To the far side of the state

Sometimes the best therapy in the world is a road stretching out in front of you. The last month we waited for our new townhouse to close, the month before that we waited for the sale of our house of 16 years to close, the four and a half months before that we endure a flooded basement and the restoration work it brought.  
I must interrupt this to put in a plug for the best realtor there is, Kim Tornow. We could never have made it as easily as we did without her expert advice and attention to detail, thank you Kim.

We signed the-closing papers this morning, with our bags in the car. Now it is off to Prosser, WA to visit a new winery, Wit Cellars. It is the work of some friends, with a great track record in the wine world. Gina is meeting us at the tasting room, we get a private tasting, pick up our Founders club shipment, then off to a great meal to celebrate.

My stress level goes down with each passing mile, the warm Eastern Washington sun beats in the window, Earl Klugh and his guitar completing the prescription; restoration is well underway.

Brimmer & Heeltap, a new favorite

My short list of favorite restaurants is a moving target. Sunday we found a new contender, Brimmer & Heeltap, in Seattle. Yes that is the real name, not sure the history but do plan to find out as there is another visit already on the radar.
Small, intimate, rustic, and fresco dining, everything it takes for a perfect environment. Jen, the owner and founder got it right. Her bio says she knows the industry, but her real talent is that she is the perfect hostess, we felt like family, no more than that, we knew we were welcome and valued.
One of the tests of a stellar resturantuar is the ability to extend your passion through your staff, our server Lauren, matched Jen’s sense of hospitality. She is an artist, and took time to show us some of her work, which I find amazing, as well as she took an interest in my sketches. 

In the end of course it is about the food, and we were impressed.

Of course started with bubbles, and to go with them we had Tapioca Puff Chips, with chili-lime sauce. They could sell these by the bag and I would give up potato chips for a long time. Light, a bit picante, with the promised lime – my kind of snack.

Tricia ordered the scallops, not a big surprise. They came with a Poblano Aioli, but not just a glob of mayonnaise – the aioli was applied with air injected, making it light and airy, amazing.

My steak, well I don’t remember one that I have enjoyed more, it appeared to be a fillet mignon, cooked perfect, with sautéed oyster mushrooms and micro greens on the side. Thank you Lauren and Jen, we will be back, soon, Saturday I think.

Back to Woodland, Morgan’s on Main

Woodland, CA continues to surprise me. Two weeks ago it was Maria’s Cantina, Kellie, the owner invited me back to Woodland to have dinner at her other restaurant, Morgan’s on Main. Once again I was blown away.

Brick walls and rustic wood are always a hit. The place exudes class. The staff was amazing, I arrived early just so I could check the staff out before they knew I was there to meet the owner, and even the people who were not waiting on me were friendly, I felt welcome from the time I approached the door.

But, lets get to the food! What else is there to say? Devilled eggs with candied bacon AND a Bowl of Bacon. How much better could it get?

Again I let the waitress, Mel, order for me. Morgan’s is called a “Steakhouse” and they do have steak, but oh so much more. Mel brought me one of the specials, Pan seared Mahi- Mahi with Arugula Cream sauce, served with Quinoa, cherry tomatoes and zucchini. The fish was perfect, moist, with just the right crust. The Arugula sauce added color and complimented the fish just right.IMG_1939

She also brought a side of the wild-mushroom risotto. My standard for risotto is pretty high because it is my wife’s specialty, this one measured up just fine.

The biggest surprise was the liquor for dessert – I had never heard of a sweet potato liquor.  It had hints of Thanksgiving in the aroma, and was amazing.

IMG_1937I am sure I will be back to Woodland; the biggest decision will be Maria’s or Morgan’s. If you are travelling and have a lay over for an early flight, don’t stay in Sacrament, stay in Woodland, it is closer to the airport and you can enjoy a wonderful meal.

Thank you Kellie and your crew!

Share a meal with a friend

IMG_1576Over the last twenty years or so I discovered genuine cooking. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s I experienced, unknowingly, a transformation that made the task of family food preparation easier and less expensive, while sacrificing quality and health in the process. Processed food must have seemed like manna from Heaven, it was cheap and easy to a generation that was still reeling from the shortages and rationing of the depression and a war.

My cooking ancestry comes from a family of migrant farm workers, and immigrant homesteaders that moved to the big city of Portland, Oregon. My perception, some six decades after the fact, is that the Portland branch, my fathers side, approached food from a utilitarian perspective, they ate to live, food was a necessity, and simplicity with economy was the objective.

The first great cook I remember was my Grandma, my mother’s mother. Two foods stand out, her homemade bread, and her turkey with egg noodles. Grandma grew up in Nebraska, she lived through the dust bowl; she learned how to cook when ingredients were scarce and limited. Like centuries of cooks before her, the most amazing meals were born from poverty.

The smell of her fresh baked bread is as vivid today as it was all those years ago, a thick slice while still warm, loaded with butter; thankfully we were not concerned in those days with fat and cholesterol. She made “egg noodles” – any chef would be impressed – eggs and flour, a bit of salt, rolled by hand, no pasta machine for her. Boiled quickly, then served with a wonderful sauce of leftover turkey and gravy, a comfort food I have not had in at least 40 years.

My mother tells people that I liked to cook when I was 12, I do remember it vaguely but until I was in my late thirties I must confess Hamburger Helper and instant Kraft Au-gratin Potatoes were common, even Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Such is life, economics, and reality.

Then Tricia came into my life. She has been fascinated with food her whole life, has a degree in food science from Central Washington University, and is so realistic about food, it must be good, and in moderation. Our early meals were eclectic, a mix of creative cooking, and sadly more processed than we would ever do today. But someplace along the line we became foodies.

I started traveling, eating at better restaurants, we ate out a lot and traveled, we watched cooking shows on PBS, trying out new recipes; we were transformed. Today food and wine are our hobbies, and what a wonderful hobby it is.

Our best times are cooking together, eating together, and talking. We are devoted to local, organic, humane, and sustainable food. When we travel we shop at local markets, look for restaurants that don’t have the menu in English. Food brings us together, it is what calms when there is stress, encourages conversation, makes us laugh, and how we show we care.

My advice to couples is learn to cook, it’s not that hard. Pour a glass of wine, put on some music, cook together and talk. Set aside the worries and frustrations of the day, even those issues that all couples deal with, and cook, and eat, and talk. From the beginning of time meals have brought people together, it still works. We need our relationships in these stressful times, so share a meal with someone you care about, in a small way it adds to the peace we so need.

Steuben and Traminette, these are grapes?

Steuben and Traminette? These are grapes, not as familiar as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, etc. They are hybrids of French and American vines designed to withstand the climate of the Midwest and the Northeast parts of the United States. Traminette is the State grape of Indiana.  I visited Wildcat Creek winery in Lafayette, Indiana, curious to try some wines that were different from the West Coast, French, or Italian wines that I am familiar with. The tasting room is in an old Hoosier home, Rick is the winemaker. He came into the wine world less than 10 years ago, yet his wines have won numerous awards in the Indiana wine competitions. 

Even the dry wines they offered me, red or white, would most likely be classified as off-dry on the west coast. Since most of these grapes are also used as table grapes the sugar content is quite high. The feel is more thin, and most of the taste stays in the front of the mouth, very little finish to speak of. Compared with the Washington Chardonnays and Syrahs, or an Oregon Pinot Noir they would be described as undeveloped.
I resist the temptation to compare because they are a different grape, and for a different taste. It is more like saying do you like tea or coffee, both can be good, both are different.

  It was 85F and the Steuben reminded me a lot of slightly sweet rosé, it was served chilled. I sat on the deck and sketched an ancient tree, all in all a pleasant afternoon.

Memorable Winery Visits of 2014

A warm summer evening, a serendipitous encounter, a surprise birthday party, a missed release event, and some much needed winding down, each produced one of five memorable winery visits in 2014. One was in Woodinville in early summer, three were in Eastern Washington in August, and the last was Oregon in December.

Torii Mor Winery, from the Dundee Hills of Oregon, opened a tasting room in Woodinville, Washington in 2014; one of  the first Oregon producers with a tasting room in Washington. They bring excellent offerings of the Pinot Noirs that have made the Yamhill wine area famous to Washington, a bold move for sure.

A few weeks after opening they held a party, Washington club members, of which there are many, brought friends, and other folks to whom Torii Mor was unknown joined them. It was a simple affair that showcased why I am enamored with wineries – great wine and interesting people. We met new friends, even discovered that some old acquaintances were Torii Mor fans. The party was a success, and the evening memorable.

Visiting wineries while on business trips is one of the advantages of being theWinesketcher. August 2014 took me to Toppenish, Washington to teach communication and time management, the schedule was such that I had two half-days to explore the Rattlesnake Hills Wine region east of Yakima. My objective this day was Dineen Wines, I had met one of the owners while sketching at Bonair the day before and she invited me to stop by the tasting room. When I got there it was closed, but being in the mood for a glass of wine and my paints I set off exploring.

2014-09-14 16.47.23A mile or so down the road I spotted an easel-sign pointing up a gravel road through an apple orchard, Reflection Vineyards, and the tasting room was open. I spent an hour or so sketching while sipping their Viognier. I wrote a blog, you can read it here. Reflection Vineyards is one of our favorites these days.

Just days later my wife and I were on a trip to the Prosser area for my birthday. We planned to stop at Kestrel’s Prosser Tasting room to pick up a club shipment, and to have a picnic on their patio. We were just settling in by the fountain when our simple picnic turned into a surprise birthday party with the arrival of Brian and Anita, they made a special trip just to join us, they are great friends.

imageWhile I was traveling that month, Tricia attended a release event at Bunnell in Woodinville. She was so impressed that she took me back the next Friday. We had what amounted to a private tasting, in part because they forgot to turn the sign from closed to open until we were about done. The wine was amazing, the cheese and olives fit, and the conversation entertaining. The best part, they decided to show some of my artwork.

By the time Christmas is over each year I am tired and ready for quiet, and intimacy. Catching up with family and friends is fun, but draining, always lots of energy and emotion. We drove to Canby, Oregon to see my granddaughter and her new husband, exchanged presents, and had a spirited Nerf gun battle. Then Tricia and I headed for Ponzi. We had a club shipment to pick up, which was actually just a good excuse to have some Chardonnay and cheese. Their new tasting room is comfortable, with an amazing view; it was just what theWinesketcher needed to close out the year.

I am sure I have quoted my uncle Farquhar before, and probably will again but it fits this year. His opinion on pie was that, “It’s all good, but some’s just better than others.” Well most wines and wineries are good, but some’s just better than others.” For me in 2014 these are a few that stood out.

Four wineries, four different experiences

With our niece from San Diego in town for Christmas it only made sense to hit a couple wineries in Woodenville last Friday. A great time, along with varied experiences.

the-library-woodinvilleFirst stop, Long Shadows, our daughter is a club member, and I think this was her first membership. Their concept is a bit different. They are a winery with a number of different wine makers. The founder, Allan Shoup, an icon in Washington wine and former CEO of the Chateau St. Michelle conglomerate, invited seven winemakers from around the world to contribute one label of wine using grapes from Washington. The results are wonderful, and tasting them is a showcase in winemaking.

But this article is about the wine room experience, and Jordan made it relaxing and personal. Alexis called in advance, as is common courtesy when you have a larger group tasting, we had six. When we arrived she started to introduce herself to Jordan, as soon as she told him that she worked at Torii Mor Winery, he immediately called her by name, turned and greeted all of us. Then he directed us to an area of overstuffed chairs and a couch. He knew we were coming from the voice mail Alexis had left and made us feel welcome. We sipped and chatted, and bought a few bottles.

Next stop, Goose Ridge, and though I have written here that Torii Mor was our first club, I now think it was Good Ridge. We ended the membership a few years ago because they did not have any club options with whites included, and they make some great whites. They too were warned in advance that our group was coming, yet what a difference. There was little or no greeting, they seemed surprised to see us. We found a place to sit, then waited. After some time one of us went to the counter and asked what we needed to do. The response was a confused, “We didn’t know what you wanted.” It really seemed like we were a bother. We did get one glass, but with little or no explanation of what we were drinking, and none of the enthusiasm for the wine that Jordan had shown. We did not complete the tasting, I offered to pay for them all, no complaining, just that it wasn’t working. Thankfully they did not charge anything, and we left; no inquiry as to why, no apology etc. I am disappointed that what was a positive memory from the past was tarnished; I trust it is not the norm and optimistically hope the next visit will be improved.

Airfield is next to Goose Ridge and always a fun place to visit. We had not planned on stopping there so they had no advance notice that we were coming. We went in and as usual it was a more lively atmosphere, a trademark of Airfield. Jim and Jim manage the room, they have for years, I asked them if we were okay coming with six, as I expected it was not a problem. We met Dave, not sure how long he has worked there, but new to us, he showed us a great time. We all bought wine and ended the tasting day on a high note.

The fourth tasting was on Sunday the 28th in Oregon. Tricia and I were there to visit some family missed at Christmas. We stopped at Ponzi, a long time favorite of ours, we sat in their beautiful tasting room, sipped Chardonnay with a plate of cheese and olives, watched people and savored the view. It was nice to wind-down after the hectic holidays, Katie was a pleasant server, the sun was out; this is what wine is all about.

Wine is more than a beverage, definitely not for getting high, it is an experience of the senses, and people. The tasting room experience is so important, thus I blog more on the whole event than just the liquid in the glass.

January is a slow time in the wine world, many tasting rooms limit hours. But this means less crowds, more personal attention for those who do venture out. So theWinesketcher’s advice is venture out in January, you will find it pushes the gloom of winter away, and the wineries will appreciate your visit and business.

Wine cellars for the rest of us

For centuries, wine cellars have been dark, windowless spaces with bottles stuffed into cubbies, more function than form. But that doesn’t suit a new generation, for whom wine collecting is as much a social hobby as an investment strategy.

For these collectors, the cellar needs to be a showpiece, maybe with single-paned glass, LED lights and clear sleeves that put labels on display. And befitting their elevated status, sometimes these spaces aren’t in the basement at all. “They’re not wine cellars anymore,” said Robert Bass, president of Greenville, S.C.-based Kessick Wine Cellars. “They’re wine rooms.”

So wrote Lisa Selin Davis in an article for The Wall Street Journal on October 16, 2014.

This is one of the cellars featured in her article, yet this is not what theWinesketcer’s cellar looks like. E2217045-1A9B-4B9F-BBD0-A54DCCD0F7DFOne contractor, quoted in the article, said his custom cellars start at $10,000; some were well into 6 figures, a bit beyond my budget, even if I did have a house with the square footage for such a wine cellar. OK, I will admit a bit of envy, they are beautiful. Thankfully you do not have to have an air-conditioned, custom designed wine museum to enjoy your wine to the fullest.

So what about the rest of us? There are many varietals of wine drinkers. Most wine is drank within a day or two of being purchased; no real need to think about how to store needed. Then there are those who like to accumulate wine. It could be a few bottles of a favorite label picked up on a visit to a winery, shipments from a wine club, or just the convenience of having wine on hand to pick from. Once the wine bug bites you will find that you buy an occasional bottle that deserves to be aged or at least saved for a special occasion.

Those who invest the big bucks to create these wonderful cellars have taken wine to a different level; wine becomes a collector’s item or an investment. They spend far more for bottles of wine than the other 80-90% of wine drinkers, and it justifies having a cellar that matches that investment. It is easy to see the attraction, but most of us can enjoy the pleasure of wine without the intensity. We may be “new generation” yet “function and form” may be just fine.

When you have more than a bottle or two to keep, a few simple concepts will serve your wine well. First, if you are going to drink it in the next 3 or 4 days you don’t have to be overly concerned, just away from heat and you will most likely be fine.

Secondly, know that most decorative wine racks are not great places to store wine for more than a day or two. The tops of refrigerators are frequently adorned with some wood or wrought-iron wine rack holding a half a dozen bottles. This is about as bad as it gets. It is too hot, probably too much light, and then there is the vibration of the refrigerator, which just irritates the wine, and it rebels by breaking down into an inferior beverage.

Furniture and kitchen designers make some beautiful wine cabinets and racks, the problem is, you will want to keep them on display, they are furniture. That means they will most likely be located in a part of the house that is too warm for wine to thrive.

Wherever your wine ends up being stored the important considerations:

  • Wine likes to be cool, not cold, but cool – so under 65F for most, and in the 50F’s for optimal. (Some argue 53-55F is the absolute best.)
  • Wine likes the dark – light and especially direct sunshine will ruin a bottle in a short time
  • Wine likes to sleep – so vibrations and frequent movement disturb the rest.
  • Wine hates dry corks – so except for screw tops, which are no sign of inferior wine, it should lay on its side, all the better for sleeping. Sparkling wines can be stored upright because the pressure keeps the humidity in the bottle high enough to keep the cork damp.

Basements, or closets in a spare room (that is not always heated) work great.

IMG_1144Here is a portion of my cellar; it is in a basement room, actually the whole double closet. The wooden racks, work well and are affordable, the wrought-iron rack is for bottles that are bigger in diameter. (There is also an experimental rose fermenting there from some grapes in our garden.)

Do you need a wine refrigerator? Maybe. My daughter lived in an apartment with no air-conditioning, it was hot in the summer, no place cool enough for happy wine. So she needed a small wine refrigerator. If you start to explore some higher end wines that you plan to keep longer, or are just worth extra protection, then a wine refrigerator for those makes good sense.

Wine responds to just a bit of care by giving us great enjoyment. Set up your own cellar, whether 10 bottles or a 100, then when the urge for a bit of cheese and a glass of wine hits, you are ready.