Monday, May 2, 2011

Portlandia in Detroit: Lunch with Maria Stuart of R. Stuart & Co. Winery

One thing I've noticed whenever I go to a different city for any length of time and come back to Detroit is that Detroiters tend to be very ...

"... provincial," Maria Stuart offers to me over lunch, an honest observation as we talk about both of our experiences with the city.

As a native metro Detroiter herself, Maria left the area over 20 years ago. She went to school in Indiana, worked in Chicago, fell in love in Washington and raised a family in Oregon - where she and her husband now own their eponymous winery and wine bar, R. Stuart + Co. Maria visits regularly to see her parents as well as for business, but admits she wouldn't move back. Not because she's "one of those" Detroit ex-pats, but because she sees there's a great big world out there outside of Detroit.

Something Detroiters seem to forget.

I hypothesize that maybe it's because Detroiters aren't as well-traveled as people in other cities ... in Chicago or New York, you're hard-pressed to find anyone actually from Chicago or New York, but here everyone's born and bred. But as I later reflected on this conversation, once again on my way home from Chicago, I decided I don't think it's that ... there also seems to be a certain level of irrationally fierce loyalty on the part of the city's self-annointed image keepers. In Chicago or New York, people will regale you with their stories of exotic trips to Japan or South America or Thailand. People in Detroit do go to Japan and South America and Thailand ... but they still spend all their time talking about Detroit. Which leads to a certain amount of geographical narcissism. And let's not even start on the vitriolic verbal wars of City v. Suburbs. Hence, provincial.

But there is in fact a whole entire world outside of Detroit. And that world is Portland.

"Are you familiar with that show 'Portlandia'?" AM I?!? "Well, it's just like that."

By "that" she means ... well, just watch this video.

But the dream of the '90s is alive in Portland, and I happened to really like the '90s.

In Portland, everything is sourced locally. And not just Sam Schmuck Pizza Place down the corner jumping on the "buy local" bandwagon by touting the fact that they get their tomatoes from local farms in the summer (I mean, DAMN, I should hope so); we're talking the entire city center is surrounded by farms, people raising livestock, nature, wildlife ... plus they have a longer growing season with much more temperate weather conditions than we see in Michigan. They may lack the agricultural diversity we have here, but they make up for it in their utilization. "It's just strange coming here and not having access to that," Stuart says.

At this point I'm still fixated on the image of two people trying to order chicken, but there is a certain level of romance in her words which make me wonder about this strange and wonderful land - this food mecca - known as "Portland."

The R. Stuart Winery was established in 2002 by Maria, her husband (and winemaker) Rob, and two other partners, Patricia Rogers ("sales diva") and Frank Blair ("champagne aficionado"). The winery is located in McMinnville in Oregon's Willamette Valley, about 90 minutes outside Portland. "We wanted to be free to do our own thing and not be part of a corporate system," she explains. Maria had spent years in the food industry, selling wine to restaurants in Chicago and later getting involved in event planning and PR on the northwest coast. Rob spent 20 years as a winemaker in California, Washington and most recently at Erath Vineyards in Oregon.

It is also worth noting (for the sake of just a really sweet story that will make you want to fall in love with this couple and this winery) that Maria and Rob met at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon in 1990. She didn't just fall in love with Oregon Pinots that weekend ... the two of them would go on to make their own Pinot Noir together, as well as babies. There is no better pairing with wine than l'amour. (After that weekend she immediately left Chicago and joined Rob in Washington; they married in 1992. She later also spent four years as Executive Director of that high-profile event.)

Currently the winery produces about 20,000 cases per year. They work very closely with their fruit farmers to ensure that the fruit meets their quality standards, carefully choosing their vineyards from around the state to give them a wide range of diversity in flavor and character in their fruit. These are then blended into their popular Big Fire label, which offers a Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Dry Rose. Their signature label, "R. Stuart and Co.," features blends and single-vineyard wines.

The Big Fire label was designed to be a more accessible, more affordable, more approachable wine - something you can pick up for a casual night, enjoy at the dinner table or with friends, and not be forced to splurge or feel like you must save it for a special occasion. The idea is that good wine doesn't have to be expensive, and also that a so-called "lesser" label doesn't actually have to mean "lesser." "You can tell the similarities [between the Big Fire and R. Stuart labels], that they are siblings and that Rob made them." Rob doesn't hold back in making these approachable wines, nor are they cast-offs from their signature label (as is the case with so many other wineries and their second-label wines ... and I'll also give you a little insider info SIDEBAR you can break out the next time you find yourself in an "All Hail the Napa Valley Red" conversation: Duckhorn's Decoy label is made from the same grapes from the same vineyards and aged in the same barrels as its much more expensive big brother; a particular barrel only becomes "Decoy" when the winemaker does a barrel sample and decides it's not quite up to Duckhorn snuff ... which means your bottle of Decoy could simply be the result of a night of too-spicy food lingering on the palate or just a bad mood). They were among the first to offer an affordable Pinot, which many thought simply couldn't be done; now everyone is doing it.

This approachability is in keeping with their entire ethos: they do not submit their wines to Wine Spectator and the like for points ratings because "it’s a flawed system and everyone knows it’s a flawed system so why do people go by it?" She admits that sometimes it’s hard to stick to your guns, "but there’s no way to do it without compromising our principles."

In the context of this discussion on accessibility, I share with Maria my recent experience of the Violet Hour in Chicago, a much-buzzed-about craft cocktail bar. I was disgusted by the self-important air of the place. (I wrote elsewhere, "The place downright basks in its elitist appeal; if it could roll around naked in a pool of its own grandiosity it would.") We agree that a place that promotes itself solely through its exclusive appeal, the "want what you can't have" marketing tactic (it's got one of those "cleverly concealed" entrances ... because why would you want people to be able to easily locate and patronize your business?), is not only utilizing a questionable business model but is also, quite simply, not enjoyable. Maria speaks quite passionately that wine and food should be fun, and should be something everyone can enjoy - not just the select few who are "in the know" or in the upper echelon of payscales. Furthermore, a business should never make its bank by humiliating people whom they feel don't know any better but should.

And this is why they work so hard to make your R. Stuart experience a fun one. Big Fire bottles come with QR codes (they are only the second winery in the country to have adopted this technology) which you can scan to upload photos or videos of you and your bottle of Big Fire to enter the ongoing weekly "Me and My Big Fire" contest (check out their Facebook page to see some photos). Their Wine Bar, also in McMinnville, hosts a "Winter Supper Series" during the off-season where guests come to enjoy their wines along with a meal of locally-sourced foods prepared by some of Portland's top chefs.

The Wine Bar also serves a regular menu of small plates (think pate and crostini with various spreads) from Maria's own recipes. You can also visit their website for more of her recipes designed to pair with their wines. And if you really want to learn about wine and food pairing to further enhance your enjoyment, the Zing! workshop, operated as an independent entity by R. Stuart partner Patricia Rogers, is currently offered in Chicago and Oregon and is a fun and unintimidating way to do so.

Before we parted company, Maria presented me with some of their wines to try: the 2008 Big Fire Pinot Noir, the 2010 Big Fire Pinot Gris and the 2007 R. Stuart "Autograph" Pinot Noir. I must admit I enjoyed the fruit-forward Big Fire Pinot Noir over the more subtle, less in-your-face Autograph. Besides, they compared it to Nabakov's Lolita, how could I not love it? You can read more about their wines here rather than me babble on some more, but I will say that I am most certainly now a convert of the Big Fire. It's a lovely wine on its own and ready to drink now; if you'd like to try some for yourself, you can find it around town at such places as Tom’s Oyster Bar, Angelina Italian Bistro, Forest Grill, and Cork Wine Pub, or ask for it at your local wine market.

And if you, my fellow metro Detroiters, feel inspired to see some of that great big world outside of Detroit and visit this alternative universe that is Portland, stop by and visit Maria at the Wine Bar; just be aware of the "House Rules:"
(1) Protect and respect the fruit and its grower.
(2) Ditto for our friends and customers.
(3) A little wood goes a long way.
(4) Single vineyard bottlings are always interesting...(but blending ensures the best possible wine).
(5) Cork or cap? (Never open another corked bottle - screw-tops for wines meant to be drunk young, Vino-Lok for those you might hang on to.)
(6) Scores, schmores. (We've already covered that.)
(7) Good friends, good food, good wine - period.

To compare, here are the "House Rules" of the Violet Hour:
No cell phone use inside lounge. Proper attire requested. Please, no baseball hats. Sorry, no reservations. If you have a party of four, we’ll give you four chairs. If your party is eight, we’ll arrange eight chairs for you. No “party add-ons” without prior notification. No O-bombs. No Jager-bombs. No bombs of any kind. No Budweiser. No light beer. No Grey Goose. No cosmopolitans. And finally, please do not bring anyone to the Violet Hour that you wouldn’t bring to your mother’s house for Sunday dinner.

Welp. Seeing as how I wouldn't suggest most people even bring me to their mother's house for Sunday dinner, I think my big mouth is a little better-suited for the Big Fire, and for the gracious, welcoming (yet refreshingly honest and even a bit cheeky) company of Maria and her crew. And if it helps, better to be provincial than pompous.