Bitter Pleasures


It really irritates me. Standing in line at the coffee bar when all I want is an espresso. In front of me there is long line of people ordering incomprehensibly complex drinks, of which the least important component is coffee. I think there should be an express line for those of us ordering a simple expresso. It's a bitter fact that we espresso lovers have to live with. Because Americans don't like bitter we have to wait in line while they bury their shots of espresso under anything and everything that will hide the actual flavor of coffee.

In Italy bitter flavors are embraced by the culture. They love bitter herbs and salads and bitter drinks. The prelude and conclusion of many a meal is a bitter beverage. Start with Campari and end with Fernet Branca. In between there you'll probably find some radicchio or arugula among the long list of bitter flavors loved by Italians. There is another thing always on the Italian table that often has bitterness too - their wine.

I notice that bitter element in my favorite Italian wines and it's that character that makes them such an extraordinary match with food. That little touch of bitterness in Barolo or Brunello is magic at the table. It also adds another layer of complexity beyond simple fruit flavors left on their own. I find this character in my favorite red wines, and many of the whites, from anywhere in the world.

Just as we Americans have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide any hint of bitterness in our coffee we've done the same things with our wines. Overripe, over-extracted fruit bombs with excessive alcohol, new oak and significant residual sugar are wines with no edge, no bitterness. Round and jammy wines with no acidity, no tannin and not even a hint of bitterness satisfy palates that bury a shot of espresso under milk, chocolate and whipped cream. We've turned our coffees and our wines into desserts.

Bitterness is what brought me to southern Oregon. Not personal bitterness, but the fact that I tasted it in the wines grown in this region. Not as hot as California and not as cool as the Willamette Valley, southern Oregon seems to be just the right place to grow wines that are richly flavored, but that still possess a little tartness from natural acidity and that have that wonderful streak of bitterness to hold up and enliven the natural sweet fruit flavors in the wines grown here.

Once I finally get my espresso, I'm glad I was patient enough to wait in line while they were making milkshakes masquerading as coffees for those in front of me. The same goes for the Applegate Valley, I'm glad I was patient enough find my way here. The best things in life always have an edge to them. Things that are round, soft and easy are rarely of lasting value. You need just the right amount of bitterness in life to keep things interesting. Minds and palates that are unchallenged quickly become bored.

There is nothing boring about making wine in the Applegate Valley.