Andy Nelson Markets Editor
Andy Nelson Markets Editor

I went to a wine-tasting party recently with considerable trepidation, and my fears turned out to be totally justified.

After we sampled each wine, the rep went around the room and asked us for our impressions.

While I wasn’t surprised to hear my wife and her friends respond competently, I had expected their husbands, all of whom I had known for years to be fellow barley-and-hops men, to grunt along with me: “good,” “OK,” “yum.”

Turns out, the guys at this party were just as likely to come up with words like “chewy” or “caramel-like” or “earthy” or “nice finish” as the gals were.

I did not adapt to my environment, and the sum total of my responses to the six wines we tasted was, I think, three goods, two yums and one OK.

To compensate for my ignorance, I bought more wine than I could afford and slunk back home to my Boulevard Pale Ale.

Three days after this trauma, I found myself commiserating with a fellow victim. Only the substance in question wasn’t wine, it was potatoes.

The victim was Bill Brewer, executive director of the Portland-based Oregon Potato Commission. He was telling me how he’d been at a commission-hosted event at Portland’s Oregon Culinary Society.

Spud love

At the event, chef after chef got up and waxed rhapsodic about this or that spud from this or that corner of the Northwest, taking special care to note the regional differences. Their vocabulary ventured into wine aficionado territory.

The critiques by Brewer, an ex-grower who knows a thing or two about potatoes, were more along the lines of (and I paraphrase liberally) “Yep, that’s a spud, alright.”

Brewer went on to describe what sounds like a renaissance in spud love on the West Coast. It was telling that the language in which he told me about it was the language of wine.

“It’s like wine — some like wine from Walla Walla, some like wine from Napa,” he said. “It’s the same thing with russets. Some like russets from Klamath Basin, others from the Columbia Basin.”

What struck me most was that Brewer wasn’t talking about, say, russets versus reds or fingerlings versus baby Klondikes. Even my dull taste buds can tell the differences there.

Brewer was comparing russets with russets. And not just that — Oregon russets with other Oregon russets. Some chefs even swore by russets from individual Oregon growers, using their wine aficionado vocabularies to describe the virtues of Farmer X or Farmer Y.

It’s tempting to write all this off as pretentious upscale Portland chef talk, but Brewer was intrigued, and so the commission set up russet taste tests at Oregon State football games last season.

Turns out Joe Football Fan may be as discriminating as Jean-Paul Fancy Chef.

“With russets from different areas, they always said, ‘Yes, that tastes different,’” Brewer said.

Armed with theses results, the commission is now testing the marketing waters, talking to buyers in Portland and San Francisco to gauge interest in “niche” russets from different growing areas.

It will be interesting to see what comes of it. With russet growers bracing for another year of possibly sluggish markets, anything that can add value to the category is worth a try.

Just don’t ask me to tell you the difference between a Klamath and a Columbia russet.