Wine may be the second beverage in this beer-obsessed town, but its virtues are not to be overlooked, even here. It smells marvelous, it tastes better, and it doesn’t hurt you as much the next day.
Wine possesses another fine quality – it goes with all things.
That seemed to be the point of last weekend’s eighth Durango Wine Experience, where strawberry-influenced prosecco kicked off a bright evening of fashion and traditional Italian food; heady Oregon pinot noir paired magically with melt-in-your-mouth beef tenderloin, and bone-dry rose accented rich French brie with jalapeño jelly.
One often finds wine in the company of food, so it should come as no surprise that many modern vintners have taken up the hottest trend in farming, growing grapes using sustainable methods.
We all know what that means concerning typical fruits and vegetables – using organic practices, refraining from spraying toxic pesticides and avoiding genetically modified organisms. But in the wine industry, it can mean even more.
Vineyards today are doing everything they can to conserve water and save on electricity, to say nothing of reinvigorating their soil to produce tastier grapes. At a wine seminar about sustainability hosted by the Ore House, distributors and winery representatives spoke of pumping water from man-made ponds to irrigate the vines, then recycling it to clean barrels. One California vineyard situated on the Russian River uses that source for natural hydroelectric power to lower its energy consumption. Another repurposes the detritus left over from winemaking into compost to treat the soil.
“It’s about responsibility,” said Mark Pape of Left Coast Cellars, a Willamette Valley vineyard serving the most delicious pinot noir of the entire event (and believe me, there were a lot of them), a 2010 Suzanne.
“We’re Oregon. We’re crunchy. We’re all about this,” he said.
“This” would be using alternative fuels like biodiesel, irrigating by a gravity-based downhill system called drip, employing solar energy and unleashing good bugs to eat the bad bugs that chow down on the precious vines. Such green practices take a lot of extra time – up to 120 more hours per acre – but you can taste the difference in your glass.
For example, the Suzanne had sumptuous notes of musky cherry with dark berry flavors and a delightfully light but long finish. The experts liked it, too, with Wine Spectator magazine bestowing 92 points upon it.
You might think that these new-fangled farming methods originated here in the New World (in wine parlance, Europe is the Old World and everywhere else is new), but you’d be wrong. Grape-growing dates back millennia in wine super powers like France, Italy and Spain, pre-dating the use of pesticides to control insects.
“Old World winemakers tend to be less inclined to use chemicals on their vines. On the whole, they don’t like it,” said Paul Tocco of Denver distributor Synergy Fine Wines, pouring a tight and tart Montepulciano d’Abruzzo at There’s No Place Like Home, a popular stop on the wine walk-about and home to the fabulous brie.
But just as they were the first to adhere to basic organic growing practices, European winemakers are also less likely to seek official certification for their green methods. That’s because most vineyards want to have the nuclear option – artificial pesticides – in case of an insect-infested season.
“You can lose an entire vineyard in a single year,” said William Davis, representing the Italian Buglioni family of wines at Guido’s Favorite Foods wine and fashion-show dinner. “It could devastate you.”
Winemakers encounter such a calamity once every 15 to 20 years or so. They’re less frequent in Europe, where most vines are grown in the interior rather than in coastal growing regions like California, Chile and South Africa, which are more susceptible to problems with vine-killing pests and fungi.
But lest you think we were all diligently taking notes on sustainability and academically discussing the meritorious properties of wine – “elegant,” “fresh,” “mineral” – we were not. Wine is a party, after all, and we were there to indulge in it.
The seminar itself was no austere event, boasting a tasting flight of whites, another of two reds and a white and a third of two dark reds. The first was accompanied by a tangy, composed ceviche – all the fish sustainably grown, of course. The second tasting was matched with a hearty grilled pork belly with pear gelee. But the third was the pièce de résistance, local tenderloin from East Pines Ranch rubbed with cocoa and paprika, grilled and served with a cherry vanilla demi-glaze.
Out on the street, men garbed in jeans and wrap-around sunglasses and women attired in black and monumental diamonds made their way down Main and Second avenues with wine glasses tucked firmly in hand. Many a driver stopped at an intersection did a double-take upon seeing the happy crowds wandering in front of them, intent on their next gallery or shop to sample wines and hors d’oeuvres.
The Rochester Hotel’s courtyard overflowed with people tasting wines from the many distributors who set up camp there, offering everything from light and bright roses to the biggest of cabernets. David Arnold, ever charming and always with a glass in his hand, occasionally waylaid partiers and enticed them to taste his wines made from grapes grown in the San Juan Valley in New Mexico.
“It’s not Napa Valley,” he said of his terroir, “but it’s pretty good.”
And indeed, his muscato-like dessert wine, filled with notes of peach and flavors of passion fruit, would be a fine end to any summer meal.
If you tired of the finger food – smoked salmon on blinis, hummus with crudities, roasted tenderloin with tomatoes, cheese, cheese and more cheese – you could always sit down for dinner at any one of the local restaurants offering special wine-themed evenings.
Guido’s went one further, presenting not just a five-course meal, but an honest-to-goodness fashion show to boot. Lanky young women adorned in ruby lace, camouflage jackets and slinky skirts strolled down the runway with bottles of vino dangling from their hands. (Yes, this really happened in Durango.)
Chef Susan Devereaux sent out an amuse-buche of fried, stuffed green olives. (If you’ve never had a hot, crunchy olive, you don’t what you’re missing.) She followed with a fabulous citrusy artichoke heart to go with that soft, pink, summery Italian prosecco, as daughter Amber Jaicin sent a model down the runway in a cotton cut-out party dress and au courant sparkly flats.
The second course of stuffed cannelloni pasta topped with a delicate halibut, sole and tomato butter cream sauce was more delicious than even the long aqua dress with green embroidery floating by on the model and the perfect accompaniment to the garganega bianco Davis provided.
The night continued, and so did the wines and the courses until Leah Deane, manager of the wine festival, ended it all by striding the runway in a bouffant confection of a dress plastered with the paper labels of the evening’s wines and inviting diners to strike their own poses and take selfies with her.
Me, I went to bed dreaming of a second helping of the pasta and the prosecco – all organic, sustainable and GMO-free, no doubt – and looking forward to doing it all again next year.