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Eugene Weekly : Wine : 01.05.06

Janus Presides

Over our growling, grinning and imbibing.


I slurp a cup of Full City Sumatran while I stand at the gritty window of my office on the 23rd floor of Eugene's oldest, shabbiest high-rise. Stretching out below, tentacles of urban blight reach toward the winding ribbon of the rain-swollen McKenzie River where it twists around the feet of the Coburg Hills. The last patches of the world's most fertile farmland are being scraped of topsoil, paved over in asphalt, sliced for sewers and power lines, diced into postage-stamp patches for more tacky McMansions. As far east as I can see, what had been corn fields and bean fields, orchards of filberts and walnuts, stands of old oaks and alders have yielded to backhoes and graders to make more room for soul-less shoeboxes varying only in size. I don't have to gaze to know that I'd see more of same west, north and south.

A mere 200 years ago, this was virgin floodplain. Try to imagine 200 more years of this melanoma spreading like wildfire across the once-green face of the valley.

Endings and beginnings: this is the time of year for such reflections, as 2005 fades into a page in history and 2006 opens a new chapter. It's time to tote up accounts, weigh gains and losses, pretend (at least) that we have some rational control of the emerging future, that we might make the term "progress" mean something more than the merely degenerative passage of time. I'm reminded of the strange Roman god they called Janus, one of the few gods the Italic people didn't simply appropriate directly from the more urbane Greeks then just re-name. Janus's curious visage appeared mostly on coins, a two-faced god, the diety of doorways and gates, harbors, departure and arrivals, beginnings of ventures, breaking of new days. He was a god of initiatives and a representative of primordial chaos. Janus mediated and governed all forms of communication. Few modern Americans know his name though it lies at the root of our word for the first month of the year, January. Clearly, Janus presides over this moment in Eugene's history, at least as metaphor.

Looking back, it's been an ominous year — devastating tsunami, ravaging wars, calamitous storms, corrupt politics, fearsome pandemics, environmental degradation — pretty much like last year and probably a foreshadowing of this one to come. But we can still look ahead hopefully: Why not? The past might really predict and determine the future, and we might be ignorantly condemned to repeat history — especially, it seems, the stupidest aspects, rarely the smartest — but if hope were not eternally re-born in our hearts it'd be hellishly hard getting out of bed in the morning, and surely no one would ever be a farmer, and — worst of all — there'd be no new wines, and we'd face a world even grimmer and more dismal than the blistered Eden that now lies beneath my window,

We should launch the new year with bubbles, in part because fine sparkling wine (Champagne only if it's from France) is the happiest wine in the world. Anyone who has fallen under wine's enchantment owes it to him/herself, at some point in their wine education, to taste — no, to experience — a super Champagne, a vintage from one of the great Champagne houses. Yep, there's a reason why the reeky rich will imbibe Champagne on any occasion and with virtually any food: It's wonderful stuff, each stylistically distinctive, incredibly complex, cerebral and visceral at the same time.

New World sparkling wines do not (yet) match up, but there's some reason to hope we might catch up. We have our believers. One of the most inspired was Oregonian Mark Vlossak whose St. Innocent Winery in Salem arose from his hope/faith (shared with the great Andre Tchelistcheff) that Oregon could became home to superb American sparklers. And since his first vintage in 1990, Mark made some tasty wines; in fact, his most recent sparklers may have been his best — they're also the last. So rush to your local merchant and find St. Innocent 2000 Crémant ($15), such a pretty wine, designated crémant because under less pressure than usual hence also creamier in mouthfeel; when tasting, try to savor that little starfruit note that tingles on the tongue. And if we can't look forward to more St. Innocent sparklers, we can expect to see excellent St. Innocent pinot noir.

Among the finest contributions to civilization made by the upper classes of England (also noted for brutal colonization) has been the tradition of the afternoon tipple of good Spanish sherry. There's Just nothing quite like a thimble of sun-soaked sherry to brighten a drearily wet winter's day. In short, sherry is a wine for Oregonians. Now, we haven't time or space here for full disquisition on styles of sherry, so rely on your favorite purveyor to match your preferences, but let us steer you toward a bargain, Alvear's Amontillado Montillo ($12), dark, creamy, rich in flavors of nuts with coffee notes. Food? Try serving with a brothy soup, especially French onion — yow!

Final quickie: Crab time's a-comin', see it on the horizon. Zip to market for Condes de Albarei 2004 Albariño ($14), fresh, zesty, fragrant and flowery (but dry) white from Spain, well-made and carefully balanced to complement fresh crab or any white fish.

On old coins, the faces of Janus are symmetrical, as if a departure about equals an arrival, an ending is as worthy as a beginning, but I'll wager that at the pivot of passing/coming years, last year looks worse, the new year brighter and more promising, like the faces of tragedy and comedy. So between the growl and the grin in the month of Janus, let's open with the grin: Cheers.