Illustration by Ken Sellen
Fattened by a sensuous flight around Gabe Rucker’s Bird (not the Little one, but the seven-year-old squabbery, where goose-liver fat and beef cheeks are tormented by the former ecstatic raver turned James-Beard-Award-winning chef), our talk turns to next steps and haunts. We have options. Two in our group have that doe-eyed look and exit stage right, homeward bound. Our remaining two companions are sturdier, ready for more: Hit the wine vault. Their suggestion. I couldn’t come up with that one: don’t have one and never been, baby.
A phosphorus glow from a street lamp ahead radiates off an unseasonable puddle in our path. Stepping lightly, we see the modest entrance to our destination ahead on the right of this Kerns Gulch block. Our tour-guide nee dinner companion from Rucker’s experiential eatery leads the way. A garrulous and well-upholstered man, fun and full of food, he has insisted on showing us his “wine storage,” a hideaway like many places and things in this rosy river city: atypical and largely unexpected.
Portland is home to a handful of these understated overstatements; warehouses for the avaricious and excitable oenophile, the unquenchable, quaffing collector of bubbles and grape squeezins. This particular chamber, situated below the cobbled streets of the near eastside, is more Bohemian than some: unassuming and quiet on the outside; subterranean, cool, and hidden, indoors. Something off-limits, perhaps…unless invited. Like a speak. In that case, we knew what to say–apparently–when the man behind the door opened the slot and asked about our business. We’re in, Flynn.
When the well-heeled, unabated, unabashed wino runs out of room at home for his or her collection of noble grape juice, warehouses such as this one become home to Daddy’s kids in a bottle. And wine lovers do love their “kids,” in some cases, more than their kids. Vaults of various sizes and configurations are offered at prices that would make the neighborhood public storage owner downright giddy. But keeping thousands of square feet of storage at 55-degree stasis ain’t cheap, baby. Thus, the bite.
My host, whom we affectionately tab “Don’t Be a Bad Boy” Johnny, doesn’t appear concerned with any of these trivialities. After keying secret digits into a discreet pad (damn, no gruesome dude behind the slot in the door, after all), he leads us down a magic carpet relais of paint-flecked, concrete stairs; through an ambitious portal, heavy on the hinges; and lower again, down, into the deep. Moria this is not. No orcs in this keep. But I wonder for a moment if I don’t glimpse a rather large, Rucker-faced caterpillar imbibing a hookah down a long corridor, a plate of toadie-in-the-hole for the munchies rests at his side. The fois gras softly oozing fat. Whooo are youuu…? Fine question, buddy.
Warehouse members kick back and quaff in an underground lounge replete with comfy davenports and over-sized cuddle chairs, a bar area with stemware to service one’s dandy collection, and a mad assortment of CDs that lost their catalog many moons before. While I settle on the Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” for the disc player, DBABB Johnny’s gal, a sweeter-than-Sauterne femme who drapes herself about her man like so much musk after a tumble, situates her leggy self into one of the cozy chairs. She breezily sways to the music, more than a bit off beat.
I leave the lady to her muse and find Johnny, and my date, down the hall, the chilled space bringing new life to my siren, who had only an hour before faded across the finish line during Gabe’s last course and the bubbles before. (She’s back!) I give her my jacket to drape over her silky shoulders, her skin shimmery and bumped in the cool vault. Johnny maneuvers a pallet loader to extract his collection from his locker. When you need a pallet jack to access your wine, you know you’ve reached some level. What that level is in any one person’s hierarchical view of life is subject to debate, especially in this town—but you are at some level, baby. Why, that’s some pile of wine you got there, fella! Look at the pallet on Johnny!
Being my date’s birthday and all, Johnny suggests she pick to her heart’s content from his stash. I meander, while she ooohs and ahhhs, on my own solo mission deeper into this warren of wine and wonderment. After a left and a right, noting the evenness of the temperature gradient of this man-made cavern, I come across a locker decorated with a small Owsley Stanley caricature. Stanley! Where have you been, my brother? Haven’t seen you since folks actually said the words, “Keep on truckin” out loud in the presence of others. Odd. Definitely whacked. Damn subversive in this haunt, Truckin’ Man.
I put my ear to the plywood door to make certain I wasn’t missing some party. The joint is quiet. Whomever Mr. Thoroughly-Modern-Stanley is, he is out on the street or elsewhere tonight, trolling, while his wine sleeps peacefully behind this door. Love to check you out, my brother. I make a mental note to consider asking Johnny to let me come back and do some recon sometime. Check me checking you out, Mr. Stanley. Bring back a few memories. Or blot them out.
I reconnect with the party back in the lounge. Legs has reattached to Johnny, while my jacketed date reclines deeply in a red velvet sofa. We are in Oregon burgundy land, home to pinot envy and gritty gris, but the selection had been made: a 2007 Clos des Papes chateauneuf du pape. The tasting notes are prosaic: This is the greatest vintage I’ve ever tasted in the southern Rhone, says that fellow known as Parker. The interesting thing is, 2007 is not a great year in France. But in the southern Rhone, it’s extraordinary.
Johnny is in a giving mood, I conclude, smiling a knowing grin. He’s being gracious to my girl. This wine is expensive, but it is nearly impossible to taste a bad southern Rhone wine from 2007. Parker believes Chateauneuf du Pape is the epicenter of great Grenache in the world. Others agree. Serious shit, as my pal the Big O likes to say. While I ponder the hype, the drizzle-drazzle of a purple buzz skews my thoughts. We all assume the position.
It is late.
We tidy up our late-night soiree scene and ascend the concrete stairs, exiting the keep to find the dark skies clearing, a gibbous moon just then beginning to reappear. My date flies off. Birthday party’s over. Maybe she knows where to find Stanley. Securing the vault safely behind, Johnny bids me adieu. His date gives me a look, then leads him away. Owsley, all right.
The moonlit cobblestone calls, and my instincts lead me in the direction of a late-nite reprise with the Montage menu; but my equilibrium is skewed in other directions. Some crustacean wants me to suck its head, but the lost boys hang from the girders of an overpass. No caterpillar lair, this. Violet dreams on violent streets. I hear Craig Finn singing in my inner ear, “Her parents named her Hallelujah, the kids all called her Holly. These parties, they start lovely. But they get druggy. And they get ugly. And they get bloody.”
Time to go. Outside the keep, anything goes. The seductive velvet dreams of popes and Owsley Stanley are safe inside.
Portland. Underground oeno-oases. Late-night gastronomy and gastropods. The undead. And Stanley. Keep on truckin’, baby.
Oregonington Selections of the Month:
2011 Scott Paul La Paulee Pinot Noir $39. While an evolving and challenged 2011 vintage awaits final judgment in Oregon pinot country, a recent tasting of numerous Yamhill-Carlton pinots of this vintage netted this lovely gem and proves that vintner patience and skill show best in the down years when lesser talents crash and burn. Bright red berry and cherry fruit from mature vineyards, this pinot manages to avoid the bitter, astringent character found in so many of the 2011s across the appellation. Under the watchful eye and craftwomanship of winemaker Kelley Fox, this pinot avoids the 2011 traps to which many others apparently succumbed.
2012 Carlton Cellars Yamhill-Carlton Auxerrois $20. Estate-sourced, this uncommon and unusual Alsatian varietal is a lovely departure from the gris and chardonnay of Oregon winelands we’ve come to know so well. Thought to have originated in the Lorraine region, auxerrois is a genetic sibling of both pinot noir and chardonnay, but delightful with its own character. A dry white with delicious floral and apple essence. Carlton Cellars aux is a value, yet excellent, taste treat.