I’m not always the biggest fan of the People’s Republic of Boulder. There is something about a transient population of thousands of college students (not one of which can be trusted to safely cross a street) with an unnerving sense of entitlement and throngs of new-wave pseudo-hippies worried about sulfites in their wine, garlic in their food and whether or not the soy in the soles of their shoes was responsibly and locally grown that leaves me annoyed. That aside, I love the place. It plays home to some of my favorite places to eat and drink: Frasca Food & Wine, Pizzeria Locale, SALT, The Kitchen, The Flagstaff House, Zoe Ma Ma. It is also home to two of my favorite places to buy wine and spirits: The Boulder Wine Merchant and Superior Liquor Market. (In the interest of full disclosure, I DO NOT sell wine and spirits to all of those places).
On Tuesday night, I joined my good friend and fellow Colt & Gray barman Glenn Pollak for some delightful food, beer and wine in the Wine Cellar at SALT Bistro, on the West End of Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall. The space, formerly occuppied by the Boulder institution Tom’s Tavern, has been dutifully re-purposed by farm-to-table champion Bradford Heap. If I’m not mistaken, this dinner was the second in what is planned to be a long series of “Battle of Boulder” dinners, in which beers and wines are paired against each other with food from the restaurant’s very talented kitchen team. This dinner would pit Upslope Brewing Company against Bookcliff Vineyards.
To start, despite trying to be a champion for the Colorado wine industry, there are times when I find it challenging; when packaging and marketing are more important than product, when packaging and marketing get no consideration at all, when the juice is just plain bad or the wine is superfluous. But I try to keep my mind open, regardless of my own inherent snobbery. That being said, I can’t say that I had a fixed impression of Bookcliff prior to dinner on Tuesday. I seemed to remember that they make a fine Cabernet Franc and a very tasty Chardonnay. But other than that I didn’t have a real firm idea of their stable. As my colleague (both here and in the wine trade) Ashley Hausman, has discussed in the past, Colorado really does have a delightful climate for growing grapes, but it really is only suited to very specific varietals: Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Merlot, Viognier (to a certain degree), Riesling and Muscat, though others do find relative success as well. So, I was pleased when there was no Pinot Noir, which I think Colorado has finally given up trying to grow, Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel on offer.
Now, Upslope Brewing is an operation with which I am more familiar; their beers are a staple of the tap lines at Colt & Gray and their innovative all-canned line of brews are uniformly delicious. As a wine dork, and someone who has been stomping around the world of wholesale wine for more than five years now, I can say one thing with great conviction: brewers have more fun than winemakers. Why? Because experimenting is easy; you can make small test batches easily and, with not-too-much brainpower, scale successful experiments to production. With wine though, it’s much more challenging to work small-scale, and you’re also limited to when fruit is available. So you can see that it would be challenging to try and set aside fruit and do with it what you’re feeling like in the mellee of harvest. That’s not to say that winemaking is without joy, far from it in fact, just that there is a touch more fun, verve and joie in brewing these days.
On to dinner…
Each course was introduced by the winemaker, brewer and SALT’s own Evan Faber. The following tasting notes are my own.
Course 1: White Gazpacho (Almonds, Sherry vinegar, Udi’s sourdough bread)
Pairing: Lager vs 2010 “Trap Door” White
Upslope’s Craft Lager is far from “fizzy yellow beer”. The grain profile is clean and crisp with a light smooch of florality from its hop regimen and a note of stone fruit. The wine, a blend of Viognier and Orange and White Muscat. Dominated by lychee, orange blossom and honey, the wine was startlingly dry, round, balanced and fruit-froward. The typical musky/mushroomy notes of Muscat dominate the finish. The gazpacho was perfect in it’s Andalusian styling, from the texture to the deft dose of Sherry vinegar that gave the finished product a nice zip and tang. And the winner? Bookcliff (my pick and crowd fave) for its ability to weave its way into the dish, creating a brilliant level of dynamic tension.
Course 2: Green Curry P.E.I. Mussels
Pairing: Pale Ale vs. 2009 Viognier
The Pale Ale from Upslope was born of a unique challenge in 2009. Hops were short due to a fire on the West coast that destroyed warehousing facilities for a massive portion of the US hop harvests. As a result, brewers had to get creative. Upslope’s head brewer is from Argentina and helped the crew source their Cascades not from Washington, but from Patagonia, one of the last stops in South America before hopping across to Antarctica (so if the boys were to claim that they go to the ends of the Earth for good beer, I’d take them literally). These hops are spicier and earthier than their Norteamericano counterparts. The resultant beer is piney and citrusy, with even a hint of cut grass. The Bookcliff Viognier is initially a classic Viognier, but the alcohol on this occassion was a little wild. Classic peach, apricot and violet notes dominate the wine that finished to me just a touch off-dry. I look forward to the next iteration of this wine, when John tells me it will see a period of barrel aging, which I’m sure will help the wine immensely. The mussels were the highlight of the night for me: unabashedly Curry with tones of spicy, green elements and a clean, earthy, pungent intensity that truly delighted me. The winner? Upslope, the Pale accented and complimented the heat of the curry, rather than just neutralizing it.
Course 3: Long Family Farm Pork Loin (Cherry Gastrique, Basil, Mint, Polenta, Spinach)
Pairing: India Pale Ale vs. 2008 Cabernet Franc
For starters, the first time I had Upslope’s IPA on draft it failed to impress me. But tonight, tonight I was pleased. Along with the influence of its trio of hops (Magnum, Centennial and Cascade), its specialty malts (including a healthy dose of red) bring the wine a burnt toffee and apple pie note, along with citrus and molasses elements. The Cab Franc was a mouthful of red and black fruit, supplemented with menthol, tomato leaf and green pepper, all knit into toasty oak, vanilla and cinnamon notes kept afloat by medium-plus acidity. The pork was a perfectly executed medium-rare and was juicy and tender. The tartness of the gastrique kept the dish from becoming unctuous with all of the butter in the polenta. Who came out on top? Upslope! This was a tough one, as much as I liked the Franc, and I truly did, the beer’s dark bass tones played perfectly against the sauce and brilliantly with the meatiness of the pork and the earthiness of the wilted spinach.
Course 4: Grilled NeverNever Skirt Steak (Scarlet Runner Beans, Local Organic Carrots, Balsamic, Crisp Potato, Mizuna, Watercress Gremolata)
Pairing: Brown vs. 2009 “Ensemble” Red Blend
I really like Upslope’s Brown Ale. Its coffee and baking spice notes are really nicely set against its red fruit and complicated wonderfully by a beguiling soy/umame element. But the real show-stopper of the course was Bookcliff’s Ensemble. The wine is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, not unlike antiquary incarnations of the blends from around Pomerol in Bordeaux. The black fruit, in the form of candied black raspberry, black cherry, blackberry and plum floated brilliantly atop a flirting layer of eucalyptus. In the mouth, strawberry jam entered the melange, along with fresh raspberry and its accompanying acidity. Despite its high alcohol the wine remained balanced. The dish vying for attention with these two beverages was a perfect example of balance. The equilibrium of salty, savory and most importantly sweet was impeccable. The carrots were so fresh as to be floral and the whole plate was a joy to eat. And the result? For me and Glenn, a tie. Both were simply too pleasurable as pairings, I wanted a second helping of everything. But for the crowd the victory went to Bookcliff.
Course 5: Housemade Cherry Gelato (Mint, Almond Tuile)
The Imperial Stout was a special treat. One of only two barrels left were tapped, and the brew was redolent of chocolate, tropical coffee, ripe red cherries and syrupy hops. The Muscat was full of cherry blossoms and white flowers, caramel and pink peppercorns. And while acidity is not Muscat’s strong-suit in general (and definitely not when made in sticky styles), this wine was still nicely buoyant. The gelato was perfect, a balance of bright and dark sweet elements, though I would have liked a chocolate element to make it utterly indulgent. The only problem with the dessert was the tuile. Allow me a quick soapbox moment, friends. I’m a chef by training, and desserts are about balance, and tuiles elegance, more specifically thickness. A tuile is supposed to be a light, thin, ethereal wafer, a lightly-flavored textural element. Unfortunately this was more a cookie than anything else. The thick and cumbersome almond-flavored cracker got stuck in my molars and left too much almond sweetness, especially when compared to the perfection of the gelato. Overall it was still a great dish. The bevie of choice? The Muscat, which perfectly balanced the cherry fruit of the gelato with its own red fruit.
The overall winner: Upslope Brewing Company
Albeit by a narrow margin, Upslope managed to nudge out Bookcliff in this round. Initially I was worried that some things would be far-and-away more suited to wine, but Chef Heap and his team did a magnificent job of playing well and fairly to the strong suits of both producers. And my hat is off to them. This dinner was a lot of fun, especially seeing as I wasn’t surrounded by snobs, but rather by a group of people having a ton of fun and enjoying themselves thoroughly. And isn’t that what it’s all about?