(Originally posted By The Pour Fool, in the seattlepi.com on December 13, 2012 at 12:42 PM)
(Lightly edited for update purposes)
This is the first time ever that I’ve reposted from one of my P-I blogs to the other and I just pray to the WordPress Gods that it works. But as I thought that this piece actually fits better here than in the more sedate “The Constant Valentine”, hence this repost.
Here’s to the restless spirits, the people who just are not and never will be satisfied doing things the same old way. Here’s to the people who would make a Christmas tree out of found materials and make it look beautiful. A toast to the type of person who’s told all the time, “That’ll never work. You’re gonna lose your shirt. Why must you ALWAYS rock the damned boat?!?”
Here’s a toast to Trey Busch and Alex Ganum.
Trey Busch (L) and Alex Ganum
For anyone not instantly conversant with Northwest wine, Trey Busch is winemaker and partner in the celebrated Sleight of Hand Cellars of Walla Walla, total music freak, father, new husband of the former Holly Gardner, and as close as the Northwest gets to a true Renaissance Man. Get used to that term, by the way. More and more lately, post (first wave of) Covid, it applies.
One of the saddest things to me about 21st century America is that anyone who is simply well-rounded and accomplished in more than one field is wryly labeled with that monicker, usually delivered in ironic or even scornful terms. In the age of specialization, those who refused to be pinned down are considered odd, flighty time-wasters, instead of being praised for being versatile and curious. I’ve been pasted with that term about fifty times in my adult life and it always seems to confound the person using it when I smile and say,”Thanks!” From cradle to grave, we’re subtly (and sometimes not so) nudged to be narrow, “focused”, and to “decide what you’re going to do with your life.” Trey Busch, to his infinite credit, has simply and good-naturedly refused to fall for this. He’s rabid about music – lots of music. I’m one of those people whose musical taste took a left-hand turn off Main Street back in college and, instead of crashing, now drive around in the dense weeds. Harry Partch, Egberto Gismonti, Bireli Lagrene, George Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Nadia Salerno-Sonnengberg, Eugene Chadbourne, Eva Cassidy, Cesaria Evora, Eric Clapton, Evgeni Mravinski, Terrance Blanchard, Joe Pass, Mandy Barnett, James Burton, Neville Mariner, Jethro Burns, and (most of all, maybe) Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli – those are my musical icons, and I’d bet Trey is intimately familiar with most of ’em, including some of the names which produce dumbfounded expressions whenever I say them in polite company.
His wine acumen is so well-documented, by now, that repeating it here is gilding the lily but know that – among fast company like Steven Tanzer, Robert Parker, The Rhone Report, the tasting panel at Wine Spectator, and virtually every other wine critic who’s had the pleasure of tasting his juice from Sleight of Hand – Trey Busch is a name that’s talked about frequently and fondly. A cursory examination of those four sites produces 90+ wines galore in the (relatively) brief history of the winery.
Trey started at Dunham Cellars and if there was a better, nicer guy to learn from in Washington than the late, lamented Eric Dunham, I’m not aware of ’em. After that, and short stints learning at wineries literally all over the map, Trey settled in at Basel Cellars, where his name began to surface more and more often in the wine magazines. But Basel was and is a fairly straight-laced operation, with a big, elaborate chateau on a hilltop in Walla Walla, lotsa overhead, and a determinedly Old World image. One look at the labels tells the story: faux-French as all git-out and far more visually sedate than the wines in the bottle. When Trey met Jerry and Sandy Solomon in Sun Valley in 2002, it was an encounter of like minds, three people who believe in wine, fun, and success, in that order. In 2007, Sleight of Hand was started, with an outlook and image so far different from Basel that it must have given Trey a mild case of whiplash, at first. The label graphics, names of the wines, the tasting room, and mostly the wines themselves were wildly inventive, adventurous, and FUN. Their funky, retro t-shirts, including a “Vintology” baseball jacket that I was too late to buy but would kill for now, are legendary among NW wine fans AND music fans. (Hard to imagine a Basel logo on anything short of an Oxford-cloth button-down) Their irreverent public image is helping rewrite wine in America in the post-stick-up-the-fanny era.
I don’t know Trey personally, except as a frequent conversational hook-up on Facebook. I met him once, at Basel, and he was the perfect host, charming, informative, and hospitable to Judye and me. The Facebook friendship is mostly how I’ve come to know the things about his life outside the winery that resonate so strongly with me. He’s certifiably crazy about his kids and new wife, loves beer and music, and exhibits a zest for life in all its aspects that’s compelling and infectious. Many of the winemakers I know personally hardly exist outside the winery. They approach the craft of making high-octane grape juice with the zeal and solemnity of a monk. Trey’s success at SofH simply proves that life isn’t any one thing. Different approaches work just fine. And as Trey Busch ascends to the lofty status of people like Mike Januik, Bob Betz, Gary Figgins, and Doug McCrea, his irreverence, sense of humor, and mania for fun has gone right along with him. For Trey, I don’t believe for a moment that his non-conformity has anything to do with a studied attempt to be different or to “think outside the box”. I don’t believe, in fact, that Trey Busch even realizes there is a box.
The same things can be said of Alex Ganum. Since starting Upright Brewing, hard up against the Rose Garden arena of the Portland Trailblazers, Alex has simply – and in the true meaning of this phrase – Done His Own Thing. You will find precious few of the obligatory IPAs, Ambers, Pales, or ESBs on the tap handles at Upright’s funky, subterranean basement tasting room, in the bottom of Portland’s edgy Leftbank Building. Alex’s brewing history at Upright (named for the upright bass of our mutual musical hero, Charles Mingus) is a long, devout nod to Belgium with enough riffing off a theme and outright improvisation to make even Mingus go slack-jawed.
I’ve been spellbound by what’s coming out of Upright ever since they started. His core beers – named simply Four, Five, Six, and Seven – are a sort of textbook on Americanizing traditional Belgian ales. They are all quite recognizable as the styles to which they pay respect but shaped, tweaked, twisted and enhanced in radically different, always pleasing, ways. My own favorite, Six, is a rye-based Belgian-inspired dark ale that finishes dry and shockingly light; a pure, hedonistic pleasure to drink. But to get the truly spectacular, envelope-pushing creations that gush out of that unadorned Portland basement, you have to go to Upright, plop down on a picnic bench, and get ’em off tap, which is the proper medium anyway. I’ve been floored half a dozen times at Upright; floored to the very nearly the same degree as upon my first sip of “The Abyss”, my first sample of Bunnahabhain, my first tastes of Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz ’95, Ricardo Seghesio La Villa Barolo ’97, Argiolas Turiga ’05, Numanthia “Termanthia” ’04…or Sleight of Hand’s Illusionist ’08. The first time was when I laid hands on a bottle of Alex’s titanic “Billy the Mountain”, back in 2010, the most replete, shocking, unique Strong Sour I’ve tasted before or since. At the tasting room, last year, I tried the indescribable “Monk and Mingus”, a massive Belgian-style Stout that left me speechless (which Judye enjoyed to an unseemly degree) and scrambling for ways to get it packaged and back to Seattle. Fatali Four stunned me again, with a freaky recipe that includes their Four that’s been amply barrel-aged, infused with homegrown fatali chiles, and lightly infected with brettanomyces, for a beer that’s at once oaky, peppery, sour, and sweetly earthy. And, most of all, I fell deeply and passionately in love with their truly world-class Oyster Stout. I had this first on tap at the brewery and then in a bottle that I begged as we were leaving. I drank it that November and it…was…flawless; easily the best oyster Stout I’ve ever found. Murky, briny, devastatingly well-balanced. No searching for the oysters, here. They practically walk up and introduce themselves. It remains, in my personal pantheon, the only ale that has ever equalled Deschutes “The Abyss” ’07 for sheer swoon-inducing impact and total surprise.
Alex Ganum is a Michigan kid who moved to Portland in 2002 to attend the Western Culinary Institute, met some brewers, and quickly became immersed in and seduced by the culture and craft of brewing. He worked briefly at Brewery Ommegang, in upstate New York, and then did a stint at chain brew pub, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewery in Portland, for a few years. After leaving BJ’s, Alex took a brief time-out to strategize Upright and find the right digs. They opened their doors to almost zero fanfare in 2009 but quickly became an important and iconoclastic part of Portland’s increasingly-experimental brewing scene. What Alex did that hit me squarely in the heart with greatest impact was to simply start without all the “core beers” that 90% of the breweries in America use to insure that they’ll find quick acceptance and make money. He went straight for the weird stuff, his beers, the ones that fired Alex Ganum’s imagination and kept him joyously awake nights, planning and executing in his head. He trusted that the beers would find their audience, that people who think, choose, and sample outside the accepted bounds would eventually find Upright and make it work. And he was right.
Again, like Trey Busch, I don’t think Alex Ganum once thought about doing any of the uber-creative experiments he’s done with his beers simply to be different. I believe that he, like Trey, simply doesn’t perceive boundaries and limitations the way most of us do. One good way of looking at it is this: they give us all credit, before the fact, that we’re smart and open and discriminating. They respect their customers. We don’t have to be coddled and spoon-fed the same old Pablum, the same styles, the same grapes in the same combinations. Do they pay a price for this financially? Almost certainly. But if money was at the root of their reasons for starting SofH and Upright, they simply wouldn’t have done things this way…this delightful, inspiring, uplifting, crazy, punk-rock, wildly creative way. And today, Alex is revered by his peers. His tasting room is a regular Portland pilgrimage for visiting brewers. His label has come to mean serious beer chops and the beers themselves? Well, they have always followed one basic principle: make them tasty and approachable to drink. These are not only pieces of the brewer’s art. They are also just damned fine beers.
People like Alex and Trey – neither of whom I know personally – give me hope that intelligence and creativity and the simple ability to embrace more than one narrow aspect of the incredible bounty of what life offers us is not being effectively ground out of us all; that our occasional determination to embrace our “weirdness” is actually still valued and valuable. In an arena, adult beverages, in which terms like “buzzworthy” and “The Next Shiny Bauble” are almost always reserved for whatever new brewery or winery is making the most waves, here are two of what have to now be called The OG of Pacific Northwest wine and beer. They are, make no mistake about it, REALLY hitting their stride now, both turning out jaw-dropping wines and ales (and “Engelberg”, one of America’s transcendent Pilsners) with an almost casual degree of acumen, never missing, always pushing outside that box they’re so blissfully unaware of.
As in 2012, I have to admit that I checked with neither one of ’em before posting this and maybe they’re not even all that wild about being portrayed this way. But, just as when I get readers of this all irritated with something a bit too directly honest, I rarely stop to ask permission when I feel the need – and it is an actual, compelling need – to say something positive. I hope they’re okay with it. Maybe you can ask ’em when you drop by?
And you really should drop by…
I know one thing for damned sure: the next time there’s a serious collaboration between a winery and a brewery, ala Dogfish and Alexandria Nicole’s amazing “Noble Rot”, I pray that it’s these two doing the job. I think they would, in each other, find a kindred spirit and a mutual vibe that would result in something truly spectacular. Whenever I taste a SofH wine or an Upright ale, I feel privileged, as I do when I open an Abyss, a Cigar City ale, a bottle of Bob Betz’s “Pere de Famille”, a Januik Champoux Vineyard, a Quilceda Creek Cabernet, or any one of a dozen Ridge Vineyards wines. I feel like the doors to the secrets of the universe have gaped open, just a crack, and all that’s needed for me to see new possibilities is to sip and savor and ponder with an open mind…an open mind like those of Trey Busch and Alex Ganum.