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Lovely Libations

New upscale wine lounge opens downtown

This being the month when we celebrate the pursuit of Eros, Amor, love in all its forms — oddly appropriated to the name of a saint (Valentine/Valentinus martyred by beheading on Feb. 14, 273 CE) — we want to send some love to two figures whose passionate pursuits add pleasures to our lives. 

First, let’s welcome the opening of an elegant oasis on Eugene’s urban wine trail: Friday, Feb. 7, will mark the grand opening of Pyrenees Lounge at 946 S. Willamette in the former, now-refurbished Woolworth Building. 

Proprietor Robert Stryk (rhymes with stick), 38, claims he’s always had two passions, “business and politics.” He’s a Washington, D.C., lobbyist, in “defense and intelligence,” but he’s included wine among his passions, with his 2012 purchase of Pyrenees Vineyard and Cellars and, sited in a sunny nook in Myrtle Creek, at the southernmost end of the Umpqua Valley, producers of stylish whites and bold reds (no pinot noir).

The “kinda swanky” lounge (open Wednesday through Sunday, 2 to 9-ish pm) will offer up to 30 patrons choices from a dozen craft-brewed beers, many from “the smaller, lesser-known breweries,” according to Shannon Curran, the place’s vivacious manager. Also listed are 19 bubblies, from inexpensive Spanish ($7/gallon) cava to high-end California ($39/gallon). But the main feature will be Pyrenees’ own wines, five fine whites and eight reds, all excellent, made by Thomas Shook, 33, all distinguished by varietal flavors and food-friendly acidity. Especially fine in the whites is their 2010 White Meritage ($38/bottle), a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon. Shook’s 2012 Semillon ($42/bottle) is superb. Among reds, the 2011 Malbec is redolent in the nose, juicy on the palate. Plans are afoot to add wine-based cocktails. Tasty nibbles will be provided by Vine Cuisine, relying as much as possible on locally produced cheeses, charcuterie and breads. Stryk is obviously a smart man with a clear plan, “the reason my business will succeed.” We wish him and his enthusiastic crew the boffo business. 

Meet now Andrea Loreto, owner/operator of Eugene’s sole distillery of spirits. His company, Elixir, markets two liqueurs: Calisaya, actually an infusion of the cinchona bark, resulting in a digestivo akin to bitters, lively and complex, alone or in a cocktail, with flavors of citrus and caramel, hints of orange rind; the second is Iris, also an infusion based on the rhizome of iris Germanica Florentina (the only form of iris root that is not toxic — don’t try this at home), a deliciously sweet, floral dessert liqueur, like sipping perfume, again served neat, maybe with a twist of lemon, or on rocks, or in a variety of cocktails. (James West, creative mixologist at Party Downtown, has developed some signature cocktails based on Calisaya and Iris.) 

Loreto is a vigorous 51, married; his wife, Kate (Mondloch), teaches contemporary art at UO; they have a son, Oliver, 11. Loreto was born and raised in Florence, Italy, where he earned a master’s degree in economics, which, he notes, qualified him for positions in Italian corporate structures that were “a hybrid, between corporate lawyer and CPA.” His business experience took him from Florence to Chicago to Pasadena where he and Kate and their son were living when she was offered her faculty position. They “sold our little house” in Pasadena and moved to Eugene in 2005. 

Loreto is (obviously) intelligent, bilingual, possessed of Old World charm, not at all inclined to sloth. But he has always had one vulnerability: “I’ve always been a foodie.” Just to keep busy, he started teaching Italian cuisine through LCC’s culinary extension. Poring through one of his cookbooks, in the index he tripped across a section on traditional Italian aperitifs. That inspiration led to the birth of Elixir in 2008.

Passions drive Loreto’s commitment to his liqueurs, particularly in his double-filtration of the alcohol used in the infusion: “Filtration through activated charcoal and then lava rock removes all traces of impurities, the kind that give headaches.” He also blends meticulously, using eye-droplets of flavors to achieve a certain profile. “Passionate making,” he says, “is not enough. It has to taste good.” And it does, very good.

OLCC’s recent changes in policy and direction have encouraged and supported craft distillers like Andrea Loreto, mainly by buying the products, then making them available in small lots (as little as a bottle at a time) to the privately owned liquor stores, which can then put them on shelves and track their sales without investing in full cases; “And they pay every two weeks, like clockwork,” Loreto notes.

Lovely libations, made with heart and daring, deserve our affections and indulgence. Give a little love — and take some home.