Witness Post: Wine Connections
The Latin expression In Vino Veritas roughly translates “through wine comes truth.” What truths are revealed through wine about people these days? Suspend your skepticism, because it is possible that there are more people connections than we can explain by chance. I have witnessed some startling coincidences that confirm that, even with 7 billion people and growing, the planet is getting smaller every day. This particular story starts innocently enough at a restaurant in NE Portland. My wife, Tracy, and I were drinking a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir. But the tale soon takes an unexpected detour: first to the Willamette Valley wine country, next to Sarasota, Florida, then to Thoreau, New Mexico, and, two years later, back to Florida again. It ends with us drinking wine with friends in Oregon.
It was July of 2009. Tracy and I were dining at our neighborhood restaurant in NE Portland, called Fife. Started by our favorite chef, Marco Shaw, Fife (as in “fife and drum”) was a great Northeast Portland gathering spot. You may have seen the “restaurant scene” in Portlandia; well Fife was nothing like that. Even though Marco knew the names of the local farmers as well as the origin of the eggs and chickens and seeds and the pigs he prepared for his guests, he was cool about it. Marco helped start the farm-to-table movement in the Northwest. He got together with a few other chefs and they bought their supplies locally. They wanted fresh vegetables, beef, poultry, shellfish, and fresh fish, and they wanted them from regional sources they could trust. In the process they developed sustainable relationships with farmers, fishermen and vintners. Marco also kept it simple, as food guru Michael Pollan urges, so that we felt good about the people we were supporting and the food we were eating. The system worked.
Tracy and I moved to Portland in 2002 and, not long after Fife opened, we became “regulars.” Over time we got to know the hostess – Meredith, waiters – Jonathan and Kate, and sous chefs – Mickey, Heather & Grayson, and they knew us. Not to sound too much like the sitcom, Cheers, but when you move to a new city, it is nice when people remember your name. We ate dinner at Fife once or twice a month. Marco said to us, “Fife is like eating at home without having to do the dishes,” and it was that way for us. When Marco saw Tracy by the front door, he would place his hands in his armpits and flap his elbows, signaling the international symbol for “chicken.” Meredith would find a table for two or we would ask to sit at the food bar. From that vantage point we could see what was cooking. We listened to the specials, which changed daily, smelled what was on the stove, and eyed our neighbor’s entrées. Almost every time, Tracy ordered the “cast iron chicken.” She couldn’t resist. It was SO good.
When visitors came to town, we loved to take them to dinner in “foodie” Portland. We often read about restaurants in the New York Times and thought it was great how often Portland was recognized nationally for our local food scene. From our house we walked up Alameda to Fremont and a block further to Fife. Marco always came over to our table to meet our guests and told us about “tonight’s menu”. The side benefits for us were many: we always had good conversations; we learned about Marco’s life and family; our children were invited to babysit for his children; and we got some good deals on the restaurant’s art, which Meredith was selling for local artists. We even invited the Shaw’s and the Fife staff and their families to our house for a home cookout. Marco said, “I’ll eat tube steaks as long as someone else cooks ‘em!” That night we served our specialties: guacamole, pasta salad with pesto, and Maryland Crab Cakes. The crab cakes were falling apart on our Weber grill, when the sous chef, Grayson, came to the rescue. He helped me mix a better binder for the lump back-fin crab.
Getting to know Marco and his wife, Julie, better was great fun. Yes, there are racial differences. But who cares? Marco and I got a kick out of our similarities. We were both from large families in the Baltimore/Washington area and we both went to Jesuit high schools. We were both psychology majors doing different careers. We were raising girls and trying to stay strong male role models. Tracy and I found pleasure by being truly interested in Marco and Julie on their journey. The feeling was mutual.
On that night in late July, Marco asked if we were going to be in town the upcoming weekend. I quickly replied “YES,” then asked, “Why?” Marco said he had two tickets to the Pinot Noir Festival in McMinnville, and although he usually attended as a guest chef, he could not go this year. As luck would have it, our children were out of town that weekend, and we were available.
Giamatti in Sideways
Having loved the movie Sideways, we knew enough about wine to be dangerous. We liked the description of Pinot Noir grape that the character Miles Raymond, played by Paul Giamatti, gave in an early scene:
It’s a hard grape to grow: it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, and ripens early. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive, even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention. In fact it can grow only in specific tucked away little corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it really, can tap into Pinot’s most fragile and delicate qualities. Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression. And when that happens, its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.
One of those “specific tucked away little corners” of the grape world is the Willamette Valley, Oregon. And the town of McMinnville is Mecca for the annual worshipers of that ancient, temperamental fruit.
[As an aside: Paul Giamatti, who plays the part of Miles Raymond in the movie, is a depressed writer and middle school teacher from San Diego. Coincidentally, Paul’s real life father was Bart Giamatti, who was a professor of Comparative Literature and later the President of Yale, when I was there as an undergrad and grad student. My business partner, David Nierenberg, also a Yalie during Giamatti’s era, introduced Tracy and me to great wines, especially reds, when we moved to the Pacific Northwest. As Tracy will tell you, once you have had the good stuff, you can never go back.]
Marco Shaw grew up in close knit family in metropolitan Washington, DC. He attended a Jesuit secondary school, Gonzaga College High School on Eye Street in Washington. He went on to earn a BA in Psychology from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. “I had my heart set on becoming a doctor,” said Marco, “and my grandma was really proud of me.” After graduation, though, for the year before starting medical school, he decided to work in a restaurant. In that year Marco fell in love with the restaurant business.
At the end of the year Marco began a three-year apprenticeship at the Tobacco Company Restaurant in Richmond, Virginia. At the same time he pursued an Associates Degree in Culinary Arts & Hotel, Restaurant Management. After completing the apprenticeship, he traveled the country and cooked at restaurants in New Orleans, New York, Santa Fe and eventually ended up in Portland, Oregon. Marco met his wife, Julie, in Santa Fe. Julie had grown up in Portland, so they decided that the Northwest might be a good place to be for a couple of years. In 2002 Shaw opened Fife Restaurant in Portland. With Fife and Julie’s job as a media salesperson, the Shaw’s made an immediate impact in business and in the life of the city. The Shaw’s stayed in Portland for seven years, which was five years longer than planned. The summer good-bye party in 2009 for the family was a cheerful and tearful farewell.
Marco and Julie moved with their young daughters to Durham, North Carolina in August, 2009 and he worked to launch Eno Restaurant & Market in downtown Durham. When that project fell through, Eno Hospitality Group, EHG, opened Piedmont Restaurant in August, 2010. EHG hired Chef Marco and he was there until 2012, when he left for his next cooking adventure. We look forward to hearing about it.
The Pinot Noir Festival is a three day event held annually at Linfield College, which is a sleepy liberal arts college known for great football quarterbacks and grand buildings in McMinnville, Oregon.
During the festival weekend, world-renowned winemakers, northwest chefs, esteemed media moguls, epicures and wine lovers gather in McMinnville for the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC). The days and nights are filled with guest lecturers, unforgettable meals, and some of the best wine tasting in the region. As they acclaim on the IPNC website: “Whether tasting Grand Cru Burgundy or walking through Oregon vineyards with the grower who planted them, guests find themselves unwinding in picturesque Oregon wine country for what wine legend Jancis Robinson described as ‘one of the most enjoyable wine weekends in the world’“.
Tickets are first come, first serve and the event, including the Saturday night Salmon Bake, is always sold out, so any stray tickets are a real score, especially if they are FREE from a former guest chef!
Marco had given Tracy and me tickets for Saturday night, and not for the entire weekend. We arrived early and got in line on Campus Circle for the famous Salmon Bake Supper. We could see the chefs preparing the food, the band warming up, and the tables-for-ten arranged in the stately grove of trees. We had the perfect view of the salmon, which was baking over flaming logs suspended in traditional Chinook-style skewers. Some wine snobs were in line with us, sipping their vino from glasses they carried in special shoulder satchels. Listening to their conversations was priceless. We heard about extended wine tours to Monaco, Madeira, Santa Barbara, and Bordeaux, France. My mom used to say, “It is fun to watch the idle rich at play.” I will add that eavesdropping on conversations can be fun too.
When the gates opened, we staked out a table in the middle of the grove. We marked our chairs with our jackets and made a bee-line to the food. I picked up two glasses of wine from the bar and joined Tracy in line for the hors d’oeuvres, salads, salmon and desserts. We were juggling plates and glasses when we got back to the table, and noticed that all of the other seats were taken. We sheepishly asked if it were OK for us to join the 8 people, who were obviously from the same party. They said that it would be fine for us to join them. They had 15 people in their entire party and needed to spread to a second table anyway. We said, “Great,” put down our plates and glasses, introduced ourselves and dove into dinner.
The other table guests were all from a winery in Yamhill and Dundee, Oregon, called WillaKenzie Estate Winery. Tracy and I were not familiar with the winery, so we asked lots of questions. At our table were Bernard, one of the owners, Thibaud, the winemaker, a wine distributor, and some other employees. Ronni, the other WillaKenzie owner, and staff were seated at next table and they started decanting bottles of wine. They passed around some of their favorite private stash from great vintage years, and they willingly shared their stories of winemaking and the fruit of their labors with us. The woman representing the distributor told us where we could pick up a bottle or a case, if we liked it. Liked it? We loved it! And we were sad to hear from the distributor, that the wine we were drinking typically sold at price points ($50 – $80), about double our budget. Right then we decided that our budget was too low and we had to raise it to reach “the good, good stuff.” In Vino Veritas, indeed!
The WillaKenzie story on their website is exactly as Bernard had described it to us that night. Here is an excerpt from the web, with a few personally added embellishments: WillaKenzie Estate Winery is the longtime dream of co-founders Bernard & Ronnie Lacroute. After a successful career in high tech in Massachusetts, Bernard decided to return to his French Burgundian roots and grow Pinot Noir. For several years in the late 1980’s Bernard and Ronni searched for a suitable grape growing site before finally purchasing a cattle ranch just outside Yamhill, Oregon in 1991. The rolling hills of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA (American Viticultural Area) are ideal for growing world-class Pinot Noir grapes. The Lacroute’s named the property WillaKenzie Estate after the ancient sedimentary soil which was carried there from the headwaters of the Willamette and McKenzie Rivers.
Bernard & Ronni WillaKenzie
As the Lacroute’s laid the foundation for a small, family-owned Oregon winery, they knew their goal would always be to make wines reflecting the place on which the vines are grown. In 1992, they planted their first vineyards on south-facing slopes replacing a cow pasture, blackberry thickets, and poison oak. Additional plantings of Pinot Noir in Yamhill and on some acreage they purchased in Dundee continued through 2001. Today, about a quarter of the Willamette Valley estate is planted with grapes near pristine stands of Douglas fir, oak, and maple trees. Two-thirds of the vineyards are Pinot Noir, primarily Dijon clones and some varietal native Oregon clones. The remaining vineyards are planted with grapes for Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, and Gamay Noir.
Bernard & Thibaud Ronni
Thibaud Mandet has been the winemaker at WillaKenzie Estate for more than a decade. Trained in Bordeaux, he brings his own special French techniques to the art and science of winemaking.
Construction of their state-of-the-art, multi-level, gravity-flow winery was completed by the Lacroutes’ in 1995, just in time to make the wines from their first Oregon harvest. Since then, they have continued to make improvements, building an innovative facility in 2007 to dramatically cool their grapes before processing, as well as a large solar array and new tasting room in 2010. Today, production remains at around 20,000 cases. There’s room to grow, but WillaKenzie’s stated emphasis remains on quality wine, not quantity.
Bernard Lacroute Ronni Lacroute
Ronni grew up in New York and later lived in France, studying at the Sorbonne for several years and earning a graduate degree. She became a real Francophile by teaching French for 14 years in Massachusetts, while Bernard worked in the high tech industry. The Lacroute’s had met as graduate students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They moved to Oregon in 1990, after many years of living on the East Coast and in California. They have since divorced, but have a “Shared Passion for Pinot.” The Lacroute’s continue their collaborative business partnership actively guiding all aspects of grape growing & winemaking at WillaKenzie Estate. In 2011 Ronni Lacroute was named “Wine Person of the Year” by the Oregon Wine Press in recognition of her philanthropic outreach to nonprofits and educational organizations throughout the state. She is a Linfield College trustee and a passionate supporter of the arts, hunger relief, children’s causes, social services and medical research.
From firsthand experience Tracy and I can say that WillaKenzie wine is excellent, even to the taste buds of novices like us. You don’t need the wine pallet of Miles Raymond or the Wine Spectator rating scale of Robert Parker, Jr. to appreciate WillaKenzie wines. The team of Ronni & Bernard Lacroute and Thibaud Mandet has coaxed the Pinot Noir grape to its fullest expression.
Over spring break in 2010, I took our daughter, Eleanor, to visit my father and his wife, Dicky, in Sarasota. My Dad is not traveling much these days. He is in his late 80’s and walking long distances is painful. We make the occasional pilgrimage to see him and Dicky at their house. They live in a retirement community, called the Glenridge on Palmer Ranch. They usually treat us to dinner in the central dining room. My father calls these outings, “Supper at the Big House.” Dad and Dicky like to “show off” their children and grandchildren, when we are there. We are always introduced to their new and old friends at the Glenridge.
This particular trip Dad introduced Eleanor and me to a woman seated at a table nearby. “Henry & Eleanor, I want to introduce you to Estelle Barrett, who just got back from visiting her daughter in ORYGON.” I thought to myself, with a population of 3.8 million+ people in Oregon, what are the chances that I would know my Dad’s new retirement home friend Estelle’s daughter?
Estelle & granddaughter
But I played along anyway:
Henry: “Where does your daughter live?”
Estelle: “Outside of Portland.”
Henry: “Has she been there long?”
Estelle: “I think she has been there about 20 years.”
Henry: “What does she do?”
Estelle: “She is part owner of a winery called WillaKenzie. Have you ever heard of it?”
Henry: “Yes!” I said stuttering … “Is your daughter’s name Ronni?”
Estelle: “How did you know?”
I told her the story of our last minute tickets to the Pinot Noir Festival in McMinnville. And I talked about meeting her daughter and ex-son-in-law, Bernard, at the salmon bake dinner that night. Soon Estelle was hugging me, as if we were old friends. She was very proud of Ronni for keeping the business partnership together despite the heartache of the marital break-up. Estelle said that Ronni was passionate and infinitely resourceful: the proof was her patient and nurturing care for the Pinot Noir grapes and the many relationships at WillaKenzie.
I thought the “small world story” was over at that point. I did not think more about wine coincidences or Pinot Noir for a couple of years. Tracy and I continued to recommend and drink WillaKenzie wines occasionally, when we felt like celebrating.
Over time we found another label called Cloudline, which has been a wallet-friendly substitute for the good, good stuff. The story would be ended there, but for a trip we made to New Mexico. That trip was to a camp for a “family reunion” in August, 2011.
I am the Chairman of the Board of the Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Founded in 1926 by Hillis L. Howie, the organization’s mission is to provide an outdoor learning environment for boys and girls at a base camp located in the Four Corner’s area. The camp was celebrating its 85th Reunion. Tracy and I arrived in early August to be at the reunion. The celebration took place on camp property just south of Thoreau, New Mexico. Not to be confused with the pronunciation of the family name for the philosopher / author, Henry David Thoreau, the natives pronounce the town’s name as a single syllable – THRUUU.
There are eight Hooper children in my generation and all of us spent summers at the Cottonwood Gulch base camp, simply called “The Gulch.” My sisters, Eleanor & Millie, first went to the camp in 1965, and I can fairly say that there have been Hooper relatives at “The Gulch” nearly every year since. Twenty-five Hooper-related former and current campers attended the 85th reunion. It was great fun.
I am happy to serve on the Board. I see it as a way of paying back for the adventures we had discovering the wonders of the Southwest. Thousands of school kids, just like us, have fallen in love with nature because of the Gulch. There is nothing like digging up ancient pots at an Anasazi archeological ruin or the view from a 14,000 foot Colorado peak with friends. They make your pulse beat rapidly and your heart soar. And those Southwest skies are amazing.
One of my summers at the Gulch was in 1969. Our group, called Group II, was well represented at the 85th reunion: we had eight campers, three counselors, plus our former Group Leader, Chet Kubit. It was a fun and irreverent blast from the past. It is amazing how vividly boys recall things you embarrassingly did or said when you were 15. Yikes!
One of my favorite 1969 Group II mates is a man named Mason Rees. Mason was a camper with me and we later bonded as Gulch staff members for two years. Mason and I were also college classmates at Yale, so we were pretty close. Mason came to the 85th reunion with our friend from Group II, Peter Abrons. I had been friendly with Peter at camp, but since Mason & Peter had been quartermaster’s together for a summer, and they made a point of staying in touch over the years, they were better friends.
On the last morning of the reunion, I was catching up with Peter in the breakfast line-up on his practice as a Psychologist in New York City. In turn Peter asked about my brother, Ned, who could not be there at the reunion, but whom Peter remembered well. He nodded knowingly, when I mentioned that Ned was studying every spare moment for his upcoming orthopedic boards and that the practice of medicine was getting crushingly tougher and tougher these days.
Since we live in Portland, Peter asked me if we ever went to any wine events. I pulled out my story of coincidences. I told him how we met the two owners of the WillaKenzie Estates at a dinner, and how the mother of one of the owners lived in the same retirement community as my Dad and his wife. Peter said sarcastically, “So that is the coincidence, huh?” When I said “Yes,” he said, “You know the woman sitting near you at that dinner? Was her name Ronni?” I was astonished, “Yes, how did you know?” “Because she’s my first cousin. And that woman, Estelle, who lives in the retirement community with your father? She is my Aunt!”
I choked on my coffee. I could not believe that Peter Abrons, a nice Jewish boy from New York, whom I had met 42 years ago at a summer camp in New Mexico, was the cousin of Ronni with a French-sounding name who co-owned WillaKenzie Estate Winery in Oregon. Plus his Aunt Estelle, with an English-sounding name, lived in the same Floridian community with Dad and Dicky. It all seemed so random! What were the chances?
To complete the crazy loop, all I needed was for Peter to say that he had a patient who owned a restaurant in Durham, North Carolina named Marco Shaw!
Another Trip to Sarasota
This past month I received an e-mail from Peter Abrons, confirming that he had made his own trip to Sarasota, Florida this summer to be with his Aunt Estelle Barrett. He made a point of contacting and meeting my father and Dicky. Peter also had Estelle take a picture with Peter, Dad & Dicky outside their house on the Glenridge property. Peter sent a nice note and photo to all of my brothers, which was neat closure to this story of truth rooted in delicate grape vines from Oregon.
Dicky & Laurie Hooper with Peter Abrons
The CODA to this story puts the appropriate cork in the bottle of WillaKenzie Estates Winery. The moral: Take FREE tickets and treat yourself to the good, good stuff occasionally; it is worth the coincidence.
We received word from Julie Shaw via Facebook that Marco would be returning to Oregon in August, 2012, as a guest chef in the fundraiser for the hunger prevention, called Plate & Pitchfork. August 5, 2012 represented the 10th dinner on the 10th anniversary of Plate & Pitchfork. Marco Shaw and fellow chef Adam Berger were being put to work in the kitchen and then honored! You have to cook your own supper in Oregon.
Julie & Tracy
Erica Polmar, the founder of Plate & Pitchfork, told a story at dinner that night about Marco. When she was first putting the concept together she asked Marco to be a featured chef. On the spot Marco said, “If you provide the fire, I will do the cooking.” And thus began the decade long tradition of fine dining, farmer-focused events, and hunger prevention philanthropy.
Tracy & I bought tickets to the dinner as soon as Julie confirmed that she and Marco were making the trip. What we had not anticipated was that there were a lot of Fife alumni who also wanted to attend the dinner. We sat at the table with a whole collection of Shaw friends and Fife fans. We had a great time. The farm tour was intriguing at Sun Gold Farms in Forest Grove too. The five course dinner was outstanding. There was no Pinot Noir served, but the wine pairings chosen by Alfredo & Laurine Apolloni of Apolloni Vineyards were perfect with the different courses. Most of all it felt good to be in the company of these hospitality professionals who had “served us” so caringly and graciously over the years at Fife. Tracy and I had a good time catching up with all of them on their lives over the past three years. None of us could believe it had been that long!
This return trip to Portland marked Marco’s seventh appearance as a guest chef at Plate & Pitchfork and when asked to speak, he was emotional about it. Those at our table were emotional as well.
As Erica Polmar says on the Plate & Pitchfork website:
It started with a simple idea — a meal that celebrated the amazing food grown in our own backyard. It has evolved into a summer celebration. A gathering that reinforces the connection between the farm and the food on your plate.
Behind this simple idea is a powerful message. A couple actually. We’re committed to increasing your awareness of the multiple benefits of eating local foods – social, environmental, health, economic, gastronomic. As preachy as that might sound, we’re not here to give you a lecture. We just want you to know your options when you’re purchasing food. And we want you to remember what it feels like to have the juice from a freshly picked peach trickle down your chin.
Plate & Pitchfork is an adventurous evening that celebrates and supports local farms. In fact every Plate & Pitchfork dinner begins with a farm tour. We want to make sure that you have a chance to meet your farmer and get to know a little bit about them and how they run their business. Our host farms range from 10 to 110 acres and their business models and produce are varied, but they all have one thing in common and that’s a commitment to using sustainable farming and business practices.
Plate & Pitchfork has a long standing tradition of re-investing in our community. Our tenth anniversary season will benefit four outstanding organizations: Farmers Ending Hunger, Oregon Tilth’s Organic Education Center, Foodworks Farm, and the Sauvie Island Center.
There will be other chapters to add later, no doubt. For now, as Walt Disney says, “It is a small world after all.”
Fife Reunion at Plate & Pitchfork, August 5, 2012
Post Post Script: London
Peter Abrons, ever the traveler, sent me this photo from London, England. While he was on a sightseeing tour in August, 2014, Peter and his wife ate lunch at one of the oldest pubs in all of Londontown. Hoop & Grapes is a good name for a pub! Right?
Peter Abrons in London, August 6, 2014