Friday, October 1, 2010

Easy to Find Fine Wine

If you're looking for really good wine, there's no substitute for visiting one of Corvallis' specialty wine stores. There you will get the benefit of the staff's expertise, who can find you the right wine at the right price.

Nonetheless, I've been repeatedly asked for recommendations for wines that can be found at local grocery stores, such as Safeway and Fred Meyer. In fact, just a few weeks ago I took a call from a friend who was in the wine section of the Philomath Boulevard Safeway. She was buying the ingredients for a dinner party and wanted a recommendation for a Cabernet or Merlot. I suggested going to a wine store, but she replied, "I don't have time. I have to finish getting groceries here and head home to start preparing. Can you recommend anything that I might find here?"

I suggested the Louis Martini Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon. She checked the shelf and replied, "They have the 2007. Is that okay?". I replied that it was. She later informed me that she and her guests had been pleased with the selection.

Recognizing that many of you likely will find yourself in a similar situation, I've decided to provide a list of wines you can find at most grocery stores. None of these are great wines, typically getting scores in the 88 - 91 range from publications like The Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate. If you want something better, then you'll just have to bite the bullet and go to a specialty wine store.

Another thing about these is that they are pretty consistent from year to year, so I won't include recommended vintages. These wines are made by high production wineries, which can draw on a lot of vineyards for grapes. Those in California and Washington can even use up to 25% grapes from a year other than the listed vintage, or outside the designated area. This gives them a lot of flexibility and allows them to maintain a fairly constant flavor profile (for example, the Ste. Michelle "Eroica" Riesling has gotten exactly the same score - 91 - from The Wine Advocate for the last four vintages).

Kendall Jackson "Vinter's Reserve" Chardonnay - $11-12
Kendall Jackson "Grand Reserve" Chardonnay - $17-18
King Estate Pinot Gris - $14-15
Ponzi Pinot Gris - $15-16
Gallo Family Vineyards Pinot Gris - $9-10
Chateau Ste Michelle "Eroica" Riesling - $20-22

Benton Lane Pinot Noir - $21-22
Argyle Pinot Noir - $22-26
Ponzi Pinot Noir - $33-35
Argyle Reserve Pinot Noir - $35-37
Chateau Ste Michelle Canoe Ridge Vyd Merlot - $19-20
Kendall Jackson "Grand Reserve" Merlot - $24-25
Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County - $12-14
Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley - $23-24
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley - $24-25

Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut - $17-18
Argyle Brut - $24-25

Finally, if you happen to be at Costco, look for wines from a Chilean winery, Montes Alpha. Their Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are all both good and moderately priced.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

My Favorite Beers

I subscribe to that school of thought that argues that there is no such thing as "best", at least in the sense of a specific product being the "best" of its type. To the degree that there is any such thing as "best",  it exists as a ordinal category, as in, "Old Woodchuck and Very Special Fitzboggin are among the best Bourbons."

At the core of this argument is the premise that all such evaluations are subjective, and based on parameters that will vary from person to person. In whiskey, some people like them really old, but others will dislike the intense wood character of something that's been in a barrel for 25 years. The two will thus never agree on the "best" Single Malt Scotch.

So rather than present a list of what I consider to be the "best" beers, it's better to describe them as my favorites, and to mention some of the subjective factors that influence my choices. Some of these factors, in fact, have nothing to do with the gustatory qualities of the beer itself.

One is what I call the bother factor. For example, two of the most impressive beers I've ever had are Orval Trappist Ale and Trappistes Rochefort 10, both from Belgium. Both are unfiltered and have a lot of sediment (they're not just cloudy; they have crud in them). After bringing them home, you have to let them sit undisturbed for a day or two, then carefully decant them into a glass, taking care to cease pouring as soon as you see solid stuff reaching the top of the bottle. Sometimes (okay, most of the time) this is just too much bother.

Another factor is availability. Any beer I have to drive to Wisconsin to get is never going to be a favorite, nor is one which is only seasonably available. For example, I like Deschutes "Red Chair NWPA" more than Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, but the former is only available from January through April. If it's September and I'm in the mood for a Pale Ale, only the ones I can actually get are contenders for "favorite".

Lastly there's an affordability factor. A favorite beer is one which I can afford to buy a sixpack and share with friends. The aforementined Trappistes Rochefort is $7.50 for an 11.2 oz bottle, which works out to $45 for a six pack. For that amount of money I can buy a four sixpack assortment of the following:

Victory Prima Pils
Type: Pilsener style lager
Traditional ales are made using top-acting warm fermenting yeasts, but in the early 1800s German brewers started using bottom-acting cool fermenting yeasts to produce lager beers, which are lighter bodied and crisper than traditional ales. In the city of Pilsen (located today in the Czech Republic) a style of lager was produced which used Saaz Noble hops, and beers made in that style are known as Pilseners (also spelled Pilsner). For years my favorite was Pilsner Urquell (which is, in fact, made in Pilsen), but after trying the Victory product all I can say is "buy American!" Prima Pils is a beautiful yellow-gold, with aromas of grass, citrus and floral hops, with sweet malt joining these on the palate. Right now the only place in town that sells it is Corvallis Brewing Supply; price is $11.10 per sixpack.

UPDATE (July 9, 2012): Sadly, this is no longer carried by the distributor here in the Pac NW. I wish I'd known that when I was California last month, I would have brought back a case.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Type: Pale Ale
It's been called "a classic among American beers" and is certainly the standard setter for pale ales, which is pretty impressive for something produced in this volume and having near universal availability. Golden orange color, with aromas of grain, yeast, hops and citrus, crisp and tangy on the palate with a clean, dry finish, this is a reliable "go to" pale ale. It's available year round and frequently priced below $7 per six pack at your friendly neighborhood grocery store. Kathy likes to mix it with Deschutes "Obsidian" Stout for a "black and tan".

Stone IPA
Type: India Pale Ale
My favorite style of beer, IPAs were invented by the English but brought to perfection by American craft brewers. These are hoppier than Pale Ales, and there are a lot of good ones available, many of which have fans who wouldn't hesitate for a moment to tell me that the Stone Brewing product is not as good as their favorite (Ninkasi "Total Domination" being one and Dogfish Head "60 Minute" being another). Nonetheless, for me this one has a slight edge. An intensely hoppy nose, with hints of grapefruit, is followed by a perfect balance of bitter hops and sweet malts on the palate. The 22oz bottles are widely available, and you can can get 12oz sixpacks ($11) at University Market at 1149 Van Buren and at Market of Choice. NOTE:  Stone's "Ruination" double IPA offers nearly identical aromas and flavors and is only slightly stronger (7.7% ABV versus 6.9%) and is not worth the extra expense, in my opinion.

Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye
Type: Specialty Ale
Although classifies this as an IPA and as an Imperial/Double IPA, I think the brewery's own designation ("Specialty Ale") is more accurate. To me, it's not hoppy enough to be an IPA (although it is hoppy), and the addition of rye to the mostly malted barley mash adds a flavor element that an IPA lacks. Deep red in color, with complex aromas and flavors of hops, citrus, rye and malt, it makes me think of toasted rye bread with a thin spread of grapefruit marmalade. It's my favorite American beer, and worth the $5+ asked for a 22oz bottle. Available at University Market, Market of Choice and Corvallis Brewing Supply.

Ayinger Celebrator
Type: Doppelbock
Bock beers are lagers, and are traditionally made in the winter or early spring. The Ayinger is an exception, being made and imported year around. For reasons lost in the mists of antiquity bock beers usually have a picture of a goat on the label, so doppel (double) bocks often have two (my sentimental favorite, Leinenkugels "Big Butt", depicts two mountain goats charging one another). The Ayinger is one of the best of its type. Dark brown in color, with scents of malt and molasses pushing aside those of the hops, it's a smooth, rich, almost creamy beer. Sold in fourpacks for about $10, you can find it at Corvallis Brewing Supply, Market of Choice and University Market.

Deschutes Obsidian
Type: Stout
Guinness popularized stouts, which are dark ales made with heavily roasted malt, but try this one and you'll never go back to the Irish product (the sold-in-USA version of which is actually brewed in Canada). The Deschutes product is a classic example of its type, with distinctive chocolate and coffee aromas and flavors and a super-smooth presence on the palate. It's a little hoppier than its stablemate, the likewise excellent Black Butte porter, and for that reason I prefer the stout. Available almost everwhere, and frequently on sale for less than $6 per sixpack.

Piraat Ale
Type: Belgian Double IPA
The Belgians make IPA mostly for export (the locals find them too hoppy), and they make them strong (the Piraat is 10.5% ABV). I discovered this one quite by accident some years ago when I was buying beer for our annual Pirate Theme Halloween Party. Upon trying it I thought hey, this is really good. It's got that fruity thing going that many dark Belgians have, but without the pesky sediment. Being an IPA, it's got a lot of hops, but the bitterness is balanced out by the sweet malt and the fruit element. A rich, smooth character make it dangerously approachable (don't forget about the 10.5% alcohol content!). The funky old label (with the pirate) is being replaced by a less entertaining one, but fortunately the contents are unchanged. Look for it at Corvallis Brewing Supply. It's not cheap, costing $5 for a 11.2oz bottle and $10 for a 22oz, but it's just the thing for getting into a pirate state of mind. ARRR!!!!

Leinenkugel's Classic Amber
Type: Amber Lager
No, not a great beer. In fact, according to most of the hop-heads on and, not even a "very good" beer. Mild hop and caramel aromas and flavors make it a decent quaff, and for me, that's good enough. Leinie's is the brand that is interwoven into memories of time spent at my grandparent's cottage on Popple Lake, ten miles north of Chippewa Falls, the town where the brewery is located. We'd fish in the morning, clean 'em, have lunch, spend the afternoon playing horseshoes or just sitting, looking out at the lake. The blue water and sky, the scent of spruce and fir trees, a cold bottle of Leinie's in my hand. It will always have a place in my heart, and thus a place in my refrigerator as well. You can find it at Albertson's on Kings, for about $8 per sixpack.

UPDATE (July 9 2012): The Corvallis Albertson's no longer consistently carries the Classic Amber, but usually has some variety of Leine's, typically a seasonal offering. At present it's the Summer Shandy.

As my grandpa would say, Skol! 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

del Alma

Last night (September 24, 2010) saw the "soft" opening of del Alma, the successor to Loca Luna. With the departure of Adam Kekahuna, the restaurant has acquired a new chef, Mitchel Rosenbaum, formerly of La Mesa Grill in Las Vegas.

The cuisine is now a more traditional Latin one, which is probably for the best; I suspect that Kekahuna's "Pacific Rim/Latin Fusion" style was just a little too "out there" for Corvallis.

The wine list offers a good selection of whites, most moderately priced. The selection of reds may be a bit too heavy with Oregon Pinot Noir and is deficient in moderately priced Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet/Merlot blends. From Washington's Columbia Valley there is Little Bear Creek's Cabernet/Merlot blend for $32, but the other four wines of this type range in price from $63 to $96. There are plenty of good lower priced Cabernets out there, such as 2007 Louis Martini Sonoma County, 2006 Robert Mondavi Estate, and 2006 BV Rutherford, and with three beef and one lamb entree on the menu, the folks at del Alma should consider adding these or comparable wines.

We selected a moderately priced ($28) Tempranillo, the 2000 Anciano. This was a bright, fruity wine with more body than a Pinot Noir, and it worked well with our entrees (beef and lamb), though a Cabernet would have been better.

After being seated, we were brought bread with three dipping sauces. The bread, baked on the premises, was excellent, crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside. The three dips were a olives/mushroom chutney sort of thing, a puree of yellow bell pepper and garlic, and a seasoned bean puree. All were good.

Appetizers are found under the Tapas section of the menu. I ordered the Dungeness Crab, Shrimp, and Spinach Empanada ($8; see photo above). My first bite was of the Empanada alone and the pastry seemed a little dry, but I discovered that adding a bit of the salsa to the fork resulted in a perfect balance, with a delightful combination of flavors. Kathy ordered the Florres Relleno de la Calabaza ($10), this being a fried squash blossom stuffed with Dungeness crab, peppers and cheese. This was likewise excellent.

The menu lists three salads and two soups. We didn't try any of these; perhaps on a future visit.

The entrees range in price from $16 to $29. There is only one vegetarian item, the El Bosque, a mushroom ragout, and the restaurant should consider adding at least one more so that vegetarian customers don't have to order the same thing every time.

Kathy's entree was the Borrego Borracho "Drunken Lamb" ($24), this being a braised shank served with tequila soaked apricots and vanilla whipped sweet potatoes. The apricots turned out to be few and far between, too few for the "drunken" description to apply to the entire dish, and the lamb was served medium rather than the medium-rare that Kathy had ordered. Nevertheless it was tender and flavorful, and the potatoes were creamy and subtly flavored.

I ordered the Beef Short Ribs ($24; see photo). These were excellent, moist and tender, with a distinctive "roast beef" flavor, but something went wrong with the accompanying wild mushroom tamale, because the contents were dry, powdery and unpalatable. Fortunately Kathy's serving of potatoes was a generous one and I took a small helping of those.

For dessert Kathy ordered the Classic Flan ($8), which was supposed to be served with almond cookies and whipped cream but instead came with slices of papaya. Nonetheless, it was very good. I had the cheesecake ($8), which was perfect in texture and flavor.

Except for the powdery mushrooms in the tamale and, on Kathy's entree, the scarcity of drunken apricots and the slightly overcooked meat, (all of which can hopefully be chalked up to opening night issues), it was an excellent meal. Del Alma is off to a good start, and will hopefully only get better.

Del Alama Website

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Corvallis Brewpubs - Conclusions

Having visited and reviewed all four brewpubs here in Corvallis, I think I've reached some conclusions about their respective strengths and weaknesses. Here they are:

Old World Deli/Oregon Trail Brewing
Ambience: Acceptable, but the industrial chic motif is just too weird
Service: Non-existent
Food: Acceptable
Premise-brewed beer: Acceptable

McMennamins on Monroe
Ambience: Very good, striking interior and surprisingly quiet even when at/near capacity
Service: Good
Food: Not Acceptable
Premise-brewed beer: Acceptable

Block 15
Ambience: Good when at half-capacity, TOO LOUD when full
Service: Good
Food: Good
Premise-brewed beer: Very Good to Excellent

Flat Tail Brewing
Ambience: Good when at half-capacity, a bit loud when full (also the music can be turned up too high)
Service: Good
Food: Good
Premise-brewed beer: Acceptable

It doesn't take a statistical analysis to determine that Block 15 is the winner here, and it's certainly my personal choice. I just wish they could do something about the sound level.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Flat Tail Brewing

Our series of Corvallis brewpub reviews completes with this one for Flat Tail Brewing. Located on First Street at the old Fox and Firkin location, the interior has been considerably spruced up since its F & F days (the bathrooms are much nicer). The walls are painted a muted blue and the wainscoting dark reddish-brown, an interior that, on its own, would seen more appropriate to a more formal restaurant. The large number of historical OSU sports photographs and flat panel televisions thus seem an afterthought, a sports bar overlay onto a room that was meant to be something else.

The interior is acoustically live, and when the place is at (or near) capacity it can be loud. Most of our visits have been when it’s not full, and then it’s fairly pleasant. During our most recent visit (late August of 2010) the music was too loud, but the weather was nice so we sat outside (one can only hope that management would have respected a request to turn down the volume had we decided to stay inside).

We’ve always been pleased with the service, although I’ve heard some negative reports from others. On our most recent visit our server was reasonably attentive and prompt.

We’ve also been happy with the food there. On a previous visit I’d had the St. Louis style “Brew BQ” ribs. These are good, but not impressive to someone raised in the Deep South (and no better than the ribs at the Corvallis Ruby Tuesday). The burgers are good too. On our most recent visit our party of five ordered just appetizers. The fried oysters were excellent, and the fried onion rings and “Brew Skins” (fried potato skins with shredded beef and sour cream) were both good. The Hummus Plate featured fresh veggies and tasty flatbread. Overall, I’d say the quality of the food is a half-step ahead of Block 15.

The same cannot be said of the beer brewed on the premises. Eight different varieties are available, ranging from a Pilsner to a Stout. You can try all eight with a sampler “paddle”, but be forewarned that if the bartender is sloppy with this, then many of the small glasses will be sitting in a pool of beer, and you’re going to drip a lot of that onto your lap. The beers themselves are competent, but neither complex nor compelling, and many have a slightly sour character that is likely due to the strain of yeast used for their brewing.

Also available are “Guest Tap” beers from other producers, these being Calapooia, Oregon Trail, Oakshire and Ninkasi. I’ve only tried a couple from the first (which were okay but not memorable), am not impressed by any from the second except for the Ginseng Porter, have tried none from the third, but have been impressed with everything I’ve tried from Ninkasi. The next time I’m at Flat Tail I expect I’ll order that, assuming it’s available.

If Flat Tail wants to be the preeminent Corvallis brewpub they need to improve their beers and provide some sound absorbing techniques in the dining area (and turn down the music, please).

Flat Tail website.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Maker's 46

As those of who've read my Guide to Bourbon know, most Bourbon distillers produce a range of products, using different recipes and bottling these at different ages and proofs. The one exception is Maker's Mark who has been bottling only one product since 1959, that being their six-year-old, 90 proof, "wheat recipe" Bourbon.

It's a controversial whiskey among the Bourbon cognoscenti, not because it's bad (it isn't; most would give it a B+) but because it has a market share considerably larger than one might expect for a Bourbon that's merely very good. It achieved this position via brilliantly successful marketing plus aggressive legal action intended to protect its trademarks (most notably the dripping red wax which seals every bottle of MM). Among those who adhere to the principle the race should go to the swiftest there's a feeling that market share should be based on the merits of your product and not on the skill of your marketing and legal departments. Although this is an admittedly naive view, it's one that's been frequently expressed in online bourbon forums.

Whether in response to these mutterings or, more likely, to provide existing MM drinkers with an up market option, last year the company decided to look at ways to produce something a little more distinctive. The traditional approach would simply be to age it longer (for example, 10 to 23 year old wheat recipe bourbons are sold by Weller, Van Winkle and Old Fitzgerald), but the company wanted to get something to market a lot sooner than that. Basically, they wanted a short cut.

So MM went to their barrel supplier, Independent Stave, and asked for their advice. I'm sure the folks at IS were aware of a little device known as an infusion spiral, but because that was invented by a rival barrel company, The Barrel Mill, they weren't about to use that. Instead they came up with a rather labor-intensive procedure of draining the whiskey from the barrel, removing the barrel head, drilling shallow holes into the sides of the barrel, stringing staves of toasted French oak onto dowels, fixing the stave/dowel assembly into the holes, replacing the head, and refilling the barrel with the whiskey. The bourbon then spends another three months in the barrel before bottling. They tried dozens of different combinations of stave characteristics (number of staves, level of toast) and aging periods and the one they like the most was #46, and this is the basis for the whiskey's name, Maker's 46.

So how is it? Well, it's definitely better than regular Maker's Mark. It's got the signature MM caramel and vanilla, and adds a hint of cinnamon. You can pick up a little extra oak, but unfortunately there's a bit of oak tannin on the finish, rather like an insufficiently aged big Cabernet. I give it an A-, and get validation from Malt Advocate editor John Hansell, who gave it a 90 in his review.

Is it worth the $35.95 that it costs here in Oregon? In my opinion, no. For $31.50 you can get twelve year old Very Special Old Fitzgerald, a wheat recipe bourbon that is considerably more complex and refined. The hot-rodders like to say, "There's no substitute for cubic inches," and I think a similar principle applies to whiskey: there's no substitute for barrel time.

Of course, there are many people who make their choices on the basis of brand loyalty, and for long-time drinkers of Maker's Mark, the new 46 offers something special for those special occasions. To you I say, enjoy.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Willamette Whiskey Society

Inspired by my friend Steve's success with his Tallahassee Whiskey Society, I'm thinking about doing something similar here.

The TWS meets once a month (first Tuesday) at a local bar or restaurant, reserving a table large enough to accomodate twelve people. Each session is devoted to whiskey of a particular type (Single Malt Scotch, Bourbon, etc). The Society Coordinator (that would be Steve in TLH and me here) provides a "starter" flight of three whiskies; cost to partake of that is $10 (payable to the coordinator, who bought them). Additionally, participants are encouraged to bring a bottle of something in the same category, the rule being that it isn't one that's available at the bar in which the session is taking place. Any food that's consumed is ordered off the establishment's menu.

A more formal alternative would be to reserve a room (say the banquet room at Loca Luna) and have the Society provide the full flight of whiskeys (probably five or six). Small servings of complementary foods would be served. This would be more expensive (likely upwards of $50 per person) because the Society would have to pay for the room, the whiskey and the food.

So if you're interested, drop me a line (E-Mail address available via my Profile page) and let me know which of the two alternatives you prefer.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Block 15

Block 15 is the third establishment to be reviewed in our series on Corvallis Brewpubs. Though having been in business for slightly more than two years, they’ve developed a strong following, and unless you arrive at an off time (say, 2:30pm on a weekday) there’s a good chance you’ll be waiting for a table.

The décor is what I’d call “rustic-modern”. It’s clean and you can tell that it’s a relatively new establishment, unlike some of the other local taverns which are, frankly, a little beat up. Unfortunately, scant effort has been devoted to sound absorption, and it can be quite loud when it’s busy. The serving staff is young and many of them sport piercings and have done interesting things with their hair, but I’ve found them to be friendly and fairly prompt (although some customers have reported problems when the place is at or near capacity).

This is not an establishment that aspires to provide haut cuisine, and the menu reflects that. There are sandwiches, burgers and similar fare. We’ve been there on a number of occasions and two of the appetizers I’ve enjoyed are the Magic Mushrooms, these being cooked mushroom caps stuffed with cheese and a small amount of sausage, and the Hog Wings, pork riblets with the bone protruding far enough to make consuming them a less messy affair than, say, eating chicken wings (I recommend you order them with the sauce on the side).

We’ve been generally pleased with the entrees we’ve ordered, the sole exception being a meatball sandwich that contained far too much dried oregano. The French fries have consistently hit the sweet spot between too oily and too dry.

Of course, the main draw at Block 15 is the beer brewed on the premises. The standard offerings include the Glo Golden Ale, which is light colored, not too malty or hoppy, with a hint of butterscotch on the nose, and it’s a good choice for those who prefer typical American lagers. The Ridgeback Red is darker, with a slight orange peel aroma, and sweet, flavorful malts providing enough character to balance the hops. The Alpha IPA is very nice, with a strong citrus and herbal nose, a good malt presence on the palate and a mildly bitter finish, and is my personal favorite, though I admit to a fondness for IPAs (like me, they are full-bodied and bitter). Their most popular beer is the Aboriginale, which takes a middle path in color, malt and hops, but still has enough character to be interesting. The Printmaster Pale Ale, flavored with Amarillo hops, is intensely hoppy, with a strong citrus and pine nose, slightly astringent on the palate and offering a very crisp finish. Finally they have the Nebula Oatmeal Stout which, like most of its genre, has distinct notes of chocolate and, being a stout (as opposed to a porter) enough hops so that you can feel confident that you’re drinking a beer and not a chocolate flavored soft drink (I admit I’m not fond of stouts and porters, which, unlike me, are rich and sweet).

I’ve also tried the root beer, which is not particularly carbonated but has a much stronger sassafras aroma and flavor than anything you’re going to get out of a bottle.

In addition to the year-round beer offerings, at any given time there are about a half-dozen seasonal brews. These vary widely in style, ranging from light wheat beers to double stouts. Some have been memorable, and some not.

The one constant is that all the brews are well-crafted products, and reflect owner Nick Arzner’s passion for brewing. The food is merely good (better than you’ll get at Old World Deli/Oregon Trail Brewing or McMenamins), but the beer is excellent (far better than what you’ll get at OWD/OTB or McMenamins).

In short, at Block 15, it’s about the beer.

Block 15 web site.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

McMenamins on Monroe

The second in my series of Corvallis brewpub reviews is devoted to McMenanmins on Monroe. Located next to the OSU campus, at 2001 NW Monroe street, it caters to a mostly college crowd and for this reason Kathy didn’t see much point in trying it. Nonetheless it is a brewpub and if this series is to be comprehensive then I have to include it. Last week Kathy went camping with her friend Barbara, so I invited Barbara’s husband Mike to join me there.

We arrived at 7pm, an hour after the end of Happy Hour (3-6pm). It was still close to capacity and we had to go up to the second floor to find an unoccupied and clean table. It’s a voluminous place, with a large ground floor and a second floor about half the area as the ground floor. The second floor is open on its south side, balcony style, stopping well short of the street-facing window wall. The east wall features a large example of pop art, a “tree” of pipe work with the branches topped by bathroom sinks.

The noise level was surprisingly low. Much of the floor area is carpeted, and the high ceiling helps as well.

Our server was a pleasant young woman named Kaitlin, and she was consistently attentive during our visit, so I’ve no complaints about the service.

To drink, I ordered the “Brewery Taster”, this consisting of five regular offerings (“Hammerhead” pale ale, IPA, “Ruby” raspberry ale, porter and “Terminator” stout) and one seasonal (“Copper Moon” ale). These arrived after five minutes or so, and I tried the “Ruby” first. This was a little cloudy, with a slight pink/orange cast. There is a distinct raspberry nose, with a little yeast. The raspberry is less pronounced on the palate, and that, with the low hop level, give it a slightly sweet character. The mouthfeel is thin and the finish short. The “Hammerhead” was also a little cloudy, had a subtle nose of floral hops and caramel, and was only lightly hoppy on the palate. Again, it seemed a bit thin and watery. I had higher expectations for the IPA, but this turned out to be not all that different from the Hammerhead, and did not have the extra hops that I expect in an IPA. The porter was a typical example of its type, with distinct chocolate and coffee aromas and flavors, while the “Terminator” stout did not have the extra bitterness I expected, with the coffee notes being more pronounced than the chocolate. The “Copper Moon” had a citrusy nose, was not particularly hoppy, and had a light body that gave it a refreshing character.

Overall, I was not impressed with the quality of the beers. All seemed watery and short on hops. This seemed odd, because I’d had the IPA on a number of occasions at the other Corvallis McMenamins (the one on Harrison) and remember it being better.

The menu lists mostly burgers, sandwiches and pizza. Not being in the mood for any of these, I ordered the grilled wild salmon. Mike ordered the ale-battered fish & chips. These arrived after about ten minutes. The salmon was dry and tough, and the rice that accompanied it was dry, gummy and inedible. The braised greens, on the other hand, were fresh, not overcooked or bitter. Mike’s fish was okay, not over or undercooked, and his fries were only slightly greasy.

For dessert I had the black and tan brownie. Served warm, with ice cream, this was pretty good, the chocolate being quite rich.

In addition to beer, McMenamins has their own line of wine and spirits. I haven’t tried many of these, but if memory serves, the Black Rabbit Red and the Syrah are both decent. I’ve also had the brandy, and it’s not bad either.

I decided to follow up on the beers, visiting to get some other’s perspectives. I found a lot of variability in both the descriptions and ratings of the various McMenamins brews, to the degree that I found myself wondering are we all talking about the same beers here?

The thing is, the McMenamins beers are brewed in dozens of different locations around Oregon and Washington and there are bound to be variations. Different fermenters and the varying skill and professionalism of the individual brewers are going to result in variability in the beer. Based on the reports I read, most of the McMenamins brewpubs are producing better stuff than the local one. I don’t know why this is the case, but perhaps it’s the mostly college student clientele, of whom the brewpub management may believe has not been drinking beer long enough to know the difference.

McMenamins on Monroe website.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

California Olive Oil

The first article posted to The Corvallis Epicurean described our experience with a California olive oil, the organic extra virgin oil from B R Cohn. My motivation for trying this was due to reading an article which revealed that a lot of imported olive oil, particularly those bottled in Italy, may not even be olive oil.

We were quite pleased with the B R Cohn, and have gone through a couple of bottles of it, but at $15 for a 375ml bottle (equivalent to $40 per liter), it's a bit pricey.

Since posting that article I've been making an effort to educate myself on the subject. Here's a few key points:
  • With olive oil, the fresher the better. Both the flavor and antioxidant value are at their peak within the first six months of harvest/pressing. Less than a year old is still good, but over the course of the second year the oil will degrade significantly.
  • Because of their lower acidity, extra-virgin oils tend to last a little longer.
  • The enemies of olive oil are light, heat and air. It should be in bottles of opaque or colored glass (brown is better than green) or metal. Once you get it home store it in your refrigerator; it will turn cloudy but will revert to clear after reaching room temperature. After opening a bottle, try to finish it within two months.
  • If you want to buy imported oil, look for estate bottlings. These should have the harvest date printed somewhere on the label. Estate oils, however, may cost more than you want to spend on an everyday oil.
With the estate bottled imported oils, you may find that many of them are too old; it takes a long time for them to find their way to the store shelf, and they may have spent time in a warm ship's hold or hot warehouse.

Which leads us back to California oil. If you still aren't convinced, I'll offer two more reasons:

For the conservatives: You want to keep your money in the USA, don't you? Purchase products made in the USA, by companies operating in the USA, employing workers who are citizens of the USA? (I'm sure at least some of them are).

For the liberals: You want to buy local, don't you? Minimize the carbon footprint and all that, right? Well, California is as local as you're going to get, given that efforts to produce olive oil in Oregon have not been spectacularly successful.

Although a relatively young industry, California oil producers are characterized by that same competitive spirit that drove American winemakers and beer brewers to create products that are the peer of the best imports. Oils from Apollo, Pasolivo, Stella Cadente and California Olive Ranch have more than held their own against imported estate oils in international competitions. This last mentioned company is the biggest domestic producer, and in addition to their gourmet bottlings (such as the Arbequina that was the top pick in a comparison published in the September issue of Cook's Illustrated magazine), they offer an "everyday" oil priced at $10.49/500ml (which is $20.98 per liter).

Another good everyday oil is made by Bariani, a family-owned company whose certified organic oil is made using traditional methods. It's a little cloudy, being unfiltered, but appearance is, after all, less important than aroma and flavor.

Armed with all this new knowledge, last week I dropped by First Alternative Food Coop (the one on SW 3rd) to see if they might have any of these. At first glance things seemed promising; they had several different California oils, including the highly regarded Apollo. Unfortunately, closer inspection revealed that nearly all of them were from the 2008 harvest or earlier, meaning they were way past their prime.

There was one exception, that being a good supply of Bariani, all of it being from the 2009 harvest (there was a single liter bottle from 2008). The 500ml bottles were priced at $12.39 and the liter bottles at $22.99. I bought one of the 500ml bottles, and we tried it when I got home. Although lacking the intense olive character of the B R Cohn, it was nevertheless very fresh and clean, and we'll be using it as our everyday oil.

Fortunately all of these producers sell direct (via their web sites), and we plan to order some soon (before the weather turns hot). I expect we'll start with the Apollo "Mistral" and the California Olive Ranch "Arbequina". As soon as those come in you can be sure I'll post our impressions here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Glenmorangie Original 10yo Single Malt Scotch

I thought I'd post a feature on this whisky, because this month the OLCC has it on special, marked down from its usual $39.95 to $37.95. At either price it's a good buy, being only a few dollars more than premium Scotch blends such as Johnnie Walker Black Label (normally $37.95 but this month $33.95) or Chivas Regal (normally $34.95 but this month $29.95). Those few extra dollars get you a significantly better whisky.

It's a longtime favorite of mine, one I like to share (gave a bottle of it to my daughter's BF for Christmas). I feel it's a good choice for someone who's never tried a SMS (Single Malt Scotch), being only moderately peaty (an unpeated one like Glengoyne would be unrepresentative of most SMS, while a peat monster like Laphroaig might scare them away for good). The nose offers floral aromas, along with spicy oak, and the palate is treated to caramel, honey, vanilla, oak and just enough peat that you know you're drinking Scotch, not Irish. The finish is long and sweet.

Don't take just my word for it. John Hansell, editor of The Malt Advocate magazine, gives it a score of 93 and Jim Murray, author of The Whisky Bible, gives it a 94. The significance of this is that these two frequently disagree, partly because Murray favors younger whiskies and Hansell older ones.

The "Original" bottling is of whisky aged exclusively in ex-Bourbon barrels, and thus avoids the problem that often afflicts SMS wholly or partly aged in ex-Sherry barrels, which is taint from too much sulfur (the Spanish Sherry producers treat barrels with this prior to shipping them to Scotland, the intent being to inhibit mildew). It's thus a very reliable whisky, and there's no need to be up-to-speed on batch characteristics, as is the case with some sherried malts such as Aberlour a'bunadh.

If $38 still seems like a lot for a bottle of whisky, consider that a year ago this went for $52. The economy has put a big dent in the sale of high-end liquor, and prices have been coming down. If you're driving down to California soon, you'll discover you can get it for even less there, as low as $35 (BevMo).

In  fact, the only SMS that I've had that I thought was noticeably better is Highland Park 18yo, and that goes for $92. That amount of money will get you two bottles of the Glenmorangie Original, plus $16 in change.

Monday, May 31, 2010


We've dined at Sybaris in Albany a number of times since late 2007 and have always enjoyed the experience. Our most recent visit was this last Friday, May 28.

Located at 442 1st Avenue NW, it’s easily reached from Corvallis via Highway 20 (cross the bridge, turn right, down three blocks on the left). The décor is semi-formal, and the dining room features a wood burning fireplace (we were lucky and got a table adjacent to it). Although the dining area is acoustically live (brick walls, painted concrete floor), the low density of tables limits the number of patrons and this, combined with a high ceiling covered with acoustic tiles, keeps the volume down to a pleasant level, making it a good choice for a romantic outing. The ceiling is painted black, and small embedded spotlights are arranged to match well-known constellations.

The wine list has grown considerably over the last several years, and now lists 15 whites and 37 reds, many of which are moderately priced selections. Oregon wineries are well represented, and the 2006 Territorial Pinot Gris ($21) caught my eye. Having had the 2008 version on several occasions lately this provided an opportunity to confirm my belief that the 2008, though good, is not as good as the 2006, so we ordered a bottle. The good news is that I was right; the bad news is that I know of no place where one can still buy the 2006.

Bread arrived right away, served with butter actually soft enough to spread (thus avoiding one of the most common restaurant sins). There wasn’t enough for the amount of bread served, so we had to request more.

Entrées are changed monthly and are generally reasonably priced (only one exceeded twenty five dollars).

For starters, I ordered the queso fundido and Kathy the cream of asparagus soup with dungeness crab (each was $8). These arrived after about 7-8 minutes. Kathy's soup was excellent and artfully presented, with a mound of crab at the center and the soup poured in from a small teapot by our server. The tortilla chips that came with my order were warm and crisp and obviously freshly fried. I asked about this and was told that these came from a Salem supplier, delivered to the restaurant uncooked and fried there prior to serving. Unfortunately the queso fundido had been overcooked, the cheese having separated out into hard, inedible globs immersed in oil, and I had to send it back.

This was an interesting contrast to the queso fundido at Loca Luna, which uses several varieties of cheese and includes bits of chorizo sausage but which is served with chips fresh only from the bag. In an ideal world one could get Loca Luna queso fundido served with the Sybaris chips. Oh well.

Although we skipped salad on this occasion we've been pleased with the salads on previous visits.

For our main courses, Kathy ordered the pulled smoked duck on asparagus fried barley and I the asparagus-dungeness crab ravioli with a sauté of crab and asparagus. These arrived after 20 minutes. Kathy's duck was served warm, was very flavorful, and was a generous helping (being the entire duck). Wanting to save room for dessert we requested a box for what she didn't finish (unfortunately we experienced a senior moment at departure and left it behind). Likewise my ravioli dish was served adequately warm but was a little bland, so I accepted our server's offer of fresh ground pepper. The raviolis themselves were mostly flat pasta with a tiny pocket of crabmeat, and I ended up cutting them into strips and treating them like noodles. Fortunately there was a generous pile of crabmeat at the center of the dish, mixed with fresh asparagus and topped with crisp, tasty strands of fried carrots.

Being in a chocolate mood, for dessert we ordered the hazelnut chocolate cake and the chocolate lava cake, the latter served with a small dish of salted gelato. Both cakes were excellent (the former being a classic example of death-by-chocolate) but the gelato was way too salty.

Service was good, though not as attentive as it might have been. There were two servers for about ten occupied tables, several of which had parties of four.

Our bill came to $79. They left off the queso fundido (which they needed to do) and the lava cake (which they did not need to do, because it was fine without the accompaniment of the salty gelato).

All in all, it was another enjoyable visit to one of our favorite restaurants, and as usual we told ourselves that we should get over there more often. Albany may be ten miles from Corvallis, but we remind ourselves that in Tallahassee it was ten miles to the other side of town.

Sybaris web site.

Friday, May 28, 2010

High Pass Winery

We first visited High Pass Winery in the late spring of 2009. Their wines impressed us, particularly the whites and the 2008 Rosé of Pinot Noir (one of the two best we’ve ever had) and we left with a mixed case, including four bottles of the Rosé. I should have bought more, because it was all sold by the time I returned in August.

High Pass is the creation of Dieter Boehm, who escaped from East Germany in the early 1980s and found his way to Oregon. He started his vineyard in 1985 and spent ten years selling grapes to other area wineries before his own winery became operational in 1995.

In addition to the typical varieties found in most Oregon vineyards, Boehm has planted a couple of unusual German grapes, Huxelrebe and Scheurebe. Both were created by German viticulturalist Georg Scheu in the early 20th century. Huxelrebe is a crossing of Chasselas and Muscat, while Scheurebe is a crossing of Riesling and a now unknown wild grape.

Our most recent visit was on May 22, 2010. Eight wines were available for tasting, poured by a friendly, personable hostess named Carolyn. We were keen to try the 2009 Rosé of Pinot Noir ($10), so she poured this one first. It had aromas of melon and strawberry and good acid balance, but was not quite as fruity as the previous year’s vintage. Despite this, it’s the best 2009 Oregon/Washington Rosé I’ve sampled to date, the others being the Territorial, Syncline and Evesham Wood, and sweetens the deal by costing less than any of these ($13, $15.95 and $13.50 respectively).

Next was the 2008 Riesling ($12). A crisp, balanced wine, it has a typical Riesling nose of flowers, honey and a hint of diesel fuel. This last shows up in a lot of Rieslings (the 2008 Territorial has it as well), and is not considered a flaw by many Riesling fans (from the Wikipedia article on Riesling: “While an integral part of the aroma profile of mature Riesling and sought after by many experienced drinkers, it may be off-putting to those unaccustomed to it…”). I will admit that it’s something to which I’ve never been able to embrace, but that’s just me.

The 2008 Pinot Gris ($13) features peach and apple aromas and a tangy presence on the palate. The 2008 Scheurebe ($14) has a Riesling like nose, adding a bit of melon and subtracting the diesel fuel, and is likewise a crisp, refreshing wine.

We next sampled a trio of Pinot Noir bottlings. The 2006 Zauberberg Vineyard ($30; Boehm’s own vineyard) is a big wine with a black cherry nose, medium-full body, good acid balance and peppery tannins on the finish. The 2005 Walnut Ridge ($19) had a nose of red cherry and red licorice and a polished mouth feel. The 2003 Walnut Ridge ($15) was similar, with a somewhat more intense nose and richer body. Both are good choices for current drinking and are outstanding values.

Last but not least was the 2003 Late Harvest Scheurebe ($20 for a 375ml bottle). Made in the style of a German beerenauslese, this sweet, rich dessert wine is redolent with aromas and flavors of honey, currant and grapefruit (no longer available is the equally interesting 2003 Late Harvest Huxelrebe).

Not available last weekend was the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, a new varietal for High Pass. This will be introduced Memorial Day weekend, and we’re hoping to find time to go down and try it.

The winery’s web site offers directions for reaching it, but coming from Corvallis I think it's better to choose Territorial Highway (rather than 99W) at the fork in Monroe. Continue south for several miles, then right (West) on High Pass Road. After several miles take note of Lavell Road forking to the right, but stay on High Pass. After another mile Lavell rejoins High Pass and immediately off that junction (like, a dozen yards), on Lavell, is the entrance to the winery (the Google map at the winery web site places the winery several hundred yards up Lavell, which is incorrect).

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ca' del Baio Wine Tasting

Ca' del Baio is a family-owned winery in the Piedmont region of Italy. The winery was started by Luigi Grasso around 1950, and last Wednesday (May 19th) two of Luigi's great-granddaughters, Paola and Valentina, were right here in River City pouring some of their latest releases. The tasting was held at Luc, and chef Ian Hutchings prepared small appetizer plates to complement the wines. Four Barbarescos and one Barbera were offered.

First up was the 2007 Barbera d'Alba "Paolina" (currently at Avalon for $14.95). Aromas of red cherry and blackberry are coupled with a rich mouthfeel, brisk acidity and a peppery minerality. Soft tannins make this one a good choice for current drinking, and it would work well with pizza, pasta with red sauce, and grilled beef or pork ribs.

The next four wines were all Barbarescos. Like Barolo, these are made from the Nebbiolo grape, traditionally the basis for Italy's best wines. The first to be poured was the 2006 Pianrosa (suggested retail $30), a blend from several different vineyards. This offered aromas of red cherry and red licorice, was smooth with a medium body and surprisingly soft tannins, and would be another good choice for current drinking.

The next three were all vineyard bottlings, the first being the 2006 Valgrande ($33.95 at Avalon). Mild fruit aromas were mingled with spicy oak, and it seemed a bit dry on the palate, with medium tannins. Much better was the 2006 Marcarini ($36.95). A polished nose of black cherry with hints of chocolate is followed by a rich, smooth palate presence. The tannins are not overly aggressive, but still firm enough to need a few years to soften. We decided to buy two of these to tuck away in the cellar for a few years.

We also liked the 2006 Asili (also $36.95). This was similar to the Marcarini except for being a little more acidic. It also seemed to open a little quicker, and I think a bottle decanted and allowed to breath for 30-45 minutes would make for acceptable current drinking, which would not be the case with the Marcarini.

All in all, a nice set of wines, though a step behind last year's offerings (the 2005 Asili was awesome). Only space considerations prevented the purchase of a couple of the Barberas and a couple of the Asili, and if these are still available in a month or so (after we've managed to knock off some of our current stock), I'm sure we'll be buying some of the Barbera.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Luc, Corvallis' newest restaurant, opened last evening (a "soft" opening; the Grand Opening will be Wednesday, May 26th, probably with a revised menu). The creation of Ian Johnson, chef Ian Hutchings (formerly of the late-and-lamented Strega) and sommelier Adrienne Marler (formerly of Avalon), it's located in downtown Corvallis at 134 SW Fourth Street (phone 541-753-4171). They are open from Wednesday through Sunday, from 4:30pm to 9:00pm. The cuisine is American/Northwest.

Our party of six arrived at 6:30. The decor is restrained, the walls being painted a muted shade of blue. There is seating for about 40 customers. The tables normally accommodate four, but can be combined for larger parties like ours. The ceiling is acoustic tile, which under normal circumstances would help keep things quiet.

The wine list is, at present, quite short. There are four whites, all available by the glass, and five reds, three of which are available by the glass. I noted with interest that one of the reds was the 2007 Quinto de Espirito Santo "Tinto", which was one of my recommendations in Wine Picks for May. The wines are all priced at $30 or less per bottle, except for a Chateauneuf-du-pape at $50. The selection of reds, though limited, covers a range of styles, from a Beaujolais to the rich, dense Espirito Santo. A couple of dessert wines are offered as well. Three beers are listed; a weiss bock from Germany, a golden ale from a Colorado craft brewer, and Miller High Life. At this time Luc offers no distilled spirits.

Two salads, one soup and five appetizers appeared on last night's menu, ranging from $6 to $13. One of our party ordered the Asparagus soup with truffle oil. I sampled a bit of this and liked it, the asparagus tasting both mild and fresh. Kathy ordered the Duck plate, which includes a tartare and a confit, with rye mustard. The tartare was good, but she found the confit a bit too salty. The mustard was very strong, and any more than a small dab would overpower the taste of the duck. I ordered the seared ono (the original - that is, Hawaiian - name for wahoo) which was lightly seared at the edges but otherwise rare. It was very good, not too fishy, and the quantity was just right as well. I also sampled the seared lamb sirloin, which was flavorful but a little chewy.

Only three entrées were offered, these being Black cod ($14), braised pork shoulder ($16) and beef tenderloin ($19). One of our party ordered the cod, with the rest going for the pork or beef.

Our entrées arrived after about 20-25 minutes. I sampled the cod, which was fresh, clean and succulent. My pork was flavorful and tender and was just moist enough (it was also served hot, which I appreciated). Kathy's tenderloin, served medium rare, was also very good and was extremely tender.

Two desserts were offered, a cinnamon crème brûlée and a butter vanilla pound cake with chocolate drizzle. I ordered the former and Kathy the latter. The crème brûlée was good, with nice flavors and not over-sugared, but was a little overcooked, particularly on one side, and not as creamy was we like. In all fairness, I should say that we were spoiled by the crème brûlée at Clusters and Hops back in Tallahassee, where chef Kent Steele is an absolute master of this dish. That served at Luc is as good as any we've had in Corvallis and better than most. The pound cake, unfortunately, was too dry for Kathy, and it would have been better served warmer. The quantity of cake was generous, but the chocolate drizzle was not. "Less cake, more sauce," was Kathy's comment.

Around 8:30 a steady beat began to emanate from the floor. Luc is located above the La Bamba Underground Nightclub. This establishment is open from Wednesday through Saturday, and though it doesn't open until 9:00pm, apparently the band starts to warm up earlier than that. The owners of Luc are aware of the problem and their web site advises, "OK, so come early before the music starts."

Another option is to dine at Luc on Sunday. The restaurant is open that day; the nightclub is not.

Luc is off to a good start, needing only to offer a couple more entrées and desserts (and a little more attention to the latter). The service and food are excellent, and Corvallis can always use another good restaurant, particularly one that makes an effort to keep its prices reasonable.

Luc web site.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Two Summertime Brews

Warm days are coming (I keep telling myself that), and we all need to be prepared. You don’t want to end a day of strenuous outdoor activity with the unhappy discovery that all you have in your refrigerator is chocolate porter. You want something light and refreshing, but with enough going on that you know you’re drinking real beer (don’t go into the light beer! Stay away from the light beer!)

Already waiting for you in the beer aisle are two very good summertime brews. The first, Sierra Nevada “Summerfest”, is a Pilsner-style lager. Gold-yellow in color, it tickles your nose with lemon, spicy hops and a hint of fresh-cut hay. On the palate it’s crisp, and you get lightly sweet malt, with the hops kicking in at the finish.
Somewhat darker in color and fuller in body is Deschutes “Twilight”, but it’s still lighter in both color and character than most pale ales. Like the “Summerfest” it’s got citrus and herbal elements in the nose, but more orange than lemon and more grass than hay (and maybe a little pine in there too). On the palate, the hops are more forward than with the Sierra Nevada, and the malt is similarly sweet with just a hint of toast.

The two brewers have taken different paths to achieve the goal of producing a light, refreshing beer for warm summer days, with the Sierra Nevada being a lager (bottom fermented) and the Deschutes being an ale (top fermented). Which is better is a subjective matter (checking I see that they get almost identical scores, 3.69 for the Twilight and 3.64 for the Summerfest). If you want to keep your dollars in Oregon, go for the Twilight, but speaking for myself I think I favor the Sierra Nevada, which, with its snappy aromas and crisp character, seems the more refreshing beer.

Now, if summer would only arrive…

Monday, May 17, 2010

Old World Deli - Oregon Trail Brewery

This is the first of a series of reviews of Corvallis brewpubs. I'm going to do these in "historical" order, starting with the Old World Deli - Oregon Trail Brewery, which has been around since 1987.

There are, at present, four brewpubs in Corvallis, which is double the number that were operating in 2007 when we arrived here. Even two was kind of amazing to us, coming from Tallahassee, a city with five times the population of Corvallis but no brewpubs (there had been a few in the past, but none survived). In addition to OWD-OTB, there was McMenamins on Monroe, followed by Block 15 in 2008 and Flat Tail Brewing in 2010. At least in terms of beer production, Block 15 had surpassed the first two by the end of 2009, with its production for that year being 924.5 barrels, versus 816.25 for McMenamins and 534.54 for Oregon Trail.

Old World Deli is located at 341 SW 2nd Street. The interior is a strange mix of kitsch, funk and industrial chic. After entering, you pass between walls fashioned to resemble the fronts of German village structures, with the apparent intent being to create the impression that you're in an outdoor beergarten. It doesn't work, but you get the feeling they know that and don't really care. After passing through the mini burgh, the area opens up into the deli itself, with a seating area to the left and the ordering area to the right. The entire interior is festooned with artwork from mostly local artists, as well as with historical displays.

Service is essentially non-existent. You order and pay at the counter, and take your beverage to your table. They bring out your food order, but when you've finished, it's expected that you bus your table.

We were meeting a number of friends, two of whom had been there on several previous occasions. "The sandwiches are good," we were told, "but don't order the lasagna." I ordered the Reuben, with Swiss cheese on rye, and Kathy ordered the French Dip Roast Beef. Two others in our party also ordered sandwiches, these being a pastrami on rye and the "Mediterranean" on sourdough. Kathy and I also ordered a pasta salad.

The sandwiches were all good. The bread (delivered every day from a local Franz bakery) was good, and the sandwich contents fresh and tasty. The amount of meat on the Reuben and the French Dip was adequate, but only just. The "Mediterranean" is a real stack of meat and cheese and not recommended for the small of mouth. The pasta salad, on the other hand, was not acceptable, the pasta being dry and doughy.

The Oregon Trail Brewery web site describes seven beers, but only five were on tap that evening. They don't offer a "sampler" array (as does Block 15 and Flat Tail) so it was necessary to order five 10 ounce glasses. The first one I tried, the WIT wheat beer, had a light citrusy nose (mostly lemon) and was not at all hoppy. Not being a big fan of wheat beer, it was difficult for me to assess, but it seemed as good as most I've had. The next one I sampled was the Beaver Tail ale. Again, this had a very light nose, was not very hoppy, and seemed to have a flatness to it at mid-palate. It was okay but was, as they say, nothing to write home about. The IPA also had a citrusy nose, and though having an interesting amount of hops, was less hoppy than the average IPA. Competent, but not exceptional. The Brown Ale flirts with being a stout, with chocolate on the nose, and hints of coffee mingled with the hops. Last, but not least, was the Ginseng Porter. We weren't sure we'd like this, but the ginseng touch is very light, adding a spicy presence to the hops and light chocolate notes. A very nice beer, and the only standout of the bunch.

For dessert we had to try the "World's Best Brownie". This proved to be very good, hitting the sweet spot between too cakelike and too chewy. Covered with a layer of mini chocolate chips, it went well with the bit of Brown Ale and Ginseng Porter we'd held back. I wouldn't say it's the best brownie I've ever had but I think it's in the Top Ten.

So there you have it: funky decor, serve yourself, good sandwiches, competent beer and excellent brownies. Hardly a place to be avoided, I expect I'll have lunch there now and again, ordering the Mediterranean on sourdough, a pint of Ginseng Porter and one of those tasty brownies.

Old World Deli - Oregon Trail Brewing web site.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Guide to Rum

Just in time for summer, the Corvallis Epicurean's Guide to Rum is now online. Ever wonder how Myers gets so dark, or why 10 Cane doesn't seem to work well with Coke? Well, wonder no more - just click and read!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Small World Wine Tasting

On Monday, May 2nd, I attended a wine tasting sponsored by Small World Wine Company. Small World’s goal is to promote and distribute wines produced here in the central/southern Willamette Valley, and all but three of the wineries represented at the tasting were from our area. The company is owned and managed by Matt and Tabitha Compton of Spindrift Cellars along with her father, Norm Galvin.

Nearly 50 wines were available for tasting, and it took me close to three hours to try them all. For those of you who’ve never attended a tasting like this, be advised that you need to make use of the spit buckets or you’ll not be leaving on your feet. Most of those in attendance were local retailers and restauranteurs.

Spindrift’s own offerings included the NV White, a Pinot Gris/Chardonnay blend that offered pear, apple, apricot and pineapple notes, low acidity and a smooth presence on the palate (probable retail price around $13). The 2009 Pinot Blanc (probably about $15) had a subtle nose of lemon and herbs, and, again, was very smooth. The 2009 Pinot Gris ($14) was similar, perhaps more generically fruity. Reds included the 2008 Pinot Noir, which has aromas of strawberry and raspberry and though being a bit tart on the palate, is a good value at the suggested retail of $20. The 2007 Syrah, produced from fruit sourced from Seven Hills Vineyard (Walla Walla district of the Columbia Valley, Oregon side), is reminiscent of a northern Rhone, having a floral, fruity nose and red cherry flavors (my first thought upon tasting it was this is a Syrah for Pinot Noir lovers). Suggested retail is $32.

I next visited the table manned by John Jarboe, winemaker at Territorial Vineyards. John was offering both wines from Territorial as well as several under his own label, Opine. The Territorial whites included the 2008 Pinot Gris ($15) which has been out for a while (I know we’ve already gone through a bottle or two). In addition to the typical pear and apple aromas that one gets with most Oregon Pinot Gris, there’s a bit of apricot as well. It’s a bit tangy on the palate, a characteristic that the winery’s web site describes as “a bright natural acidity”. Also offered was the 2006 Riesling ($15) which had a classic Riesling nose (floral and fruity) with that hint of diesel fuel that many Rieslings (both German and American) often have. From the warm 2006 vintage, it’s 2% residual sugar and thus a little sweet, and would be a refreshing sipper on a warm summer afternoon. Moving toward the red end of the spectrum took me next to the 2009 Rose of Pinot Noir ($13). Aromas and flavors of strawberry and watermelon are accompanied by a surprisingly brisk acidity. Not as fruity as our all-time-favorite RoPN (the 2006 Benton Lane), but still a nice wine. The reds were a pair of Pinot Noir bottlings. The first, the 2008 “Stone’s Throw” ($30), has a rich aroma of black cherry with hints of raspberry. On the palate it’s not as rich as the nose would lead you to expect, but is smooth, medium bodied and has just a little tannin on the finish (might benefit from another year of bottle age). The 2006 “Capital T Reserve” ($39) offers aromas of red and black cherry, and on the palate is well blanced, rich and chewy, with a hint of licorice.

John had three wines under his Opine label. The 2009 Viognier (I’m guessing around $20) has apricot and apple aromas and was a bit more acidic than I'm used to in a Viognier. His reds consisted of two Syrahs; the first being a non-vintage bottling ($25-30?). This had a spicy nose, with a trace of cocoa, was nicely balanced, with a slightly metallic mineral element upfront and some tannin on the finish. The other was the 2005 Chukar Ridge Vineyard ($30-35?), a similar wine but perhaps a little less tannic.

The next table offered wines from several wineries. Apolloni Vineyards, from Forest Grove (west of Portland) offered three. I first tried the 2009 Pinot Blanc (estimated retail $15), a medium-bodied wine with a distinct nose of pear and flowers. The 2005 Reserve Pinot Noir (estimated $40) was outstanding, with wonderful aromas of raspberry, blackberry and strawberry and a very refined presence on the palate. Their third offering was a dessert wine, the 2007 “Dolce Vino” Viognier, ($22?), which featured a signature Viognier nose of apricot and pear. It was not particularly complex, but was smooth and sweet, though not as sweet as one might expect from the “ice wine” designation. Also at this table were two selections from Spencer Creek Cellars near Eugene. The 2006 Pinot Gris (probably about $21) was a good example of the type, adding a peach element to the usual pear and apple, and was medium in both body and acidity. The 2005 Pinot Noir ($27?) was excellent, with red and black cherry and raspberry, good balance and soft tannins. The third winery at this table was another out-of-area one, Shea Wine Cellars. Their 2007 Chardonnay (perhaps $35) was excellent, offering an immediately recognizable varietal nose with honeysuckle and pear notes, a bit of Burgundy minerality and a touch of oak (15% is aged in new oak). The 2007 Estate Pinot Noir ($40-45) was characterized more by black fruits (blackberry and black cherry) than by red ones, and though this is not my favorite style of PN (I like lots of strawberry and raspberry), it was unquestionably a well-crafted wine and one of the best examples I’ve had from the difficult 2007 vintage.

Two wineries were at the next table, the first being 720 Wine Cellars (Philomath). The 2007 Pinot Gris ($17) had a light pear nose and seemed a little acidic. It also did not seem particularly fruity, but in all honesty by this time I was starting to suffer from PGF (Pinot Gris Fatigue). The three Pinot Noir bottlings were more interesting, the first being the 2006 Willamette Valley ($25). This had a rather subtle nose of strawberry and raspberry and a light-to-medium body. The 2005 Croft Vineyard ($35) was more intense, adding cherry to the raspberry and strawberry, and featured an earthy minerality on the palate. The 2006 Croft Vineyard (also estimated at $35) was similar, but with a lighter nose and a bit more acidity. Also at this table was another out-of-area winery, Remy Wines of McMinnville. Their first offering was a 2007 Syrah ($27) using fruit sourced from Oregon’s Rogue Valley. Though a pleasing wine, I would characterize the aromas and flavors as “generic dark fruit”, as it took some effort to pick out elements of plum, blackberry and black cherry. More interesting was the non-vintage “Three Wives” blend (probably around $18), made from 34% Barbera, 38% Lagrein and 28% Syrah. The first two are northern Italian varietals, with the Barbera being from Washington vineyards and the other two from Oregon. The Syrah dominates the nose with its distinctive peppery black cherry character, and this smooth, medium-bodied wine finishes with soft, muted tannins.

Shuffling my way to the last table, I met Dai Crisp, manager of Temperance Hill Vineyard (fruit from which finds its way into numerous quality Oregon wines) and owner of Lumos Wines (headquartered in Philomath but the winery itself is in McMinnville). He had two 2009 Pinot Gris, one from Rudolfo Vineyard and one from Temperance Hill (estimated retail about $18 and $21 respectively). Again, these were typical Willamette PGs, with pear/apple and medium body and acidity (I think the Temperance Hill was the slightly more acidic of the two). The 2009 Temperance Hill Gewürztraminer ($20?) was a welcome antidote for my now-advanced state of PGF, with its spicy, citrusy nose and crisp acidity. Jerry Larson of Wineopolis joined me at the Lumos station, and trying the Gewürz expressed the opinion that it would “really come together” in about six months. Crisp’s two Pinot Noir bottlings were the 2007 Five Blocks ($26) which offered strawberry and raspberry aromas, adding red cherry to these when it reaches the palate, and the 2006 Temperance Hill ($32), the nose of which is dominated by red cherry. A big, rich, tannic Pinot Noir, it’s one for the cellar.

Last but definitely not least was Mystic Wines near Salem. Producing exclusively reds, the house style is one of smooth, polished refinement. The 2006 Temperance Hill Pinot Noir ($24) has that strawberry/raspberry nose I so love, and excellent balance. The 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon ($28; McDuffe vineyard near The Dalles) is very nice, but seems to lack the signature cassis and bell pepper elements that one normally associates with CS. The 2007 Syrah ($22, also from Columbia Valley) features peppery black cherry and is a bit tannic (give it two years). The 2005 Zinfandel ($20, from Hillside Vineyard on the Oregon side of The Dalles) is an intriguing example of its type, with more of a raspberry character (as opposed to the blackberry of a typical California Zin) and soft, well-integrated tannins making it a great choice for current drinking. Finally, their 2006 Barbera (around $28) definitely got my attention. Kathy and I have long been fans of Italian Barbera (we went through an entire case of the 1998 Brero). We’ve tried a number of domestic examples but never found any that particularly impressed. The Mystic bottling seems more in the Italian style, with red cherry and blackberry and a slightly acidic character that should make it a good dinner wine.

Overall, the quality of the wines was good; nonetheless, there were a number of standouts, all of which I plan to purchase when I get the chance. These achieved this status for a number of reasons, these being Quality/Price Ratio (Spindrift 2009 Pinot Blanc, 2009 Pinot Gris and 2008 Pinot Noir, Territorial 2008 Pinot Gris, 2006 Riesling and 2009 Rose of Pinot Noir, the Remy NV “Three Wives”, and the Mystic 2006 Pinot Noir, 2005 Zinfandel and 2007 Syrah), an unusual and/or distinctive example of type (Spindrift 2007 Syrah, the Remy “Three Wives” again, and the Mystic 2006 Barbera and, again, 2005 Zinfandel) or simply an excellent example of type (the Apolloni 2005 Pinot Noir, the Spencer Creek 2005 Pinot Noir, the Shea 2007 Chardonnay and 2007 Pinot Noir, and the Lumos 2009 Gewürztraminer).

Small World Wines is definitely offering a good portfolio of wineries, and I'm hoping they'll add more good ones in the months and years to come.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

HR 5034

For years the distributors of alcoholic beverages have sought to create and maintain a monopoly over sales of beer, wine and spirits in the US, and thus have been opponents of any effort to allow direct shipment of products to consumers. They like to wave the "protect the kids" banner when doing this, claiming that such shipments would allow children to purchase alcohol over the Internet.

Here's a FACT: shippers (such as FedEx) always require an adult's signature when delivering alcoholic beverages.

The distributors, their lobbyists and every member of Congress know this, but are hoping you don't. In short, they want you to be both ignorant and gullible and would love to take advantage of it.

Their latest gambit is HR 5034, hearings for which were not announced in advance, although lobbyists for the distributors somehow knew about it (magic?) and showed up in order to advance their agenda. This bill would make it more difficult for wineries and consumers to challenge state laws prohibiting direct shipments.

Contact your representative. It's EASY. Just follow this link (you'll need your full ZIP-9; if you don't know that, get it here).

A Wine Spectator article about the bill can be found here.

I'll close with a question: will it ever occur to the members of Congress that our low opinion of them will never change as long as they keep behaving like whores?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

CE Guide to Stocking a Home Bar is now online

My Guide to Stocking a Home Bar is available here. In it you'll find recommendations for beer, wine, spirits and liqueurs, with the usual Corvallis Epicurean emphasis on maximizing Quality/Price Ratio (QPR).

Monday, February 15, 2010

House Spirits Distillery

On Saturday, January 30th, I visited House Spirits Distillery, the southernmost of the five establishments comprising Portland's "Distillery Row". House Spirits originated as an post-inception partner of Ransom. The distillery was originally right here in Corvallis, operating out of rented space on the backside of the building located at 1025 NW 9th street (the same building that houses Taylor Street Ovens). At the end of 2004 they relocated to the present location in Portland; in 2008, Ransom relocated its distilling operation to Ransom Winery in Sheridan.

The original still, an old-fashioned copper alembic type, still resides at the House Spirits distillery. It's not used much anymore, having been replaced by a shiny new stainless steel unit of much greater capacity and flexibility. I suspect it's kept around mostly for sentimental reasons. Plus it's quaint, just like Corvallis.

The distillery's best known product is Aviation Gin ($28.45), which is technically what's known as a jonge genever. This is a type of gin which uses a more Dutch formula of botanicals (less juniper than a London Dry), but which uses a base of exclusively grain neutral spirits (same as London Dry). Other products include Medoyeff Vodka ($30.45) and Krogstad Aquavit ($24.45). In December of 2009 they released their first whiskey, an unpeated straight barley malt ($49.95)

I was given a tour of the facility by Matt Mount, one of the distillers. Matt, a former bartender, is quite knowledgeable about spirits in general, and provided a great deal of information of the distillery's operation and the processes associated with each of its products. After the tour, I was able to sample most of these.

The vodka is, well, a vodka. Any vodka that manages to avoid smelling like medicinal alcohol is a good one, and the Medoyeff succeeds in that. However, so does Gordon's, and it costs $7.45. The Medoyeff is made from rye, and I think I detected a bit of that on the nose, but if you are looking for a good rye presence, Sobieski does a better job of that and it costs $12.45. The Meydoyeff is also quite smooth, with a bit of minerality to it, but Stolichnaya Gold is better in both respects and even at $24.95 still offers a price advantage.

If anyone feels I'm being unfair to the Medoyeff, you should understand that I consider high price vodkas to be something of a scam. The stuff costs very little to make, and the marketing is really directed at creating a certain image for the product (and the price is part of that). I mean, let's face it; once mixed into a drink, the subtle differences between vodkas disappear. The only people who drink it straight are Russians and college students, and they don't keep it in their mouths long enough to taste it.

I've been told about a high end bar (in another state) the owner of which tops off his bottles of Grey Goose with Smirnoff. His well-heeled customers are utterly clueless, convinced that the GG they think they are getting is the best vodka in the world.

Moving on to the Aviation Gin, I found this to be quite smooth, with just a hint of juniper. For me, the most noticeable botanical was anise, but there are others in the background. It's not that different from a oude genever such as Bols, which are at least 15% lower proof spirit distilled from malted barley. Taken straight, an oude genever is going to be smoother than the Aviation, but in a mixed drink that won't likely make much difference, and the Aviation offers a $20 price advantage over Bols.

Next was the Krogstad Aquavit. This type of spirit is Scandinavian in origin, essentially a gin but flavored with star anise and caraway seed (no juniper). I've had a couple from Denmark, and the House Spirit product is easily their peer. Very smooth, with strong anise aromas and flavor, it would make a good on-the-rocks drink for a warm afternoon on the patio.

The Straight Malt Whiskey is similar to that made by a handful of Scottish distilleries that don't peat their barley malt (Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie, Glengoyne). Unlike those, the House Spirit whiskey is aged in new, charred American oak barrels (the Scots age their malts in ex-bourbon and/or ex-sherry barrels). The current bottling spent two years and eight months in these barrels. It's a nice copper color, with aromas of malt, caramel and a hint of orange. It's a little rough on the palate, with only the barest hint of oak. Finish is short, with some burn. I can't help but feel it would be a lot better with a little more barrel time (say, a total of four years). For my money, a bottle of Glengoyne 10 year old ($46.95) is a better deal.

I also had the opportunity to try a number of experimental spirits, plus some releases that are already sold out. One of the former was an aged aquavit (one year in an barrel that previously held Pinot Noir). This was very interesting; extremely smooth, with the anise actually stronger than the unaged version. Next I tried the rum, which was released last September and is already all sold (except for a small amount still at the distillery). It's unusual in that it's made from refined sugar (most rums are made from molasses or cane juice). The only other one I know of that's made from sugar is Charbay from California. The House Spirit rum was aged 14 months in new, charred American oak. It was nice, smooth with a brown sugar thing going on, but not particularly complex. Matt informed me that the next rum will spend two years in second hand bourbon barrels; I'm hoping to try some of that.

All in all, I was impressed with the operation. This is an outfit clearly dedicated to producing quality products. I'm hoping that with time and an improved financial situation, they'll be able to give their whiskey more time in the barrel. I believe an eight year old version of it would be superb.

Three Seasonal Brews

Once upon a time, European and some of the more traditional American breweries would produce a batch of special beer (i.e., something other than their standard offering) at certain times of the year. The early spring often saw bock beers appearing on the shelves, and in December there might be a number of "winter" brews.

With the advent of the craft brewing movement, many breweries are producing seasonal beers year round, usually a rotation of four types, corresponding with the season. Some are producing as many as seven or eight.

One of these is Sam Adams, which currently produces seven seasonal offerings. It's become fashionable among beer snobs (yes, there is such a thing) to sneer at Sam Adams, but the company deserves a lot of credit for showing that there was a market for craft beers, and demonstrating that they could be distributed at a national level. Plus, they make a number of pretty good products (Sam Adams Light is the only light beer I'm willing to drink).

Available from January through March is their Noble Pils. A light-colored lager made in a classic Czech/German Pilsner style, it features a citrusy nose, flavors of malt and freshly baked bread, a medium hoppiness, a clean finish, and is a good example of what a lager beer should be. Retailing for a little over $9 for a six pack, I picked some up at Fred Meyer on sale for $6.99.

Here in Oregon, Deschutes also has a number of seasonal offerings. From their "Bond Street" series of high-end beers (available only in 22 ounce bottles), is "Hop Henge" IPA. This is a "double" (also called "imperial") IPA, which has more of everything - malt, hops (especially hops) and alcohol (8.75%). Dark amber, with a big, citrusy, piney nose, it treats the palate with biscuits, various citrus fruits, pine, pepper and, of course, hops. It's bitter enough for the hop heads, but there's enough other stuff going on to not scare off those with less extreme tastes. Available from January through April, it's not cheap (about $5 for the 22 ounce bottle), but serious IPA fans consider it worth every penny.

A more reasonably priced offering, again from Deschutes, is the "Red Chair NWPA". Of the three, this is definitely my favorite. Medium amber, with aromas of citrus (grapefruit and a little orange), flowers, and spicy hops, and rich, bold flavors of caramel and toasted malt, along with a bit of orange rind. Perfectly balanced between sweet and bitter, it's a truly great beer. I wish they made it year-round, but it's only available from January through April. Kathy liked it too, so I went back to Fred Meyer and picked up two more six-packs while it was still on sale ($6.99).