Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Away from State Street for Solstice

I get bored just posting photos of food and wine, so I figure this image helps capture the sense of fun that awaits at the Santa Barbara Wine Festival happening June 25 from 2-5 pm at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Of course, we're talking an event that had its first run in 1983 (same year GPS was released to the general public--how did anyone get anywhere back then?). This is far from my first run writing about the festival, as it's one of my favorites, an idyllic mix of the best wine and food in an oak grove setting that can't be beat but can beat the heat. (You can go read previous stories here, if you want.)

There's more, though, as I learned by talking to the ever-delightful Meridith Moore, events manager at SBMNH. "Since it's the hundredth anniversary of the museum--which is a huge time here in Santa Barbara if not a long time in the rest of the world--we will have one-hundred booths of food and wine," she informs. The festival also has a rep for the actual winemakers showing up to pour, and that tradition isn't ending soon. In fact, in the newly created VIP area, those who arrive for early entrance will have wine poured by Paul Lato (his first time at the festival) and Morgan Clendenen (pouring her Cold Heaven). With upscale munchies by C'est Cheese and Chef Pete Clement, it's going to be quite the spot...sorry that those tickets are already sold out.

The other great innovation for the 100th anniversary will be a Sparkling Way featuring many of the county's best bubbles--think Flying Goat, Fiddlehead, Alma Rosa. What's more, this spot will be home to food by Industrial Eats, too. Sure beats a ride to Buellton.

And then there's the ever-popular Cork Pull raffle: for $30 a pop (cash only!), you get a cork, it has a number, the number has a prize of at least $50 value. I've scored a dinner for two at Barbareno pulling a cork, just saying.

Finally, the big news that will be no surprise to anyone used to attending: the day after this year's event, it gets a new trademarked name that captures its tasty balance--The Santa Barbara Wine & Food Festival.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Several Sips at South Africa

To be brutally honest, my knowledge of South Africa going in to a recent trade tasting if its wines mostly came from Breaker Morant, Peter Gabriel's "Biko," and that monumental world music highlight of the '80s, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. And despite its Boer War setting, Breaker Morant is an Australian film, anyway. So, to put it bluntly, I had a lot to learn.

Luckily, as the billing went, "Jim Clarke [pictured above], former Wine Director at Megu and Armani Ristorante in New York, will put the wines in context, discussing terroir, traditions, and current trends." That was a lot to do in a bit under 2 hours, but at least now I've got a better sense of what's up in South Africa (it seems unfair they got beat to the moniker down under, in a way), plus the photos and discussion made me realize many of their wine regions are quite like Santa Barbara's, so that's fascinating too.

There's no point in running you through the whole story here, as it would be secondhand and more than you need. So the accelerated version: early fine wines, Napoleon thumbs up, phylloxera bugs down, WWI kills too many people to make anyone care about wine, apartheid means embargoes of everything. In the middle of all that, there's KWV, a business that controlled wine and led to a generally down to price not up to quality approach.

Since the end of apartheid everything has improved though--the magic of markets. Winemakers discovered you could grow fine cold climate grapes closer to the ocean (it's a place with cross-wind currents and diurnal temperature shift--hi, Santa Barbara!). Old vines started getting some care, but not too much, because you want to stress those vines and lower yield to concentrate goodness.

And you have a lot of Chenin Blanc--it's the most commonly grown grape there. (I won't make a joke they grow more white, I won't make a joke they grow more white.) Some of it is fascinating stuff; I can't say enough about the Luddite Chenin Blanc we tasted: think white peach and apricot, but more importantly some ethereal quality that makes it dance across the tongue and linger. A kind of perfume, in the best of ways, one that seems to want to unlock your best memories.

Some pretty unpleasant memories are often associated with South Africa's trademark red varietal, Pinotage. This cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut got a bad rap in the 1980s-90s as its low acids made it any easy home to all sorts of nasties, especially before all South African wineries kicked up their hygiene regimens. At the time Pinotage often had a nose of rusty nails or Band-aids, not exactly smells conducive to yumminess.

But times, and methods, have changed. Try, for instance, especially at $15 a bottle, Painted Wolf Guillermo Pinotage, with a bit of soul added with some new oak. Plum, red berries, a bit of pipe tobacco. Grown in the Swartland (the grasses there turn black in summer), so with a bit more heat in the growing season, and a bit more acid than most of its varietal. Plus sales go to help the endangered African wild dog and if you follow this link you'll want to save them, too.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Sip This: Tarantas Tempranillo

Tarantas Tempranillo 2012: Heavily marketing its organic grapes and vegan winemaking, Tarantas is a fine value play from Spain for mid-week drinking.

Want to read the rest then do so at the Independent's site.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Drink That Stirs the Straw


Growing up there was one, just one thing I could do faster than all the other kids--turn the page. I could read like nobody's business. So while pretty much anyone could go home-to-first or basket-to-basket or a quarter mile quicker than I could, I didn't care. I'd be busy reading them under the table. Perhaps hiding under one. But that's not the point.

That didn't stop me from loving baseball. Or helped me love losers at baseball, the Mets. While a year older than I am, they've only won two World Series in my lifetime, one I don't really remember (hey, what did you do when you were six?). But I got obsessed and it's still my favorite sport to the point I sort of tolerate that there are other sports in inverse relationship to how much good writing there is about them.

Not longer after the baseball bug bit, I discovered the joys of drinking. Which, of course, sounds wrong, but I've been always interested in a cut above my station and the drinking age was still 18 then. Living up in New Jersey my family would do things like occasionally go to a New York City dinner at the Rainbow Room, so maybe I got Art Deco and Fred and Ginger (who I didn't learn about really until grad school) and martini glasses all confused with my first beef Wellington and Manhattan (the island and not the cocktail) twinkling below. Who knows. But I was into import beer when that merely meant Heineken and Bass (remember those pre-adventurous days?), and somehow, well, no doubt a how aping my dad, into Scotch at 15. Not like every weekend, but I can remember one New Year's Eve with a bottle of Black & White and those cute doggies on the label and discovering for the first time in my life the perfect pitch of buzzed not sloshed. That's a halcyon spot I've hankered for more than I've cared to admit since.

So, look at this. There's a distillery in Cooperstown. (Why not, what town now doesn't have one?) But you can get a sampler called "The Triple Play" and it's got bourbon, vodka, and whiskey in 50 mL bottles shaped like little baseballs. This is a halcyon spot of Tom Seaver's knee dirty with full extension as his slider strikes a bum like Pete Rose out, of Darryl Strawberry's amazing Stretch Armstrong limbs knocking the snot out of a pitch, of Johan Santana, his arm basically a rubber band wearing down, finally tossing the club's first no hitter after 8000 games. And craft liquor.

Sure I'm going to review this stuff, but more than anything I want to praise its brilliance as marketing genius to at least one middle aged man. And when I empty a bottle I only wish I still had my Pitchback and try to pretend I could drop a curve on the outside corner just like fellow lefty Jon Matlack could, back in 1973 when I learned the fun of comebacks, underdogs, hope that wasn't mere smoke. When I also learned never to give up, and to lose (damn A's!), and to cry, and then there's tomorrow. To think I did all that without whiskey, even.


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Besides the Tapped Out Tapas, A Fine Rioja Time


At the start of the recent Rioja Wine & Tapas Festival, held May 21 at the ever-gorgeous Union Station in Los Angeles, I'm agog at the huge tables of cheese--enough Manchego to drown in if you melted it--and goat cheese dusted with crumbled truffle chips and mussels with garbanzos and capers and Jamon Iberico getting spiraled into tender hammy sheets. Alas, after 20 minutes, the lines that form for all this goodness remind one this is taking place in a train station. Hurry up and wait, and maybe eat.

Perhaps write up the event as notes, as impressions made in what is necessarily a series of quick hits.

Note to self: if you ever put on a food and wine festival, integrate food and wine in the layout; if you could get tastes of wine while waiting in a food line, you'd be a much happier patient camper.

Palacios Remondo Placet Valtomelloso 2010 A Viura, Rioja's most prominent white grape (elsewhere it's called Macabeo, among other names--clearly the marketers didn't get in on the ground floor of the Rioja wine industry), this is big without going big big, aged in oak but still mighty fresh, a lovely peach/pear mix of a white (Chardonnay nodding to Roussanne?). It's not cheap ($45), but it is delish.

Fernandez de Pierola Reserva 2005: exactly the dusky/dusty notes you want in a Tempranillo. Cries out for food, but doesn't know how much you would cry if you waited on a line for food. Does not get food, but is good anyway.

In the courtyard, several pig halves grill away in the sun, the smoke from them infusing everything. So when a wine tastes like grilled meat, it's hard to know what your nose might be picking up, but it certainly pairs well--Tempranillo is nothing if not BBQ-friendly.

1500 people there, all the men in incredibly well-chosen shirts (does Spain bring out the haberdasher-lover?). Probably 1399 of them are in the paella line ahead of me, but I wait anyway, because paella. After 30 minutes, I get to the front of the line as the person two in front of me gets the last scrapings. It's 2:15 at a festival that runs until 5. Chef, not very polite, says come back in 30 minutes. I am not sure how someone at a catering style event doesn't have the next platter of food ready to go when one runs out. I am sure I'm not waiting for paella again.

Hello Graciano, no relation to Rocky (who, yes, was Graziano). One of Rioja's red varietals, but it's known for low yields and susceptibility to disease, so there isn't much of it. Found I liked Ijalba's 2011, deep red fruit and good spice notes and a pleasing SRP of $22. (It gets blended a lot, too.)

What chef/restaurant was that hidden amidst the meat-servers and their forbidding lines, serving the pickled mushrooms? One of my favorite plates of the day, so bracing and lifted with very fresh thyme.

At 3:40 tasting at the Bodegas Muriel table, and they are out of their two aged wines (a 2011 Reserva and a 2005 Gran Reserva). The Crianza 2012 is bright and yummy, finishing with spiced cherry. Can only imagine how good the older stuff is. No doubt others got to have it with paella. 

DJ Lord, who has been part of Public Enemy in its later incarnations, brought the edginess of PE--near the end of the day one of his cuts repeated "motherf---er" over and over. So "Rioja, music to gangsta by," why not? Maybe he was pissed he didn't get paella too.


The final long-day roasted pigs, so good, especially the crackling--crisp and crunchy pig candy. Many people have gone home by now as pretty much all the wine is poured, all the food snacked down. But the nice server at the roast pig station, as I offer a very sincere thanks (I mean, who wants to wait at events like this?) gives me an extra piece or two, I'm sure.

Downtown Gets Second Sheep

(photo courtesy Oveja Blanca)

A fresh wind has blown through the restaurant formerly known as Seagrass. Those heavy shutters and carpet are gone, the concrete floor painted a vivid mustard. You can even enter from the invitingly angled door that meets the corner of Ortega and Anacapa. This is the Perez family’s sister restaurant to their thriving Black Sheep gastropub, and it’s cleverly called Oveja Blanca, which means “White Sheep” in Spanish.

Want to read the rest then do so at the Independent's site.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Larry Schaffer Pours Wine & Words

Writing, particularly wine writing, is a tricky business folks (so leave it to the professionals!). If you try to be even vaguely journalistic (hey, that's like pretty much all journalism these days!) and reach out to people with questions, sometimes the story you finally end up writing doesn't include some of your sources, however perspicacious he or she might have been when giving you answers.

So, while I've been doing some reporting on Santa Barbara Vintners Road Trip LA--see my post on a wine dinner with unusual varietals and my blog on the state of Bordeaux varietals in SB--I never had a good spot to include a fine Q&A with Larry Schaffer, owner and winemaker of tercero wines, and one of the most indefatigable proselytizers for Santa Barbara County. I have to admit, I'm sorry I missed him pouring at both the Rhone varietals day and at what sounded like an amazing BBQ at Rose Cafe in Venice featuring, of course, rosé wines.

That said, here's what Larry said in response to a few leading questions.

George Eats: What does LA need to know about SB County Rhone varietals?

Schaffer: What I want LA to know about SB County Rhone varietals is that we actually excel at producing balanced, food friendly versions of the majority of the 22 varieties that are considered Rhone varieties. And just as importantly, I want the folks in LA and beyond to realize that Santa Barbara County is NOT synonymous with "Central Coast"--the former is our county alone whereas the latter stretches from the San Francisco Bay to Ventura. It encompasses Monterey, SLO, and Santa Barbara counties, among others, each with our own distinct characteristics. I'm really pushing for the "Central Coast" moniker to be underplayed at this point and for folks to use Santa Barbara, SLO, etc. to talk about specific areas.

George Eats: Is that different from what EVERYone needs to know, and if so, why?

Schaffer: Yes, in the sense that LA is somewhat our grape growing region's backyard--but sometimes it does not feel that way. It appears that most folks in LA and Orange County, given the choice, are predisposed to driving to Paso or flying to Napa as opposed to coming to Santa Barbara County. And I believe that is our fault as a region--not being active enough in the area as a whole to educate LA from top to bottom what our region has to offer. And this road trip is a great start to hopefully changing that viewpoint.

George Eats: Which of your Rhone varietals will you be pouring, and what should possible attendees know about them? [editors note: this question hurts a bit, as the events are passed, but don't worry, Larry will certainly be pouring somewhere else soon, plus visit his tasting room!]

Schaffer: I will be taking part in a seminar for the trade and media on Wednesday, and at that seminar, I will be pouring my 2011 Grenache from the Larner Vineyard in Ballard Canyon. I will also be pouring my 2015 Mourvedre Rosé, my Greanche Blanc, my Mourvedre and probably a few others, if I can sneak them in :-)  I'm hopeful that attendees will approach the tasting with a desire to learn about varieties they may not be familiar with. I'm confident that they will come away quite pleased at their discoveries. And I also want to educate them about the Rhone Rangers organization, of whose Santa Barbara County chapter I am President.

George Eats: How else can Santa Barbara "take-over" LA?

Schaffer: As mentioned above, this is a great start, but simply that--we as a region need to keep our pedal to the floor and continue this process each and every year, just as other counties from throughout CA and beyond do. One of the "blessings" in this challenge is that the wines and experiences they will have here in Santa Barbara County are top notch--we just need to alter and create new perceptions and market better to our potential visitors! And by experiencing our wines more often throughout the LA area, they will see this quite clearly.