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Wine: What's Beer Got to Do With It?

By Michael Sherwood

Northwest winemakers and beerIn the wine industry the saying goes that it takes a lot of beer to make wine.  You mention this to a local winemaker and they nod their head in agreement.   This axiom stems from the habit of grape harvest crush crews to be young beer loving souls - but let there be no doubt - winemakers are big fans of cold beer now and then. 

My original hypothesis was that winemakers who make huge wine would love big beers with layers flavors. This didn’t turn out to be completely true.  Some of the winemakers I talked to indeed preferred the inky dark Stouts, resinous India Pale Ales and fruity Belgian beers.  Just as many winemakers though enjoyed the palate cleansing nature of a crisp light Pilsner or lager.

Crush Crews Love Beer

During the fall crush this younger crowd seems to consume more beer than wine.  Not that they aren’t wine lovers.  Working ‘crush’ is a time honored step on the path to becoming a winemaker or cellar master.  These youngsters are honing their wine skills in the best way possible – sorting grapes, punching down fruit, adding nutrients to ferment vats, pressing the fruit and filling wine barrels with new wine. 

The crush crews are often a mix of local home-grown kids and a bevy of international workers.  Young people from France, Australia, New Zealand and around the world join West coast crush crews each fall and then head back home in the winter in preparation for the Southern hemisphere grape harvest.  They bring their love of beer and wine with them making for a heady mix of cultures, brews, vin et la vie.

Harvest lunch, Oregon
Lunch during harvest, Carlton Oregon

Little do these interlopers know, but they have landed in Beer Heaven.  Beervana.  Land of the Hop Heads.  There are more craft breweries per capita in the Portland metro area than just about anywhere else on the planet.  Craft beer has captured 3% market share in the United States.   In Oregon it is approaching 14% and in Portland, it is hovers around 50% of all the draft beer sold is from a craft brewery.  There are over 1000 different beers created each year at brew pubs, microbreweries and regional craft brewers in Oregon and Washington alone.  It is no wonder that ale houses reign supreme in the Seattle area.  The Pacific Northwest is home to not only some of the most exciting Pinot Noir and Bordeaux blends, but is the epicenter of the ‘good beer’ movement and most of the hops grown in the United States.

Wineries Pave The Way For Microbreweries

The craft brewers here acknowledge their debt to the pioneering wineries that came before them.  Fledging wineries up and down the West coast primed the pump with consumers trained on small lot single vineyard wines being paired with meals that focused on layers of flavor and quality ingredients.  This set up an environment for acceptance of a huge array of small batch production beers from Ambers and Blondes to dark Porters to hoppy IPA’s by customers and then local restaurants, taverns and grocery stores.   Where there is smoke there is fire.  Where there is wine, there is beer.

Winemakers and Their Beers

josh bergstromIt is a chance of fate that winemaking auteur Josh Bergström turned out to be vintner instead of a brew master.   Josh started out to be a brewer.  His first batch of beer as a home brewer was an awful Scotch Ale, but that didn’t deter him.  Between college semesters, Josh worked at the Rock Bottom Brewery and was on his way to become a professional brewer much like crush crews work their way to being winemakers and enologists.  His father and sister’s real estate ventures eventually landed them in the vineyard business, pulling young Josh along for the ride. 

Josh’s first winery job was in 1997 where he worked beside Lynn Penner-Ash at Rex Hill for seven months.  He worked 1998 harvest with Dick Ponzi and then went to Burgundy to the CFPPA de Beaune to study winemaking.  So while his aspirations of brewing turned to wine, Josh retained his brewers love of beer. 

Josh waxes eloquent when talking about Rogue ales from Newport, Oregon and Lagunitas’ over the top IPA.  A smooth creamy Guinness Stout on tap in Ireland remains one of his favorite beer memories.  His love for winter seasonal ales such as Deschute’s Juble Ale is evidence of Josh’s appreciation of big beers. “When you taste wine all year, you can stress out your taste buds.   Beer is so refreshing.  It’s light in alcohol and cleanses your palate,” says Bergström. “Like coffee, tea and wine – beer can be a product of great complexity and subtlety”.  

At harvest time, the coolers at Bergstrom are stocked with no less than five different beers and are often critiqued during the lunch break.  That the fall harvest coincides with the introduction of seasonal beers such as Oktoberfest is only a bonus for the crush crews at the Bergström Winery.

Mike at harvest
Mike Etzel at Harvest

Mike Etzel of Beau Frères favors the classic Czech Pilsner Urquell for it crispness and light body. Brewed with a combination of soft Pilzen water, home-malted barley, native Saaz hops, and a lager yeast originally smuggled out of Bavaria more than 150 years ago.  Pilsner Urquell is the benchmark that all other European Pils are measured by so it is no surprise that Mike Etzel, Gino Cuneo and others cite this as a favorite. 

Etzel raids his vast wine cellar during harvest and lays out an impressive range of wines for lunch each day.  It is after all the grapes have been processed that the crush crew dives into a few sides of Coors, Bud and Corona.  As often as not though, Mike is still working on an older Pinot Noir left over from lunch and dreaming about that 1997 Claude Dugat Gevrey-Chambertin St-Jacques he had years earlier.

Next door at Patricia Green Cellars, beer is one of the elixirs of life.  Patty favors Mexican beers such as Modelo Especial, Sol and Pacifico for the same reasons as Etzel - for their light flavors, low alcohol and refreshing carbonation.  You can’t operate forklift trucks all day drinking wine or high test beers and soda pop just doesn’t make it.  So in the heat of the harvest, a noon time beer is as traditional as Chef Jo-Jo’s chicken and polenta meals.

Patty GreenDown Ribbon Ridge a few miles, the beers of Deschutes Brewery of Bend, Ore. are the house brews for the workers at Brick House Vineyards.  Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Obsidian Stout and the Pacific Northwest’s favorite dark beer – Black Butte Porter are always on hand.  Having spent years working in Europe, winemaker Doug Tunnell honed his beer palate with the likes of Germany’s Bitburger Pilsner or any number of rich Belgian beers.  When working around the winery though – the local craft beers are king during work hours.  At supper time though, Doug like most winemakers, pulls out his favorite wine to pair with dinner.

Bespectacled Sam Tannahill of Francis-Tannahill confesses to “not being much of a beer guy.” Still, during the fall grape harvest he makes sure the coolers are stocked with an assortment of craft beers such as BridgePort IPA, Full Sail Amber or New Belgium’s Fat Tire for the end of the day refreshment. Sam knows the crew looks forward to a cold beer now and then. At dinner time though, it is a wine lovers dream as Sam and the crew enjoy the laser like crispness of good Chablis or a righteous Pinot Noir with the evening’s meal.  Just don’t bother showing up for dinner with a huge Cab or a fat Chardonnay.  It won’t past the muster.

Rick Small of Woodward Canyon Winery in Lowden, Washington loves beer for quenching his thirst after a long day processing grapes during harvest.  While Deschute’s Mirror Pond Pale Ale is his favorite, he has a weakness for Belgian ales.  When in Portland, it’s not unusual to find Rick at the back bar at Higgin’s sampling fresh Belgian beers on-tap.  One of Woodward Canyon’s distributors carries Belgian ales and some of those make it into crush crew lunches and the after work rotation of international brews. 

Rollin Soles
Argyle's Rollin Soles

It was through Argyle that I ran into the teaming subculture of crush crews and their brews.  Towards the end of harvest, crush crews from Domaine Drouhin, Argyle, Chehalem and wineries all over the Yamhill valley converge on some property for an old school kegger.  Your standard mix of Ausies, Kiwis, Frogs and Yanks gather to blow off steam, mingle and swap war stories from the cellar.  You might find anything from retro lager Pabst Blue Ribbon to the usual suspects of local microbrews as you hug tight around the bonfire looking to get lucky.

At Argyle, the beer preferences run the gamut.  Winemaker and General Manager Rollin Soles loves anything from the Deschutes Brewery.  Deschutes Brewery has taken over the top two spots on the beer sales charts, leaving Widmer working hard to keep their Hefeweisen in third place.

Assistant winemaker Willie Lunn comes to Argyle from Australia bringing his love of lagers with him.  He doesn’t hold much truck with the local microbrews.  “Way too thick” says Willie. “In Australia, beer is the common man’s drink, somewhat lowbrow and feral” say Lunn.  “Each area of the country has its own beer and it’s a lager. In Melbourne it’s Victoria Bitter.  In South Australia, it’s West End draught or anything by James Squire.”  “And no one drinks Foster’s in Australia - it’s strictly for export”.  The choice of beer for wine makers in Australia - “Coopers Pale Ale” says Soles.

When pairing with food though, local winemakers here still reach for a favorite bottle of wine from their cellars.  Check out our wine recommendations for this month and remember… it took an awful lot of beer to make this wine.




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