Monday, October 25, 2010

Seven Days of Pain...

We've gotten through the worst of it and we have the majority of our fruit to show for it.  Over the last seven days we've processed around 150 tons of fruit and I still feel like I see Pinot berries when  I close my eyes.

This was certainly not an optimal situation.  Our hand was forced by the rainy weather that is with us this weekend and perhaps for another two weeks.  Some of the fruit came in a little less ripe than we would've liked, but overall the fruit that ended up in the tanks after extensive sorting looks and tastes pretty damn good.  The fruit from my current home, Stermer Vineyard, was a very pleasant surprise which I'm sure allowed Anthony, head winemaker extraordinaire, to sleep better at night.

The photo is from a sunset at Wascher Vineyard and I thought that it was a fitting photographic allegory for where we are right now.  The madness of harvest came and went in a furious week, and we're in the home stretch now.  We'll hopefully be doing our last day of fruit processing on Wednesday.

Some of the tanks are starting to foam away, developing their their characteristic cap, finally allowing me to get my fix on the smell of fermentation.  The wines here at Lemelson rely on wild yeasts for fermentation, which can be a bit unpredictable.  However, I think the resulting wines are better and have better character.  But, most of all, I think this is another important element of the much sought after terroir.  To go to the trouble of trying express a unique combination of climate, grapes and soil and then toss in a yeast created in a lab that always behaves the same through fermentation (because it's designed to) removes a huge element of terroir.

Our life right now is centered around fermentation management and care, meaning we'll be maintaining temperatures, keeping the cap wet and the tanks well mixed through punchdowns and essentially making sure nothing weird happens (the dreaded specters of ethyl acetate and volatile acidity).  I've already started coming up with names for my favorite ferments.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Don't be alarmed. Just horde all your Kimchi

So this might seem like an absurd title, but it's extremely relevant to many Koreans right now.  As reported recently, the price of domestically grown Napa cabbage has dramatically incresed in Korea to as much as $14 a head, from about $2.50. 

I thought this was a relevant story because this situation is largely caused by poor weather tying it to our own predicament here.

I really love kimchi and, much like my adoration for fish sauce, I really enjoy spreading the kimchi gospel.  But when kimchi, the ubiquitous Korean spicy, cabbage condiment becomes a scarcity, I begin to worry. The other night I made a seafood ramen (pictured) and the one thing that really brought it all together was the kimchi garnish.  It's salty, briny and spicy all packed in to variety of textures.  What's there not to love?

In Lemelson news, harvest is hitting full steam now (finally), and our "6-8 days of pain" has now begun.  Today we processed around 18 tons of fruit, and I learned very quickly that it's not necessarily beneficial to be good at sorting when I got stuck in the anchor position on the line.  Being one of the last lines of defense against sending nasty fruit in to the tank can be stressful, especially when you're doing it for six hours.  In such a difficult year, there is always going to be a huge amount of effort put in to sorting, this is how it's possible to ensure that the fruit quality lives up to the standard necessary to make good wine.

I'll try to keep posting regularly, but who knows what it'll be like.  It might just be delirious rambling after staring at pinot berries shake over a sorting table all day.



Saturday, October 16, 2010

Chicken Salad?

I love having leftover chicken around. Aside from the inevitable stock, the leftover flesh is wonderfully versatile.    There are a staggering amount of possibilities, none as simply satisfying as chicken salad.

I realize that I'm not saying anything profound here.  Chicken salad is certainly the most obvious thing one can make with leftover chicken. But, after the decadent meal the night before I didn't really feel like cooking anything for lunch on my day off.  It was the middle of the afternoon and the sun was peeking through the clouds here at Stermer vineyard.  A refreshing chicken salad sandwich and a glass of Riesling really hit the spot.

On a separate note, it looks like we'll be bringing fruit in today, the first of 2010.  The weather is holding out for us, and aside from the hordes of menacing birds causing vineyard managers all over the Willamette Valley to wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweats, we are all still apprehensively optimistic.

To the residents of this very beautiful valley who are not in the wine industry, I apologize on behalf of all of us that it sounds like World War III out there.  Between bird cannons, air rifles and even driving around vineyards honking car horns, we have got to do something to startle the birds to keep them from completely devastating the crops.  They're crafty little buggers.

To give you a bit of context, I have heard from several voices here, with 20 odd years experience in the vineyards of this region, that this is the worst the birds have been in recent memory.  One theory is that since the growing season was so miserable in general, there is a shortage of other food sources for the birds forcing their hand (wing?) to eat the grapes that we've been meticulously coddling throughout the year.  Or, since the rain storms hit Oregon in September, rather than mid-October, and many of the migratory patterns are tied to the storms, we now have a temporary increase in the bird population with all of our fruit still sitting out ready to be pecked.  It might even be a combination of those factors but, whatever the case, in honor of our pesky winged friends I present my chicken salad recipe.

Chicken Salad

One pound leftover chicken, shredded
One celery stalk diced
Two radishes diced
Two egg yolks
Juice of half a lime
Small bunch of cilantro
One jalapeno
One teaspoon fish sauce
Salt and pepper

First make the mayo.  Add the egg yolks, salt, pepper and lime juice to a bowl and incorporate all the ingredients.  Add the oil of choice in a steady stream whisking as you go until the oil is emulsified and the mayo thickens.  Combine the remaining ingredients and gently fold in mayo.  Chill the mixture while you're toasting your bread of choice.  Pile on your salad and any other fixings you might like and enjoy.

Friday, October 15, 2010

First Bit of Cellar Work

There was a familiar sense of accomplishment when we finished racking the wine off those few barrels.  That day's work would have an effect, however minuscule, on a future bottle of wine.

One of my initial attractions to wine production was that at the end of the day there were tangible results for your efforts.  The many tasks, varying from the mundane to the thrilling, are all building towards a beautiful final product.  As a group we are striving to create something that we believe in. The finished effort represents months, even years, of work and has the potential to provide an immense amount of pleasure.  All of those days of racking, cleaning, lab trials and blending are enclosed within a glass bottle, and that's just the winery work.

The term terroir gets thrown around a lot in the wine industry.  Many fine wine producers claim they are striving for terroir, or that their wine truly expresses their unique terroir.  For those of you who don't know, the French term terroir is loosely translated to mean a sense of place.  In this respect, wine should reflect the unique microclimate, soil type, elevation, etc. 

I do really enjoy thinking about all the various factors that can contribute to the creation of unique wines.  Nothing gets my wine-nerd juices flowing more than learning about some obscure wine region and their unique mineral components and indigenous varietals.  I can sip a glass and immediately transport myself to far-flung corners of the globe. 

However, what I think is lacking from this idea of terroir is the human effort that goes in to creating that bottle.  Starting from pruning in the beginning of the season to barrelling down the harvest, there are countless hours of work.  The level of care and effort invested in turning grapes to wine shows through in the glass just as much or more than a perfect vineyard site with optimal facing.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Behold the Glory of Fish Sauce

It might seem strange that I have such strong emotions for a condiment that is, for all intensive purposes, made from rotting fish.  This is, of course, not entirely true as the fish is technically fermented, but that's weird enough for most.

Fish sauce has a long history in the culinary world. In fact, it was ubiquitous in classical Roman cooking. Cited in texts, garum, was important for both the aristocracy and the hoi polloi, with the only distinction being in the quality (some of it might've been rotten).  Furthermore, that stuff that you been putting in your burgers and meatloaf, Worcestershire sauce, is basically derived from this same principle.

So my question is: why isn't fish sauce more widely used outside of Asia.  It adds wonderful salty and savory notes (umami) to any dish and really isn't as fishy as you would think, especially when used sparingly (sorry Tom).

The origin of fish sauce is still debated.  One of the claims that seems to be most accepted is that fish sauce first appeared in China. The theory is that the ancient Chinese fishing boats were unable to venture into deeper ocean waters to catch larger fish, instead they were forced to stay closer to shore and net smaller fish that lacked substantial meat but were packed with oil. They found that by layering fish in barrels with salt, they could preserve the fish that would otherwise spoil, and produce a protein-rich sauce.  This, over time, evolved through the addition of soya beans to become the fermented bean sauce known today as soy sauce. Hell, even the origin of kethcup is also tied to fish sauce.

Given its historical importance, I must take a stand; I'm making it my mission to convince people of how amazing fish sauce is.  For that reason, don't be surprised if you see fish sauce showing up in a number of recipes, including ones you might not expect.  I encourage everyone to go pick up a bottle of fish sauce (my favorite, that is readily accessible, is Flying Lion Brand, seen above) and experiment with it in recipes outside of Southeast Asian cuisine.  You'll be surprised at its effects.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hurried Seafood Stew

 The one advantage of having a late harvest is that I still have some free time on my hands, weekends are basically a foreign concept once harvest actually kicks in.  This past weekend I headed up to Portland to visit a friend and check out some of the local breweries.  On the way back, I stopped in the bustling metropolis of Tigard because there is a large Asian supermarket there and I had to get something for dinner.
Asian supermarkets are one of my favorites to visit because there's still a bit of adventure and mystery for me.  I'm pretty well versed with ingredients from around the world and I'm rarely at a loss for what to do with them.  However, I still find myself ocassionally standing in front of jars, vials and boxes of delectable foodstuffs with descriptions in languages I have no chance of understanding (my romance languages won't work here) and feeling overwhelmed.  For me, it takes me back to the period when I was first falling in love with cooking.  I usually end up buying random bottles and vibrant produce that catch my eye and then just experimenting.

This instance was merely a brief stop.  I was hitching a ride and since I have a bad habit of spending hours in grocery stores, I was going in focused.  I got home with a small selection of treats and expectation at my next chance to explore and properly shop.

I was in the mood for seafood and the market had the full array of fresh mollusks, crustaceans and fish.  I decided on some clams and a fillet of cod.  A quick seafood stew sounded like the best way to cap off a day of drinking beer.

I apologize in advance for issues with the recipes.  I've never been great about constructing recipes because I rarely use exact measurements myself, for me it's all about tasting as you go and using your instincts.

Seafood Stew

One pound of clams (small-medium sized), cleaned and debearded
One half pound of cod or other firm-fleshed white fish, cut in to 2-3 inch pieces
One quarter pound ham, cubed
Two shallots, sliced finely
One quarter pound oyster mushroom, sliced
One half pound of green beans, cut in half
One teaspoon of sambal, or other chili paste
Two cups of stock (fish or chicken)
A splash of fish sauce
The juice of half a lime
Diced cilantro for garnish

Add a splash of oil and cook the ham until the edges are beginning to carmelize and it has rendered some juices/ fat (if you use bacon or pancetta you won't need to add extra oil).  Add the shallots and a pinch of salt and cook until they are softened and lighly browned.  Add the oyster mushrooms and cook for another few minutes.  Add in the sambal (more or less than called for depending on your love of spice) and allow it to toast for 10-15 seconds.  Add the stock, fish sauce and a cup of water and bring up to a boil.  Reduce the heat to medium and add the green beans and lightly season the pot with salt.  

In a separate pan add oil and over medium-high heat brown the pieces of cod.  If you want more of a crispy, fried quality to your fish you can dredge them in flour.  This time I just seasoned with salt and pepper.

After about five to seven minutes check the green beans.  They should have a little crunch still, but be almost cooked.  Bring the heat back up and add the clams, cover your pot.  The clams should open up in about five minutes. After about three minutes, gently nestle the fish pieces in and cover.  Once the clams have opened, remove from heat and add the lime juice and cilantro and salt to taste. 

The quality of the photo is not great and I didn't really have the patience to try to get a perfect one as I was a bit peckish.  The lighting isn't great in Stermer house and food photography is unreasonably difficult.  Who knew it would be so hard to make something look as good as it does in real life?

Until the next time...


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fear Not

I find myself compulsively checking the weather and looking for a sunny image. The vintage has been a bit chilly and, as it turns out, one of the coldest in recent history.  However, despite the grumbling you may be hearing from some people that the vintage will not ripen properly, I would hold out hope.

We might be behind in growing degree days, brix,seed ripening, stem lignification and any number of other factors that I'm clueless about, but I think we'll still be able to make some wonderful wine (call me an eternal optimist).  The grapes have great flavor, in spite of the fact that their sugar levels are significantly behind where they should be at this point. 

Putting aside my love of low-alcohol, acid driven wines. There is a strong possibility that this vintage could turn out to be pretty strong, with the potential to age very well.  If we continue with this stretch of good weather, we might be looking at something very similar to the classic 1999 vintage.  However, there is one thing that is certain, it will be a late harvest.

Aside from fears for the worst, the harvest crew here at Lemelson is upbeat and in good spirits.  We were assured from our fearless leader and head winemaker, Anthony, that things are looking okay, but that we are in store for "eight days of pain" when the fruit does actually start coming in because it's all gonna come in at once. In the mean time, we entertain ourselves with sterilizing everything and perhaps painting his kitchen.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Oregon Harvest 2010

In the morning the fog always settles around the vines, enveloping them in a dense gray boa,  creating a surreal fantasy world.  I don't see landscapes like this in the Midwest.  Sure, we have sweeping fields and dramatic sunsets, but something about this undulating, verdant land draws me in.

I arrived in the Willamette Valley about two weeks ago.  I had been very familiar with the wines of the region and had even visited Portland many years in the past, but it wasn't until I settled in to my house in the middle of the Stermer Vineyard that my Oregon wine experience began.

I adore the Midwest and my hometown of Chicago, perhaps sometimes to a fault.  I even have the skyline tattooed on my arm.  However, this break from the skyscrapers and rattle of the trains has done me good.  There are stars here, a complete novelty for me, and I love the fact that the noise I notice at night are the deer eating fallen apples a little too close to my window.

The winery setup here is amazing and  the organization is totally intuitive.  I have spent minimal time running around looking for tools, something which normally occupies far too much of my time.  I can't wait to actually get some fruit picked and in the winery and once again have that enchanting aroma of fermenting grapes work its way in to my everyday life.  Once the fermentation process begins, that scent will signify so much about our work here at the winery, from the meticulous everyday activities to the final product months after harvest is finished.

I got into the wine industry through food, so there has always been a very strong connection between the two.  I really have a hard time truly assessing the value of a wine without trying it with food.  However, to be fair, over years of practice and many bottles I have learned to enjoy wine without food but, my preference is still a nice bottle, a good meal and people surrounding me.

After spending a couple years purchasing wine for one of the larger fine wine retailers in Chicago, I briefly tried working in wholesale and was ultimately unsatisfied.  Confronted with this dilemma, I really only had one option left: I would have to try making the stuff.

I worked harvest in Central Otago, New Zealand, surrounded by Pinot Noir vines and up to my elbows in cow manure and I completely fell in love with the production side of the wine industry. I immediately decided that I had to try it again, like jumping back on the same roller coaster immediately after the safety bar has been lifted.  For this harvest I am still a wine-making novice offering my humble insight in to the life of sterilizing tanks, berry sorting, and punchdowns. 

In addition, I have the honor of preparing the harvest meals for this very talented group here at Lemelson and will happily share stories of the memorable meals and all the harvest madness.