Category Archives: Oregon

An evening at The Ravens Club in Ann Arbor

The Ravens Club on Ann Arbor's Main Street

The Ravens Club on Ann Arbor’s Main Street

The Ravens Club is a bar in downtown Ann Arbor, right on the most important restaurant road in Ann Arbor, Main Street. I’ve been there once or twice, but my main memory is from right after I moved to Ann Arbor. While Nina denies ever having been there with me before, I am certain we went there pretty soon after I moved to Ann Arbor from Germany. From that visit, I remembered its great cocktails fondly. But I also liked the atmosphere with its gold and dark, pretty classy. However, we were dirt poor at the time and couldn’t afford to go out much, and somehow The Ravens Club dropped off my radar…

A well-stocked bar at The Ravens Club

The Ravens Club’s well-stocked bar. The cocktails here are absolutely amazing!

So, a couple of weeks ago I received an invitation from The Ravens Club’s managing partner Jeff to come and sample their new fall menu along with a bunch of other food and booze bloggers in and around Ann Arbor. He specifically touted their revamped wine list, and you know, free food and free wine? Count me in. I was joined by my blogging and real life friends John (The Food and Wine Hedonist) and Hannah (Next Stop: TBD). It was great to meet other bloggers from the area, too, like the authors of Clover Eats and All the Brews. Others have written about their impressions, so feel free to check out The Food and Wine Hedonist‘s, Clover Eats‘, and Hannah‘s take on the event. I also asked both of them whether I could use some of their photos, because a) I suck at remembering to bring a camera, and b) I usually suck at taking photos. They were kind enough to let me use them, so all visual beauty today is thanks to them.

Jeff told us that he thinks he and his team finally figured out what The Ravens Club is about: A bar with excellent cocktails that will offer bar food with a twist. He admitted that it took them a long time to figure it out (roughly four years), but that he is now comfortable with what The Ravens Club is. He wanted to share his vision with us, and we were happy see what they had up their sleeves. The cocktails have always been amazing, so I won’t even go into those.

While I am a foodie of sorts, I want to focus this review on The Ravens Club’s wine list. But the food was good, and I like that they incorporate interesting dishes into the menu. Chef Frank came out to talk to us, and it was interesting to see how this young chef balances making bar food to please the average diner at a bar who doesn’t want fancy food and making food that is creative and keeps him on his toes. I think, overall, he managed to achieve this. These were my favorites:

House-made pickles that paired very well with their rillette.

House-made pickles that paired very well with their rillette.

Insanely tasty chicken liver pate with apple chutney and pistachios. Probably my favorite of the night.

Insanely tasty chicken liver pate with apple chutney and pistachios. Probably my favorite of the night.

The burger was cooked exactly right, and was one of the best burgers I have had in town. Excellent.

The burger was cooked exactly right, and was one of the best burgers I have had in town. Excellent.

Kudos to chef Frank for putting roasted bone marrow on the menu. Unique, glibbery, and very tasty.

Kudos to chef Frank for putting roasted bone marrow on the menu. Unique, glibbery, and very tasty.

However, on to the wine list. Let me preface that I believe that bar’s have the hardest time to figure out a wine list: The normal customer comes for the cocktails or the beer (in The Ravens Club’s case mostly the cocktails). Wines lead a shadowy existence in a bar setting. This poses several issues for bar owners: How restricted should my wine list be? What’s my ratio of wines that an average customer might be interested in (I am just throwing it out here: Cabernet Sauvignon, Moscato, or a sweet Pinot Grigio) to wines that I am proud of serving? Should I offer wines at all? The Ravens Club, according to Jeff, tried various approaches in the past: From a vast wine list befitting a fine dining establishment to a small, mainstream (boring) list. Just like with the theme of The Ravens Club, they now feel they know what they want The Ravens Club’s wine list to be.

We had a chance to talk to the guy who put this list together, Ben Eberlein, who heads The Signature Collection, which is the boutique wine division of Henry A. Fox Sales Co. Ben is a super chill guy, and I loved talking to him for a while (it helped that his family’s roots are in Germany, and that we seem to have similar tastes in wine). First of all, he looked at what The Ravens Club has to offer: classic cocktails and American bar food. This led him to focus on American wines only. Except for the sparkling wine, which is a Spanish cava (which I always consider a good alternative to expensive champagne). He then decided to create a limited wine list of twelve still wines: six red, six white. Period. The wines are all from either California, Washington, or Oregon. I was a bit surprised to find no Michigan wines on the list, given how home state-proud a lot of Ann Arbor is, but it is what it is…and probably not for the worse.

The wineries deliver their wines in small barrels of 19.5 liters (around 5 gallons), and most wines are available on tap. At first I was a bit surprised, but it actually makes a lot of sense: Their wine sales aren’t overly big, and when you store the wines in the barrels and have them on tap, you can hold them and offer them for up to six months without them losing flavor. I think it is a win-win strategy for winery, The Ravens Club, and also the consumer. All wines I tried tasted fresh and one couldn’t tell how it got into the glass.

Chef Frank hanging out with us over a bottle of excellent Chardonnay.

Chef Frank hanging out with us over a bottle of excellent Chardonnay.

With my wine buddy John sitting right beside me, and Hannah helping out from across the table, we got a good go around of a lot of their wines. Here are my thoughts on what I had:

  • We started with the Stolpman Sangiovese Carbonic from Ballard Canyon, California. The wine is made with carbonic maceration, which means the grapes are not crushed but put in a tank and then infused with carbon dioxide which causes the grapes to ferment in the berries. It’s an interesting way of making wines. However, the result was not my style at all: It showed a very light and VERY bright color (insanely bright for a Sangiovese), and ended up being pretty sweet without any Sangiovese characteristics (no cherry or underbrush). While this was not my style, I think this can work for those seeking a sweeter wine and I grant The Ravens Club that this is more interesting than your average Pinot Grigio.
  • I also tried the Blacksmith Cabernet Sauvignon fromOakville, California. Now most of you know I am not a big fan of that grape in a monovarietal, but I wanted to see what The Ravens Club offers that most consumers will probably go for. This was about what I expected: wood and red fruit. Clean, nothing really objectionable, but also nothing that would excite or entice. For what it is, it probably works well for many.
  • Now the Corvidae Lenore Syrah from Columbia Valley, Washington was an entirely different story: If you want to try wine at The Ravens Club (and you should), I highly recommend this one. Pitch dark, juicy and smoky, with depth and layers and layers of interestingness. To my palate, which likes restraint, Syrah can easily be too spice. But this one was just the right amount. This also paired well with the burger.
You knew I had to try the Riesling...

You knew I had to try the Riesling…

  • I simply had to try the Corvidae Ravenna Riesling from Columbia Valley, Washington. Most West Coast Rieslings leave me wishing for more and often disappoint me, but this was outstanding. I would compare it to Alsatian Riesling in style, with prominent notes of petrol, clean and bright citrus flavors with good acidity. The wine was very balanced, and it paired amazingly with the rillette and then the chicken liver. I was a bit stunned, because I didn’t expect this wine to wow me that much, but in fact it did. Pretty high up on the list. In what I assume is an attempt to make people actually order this wine it is described as off-dry. But to my taste buds, this seemed way more dry than off-dry. In a very pleasant way.
  • When we asked Ben what else we HAD to try, he said the Chardonnay that they sell as a bottle only. It took little to convince us at that stage (two cocktails and a couple of wines into the evening): the Roco Chardonnay from Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon. US chardonnay and I have a charred history, where I often struggle with too much alcohol in the wines (which is my personal crux). Everyone that tried this wine seemed to love it. It was the picture perfect example of what a well-made Chardonnay can be: crisp, clean, refreshing, with bright lemon and green apple flavors. A delight to drink, and definitely worth a try.

As should become obvious here, there are some true gems on this wine list. For Wine Century Club lovers, they have a Grenache blanc on the list, and for the eccentrics or the bourbon lovers, they have a wine that matured in bourbon barrels. In any case, it is worth looking past the cocktails and the excellent selection of bourbons that The Ravens Club has to offer. The wines make for interesting pairings, and can be a nice mix-up of the regular fare.

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Tasting with Friends: Unexpected Pinot Noirs

It had been way too long since we conducted one of our fairly regular wine tastings with friends. The rules are always the same: The host sets a topic (we did “European Reds“, “Strange Fruit“, “French and Argentinian Malbecs“, “Michigan vs. Mosel” and others in the past; you can find links to all of them here), and then guests bring a wine bottle each. The wines are usually accompanied by cheeses and meats, and as of late we try to taste them blindly.

Two of our friends had to move out of town for work, so we had been missing them dearly. When one of them came to town for a visit, we made sure to have a tasting. Since I was hosting, I had the honor of setting the rules. I called the tasting “Unexpected Pinot Noirs” and explained that I would like to try Pinot not from France or the U.S. usual suspects Oregon and California (but guests were free to ignore that rule). I am a huge fan of Pinot Noir and was looking for a chance to expand my palate.

We paired the wines with cheeses and meats from my local go to sausage maker Biercamp. These guys just know what they are doing: I got several bacons thinly sliced, including duck and lamb bacon, a wonderful garlic and herbs de Provence sausage with a nice kick, as well as smoke sticks from them. Delicious pairing options for sure.

Blind tasting has its own trappings, and I am always a bit weary of it because it is the most humbling experience you can imagine. You try to whittle down where the wine is from, and while doing that more often than not I convince myself that it is a particular style or region or vintage and then look for arguments to support that, thus closing off my mind. Nina tends to be way better than me at picking up nuances and determining characteristics about wine. She definitely owns me in blind tastings, and so it was with this one:

A Pinot from the Ruwer valley

A Pinot from the Ruwer valley

The first wine we tried was a German Pinot Noir (called Spätburgunder, literally “late Burgundy”), a 2010 Heinrich Mertes Waldracher Meisenberg Cuveé Lara. My friend Mansoo had sent me this bottle a while back (as well as the other bottle we entered into the race), and I was eager to try it. Heinrich Mertes winery is located in the Ruwer valley, a small tributary to the Mosel river. The wine showed a medium-light red color. The nose was perfumy with currants and some heat. It wasn’t exciting at all. The heat was actually quite disturbing. On the palate, though, this wine shone: raspberry, red currant and tobacco aromas, and an awesome kick of acidity. The puzzling and intriguing thing about this wine was that the fruit tasted very ripe, yet the acidity kept it wonderfully fresh. This was a strong beginning. The nose not so much, but the flavor profile was awesome. For me, the acidity gave it away: Because I knew there was a 2010 from Germany in the race, a year with quite high acidity in general, I took my chances and guessed right (so did Nina).

Quite the label, huh?

Quite the label, huh?

Next up, a 2007 Arno Kruft Veldenzer Grafschafter Sonnenberg from the Mosel (our second entry). The color was in stark contrast to the first wine: dark, purplish red. The nose showed wet dirt, some rotting branches and what others described as compost aromas. Not very pleasant. I think the compost descriptor came from hyper-ripe fruit aromas, but I couldn’t nail down which fruit. On the palate, the first noticeable thing was that it was way chewier than the first wine. It also was somewhat smoky, with cherries and cranberry aromas as well as a bit of vanilla. In my mind, this was totally a new world Pinot with a lot of the characteristics I have encountered in some California Pinot Noir: too potent, too strong, no restraint. But I want my Pinot Noir less potent, less strong and with more restraint. I did not like this wine. I guessed it was from somewhere pretty warm, and definitely new world. Boy was I wrong.

Michigan high end winery with South African winemaker

Michigan high end winery with South African winemaker

The third wine of the evening was a 2012 Brys Estate Old Mission Peninsula Pinot Noir from Michigan. Apparently, Michigan winemakers consider 2012 one of the best Pinot Noir vintages yet, so this should be exciting. The color on this one was gorgeous: a red currant red, darker than wine 1, much lighter than wine 2. The nose was flowery, with some strawberry, rather intense smoke, but seemed quite closed at this point. On the palate, the wine felt creamy and heavy, which gave it a wonderful mouthfeel. But it is a mouthfeel I don’t expect or particularly cherish in a Pinot Noir, which I want more light footed and delicate. Still a solid showing. Nina guessed Michigan correctly, I had no clue.

Another established Michigan winery

Another established Michigan winery

Up next, a 2011 Black Star Farms Arcturos  Pinot Noir, also from Michigan. Again, the color was spectacular, a bright and shiny red currant. The nose was full of roses, almonds and cedar wood, with hints of red berries. I thought the nose was gorgeous. The palate also started off nicely, with spice and pepper aromas, and a light footed feel to it. But then the palate turned out to be a bit harsh: There were bitter aromas kicking in that were rather striking. It also felt like the wine had a bit too much alcohol (which was not the case, we checked later and it clocked in at only 12% ABV, but felt more like 14), and that really turned me off. I couldn’t get over the harshness in the wine. My guess was, because of the perceived high alcohol, a warm climate wine, maybe Southern Italy.

A New Zealand surprise and an Oregon Pinot

A New Zealand surprise and an Oregon Pinot

Second to last came a 2011 Oya Pointe Pinot Noir from New Zealand’s Marlborough Valley. New Zealand has definitely gained some serious street cred for its Pinot production. The color was similar to the previous wine, and the nose was awesome: strawberry jam with rosemary and sage aromas. It was crazy, but good crazy! I loved it. The palate was very herbal as well, thyme, rosemary and sage aromas, with strong acidity with some iron aromas, great lightness to it and some red berries. This was very unique and therefore impressive wine. I hadn’t come across such an herbal Pinot before. This was an exciting wine. Because of the iron aroma that I had come across before in an Oregon Pinot Noir, I decided to guess Oregon…

The final wine was a 2012 Grochau Cellars Commuter Cuveé Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The color was more purplish, maybe black currant. The nose was chalky, intensely perfumy, with cocoa aromas. On the palate, the wine seemed rather bland: some cherries, some strawberries, plum, not very expressive though. Straight-out fruit forward style, but all a bit thin. I would not have recognized it as a Pinot Noir if I hadn’t know it had to be one, maybe more of a Grenache or so. I just didn’t find much that excited me about this wine. Not bad, but quite standard. My guess, because it was a bit heavy, was California.

So, recap: My guesses were mostly off. My ranking of the wines from best to least favorite, is 1 (2010 German), 5 (2011 New Zealand), 4 (2011 Michigan), 3 (2012 Michigan) and 2 (2007 Germany) and 6 (Oregon) – the last two share the spot, I couldn’t decide.

Combined with the others rankings (6 points for favorite down to 1 point for least favorite), this is the likability ranking:

First place: 2010 Heinrich Mertes Cuveé Lara – 23 points (ranked first by three people out of four)

Second place: 2011 Oya Pointe Pinot Noir (New Zealand) – 17 points (ranked second twice)

Third place: 2012 Brys Pinot Noir and 2011 Black Star Farms Arcturos Pinot Noir – 16 points each (with the Arcturos being ranked first once)

Fifth place: 2012 Grochau Cellars Commuter Cuveée Pinot Noir – 6 points

Sixth place: 2007 Arno Kruft Veldenzer Grafschafter Sonnenberg – 5 points (ranked last by three out of four)

The tasting was fun, and it was kind of interesting to have a German Pinot Noir ranked first and last. The Heinrich Mertes was just such a great expression of the grape, to me it was a rather easy winner. The New Zealand Pinot Noir was unique in a good way, expressing some aromas that were unfamiliar, yet seemed befitting to the grape.

The pretty clear winner

The pretty clear winner

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2011 Argyle Pinot Noir

2011 Argyle Pinot Noir

2011 Argyle Pinot Noir

I ordered the 2011 Argyle Pinot Noir, the Oregon winery’s entry-level Pinot, last spring, and finally got around to tasting it. It has gotten quite the bad rap on Cellartracker with an average rating of 85.3 points, and some pretty scathing reviews, calling it boring, tart, disjointed, unbalanced etc.

I don’t know. This was my first wine from Argyle, but I remembered when ordering the bottle that my Pinot-nut buddy Jeff The Drunken Cyclist has a thing for the winery, the price was right (around $15), and so I ordered the bottle. I bet I should have let it sit for much longer, but yesterday was the night I opened it.

When I poured the wine, I was delighted because it had the right color. Some of you may remember that I tend to open American Pinots with a tad trepidation because I often find it hit or miss. When I open a Pinot Noir, I am looking for a light, brickish red color, not a Cabernet Sauvignon dark. So this was had just the right color for me. Sniffing the first swirls, I couldn’t help but be struck by how much it smelled of freshly pureed raspberries. It was a combination of this berry and quite noticeable acidic aromas that made for a very fresh initial impression. Then, some metallic aromas (rust) crept in, which was a bit weird. I liked the first 2/3s of the wine when I tried it: it was light-bodied, nicely fruity but with a quite strong acidity, again aromas of raspberries. The metallic notes persisted, but not too prominent. The finish was a tad bitter, and disappointing. Not much length there. Over the next hour or so, aromas of dark chocolate started to come to life and there were some herbal aromas coming in.

What’s the take on it? Definitely not a complex or outstanding wine, but also not bad. We’re talking about an entry level wine after all! The $15 seemed a bit high, but then again we are moving in Pinot Noir territory from Oregon, so prices are higher in general.

It did seem somewhat unbalanced with its strong acidity, but then again I am not really averse to higher acidity if it does not turn into vinegar. And this one did not taste vinegary to me. The aromas were good (loved those pureed raspberries), except for the weird metallic note. I think this is a decent drinker, not sure what to pair it with. Definitely would give it some time in the bottle, and also let it air for a while before you drink it. It pulled itself together after a while.

Final verdict? Decent and I welcomed the old world style. Check out the video fellow blogger Jeff of Stay Rad posted when he tasted the wine (which he seemed to like quite a bit!).

@Jeff The Drunken Cyclist: I could have thrown in that it is a mystery to me why some reviews on Cellartracker were so harsh, but that would be trying to cheat my way into the MWWC. Sorry I didn’t make the cut this time around…

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