Umiker Vineyard above Lewiston.JPG

Shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is Washington's largest wine producer (15 million gallons in 2016), with Coventry Vale (a longtime custom-crush facility in Grandview) in second place (7 million gallons).

But I doubt you've never heard of the rest of the top five: Zirkle Fruit Co. in Prosser (2 million) , Wahluke Wine Co in Mattawa (almost 2 million), Vinmotion in Richland (over 1 million).

Actually, you might have heard of Zirkle Fruit because two of their bookkeepers found a way to steal about a million dollars by paying phantom employees. But the wine, well, that started a few years ago with vineyards, then a custom-crush facility, and a label (Four Feathers),

Wahluke Wine Co. is the enormous white elephant winery that started as a vanity project by the owner of Germany's FW Langguth on the Wahluke Slope.

And Vinmotion is a custom-crush service as well, with a second facility in Oregon. Price per gallon of juice that's already in the tank: $7.50 for dry and off-dry whites, $14 or so for cab from the Horse Heaven Hills, up to $19 for rose from Red Mountain.

So yes, there are maybe 900 bonded wineries in Washington State, maybe more. Not even the Wine Commission can keep track. Now, a bonded winery doesn't have to be an actual wine-making facility, just a place to keep bottles until they're sold. But if you call your garage a winery, your driveway could become a legal tasting room where you could sell wine. Woodinville, for example, is home to over 100 tasting rooms, although not a single one of the wineries operating those tasting counters actually made the wine west of the Cascades.

That said, I'm leaving the concrete jungle of Belltown shortly for the wilds of Woodinville; the annual Auction of Washington Wines takes place this weekend. We'll see a lot of prestigious names. Zirkle? Nah.

Mermaid now officially insane

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Vegan SBUX.jpg

Batshit bonkers, this is. The latest Starbucks product has nothing to do with coffee. That's not news, in and of itself, because the Mermaid has long ago lost any semblance of virtue or purity. Sneaking out the window after dark to have sex with strangers, that's not news, either. Now the front door is wide open and the whole house reeks of cheap perfume.

A friend said to me the other day, "Well, at least Starbucks never did flavored coffee. "But what about Frappuccino?" I shot back. "Oh my god, so good," came the reply. And indeed the Frappuccino-Your-Way campaign, which flashed across our consciousness a couple of years back like a bolt of summer lightning, seems to have taken hold, except that the latest version is no longer gluten-free. Our girl's defense actually makes sense ("I never said the original was gluten-free, so I don't have to say the new version now includes gluten").

Still, we're reminded of that other adventure she had with the guy from Vivanno, the really smooth-looking boy with the whey protein. He's still in town, we see him hanging around the store, but our little girl has moved on. Gluten, whey, fiber, there's so much out there to keep track of.

The latest: the Mermaid is entering the "plant-based protein" category. What the? A new "Protein Blended Cold Brew" in almond and cacao flavors. Sixteen-ounce frozen drinks, non-dairy because of course, made from pea- and brown-rice protein. While supplies last, they say (read: we don't know if we're going to sell any at all). An extension of the Starbucks Cold Brew line, which was introduced three years ago.

But just stop and think about this: pea-and-brown-rice smoothies.Who in their right mind would ever order such slop? Did the Mermaid do any focus groups? Is our girl afraid that the slinky tart on the next corner will seduce her customers unless she keeps coming up with new tricks? Is there no one at 2401 Utah with a milligram of sense?


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Rob Valicoff doesn't look like a troublemaker, but that's what some folks in Yakima are saying these days. Others think of him as a savior of sorts. In any event, he was upbeat and self-deprecating this morning as he welcomed a gaggle of visitors to a new Whole Foods Market at Totem Lake.

Since the mid-1970s, the Valicoff family has been growing, packing and shipping fruit from the Yakima Valley: cherries, pears, apricots, peaches, apples. "Farming is a way of life," he says. The satisfaction comes from seeing kids eat his perfectly ripened peaches with big smiles on their faces and juice dripping down their chins.

The problem this year is finding enough people to pick those peaches. For many decades, there was an abundance of field labor in the valley, but that's changed. The Trump administration's tough new immigration policies, not to mention escalating tariff disputes, are hitting close to home.

The Washington Farm Labor Association, a labor recruiting firm based in Olympia, contracts with many growers to provide farm labor under the H-2A program (non-immigrant temporary labor visas). The grower agrees to pay for the workers' transportation, housing, and meals. (There's a 20-page booklet summarizing the program; you can read it here. Don't miss the dizzying flow chart on the last page.) At any rate, WAFLA takes care of the recruiting and the administrative details, and expect to hire over 15,000 workers this year.

Lodging, though, often presents the biggest problem, and here the growers are on their own. Homeland Security, understandably, wants to know exactly where the workers will be housed. and the state Department of Health wants to inspect the premises at least a month ahead of time. Renting scores of trailer-homes is less and less practical, but building acceptable bunk houses can cost up to $15,000 per bed. So last winter Valicoff bought a vacant 100-room hotel in Yakima for $3.2 million.

It's the former FairBridge Inn (a suite hotel on North First Avenue, in a relatively run-down part of town). Now it's going to be home to several hundred seasonal workers. On-site laundry, daily breakfasts and dinners (plus sack lunches), TVs, and microwaves in the rooms, an ATM, access to health clinics, all paid for by the employers. WAFLA, which is also building farm worker housing in Chelan and Okanogan, has agreed to help manage the Yakima operation.

According to a WAFLA study, H-2A workers contributed close to $40 million from their private wages to the state's economy in 2015, the most recent year available, It's unknown how that would change if more farm workers were actually living in towns (whether Yakima, Sunnwide, or Prosser) rather than out in the country; WAFLA points out that very few cities in the state actually allow farm-worker housing.

In any event, Valicoff is no longer alone. Another grower, Ryan Dragoo of LFZ Orchards, whose 100-acre property is three miles outside of Selah, has drawn up plans to put up two houses at one end of his land where some 50 farm workers would live. Not so fast, according to the naysayers, who say they're concerned about traffic. Dragoo replies that he's putting in a new road--a paved one, mind you, not just dusty gravel--across his own land to the new structures,

But of course it's not about dusty gravel, or the sanctity of residential neighborhoods, or unverified complaints about unsanitary living conditions, it's that a vocal minority of Yakima Valley old-timers are nervous about the concentration of Spanish-speaking brown people. They won't admit it, so they attack Valicoff for whatever they can think of. It may not dissolve their animosity, but, sheesh, give those folks a ripe peach.

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Angel Blue as Bess, Alfred Walker as Porgy. Philip Newton photo © for Seattle Opera,

Jacob Gershovitz was born in Brooklyn at the end of the 19th century, the son of Russian Jews. Like Mozart, he died young; like Puccini, he wrote music that effortlessly assimilated the melodies and styles of other cultures. Like so many first-generation Americans, he was fiercely proud of the country his parents had adopted. (In that regard, Gershovitz was rivaled only by Israel Isidore Baline, whom he would call "the greatest songwriter who ever lived.") But unlike Irving Berlin, who worked alone, George Gershwin was a musical collaborator; his older brother, Ira, wrote the lyrics for his songs and Broadway shows. Their only opera, "Porgy and Bess," based on a play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, opened last night at Seattle Opera.

The story of a beggar and a floozy, set in a tenement on the South Carolina coast, "Porgy" has been under fire since it was written almost 85 years ago, with leading African-American actors and singers complaining that its use of Gullah dialect and (stereotypical) black low-life characters was racist. It has a mixed record as a novel, stage play, Broadway musical, and Hollywood movie, though its power, as an opera, is undeniable. The score has bottomless chromatic depth and complexity (a three-hour Rhapsody in Black, if you will); its best-known melodies come to life with an organic inevitability. To name but a few: Summertime, A Woman is a Sometime Thing, I Got Plenty o' Nothin, Bess You Is My Woman Now, It Ain't Necessarily So.

Stereotypes? What did a Jewish piano player from Noo Yawk know about fishermen and cotton-pickers in the Deep South? For that matter, what did a Frenchman know about gypsies in a Spanish cigarette factory, or an Italian about geishas in Japan? At least Gershwin spent a summer in South Carolina assimilating the humanity beyond the stereotypes.

The opening number, a lullaby titled Summertime, was sung a decade ago by Angel Blue in a supporting role. Now she's all grown up and sings the lead. All the female roles are well sung but the male voices come across as thin and untrained. And once the little Summertime baby is hushed, the rest of first act turns into a cringe-worthy minstrel show.

There is no more anti-consumerist anthem than Porgy's "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin," as modern today as ever (with lyrics updated from the opera's Gullah dialect to slightly more standard English):


I got plenty of nothing
And nothing's plenty for me.
I got no car, got no mule, got no misery.

Folks with plenty of plenty,
They got a lock on the door
Afraid somebody's gonna rob them
While they're out making more
What for?

This is not a condescending celebration of peasant simplicity (Marie Antoinette playing Farmville) but a ringing manifesto of minimalism. I only wish it had been delivered with more eloquence. It comes as an almost offhand soliloquy toward the end of Act One. (Were "Porgy" a modern Broadway musical, it would be a first-act closer.) The poor, crippled beggar Porgy lurches across the stage on a crutch (not a goat cart), yet is never seen pleading for pennies, a man whose infirmities confer upon him not the mythic virtues of the "noble savage" but a high ground of moral decency. Trouble is, in this production, Porgy himself doesn't command the stage; he's relegated to sideline benches while the denizens of Catfish Row get Disney-esque dance numbers. Only Mary Elizabeth Williams, as Serena gives the Seattle audience the opera's best singing in her funeral lament for her husband, Robbins ("My Man's Gone Now"), murdered by Bess's no-good lover, Crown (stoically played by Lester Lynch).

Jermaine Smith makes Sportin Life a nasty snake with a redeeming smile; it's the same role he played when Seattle Opera produced Porgy in 2011, and you could say he owns the part.

This production was created by Francesca Zambello for New York's Glimmerglass festival last summer; she reshuffled some of the songs and "updated" the setting from the 1920s to the 1950s, which does nothing to enhance the story. Never a good idea. (The stage director for the Seattle production, Garnett Brice, and the choreographer, Eric Sean Fogel, deserve a wag of the finger.) In this new version of Porgy, the second act can be seen almost as a blackface version of Carmen. Porgy isn't so much a cripple as a dude with a torn ACL (his crutch keeps changing sides, not a good sign). But Alfred Walker's voice does get stronger as the night wears on. His plaintive call ,at the end of the opera, before he sets out to find Bess in New York, "Get me my crutch," isn't nearly as dramatic as the original, "Get me my goat!"

***

Seattle is fortunate that former General Director Speight Jenkins was resolutely colorblind in his casting. No local opera-goer bats an eye if Aida is black and Radames is white, if Macbeth is black and Lady Macbeth is white, it's all about the voices. But the license to stage Porgy and Bess comes with an inviolable condition from the Gershwin estate, which holds the copyright: all the singing parts, including the chorus, must be performed by artists of color.

Duke Ellington, who complained about "Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms" in 1935, reversed himself "Your Porgy and Bess the superbest, singing the gonest, acting the craziest, Gershwin the greatest." he telegraphed the producer of the Broadway production.

In Seattle during the Depression, a cast of African-American actors refused to perform the play, which was planned as a Works Progress Administration production; it was never performed. Grace Bumbry, who sang Bess at the Met in 1985, understood that the opera was more than a faded snapshot but a living piece of Americana. "Whether I sing it or not, it was still going to be there."

Gershwin himself called Porgy and Bess an American Folk Opera, yet its biggest successes have been outside the US, most notably a European tour by a South African company. "I think we've got a little jaded in the US with Porgy and Bess," Lisa Daltirus told The Times of London in 2009. But the argument over the opera's relevance is far from over. "A lot of people just think that this is a show that is lovely to listen to and happened way back when," Daltirus said. "They're not thinking that you can still find places where this is real."

John DeMain returns to the pit for this run; he has conducted more performances of Porgy than anyone alive.The overture's opening notes are a rocket that takes us to another world; the rich, complex, hyperkinetic orchestrations don't stop until Porgy hobbles off into the sunset, three hours later. Far from running on auto-pilot, DeMain seemed to struggle (often at vain) to keep the enthusiastic orchestra from overwhelming the thin-voiced singers.Less of a problem with the chorus and sopranos than the tenors and basses.

Racist stereotypes or source of pride? The debate is no less impassioned today than decades ago, even though artists of color are far more common today. Says Jermaine Smith, in a blog post, "Outside of Porgy, African Americans were not being hired" when the opera was created. "Leontyne Price got her start by playing the role of Bess. That was a catalyst for her career. This amazing voice was heard, in part, thanks to Porgy and Bess."

I'm not suggesting Seattle Opera shouldn't have mounted this new production, mind you. Just that it could have been so much better. As Clara sings in "Summertime," You going to rise up singing and take to the sky.

Central Smoke brisket.jpg

That glorious piece of meat on the plate, that's brisket. An inexpensive cut of beef that requires long, slow cooking. Often eaten with horseradish in eastern Europe, often slathered with barbecue sauce in the American south. Because brisket is, of course, one of the archetypes of barbecue, right up there with ribs. It's the cheap cuts that benefit the most from the BBQ treatment, and so it is with Central Smoke, the new restaurant from Saigon Siblings Sophie and Eric Banh (three BaBars, two Monsoons). Seriously good.

The chef is Mike Wisenhunt, a solid professional who learned his craft from the likes of Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi at Coupage and Joule, then went out on his own at Brimmer & Heeltap.

Central Smoke smoker.jpg

The smoker was custom built by East Texas Barbecue in Tyler, Tex., it's a five-section, 20-foot, trailer-mounted smokehouse that Banh maneuvered into the restaurant parking lot. (There's a fascinating video; the link is on Facebook; for all that, the manufacturer mis-spelled Banh's name on the plaque.) Behind the as-yet-unnamed "beast" are stacks of hickory cordwood. The fire pit is at the western end, where the logs burn evenly and generate the dry heat that feeds three "tanks," as they're known (horizontal drums made of quarter-inch steel). Inside each one, three racks the size of a kitchen table where the meat is slow-cooked by the smoke. Not hot-smoked but a steady temp of roughly 250 degrees (which Banh monitors via a cellphone app). At the east end, there's a rectangular multi-level warming oven which could, by itself, serve as a smoker for, say, salmon. And then there's that name-the-smoker contest on social media: Sweet Seattle, Chow Hound, Smoky-the-Bear, you get the picture.

Banh is still learning about barbecue (he's like a kid with a new puppy with that smoker), and hasn't lost his (admitted) compulsion to micromanage every detail of the restaurant's operation, which has led to more than one dust-up with his staff. But for now, the signs are encouraging.

Wisenhunt's tea-smoked duck wings are fine, and will appeal to the Wild Wings crowd. Traditionalists will gladly devour the pork spare ribs and the exquisite corn bread topped with honey crème fraîche. I also liked the fried rice, the mac-n-cheese, and the pickled cucumber, but not the bland coleslaw or the mushy garlic noodles.

But it's the brisket that sets Central Smoke apart: appealingly pink and meltingly tender, it's soul food for anyone with a soul, regardless of origin. Even for eastern Europeans who would normally eat it with horseradish and sour cream. Wisenhunt has created two sauces especially for the brisket: a spicy barbecue condiment (mustard, vinegar, tomatoes, butter), and a second, creative, coffee-flavor (with added espresso and molasses) which should send the suits at Starbucks into paroxysms of ecstasy. As I type these lines, the brisket is set to be a Saturday-Sunday special, but I can foresee a pitchfork uprising to require more regular appearances on the menu.

Mermaid.jpg

Reading the trades is always useful. For example: Starbucks may be everywhere (14,000 units in the US, according to QSR), almost exactly the same as McDonald's, but its revenue per store, just under $1 million, is only a third of what MickeyD pulls in.

The surprising leader, in sales per store, is (wait for it) the much-despised (at least in Seattle) Chick-fil-A, which grosses a cool $4 million per store, three and a half times as much as KFC. Harrumph!

The QSR rankings put Starbucks in the "snack" category, where its competition is Dairy Queen and Dunkin Donuts and Basking Robbins, which doesn't seem realistic. But what should the Mermaid's category be, then? Coffee shops, as such, fall into a different category entirely, "Beverage." Or is it "Breakfast"? Silly me, I thought Starbucks wanted to get into the lunch business, so maybe it should be "Fast Food"?

Regardless, Subway leads the field with 26,000 units, all franchised. Trouble is, Subway encourages its franchisees to open three or four shops in the same neighborhood, complete with oversize signs, garish décor, hideous colors, and ghastly lighting. At least they're not going to win the beauty contest.


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