Bruce Achtermann spent a decade as a wine buyer for Whole Foods Market before recently joining The Herbfarm as the restaurant’s sommelier and dining room manager. “We’re in the middle of our wine community,” he says. “So our list and our program is driven by Pacific Northwest wines.” (While most of Washington’s grapes are grown further east, many wineries have tasting rooms in Woodinville, on the outskirts of Seattle.) The restaurant serves a single nine-course tasting menu. When Achtermann recently spoke with Patrick J. Comiskey, he mentioned that he had been playing with aromatized wines as part of the wine pairing program.
How do you incorporate vermouth into dinner at The Herbfarm?
Recently we had pairings with six botanical beverages, aromatized vermouths, things like that. We had a drink made with Imbue vermouth, just a couple of ounces with a fresh bay leaf paper-clipped to the glass. You gave the leaf a light crush and poured the vermouth on top. The aromatics attack and make a strong impression. The response has been overwhelming; in fact, I’ve been surprised how many want to go with it. But based on what I’ve seen, we have a pretty adventurous group.
How does being in one of the centers of Washington’s wine industry affect your wine program?
If [guests are] here in Woodinville and from out of town, they’ve probably been to the tasting rooms, and they’ve even talked to a winemaker or two. And when they’re here, they’re at the table for a long time. We take educating people about the pairing aspects of food and wine quite seriously. In fact, the chef comes out and talks about the menu, and I talk about the wines.
We’ve put together an upgraded Coravin pairing, to go with our regular pairings. We have older wines; Ron [Zimmerman, chef/owner] collects things, and we both go to auctions. We have l’Ecole No. 41 Semillons going back several years, as an option, or old nebbiolos from Wilridge [in the Horse Heaven Hills]. We recently poured Bob Betz’s La Serenne [Syrah], from 2004.
And yet the wine you list as your biggest new success is a Sherry, a PX, from 1946!
Yes, the Bodegas Toro Albalá Montilla-Moriles Don PX Gran Reserva! I really love PX, and that is an extraordinary wine. To find a wine with that much vivacity that’s that old, it thrilled me to share it. It’s expensive (about $45 an ounce) but by the time you’re talking about it you’ve made a connection, and when they see how blown away this wine makes me, they want to try it.
What most excites you about the current wine scene in the Pacific Northwest?
We’re seeing a re-emergence of chardonnay drinkers. We’re finding smaller production, vineyard-specific styles, lighter, more mineral-driven; winemakers are not over-oaking the wines. People are figuring out that chardonnay can be a serious, food friendly wine if it’s not too ripe and overblown. In the Columbia Gorge there are some beautiful wines from Celilo Vineyard, which is also a great place for gewürztraminer. And people are gravitating back to those too, if they’re made in a drier style. Also: sparkling wines from the Okanagan.
Patrick J. Comiskey covers US wines for Wine & Spirits magazine, focusing on the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Coast and New York’s Finger Lakes.