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SPIRIT of PLACE : When Stephen McCarthy's neighbor was getting $14 a ton for pears that cost $30 a ton to pick, he began cutting down his orchards. McCarthy took a different course: He decided to make pear brandy.

June 10, 1993|JOHN BALZAR | Times Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Fermenting fruit exudes a moist, over-sweet, buoyant aroma and fills the small industrial building. The time is 9:30 on a chilly morning in an up-and-coming Portland neighborhood. Stephen McCarthy is at a table, swirling up vapors from clear brandy in his glass. He takes a sniff and nods. Yes, once again he has distilled from the pear its fiery essence.

He talks: About saving the family farm, innovation in food, preserving the environment, pride, the growth-mania of American business, the future of the Pacific Northwest and, of course, brandies.

The American economy and the American way of life may be headed in several directions at once these days. McCarthy is tugging things his way, learning as he goes, and teaching too.

Not long ago, it cost the McCarthy family twice as much to pick the family orchards as the fruit would bring at market. Now, after considerable investment, after the transoceanic mastery of an old art, and all the while bucking today's trend away from high-alcohol spirits, McCarthy can proudly hold up a 750-milliliter bottle of the ice-water-clear distillates of his family pears--a bottle worth as much today as a ton of pears used to be on the tree.

McCarthy is one of the preeminent distillers of fruit brandies in the United States. Actually, he is one of the very few such distillers in the country. But that should not diminish his work. Fine fruit brandies, like single-malt scotches and microbrewery beers, can reach uncommon heights.

"It's as good as any I've tasted--some of it is better than anything the Europeans are producing, and that's unusual, says an enthusiastic Steve Wallace, proprietor of Wally's in Los Angeles and a nationally recognized expert on wine and alcoholic beverages. "And he's far ahead of anybody domestically. I've been amazed by the quality, and it's half the price of what you get from Europe.

Europeans have given Americans a language to help us raise our appreciation of these liquors: Made from the Bartlett pear (which is known as the Williams pear in France), the brandy is called Eau-de-Vie de Poire Williams. Italian-style grappa is made from the pressed grape skins, or pomace, left over from making wine. Cherries give Kirschwasser. Apples . . . well, apples produce plain apple brandy, which, unlike the others, is not perfectly clear but carries the residual tint of oaken aging barrels.

These fragrant after-dinner drinks are less complex than the brandy distillates of wine, the Cognacs and Armagnacs. They are appealing for their purity, their pungency and, for many Americans, their outright surprise.

"Yes, surprise, that's how to put it, McCarthy says agreeably.

Take a sniff. Indeed, the spirit of the pear seems to live in these spirits.

But McCarthy is something more than a distiller.

He is one of a vigorous breed of Americans, a breed of particular renown here in the Pacific Northwest, who combine modern technology, old-fashioned ideas of quality, the best of regional ingredients and far-off exotic formulas into new or resurgent food and beverage businesses of distinction. These are endeavors that, at the same time, open fresh vistas of appreciation for consumers and provide new competitiveness for America.

High-volume, low-price, fill-in-the-blank-mart rah-rah may get most of the attention, and surely most of the dollars, in domestic business these days. But McCarthy's Clear Creek Distillery typifies ingenuity and creativity of a different sort.

Lift America's tastes and you need not bother with that new mousetrap.

For instance, wine and bourbon and honey and maple syrup and smoked hams--all of these bear the joint label "superb quality and "produced in America. Some of them have been specialty industries for generations, others more recent.

Lately the trend has been accelerating: sparkling wine, handmade beer, roast coffee, domestic caviar, fresh bagels. Now you can add to these the crystalline brandies of St. George Spirits of Emeryville, Calif., and Clear Creek Distillery of Portland.

How do these things begin?

Not, it seems, out of safe conformity, but rather from taste bud to taste bud, from hobby to vocation to passion. A sense of rage apparently doesn't hurt either.

Less than a decade ago, McCarthy was a more conventional American businessman, selling holsters and shooting accessories, a business he inherited from his father.

"I'd be traveling in Germany, and I'd meet a customer in the Black Forest and we'd end up drinking some of this incredible Eau-de-Vie Poire Williams. I learned that the Williams pear is the same as our Bartlett. And back home at my family orchard in the Hood River Valley, we grew Bartletts and couldn't sell them for enough to pay to pick them, McCarthy says.

"My brother was busting his back. The co-ops would pay $14 a ton and it cost $30 to pick them. So we'd leave the fruit on the trees. I remember I saw a man down the road who was so proud and so mad he cut down his orchard with the fruit still on the trees.

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