Monday, September 20, 2021

Beds to Bet on in Nevada City

If, like me, you think that one of the best reasons to stay in a hotel is to live with bold and beautiful wallpaper that you don’t have the courage to risk at home, then you really need to stay at the National Exchange Hotel. The wonderful dark stuff above is in a hallway, where it's easier to risk a wilder print as no one stares at it for too long (I mean, what are you, some kind of hotel hallway creeper?), but it certainly sets the stage for all sorts of restored Victorian loveliness. 

But not Victorian fustiness--note the prints on that wall, too, which give more of a science-y feel, a bit like you'd fallen into a study of someone who aspired to being part of a Society, as in "of Explorers," not society, as in grand. Much better than randomly decorating with garage sale purchased creepy dolls like you'd find in too many B'n'Bs to mention. Of course, one key with any old hotel restoration is to hint just enough that things could be haunted, but never by creepy dolls. You want it to be lovers who could never leave, they had such a great honeymoon, or something like that....

Such ghosts would be very at home in a bedroom like this one we recently got to stay in, part of a king suite that was plenty sweet enough to be suitable for royalty (those sheets are soft as butah, and sure, I see all the problems with that simile, but you get it). Also note while the wallpaper is still fun, it's not quite as dramatic as the kind in the hallway--after all, you spend some time in this room, especially as once you're on it, you never want to leave the bed. 

You will leave the bed, for many reasons, since you're in Nevada City, a cute as a button California Gold Rush hamlet (that's when buttons were still cute) quite happy to show off its history and natural beauty. We'll get to all that. But first you get to your sitting room, which invites plopping down with a good book--high ceilinged, well-lit, no wallpaper to distract you. 

Note much of the furniture is antique, clearly hunted for and curated, so each room has its own charm. Also note--no TV. You better be able to make your own fun, or better yet, your own peace. The quiet of the place, despite being resurrected from the bones of a hotel that originally opened in 1856, is surprising. Neither crotchety creaks or your neighbors behind a century-thinned wall will disturb you. If you're desperate for the 21st century, there is wifi. There's a tablet next to the bed with Netflix fired up if you need it.

There's also a view of Broad Street, Nevada City's main drag (although this photo is taken from the second floor balcony that any guest has access to, off an inviting lounge--featuring the world's longest sectional couch--where each morning there's coffee and scones). Yep, it's a town with saloons, some vacant spaces because it's 2021 post?-pandemic America, art galleries, and some recognition of the Native Americans who came before those hungry for gold in the 1850s and those hungry for vacations in the 2000s. 

There's even the Nevada Theatre, which might not look like much from the outside, but is California's oldest existing theater building. It opened a few months after Lincoln was assassinated, evidently not too worried about the scare John Wilkes Booth put into play-goers. Mark Twain performed there. (Yeah even then writers had to do tours to make some bank.) They're hoping to start performances again, too, COVID-willing.

Alas, from what I can tell, one of the region's most notorious performers might never have performed at the Nevada Theatre as she was "retired" for the two years she lived in nearby Grass Valley. That's Lola Montez, who I first learned of from the Max Ophuls' film Lola Montès, which tell you more about obscure-film-loving-me than about Montes or Nevada City. She was a character, though, an infamous international lover--her affair with Ludwig I of Bavaria led to his abdication--and she danced the tarantella, complete with rubber spiders flying out of the folds of her frantically twirling dress. To honor her, the National Exchange Hotel has named its dining room after her.

And now is as good a time as any to mention another smart, successful, adventurous woman, Sherry Villanueva, managing partner and owner of Acme Hospitality, that people Santa Barbara will know for some of the town's best dining spots, from The Lark to Loquita to La Paloma. Acme is behind the restoration of the National (and of the also historic Holbrooke down the road a patch in Grass Valley), and that does mean the food program is going to be a focus, no mere afterthought.

And serious cocktails will be the first thought. Of course, anyone serious about cocktails knows to be playful, too, so you could order something like a Morning Glory, that comes with a special teabag infusion.

Or something a bit more direct, the Limelight, that I made the mistake of not taking notes about, and the bar menu isn't on the website. It was delicious, though, and I recall chartreuse was involved, so what could be wrong?

It's a gorgeous room, with nifty light fixtures and plenty of mirrors, so lots of reflected glow that makes you and you fellow diners even more beautiful than you are (and I have no doubts you are). Blue banquettes line the walls, both for comfort and sound absorption, always an issue in a building with so much exposed brick. And it's a perfect place to feast on frites, as we both did--Chryss had the moules frites and I had the steak frites. There was a lot more cream in that wine sauce than in some versions of the mussels, so it was pretty decadent, and also just pretty, with sea beans scattered atop adding crunch and even more salt. The steak was perfectly cooked to medium rare, and speaking of decadent, I would have bathed in the Bearnaise. Many of my fries certainly did.

I do not mean to slight the precursors to our mains, either, a savory smoked salmon mousse with potatoes gaufrettes--a fancy name for chips that these delights earned--and a farmers market fresh salad of butter leaf lettuce, cherries, pickled onion, pepitas, and a healthy toss of Humboldt fog cheese (Northern California, represent!) Or our server, who paced the meal perfectly, offered wonderful advice, and really seemed glad to be there, as was true for all the staff in the hotel. (Side note: all through our two night stay we repeatedly witnessed staff training other staff--a lot of learning was going on, no doubt as the hotel has faced the same employment issues everyone in the service industry has faced of late.)

Oh, and the next night we returned to the bar to have more from that cocktail list, and while those drinks we consumed are lost to our gullets and history, they were delightful, too. Plus, here's what that bar looks like--spiffy time travel.

Of course, Nevada City itself is a trip back in time. At least two times, I should say, for while the predominant building style is Gold Rush meets Victorian chic, the town was re-infused with architectural goodness during the WPA, and that means there's a cool art moderne City Hall and this County Courthouse that sits atop one of the town's many hills, so is yet more imposing.

Meanwhile, all the old school brick places tend to be re-purposed for more modern uses. Take the old Assay Office, which now houses Harmony Books, a wonderful independent book store with a fine selection plus cool stuff like lots of tarot cards and jigsaw puzzles. It even had a book Chryss and I have poems in displayed in its window, California Fire & Water: A Climate Crisis Anthology, edited by local poet Molly Fisk. So we felt particularly welcome.

And indeed, there are other places to eat and drink in town, although we weren't there long enough to sample that many. We did dig the old time atmosphere at the Golden Era, with one of the prettiest tin ceilings I've ever seen, plus cool cocktails like the Repeat Offender, which made bourbon and mezcal sing together, with the help of some super syrup, old fashioned bitters, and a flamed orange disc for yet more smokiness, and the Bandito Escondido, an amped up margarita variation with mezcal, lemon and lime juice, Ancho Reyes liqueur, and hell-fire bitters--spicy fun.

And there's a perfect place to eat and drink, Three Forks Bakery & Brewing, which left me with the pressing question--why aren't there a million bakery/beer brewers, or at the least one within walking distance of my house? Turns out we wound up there three times in one day, kicking off with scrumptious baked goods and lattes to start our morning, having a post-hike beer midday, and then returning for dinner, too, splitting a pizza and a salad that was all of late summer freshness. And yes, the beer is great, too. We can't say enough about the cosy, casual Three Forks.

As for that hike (just one of many in the region), you can start right from the hotel, traipse through town (past the winery we never visited, the Odd Fellows Hall now an art gallery we didn't peruse), then into a neighborhood of houses (some with "we believe in science" posters in their yards, one with a giant InfoWars banner on its side--neighborhood gatherings must be fun!), and eventually you get to the Deer Creek Tribute Trail. The titular creek runs through a gouge of rock, and you even get to cross it on a very current suspension bridge that can still give one the willies as it shimmers many feet above the creek bed. Still, gorgeous (no pun intended). And about as easy a hike as one can take and get to see lots of actual nature. (It eventually loops you back into downtown.)

I hope I made it clear how wonderful the renovation of the hotel was, but if not, here's one more photo to convince you. Isn't that an eye-catching stairwell? The sense of detail and design is truly spectacular.

So let's not forget when and how it all began for this property that's been on the National Register of Historic Places since the Nixon presidency, so even its historic nature is historic. Not sure why pointing out this was the site of the first whipping post in the state is a plus, but maybe when the plaque went up someone really loved the Allman Brothers? I promise if you stay at the National Exchange Hotel, you will leave your blues at home.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Review of Jo Ann Beard's "Festival Days"

There’s an honored and honorable tradition of writers writing to explain why they write, from George Orwell to Joan Didion to Annie Dillard. Jo Ann Beard, author of The Boys of My Youth and In Zanesville, joins that tradition with her elliptical, associative essay “Close,” that is found in her new powerful collection Festival Days. “Close,” which bumps amongst ducks, preparing for an academic talk, a poem by Dennis Nurske, also offers straight forward advice likes this: 

 “So in order to make art (literature) out of just that—human experiences and emotions—we have to find new and surprising ways to convey our insights. That means we have to have insights, which means we have to think, and that means we have to work to create art out of life, to bring something new to each sentence, a surprise for the reader. Not in a pyrotechnic way, but through intelligence, through our powers of imagination, and through the rigorous refusal to waste a reader’s time.”

You can read the rest of the review at the California Review of Books.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Sta. Rita Hills--20 Years of Excellence and Elegance

The Sta. Rita Hills Alliance threw itself a heck of a party this past weekend, as it's been 20 years SRH has been an official AVA--my how time flies when you're making great wine. But even better, it's 50 years since Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict planted the vineyard that bears their names, and fittingly, that's where the Wine and Fire festivities began on Thursday night.

I'm going to get a bit highfalutin here, so hang on, please. There's something holy about that mossy Sanford & Benedict barn. After all, it's not that often you get to stand where something began and by standing there totally feel history in all its effort and magic. Look at that wind whipping the banner in the photo, bringing the Pacific in thanks to Santa Barbara's famous transverse mountain ranges. That it's all beauteous scenery is just sort of bonus, but still. It makes me think of the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, where a young and too-soon-dead Masaccio figured out perspective and then painted some stunning murals that kick-started the Renaissance. Michelangelo would stand in front of these master paintings for hours, tracking to crack the new code. And we sort of know what he ended up doing.

Well, Richard Sanford, fortunately still with us, is our Masaccio, and since several generations of filmmakers have stood in Sanford & Benedict Vineyard and made some of the best Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs California has ever tasted. Many of them were being poured at Thursday's event. Bryan Babcock (more on him in a bit) poured a Pinot from the AVA's first vintage, for instance. Twenty years meant its fruit had faded, of course it was a bit brickish, but the acid life made it clear what a wine it once was.

(And on a crucial side note, that's a cutout of Jim Clendenen, who's spirit infused the weekend. While his winery Au Bon Climat is in the Santa Maria Valley, as a force of nature, friend, teacher, there was no escaping his influence anywhere in the county, and yes, he did make S&B wines that are still sophisticated and delicious.)

Gray Hartley and Frank Ostini were both on hand, regaling the crowd with stories at the Hitching Post table, while taking us on a hop-scotching vertical journey through their S&B's, 2018, '16, '14, '01, 1999. As someone said, "Hey, we're drinking a wine from a different century." But it was all very much S&B, which in general features lip-smacking dark cherry to blackberry fruit, but then something special--a saline hint of that marine influence, some coastal herbal notes (no, not the recent coastal herb crop...), some floral notes. Always complex. An S&B Pinot, for me, is like when you meet someone you find intriguing and they only get more lovely the more you get to know them. 

Again, the oldest vintages were interesting to taste as how often do you get that chance?, but I'd still argue the sweet spot for the wines was eight or nine years, as that HP 2014 and Richard Longoria's 2013 were simply singing arias of Pinot magnificence that night. And it wasn't just the "old" masters of SB winemaking that knocked it out of the park--we also delighted in the very first Dragonette S&B Pinot 2019, a wee but big baby that's worth waiting out, the delicious, light on its feet Liquid Farm S&B Pinot 2018, and two wines from Tyler, who poured both S&B Pinot and a supremely elegant S&B Chardonnay.

And Full of Life Flatbreads kept is happily munching away as we sipped, with their usually fine flatbreads, but also some killer summer-in-a-cup gazpacho and corn served as "ribs." They take a bandsaw to the cobs and then roast them in the pizza oven, serving them slathered with a garlicky aoli. 

Friday we got to attend the sold-out Dinner Honoring the Pioneers of the SRH La Paulee, held at the Alma Rosa Winery. What a group of honorees that was--Wes Hagen was emcee, and he led a pre-dinner panel of  Bryan Babcock of Babcock Winery, Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton, Ken Brown of Ken Brown Wines,  Kathy Joseph of Fiddlehead Cellars, Rick Longoria of Longoria Wines, Bruce McGuire of Lafond Winery, Frank Ostini of Hitching Post, and Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa. Everyone reminisced abut Jim Clendenen to start, an emotional, but still often humorous beginning, for as Hagen said after, "We didn't hold a moment of silence because Jim would have hated that." Instead, Joseph recalled his kindness letting her make her second and third vintages at his production facility for free, Sanford charmingly called him a "rascal," and Ostini summed it up by saying, "He always offered us a challenge...Jim was as important as any winemaker in California."

The panel also concluded with the naming of the 2021 Vintner of the Year, Bryan Babcock. Presenting the award, Hagen recalled decades ago when Babcock pulled him aside and said, in contradiction to some press at the time, "This isn't the west side of the Santa Ynez Valley, it's the Santa Rita Hills." And certainly the evening was a proof of that.

For, as you might know, a La Paulee dinner has its roots in Burgundy as a harvest celebration. The feast featured winemakers bringing their best wine both to impress and to say thank you to their crucial community. Things began with lots of sparkling from Flying Goat, Kessler-Haak, Pali, Sanford, and Spear, with Aaron Walker's Sparkling Rosé of Pinot Noir a definite highlight (plus, I got at least this picture!).

Then throughout the meal it sort of came down to what winemakers were sitting nearby as to what wines you got to enjoy. Luckily, we were next to Greg Brewer who shared a wealth of big bottle brilliance, from a 2011 S-D Chardonnay to a 2009 Ampelos Vineyard Pinot. Again, Brewer's wines proved a decade is a sweet spot for SRH wines, so if you have some stashed, drink up. (If you didn't hang on to any, that makes plenty of sense, too.) The honorees/pioneers were pretty good about making the rounds, too, so you got a sip of Babcock, a splash of Longoria, a taste of Fiddlehead, plus Kathy Joseph's story about how she beat rock promoters to the word Lollapalooza. Plus, many fun folks to dine with. (Side note: Wine Alliance, make it clearer you want guests to bring wine too, or drop that maybe they should. And no, I'm not just whining because I did bring a bottle and most other guests didn't.....)

And, of course, there was food, plenty of it, courtesy of the team from the Alisal Ranch led by chef Anthony Endy. Buffet feeding is always a bit tricky, but they pulled it off with aplomb and a lot of red oak--it was a true, classic Santa Maria style feast. But that said, it's always hard to compete with all the wine buzz at an event like this.

At that point I was celebrated out, but there were more events--focused tastings on aging wines, sparkling, and a grand tasting on Saturday at La Purisima Mission. It's been an amazing 20 years for this AVA, and one can only look forward to the next 200. To leave you with one last Sanford & Benedict image, here's a view out the barn itself, with all apologies to John Ford's The Searchers for the framing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

A Review of Marc Ribot's "Unstrung"


Brilliant guitarist that not enough people know by name Marc Ribot has written his first book, Unstrung: Rants and Stories of a Noise Guitarist, and all those scary words in the title are meant to warn you. Not very many pages in, while eulogizing Derek Bailey (yet another level of obscure guitarist deep), Ribot writes: “The palpable fear of beginning from, of returning to…silence/nothing…is an expression of the fear that the sounds you make won’t compare favorably with the silence which preceded/follows it. This in turn represents a deeper fear. In music, too, silence may equal death. The suspicion that both are preferable, and all this implies, is among the oldest of terrors.”

You can read the rest of the review at the California Review of Books.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Presidio Neighborhood Welcomes Alessia Patisserie

Alessia Patisserie + Café has such a musical ring to it that it’s surprising the name wasn’t the first thing that popped into Alessia Guehr’s mind before opening her jewel box of a spot on East Canon Perdido. But given that her parents, Brigitte Guehr and Norbert Schulz, are Santa Barbara food scene veterans — arguably, the creators of it — who both owned restaurants named after themselves, Alessia eventually realized, “I should keep up the family tradition.” 

 And that she does, not just in name. Guehr’s team had to demo pretty much everything in what was briefly Miso Hungry to create this inviting urban space of hardwood floors, copper banquettes, and a pastry display that demands damning the calories, as full devouring is ahead. “People eat first with their eyes,” Guehr explained, “so everything has to be beautiful.”

If you want to read the rest of this story, you can at the Independent.

(Photo of the duck confit sandwich mentioned later in the story)

Sunday, July 25, 2021

A Review of Cecilia Tichi's "Gilded Age Cocktails"


If you’ve ever wondered how historical nonfiction can be dry like a martini and not dry like a textbook tome, you need to pick up Cecelia Tichi’s Gilded Age Cocktails. A professor of American literature and culture at Vanderbilt (and the Commodore who founded that university even makes an appearance in the book, as both a figure and a cocktail), Tichi brings to glittering life what it meant to drink from 1870-1910. Chock full of quotes from primary sources of the day with titles like 1890’s Society as I Have Found It, Tichi makes clear how much lubrication kept this period of history afloat, prior to the double blow of a first World War and Prohibition.

You can read the rest of the review at California Review of Books.

Friday, July 16, 2021

A Review of Richard Buckner's "Cuttings from the Tangle"


Richard Buckner, songwriter, singer, can open a song with the lines “Tough is as she does, won’t you slump on over and stir my shuffle down,” and you don’t get too hung up on not parsing each word exactly. Part of it is this is a song, and while the melody is simple, it’s still catchy enough in its strummy guitar way to draw you in. Part of it is Buckner sells it with his emotive baritone that helps make the somewhat odd words feel lived in. You get the emotional weight of a relationship from these lines even if you don’t get the outlines of the actors.

Want to read the rest of this review, then do so at the California Review of Books.