December 2013 Now here’s a mystery. You’re a visiting diner to the Kennebunks. Wine stewards in many of the glittering bistros whisper, with unreserved enthusiasm, “If you want to sample a local legend, try Rat’s Reserve.”
It is all that.
Eateries as diverse as the White Barn Inn and Nunan’s (two favorite destinations rarely mentioned in the same breath) proudly serve it. Sure, but who is this guy, and why have his blends made him such a cult figure?
“I guess I have to get the nickname Rat out of the way first,” says Paul Carr, a wine expert who works as an executive with Nappi Distributors. “My first year at The Shawmut Inn was 1967. I was 15 that summer and at an odd growth stage–large nose, little legs. A girl with a large personality, Tweeze Hunter, thought I looked like a Dachshund–big nose, short legs–so my first nickname was Ratdog, then Ratboy (Brookie MacDonald from Hurricane gave me that), then Ratman, then Rat, back when no one could remember two syllables in the 1970s. Since then, my face has grown around my nose and it doesn’t look as big!”
Kennebunkers couldn’t resist Rat’s charm from 1967 to 1976, when he worked at the Shawmut; 1976 to 1983, when he worked at the Port House; and 1983 to 1990, when he owned Forefathers Tavern with Chuck Reid.
Then fate stepped in and made Rat a star. How do you go from being an oenologist to wine blender? It’s always about timing.
“Jedediah Tecumseh Steele, or Jed, was the original head winemaker and vice president for the first 10 years of production for Kendall-Jackson wines,” Carr says. “He went out on his own in 1990. I was invited to work crush for Jed at the Steele Wines winery in Lake County, California, in October of 2006.” Carr’s life was beginning again at age 54. Possibly out of consideration for his new hire’s nearly suffering “a stroke due to all the heavy work of crush,” Jed Steele told Rat he’d fulfill his dream of making just “one barrel (about 25 cases) of Rat’s Reserve Pinot Noir on his label.”
This first barrel garnered such rave reviews that Steele still commissions Carr to create his special blends even though he chose to return to Maine; Carr creates new blends from samples sent by Steele that he combines with his wife Lynne at their home on Goose Rocks Beach. “The only places you can buy Steele Rat’s Reserve on Earth are in Cumberland and York counties!
“Today, I’m on my sixth vintage of Steele Rat’s Reserve Pinot Noir and my fifth vintage of Steele Rat’s Reserve Chardonnay. My wife, Lynne, an artist, did the original artwork for the label. It had a rat wearing a tuxedo, as I used to wear at Forefathers Tavern, holding a tray of wine glasses. My tail circled up from the neck of the bottle to the capsule. Problem was, the tail got ripped in the bottling line, so the work was shortened and put on the left side of the label. I now do six barrels of each wine, or 150 cases of each, for every vintage.”
Barrel samples “are sent to me every December. Jed sends them to me at our home, and we do the blending together.” Now for the magic. “During blending, it doesn’t taste like it will when it’s ready for drinking. For example, the Pinot Noir gets 16 months in relatively new barrels. You have to learn how to taste the future.
“Just so I don’t upset anyone who has stood behind my wine and helped me from the start, I’ll list the places selling it by the bottle or by the glass: The Arundel Wharf, David’s Boathouse & Marina, Bintliff’s, The Colony Hotel, Cape Neddick Inn, Down East Wine Imports, Earth, H.B. Provisions, Hurricane (Brookie was the first person to put both wines on by the glass, and Hurricane in Ogunquit is where I first met Jed), Kennebunk Inn, Linda Bean’s, Nonantum Resort, Nunan’s Lobster Hut, Tides Beach Club, Village Tavern, White Barn Inn.”
The former Grissini used to carry it. Also Wells Beach Steak House. Note how Carr’s list is in alphabetical order. This is the type of person you want blending your wines. This is one organized Rat.
A review from a California wine expert: “Dark and luscious…The Steele ‘Rat’s Reserve’ Pinot Noir is a medium-bodied wine. It’s a round, smooth, pleasant wine. As with all good Pinot Noirs, the ‘Rat’s Reserve’ delivers strong cherry and berry flavors at first before melting into other flavors. After the first punch of cherry and strawberry, I picked up tones of cola and sassafras. It finished with a long, earthy note. This wine has an excellent, complex structure… This wine could easily become one of my favorites.”