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Monday, Mar. 14, 2011

Frankly Speaking: Tagaris Winery and Taverna brings it all together tastefully


The Frank & Frank Show performs almost every afternoon and evening at the end of Tulip Lane.

Devotees of Northwest wine and cuisine get treated to an experience from Tagaris Winery in Richland, Wash., that goes beyond the boundaries of what anyone expects from the Tri-Cities - or anywhere else.

That's especially true on the 9,000-square foot patio of Taverna Tagaris. The stage is set with Frank Roth on the wine. And there's Frank Chullino in the kitchen.

"I'm a native Tri-Citian, so I'm not one of those people who like to bash the Tri-Cities," Roth said. "We do lack some things, but when you come to see us, you feel like you are in a different place - a place that's out of town - but you are in our backyard."

As Roth and Chullino stand on the second-floor balcony, they laugh confidently, virtually pinching their tattoos over their good fortune to play for Mike Taggares' team. He made his own fortune as a Columbia Basin grower by taking a path slightly different than his regionally famous Greek-born grandfather.

"Mike Taggares is the type of guy who considers himself a dark horse, and he likes to put money on the dark horse," said Roth, perhaps the most heavily tatted winemaker in the Pacific Northwest. "None of us has a college education; we're all pretty young and we were the second- or third-person down in the chain of command before we got here.

"But that's whom he wanted to entrust with making decisions," Roth added. "And I like to think that it has worked out pretty well for me."

Roth, 30, has been the Tagaris winemaker almost from the time it relaunched at Tulip Lane in 2006. Chullino, 36, assumed the role of executive chef in 2007. That was Roth's second vintage, and only Tagaris wines are offered on the premise.

"This is the dream job for a chef," Chullino said. "To be able to work with wine and this guy every day, with the food we do here and the atmosphere? I wouldn't leave this place."

In fact, Chullino, 36, recently bought a house for himself and his two basset hounds. Putting down roots doesn't come easily for him, though. He grew up in his mother's kitchen in Nebraska and spent a lot of time cooking in Austin, Texas, before moving to restaurants in Georgia, the Virgin Islands and Puget Sound.

Connections he made in Seattle led him to Tagaris in 2006. Chullino took over in 2007 when executive chef Chris Ainsworth left for Walla Walla to launch the acclaimed Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen.

"I like being in big cities, and I've been nothing but a traveler and a vagabond, but the opportunity was here, so I took advantage of it," Chullino said. "I've always been the No. 2 guy, and he has the weight on his shoulders. Now it's my sous chef Anthony Maltos who does all the work, and he makes me look good."

Roth's career path was considerably shorter, more focused and definitely destined.

His father, Coke Roth, was a third-generation beer and wine distributor before passing the bar and becoming an international wine judge, wine consultant and grape grower.

"In all my elementary school pictures, I'm wearing 'Rainier' or 'Coors' shirts or something like that," Frank said with a chuckle. "I've been around it my whole life, and this was what came after high school for me. It was an obvious choice."

These days, Tagaris apparel covers most of his tattoos, an array that ranges from the Star of David, footprints of his children and suport for his favorite sports teams. Before all that, he spent a year working in British Columbia at Sumac Ridge Estate Winery and Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards, both founded by family friend Harry McWatters. Roth honed his craft, though, working nearly 10 vintages for Barnard Griffin Winery - Wine Press Northwest's 2006 Northwest Winery of the Year.

"I was actually Barnard Griffin's first employee in 1996," Roth said. "Rob Griffin is a tremendous winemaker, but he's maybe even a better teacher because he planted things in my brain that I didn't even know were there until I needed them. He set me on a great path."

In 2005, Tagarres bought property and began building next door to Barnard Griffin on Tulip Lane.

"I've been driving on this road for 14 years - before it was even a road," Roth said with a chuckle. "When they were building this, they would ask for advice on the cellar. Rob would direct them to me because I ran his cellar and arranged it. I really helped set up my own work space without knowing it."

Critical success came quickly for Roth, a husband and father of two. His 2006 estate Malbec and 2006 estate Mourvedre both won double gold medals at the 2008 Tri-Cities Wine Festival, and Roth credits technical tastings with his dad and members of the industry for helping him define styles.

"That was the perfect experience coming to place like this and having to make 30 different wines," he said.

When it comes to grapes, Roth plays only with estate fruit. That gives him control and some predictability.

The original planting is Arete Vineyard, a 200-acre block on both sides of Radar Hill near the Columbia Basin town of Othello, Wash. On the cooler northern slope, there's Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Muller-Thurgau and Riesling. Warmer varieties are grown in the Wahluke Slope, the Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Syrah.

For the Match Maker project, Chullino and Roth chose to feature the Counoise and Grenache from the estate Alice Vineyard. Or was it Roth and Chullino? After all, Roth's father once hosted his own cooking TV show in the Tri-Cities.

"We kind of like to switch it up," Roth said. "I have more to say on the food end than a winemaker might normally have, and Chef has more say on the wine side."

They routinely discuss the daily menu, which reflects seasonal ingredients and appropriate wines.

"Frankie has been gracious enough that I've got a dish on the regular menu, and the last couple of winemaker dinners we've done, I've got one my own dishes for them," Roth said. "That's really fun for me."

In fact, the pork chop recipe for the Match Maker is Roth's creation. It spotlights Pure Country Pork from Ephrata and is a delicious example of Chullino's patronage of local ingredients.

He proudly lists more than a handful local purveyors on the Tagaris website, including Monteillet Fromagerie in Dayton, Schreiber & Sons produce in Eltopia, and Upper Dry Creek Ranch in Weston, Ore.

"I try to be as close to farm-to-fork as possible in spring, summer and early fall," Chullino said. "I go down to the farmers market every Saturday."

And his culinary approach highlights proteins and greens.

"The Grenache is a perfect wine to go with the pork," Chullino said. "There's a vibrance in the wine because of the fruit and acidity. The flavors are already there, and I'm not masking them with sauces. I let the food speak for itself. Butter, salt and pepper is about it."

The two friends threaded both sides of the Match Maker project by featuring another Rhone variety - a remarkable pairing of Chullino's fish dish with the Tagaris 2007 Counoise.

Yes, fish with a red wine that's not Pinot Noir.

"Usually with seafood, you are limited to white wine selections or a lighter-bodied red wine pairing," Roth said. "We have in our bag of tricks Counoise, and that is the best pairing wine I've ever seen in my life. You can pair it honestly with anything. Fish is a great opportunity to showcase its versatility because fish can be a tricky thing to pair with."

Both dishes are from the seasonal menu, which is best enjoyed on the Patio Kouzina with live bands that are changed out every weekend.

"On a summer night, we'll seat 70 to 75 inside, but out on the patio, where there's a separate kitchen, we can serve almost 200 and at the same time hold a party upstairs for up to 75," Chullino said. "That's exciting. You can party outside; you can party inside. You can do whatever you want here."

Roth added with a chuckle, "Yeah, I come out here probably more than the restaurant management would appreciate."

Tagaris Winery
844 Tulip Lane, Richland, WA 99352

Grilled Fish & Bouillabaisse

Serves 8

2 tablespoons blend oil
1 1/2 cup leeks, diced small
4 tablespoons garlic, chopped
1 1/2 cup fennel, diced small
1 1/2 cup white wine
6 cups canned tomatoes
4 cups fish or vegetable stock
1 teaspoon orange zest
1/2 teaspoon saffron
1 1/2 cups potatoes, peeled, cubed and parboiled
1 teaspoon ground berbere spice mix
2 cups 26/30 shrimp
3 cups clams
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper, to taste
8 each 8-10 oz. salmon or other fish fillets
1 cup herb salad (a mix of fresh Italian parsley, thyme and oregano
extra virgin olive oil (to taste)
lime juice (to taste)

In a large soup pot, add oil and sweat leeks, garlic and fennel, deglaze with white wine. Once the wine is 75% gone, add tomatoes, stock, zest, saffron, potatoes and berbere. Let simmer for about 30 minutes. Add shrimp and clams to the base and simmer for about 20 more minutes. Make sure to simmer long enough to cook the seafood.

When done, remove from heat and add lemon juice, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Grill or sear fish.

Using a large soup bowl, place 6 oz. of Bouillabaise in bowl, then place your seared or grilled fish on top. Put fresh parsley, thyme and oregano into a small bowl with a splash of olive oil, lime juice, salt and pepper. Mix together and place on top of fish.

Note: The Bouillabaisse can be prepared a day ahead by leaving out the shrimp and clams, then adding them to the base right away when reheating.

Tagaris Winery 2007 Alice Vineyard Counoise, Wahluke Slope, $34
300 cases produced, 13.5% alcohol

As the chef, Frank Chullino loves the natural acidity inside this lesser-known Rhone variety native to southern France and Spain.

As the winemaker, though, Frank Roth gets a bit stressed because of all that acidity.

"It's a very, very late ripener - we're talking the first week of November - with really big acidity and low sugars," Roth said. "In the Rhone Valley, it's not one they use to bring ripeness to a blend. It's used to bring more of an elegance to the Châteauneuf-du-Pape style blends."

Technically, total acidity of Counoise (pronounced Coon-wahz) at Alice Vineyard hovers around 8.1, and the pH at 3.0. That's even with the sugar content of the berries at 23.5 brix. By comparison, the sweeter Grenache grapes nearby typically come in with a TA near 7.5 and pH at 3.7.

And the canvas that is the Wahluke Slope is key to the recipe. It's a warm site and almost bullet-proof to severe weather events, which explains Counoise's success there.

"The beauty of being on the Wahluke Slope is that you can really hang the tonnage to get it ripe," Roth said.

This bottling came off 4-year-old vines from a 2-acre block planted in 2004. In the cool year of 2010, the load was near 3 tons per acre and machine-harvested.

In 2007, Roth recalls cropping the vines to around 4 tons per acre. Harvested by hand, it made for a wine filled with finesse and similar to a fruit-forward Pinot Noir from Oregon's Dundee Hills. But it's 100 percent Counoise.

"It doesn't really need wood, and it doesn't need a blender," Roth said. "It's bright with fresh strawberry through it and lively acidity, but there's also a density to it.

"And it's lower in alcohol so it keeps the palate very fresh and clean. It doesn't have a lot of tannin buildup. That enhances the food flavors and leaves your mouth salivating and ready for more. I'm not exactly sure why it does so well with food, but it does - from fish to salads to red meats."

Pork Chops with Apricot Chutney, Gravy and Potato Pancakes

Serves 4

3/4 cup dried apricots
3/4 cup raisins
1 pinch ground allspice
1 3/4 cups water
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
5 cups shredded potatoes
6 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup green onions, bias cut
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons kosher salt
olive oil
4 each 10-12 oz. pork chops, we suggest Pure Country Pork in Ephrata, Wash.
1 cup kale
1/2 cup white gravy

To make produce 1⁄2 cup of the apricot chutney, combine apricots, raisins and allspice in a mixing bowl. Bring water and sugar to a boil in a sauce pan, then add vinegar. Reduce heat by half and add apricot mix. Simmer for 10-15 minutes. Chill.

To make potato pancakes, place shredded potatoes in cheese cloth to extract all excess water from potatoes. In a mixing bowl, beat eggs and add green onions, flour and salt, incorporating everything evenly. Heat up heavy duty, flat bottom skillet, add some olive oil and potato mixture. Cook on both sides until result resembles hash browns. Set aside.

Grill or sear pork chops.

Saute kale in butter.

For each plate, pool the gravy in the center. From your potato pancake, cut out 3 silver dollar size pancakes and place in center of plate on top of gravy. Place kale on top of the pancakes, then place pork chop on top of kale. Finish with a tablespoon of chutney on top of chop.

Tagaris Winery 2007 Alice Vineyard Grenache, Wahluke Slope, $34
70 cases produced, 13.5% alcohol

Much of Frank Roth's winemaking passion is tied to the Tagaris vineyard-designated program that's focused on the 100 acres Mike Taggares named in homage to his mother.

Just two percent of the parcel is devoted to Grenache, and it is an even split between two clones - Grenache Noir and Tablas Creek. Both seem to excel.

"I honestly don't see much difference between the two," Roth said. "The color may be a hint darker in the Noir clone, but that's about it."

Considering how well this Rhone variety does on the Wahluke Slope, it's surprising there isn't more of this farmer-friendly crop planted. And in some ways, the grapes are similar to Syrah and Tempranillo.

"It's an early ripening grape that's got big juicy berries with loose clusters, and we can carry about five tons to the acre," Roth said. "In 2007, they came off pretty early - around mid-September - and that was our first crop from those vines, which we planted in 2005.

"In a cooler year like 2010, it was late September," he added. "I still haven't seen what they can do in a really hot vintage."

However, Roth must bring in the Grenache berries before they produce flabby wines.

"It's a very low-acid grape," he said. "You get the balance of acidity and flavors pretty quickly. The grape doesn't have to get to 25 or 26 brix. It can be 23 brix when you harvest it."

His 2007 Grenache comes with tones of fresh-picked raspberries and huge acidity. The dried apricots and raisins in the chutney bring out a sense of sweetness in the dry red wine, but the acidity sweeps clean any perception of sugar.

The potato pancake and kale shows a savory and earthy side of the wine.

Roth offered one suggestion.

"Drink the hell out of it."