“I’ve watched enough episodes of Dexter to know what I’m doing if it ever came down to killing someone. I’d just put ’em in my vacuum packer and suck the air until their eyes bulged out. No mess, no evidence, nothing. I’d just have to get rid of the body.”
Yes Virgina….That JUST HAPPENED.
As we rounded the corner into our second straight day of marathon wine tasting, the Old Man and I (plus A and C, our two Buckeye Wine Buddies) had no idea that by the end of it, we’d be sitting in a Mexican restaurant and chatting giddily about how we’d most likely just narrowly escaped being murdered and butchered and served with buttered fava beans and a 40 year old bottle of chardonnay.
Saturday had been a lovely, albeit windy day, and we’d all driven around and taken full advantage of the Walla Walla Valley in a little impromptu wine tour of our own. A and C were in visiting from the rainier (hahah….get it? Rainier/rainier?) part of the state and we were taking full advantage of their company. Fellow Buckeye uber-fans, we’d found in the past that we enjoyed their company immensely, but between their busy schedule and our commitments to rugby and work, getting together was virtually impossible. In the end, we decided that hell or high water, this past weekend was IT, and set to making it happen. With the Old Man tasting responsibly (even in the off-season, renting a car service to tour the area is prohibitively expensive for fewer than three couples), we laughed and joked our way through a blurry sea of cabernets, malbecs and even, surprisingly, a significant number of whites.
We fell into bed pretty soon after a mediocre, if hilarious (every word out of our waiter’s mouth seemed an accidental sexual double entendre) dinner and woke up on Sunday almost ready for another round. Almost turned into absolutely after a good breakfast of ham and eggs and we all piled back into the Trail Blazer and headed into Prosser toward Red Mountain to check out Barnard Griffin and Terra Blanca.
It is here that I arrive at the meat of our story. There was a third winery on our list for the day whose name I cannot remember because, as you’ll see, dear reader, it doesn’t really matter. It was closed, and, as we trucked on down the road back toward the main thoroughfare, we fatedly spied a crude sign on a gravel turn off that said, enticingly: “Old School Wine Tasting—–>”. The name of our destination was Blackwood Canyon Vintners, and, had it not been for the handmade signs announcing “Just a Little Further!” and “You’re Almost There!”, we would have turned around and missed what will never cease being one of the most interesting experiences in my memory cache.
The western portion of Washington state is high desert, an ideal climate and soil structure for growing grapes and cultivating wine. The landscape is vast and brown and overrun with tumbleweeds and scrub grass. There aren’t really any mountains to speak of, only rolling desert hills that, when encountered, are much larger and more serpentine than they appear. After about a mile on a dirt road through one such hill, with a deep gully cut on the left hand side of the car, the jokes about banjo music and a movie called The Hills Have Eyes began. There were no buildings in sight, and I began to be thankful that my iPhone still had service so that I could “check-in” to this place on Facebook—a cyber breadcrumb trail for police to follow in case the four of us went missing.
We rounded one more bend in the now gravel road and came upon a veritable sea of ancient oak casks. This wine barrel graveyard gave way to an old cement and stucco structure in a sad state of disuse and disrepair. Littered with 10 gallon buckets of dirty rainwater, old commercial dishwashers and various other industrial machinery and vehicles, the property reminded me of that house down the street that the neighbors used to complain about…the one that brought down property value because of the tall grass growing up through the rusted shell of a TransAm. We stopped the car in nervous laughter, and stepped out intrepidly, wondering with a sense of adventure just what exactly we were stepping into.
We followed a generally well-kept trail of flagstone toward an open side door, and were about 25 feet away when a gaggle of multi-colored Labrador/Weimaraner dogs came running out, barking, warning someone of our arrival. Close on their heels, half-loped, half-stumbled a man who would turn out to be the owner/operator of the winery and our Master of Ceremonies. It was 2:10 pm, and we wouldn’t leave until almost three hours later.
Michael T. Moore is a character. Equal parts pirate, drunkard and Don Quixote, it’s evident from the first that there is no one on earth quite like him. He rolled out to greet us in an awkward silence, gruffly appraising each one of our party in a manner that seems to me now, as if he was deciding right then whether to kill and eat us or deign to impart some of his hard won knowledge of the winemaker’s trade. His person was as unkempt as our surroundings. An army green puffer coat repaired on the the right arm with a liberal circle of silver duct tape. A pair of beat up, leather Jerusalem Cruisers out of which poked fungus ridden and gnarly snaggle-toes. A yellowish-grey goatee as unwashed as the same-colored, scraggly scruff of hair that poked out from underneath an equally neglected ball cap. As he held out his hands to collect our $10pp tasting fees, I was struck by the fact that he would have seemed as at home on a street corner in Seattle with a cardboard sign and a milk crate.
As we piled into what turned out to be the tasting room and our eyes adjusted to the dim and musty light, we were able to begin taking in our surroundings. It was a dank dungeon, permeated by the same fetid aroma that surrounded Edmond Dantes as he was thrown into his cell at the Chateau d’If. Seemingly carved out of stone, the antechamber that was the tasting area was littered with dust covered bottles, lightly swaying cobwebs and various out-of-place Calphalon pans and knives labeled for sale with handwritten prices. Creaky old shelves held grubby crystal carafes full of ruby-colored liquid that yes, we’d be sampling out of later and warped, weather-stained tour books lay open to pages of flowery prose describing this very winery.
With our fees collected, Mr Moore launched straight into the tasting, telling us all to forget everything we knew or thought we knew about wine. We couldn’t get our words of excitement and gladness of this in edgewise. With a decided air of derision and distaste, he derided all other modern-day winemakers as charlatans…out only to make a fast buck. They were traitors to their trade, doing a disservice to the art by cranking out subpar wines at break-neck speeds. To hear him tell it, he alone was a vintner, remaining true to old school procedures and supplying a product that was not only different from everything else we would ever taste, but far superior by virtue of the fact that he stalwartly refused to rush it. He laughed in the face of the Bible taught by his Alma Mater, U.C. Davis and scoffed at an entire industry, believing himself to be superior and misunderstood.
The first glass we’d taste was a chardonnay, and it would be followed by three or four other chardonnays…the tasting would be dominated by whites, with only three or four reds brought out for comparison. He described them all as Large wines, and large they were. We wouldn’t, he explained, get the full taste on the first sip, nor on the second. Each wine needed to be layered. I never saw him open a bottle, but instead, merely emerge from behind the bottle-cluttered bar with a full glass of butter-colored liquid which he’d go to “warm-up” somewhere further in the depths of this cellar. When he returned to us, it was with shaking hands (this tremor, paired with his glassy, impish eyes, eased my nerves a bit, because it was evident that he was a fan of, and regularly partook in his own wares) that he poured us each a taste out of this one glass.
I’m not educated enough in wine to tell you correctly whether it was bad or good. What I can say is that it was unlike any chard I’d ever tasted. It had a unique and pungent smell that wafted up toward your nose and fairly pulled your face into the glass. It went down smooth and had a depth that I would liken to brandy…not wine. It was a heavy pour, about three ounces, and after we’d all had a chance to take two or three sips, Mr Moore reached toward a dusty shelf behind him and extricated a dirty knife and a cloudy Ziploc bag. “Now try it with some cheese”, he demanded, and opened the cloudy bag. From it, he produced a pungent Manchego that had a rind that reminded me uncomfortably of his bare toenails. There was something about the wine, though, that demanded cheese, and something about his manner that demanded respect and we all took and ate our small slivers gratefully.
It was upon the next sip of wine…that….POW! Dear reader, I must tell you, that I describe, as blowhard, any menu that suggests wine pairing or sommelier who tries to tell me which wines will go with which dishes. Until that moment, I thought it all a farce, a way to upsell to ignorant consumers. Until that moment, I never understood that wine and food could GO TOGETHER and bring out flavors in each other that, when ingested alone, would go unnoticed and unappreciated. That old, old cheese (he said 3 months in that baggie, but I believe much longer) went with that wine like white polka dots on black cotton. That third sip had flavor that filled the mouth and reached out and caressed each separate taste bud. It was like someone had turned on the light in a dark room.
For the rest of the afternoon, we shifted about, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes in abject awe. Moore talked our ears off and didn’t invite any conversation from us. He talked knowledgeably of food and of the Michelin rated restaurant that he was looked for investors in. He described combinations of foods that had us all salivating and wishing that the restaurant already existed. We tasted more and more wine in the same manner and saw that moldy cheese a few more times before it was relegated back to its place on the rickety shelf. This place was an odd gem in the middle of nowhere and this man an outlandish figment that had us all looking at each other in amazement as if to confirm that he was saying the crazy things he was saying and it wasn’t just hallucination.
Like little drunken lambs, we followed this mad wine scientist around his laboratory, a filthy, grime covered space which was oblivious to the threat of cross-contamination. He asked us what types of knives we used at home for cooking and scoffed with contempt at my answer of Henckels, dragging us to a stained cutting board where we were treated to a demonstration of how much better the Calphalon knives were. He grilled us a bratwurst and cut it in different ways to reveal to us the glory of surface area and its effect on the taste buds. He poured us samples of his chardonnay vinegar, insisting that it was drinkable, and it was. We were on a surreal acid trip of wine tasting, each of our minds never far from the idea that maybe, just maybe, he was getting us drunk and planning on locking us all in a dark room under some creaky old stairs.
It was a crazy rollercoaster of an afternoon. One moment, he would be regaling us with his culinary pipedreams, and the next: “You fucking goddamn bitch!”, we’d be ripped back to reality by the harsh tone in his voice as he shouted streams of profanity at his dogs. The conversation roamed from literature to wine to food and back again and it was three hours before our adventure ended.
As the four of us slipped away into the night, we could not stop remarking on the oddity of the afternoon. Were we lucky to have found him, or just lucky to have escaped? Would that place still be there if we returned or would it be gone in a day like Brigadoon? Was what we had tasted legendary or just wine that had turned? A pleasant drunken haze shrouds my memory of the afternoon and it is only confirmation of the three others that joined me that allows me to truly believe that any of it really occurred.