The Weeping Willows of Lummi Island

Willows Chef Blaine Wetzel in April, 2017.

To get to Lummi, a little island tucked under the Canadian border off the coast of Bellingham, you take an ancient, 20-car ferry, the Whatcom Chief, which sails from Gooseberry Point; the trip takes six minutes. (The Lummi Reservation, 12,000 square miles, population 5,400, and home to the Silver Reef casino, is back on the mainland.) The island itself, 0,500 square miles, at the northeastern tip of the San Juan archipelago, is home to maybe 800 year-rounders, including Riley Starks, a commercial fisherman with a convivial manner.

Fishing may be its own reward for some, but Starks branched out; some two decades ago he took over a rustic lodge on the island’s western shore, the original Willows Inn. He hired a dazzling 24-year-old chef named Blaine Wetzel (Northwest native, staff cook at Noma in Copenhagen) to run the kitchen, and then, just as the resort was on the cusp of becoming world-famous, Starks sold the property to a group of local investors.

The new owners quickly remodeled the accommodations, reconfigured the dining rooms, and rebranded Willows Inn as a luxury resort with a world-class chef who used only ingredients foraged or grown on the island. Dinner for two with wine pairings and overnight accommodation could easily come to $1,000.

One of those “too good to be true” stories. Turned out, ingredients might also come from mainland supermarkets, including Costco and Target. Turned out, young stagiares weren’t always paid. Turned out, female staff members were regularly harassed and abused. Turned out, Wetzel and Willows kept settling complaints from federal agencies, some $2 million worth.

This week, it all came crashing down.

The Willows closed down for the season before Thanksgiving. Wetzel’s wife, a chef named Daniela Soto-Innes, told reporters at an out-of-state culinary conference that the couple planned to open a new restaurant near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The local family that owned Willows signed the $2 million property over to a non-profit in Bellingham. The Willows had ceased to exist.

As for Starks, the original owner, he moved back to his five-acre B&B farmhouse inn, which had a good year. He no longer puts out to sea, preferring instead to operate a reef-fishing business closer to shore; a seaweed farm is on the horizon. Having recruited Wetzel over a decade ago, Starks is appalled at how quickly the good burghers of Lummi turned on the man who had brought fame to the island. Appalled as well by a national newspaper ‘s hit job, written by its go-to reporter for stories about workplace sexual harassment.

Is it really the end? The non-profit could sell or lease the property to a new restaurant operator, of course. But the great undiscovered gem of the Pacific Northwest, the beacon of geoduck, locally foraged mushrooms and odd combinations (broth of roasted madrona bark, anyone?) is g-gone for good.

Allen Shoup, 1943-2022

When Allen Shoup was recruited to run a newly organized wine company outside Seattle called Chateau Ste. Michelle, the state’s most widely planted grapes were Concord for the juice market and a noble German variety, riesling, for table wine, popular primarily because the wine was sweet. You can’t blame the customers, they didn’t know any better, but Shoup would help consumers make the transition to drier wines from varieties like chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon,

Shoup had been a brand manager for Gallo (remember Sangria? That was his.) and worked in luxury marketing for Max Factor. He was running a company in Idaho when the headhunters called. He took one look at the faux-French “chateau” that had just been inaugurated on the bucolic Stimson Estate northeast of Seattle, with a few token vines planted across from the parking lot. “At first I hated it,” he confided to me recently, “but now I see it was absolute genius.”

For the better part of a decade, the Chateau stood as a challenge to the nascent Washington wine industry: the biggest dog in the yard Today, there are over 100 winemaking facilities and tasting rooms within a five-mile radius of the front gate. What made it work for Shoup was the company’s unexpected sugar daddy, an outfit in Stamford, Connecticut, called UST, manufacturer of Skoal and Copenhagen smokeless tobacco. “We built the Washington wine industry with UST cash,” Shoup acknowledges.

Not just the biggest dog, but the richest as well. He could have ridden roughshod over the competition but quickly realized that the region’s strongest suit was going to be quality. From the start, Ste. Michelle’s commitment to quality would mean that they had to help their competitors, not obliterate them. Any bad bottle, didn’t matter whose, would reflect poorly on the entire region, and Ste. Michelle’s name was on most of the bottles.

When he left Ste. Michelle in 2000, Shoup set out to build his own brand, which he called Long Shadows. The concept: to unite, under that one brand, half a dozen ultra-premium Columbia Valley wines that would showcase not just the viticultural excellence of the growing region, but a handful of internationally acclaimed winemakers as well. So what you have, since 2003, is a collection overseen by Gilles Nicault (a brilliant French wine maker who moved over from Woodward Canyon and who guides day to day operations at the Long Shadows winery in Walla Walla); Randy Dunn (the reclusive genius behind Caymus); the Australian wine maker John Duval, formerly of Penfolds; Michel Rolland, the legendary consultant from Pomerol, outside Bordeaux; and Philippe Melka, French-born protégé of Agustin Huneeus, Sr., the globe-trotting eminence grise of California wine. Together they are responsible for seven remarkable wines; a German wine maker, Armin Diehl, and a father-son duo from Chianti, the Folonaris, have come and gone. But there’s a spinoff, Nine Hats, based in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, that originally bottled the “declassified” wines from Long Shadows. Now it’s a freestanding brand, and even has its own pizza parlor.

Allen Shoup passed away this week at the age of 79. Without him, one could argue, there would be no Washington wine industry today, certainly not as we know it.

Foie Gras Crisis Looms

Ce n’est pas possible! Yes, France is facing a shortage of its iconic foie gras.

Foie gras on the hoof in southwestern France.

How’d that happen? No, the pleasure police haven’t been up to anything underhanded; foie gras is still perfectly legal. But for foie gras, you need foie, duck livers or goose livers, and for livers you need ducks or geese. Ducks especially.

Turns out, the shortage of foie gras is easily traced back to a shortage of ducks. Only half as many this year as in 2020. Blame two winters of avian flu, which literally flattened the flock. Good grief.

Oops, she did it again!

Okay, enough already! We get it. Whoever’s running things at 9 West 57th Street in Manhattan obviously has no interest in running a winery. That’s where Sycamore Partners has its offices; they’re the private equity outfit that bought Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE) from Altria a year ago for $1.2 billion and has managed to confuse everyone ever since.

First, this guy is now out. David Dearie, the Australian wine exec brought in to manage the beast less than two years ago, finds himself kicked to the curb, unable to hang on against an onslaught of constantly changing mandates from Manhattan. Buy this, sell that, move this, leave that. Oregon? Hey, we like Oregon, right? There’s a big if motley company down there called A to Z Vineyards; we should buy them. Woodinville? Too many acres, too many wine barrels. Move the barrels back to eastern Washington where they belong, and sell the land around the Chateau for residential development. Selling the wine? Hey, that’s someone else’s job; Southern Wine & Spirits can do that, right?

Okay, now it’s time to blow it all up. Traditional management out; geographical management in.

California gets its own top guy, David Bowman, the CEO of Stag’s Leap. Oregon? Hey, Amy Prosenjak put the A to Z package together; she could run Oregon. And this guy Toby Whitmoyer, SMWE’s so-called Chief Growth Officer, let’s give him the reins for Washington. After all, he’s got plenty of experience pushing cases of Bacardi through the pipeline.

The closest any of these peeps has come to actual agriculture is probably Mike Lee, a consumer products guy bought in at the start of the year from Canada, where he was running numbers for a cannabis outfit. Let’s put him in charge of everything else, like finance and nitty-gritty supply chain stuff.

Four new presidents reporting directly to the “SMWE Board of Directors.” Two of the three directors, you guessed it, are partners at Sycamore; the third is Brian Vos, who spent two decades with The Wine Group (Franzia and other low-end brands). So here we have the nation’s third-biggest wine company, and not a single executive who’s ever made wine, or trained as an enologist, or even grown a grape. Does not look promising.

The ABC’s of SMWE

The latest maneuver from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates resembles a deke (a hockey move to fake out your opponent). You think the guy’s going to go right but he goes left.

Well, everybody’s watching SMWE: where will they go next? The industry thinks they’re going to sell off pieces of the mothership (vineyards, production facilities, headquarters real estate). Instead, this week, they announced they’re buying. Buying A to Z Wineworks, based in Dundee, Oregon. (That’s a stylized view of their vineyards above, taken from the A to Z website.)

Per the press release, “Amy Prosenjak, President and CEO of A to Z, will join Ste. Michelle as President of Oregon Brands, overseeing the company’s combined operations in the state.”

Those Oregon brands, in addition to the A to Z label, are Erath and Rex Hill. Very solid, old-school wineries.  A to Z and Rex Hill produce about 400,000 cases annually, while Erath is around 300,000 cases annually, so SMWE’s combined Oregon portfolio starts at roughly 700,000 cases annually. (For comparison, SMWE sells ten times that much Washington-grown Riesling alone.)

But that’s not the point. The existing Oregon portfolio should be seen as a seed, which may expand quickly, if indeed that’s the plan. Says Ryan Pennington, SMWE’s vice-president for communications, “We intend to grow from there.”

So perhaps SMWE’s private-equity owners in Manhattan are plotting twin tracks: selling off existing excess and adjusting the sails of the Washington operation while simultaneously exploring some of the more obvious opportunities for expansion. Using its muscle in the industry (it’s the third-biggest wine company in the country), it could easily glide into Oregon, whose (aging) wine industry founders have long been seen as rugged individualists and stubborn artisans.

In France, where the wine business has roots in ancient traditions, Bordeaux is the region of grand estates, while Burgundy is noted for its fragmented vineyards. So far, there’s been no attempt by the aristocratic families of Bordeaux to become owners in Burgundy as well.

But no such tradition exists in the New World. SMWE’s tentative hop across the state line may not be a deke after all but the first step in a whole new order.

The Saint’s Deal With The Devil

David Dearie. Photo courtesy SMWE.

They say you shouldn’t gulp your wine, but, gulp, this is a bit of a surprise.

Ste. Michelle won’t say what’s going to happen with its iconic Chateau (visitor center and amphitheater), let alone its extensive Woodinville wine-making facilities or even the wooded acreage behind the winery, all of it zoned for residential development. None of that stuff is no longer central to its brand.

And just what is that brand, anyway? In addition to Ste. Michelle, SMWE includes 14 Hands, Columbia Crest, Erath, H3, Intrinsic, Liquid Light, Patz & Hall, Northstar, and Spring Valley Vineyard, in addition to partnerships with Marchesi Antinori (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Col Solare), Ernst Loosen (Eroica), and Michel Gassier (Tenet). SMWE is also the exclusive importer for Antinori wines and Nicolas Feuillatte Champagnes.

Ah, but what about sales, you ask. Aren’t sales essential to a brand? It was, after all, by opening a dedicated sales office in every state 50 years ago that Ste. Michelle became such a powerhouse.

Well, standby, here comes the “gulp.” Ste. Michelle’s parent company, SMWE (now owned by a private equity firm in Manhattan) has decided to outsource its sales operations to its longtime distributor, Southern Glazer. (The official announcement is here.)

SMWE’s CEO, an affable Australian gent named David Dearie, told me yesterday, in a conversation on the Chateau grounds, that Ste. Michelle’s sales force will remain intact (for now). But it’s pretty clear that the “national strategic alignment” is eyewash.

The new parent, Sycamore Partners, is obviously hard at work dismantling its new toy.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the company put the Woodinville headquarters acreage on the market and announced they were moving the wine-making operations “back” to eastern Washington. (Not a bad idea, actually.) But what about the visitor center? What about the amphitheater and summer concert series? And what about the Woodinville headquarters itself? More efficient wine making at Canoe Ridge pales in comparison to the value of nearly 100 acres of prime real estate. What developer wouldn’t smack their lips at the wooded hillside on the west side of the former Stimson estate?

You just know the bean-counters in Manhattan, who have no expertise in agriculture, wine production, or wine marketing (Sycamore’s investments to date have all been in retail merchandising), are sending each other memos like, “Why is the wine business so complicated?” The answer is too long for a blog post, but yes, it’s incredibly complicated. No sooner do they have a good idea than they run it up the flagpole and wait for our mate David Dearie to salute.

So, indeed, why should an outsider (who earns a commission on every case sold) not be in charge of selling your product? Because the distributor doesn’t care about the wine itself; the distributor’s metric is “How many bottles did you move?” It’s the winery job to be concerned with what’s in those bottles, and that’s what’s getting lost. Gulp.

Ste. Michelle says she’s leaving town

Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville. Photo Richard Duval.

After nearly half a century in Woodinville, SMWE is making a run for greener pastures.

That’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the latest corporate umbrella for the Northwest’s largest wine company. ‘Twas in February, 1973, that Wally Opdycke (a business analyst for Safeco) and Joel Klein (winemaker from California) flew to Connecticut and convinced Louis Bantle (chairman of US Tobacco) that he should invest $150 million in an unproven venture: a winery in Washington State. But Bantle wrote the check, and, in the ensuing decades, Ste. Michelle was able to launch an entire industry.

Also during that time UST was acquired by Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris and Marlboro, and the inevitable shakeout took place last year: Altria sold SMWE to a private equity group named Sycamore Partners for the bargain price of $1.2 billion.

Now [drumroll], Sycamore is making its first big move, putting the 180-acre Woodinville property (the Chateau itself, the tasting room, the banquet facility, the barrel rooms, the gardens, and the amphitheater) up for sale. White wine production will be transferred back to eastern Washington.

No price mentioned in the announcement, but you have to wonder who might be interested. No other winery is big enough to make use of the property … unless it’s a developer smacking their lips over the prime piece of real estate.

Two Girls from Amsterdam

On this #HolocaustRemembranceDay, let us honor two little girls from Amsterdam. Anne Frank (whose name is now known worldwide) lived on the Merwedepleen; Ali Isaac lived around the corner in the Jekerstraat. As it happens, both had older sisters named Margot.

To avoid the Nazi occupiers of Holland, Anne went into hiding for two years (and kept a diary that would become famous); Ali evaded capture as well. Both were ultimately discovered, and both ended up at Bergen Belsen during the freezing Hongerwinter of 1944-45. Along with thousands of others, Anne perished (typhus). But Ali somehow survived, and 18 months after the war ended she was able to rejoin her sister (my mother) in the USA.

Statue of Anne Frank on the Merwedepleen in Amsterdam.
The original Dutch version of Anne Frank’s diary
Alice Elisabeth Isaac in 1943, photographed by Annemie Wolff. Copyright held by her granddaughter, Monica Kaltenschnee.

Mermaid v StarbucksCares v Facebook?

This is weird. Earlier today a website called StarbucksCares.com (that’s “cares” not “scares”) claimed the Mermaid would be dropping her surcharge on “alternative” milks (e.g. almond, soy, etc.) but add a surcharge to traditional dairy. Argument being that many if not most non-White customers (Blacks, Asians, other BIPOC) are sensitive to lactose and that SBUX doesn’t want to discriminate against them.

The StarbucksCares.com announcement also announced that the Mermaid would introduce a new “Justice Cup” to its lineup.

Shortly thereafter, an official release from Mermaid Central on S. Utah St. called the StarbucksCares story a hoax. No such thing as a price increase on regular milk. No such thing as a “Justice Cup.”

No reply from StarbucksCares.com’s project manager as yet, but I put the official denial into a Facebook post and was quickly informed that it violated community standards.

Good grief.

To be updated as necessary.

Well, here are the first couple of updates. First, Business Insider: https://www.businessinsider.com/starbucks-is-not-ending-its-extra-charge-for-plant-based-milks-2021-12

Next, the spoof is acknowledged by the perpetrators:


Switch4Good Claims Credit for Starbucks Spoof
 

“Starbucks’s plant-based-milk upcharge is an unfair and racially targeted overcharge,” said physician and expert in racial bias in nutrition 

LOS ANGELES, Calif., DECEMBER 9, 2021 – Switch4Good—a nonprofit dedicated to educating about the benefits of going dairy-free—together with the Yes Men, experts at exposing corporate wrongs, today mounted an elaborate “brandjacking” campaign against Starbucks, calling out the coffee giant for dietary racism

Thursday morning, a convincing spoof site, StarbucksCares.com, and video announced that Starbucks would drop its upcharge on plant-based milks, and instead raise prices of dairy-based drinks. The initiative was launched with a magnificent new themed cup—the Justice Cup—a corporate social responsibility masterpiece that allows consumers to proudly, and vapidly, show their concern for racial equity. 

The spoof immediately grabbed headlines from news outlets like Business Insider and the Daily Caller, among others.  

The “initiative” reflected the fact that 65% of the world’s population cannot digest dairy—a condition known as lactose intolerance, which disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities, as a fake spokesperson with the title “Starbucks equality innovations director” explained.  

However, Starbucks was quick to deny it was doing the right thing, and said the company has “known about ethnicity-related lactose intolerance for many years.”  

“We assure our most valued customers that we would never place the burden of a dairy upcharge on them,” the company told Yahoo! News. “We categorically deny the accusations of ‘dietary racism’ in this false announcement. Starbucks is and always has been a vigorous defender and promoter of people of all the colors.”  

Cue the record scratch…wait, what? “People of all the colors?” Did Starbucks really say that?  

As it turns out, it didn’t. That, too, was part of Switch4Good’s spoof. 

The absurd Starbucks denial was part of Switch4Good’s campaign to highlight the dietary racism of plant-based upcharges. The facts are completely real: lactose intolerance disproportionately affects communities of color—95% of Asians, up to 80% of Black and Latinx people, and more than 80% of Indigenous Americans cannot digest dairy, versus only 15% of white people.  

“While sadly it isn’t true that Starbucks is changing its policy, what is true is that profiting off of people of color who are only trying to maintain their health is systemic racism,” said Milton Mills, MD, an urgent care physician in Washington DC who has published several research journal articles addressing racial bias in federal nutrition policy. “By the numbers, more people of color are forced to pay extra, which makes it not just an upcharge but an unfair and racially targeted overcharge.” 

Switch4Good advocates dropping dairy not only for health but also for environmental reasons. Starbucks—the real Starbucks—openly acknowledges that dairy products are the single biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions across its operations and supply chain, and the second highest contributor to water withdrawal.  

“Starbucks has ignored our efforts to encourage them to right this injustice, so we had to resort to another way to communicate this important issue,” said Switch4Good executive director Dotsie Bausch. “When people choose plant-based milk, they’re doing something for their health, for the responsibility we all have to our planet and they are standing up for justice for all beings. These reasons should always be more important than a corporate bottom line.” 

Switch4Good has a history of advocacy for food justice. It has petitioned the USDA to remove dairy from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), and testified on Capitol Hill. It succeeded, alongside other NGOs, in getting soy milk recognized as nutritionally equivalent to dairy in the DGA, and is currently working to ensure schools have access to, and reimbursement for, soy milk. Its multidisciplinary and multicultural coalition that includes BIPOC clinicians, dietitians, activists, athletes, and other thought leaders, works to pressure lawmakers into enacting fairer, healthier nutrition policy. 

Seattle’s Best Holiday Fruitcake: Maria’s Panettone from Gelatiamo

The panettone at Gelatiamo

You can buy an industrial “Christmas” panettone for under ten bucks, something made in a factory last summer that sits on the supermarket shelf waiting for December. (It will taste like sweetened sawdust.) You can try to make your own at home, but it takes 27 hours, start to finish, waiting for the yeast to rise, and rise again. You have to add spendthrift amounts of butter and egg yolks; you have to watch times and temperatures like a hawk, and when it comes out of the oven it’s still so delicate that it will collapse like a soufflé unless you hang it upside down, like a bat, on a skewer. Then, once it cools, it still has to “mature” for about a week so that its aromatic ingredients (the citrus, the rum, the vanilla) can develop their full flavors and fragrances.

It is, as the New York Times pointed out a few years back, the Everest of baking projects.

Panettone dough is wildly sensitive, demanding and occasionally infuriating, following its own unique logic and schedule. Built up in stages, it can’t be rushed or made to wait. It requires an investment of ingredients, a deep understanding of fermentation and attention to pH levels, along with constant attention.

Give it all that, and a panettone can still go wrong. Bakers from Pasadena to Pittsburgh say that’s exactly why they’re so obsessed with the high-maintenance dough: No bread is more difficult, or more rewarding, to get right.

Maria Coassin, an Italian artisan baker, shapes dough for a panettone.
Maria Coassin, an Italian artisan baker, shapes dough for a panettone.

Maria Coassin, the owner of Gelatiamo in downtown Seattle, can produce no more than 100 panettone a day, essentially by hand, with good cheer and artisanal dedication. She finished baking the first batch today, and already has 1,000 loaves pre-ordered. What’s not spoken for in advance goes on sale to the general public this Thursday, Dec. 2nd.

Coassin grew up in a family of bakers in the small town of Maniago, just over 10,000 people, midway between Venice and Trieste in northeastern Italy and known throughout Europe for the local industry: knife-making. The Giulian Alps tower over the flood plains of the Po River. The cows are milked for cheese, and the pigs, fed on the whey, become prosciutto. The mountain streams provide a ready and reliable source of energy to mill grain, stoke forges, and turn lathes.

To manufacture highly sophisticated automobiles, for example, you need a work force familiar with precision tools, and most of Italy’s racing cars (Maserati, Lamborghini, etc.) are built in the region. But those workers need to eat, too, and the Coassin Bakery has prospered for five generations. With loving parents and five older brothers, Maria was well looked-after, but she realized early-on that the family business was limiting. Pastries and gelato, she knew even then, would be her field.

Not yet 20, she married an American airman stationed at the nearby Aviano Air Force Base, moved to California, and took a job with McDonald’s so she could learn English and become versed in American business practices. When her husband retired from the military a few years later, she’d climbed the corporate ladder from mopping floors and washing dishes to assistant manager. She was ready to set out on her own, but didn’t want to stay in California. They flipped a coin: Seattle or Atlanta.

She signed on with an educational supply company in Seattle while she looked for a spot to open her own business. Two brave souls opened gelato shops, by which time Coassin had a name ready to go: a made-up word that’s the Italian equivalent of I Love Sushi: “Gelato Ti Amo,” or Gelatiamo. (To an Italian speaker, it sounds as if you’re saying “Let’s go eat gelato.”)

Her gelato shop (and it’s primarily a gelateria, not a bakery) has now stood on a busy downtown corner for two decades, but it almost didn’t get started. Coassin had almost no financing, so she cashed out her share of the family bakery business; it came to $200,000. Her father pitched in another $50,000 to help her buy equipment. (Reminder: this was serious money 25 years ago.) In fact, he came to visit the first year, in 1996. “What can I do to help?” he would ask. It was a cold winter, not much demand for that sexy but little-known Italian newcomer, gelato. (Lots of customers thought it was cream cheese.) So Coassin’s dad started making panettone.

The name, by the way, is an Italian suffix, “-one” (OH-nay), something bigger, grander. So polpetta, meatball; polpettone, meatloaf. Minestra, soup; minetsrone, fancy soup (lots of vegetables). Pane, bread; panettone, fancy bread for the holidays. More brioche than fruitcake, not dense like a German Stollen, but bread-y, sweet, yeasty, with plenty of run-soaked raisins, and candied orange zest and lemon bits.

In her two tiny convection ovens, in the bakery below her ice cream shop, Coassin can only bake 16 panettones at a time, but she gets a lot of satisfaction from knowing that her brothers in Italy are doing exactly the same thing at the same hour. FaceTime conversations are not unheard of. And after all that effort, maybe 1,500 one-pound loaves of panettone, priced at $20 apiece. (A special treat, Gelatiamo’s panettone filled with zabaglione-flavored gelato, is sometimes available by the slice.) Add it up, and it might seem barely worth the effort. But it’s a fifth-generation thing in Maniago, and a 25-year Seattle tradition now, and Coassin won’t give it up.

“You have to remember that we are not a full bakery, we are a gelateria and pastry shop,” Coassin said in an email. “We still do things they way my dad taught me 25 years ago adjusting our family recipe to ingredients and equipment here!”

A couple of years ago, she tweaked the blend of flours a bit so the dough would be more elastic and the panettone lighter. More sweet goodies have been added. “Maria’s Panettone” is a triumph. Barely 1,500 loaves, remember. Same price as always, $19.95, and she ships anywhere in the country.

And if she’s sold out by the time you get down to Third & Union, here’s a list, compiled by the Washington Post, of panettone bakers who also ship.