Apr 20, 2010

Food & (Unfiltered) Wine in Sonoma’s Glen Ellen

 Vineyards, Jack London State Historic Park
Sometimes it's great to get away overnight, even when you don't go far. Last week, for an article assignment, I drove all of fifteen minutes from my home in the town of Sonoma to the tiny hamlet of Glen Ellen. In the routine course of my life it's not unusual to find myself in Glen Ellen. I like to hike thereabouts, and I often eat at a Nepalese restaurant, Yetti, that's housed in a 19th-century complex of mill buildings perched above the creek that runs through "town." But the magic of actually staying there for two nights sent me home feeling as if I'd been far away.

My brief visit also set me on a quest of a sort to learn more about unfiltered wine...but I'll get to that.

Glen Ellen was once home to the writer/adventurer Jack London. Legend has it that London often rode horseback from his hilltop Beauty Ranch to the local saloons; if he had too much to drink, which was usually the case, he could rely on the horse to haul his semi-conscious self safely home. Today the ranch—with its famous “Pig Palace” and the magnificent ruins of the writer’s 15,000-square-foot home (which burned to the ground a month before completion)—are part of Jack London State Historic Park.

Our cottage, named  Rocky Terrace, at the Glenelly Inn
Hiking at the Park is just one reason to visit Glen Ellen. Others include fine wineries (Eric Ross, Benziger, and Mayo Family Winery) and charming hostelries. We stayed in a beautifully-decorated private cottage with a spa and fireplace at the historic Glenelly Inn & Cottages. Breakfasts, which come with the room, were delicious and bountiful. Another included extra: a Complimentary Wine Tasting Card for two good at nearly 30 Sonoma Valley wineries. The Glenelly Inn is tucked away from the main road, and from there we could easily walk everywhere.

Yet another very good reason to head to Glen Ellen is that, though but a bend in the road, it possesses a number of trip-worthy restaurants.
 The Glen Ellen Inn Restaurant's Seafood Chowder
Our first night we dined at the Glen Ellen Inn Restaurant.  Housed in a 1940s wine country cottage, it always seems to be receiving well-deserved kudos in local and national publications for its romantic environment and imaginative cuisine—an exuberant fusion of Asian, French, and Italian traditions that reflects the region's immense bounty of fresh, local ingredients.

Our amuse-bouche was a tablespoon-sized piece of extremely light polenta annointed with chives and a sprinkle of chive oil. My first course, seafood chowder, possessed a tantalizing citrus background and was topped with fried leek strings and crème fraîche—fabulous! My companion chose the fried oysters, three perfectly fresh, just-shucked bivalves that were crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, accompanied by a spicy Tabasco butter. For a main course we both chose Boar chops in a whole-ground mustard cream, with a yummy potato cake, yellow beets, and a lavendar/yellow oregano garnish; the boar was juicy, flavorful, fragrant…extremely satisfying.

The restaurant has a huge wine list, with many picks from small, artisan winemakers who aren’t on the everyday grid—in short, it’s the kind of place where you want to order by the glass so you can experiment and share your picks.

I’m usually a red-wine drinker, but it had been a warm and sunny day in spring—a white-wine sort of day. I chose a local wine, the Eric Ross Marsanne-Roussanne 2007 Russian River Valley from Saralee’s Vineyard (located in Windsor, this vineyard is farmed by the Kunde Family). The blend was 67% Marsanne and 33% Roussanne, and the wine was unfiltered.

The Marsanne-Roussanne blend is not new: the Rhône’s renowned Hermitage white wine is made from those two grapes. The Marsanne grape is one of the eight varietals permitted under France’s Côtes du Rhône appellation. The most widely-grown grape in the northern Rhône region, it’s low in acidity—some growers, I’m told, pick it before full ripeness in order to up acidity levels. Roussanne, another Rhône grape, has a rep for being difficult to grow, but rewards the effort with a compelling floral aroma and notable acidity. When these two unite they often become something far, far greater than their individual selves. Over the last decade or more, these varietals have been slowly showing up in California vineyards.

Our server brought a new bottle to the table and opened it for the pour, and when she pulled the cork an immediate and intense aroma seemed to leap out. My companion, Dennis, a Silicon Valley computer engineer, isn’t ordinarily given to effusive comments, so I was startled to hear him exclaim “That aroma is stunning! Overwhelming!” He changed his order on the spot from a local Zin to the also-local Marsanne-Roussanne.

I was struck by the wine’s lovely acidity and a complex layering that included grapefruit, pineapple, pear, and a bit of wildflower, all brought together with significant structure. What I particularly loved was the mouth feel; this wine seemed to have extra-special body, something I attributed then and now to the lack of filtering.

As Dennis summed up: “This is a very complicated wine.” He also used a term I’ve never heard applied to wine before. “It has umami,” he said. “It’s very round on the tongue.” (Read my earlier post, Umami, the Fifth Taste.)

Being unfiltered, the wine had a very slight cloudiness. Our server confided that patrons had occasionally refused the wine when it was poured because they thought the cloudiness meant that something was wrong with it. That surprised me. I've had unfiltered wines before without being bothered by—or often even noticing—the resulting minute particles. I just figured that was the nature of the process; so what?

Next day we stopped in at the Eric Ross Tasting Room in Glen Ellen—a small, cozy place with a wood-burning stove, a big comfy leather couch, and a friendly woman standing behind the tasting bar. We told her how much we had enjoyed the 2007 Marsanne-Roussanne the night before, and that we both thought the lack of filtering had added a spectacular mouth feel.

She agreed, but said that consumers just don’t seem to like unfiltered wine. Thus, the newly-released 2008 Marsanne-Roussanne, which we tasted while there, is filtered. Even though the blending formula is different than the 2007 (close to 50% of each grape), the aroma and taste seemed—to me, at least—similar to the 2007. It’s an excellent wine, but in my opinion that highly-distinctive mouth feel disappeared with the filtering.

I’m now curious about the pros and cons of unfiltered wine (I'm thinking maybe the biggest con might be consumer dislike). Over the next few months, whenever I talk to winemakers, I'll be seeking their input and opinions. I'll report my findings in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!

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