Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Uni + Pinot = Very Happy Me-o


I was hoping I'd get to write something about a fantastic feast from World of Pinot Noir closer to the feast itself (on Friday, March 2), but perhaps I'm still recovering, lost in the sensory world so much that I don't want to spend too much time in contemplation. True, that might be my usual state, but a dinner like The Art of Japanese Cuisine and Freeman Winery Pinot Noir, with Guest Chef Ken Tominaga, puts the you in voluptuous, if that makes any sense. I did do a write up/interview with Ken Freeman prior to the dinner, so go check that out if you haven't yet for more winery details, but the quick lesson is his wife Akiko Freeman makes wines of grace, poise, depth and acidity, and they cry out for pairing with food.

This evening wasn't just any food, of course, as Chef Tominaga is a star of the Bay Area and Sonoma, and he and the Freemans are friends too, so it's a very simpatico pairing. Since it's been awhile and much of my memory of the evening is a rosy glow of gustatory glory (plus my notes in the darkened dining room at the Spa at the Ritz Carlton Bacara are hard to the read to the point that one scribble I can make out taunts future-me with "you will not be able to read this"), I will focus on two delectable courses, numbers 1 and 4 (of 5 with an unannounced dessert too), both pictured above.

Course the first is Happy Spoon with Golden Osetra Caviar, but it seems a bit misnamed, as it's really Happy Happy Eater Left with Golden Smile. Chef suggested we get it all in one bite, and while it wasn't too big for that, it was a tad sad to see it all gone in a minute of mouthful, the oyster and uni and caviar and sauce all and everything of the briny sea, as if you'd cleared out the pantry of Davy Jones' Locker (ignore all the shipwreck imagery, though). You did get to wash it down with the 2016 Freeman Ryo-fu Chardonnay, mostly sourced from stellar Sonoma Vineyards Keefer and Heintz Ranches, so it is a Happy Glass of elegant juice, some more tropical notes yet underlined with citrus and apple fruit, and, as with most Freeman wines, a finish that could match the power of the urchin you ate with it.

Course the fourth is Uni and Hokkaido Scallop Risotto with chive blossoms and shiso, so yes, Chef likes his urchin and you better too. Somehow this kept from becoming an umami atom bomb that blew your taste buds into submission--it kept revealing itself gradual, almost a bit coy, as long as you nibbled a bit at the uni tongue atop the plating and didn't gulp it at once. The rice was perfectly cooked (always a bit tricky for serving a room at once, even if just about 35 dinners tops), and those scallops had just the sear you want, just the give, and more taste than you might ever ask for. That got paired with a 2011 Freeman RRV Pinot Noir from a vintage about which Akiko joked "it was the summer that never came." Now, you might think that's a worry in an already cool climate region, but perhaps it just gave the vines more time to work and think, probably about how someday their fruit would have to stand up and deliver next to such a ridiculously good plate of food. They did. The Freeman website describes the wine well, noting its "alluring deep ruby color, with a ripe nose of blackberry, toast...a racy entry that erupts into flavors of wild berry, olive and smoked meats. The large-framed palate, and long, fruity finish...." Well, sometimes what sounds like pr puffery is merely apt description. And at a grand dinner like this one, it's hard for any write-up to not sound like fantasy.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Coast Village Road’s New Clubhouse





While it took five years for the sleek Oliver’s to happen in the spot that used to be homey Peabody’s on Coast Village Road, the new plant-based restaurant opened last October 29, firing on all cylinders. “We had incredible momentum building,” said Assistant GM Phillip Thompson, “lots of guests, good social media reviews, regulars after the first week, a big Thanksgiving.”

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

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Wild, Wide World of WOPN

Illustrating a story about a 2018 World of Pinot Noir Grand Tasting (that's their adjective, and it isn't just puffery with more than 150 producers usually pouring at least two wines each...see, it takes a grand amount of even parenthetical words to describe the grandiosity) with a single bottle of wine might seem perverse, but in this case I promise it isn't. There's my first taste of a very long day (this will actually be two blog posts, it's that long a day into night) last Friday at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara, and I choose it specifically because its winemaker was sitting next to me. That would be Karen Steinwachs, who people probably know better from Buttonwood, but then she's got this even smaller designer label to make pinot and chardonnay, and she just happens to be on WOPN's Board of Directors, too. That mostly means she does a lot of work and can talk to the press and say clever things (very much so--she's one of our wittier winemakers).

Turns out the media room makes you very glad you're media; call me fake news all you want, I'll just be over here pouring myself another sample of delicious pinot. Like Seagrape's 2015 Jump Up, a perfect expression of the magic of the Sta. Rita Hills--both light on the balls of its feet and a bit ballsy, too--think Gene Kelly jammed into a bottle. Sure there's cherry, spice, pomegranate, but it's how every tasty bit adds up to a greater whole that makes the wine so lovely.

And that's the best way to think about the somewhat daunting event. You enter into Bacara ballrooms that look as big as a football field, and while some of that is tables of food and cheese and lots of Fiji water (hello plastic, goodbye sustainability), most of it is producers pouring wines and stories. You might walk in just as Santa Barbara legend Richard Sanford walks in, and you feel all historical--he spotted greatness here (well, not at the Bacara--you know what I mean) before nearly anyone. So you go drink at the Alma Rosa table, and he tells you "It's fun again, George," as he's the kind of man who remembers your name and uses it, and times better be jolly as the wines are joyous, especially the 2015 Barrel Select he shares that's blueberry, blackberry, violet, but more than anything, delicate.

But there's so much to taste there's no good way to list all my notes, not even the highlights, like Greg Brewer pouring a 2007 Ampelos Vineyard pinot (yum!) as he discusses the 10-20 year out sweet spot he believes our local pinots find, using a metaphor of flowers that when you get them they aren't quite open and full yet, and then dead the very next day, no, he sees Brewer-Clifton wines opening and opening, growing into their beautiful bloom.

And, of course, WOPN's not just local wines, because why buy the cow when the SYV's a car-ride away? (I think I mixed a bad metaphor there.) No, you can try a producer like Nimrod from Hungary, where the volcanic soil leads to a more minerally wine, and perhaps a better cuvee with only 20% pinot, but mostly built on kekfrankos, and I'm not trying to be wise to say that's just Hungarian for Blaufränkisch, but now you can see how far from just pinot we are, let alone Santa Barbara. 

Of course you've got people like Josh Klapper from Timbre sharing a hard cider (very refreshing, especially amidst all the cherry/berry bursts elsewhere), and tables pouring regions/AVAs for you--Morgen McLaughlin was back in town repping Willamette Valley and their typical Oregon earthy-shroomy notes, for example--and soon you run into people you know, and people you just know as you've met them at another table, and everything is a bright bow of delight. 

That's what a grand tasting can do for you--prove pinot is doing very well and you can do better if you drink enough of it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Freeman Wines Star at WOPN Dinner


Sure, there's that old idea about someone being born with a silver spoon in his mouth (it's probably a him, c'mon). But how about having a happy spoon in your mouth, one filled with golden Osetra caviar? I mean, what other kind of spoon could it be? And what if I told you that's just course one? Forget about a life of stereotypical privilege, just sign me up for the The Art of Japanese Cuisine and Freeman Winery Pinot Noir, with Guest Chef Ken Tominaga, at the World of Pinot Noir this Friday at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara.

While many people are (wisely) perfectly happy just hitting one or both of the two grand tastings WOPN (pronounce it like you mean it) holds every year--fantastic ballrooms full of the best pinot you can have in a three hour period in the world--the evening events take on a decidedly even more exploratory and opulent edge, and the Freeman dinner is exhibit A. Freeman can boast sheets of 90+ scores for its Sonoma pinots and chardonnays, from vineyards getting closer and closer to the Pacific (Freeman--along with Peay, Littorai, Red Car, Freestone and Failla--is also one of the six founding members of the West Sonoma Coast Vintners, fantastic wineries all.)

I recently got to ask Ken Freeman, who runs the operation with his wife, winemaker Akiko, "Freeman was cold climate before cold climate was cool, in a way. What drew you to make such wines?" And he said,  "After coming back from living in Asia in 1997 we joined the mailing list of Littorai, Flowers etc. We loved the acidity and complexity of the grapes coming from this high elevation, foggy region."

While Freeman Vineyards & Winery was founded in 2001, it took some time to pick the perfect spot for their own estate wines, so they sourced from some of the best, like Heintz (a long-time spot for stellar Williams Selyem chardonnays) and Keefer Ranch. Now, I asked, what do they get from growing their own fruit in the Gloria and Yu-Ki Vineyards they own? "We were and are so fortunate to be able to source fruit and work with these leading growers," Freeman explained, "but we were able to purchase two amazing vineyard sites, and select and plant the clones that we really wanted to work with, and farm the vineyard exactly how we wanted." You can go to their website to see a detailed maps of clones and a discussion of drainage, row design, etc.

That kind of pride, and yeah, sure, geekery (in the best, you taste it in the bottle sense), is well-earned. "We have been coming to WOPN for 15 years and have also looked forward to the road trip south and the seeing existing customers along with meeting new potential customers," Freeman remarked. "We have also found the audience of pinot noir lovers to be passionate, informed and wanting to learn more. This is a real honor for our wines to be featured at a dinner."

That five-course dinner closes with a beef-eater's dream, Schmitz Ranch 28-day Prime Dry Aged Ribeye with Squash Puree, Mushrooms, Black Truffles, Baby Kale, and Au Poivre Sauce, paired with 2014 Akiko’s Cuvee (which scored 94 points in Wine Enthusiast). I asked about how the menu was developed--food first? wine first? a bit of both? "Chef Ken is very familiar with our elegant and balanced style of wines, and we are very familiar with many of his dishes so this was an easy pairing," Freeman pointed out. "I am especially excited about his Uni and Hokkaido scallop risotto." (Now that he mentions it, I am too.)

Just as the wine/food pairing for this elegant, extravagant meal seem to happen easily, choosing Tominaga was also a match made in culinary heaven. (Tominaga is so good, Michael Mina eats at his restaurant.) "Ken and his wife Emiko are close friends, so it was so nice of him and his team to drive all the way down to prepare this dinner," Freeman says. "Ken also owns and works at Hana in Sonoma on the weekends and we get to see him on a regular basis."

We're all going to be sad we don't get to see him regularly, after he spoils us on Friday.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Pico Perfection

Just wanted to make sure you all knew that Pico is nearing perfection. The comfortable yet classy former Los Alamos General Store was excellent when it opened, but keeps finding ways to get better and better, and not the least of that was a redesign of the space. Originally it was set up to look like you still were entering a general store, with the main room featuring cute country housewares for sale, but now the bar is on the right side of the room and looking more like a bar, there are tables in the room--up and down the two levels--it's as if some feng shui master whipped everything into rightful shape.

Chef Drew Terp has had enough time to figure out what works, what grows, what smokes in Los Alamos, and you'll get all the best of that on your plate. Like the ingenious scallop starter above, one scallop, sliced, infused with about as much smoke as the mollusk can hold and not just be vapor, then caressed (it has to be some lovingtender gesture like that) with a hit of lime, tarragon, and that pomegranate seed like a button of flavorful crunch. (The salad ain't bad neither.)

Then there's the secretly simple wild mushroom consomme, a dish name that fails marketing 101--some hypester would no doubt dub it with a moniker like Mad Mushroom Mania! For it packs a vavoominess of shroominess in what looks like mere broth, and then there are tiny pearl onions soft as tears that are all onion without any sting. In this scrumptious bath are several perfect tortelloni you will want to cut with with your fork to make them last over several bites and the pasta will give pleasingly before it breaks as its very fresh and then inside you'll find a ricotta stuffing that no doubt is housemade ricotta, moist enough to delight yet something substantial enough to taste.

There's more, there's always more...ah that grilled pork secreto, part of the shoulder of a mangalista pig, a cut that comes fanned out on the plate like duck breast, pink in the center, grilled crusty goodness at the edges, and all pork flavor (and more of that smoke). And a new dessert, a pot de creme de la creme, as I'd like to call it. Better yet, call Pico for reservations.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Wowing It with Women Winemakers

March 8 is International Women's Day, and its organizers call it "a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity." Of course in Santa Barbara County, we like to celebrate everything with a party of sorts, especially if wine can be involved. So that explains the genesis of the Women Winemakers Dinner to be held at the K'Syrah Event Center in Solvang (and a tasting event prior, in a closed down street, of all things--you can buy a ticket for the whole grand evening or just for the tent tasting).

It turns out Santa Barbara County has a higher percentage of female winemakers than most wine areas in the world. I decided to ask Karen Steinwachs, winemaker at Buttonwood Winery and one of the planners for the event, why she thought that was. "It's probably the same reason we have fewer winemakers here, no matter what gender, without formal degrees in enology," she theorizes. "The somewhat 'maverick' nature of the valley allows and embraces people moving outside of their defined roles. And because we are not (yet) locked into a corporate wine ownership, assistant winemakers, cellar masters, heck – tasting room people – are often given a chance to make their own wine. This blossoms into those folks either heading out on their own, or having the benefit of their own label while still working at their 'real' job, like what I do with Buttonwood and Seagrape. Yet, we have some of the state’s women pioneers – who also fell into this from another field. Kathy Joseph [of Fiddlehead Cellars], Lane Tanner [of Lumen Wines], Denise Shurtleff [of Cambria Estate Vineyard & Winery]."

I couldn't help but ask about the seemingly simplified shorthand of calling wine styles masculine or feminine. "A more ethereal and delicate Pinot Noir is described as feminine, and a big, bold chunky Zin masculine," Steinwachs says. "Doesn’t bother me really. It’s difficult to describe wine – everyone’s senses are so different. To me, comes down to whether you love it, like it, prefer not to have that one."

Since this is the second year of the Women Winemakers Dinner, I queried about the highlights from last year. "It was so celebratory and joyful!" Steinwachs recalls. "Although somewhat a political statement being on International Women’s Day, everyone just so enjoyed the company. As Supervisor Joan Hartman paraphrased 'instead of building a wall, we need to set a longer table.'"

That doesn't mean there wasn't room for improvement this year – in fact more room was one of the keys for round two. "It was a little chaotic with wine and dinner service, and it oversold so quickly that we are trying this year to accommodate more guests, more winemakers, and more price points so that we donate even more to the Women’s Fund of Northern Santa Barbara County (we gave just over $6000 to them last year)," Steinwachs says. "All proceeds go to the charity, with all wine, winemaker time, chef time, and most rentals and some of the menu ingredients themselves donated."

Then there was the issue that since all the chefs are women, from Brooke Stockwell at K'Syrah to Cynthia Miranda at the Lucky Hen Larder to Theo Stephan at Global Gardens, and more, and all the winemakers, of course, are women (pretty much all the SBC women winemakers, from those already mentioned to Morgan Clendenen from Cold Heaven, Sonja Magdevski from Casa Dumetz, Angela Osborne from A Tribute To Grace, Tara Gomez from Kitá Wines, Clarissa Nagy at Nagy Wines, etc. etc.), some men felt somehow unwelcome. "I was a little worried last year that our messaging was off and that men didn’t believe they were invited," Steinwachs admits. "A survey showed that most understood it was open to all genders, but many women felt comfortable coming to this solo. An interesting thing…."

Steinwachs couldn't be more excited for the event. "To me, this is what wine does," she enthuses. "It brings a lot of different people together, and when one sits down at a table with wine – sometimes world peace can ensue. As Kathy Joseph said last year, 'Stop the rhetoric and pass the Pinot!' People are still talking about last year. No pressure on us to make it even more enjoyable this year!"

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Santa Ynez Valley Wedding Style

Who writes wedding guides? Well I write wedding guides, it turns out. Just see the Winter 2017/18 issue of Inside Santa Ynez Valley for all the tips I managed to nick from all sorts of talented people in the wedding business. Plus a wedding is just an excuse for a really good party, and I know how to do that.

You can check the story out by going to the link for their current issue and then jumping ahead in the viewer to pages 54-55.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Painting Toward the Essential (A Profile of Nicole Strasburg)



I had the privilege to spend some time interviewing Nicole Strasburg for Montecito Magazine. You can read the full profile by going to the Montecito Magazine website, clicking on the current issue (which is fall 2017/winter 2018), and following the left navigation link to "Nicole Strasburg: Cover Artist" (that's pages 66-69 in the magazine and its online viewer).

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Sip This: 2013 William Fèvre Chablis Premier Cru

If you want to know what separates French chardonnay from American, and you’ve got a spare $50, here’s your bottle. Since 1959, William Fèvre has been making great Chablis, and now it’s one of the area’s biggest landowners. Montée de Tonnerre is one of the domaine’s eight 1 er crus, and it’s a balanced, knife-edge of excitement. Unfortunately, hail storms mean that there is very little of it from this otherwise fine vintage.

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

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sip This: Bettie Page Rum

Michael Cobb, the man behind the High Roller Tiki Lounge in Solvang, where the tiki drinks are made with wine and not spirits to honor wine country (and to comply with his liquor license), is far from spirits adverse. For now, he’s developed this kicky spiced rum at the request of CMG, the company that holds the Bettie Page trademark and hired Cobb due to his love of all things kitschy and ’50s.

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

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Canary Hotel Hosts Community Cocktail for a Cause

Since the holidays were mostly impossible in these parts, the Canary Hotel and Finch & Fork restaurant are stepping in to raise our spirits. On January 20, on their closer-to-the-stars rooftop, they’ll be throwing a party called Community Cocktail for a Cause.

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