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Dinner in the Hogue vineyard

Years ago, I was invited to have dinner with Wolfgang Puck and his then-wife, Barbara Lazaroff, at their Malibu restaurant, Granita (which, unfortunately, closed several years ago). Barbara, who has a penchant for the dramatic, talked as if she were an actress in a Noel Coward play, always moving about and gesticulating with her hands. She told me how difficult it had been to conceive their first child (she’d take her temperature whenever she thought she might be ovulating and, if the moment was right, call Puck at Spago or wherever he was, demanding he come home immediately so they could have sex; afterwards she’d throw her legs in the air for 15 or 20 minutes hoping things “would take”). Then she told me how exasperating it had been to get Puck on a recent cruise, the main point of which was to have sex non-stop.

And what did Wolfie have to say through all this? Nothing. In fact, over a two hour dinner, I can’t remember Puck saying anything much beyond, “This dish is too salty.”

I’ve shared meals with chefs over the years, from Julia Child to Paul Bocuse, and I have to say that, despite what you see on the Food Network, chefs, in general, don’t have much personality. They’re intense, focused, creative—but not a lot of fun to be around (and please don’t tell me about Rachel Ray or Giada De Laurentiis; they’re not chefs).

The Count, on the left, and Frank Magaña, on the right. Spooky, huh.

The Count, on the left, and Frank Magaña, on the right. Spooky, huh.

But there are exceptions. And I met one of those exceptions last night: Frank Magaña. Magaña, who looks remarkably like The Count from Sesame Street, is the chef/owner of Picazo 7Seventeen, the only restaurant of note in Prosser, Washington. Last night, for our final dinner on this trip, Hogue Cellars hosted a spectacular meal on the lawn behind the winery that was catered by Magaña and his Picazo staff.

The meal was great, from the duck salad to the rack of lamb with a granny smith apple chutney, but what I really enjoyed was having Magaña around to talk about food, wine, and what it was like to run such a high-end restaurant in a tiny town like Prosser (difficult).

Dinner in the vineyard photo by Alicia Laury.

Dinner in the vineyard photo by Alicia Laury.

Towards the end of the evening, Hogue’s winemaker, Co Dinn,  just happened to find a bottle of Opus One inside the winery (hey, winemakers have to drink other people’s wines just so they are familiar with the competition) when Magaña brought out an artisan cheese platter to nosh on. I had so many questions for the chef that eventually Co got him a clean glass and poured him a little wine so he would sit down with us. As I sat there looking out over the darkened vineyard enjoying the wine and the company, it just seemed like one of those perfect summer nights I’ve experienced on many an occasion in France or Italy or Spain. You’re outdoors in a beautiful setting and you’ve just slowly enjoyed a fabulous meal and now you can just sit back in your chair, slightly buzzed, and grin like a perfect fool as you listen to the sometimes silly, sometimes profound conversations going on all around you.

A perfect end-of-summer European fête. In Central Washington.

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Hogue’s master winemaker, Co Dinn

So Elmer pulls the car to a stop in the middle of a vast vineyard on the Wahluke Slope (about the only way I can describe the geography here is to say that we’re not far from the Hanford Site where plutonium was manufactured for the Manhattan Project in 1943 partially because the area was absolutely in the middle of nowhere) and Hogue’s masterful winemaker, Co Dinn spills from the car and starts skipping up the dusty aisle between rows of merlot grapes and I just have to start laughing. I can’t help it. You look at Co in his silly floppy hat and rusty pants and think, Oh my god! He’s Scarecrow! From The Wizard of Oz.

I could wile away the hours

Conferrin’ with the flowers

Consultin’ with the rain

And my head I’d be scratchin’

While my thoughts were busy hatchin’

If I only had a brain

And that is so Co! Conferrin’ with flowers and consultin’ with the rain. We’ve spent hours and hours in the car driving from one end of Central Washington to the other and I don’t think Co has shut up for two minutes. He’s fascinated by every rock we see, every ridge we climb, every plant in the field. But unlike Scarecrow, this guy definitely has a brain. In fact, he may be the most brainiac winemaker I’ve ever met.

Co Dinn, winemaker for Hogue Cellars. Photo by David Lansing.

Co Dinn, winemaker for Hogue Cellars. Photo by David Lansing.

He comes from Tulsa of all places where he was once in the oil and gas business. Somehow he got into wine and took a few winemaking classes and next thing you know, he’s working as a winemaker at Trefethen Vineyards in Napa. And then, 13 years ago, he ended up in Sunnyside, where you can get the best damn peach in the world but little else, as head winemaker for Hogue Cellars.

Listen, I have spent time with dozens of winemakers over the years and I’ve never met anyone as enthusiastic about what he does for a living as Co. He seems to sample all of life the way he does a barrel tasting of syrah, sticking his prominent beak into it as far as it will go and then swirling its essence in his mouth before gleefully proclaiming, “God, that’s good!”

It may be 97 degrees out and we may be in the middle of a dusty field but when Co says, “Let’s go up to the top of this hill so we can have a look at the valley!” by golly, we all follow his jingle-jangle body up the yellow dirt road. Obviously for Co, life is nothing but a ding-a-derry. And wouldn’t we all like to be a little bit more like that?

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I’m sitting in a rather warm room at Washington State University’s ag extension research center in Prosser trying very, very hard not to nod off as Dr. James Harbertson shuffles through a PowerPoint presentation on phenolics. My breathing slows, my head empties, and slowly I enter that strange half-asleep, half-awake stage familiar to frequent fliers where you subconsciously hear someone say “What can I get you to drink?” while dreaming about being lost in a house, naked, inhabited by everyone you ever met in high school and college.

Except instead of hearing “What can I get you to drink?” I hear, “Oak barrel tannins are sort of a myth.”

Like a superhero rising from the ashes before being thrown off the roof of a skyscraper by Lex Luthor, I struggle mightily to rise from my semi-comatose state just in time to keep the drool from dripping onto my shirt. Forcing open my eyes, I mumble, “Wait…what? Oak barrel tannins are a myth?”

Exactly, says Dr. Harbertson.

Holy kryptonite!

Photo by David Lansing.

Photo by David Lansing.

See, we have come to the WSU ag station to sit around on a hot afternoon sipping/spitting barrel samples of various red wines to learn what role tannin plays in wine structure and how to control it. Now, I could give you the two hour PowerPoint presentation Dr. Harbertson has just given or I could give you the nickel version, your choice.

Okay. The nickel version: Tannins are what give red wines weight and structure. They’re what allows a good red wine, like Bordeaux, to sit in a bottle for 10 or 15 years and only get better while white wines (which have almost no tannin) age about as well as Keith Richards. So tannin is important. Too little and the wine falls apart. Too much and your mouth puckers and you want to spit.

So if you’re a winemaker, you need to know how much tannin is in the wine and where the tannin is coming from. Now I always knew that much of a wine’s tannin came from the skins and seeds, but I also thought, like a lot of people, that red wines also picked up tannin from the barrels they were aged in. Thus, a wine aged in oak barrels for three years would have significantly more tannin than wine aged in barrels for nine months, yes?


“From a scientific viewpoint,” says the boyish Dr. Harbertson, “you get almost no tannin from oak barrels.”

I mean like nothing.

Wow. What you do get are aroma components. The nose is aware of the oak. But the mouth isn’t. The mouth is aware of the grape seed.

So the next time you taste an overly-astringent cabernet sauvignon and your friend wrinkles her nose and proclaims, “Spent too much time in the barrel,” smile and say, “Oak has nothing to do with it, Lois. It’s actually too much pumace during fermentation.”

And if she doesn’t believe you, tell her to contact Dr. Harbertson. Or Clark Kent.

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Eat a peach

It’s only 95 degrees out as we drive through the little berg of Sunnyside in the Yakima Valley but it feels much hotter. Nobody is outside (why would they be?) and about the only traffic down main street is a Barney Fife-wannabe weaving down the middle of the empty highway at 60 or 70 mph with his siren wailing and lights flashing.

“What’s Sunnyside known for?” I ask Co?

“Well….,” he says, and then there’s a long pause before he mentions that there’s a pretty good brew pub in town and he knows of a taco truck where you can get damn good carnitas. “Oh!” he says, remembering something else, “And you can buy the best damn peaches in the valley at that little produce stand we just passed.”

Peaches? Hell, let’s turn around.

The first thing you notice when you pull into the parking lot in front of Hutchinson Produce, beside the fact that the building looks like it used to be a gas station or an auto repair shop, is the sign advertising TOMATOES CANTS COTS APPLES MELONS.

Photos by David Lansing.

Photos by David Lansing.

Tomatoes, apples, melons—I get that. But what, I ask Co, are cants and cots?

“Cantaloupes and apricots.”

Why don’t they just say so? I ask him.

He shrugs. That’s just what they’re called out here.

Inside Hutchinson’s, an elderly lady is leaning against her walker while pressing her fleshy thumbs into the fuzzy skin of a softball-sized peach beneath a sign that says “Don’t Pinch Me I’m Tender.”

There are cribs of fresh sweet corn, bins of giant watermelon, and baskets of raspberries, blackberries, and huckleberries (a huckleberry, if you don’t know, looks almost exactly like a blueberry but has larger seeds which makes them more difficult to eat). But I’m here for the peaches whose sweet ripe scent wafts over the dry hot air like an alluring perfume.

There are piles of donut peaches and bushel baskets of fleshy Freestones and bins of both white and yellow peaches. The whole scene just makes me salivate. As I’m standing there, looking a little lost, the owner, Dolores, who disconcertingly sports the exact same hairdo as Aunt Bea from The Andy Griffith Show, a sort of wavy, gray-haired bouffant with the type of ringlets crowning the hive that was popular with prom girls back in the 60s, comes out from behind the counter to stand about a foot behind me with her arms crossed over her chest. Obviously she thinks I’m here to steal her peaches or, at the very least, squeeze them.

“Can I help you?” she says sternly.

Yep, I tell her. I’m here for peaches. “Maybe you’d be kind enough to personally pick a dozen or so of your finest stone fruit for me.”

She’s charmed, I think, and immediately gets a bag and slowly fills it with her magnificent fruit. The bag is so heavy I have to hold it from the bottom to keep it from splitting the seams yet the whole juicy bundle costs only four dollars and six cents. What a deal.

Back out in the parking lot, I hand out just-picked peaches to everyone and we stand there, like a bunch of stone-fruit addicts, the juice running freely down our chins and hands. We don’t peel the peaches or even wash them. No time for that. I eat one in about 20 seconds and then start on a second.

It’s too much for Dolores who comes rushing out of the produce stand with a roll of paper towels, giving each of us one to wipe away the mess. She hands me one and says, “Good?”

“You know what, Dolores? I believe this is the best damn peach I’ve ever had in my life.”

Dolores pats her Aunt Bea hairdo and smiles. “There’s a sink in the back if you need to wash up,” she says.

After running some cold water over my face, I head back to the parking lot.

“Come back anytime,” Dolores calls after me.

I will.

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A lemberger by any other name…

Ever heard of lemberger? Me neither. Until yesterday when Co Dinn poured me a glass at the Hogue Cellars tasting room.

Wait…poured me a glass? You thought I said limburger, didn’t you. As in stinky cheese.

Nope. I’m talking about lemberger. As in wine. But that’s the problem, right? Who’s going to go to a nice romantic restaurant and order a bottle of lemberger? Nobody. Which is why almost no one has heard of it. Despite the fact that, as far as I’m concerned, it’s rocks over merlot and even pinot noir.

Hogue Cellars lemberger wine. Photo by David Lansing.

Hogue Cellars lemberger wine. Photo by David Lansing.

A little history: Lemberger has been around forever. Some say it was growing in Austria, where it’s known as blaufränkisch—no improvement there—a thousand years ago. It’s still a fairly popular varietal in vineyards along the Danube River from Germany to Slovakia.

In 1941 a Hugarian musician escaping the war brought his French horn and some cuttings of lemberger to British Columbia. From here lemberger managed to hitchhike down to Washington where Walter Clore, known as the father of the Washington State wine industry, did a nice enough job growing it that it caught the interest of Julio Gallo who, in the ‘70s, thought about buying Washington lemberger grapes until he realized he just couldn’t get enough of them to make it worthwhile. Probably just as well. If Julio Gallo had bottled lemberger wine under his label back in the 70s it would have ended up being called Boone’s Farm Fuzzy Navel or something.

Since then, lemberger has just been this strange little grape from the Yakima Valley that growers like Hogue Cellars have played around with but have never seriously attempted to market. In fact, even if you go on the Hogue Cellars web site, you can’t buy lemberger. The only way to taste it is to go to the Hogue visitor’s center in Prosser, like I did, or join their wine club. Not because it’s not a great wine—it is—but because when people think of lemberger they think “stinky” not “yummy.”

And it is yummy. An incredibly beautiful ruby red wine with mouthfuls of ripe cherries, dark blackberries, plums, currants and even, I think, a hint of chocolate.

“I love this wine,” I told Co as he poured me a second glass.

“I know,” he said. “But people won’t buy it.”

They might, I told him, if you guys changed the stupid name.

“Well, we thought about calling it blaufränkisch,” he said.

Yeah, no, that isn’t going to work.

So having already renamed Washington’s Snipes Mountain AVA to Dinosaur Hills, I guess I’m going to have to come up with a new name for lemberger.

Any ideas? Fred? Sonia? Hardy?

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