made brown sugar simple syrup with a brown sugar rim to create a beautiful drink.  It is then poured into a martini glass, topped with an orange round, and sprinkled with dried rose petals, creating an absolutely decadent beverage.

My personal favorite is the Lavender Star.  It could be because it is served in a champagne flute, but it could also be because it has vodka and fresh-squeezed lime juice.  No, the best part of this drink is the house-made lavender simple syrup that smells and tastes like spring in a glass.
Kol, on the corner of Main Street and Mount Rushmore Road, is one of the hippest places to sip cocktails in downtown Rapid.  Modern and upscale décor prepares customers for the modern and upscale drinks available.  These truly distinctive cocktails are anything but the norm found in the average bar.  They are fun, and yes, maybe a little frivolous—which, frankly, is why they are so enjoyable to drink!

The White Cosmo is truly a beautiful cocktail.  The show piece of this creation is the orchid frozen in a large ball of ice in the center of the martini glass.  Poured over the top of the most beautiful ice ever is a concoction of vodka, elderflower liqueur, lime juice, and white cranberry juice.  

The Red Hot Sangria is an interesting twist on the traditional Spanish wine cocktail.  The base of malbec wine, vanilla vodka, cranberry syrup, and sparkling wine are just the beginning.  The special ingredient is the brandied cranberries, created by macerating the fruit in brandy, Grand Marnier, orange zest, sugar, and cinnamon sticks.

The flurry to make a gorgeous cocktail is intense, but so is the wonderful creation that can result from this unique art form.  Downtown Rapid City has wonderful establishments at which to enjoy many creative libations.  Take a cocktail tour soon and get to know the culture of Rapid. Book a hotel or plan for a ride at the end of the night, then enjoy getting familiar with the bartenders chopping, slicing, mixing, and pouring the coolest drinks in town.  

Monday, February 22, 2016

Get Well Soon—Sick and Twisted Brewery, Hill City

Like many good stories…this one started with wine.

The story began when Rob and Kim Livingston had an idea—they wanted to bring a winery tasting room to the Black Hills.  They searched for business partners and found an Oregon winery looking to expand.  In 2011, the initial Naked Winery Tasting Room was opened in Custer, and the Hill City location soon followed.  (Read one of my very early blogs about Naked Winery's opening here.)  
Rob and Kim jumped into the world of wine head first.  They expanded their tasting room in Hill City while expanding their clientele.  They brought in additional wines and blended their own. 
But this is not the end of the story.  Quite far from it.  It is actually the beginning of another story.
Not long after Naked Wines became a success in the Black Hills, Rob and Kim knew they wanted to diversify.  Rob had long been a beer lover, especially of beer heavy on hops that add the strong, biting flavor.  It was a match made in heaven between the wines already at the tasting room and the beer Rob wanted to produce, so he again expanded, and Sick and Twisted Brewing was born.
Sick and Twisted stays in the same vein as Naked’s wines—a little bit of naughty and a whole lot of fun.  If you blush easily, some of the names might make you uncomfortable, but if you take your beer more seriously than you do yourself, this is the place for you.
On any given day, Sick and Twisted has 18 beers on tap, but that doesn’t include numerous other batches that might be brewing in back.  Rob and Kim both love to cook, and this love is where many of the beer ideas originate.  Rob creates all the recipes, and always makes sure to have a variety of styles on the menu.  For instance, there is always an ale, a stout, and an IPA from which to choose.
Though these are the “usual” suspects most expect to see, there are many very unusual options here as well.  Yes, a blonde ale is common.  But what about a watermelon blond ale?  An IPA is also common.  But what about a Black Hills spruce tip IPA?  Other unique features include Juicy Ginger and Sour Puss—both fun, citrusy options.  Then there is the Sexy Senorita, a chocolate, coffee, chili stout. 
As Rob comments, he is “having a gas” making these beers.  The twinkle in his eye is visible when he talks about his creations.  One especially has him grinning.  At the Great American Beer Fest in 2012, he saw a peanut butter beer.  He came home determined to make his own.  He took his Nut Hugger, an already earthy and nutty beer, and added peanut butter.  Each time he makes it, he changes the jelly flavoring.  However, also each time he makes it, it is a huge success.  The last time Rob poured this at a tasting event with the public, the first keg tapped out in an hour and twelve minutes; the second was gone in an hour and fifteen minutes. 
Sick and Twisted’s story continues with Rob’s newest project, the exclusive contract for producing Rushmore beers.  The names and labels will not only reflect the four presidents on Mount Rushmore, but they will also be unique brews.  The first is Honest Abe, a red ale for President Lincoln.  The Never Lie Porter represents George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson is on the label of Declaration of Independence IPA.  Perhaps the most unique Rushmore beer is the Big Stick Lemongrass for President Roosevelt, a lemongrass and mint beer inspired by a mint julep. 
Sick and Twisted cans several beers and fills growlers too, so these unique Black Hills beers can be enjoyed no matter where home is.  Food options consist of pizzas, sandwiches, soft pretzels, and cheese plates.  Fun events, including comedians and costume parties, are a continued example of the fun vibe Kim and Rob try to encourage here. 
The story of Sick and Twisted all started with a love of wine.  However, the appreciation of beer soon followed to continue to thicken the plot for Rob and Kim Livingston.  They are having a ton of fun taking the “pecksniffery” out of both quality wine and craft beer.  They take customers on quite an entertaining trip, all via a pint of beer.  Luckily, their story is not finished yet. 

Easy Amber—This is the beer for beginners and Bud Light lovers.  Just 4% alcohol and only 1.5 IBU (international bitterness units), this is a light-bodied beer any drinker will love.

Naughty Red Head—The imperial red ale is a beer for all year.  The more serious beer aficionado will enjoy this one due to its slightly heavier alcohol and much heavier IBU (43.1) than the Easy Amber. 

Peanut Butter and Jelly—So unique and so popular, this is a medium-bodied, nutty, earthy beer.  Mix this with the smoothness of peanut butter and the sweetness of jelly, and the PB&J is a hit.

4th Anniversary Hop on Top—“Hop heads” will unite behind this fourth generation IPA. This is Rob’s personal favorite; he loves the citrus and grapefruit with the hop finish.  At 102.7 IBU, this beer packs quite a punch.