Monday, September 21, 2020

Why Can't I Drink It? (TOTC 2020 Home Edition--Day 1)


Any long time readers of this blog know I'm a huge fan of Tales of the Cocktail, the annual celebration-cum-conference of all things drink that usually happens late July in New Orleans. (Go search all the posts from our past visits in 2016 and 2012--which means, damn, we were due to go this year too.) Of course nothing is usual this year, but TOTC refuses to give in, even if people can't travel, or sit in rooms together for seminars, or crowd into bars. So it's happening now, online, and it's free for all! You still have time to "attend" the last three days if you want.

So, today I "participated" (this is going to be the land of air quotes, zipping about like the hummingbirds fighting above our nectar feeder) in five events and it's not even 5 pm yet my time and I'm writing this drinking one of those two Vespers you see at the top of the entry in honor of the last event I watched, "The Man Behind James Bond: Ian Fleming presented by Ford's Gin."

In a usual TOTC write up, I'd go on and on about New Orleans, which, to be honest, is a daily tales of the cocktail all by itself, of course, and talk a lot about great meals, large and small, and much sipping of many things. When I've told people I'm going to a cocktail conference, they always assume I spend my days one o-sized mouth shy of being blott-o, but it's rarely that, as there's just so much you sip and taste and dump and skip. And eat. And in New Orleans in July, walk and sweat. 

But to do five TOTC events and have no liquor.... Well, that was weird. But as I watched a very informative Amaro session this morning, I didn't go to my liquor cabinet and pour a shot. I mean, who drinks Amaro pre-noon? If your lunch needs a digestif, you're going to end up like Mr. Creosote. So while this Tales is plenty informative, it seems like a sensory cheat, especially since you don't get to hit brands doing their thing in the lobby of the Monteleone for quick tastes of things between sessions.

Many of the sessions are also pre-Zoom-recorded, too, so there's no chance for interaction, questions, etc. I only did one live session today, "Marie Brizard Low ABV Cocktails," and it was good to have Jonathan Pogash (aka The Cocktail Guru), the session host, reading our comments and responding in real time. But this session also made clear one of the usual red flags for TOTC--on some level it exists for sponsors to flog product. Of course, that means when you're there they buy you things--from drinks to Day of the Dead face paintings to lavish parties the like you only thought you'd read about in Vanity Fair. But when you're just watching someone on your computer, it's not quite the same.

All that said, I got to watch presenters like Chris Blackwell (yep, the founder of Island Records, who currently owns Ian Flemings' Jamaica estate, Golden Eye, and has turned it into a resort) and a host of brilliant writers on liquor, to learn how to make low ABV cocktails, to relish in a fantastic overview of Amari, to have TOTC Foundation President Caroline Rosen say "y'all" and sprinkle me in the linguistic equivalent of powdered sugar from Cafe du Monde's beignets. 

I've got six pages of notes. I left out pretty much any content in this already too long write-up. The folks who took part in the "Storytelling Behind The Bar presented by William Grant & Sons" session I watched would beat me up for not having enough of a through-line here, no doubt, and one of the presenters even teaches at my alma mater Johns Hopkins. So yeah, I'm having a good time (btw, I did take the week off from my day job, like I'm really "vacationing"). But how do I taste more? I'm going to have to figure this out and not pass out.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Chilling with Franc, Cab Franc

It's tricky to parse the wine-making business from the wine-selling business--because, you know, there's that business part. Given many smaller producers sell much of their wine through on-site wine tasting--as opposed to hawking boxes out of box malls, say--life in the age of COVID has made that business part hard. Luckily, when the going gets hard, the hard-up come up with a clever gimmick like Francs n' Franks.

A couple of weeks ago Buttonwood Farms & Winery hosted a webinar that you got to eat and drink along with, sort of a dream Zoom (it was on FB and Yahoo live, actually). Some folks were even on site for the event, where they got treated to a BBQ of franks (sounded mostly like sausages, actually, but that ruins that fun nomenclature), a fuller tasting (four wines compared to the home two-pack), and the ability to hear the panel of winemaker Karen Steinwachs, assistant winemaker Brett Reeves, and Matt Kettmann from Wine Enthusiast and Indy fame (he's busy getting ready to publish the book about SB wines, even) live. For some reason, our connection worked best through one of our iPhones, and not through our laptop. 

You see, the generally high acid Cabernet Franc tends to work well with smoky flavors, hence the idea grilling would be good. At that point, you sort of have to make the name joke, don't you? (As if I could ever give someone the slightest bit of a hard time for pushing a bit of wordplay, c'mon.) The "home kit" featured a bottle of Buttonwood's 2017 barrel-fermented/aged Cab Franc and their more experimental 2019 Carbonique--Cab Franc that goes through carbonic maceration. The simplest way to think of this is the "regular" CF ferments in open vessels, while the carbonic CF ferments in a closed vessel. That means the grapes ferment from the inside out. And, if you're Steniwachs, whose desk at the winery is near the closed fermenter, you hope nothing explodes (at least that's what she joked).

The difference is a "lighter" wine, more fruit-forward--which is important for Buttonwood's Cab Franc as it tends to grow smaller berries. Note that vintage difference, too--you also drink it sooner. It's meant to be a "fresh" wine. Thanks to those profiles, they suggest you give it a bit of a chill, too. Yes, a red! It's ok. It certainly works with the hotdogs, even our rather soulless vegan ones (think of them as carrying devices for sweet relish and miso mayo).

Nothing was soulless about the event, though. Karen is always good for a sly aside or two, and the wine knowledge of all the participants was of course top-notch without being any kind of pedantic. So a good time was had by us, and it seemed, everyone. Even if those of us not tasting safely socially distanced on site didn't get to try the Carbonique both chilled and room temp, or try the 2007 Cab Franc. And we didn't get to celebrate Kettmann's birthday with cake, either. He owes us one.

By the way, we didn't finish the 2017 CF that afternoon, and since it was a mighty hot weekend, we kept it in the fridge until the next day. Turns out it's quite good with a bit of a chill too, if heartier and deeper than it's carbonic cousin.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Having a Home Beer Fest

True confession--it's not that uncommon for a bunch of beers to arrive in a box at this house. But that box above was something special, a celebratory statewide smorgasbord, as it were. For you're looking at the 2020 California Craft Beer Summit Experience. There was supposed to be an in-person big deal event in Long Beach in September, but COVID said no to that. Instead, we got to delight--and learn--at home, at our leisure. And a fun time was had by two (I can't vouch for anyone else but us, of course).

But first a word from our sponsor. The California Craft Brewers Association is the oldest state trade association representing craft breweries--go CA! Turns out, according to the brewers who posted interviews as part of the Summit Experience, the CCBA has become even more important during coronavirus shutdowns, which have often changed rules of brewpub engagement almost hourly, it seems. Having a group who could get the legal word and get it straight was crucial for many small (and not so small) breweries. These places had to pivot, and fast; take Sacramento's Urban Roots, who supposedly went from making 400-500 cans a month to that many per week, as everyone wanted beer to go when the pubs shut down. 

The beer that went down our gullet here in Santa Barbara was as follows: 

Russian River Brewing Co. | Pliny For President (Double Dry-Hopped Double IPA) 
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. | Wild Little Thing (Fruited Gose-style) 
Fieldwork Brewing Co. | Canopy (Westcoast Pale Ale) 
Urban Roots Brewing | Floofster (German-Style Hefeweizen)
Modern Times Beer | Ice (Pilsner) 
Societe Brewing | The Harlot (Belgian Blonde) 
Kern River Brewing | California Lounge Chair (IPA) 
Topa Topa Brewing | Dos Topas (Mexican Style Lager)

That's a pleasing range, geographically and stylistically, featuring old-timers and up-and-comers, small producers and those who can only claim they are "craft" in mentality and approach thanks to their production numbers. (Digression: did you know Sierra Nevada makes 1,250,000 US beer barrels annually? So if you built a swimming pool to swim in one year of their beer, it would have to be over 10,000 feet long, over 1,900 feet wide, and 380 feet deep!) The beer wasn't all you got for your $60 per participant. Some cool, branded glasses arrived with a handy cheat sheet for the four pairs of beers they set up as courses (that also suggested food pairings that ranged from mightily specific--watermelon and feta salad--to more abstract--beach days and sandy feet), and you also got a handy beer tasting notes journal, so you could record your impressions of the beers and even get some practice in using the flavor wheel that breaks beer down into its components. (Here's my thumb and my slightly out-of-focus thoughts of Sierra Nevada's Wild Little Thing.)

The most informative part were Zoom-held conversations between beer-makers that you got to watch as you sipped along. Having the videos of the conversations on YouTube meant you didn't have to make it to a specific, scheduled time, and we took ours to go through the full set (each chat was about 45 minutes long). It certainly provided a great peek into the world of beer-making and the world of beer-selling right now, when everything seems so tenuous. There was much talk of COVID, and luckily everyone seemed to be managing, and even planning blasts for the day drinking within touching distance of others can happen again. Perhaps we need to get ready for something to rival the original Repeal Day. After all, Natalie Cilurzo from Russian River put it this way when describing what makes a beer memorable, "It's not just the beer, it's the time, it's the place, it's the company." Sometimes it's the fish tacos, though....


Our homemade ones (thanks Kevin, for the fresh fish!), with homemade tortillas and beans, as well--the pandemic has us at the top of our cooking game, don't know about you. So getting to enjoy all that with a Societe beer is truly wonderful, and very San Diego without leaving home. Or this pairing, a saag with feta cheese, rice, and fresh-from-the-garden-tomatoes....

I'm going to pass on reviewing the beers as they all were delicious in their different ways, aimed for different tasting experiences, outdoor temp, times of day, and that's the exciting thing about craft beer right now. Sure, hop bombs might lead sales, but everyone's having fun experimenting, too, even if that means nailing classic styles. As Jack Dyer, co-founder of Topa Topa put it, describing why he's so proud of his brewery's Dos Topas Mexican style lager, "It's easy to cover up challenges with heavily-hopped beer, but with this beer, if the process is off at all, you're going to taste it."

Pretty much the one area of agreement, though was--wtf, hard seltzer? One speaker admitted, "If that existed when I was in my early twenties, I would have died an alcoholic." While Dr. Eric Giddens, founder of Kern River Brewing, put it this way, "I'm a beer-flavored beer guy." And these eight breweries delivered--to your door--the beer-flavored beer goodness.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Holding Tight with Tape

Borges’ Pierre Menard wanted to write—not re-write—Don Quixote. I’m just hoping to digitize a host of my garage’s box of mixtapes. But it feels like a similar project, bringing back to life a person who once was, even if that person was me.

That’s how I’m getting though this time of pandemic. Overthinking it. Wanting to write and instead just reading more, and in this case going back to Borges, who I hadn’t thought of in years. Freaking out that one sentence above should end “even if that person was I” but refusing to write that as it sounds so geekily insistent on good grammar over bad sound.

For mixtapes are all about good sound, at least to start. And that’s what my pandemic obsession was first about. From 1989-2008 I made mixtapes, years between my gigs as a disc jockey (what a quaint term, no?) in community/college radio. Many were for my birthday, but some were just keyed by a gorgeous backup of tunes I couldn’t stop listening to and needed to memorialize. They’re sort of the audio diary to my life, and returning to them brings me back to me. That’s very comforting when what any me can be can disappear with one quick brush of COVID-19.

It’s as easy as this. Grab a bunch of most resonant cassettes; see if you have those tunes as mp3s; hunt for the ones you don’t; build each tape digitally, side A, side B. One of the huge advantages now is the availability of Audacity as a free software to do such a project. After all, when I started doing this in the early ’80s, if I wanted to mix songs I did it on reel-to-reel with a razor blade. (My life has been a technological marvel.)

And so my life—in this world so out of control, from the virus itself to our country, where people protest for the right to ignore science—has this extreme focus in these digital tape re-creation moments. As there’s nothing more comforting than finding the perfect segue. How can you bring two different things together in a way that makes a spectacular same? Somehow I have an ear for this, I think, finding the pairs, or the perfect dissonances, and the original tapes set me up for this project like a grandparent leaving a grandchild a project they might never expect.

But then it means the tiniest of slides on Audacity, slices of seconds, or playing with the fade envelope to bring the tones up or down at the moment I think they should. I get so lost in this focus, the scary outside world fades—I can’t even feel my often over-beating heart. I’m just doing. The most infinitesimal amount of time can matter, and I can make it matter.

Plus the process means all these songs, some I haven’t thought of in decades, come back to me. My early ’90s passion for a band like The Connells. That Pere Ubu show in Chicago when David Thomas broke out the accordion. Weston, a Lehigh Valley, PA band that a former student of mine turned me onto. What else is music but memories, much more memorable Facebook posts in your life before social media existed?

So, while I hunt for each song in my iTunes (which is already a dead technology, I think) of over 40,000 files (which is a sad sad term for music), it’s like one of those movie montages of calendar pages flying off, except aurally.

So that’s my passion to survive a pandemic. My life in a song, and another song, and another. Laid down to make something new, so much so I’m often primed to expect one of these songs following another still, just because of where they lived on a tape of mine. So here’s to “Lies Before Their Time,” “Shoulda Woulda Coulda, “What Next, Big Sky?” I’m going to rebuild my musical past and hope it gives me a place on which to stand to see a future.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Quokka Kitchen Delivers Delicious and Nutritious to Your Door

“Quokka” sounds like a word to be challenged while playing Scrabble — it’s worth 69 points, triple score! — but it just may be the cutest creature in the world: a cat-sized Australian marsupial that seems to smile.

That’s what Kevin Lunn learned when googling in search of a catchy name for the nutrition-planning and meal-delivery business he was cofounding. His business partner Hunter Rusack warmed to the name upon learning that quokkas eat a special diet that adjusts to seasons. “It serves as a good mascot and representation of diet, in its own way,” said Rusack.

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

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Hunkering Down at Home with Bettina Pizza

I can't help but think of Bettina pizza as a sort of brilliant physics experiment--how thin can a crust get and still pack flavor? Brendan Smith and Rachel Greenspan have that magic down--as thin as thin can be and still hold pizza tensile strength, and as for flavor, just that sourdough....I mean, how many pizzas have legs like wine? Bettina's do. And that's before we even get to the quality of their toppings.

So, yes, if we're going to do some Coronavirus take-out, some of it had to be Bettina. We got around to it last week, finally, and it was very easy to do. They've got their to-go menu all set online, but I called anyway as I wanted to get an order in midday for a specific time pickup in the evening. Plus we hoped to score a loaf of bread, and there are only so many of those to go around each day. As you can see from the photo above--more doughy delight!

Since humans do not live by pizza alone, and we we're at the dark end of the two weeks for our Givens Farm CSA box, we had to order some green stuff, too. Luckily the usual Bettina salads are available to go, so there's the baby gems with ranch, pickled onion, and goat cheddar that we would order if we were dining at Montecito Country Mart. With the dressing on the side, it packs very well. So crisp and so cool. And thanks for being one more place that decided to rescue Ranch (since it's a Central Coast invention, after all). There's also some broccolini with capers, ricotta salata, and pine nuts, as at home we don't have a wood-fired stove that cranks over 800°, so we can't get that insta-char that makes the cruciferous veggie so extravagant.

And those pizzas also get char to the point where it's almost too much, but it also teaches you how far too much is (way further than you imagined). And somehow all that char kind of gives you the taste and time of cooking. You take the more blistered slices, pretending you're sacrificing, hoping your dinner mate doesn't know your sneaky secret.

The left pie is the heart of spring, English pea with mozzarella, ricotta cheese, sugar snaps, torpedo onion, garlic confit, lemon (and a slice of lemon for you to give another zip at home--nice touch). Oh, and actually the one on the left is the heart of spring if you had a wet winter and a mushroom forager: chanterelle, Sottocenere truffle cheese, fontina, dandelion, parsley gremolata. Just enough of each bit so you keep getting flavor bursts, but you have to be there for the crust.

Better yet, this was many meals for the two of us.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Spirits in the (Isolating) Air: Potent Potable Poetry

A shout out and thanks to the Independent for this article last week about our sixth annual, if in this case very unusual, Spirits in the Air reading. Plus, they ran one of my poems, too, so go see what drinking imported beer meant to me as a young man.... Thanks, Matt Kettmann and gang.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Home Is Where the Happy Hour Is

(Hey, please forgive our messy house in these photos--I mean, who should we be cleaning for?)

You miss your friends. We miss our friends. Heck, we even miss the people who aren't friends but just the regulars in your life, the woman who knows how many salsa cups to give you at El Zarape, the guy who never forgets that you work at UCSB, so you get that teacher-student-staff discount at Lazy Acres on Thursdays even without flashing your employee ID.* We miss 'em all.

But our friends the most, so like many of you we're doing Zoom happy hours. It's not perfect, but the faces and laughter are still the same. And now we can't even cross talk, so that focus on a single discussion is intriguing too.

I imagine many people who bother to read something called George Eats come more for word two than word one, which is why I like you all. And sure enough, that one circle of friends I'm writing about now, we're very food and drink centered--some of them even make their own very delicious garage wine. So we wanted to figure out how to share more senses than sight and sound for our Happy Hours.

To do that, Chryss and I opted to go first in this group of four couples (including us). I ordered with trusty Bob Wesley at Meritage--hooray he's got a spot to sell wine again! in the same spot as the last spot, too, if you haven't been. He had the bad fortune to open the weekend of March 7, which we might as well think of as Coronavirus Eve. Not great timing. But he's still open, and if you order and let him know you're on the way, he'll dash to the curb with your purchase. Lots of 15-minute green curb parking there on Anapamu that's not getting used with few reasons to wander downtown anymore. Easy peasy.

We got four bottles of Chapoutier 2017 Bila Haut Cotes de Roussillon, a steal at 14 bucks per. A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan, it has surprising depth for the price, with dark blackberry fruit. As Jeb Dunnuck put it, "It's seamless, elegant, and balanced, with both acidity and richness. Put this in a blind lineup of Northern Rhônes and shock your friends." The lineup wasn't blind (we made sure each house knew we'd be leaving a bottle at their doorstep, which we did wearing gloves), but everyone was thoroughly pleased, and drinking the same thing.

We also got the idea that you need some cheese with that wine. C'est Cheese is still open, taking orders online and by phone in advance. Then, you call just before you show up and they meet you at the door with your goodies. Even better they're doing a special $5 chunk of mystery cheese, something that might not be selling fast enough, but it's one of their curated cheeses, so you know it will be delicious. We asked for four of the same mystery cheese orders that would go well with a syrah-blend from the Rhône, so, again, each house would have the same bites with the Bila Haut. Each came wrapped separately.

They wound up choosing Oma, so the hills were alive with the taste of slightly stinky soft cow cheese. It comes from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, and is owned by the Von Trapps. Yep, there are real ones who made it all the way across the Alps to New England. Rumor has it they were chased by Julie Andrews. They make one yummy cheese, though, one you can ruminate over, with its tart rind and creamy center.

Happy Hour, even distanced, just got a lot more delicious.

(Note: both Meritage and C'est Cheese even deliver locally, if you order enough, etc. Call Meritage [(805) 845-0777] or check out C'est Cheese's website.)

*And yes, both El Zarape and Lazy Acres are still open, but we're doing our best to isolate, so have only been once to each in the past 4 weeks.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Loving The Lark To Go

Yes, we've been gunshy about the whole takeout thing thanks to the out part of it. We're taking physical distancing very seriously, and did one huge shopping trip on March 26 and we're hoping to eat off that for as many weeks as possible (plus our bi-weekly Givens CSA box, so we keep getting some fresh farm stuff too--so so good).

But that email from The Lark about their family dinners kept nagging at me as it sounded so delicious. And a deal--since we wanted to opt for the veggie meal, it was merely $50. How could we say no? Especially since we now had the lovely, we hope life-saving masks a great friend of ours sewed for us? (She made mine paisley--it's as nice as some of my choice ties.)

You order online, so are all pre-paid and have a time to pull into the spots right outside the Lucky Penny pick-up window (you can get their pizzas too). Since we showed up a bit early, I told them I'd go back and wait in the car--note, it's not any easier to make people understand the name Yatchisin when they hear it through a mask--and at 5:30, when the meal was supposed to be ready, it was. A server in gloves comes out with bag and it's in my gloved hands in no time.

At home, unpacked it looks like this, fancier than takeout has any right to look, so be sure you have installed the drool guard on your computer....

One of the great joys of eating vegetarian is you don't have to think in bullying ideas like mains. It's all main, and all good. So, sure, officially this is caramelized oyster mushrooms and brown butter polenta with aged balsamic glaze & Grana Padano, but it could easily (as you will see) be headlined by either of the two so-called sides. And I don't mean that to denigrate the lovely dish--it's more that the Lark is wisely making this a full meal experience, and not a star and a couple of fillers.

The polenta actually travels well (we got home and eating in probably 25 minutes, I'd guess), hearty and salty and smooth and deep, and the perfect cushion for those mushrooms, cooked to an almost-bacony texture without any hint of pig on the plate. The balsamic is both tart and a hint sweet and totally integrated into shroominess. The Lark is also so perfect at adding just the right touch of other ingredients, so you get a bit of spinach as green is spring (and delicious) and just enough shavings of the cheese to spark a desire to hunt for more but not overdo.

In our house, some nights the sambal spiced cauliflower--also with a toss of spinach, Marcona almonds, sheep’s feta, preserved lemon--might actually be dinner all on its own. The zingy sambal manages to get hot, hotter and never hottest, just peaking at where you taste it good and it doesn't start to burn your taste buds. Again, the cheese is a condiment, not a slather--there are no easy, cheap effects here. (Or in, this case, easy, sheep effects.) (Sorry.)

And then that salad, simplicity and perfection all at once, Little Gems with spicy pecans, shaved watermelon radish (the Elite model of radish), sourdough croutons, and ridiculously healthy tarragon leaves. Everything is what you'd want, but it's the smoked blue cheese vinaigrette that's what you didn't know you needed--the best blue cheese dressing I've had in years. Please bottle and sell it, Lark!

Doing this at home means we got to break out another cellar bottle not at restaurant mark-up, and that 2010 Williams Selyem unoaked chard rocked--a lean, mean laser beam of delight, lemon rind and green apple. Archie was clearly envious. And he's not much of a vegetarian or a drinker.

Oh, and when they say it feeds 2-4 people, that's not just marketing mumbo jumbo. In our house, when we make recipes, if it says "Serves 6" we know that means that the two of us will have it over 2 meals. That's an odd recipe math. But here, they really mean it. We get to have all this again, tomorrow. OK, we did eat all the salad, but we've got some romaine from that wonderful mask maker friend of ours, and we still have the second container of the blue cheese dressing, so we're good there, too.

And I forgot, you also get a bag of garam masala popcorn with curry leaf. Our movie night tonight got even better. Maybe we need to go watch some more of the old Julia Child shows on PBS on Amazon again.

But if you want takeout, get yourself to The Lark and fast!

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

WOPN 20 a la King

There's just so much to take in over two days of Grand Tastings (and one 20th anniversary soiree dinner) at World of Pinot Noir that it suddenly hit me--there's no better way to respond than with a notes column like those wonders Larry King used to do for USA Today, delicious fervid fever dreams of name dropping, non sequiturs, anomalies, anachronisms, and the occasional rightness of a stopped clock. That sounds like right up my tin pan alley (see, I already did one!). So I figured I might want to try to channel the master of the hit and ellipsis run.

Not every second day of an event begins with a guy in line proudly complaining he's got pinot thumb and pinot finger; listen Bud, just don't have them pour on your hand...No one understands value anymore--what is up with people bidding more on a silent auction item than its worth?...Have you drunk too much or just enough when someone says "angular fruit" and you say yes? (thanks FEL)...Why do winemakers say, "We make a ____ we want to drink?"...I wrote a sentence I want an ellipsis after...Is Jenny Williamson Dore one of the nicest people in the business? Even I'd be less a curmudgeon if I poured the delicious Foxen line--their 2015 La Encantada is the pinot smell of the Sta. Rita Hills...Missing old friends like Balletto, Longoria, Dolin, Failla...Happy to catch up with old friend Matt Dees at The Hilt table...Too easy to get to; guess hipsters only know him from Jonata...

His photo (not the one of him above, obviously) of a Mickey Rooney-sized cluster of pinot from Radian in his palm got us reminiscing about Andre the Giant...That Radian, by the way, a five course meal in a 750 ml bottle all by itself...Had a lovely catch-up with Greg Brewer about a fancy dinner none of you got to attend while I sipped one of the last four bottles of 2006 Brewer-Clifton Cargassachi Vineyard he had stashed--it aged better than Angie Dickinson...Struck me funny the Domaine Chanson guy says "They require age, a lot of age," when France is the country that inspired the film Gigi--rrr, that Leslie Caron...Speaking of French, definitely knew what they meant when pouring the Liquid Farm 2017 Radian Vineyard and said, "That's the coup de grace right there."...If you're like me you might think pennyroyal is a Bond girl, but it's actually related to mint and if you grow your grapes near it, yep, minty...thanks for that hot tip, Anderson Valley's Goldeneye...The Peake Ranch rascals snuck in their 2017 Bellis Noir, no doubt not a shout out to the Mekons Rico Bell/Eric Bellis but a pleaser of a syrah/grenache blend...Are the Mekons the least likely band you expected to see in a wine story?...Bitter? Accurate? Both? (Walter Winchell could do it.) The pourer at Louis Latour asserted, "The New World is, 'I'm going to give you everything right now.'"...Maybe not any air travel from Uncle Sam for a month...People line up for Kosta Browne pinot like they were getting the latest LP from the Chairman of the Board for free with it, but for my ducats I'd down their 2015 "One Sixteen" chardonnay instead...Man does not live by red alone (sorry Bernie, Uncle Joe's got you)...Ever since that UTI it's been Ocean Spray in the morning for this scribe, but in the evening, I'd sure go for a 2014 Sea Smoke Sea Spray...I still don't get why the French "own" Champagne--have they tasted tasted this stuff?...With this COVID-19, it might be an era for as little skin contact as possible, so the Maggy Hawk 2018 Edmeades white pinot noir might be a hit! very fresh...Remember to hang with friends for soirees--so hard to meet people when a roving sax man plays over the DJs deep tracks...Why can paella never have both the mussels and the clams done equally well?...One is always a bit over done, like a Larry King parody turning into an Andy Rooney riff...Ice, ice, baby...

Monday, March 9, 2020

The 2020 World of Pinot Noir in Two Tastes

Pardon my shorthand, but isn't that partially what you want from writers, for us to sift through everything and then say, "This is what you want?" Oh, yeah, you've got Netflix algorithms and Yelp for that now.

(George goes and cries for awhile.)

I'm back! And am going to write this anyway for the 11 of you who care (figure 11 makes me shy one disciple, and then no one has to cosplay as Judas--win win!). So the media room at World of Pinot Noir this year (March 5-7) is one of the reasons you want to be media--a room with three of its walls lined with open bottles of pinot for you to taste with no one to tell you nothing, so it's very tabula rasa. Also, consider it a room for spitting in private, which in our COVID-19 world is not merely good manners. Even before I got to hit the floor at Friday's Grand Tasting, I tasted a few delectables, all just so I could do my proper reporting for you, my dear (eleven) readers.

Two of those wines you see photo-ed above; for some reason the Goldeneye is a bit blurry hours before I was. It's easy to at least flirt with the notion that all California pinot gets samey, but these bottles say, "Disabuse yourself of such a notion."

The Rusack, did you look closely, is their wine from Catalina Island. They get to do that, as the Wrigley family owns both the winery and the island. (Go back and read that sentence one more time, have your giggle at the wonders of money, and move on.) Rumor has it that even at a MSRP of $72 they don't come close to making what it costs to produce the wine, simply thanks to shipping costs. Not surprisingly, all that marine influence means a very cool climate pinot, and this is almost shockingly light in the glass, as if a fledgling artist hadn't quite figured out how to get the red she had hoped to infuse into her stained glass. But that more transparent hue fits how much this pinot offers floral versus fruit--think rose and a touch of lavender, and then sandalwood, tea, wild cherry. A gorgeous, unique pour.

The Goldeneye, at first one might assume, would be more similar than different. Hailing from a vineyard in Anderson Valley, it comes from close to the Mendocino coast, and obviously much further north than Catalina or any other CA wine growing region (please tell me there's not a pinot from Lake County). And a very typical Anderson Valley pinot is usually delightfully cherry, but one a bit restrained.

Then there's this 2016 Gowan Creek from Goldeneye that screams cherry--you could almost imagine The Runaways singing an ode to it. Forget seductive, it's a flat out, lingerie-wearing seducer. And sure enough, all of that is the winemaking. Goldeneye, owned by Duckhorn, lays on the wood for this bottle--16 months in barrel, 100% French oak, 60% new. All that wood makes it brawny indeed (yet still somehow in balance, a testament to good fruit and acidity). It MSRP's at $86, so perhaps barrels cost more than shipping?

Both of these are pinots, so, what are you in the mood for this evening? There's a pinot for you if you just taste hard enough.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Wonderful World of Clos Pepe

Let's face it, not every winery's proprietor has been the US Ambassador to Austria. But if you took part in one of the World of Pinot Noir's kick off events for its 2020 fete, you would have had the chance to hear and meet Kathryn Walt Hall, who is the head of WALT Wines. The event, which is a mouthful (in both title and what you got if you had attended): "WALT Wines Presents Mile Marker 60: Clos Pepe Estate Vineyard Experience."

WALT took on a 15 year lease with Clos Pepe in 2015, committing to one of the more beloved properties in the Sta. Rita Hills. For instance, just its pond is this photogenic:

After a walk through the vineyard, just at the nascence of bud break (here's hoping all the rain forecast for the rest of March doesn't bring too much cold weather too), we settled in for a vertical tasting of this site with 30 acres of vines, almost all pinot noir (a darn good thing for a WOPN event). Think mostly Pommard clones as the base of most of the wines, with some 667, 777, and 115 for those more floral lifting notes, too.

The panel for the tasting featured Hall herself, WALT winemaker Megan Gunderson, Adam Lee from Siduri, who had made wines from the site for decades (and is a witty chatter, so who doesn't want him on their panel?), and Stephen Pepe himself. I won't bore with you all the details, not that the details are boring, but they go down a lot better if you're drinking the wines as you hear them. Suffice to say, Lee pointed out that with the slopes of the site and the ways some spots get more of the famed transverse valley winds from the Pacific a mere nine miles west, he didn't realize the diversity of the property at first in such a small area. He added, "And diversity means complexity--it's truly truly remarkable."

The lineup of wines proved him correct, even if the surprisingly warm early spring day and its sun perhaps warmed our samples a bit beyond the best pinot tasting temperature. The vertical included a block 6 barrel sample from 2019, so far from a finished wine, if certainly robust, and fermented in concrete!--sub-theme for the day, pinot-exploration! And then took us to the 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017, the current on-the-market vintage. No 2015, as that was a big frost year. The older wines were aging well, showing off the acidity typical of the region that keeps them lean mean red berry machines. The newer wines are that and even more FRUIT; as my Indy colleague in his Wine Enthusiast hat Matt Kettmann put it about the 2017, which he gave 94 points, "Powerful aromas of black cherry, tobacco, clove, chocolate and oak are heavy but pleasing on this bold style of pinot noir. The lush, delicious and potent palate delivers more of the same, with black-cherry and tobacco flavors sprinkled with crushed nutmeg and vanilla."

The one fascinating wild card was the first public tasting of Adam Lee's new project with Chateauneuf-du-Pape star Philippe Cambie, a 2019 Beau Marchais pinot from, of course, Clos Pepe Vineyard. Since it was Cambie's first pinot, he had no sense of the "right" way to do things and the wine, at least so far (it just went into barrel in November), seems to be a powerhouse. While, as I said earlier, the region's wines tend to age well thanks to their acidity, this pinot actually has tannins that should hold it up. But we are talking pinot that was on its skins for a long 48 days. Fascinating.

Then there was a feast grilled up by Frank Ostini and the Hitching Post II gang, and what could be wrong with that, especially with lots of the 2017 WALT to drink with it? Tri-tip over red oak with salsa and beans. And lots of other yummy things. We were very lucky. There was even a mini-concert by Anderson Daniels to end the event, a performer who channels Tennessee even if he's from Minnesota. Accents, sometimes they're hard to figure. Hard to deny a song called "Warm Up with a Cold One" at a drinking event, though.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Rockin' WOPN Eve

Somehow this is my 32nd blog post about the annual spectacular the World of Pinot Noir, which kicks off its 20th anniversary edition tomorrow with a few special events, one of which I'll be writing about tomorrow night after I attend it (think barbecue and pinot and the SYV). Recently I talked to one winemaker who in one way reasonably pooh-poohed the whole shebang, at least the Grand Tastings, by saying, "Everybody makes good wine now. It all tastes more the same than it doesn't."

"OK, the error bars aren't wide," I said. And later I realized I sohuld have said, "Wait, not OK! Goddam, the error bars aren't wide!" That is, we live in a golden age of deliciousness, so let's lap it up while we can (or until the Coronavirus wipes out any and all events where more than five of us gather in wine's name).

So let's think about how to celebrate, and if anything deserves celebration it's pinot noir (well, there's one more reason). It's easy to focus just on Friday's and Saturday's Grand Tastings at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara, as they are billed quite appropriately--100 producers on Friday, 120 on Saturday, most with more than one wine, some with things not even pinot (roses! whites! hard cider!!). I've discussed in previous years the best ways to approach a room that might as well have signs warning "Beware! FOMO Ahead!" at all the entrances. Since you can't do it all, drink water, eat some of the food, chat with pourers--many of whom are the winemakers themselves--make a plan for how to get something coherent out of it (chose a region or style ["Do you have anything with stem-inclusion?"] or only drink one vintage). OR approach it in a magical way and let a dice throw or runes or the alphabet guide you.

My guess is any way will be an interesting informative way. Drink deep, enjoy, take some notes. If only to see later how your handwriting deteriorates during an afternoon of drinking.

But you could skip the Grand Tastings, even. (Horrors!) Instead only go to a seminar or two and sit down and learn something. Just on Friday you could attend "What's Altitude Got to Do with It?" or "Siduri: 25 Years of Cruising the Pacific Coastline." How does the elevation of a vineyard affect what winds up in the bottle? How much of Adam Lee's incredible knowledge garnered over decades of winemaking can he share in one sitting? You could learn these things. And some of that you'll do through your mouth as you will have a guided tasting. That's just two of Friday's events.

Or you could just eat and have some wine with that. Let's look at Saturday, this time (note, this is far from covering everything about to happen, as you don't have the time for that). One dinner celebrates Bollinger Champagne and Calvisius Caviar, so if you ever wondered what the whole bubbles and fancy fish eggs fuss was about, and have a spare $350 (that's part of the fuss, surely), this dinner is for you. Or you could attend the 20th Anniversary Soiree Dinner, that's described as "an evening of epicurean delights, wine and dancing as you mingle amongst the legends of Pinot Noir and meet the rising stars." Two words: paella station. And more wine than you can shake your empty mussel shells at. 

Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Night LA Invaded the Lark

I chose to start with the finish by posting that image up top, as what you see is as fine a gathering of culinary talent in one photo as you might ever be able to see. What's better, they teamed up to make the meal 30 or 40 of us had the intense pleasure to enjoy last evening for the Founders Circle Dinner (and assorted way-too-lucky media and sponsor hangers-on like me) for the upcoming Santa Barbara Culinary Experience, March 13-15. How fitting it happened on Leap Day, as it wasn't a celebration that could happen on any ordinary, repeatable calendar.

Chairman of the Santa Barbara-based Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts Eric Spivey made clear how much this was an evening of thanks, especially to the eight families who attended and the eight who could not who were founding supporters of the event as it kicks off its first year. "Our north star has been to shine a light on culinary Santa Barbara," he made clear, "and to create fun education events that Julia herself would have wanted to attend." Ultimately his goal is, "We want people to have FOMO that they weren't here with us if they don't attend this year."

The FOMO will be strong if the SBCE weekend can even be a soupçon as wonderful as the dinner hosted at The Lark. It kicked off with passed apps, you know, simple things like a Santa Barbara uni tartelette with steamed egg and wasabi or an absinthe cured hamachi atop an everything lavash cracker along with kumquat confit, black sesame mascarpone and bronze fennel. But all that was truly a warm up, and I don't necessarily want to list every last element of the dinner, let alone all the wines as I just don't want to be that cruel to those of you who couldn't go (including my wife--sorry, honey!).

That said, this morning I spent some time in my Suzanne Goin cookbooks to find what she did to the Santa Barbara Pistachio Company nuts in her citrus salad. I'd never heard of an aillade before, and while it's more traditionally a garlic-walnut sauce, Goin makes hers lighter with pistachios and brighter with some citrus zest and juice, and then the nuts are extra flavorful while giving of themselves 110%, as it were.

All of that bounty except for the stracciatella (burrata's creamy heart ripped from its flesh for your delight)--hails from Peter Schaner's farm in north San Diego County--Goin called him her favorite farmer. And I assume you all know Goin, the chef at Lucques and AOC and Tavern, and whose Sunday Suppers at Lucques cookbook is one of our favorites when we want to impress.

The chefs were all asked to relate a Julia Child tale, and Goin's was charming. Her mom, she said, came from a overcook the pot roast family while her dad's had more refined tastes. For one of their early dates her mom made her dad a Spam loaf. "On the next date, my dad gave my mom a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking," she said. "She cooked out of it for my whole childhood, so in some ways I was raised by Julia."

Michael Cimarusti, the mind behind LA's Providence and Connie and Ted's, recalled having the opportunity as a very young chef to cook a special full foie gras presentation for Child at Le Cirque in New York City. A similar full bore without going over the top method made his dish of Santa Barbara black cod insanely flavorful--20% of the sauce was black truffle. That musky earthiness did wonders with the salt of the fish, and the dish had a kick of spring green from its peas, and then just enough texture and hint of acid from some radishes, too. A simply brilliant if far from simple plate.

Executive chef at The Lark Jason Paluska made it very clear he belonged with the illustrious chefs from the south with eight hour smoked wagyu beef ribs with Texas BBQ gastrique--I have to assume there's some coffee in there, the flavor was so dark and deep. Add to that spring garlic cornbread and sweet and spicy pickles to zippily cleanse your palate for the next rich bite. It was a cunning dish.

Paluska called it a little taste of Houston, Texas, and complimented Acme Hospitality Managing Partner Sherry Villanueva for all her support, claiming, "I didn't know I was a Texan cooking in California until I met her." All of us rib enjoyers say thanks, Sherry!

You know it's an epic night when the dessert course is made by Nancy Silverton, who won the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef Award in 2014. Any foodie worth his salts (you have to have at least 7 salts in your pantry to be a true foodie, so this isn't just a figure of speech) knows Silverton from her Netflix Chef's Table, or from founding LaBrea Breads, or from Mozzaplex.

There she is with event MC Billy Harris, telling her story, serving Julia Child a variation of the brioche tart we were all about to eat at a 1997 taping of Child's television show Baking with Julia. Child insisted on the cooking and filming being done in real-time as much as possible, so when Silverton composed the dessert hot from the oven with gooey, off-the-stove stone fruit atop, she worried she had burned poor Child's mouth, especially when she began to tear up. Instead Child said, "That's a dessert to cry over."

To be honest, it didn't make me cry, well, not until it was all gone and I had no more. Subbing for the stone fruit thanks to seasonality we got caramel prunes (even more classically French, when you think about it), with zabaglione and spiced nuts that have ruined me for anything even mildly brittle-esque ever again. The dessert could sing, and it wasn't not too overly sweet a tune, either. What a capper.

And I didn't even mention the 11 wines that were poured. This Santa Barbara Culinary Experience thing is going to rock.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Julia Child Honored by Casa Dorinda

(Chryss and I with our very charming host Betty Fussell at Casa Dorinda for a Julia Child Valentine's Day celebration.)

One of the reasons Julia Child can inspire an almost religious fervor in those who followed her — that is, anyone who loves food — is that, like another famous J.C., she told us all to “Take, and eat.” Or maybe that should be, “Cook, and eat.”

For in the 1960s, when most food was frozen and pre-prepared, Child made it clear that food could be fun. And, in perhaps the most revolutionary way, she meant that both as a process — nope, that famed chicken dropped on the floor mid-episode never happened — and the product.

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