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The Two-Lane Gourmet
Fine Wine Trails, Superb Inns, and Exceptional Dining Through California, Oregon, and Washington
By Tom Snyder
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Thomas J. Snyder
All rights reserved.
Wanderlust and Wine
This book celebrates curvy backcountry roads, charming inns, inviting wineries, and intimate dining. If that sounds sensual, it is. Robert Louis Stevenson, both a writer and wanderer, thought of wine as bottled poetry. And Homer, the classical Greek road writer, called wine "honey for the heart." A thirteenth-century Venetian mosaic depicts Noah among the vines with a cup of wine. Both Noah and the vines look happy.
Yet there is more to it — more than can be written, spoken, or painted. Two-lane highways lead us as much to mystery as toward the next bend. An inn is more than shelter, and a chefs gift for touching our senses can shimmer in the candlelight, with wine as a centerpiece.
For wine has a spiritual nature. Over the millennia, as humankind joined in sacraments, broke bread together, and found joy in one another's company, wine was often at hand. Vineyards still express wonder and a special sense of being — perhaps magic as well.
Brian Doyle (see Connections) writes of the vineyard as an erotic rendezvous: "the vines fertilizing each other madly when no one is looking, the little tiny bras, the little tiny cigarettes, the recriminations at dawn." [p. 9]
It's downright glorious. So, The Two-Lane Gourmet is your touring guide for romantic, lighthearted adventures, wines, and meals. This book is for anyone who wants to know about delightful and often undiscovered places to sleep, eat, and prowl about — with an eye to bringing home a tall tale or two and special vintages over which to share them.
Wine, good food, and conversation are at the center of this tour of winemaking regions through the Pacific Coast states. Along the way, you'll come to know remarkable inkeepers, along with chefs and winemakers eager to share interesting pairings of food and drink. Yet their comments are always offered as guidance — a way to expand possibilities — not as rules. The days of limiting red wines to red meat, with white wines consigned to fish or fowl, are over.
What's more, your own palate is unique, and your mouth is coated with personal enzymes. How your pleasures unfold are far more important than convention. Angela Bennett of Silvan Ridge Winery puts this friendlier view in plain words. "Our wines smell good," she says. "They taste good. They're wellbalanced and attractively priced."
Still, it bears special mention that this book is by necessity a Whitman's Sampler drawn from some two thousand wineries in California, Oregon, and Washington, where new vineyards are popping up at a rate of five or six per week in each state. Those same wineries also attract excellent inns and restaurants — all to your benefit. The purpose of this book is to help you establish a base camp in each area. After that, explore further, making the adventure your own. In short, The Two-Lane Gourmet seeks out the unique "finds" — special places that can lead you on toward the romance of your own discoveries. And keep in mind that winter months — the doldrums of February come to mind — are often a fine time to visit a winery and sip before the fire.
Journeys end where and when they wish. Part of the joy is opening ourselves to new experience and letting the journey be what it will. So, the first thing to recognize is that all wine-andcuisine trails are imaginary. Our trail links wine regions in California, Oregon, and Washington to form a grand tour of some 2,103 point-to-point miles, plus another 800 miles of local driving and occasional backtracking. The route is made up of two lane roads with connecting highways. Interstate travel, like an inoculation, is sometimes necessary.
Note: The Two-Lane Gourmet is arranged from south to north and any region can be visited in three days or less. To aid you, each area is listed in geographical order in the Contents and Trail Guide section at the front of this book. Within each area, inns are usually listed first, with wineries and any special attractions next, followed by restaurants.
Throughout, you'll be your own gourmet. Let's spend a moment with that idea. The term gourmet suggests an individual with a selective palate and some knowledge of food and wine. What is often missed in any definition is that gourmets are intensely curious people — they don't usually follow people who seek comfort in rules. That's the other aim of this book: to whet your curiosity as well as your appetites. Explore and enjoy!
Let me first confess my own foolish past. When going out for dinner or a glass of wine, I usually ordered the house red. If there was a wine list at the restaurant, it was about the last thing I wanted to see, since I didn't recognize most of the names and they were often hard to read in dim light anyway.
After a time I stumbled onto Cabernet Sauvignon, learned to pronounce it, and made that my wine of choice. I stuck with it like a mantra. It was, after all, a quantum leap from the Lancers and Blue Nun of early school But ordering it every time was also like buying cars that were always the same color.
Such was the state in which my friend Melissa, who happened to be in the wine industry, found me. She was kind but firm about the value and pleasures of winetasting.
"It'll be fun," she said.
"But I like only Cabernet."
"Of course you do. That's why your palate will profit from a little variety." "But —"
"What time on Sunday would be good for you?"
So, off we went the next weekend. Of course, I'd never been winetasting before and had no idea how it was supposed to go. What would I do or say? At our first stop, a glance informed me that most tasters were swirling whatever wine had just been poured for them.
"That's to aerate the wine a bit," Melissa said. "It brings up the flavors."
Aha ... another tasting-room mystery revealed. Maybe this could be fun after all.
By the time we were sampling the red wines, my confidence resurfaced. We were riding straight into Cabernet country. So, I lifted my glass to swirl. In a twinkling, a dollop of wine slopped out — with more than a little glee, I suspect.
"No, no," Melissa whispered. "You're a beginner. Just leave the base of your glass flat on the countertop. Swirl it that way. And next time ... don't wear white."
My odyssey through wine country was under way. Since then, I've learned that after a few sips to get acquainted, it's not necessary to finish whatever is left in the glass. Tasting rooms have dump buckets on the bar top, a convenient bit of crockery, so you can dispose of remainders. Or you can spit. Either is a good idea if several wineries are to be visited.
If you've been on outings to taste wine or are skilled in dealing with wine lists, you may want to skip over this next part. Otherwise, join me for a few tips:
Most tastings progress from lighter white wines through more robust reds. Some differences will be remarkable right from the start; others will be subtle. You'll also notice that the traditional shapes of the bottles reflect their contents. Cabernet bottles have full, rounded shoulders — these are the linebackers of wine. Pinots and Chardonnays display a svelte, sloping form. Rieslings and Gewurztraminers feature upright Teutonic shapes. Some say that these different forms have to do with how well a wine ages in the bottle, but that's less convincing than the strength of tradition. I doubt that it matters one way or the other to a robust Cabernet. But as a winetaster, I'd certainly care if the wine came in a bottle that looked like it should be wearing a tennis outfit.
Make a habit of swirling each wine in the glass before sipping. This action helps open up the complex flavors after years of captivity.
Sniffing may not reveal much to you at first, but as a wine is swirled, its scent will change. Keep at it and differences in each wine's aroma or nose will become familiar as well. The senses of smell and taste are closely intertwined physiologically and in brain pathways. Soon, you'll come to know red wines and recognize the nuances of whites. Be prepared to let a freshly uncorked red wine rest for a bit, and once in the glass, swirl it several times before sipping. Reds will need more exposure to oxygen to soften the tannins, improving both aroma and taste. These wines reward patience by opening up after a bit. Whites are less fussy, which makes them nice for lunch but less engaging over an evening's conversation.
Listen to the tasting-room staff. Many are well trained and offer a wealth of knowledge. They may seem to be speaking in tongues at first, but stick with it and read the tasting notes provided. Matters will soon become clearer. Some wine aficionados even take copious notes to acquaint themselves further with the qualities of each wine and vintage.
Like taste, the idea of wine is different for everyone. If you have a memory for baseball stats, you may even become an avid notetaker. Otherwise, don't be intimidated by the scribbling and comparisons of others, just enjoy. You can even draw hearts and flowers if you're with someone sweet. No one will care; they're into their own notes.
Feel free to coin your personal terms of wine appreciation.
It's impossible to express sensations through mere language anyway. In that regard, wine may be less like food and more like perfume or music, with melodic harmonies standing out over supporting bass lines. Wine enthusiasts often find hints of blackberry, chocolate, leather, dust bunnies, or gasoline in just about everything. At least they say so. One wine writer reported that a wine had hints of cat pee. Of course, the question is: how did he recognize the taste? If you encounter a wine that smells like urine or plywood, my advice is to move on.
A number of vintners producing premium wines do not have tasting rooms, but rely on distributors, the restaurant trade, and local outlets. But the tasting room remains king and great vintages sell out in a hurry, so don't miss a wine that calls to you by waiting to buy at home. You'll be better at finding wines you truly enjoy during a tasting — not to mention the thrill of shared discovery. Winemakers often take their turns working a tasting room, and when someone exclaims over one of their wines, you can bet there are happy people on both sides of the counter.
Each winery is making an investment in you as a taster.
Check for a placard on the counter or ask if the tasting room charges a fee. A few in Northern California charge $25 or more, but many tasting rooms still require no fee. Even if a winery asks for a fee of $5 or so, the advantage will still be yours — no sampling is offered by supermarkets.
One lesson from winetasting applies directly to restaurants: glassware. Stemware placed at the table may not reflect the kind of wine you order. Smaller glasses might not do much harm to white wines, but a big red Pinot or Cabernet deserves a large Burgundy glass, regardless of the amount of wine poured. It's okay to insist on it.
Planning to cover more than a couple of wineries between meals? It's an excellent idea to have a designated driver. And take as much care driving into a winery as exiting. In short, take responsibility for yourself but keep a close eye on the other guy.
The wine industry is well aware of the snob quotient that developed back in the '90s. Discussing wine in a statistical, mechanical way became a new arena for folks who liked to display their knowledge. So, we all need some defense — some shape-shifting method of survival when wine threatens to become a competitive subject. And I can recommend nothing finer than Frank J. Prial's piece entitled "Short Course in Wine Tactics," from Decantations (see Connections). His advice has saved me from floundering more than once. Here's a sample to bolster your spirits if someone burdens you with nonessential information:
Then there is the word bramble. Do you know what a bramble is? It's a bush, right? Do you know what a bramble tastes like? Of course not — who eats bushes? Nevertheless, that's what you're going to say if the wine is red: "It has a real bramble taste; yes sir, a real bramble taste." Don't worry. It appears on a dozen different California wine labels, and it's a safe bet those guys don't know what it means either. For sure, your host doesn't, [p. 13]
Before turning the ignition key, be sure to check out the Web sites of each destination winery, inn, or restaurant. Business hours, phone numbers, and street names change with frequency — not to mention highway construction that can eliminate a whole section of road. Most digital mapping sources on the Web are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to the back roads of wine country. Instead, use directions or maps obtained from the Web site of estates, inns, and restaurants you plan to visit — they have a vested interest in bringing you there safely and with ease. The Two-Lane Gourmet provides Web site addresses for virtually all of the properties covered. Local phone numbers are also listed. Many properties list 800 numbers as well, but experience has shown that these numbers are often useless for wireless phones when you are on the road.
Whenever possible, obtain copies of maps provided by local winegrower associations and visitor centers. These may not be to scale, but give a great overview of the locations of member wineries. Check with state wine boards or commissions for information on the various regions as well. Discover your own favorites, but trust me on this: know before you go. None of this
will ruin a feeling of spontaneity in wine country. As Charles Kuralt once remarked, "On back roads you can never have too many maps or too much fuel."
HANDY WINE TERMS
Here are some terms it's helpful to know around tasting rooms. If you find these interesting, you'll love Tom Stevenson's splendid work, The New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia (see Connections).
Acidity: Emphasizes complex flavors in a wine and balances the sugars present. Some is necessary to retain life in a wine and prevent it from tasting flat. Too much acidity ruins a wine's finish and can be felt in the throat. Too little acidity makes food-and-wine pairings difficult.
Aging: Back in the day, retaining a wine in barrels or keeping it in bottles for decades was popular and thought to improve the product. And in fact, a good wine may age well in bottles for a century or more — a major attraction for wine collectors interested in profit. Today, however, wines are allowed to spend less time in oak barrels (where they may absorb excess tannins from the wood) or bottles. This practice also reflects the drink-it-now nature of the current wine market. Such wines are said to be more "approachable," and consistent with data showing that 90 percent of wine sold in the United States is consumed within a few days.
Appellation: A region with similar soil conditions and climate for wine-grape growing, recognized in the United States as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). Washington was once a single AVA. Now, Walla Walla, the Tri-Cities area, and banks of the Columbia Gorge, for example, all comprise different appellations and microappellations. The Napa region of California was the first to insist that labeling be consistent with a wine's AVA origin. Oregon and Washington are also establishing stringent rules regarding AVA claims for wine.
Barrels: Most wineries use oak barrels from French or American coopers; many use a combination of the two. These are used to store — or in some cases, ferment — wine before bottling. Barrels may be reused, though each winery has its own preferences on whether (or how many times) a barrel may be reused. Doing so can reduce both cost and tannins taken up by the next fill of wine. At a cost of $850 or more apiece, plus a substantial effect on the quality of a wine, barrel choices are a serious matter.
Biodynamics: A logical — some would say imperative — step beyond organic certification. This system is based on the view of a farm or vineyard as a living organism, with a unique character and a cycle of natural processes that are balanced and independent of mined or manufactured chemicals. The goal is to be both low-impact and self-sustaining.
Blend: Few wines are derived from only one grape variety. Instead, wine with a strong presence like Cabernet Sauvignon may be mellowed a bit by adding perhaps 5 percent Merlot. Creative winemakers are experimenting with blends such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Zinfandel to produce layered complexities in excellent blended wines.
Excerpted from The Two-Lane Gourmet by Tom Snyder. Copyright © 2007 Thomas J. Snyder. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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