Eugene Weekly : Wine : 4.3.08

Deep Wine
Some make finesse a livelihood

This feels really weird. Never thought I’d find myself struggling to find nice words to write about folks who, for the most part, have done nearly naught to help me do my current job, even though you’d think that my work and theirs surely shared common ground. And it does. We just cross the ground rather differently.

I’m thinking about wine distributors and their sales reps. These reflections were sparked yesterday when I crossed paths with Clark, wine rep for Hood River Distributors, at WineStyles. Clark invited me to sample two Rhone Valley wines by M. Chapoutier, a Côtes du Rhône that was very good and retails for about $12, super value, and a 2005 Chateauneuf du Pape “La Bernardine,” entirely granache-based, stylish, with distinct plum notes on raspberries and currants, $45, sure, but that’s common for high quality in this variety at this time of weak dollars and strong world demand.

Now Clark didn’t have to offer tastes — he was doing business with WineStyles — but he did, and we could also share memories of wine travels and experiences over the last 20 years. I bought some wines (see below), tucked bottles under my arm, made a soggy run for my ancient Toyota under a pelting spring downpour. I was no sooner behind the wheel and peering through a windshield like a shower stall than an insight began to manifest behind my eyes: I remembered how much of my deep wine education I owed to sales reps from Oregon’s big wine distributors—Tom Tollarico, Greg Zancanella and especially Dan Cooley. These guys and others taught me more about wine — I’m sure I tasted more than 50 wines a week, none of them mediocre — than I could have imagined. And they still knew a lot more than I did, or ever would, unless, like them, I made wine the center of my livelihood.

Wasn’t going to happen. Sure, I was wine buyer for Ambrosia, a fine restaurant with a world-class, prize-winning wine cellar and list, so I had some leverage, at least by proxy. I also like to think the reps appreciated the fact that I tried not to act like a jerk, tried to treat each and all with respect, showing due gratitude for their efforts and occasional generosity. But wine was just a sidebar to me — fun, tasty, intriguing — and I would soon return to teaching as my “real” career. The reps, though, pursued wine (and food, the two intimately connected) with a lives-at-stake passion, and their own education was profound, involving extensive travel, foreign and domestic, intensive tasting in trade shows and producers’ cellars, just to skim the surface.

Now, though, there’s some political pressure to alter Oregon’s antiquated liquor laws, including the possibility of erasing the rule that has given distributors a virtual monopoly in the middle of wine, between producers, retailers and consumers. The argument’s been made that such a change would enable producers and retailers to deal directly with each other, to the financial benefit of both, and of the consumer.

Sounds good, but I have my doubts. For one, I wonder who’s going to be at the front lines, meeting with restaurateurs and educating service staffs, working not just to sell wine but to sell the right wines to the right place, assembling lists that complement not only a restaurant’s menu but its identity. I won’t pretend to have the final insight into this issue, but I hope the folks on all sides of this change think — and talk — through the matter thoroughly before they act. For myself, I can only say thanks for my memories — and the periodic courtesies extended even now.

Which brings us to our wine report:

We’ve long been fond of the sauvignon blancs of New Zealand’s Kim Crawford, but Kim Crawford 2004 Dry Riesling ($16) rivals some of the best examples of this varietal coming lately from Australia, which is to say it’s quite drinkable, with floral aromas, flavor notes of ripe pears and tropicals with a certain stoniness and good acidity. Nice match for fresh seafood, spicy Asian dishes.

Closer to home, we also like the work of John and Kay Kusy-Eliassen of McMinnville. Their La Bete 2005 Aligoté ($12) is delish, mighty food-friendly. The aligoté grape thrives in France’s Burgundy region, but these grapes hail from the Newhouse Vineyard in Washington’s Yakima Valley. The flavors are a complex interplay of citrus and herbal notes, mouth-filling without being imposing. Would be awfully good with chicken, cheesy dishes, mussels.

The back label of A to Z wines promises “Aristocratic wines at democratic prices.” The slogan is catchy, if a bit more suggestive than substantial, but the delivery is clearly satisfying. A to Z 2006 Oregon Pinot Blanc ($12) could make a lot of friends for this varietal. Pinot blanc doesn’t get a lot of respect; folks argue that it’s not as refined or complex as, say, chardonnay or pinot gris. Maybe that’s true, but it sure is pleasant sipping when we’re cheffing on the patio and we want a wine that’s soft and rings nice little flavor bells of peaches and pears.

Last note: Chile’s Montes Cherub 2007 Rosé of Syrah ($15) is dark pink and full of flavor, a glassful of raspberries and cherries with nice spice tingles, terrific rosie.

Happy spring, y’all, and thanks to you, too.