Friday, February 22, 2013

Splendor of the Grass

This Brahma is a lot of bull, with horns that look like they could open a car like a tin can, but also droopy ears that make him look like an oversized goat. Alex Fleming has no problem going right up to him — while I maintain respectful, journalistic distance from those horns — to give him a pet. “He’s kind of the babysitter here,” Fleming says. “I always feel he should be decorated in flowers on some street in New Delhi.” This approximately 25-year-old senior is sort of a mascot for the Zaca Ranch Cattle Co., a boutique beef operation out on Foxen Canyon Road in the midst of wine country (and, no, the ranch isn’t connected to Zaca Mesa Winery).

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

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Garagiste Against the Machine

Good timing is often simply good luck, and that's certainly the case with my arrival in Santa Barbara. 1994 was pretty much the dawn of the success of the county's wine industry, so I've had the opportunity to taste and learn, over and over. In those nearly 20 years pioneers have gone bankrupt--twice--while still making terrific vino, a Hollywood film put Pinot on the map, a new AVA got carved out every few years or so, exes and partners have stood equal or more (let's not quibble) with their spouses/exes/"pals" as winemakers, people figured out where to grow Bordeaux varietals (remember the green pepper in every cab once upon a time?), and you can hit 17 wineries without even heading over the hill. Once the Wine Cask's Futures Program was the best way to keep your deeply red thumb on the vinous pulse of the county, but with that a mere memory (unless you have a really deep wine cellar), it was fascinating to attend The Garagiste Festival Southern Exposure: Celebrating the Artisan Winemakers of the Santa Ynez Valley tasting on February 16. There one got to sample the wine of 32 artisans (oh, ok, I hate that word too, but it did mean something once, and does here), who, despite sometimes having ties to larger, more established wineries, all are up to something new, and if nothing else, small. Ryan Cohchrane might win the precious prize, having made only 12 barrels of wine in 2012 (his wines all seem to have names that end "sold out").

But selling out is far from a problem with this intriguing, intrepid group. I had to start my tasting at Larry Shaffer's Tercero Wines table, who, at this point, if he's a garagiste, has at least a three-car garage. As usual he offered an abundance of riches (starting with a vivid '09 Mourvedre) and then some, as he always seems to pour something off the list, too. (OK, I have to admit this was the media/trade tasting, so everyone was trying to double impress. And that works, you know.) One of his greatest projects is a Mourvedre Rose, its pale-pale color and odd funk on the nose (barnyard?) simply not preparing the palate for such a lovely wine that he wisely compared to a Tavel.

Indeed, a pleasant preponderance of pinks on what was a warm day made summer seem very near. In addition to Tercero's, Altman Winery offered a '10 Rose from Petit Syrah that packed a surprising amount of fruit while remaining dry, A-non-ah-mus poured a '12 Rose from Syrah barrel-sample that asked for a veranda with a view to be imbibed upon, and Kaena (another one of the slightly more established garagistes) poured a '12 Grenache Rose barrel-sample to prove many a grape can make a wonderful pink wine.

Well, there's a danger of a write-up like this one to become a mere list, plus when you're trying to taste upwards of 100 wines in two hours, it becomes a bit of a stunt more than a stroll--and since the winemakers themselves were pouring, it was easy to want to linger, discovering winemaker's goals, learning about growing seasons, finding out stories like how the Miller family bought J. Wilkes after Jeff's untimely death and are carrying on his tradition (very very well, it seems).

That said, here are a few producers you want to look for, even though you might have to look hard, as their output is about what a Gallo cranks out since I typed "what a Gallo cranks out."

Ground Effect
Nick de Luca, who has worked at Star Lane/Dierberg among other places, is crafting delightful, sometimes unusual blends, like an '11 Gravity Check that includes Chenin Blanc, Albarino, and Pinot Gris, and he admits as it ages the wine seems to favor one or the other in its profile. There's also the '11 Rock Garden Syrah, Grenache, Zinfandel, a big red monster of berries and vanilla.

La Fenetre
Joshua Klapper aims for direct, elegant wines that could be alongside dictionary definitions of varietals, if you had a dictionary that you could lick to see what things were. OK, that might be a bit gross a description, but the wines--Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah--are anything but.

Shai Cellars
Shawn Shai Halahamy makes bold reds. His '09 Adome is 65% Syrah and 35% Cab and %100 luscious. It could turn PETA's executive board into carnivores, it calls for steak so. His '09 Grenache, as he puts it, "is incredibly savory and meaty, showing copious amounts of dried cherries and kirsch, smoked leather, dried beef, and ground pepper on the nose. This leads to a medium-bodied wine that has a supple, light texture, notable balance, and a long finish." Not only do I agree, I can barely read my notes from this point.

After all the talk in this entry about reds and pinks, it was necessary to include the photo below, with a bit of American flag. But at least our local wine country can wave its banner proudly, with wines like these.

When you opt not to park in spots of a lot marked "Police Station Business Only" for a wine festival, it's advisable to pick a place within walking distance to eat-it-off, as it were. And since this fest ran from noon-2, it seemed a perfect time to walk into Solvang and get a delightful late lunch at Cecco. It certainly didn't hurt it was one of those Santa Barbara perfect spring days that just happen to spring in the middle of February--where else could one want to dine but al fresco in Cecco's charming courtyard? The Caesar salad is a straightforward presentation (Chef David Cecchini is a classicist at heart), all about the crisp romaine, crunchy but not gob-stopper croutons, Parmesan, and a dressing zippy with garlic and anchovy. Then came two wood-fired pizzas, the thin crusts variably charred--since they're cooked in a real wood oven--and the topings spare, but not to the point you need to hunt them down. The Pomodoro was especially lovely with its fire-roasted red and yellow tomatoes a-burst with flavor. Not that the Bianco, adrift in its "snow" of arugula, didn't offer  perfect flavor profile itself, with its salt and brine from artichoke hearts, its richness from daubs of ricotta, and then some red onion and garlic for those notes only the most strong of lilies deliver. A fine way to end the day--plenty left over for lunch the next day, too.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

You're Not Getting Any Younger

So I've got this friend who has lived such a wonderful life that because of that very life (that included the high years--hint hint--of the '60s - '80s) he can't remember much of it in detail. Consider it lost in a fog of sorts. Well, this friend, he sort of casually let slip that he had once slept with Faye Dunaway. As a huge fan of Chinatown, Bonnie & Clyde, Network, and ridiculously gorgeous women, I replied, "And?" My friend generally isn't bashful, more likely to try to say something to shock than, well, say anything at all. He said he didn't remember. That is, he admitted he didn't remember this:

Now, comparing a lovely woman to a beer might be a massive error in scale, but I'm going to take that risk. I'm pretty sure I've had a Pliny the Younger. Those of you in the hophead-know know that Younger is one of the most sought after beers in the world, often topping Beer Advocate's list of the best brews around the globe. Russian River in Santa Rosa releases just a tiny bit of it each February, mostly at its own brewpub, but some to its best accounts.

But a timeline here is important. Russian River started brewing Younger (it also brews the rare but not Holy Grail-esque Pliny the Elder) in 2005; Beer Advocate's high-hosanna praise made it the Honus Wagner baseball card of beer in 2010. So for five years in between, it was just a damn good brew. I think I had it then, not knowing it would "grow up" to become something like saying you saw the Beatles in Hamburg and Stu Sutcliffe sweat on you. I've had a lot of good beers in my good life, and I keep having them, so it's hard to be transformed by one pint (or half pint, as Younger is generally sold now, so the keg can get to 248 servings). I mean if we only talk double and triple IPAs, there's Pliny the Elder to start, 90 Minute and 120 Minute Dogfish Head, Avery's Maharaja, Green Flash's Imperial (even better, my wife's favorite beer), Green Flash's Palate Wrecker, Alpine's Pure Hoppiness and Exponential Hoppiness, Ballast Point's Dorado Double, Oskar Blues' Gubna, Port's Mongo and Hop 15, Bear Republic's Racer X, and then locally Firestone's Double Jack, Figueroa Mountain's Hurricane Deck, and Hollister's Hip Hop. That's enough drinking to numb your tongue--and perhaps your memory--for a couple of decades.

So that's why I figured 2013 was the year I got Younger. For sure. I even set up a Google Alert to try to track it, not that doing so kept me from searching too (and a good thing, as my alert was merely for news--if you want to learn anything, these days, follow the blogs). Timing just kept not quite working out, but we decided a road trip to Haven Gastropub in Pasadena on Presidents' Day might work, especially as it was already a day off. We couldn't get a super early start, but figured hitting the road from SB at 8:30ish for an 11 o'clock event kickoff might work.

I bet you thought this would be a story of LA traffic and 202 minutes on the 101. But that wasn't the issue--the first real line we hit...was the one outside Haven. That photo at the top (no, keep going past the Dunaway picture, and I know you lingered) is the mere first turn in the line that snaked down McConnell Alley and then turned left again to where we stood at 10:20 am, and most probably too late. But after that, you wait, cause you never know. There was at least one baby in the line in front of us, so that was one person not drinking. Oh, and for Gaucho pride, the first two guys (yep, the line was mostly guys, mostly in their 20s and 30s) in line were wearing UCSB sweatshirts and got there at 6 am. Clearly we weren't devoted/crazy/young enough for this.

The line started forward at 11. And stopped. Every ten minutes it would proceed another 12 feet or so, but it was only 11:40 when the word came out--the keg of Pliny the Younger was done. At first everyone just stood there, afraid it was a trick to shake the trustworthy out of the line. But then the word came out even stronger. Up to 45 people in front of us still didn't get in, so we weren't really close. I was prepared for this eventuality, storing away the title for a blog entry just like this one (look above, oh, there she is again...).

The day got more refusatory (ok, that's not a word, but I like it) as we walked the couple of blocks to Lucky Baldwin's, figuring we could drown our sorrows in their Belgian Beer Fest. We got a table, sat, waited. Tried not to breathe too much--it didn't smell the best in there, as we were close to a clean-the-plate dump and then there's years of spilled beer and someone with too much perfume. One server said she'd get to us, but then didn't for another 5 minutes. We bailed. After all, we were supposed to be enjoying hoppy beer, not malty yeasty beer.

We were headed across the street (Pasadena aside--is it good to have so many bars in a town that allows for diagonal street crossing? Discuss) thinking let's try Umami Burger, as we never have. At this point it was lunch time, too. There we saw the two guys from behind us on the failed Younger line, and they suggested Congregation Ale House (thanks, guys whose names we don't know!). Turns out the place wasn't too crowded and does the Father's Office style, order at the bar, get it delivered to your seat kind of thing. Five minutes, and we had ordered and sat, with beers. The place was already better than anywhere else we'd been.

It's one more of the LA places that figured it out you can do tasty sausages, even vegan ones, on the cheap. For $7 we each got a sausage (a vegan apple sage for Chryss, a duck bacon for me) draped with perfectly cooked onions and peppers on a non-pockety pita and spread with stone ground mustard. Plus fries, Belgian for her, sweet potato (with a bit too much sugar as well as salt--they are ALREADY sweet potatoes, folks) for me, with chipotle mayo and Sriracha ketchup. As for beers, we got to try three we'd never had before, and what more could one want form a beer hunt (of 90 miles or more)--a Birrificio del Ducato Nuova Mattina (which is Italian for a mild and pleasing saison rarely on tap in the U.S.), an Epic Hopulent DIPA (it must make the Mormons of SLC wild), and a Victory Ranch R Double IPA. Add two more DIPAs to the hops happily drunk by this pops list up above.

There was some walking. An independent bookstore. Buying of a book about my favorite indy band. More walking and back to Haven, figuring we needed to see the inside, needed to have Elder, at least. The beer board still teased us with Younger, but isn't that the young for you.

I was hoping, a bit, to hate Haven as it turned me away before I could even ask it for a date, as it were. The place was quite nice, though, the bartender busy as heck but on top of his game (anyone who offers you a taster wins in my bag), and Pliny the Elder, you know, is a mighty fine beer--no double IPA seems so balanced, so full, so in control but still threatening. Haven brews, too, and their 100 Rubles Imperial Russian Stout warmed my Ukrainian heart, or is that liver, oaky and pungent and willing to spank your nose with every bit of its 14% ABV.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Island of Misfit Torchon

A couple of observations from this week's Top Chef (spoilers, sort of)--Season 10, Episode 15.

First, and maybe it was just the dog-sledding and the glaciers and snow, but were these two separated at birth? And sorry I couldn't find a screen cap of Josh in the snow.

Second, was the Quickfire Challenge nothing more than an excuse to fly in a helicopter? Brooke won, and got nothing for it. No moolah, no year's supply of plastic wrap, not even a sled dog puppy (which, no doubt, she would turn out to be afraid of). No advantage going into the Elimination Challenge. Have they ever done that before on TC?