Saturday, September 24, 2022

Considering Zaddy's Canned Cocktails

One of the great joys of cocktails is the making of them--a tiny bit of precision, a whole bunch of taste, quality ingredients, a modicum of physical effort. Bonus points for any witty bartender banter. Boom, you've made people pleased in less than 10 minutes. How often does that happen?

So I guess I'm not the audience for canned cocktails, and based on Zaddy's website that's certainly true--I go there and feel late Gen X old in a nanosecond. That said, the cartoon skeletons featured on their Corpse Reviver are right up my Halloween loving alley, so I have to admit they've got marketing down.

As for the drinks, they aren't bad, particularly if you aren't hoping they nail a full flavored, just shaken version. The 100 calories bit is appealing but not half as much as the 4% ABV. Sure, these aren't as flavorful as a regular cocktail, but they are playing one with mighty fist of alcohol tied behind their backs. Think of them as delightfully refreshing midday sippers that are easy to take to the beach or on a hike. Or just to your "why is it still so warm" backyard.

My vote would be for the Gin(ger) Fizz first, and not just because I'm a sucker for ginger's sweet tang. It works in a register that one could easily confuse for hard seltzer or kombucha, if not for that background hum of juniper thanks to the gin. And, yes, it's the Corpse Reviver I like the least, only because I'm so partial to the real one and there's no skimping on all its moving parts, even with fennel subbing for Pernod/absinthe. 

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Santa Barbara’s Burrito Week Is Back!


Be hungry. Be very hungry. I got to write about El Zarape's #7 Pasilla Chile Burrito for the Independent's Burrito Week. That write up begins like this:

Full disclosure: I have eaten more El Zarape breakfast burritos than any other to-go item in Santa Barbara, only partially because I live on the Westside. Usually, I opt for the straightforward egg, rice, and beans, so this Burrito Week variation is kind of like trading in your Hyundai for a Lexus.

If you want to read the rest of this blurb and all the other blurbs by other fine Indy writers, go to their website.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Santa Barbara Should Be Primed for Rare Society


Poets have the old line that the sonnet is a form that only allows for perfection. In the restaurant biz, the same might be true for the steakhouse. It’s a tight and classic genre expressed in not just impeccably seared steaks but also in all the accouterments: alpine-cold martinis, busting with butter and tarragon Béarnaise, and as much cream — that is, all the cream — you can get into every vegetable side.

Rare Society comes to Funk Zone–adjacent State Street ready to show Santa Barbara what San Diego already knows: Chef Brad Wise has a burgeoning beef empire on his hands. Wise and his team appreciate all the steakhouse “rules,” while pushing at the lines just enough to deliver a spectacular experience of muchness, at a slightly less than equally extravagant price point.

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

Sunday, September 11, 2022

A Review of "Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire"

 Forget about the butterfly effect, it seems the last 130 years of U.S. foreign involvement should be called the Butler Effect. By that I refer to the now mostly forgotten—despite his distinctive name—Smedley Butler, who upon his death in 1940 was the most decorated Marine in our country’s history. Those medals were awarded thanks to his work helping create a century of empire—his first action was in Cuba, and of all places at Guantánamo, during the Spanish-American War. From that point he ended up Zelig-like at the heart of every flashpoint of America’s global attentions—the Philippines, China for the Boxer Rebellion, Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, France for World War I, and China again. (That leaves out his time as commanding general at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, and a brief run as Philadelphia Director of Public Safety, helping kickstart our still problematic militarization of police.) 

Perhaps we don’t really know of Butler despite his exploits in our name because we like to sweep our national ugliness under the rug of history. As just one example, remember in 1980 Ronald Reagan partially ran for president against Carter for “giving away” the Panama Canal Zone that he claimed was a “sovereign United States territory just the same as Alaska.” Reagan and all those who voted for him could have profited from reading Jonathan Katz’s eye-opening Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire. The book is a vivid history lesson, a corrective to national amnesia, and a somber warning that we can never feel secure our democracy is, let alone will remain, truly democratic.

Care to read the rest then do so at the California Review of Books.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Tech Team Powers Validation Ale in Santa Barbara


Attention to detail can be everything. Brian Deignan, co-owner of the Funk Zone’s new Validation Ale with his wife, Briana, lamented the sad state of bathrooms at too many breweries. “We built twice as many as the city asked,” Brian proudly states. “It’s like a museum in there.” 

Those palatial bathrooms are just one data point to show that this couple took their tech background and rethought the ways of beer and restaurants. The two met while at GoTo Meeting; Brian most recently worked at AppFolio, while Briana has been working at Zoom since before it was a verb, as she put it. That put them in a perfect position financially to go for their dream, but it also gave them a unique perspective. Briana says, “Coming into an industry with no experience, we got to question the status quo.”

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Stars Align at Maui's Huihui

Too often in the restaurant world, when you get a view like the one that kicks off this post, that's pretty much all you get. How greedy should we be, after all, what with a stunning Maui sunset as you stare at Lanai in the distance, and yes, two talented musicians play and a non-cliched hula dancer prances in the foreground, too? 

Well, Huihui, the newest restaurant to open oceanside in Ka'anapali (it's 13 months or so old), wants to deliver even more. This is a paradise, after all, so might as well pile on the goodnesses. They claim the name means constellation, which is fitting given the star-studded evening skies above Maui, but appropriate in other ways too. For example, the ceiling lights in the interior part of the smartly-designed indoor-outdoor space are arranged irregularly, so the bulbs form patterns themselves. And then there's the constellation of success the spot embraces--location, a crack staff, a yummy cocktail program, and, most importantly, scrumptious food from chef Tom Muromoto. 

I didn't get great photos of the drinks, but be sure to get the Lahaina Smokestack if you like smoky cocktails. Just the name is clever, as the Pioneer Mill smokestack dominates the nearby town. In addition to its base of smoked Casamigos tequila, when they bring you the drink they infuse it with a bit of torched wood chips at the table--alas, given the sylvan breezes the smoke zips away quickly, but it's a fun touch.

We started with the appetizer above, poke holokai, which indeed does look more like a sushi roll cut up with fins of taro chips attached (that also make delicious eating implements). The poke during our visit was ahi (it's mackerel if that fish is in season, and as an oilier fish it would have been fun to taste the difference), mixed with a smidge of mayo (for creaminess more than anything) and crab and avo. The nori worked for more crunchiness and salt. 

We were a bit less impressed by the Makawao avocado and crab salad, but that's for easily fixed reasons. First, the greens were underdressed, and needed more of a punch from the citrus oregano dressing. The avo stuffed with crabmeat was spot on, and they wisely served the avocado a bit under-ripe, to make sure the eating had some integrity. Then we just weren't sure about the breadfruit croutons. Certainly novel, they weren't crunchy as much as chewy, lacking much flavor. At least they bring the local and the sustainable.

The mains kicked on all cylinders, though. Above is the tangy fish lāwalu: grilled banana leaf wrapped daily i‘a (fish), creamy abalone sauce, cilantro, pohole (fiddle fern) & ogo (seaweed) relish. That's a scoop of mashed potato on the side. Lots of local ingredients done quite traditionally, with an almost vinegarish kick, probably partially coming from those odd and wonderful orange-ish fruited lime-looking guys on the plate, the calamansi.

But the absolute winner of the evening was the Seafood Huihui, which makes sense--you name a dish after your restaurant, it better carry that weight. Think of it as some Maui-cross of cioppino and a noodle-less laksa. There's so much seafood in there you can easily split it, although perhaps I shouldn't use the word easily, what with a red sauce and the need to remove flesh from shells making it a bit of a dangerous bowl of food for anyone not sporting a bib (they don't offer any). Fish, scallops, shrimp with heads, lobster, snow peas, king mushroom--somehow each separate ingredient was cooked just to and not beyond its appropriate point, usually one of the failings in a stew presentation like this one. (C'mon, you've had the veggies from a crudité plate alongside the fish hammered to mush dish at less skillful kitchens, haven't you?)

Be sure to order rice to soak up the intoxicating sauce, as you will insist on having every drop of it. Rich but not too spicy, it warms more than burns, so while a cousin to a curry, it's not as much vivid as enveloping. What they admit goes into it is coconut milk, tomato broth (plus some actual stewed tomato), and roasted kukui or candlenut, which sounds like a more exotic and pungent version of macadamia from my research.

You can also ask the staff anything and they've got answers, about the food or the history of the restaurant nestled in the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel, almost all the way to the famous Black Rock, a distinctive outcrop that catches the last of the sun's rays and then is romantically lit by torches after dark. Timing melded Hawaii laid back--we never felt pressured to eat up--but we also never wound up sitting around waiting for a course. Plus any non-eating time was pleasantly occupied listening to the two musicians, blessedly under-amplified if anything. There's never a need to shout in this comfortable space.

But we all might scream for a banana bread ice cream sandwich. That's macadamia nut ice cream made in house amidst the perfectly moist yet integrally sound banana bread that will make you feel you're having something homemade at a stop on the road to Hana. Sure, why not drizzle some caramel, too.

Or end with another respectful take on a Hawaiian classic--pineapple upside-down bread pudding, suffused with a tequila sauce for some boozy oomph (no, it didn't remind of over-soaked rum cakes from my New Jersey youth--this was sophisticated). The bread pudding had a perfect sweet-savory, crunchy outside--creamy inside yin yang thing going.

Huihui ends up pretty much as magical as Maui itself.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Norman Baits Diners with Summer Menu in Los Alamos

Given I’m all ears when I hear an establishment is featuring lots of corn on its new summer menu, I hightailed it up to Los Alamos to check out Norman. Housed in the Skyview Motel perched above the 101 — and if you park in the restaurant parking by their very own vineyard at the hill bottom, you will feel every foot of that elevation (but at least get very hungry) — Norman is a mid-century-modern gem offering California comfort food with exciting twists. As Chef Dustin Badenell, who among other places previously worked at the brilliant and missed Bear and Star, puts it, “I source products at the peak of their best to create dishes that you might not think pair properly but in fact do if used correctly.”

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

Thursday, August 4, 2022

St. Bibiana Is the New (Cindy) Black


Back in 2011, when chef Cindy Black opened The Blue Owl as a late-night pop-up inside Zen Yai on State Street, she’d joke, “Some nights, I’m Don Rickles with a vagina and a wok.” Eleven years later, upon opening St. Bibiana on West Ortega Street, she’s more like Louie Anderson with a vagina and a pizza oven.

You could say she’s mellowed, or maybe it’s just that the restaurant biz is very different when you’re 42 as opposed to 30. “Sometimes I don’t have the energy to give the customers hell even if they deserve it,” Black admits. “The fun banter at 30 I loved, and I miss the Blue Owl regulars and the fun chaos, but I don’t miss getting inebriated customers until four in the morning.”

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

Saturday, July 9, 2022

It's a Cinch to Want to Go to Finch & Fork

Many restaurants are taking the opportunity to come out of COVID (ok, let's pretend we are) with a reset, and no one has done that more seriously than Finch & Fork at the Canary Hotel. They've redone the room--say goodbye to the previous darker, wood, shuttered club feel and welcome lots of white, and sun, and video screens that run different modernist art prints. It's all very beach resort appropriate, if a bit generic, not that a dark, come-dine-in-my-library look is particularly novel, either.

The key is, you're going to be paying attention to the food and drink anyway. For as part of the reset, F&F has a new executive chef, Craig Riker, with a varied and storied resume (including Rustic Canyon, Patina, bassist for Deadsy) who locals will know from his time at plant-based Oliver's in Montecito. Now getting to play once again with any foodstuff he finds fascinating, Riker and his kitchen are hitting on all cylinders, doing what he claims is mom and grandma food, as read through his worldly travels as a touring musician. It's elevated comfort food, both because of his access to so much great produce and because of his skills. So imagine a deviled egg, and then a little raft of perfectly rendered pork belly atop, riding the wave of the creamy yolk. Now that's a bacon and egg bite.

We had the wonderful opportunity to taste through a good 60% of the dinner menu this week, and I'm not going to do a dish-by-dish recounting but do want to focus in on two items as exemplars of why you need to get yourself to F&F. And that's without talking about the three fine desserts (nothing like a banana cream pie style shake to awaken and appease your inner child), or the fine service that the charming Tim Thomas, Director of Food and Beverage, oversees, or the locally-focused beverage and cocktails list, put together by Santa Barbaran Jazz Moralez (how deliciously clever to come up with a Francesco Franceschi cocktail, of course botanical-forward, featuring green chartreuse, Fernet Branca, pineapple, lime, and chili threads for quite a kick). 

But then there's the hamachi crudo you get to see in the photo above (stolen from the F&F website, as lousy Blogger won't let me post my video) bathed in cucumber aquachile. A lesson in balance, this is. As flavorful as hamachi is, it's pretty darn delicate, so it's easy to have the amberjack swim away in a too powerful sauce or accompaniment. Not here. First, there's an itsy scoop of avo inside each swirled slice of sushi, its fat pushing the fat of the fish into yet more flavor. And that aquachile brings warmth more than heat, extending all the flavors with each taste. Those flavors include citrus to give the acid zip any dish needs, and then some jicama for just as much cooling sweetness as required. This could be a meal for me and I'd be happy.

Not that I wouldn't be happier with this scallop dish, too. Again, it's a dish--the components are meant to play well with each other (perhaps food is the only place anything does this anymore, alas). The scallops are scintillatingly seared so almost crispy, and just cooked to the center as you would hope. Then there's the Roman artichoke, shaved to only the tastiest parts, like a little thistle cone of delight. Or consider it the ice cream, as the cone is actually a wrap of Serrano ham, all porky-salty goodness. Add it up for a truly imaginative surf and turf. 

But then there's that risotto I would order all on its own. Calling out Acquerello as the brand of risotto isn't just for the mellifluous name--F&F serves you seven-year old rice because it cares and wants you to, too. And how bright and green it is, redolent of shallot and basil and Grana Padano and no doubt a bunch of great stock and sea salt. Fancy without any shmancy, homey without being homely.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Rooting Interests: A Roger Angell Appreciation


I can be assured I’ve been reading Roger Angell for nearly 45 years, as my copy of his Five Seasons, is inscribed 1978 and “Merry Christmas” from family friends. Now the book’s dust cover is ragged and ripped, and when I open it, it seems the pages are about to let loose from their binding. But I had to turn to it again, as Angell passed away May 20 at the astounding age of 101.

I’m not alone in admitting that Angell is no doubt one of the reasons I became a writer—FanGraphs’ Jay Jaffe insightfully titled his moving tribute to him “Your Favorite Baseball Writer’s Favorite Baseball Writer.” But what a wonderful door opening into a writer’s world Angell provided—the elegance of his prose, his adult wit, his gimlet-eyed observational skills. He could regularly attest, in long-form New Yorker journalism collected every five years into books, his abiding love for a game I also adored, but one that awkward and gawky me would never be much good at it, so I needed another way in. Words were that way.

Care to read the rest then do so at The California Review of Books.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Bluewater Grill Renews Santa Barbara Ties


The steadily growing Bluewater Grill chain may be opening a new outpost every year — there are 10 so far from Catalina Island to Phoenix — but the goal for each restaurant is to stay grounded (or “sea-ed” perhaps?) in its region. The pandemic provided the opportunity to refocus that mission at our own Bluewater on Cabrillo Boulevard, which opened in 2018. Specifically, the restaurant hired new executive chef Alberto Torres, a 30-year Santa Barbara resident formerly at Hollister Brewing Company and Chuck’s Waterfront, as well as a new GM, Autumn Vaughn, a rising star in Bluewater’s ranks.

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

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

I Left My Heart in Fizzy Pisco


It’s easy to go a bit mad considering mandarins. Clearly pulling apart tangerines from clementines from trademarked brands like Ojai Pixies and Cuties… well, it’s certainly not as easy as pulling apart the luscious segments from these oblate wonders of the citrus world. Actually, telling them apart has something to do with the roughness of the skin, and, of course, genetic crosses you’d have to be a botanist to bother about. But the best thing is many of us locally have a tangerine tree of some sort or know someone who does who is probably offering you fruit. Say thanks, and get cracking on this cocktail.

Care to read the rest then do at Edible Santa Barbara & Wine Country (they've even got a fancy new site for you).

Monday, May 16, 2022

Dishing Up a New Julia


When Oscar-nominated directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West set out to make a documentary about the legendary Julia Child, they realized the public believed they knew her. That meant their goal was for a tone that was, as Cohen puts, “Not the same old same old.” People can find out how they made the story new when their film is screened as part of the Santa Barbara Culinary Experience’s Taste of Santa Barbara weekend on Friday, May 20, 7 p.m. at SBCC’s Garvin Theatre, with the directors on hand for a post-film Q&A.

Early on, chef Marcus Samuelsson, one of the first of many fascinating talking heads, calls Child “the Madonna of television chefs,” an outlandish comparison that’s also apt, as both challenged what celebrity women could and should do. Next, footage of a roasting chicken is set to Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” Sure, Child began her breakthrough public TV show The French Chef in the 1960s, but rocker Hendrix still seems from a very different world than the Pasadena-born patrician dishing up boeuf Bourguignon.

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

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

A Review of "The Ninth Decade: An Octogenarian’s Chronicle" by Carl H. Klaus


I like to think of Carl Klaus as a journal-ist. No, he didn’t write for newspapers, but his series of nonfiction books all were certainly journals, rich accountings of his life. His prose was lean and unfussy, but the more you thought about it, the more elegantly crafted it became. So, his writing was a lot like the man himself. That’s why it’s a gift that his final book The Ninth Decade chronicled his life in his 80s, a keen-eyed, non-sentimental examination of old age that he published a few months before his passing in February 2022.

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

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Irish Whiskey Business at the Lark

I might risk having many of you want to kick me right in my shamrocks, but I'm not a fan of corned beef and cabbage, unless that cabbage is sauerkraut and I've got a Reuben in my hands (even there, I prefer pastrami). So when The Lark suggested the menu above to celebrate St. Paddy's Day, I couldn't have been happier--not an over-cooked anything all evening!

It didn't hurt that there were eight Irish Whiskeys* also offered, including stuff as mythic as a Bigfoot sighting. I can be extravagant, but I rarely pop $600 for a bottle of booze, so getting an ounce or two of Redbreast 27 was truly a treat, but I'm getting ahead of myself. (Good booze does that to me.) 

*Does the whiskey versus whisky spelling issue confound you? It goes like this: if you're drinking American or Irish, it's whiskey; Scottish, Canadian, or Japanese, it's whisky. Why? Nobody quite seems to know. But at least at The Lark for this dinner, the lovely stuff certainly made one go "eeeee."

Guests got half ounce tastes of the four "welcome" whiskeys--although you could sneak back in for re-tastes if you were pushy or me. The big difference, as the Pernod Ricard rep (yep, Midleton-Spot-Jameson-Redbreast are all part of one of the mega liquor conglomerates, as probably you and I are, at this point), is with your usual Jameson Irish Whiskey, no one knows how it tastes, they just do shots. Here, you better damn well sip. So then you'd know Green Spot has a lovely minty character, Redbreast 15, with more oak, is both smoother with a longer finish, and the Redbreast 21, oh, you want to spend an evening with this one, even if you will feel its liquor-heat. Speaking of, Blue Spot is cask strength, 117 proof, and enough to make you wonder if you're sitting down when you're sitting down. But it's also complex as all heck, having been aged in Bourbon casks, Sherry butts and Portuguese Madeira casks. So it runs the gamut from vanilla to more exotic tropical notes. 

All four went down well with the passed app, since there's some mighty good grilled sourdough to help soak up the alcohol and then a lovely mix of salty-fattiness with that porchetta di testa (pig's head roulade, sliced to be presented as charcuterie) and then a zesty balsamic onion jam and pickled mustard seeds that burst with goodness (and run a bit about like ball-bearings, too).

Somehow I didn't get a photo of the artichoke course, but it made me wish there was even more of the delicious Dungeness crab on it, and seemed a bit of a puzzling choice to be served with stuff you were drinking from a Glencairn whiskey tumbler, because pulling out artichoke leaves and scraping the meat with your teeth makes for very messy, if tasty (thanks, tarragon-flecked Fresno chili butter!), fingers. Maybe other people are better at being dainty, but I was making a mess. And, of course, we were eating family style, at festive long tables packed tightly with revelers that denied we had just come out of (and have we?) a pandemic.

The Midleton Very Rare Barry Crockett served with this course had its own battle to fight--at a mere 80 proof and aged in barrels with untoasted heads, it was a more demure pour than the Blue Spot that proceeded it. Try being just a gorgeous gal after Marilyn Monroe had blown threw a room. But it rewarded with its subtler pleasures as we sat with it, as is fitting for a whiskey named after the head distiller at Midleton for five decades.

The Yellow Spot served with the next course brought home the sherry notes from the barrels it was partially aged in, and, as our presenter called it, "Christmas cake," because no one wants to compare anything positive to fruitcake, plus, that's what they call it Ireland. Just the aroma of the duck confit was insane, and serving it with a barley risotto was clever, of course, but the barley you eat is pretty different than the malt that goes into distilling. Both the pour and the duck had honeyed notes--the dish from honey-roasted red flame grapes--but in many ways the evening proved that while you can have delicious food and intoxicating whiskey together in a meal, it's hard to have them hold a truly meaningful conversation. I'd order that duck again, though, in a second (nasturtium are so pretty and delicious both).

But I might order these ribs first, and I'm generally not a huge ribs fan (living with a pescatarian gives you less time to develop your barbecue palate as the best joints get meat into everything, from the greens to the mac-n-cheese to the meat itself, of course). These ribs, though--smoking made them exquisitely tender and flavorfully full, especially when lightly doused with the maple and pear vinegar gastrique, a perfect sweet-sour line of tension. And what could be wrong with a whiskey-pickled jalapeño for a bit of kick? 

The Jameson 18 poured alongside is a blend of three different whiskeys, all at least 18 years old (that's what the year designation means--that's the minimum of what's in the mix), and exhibits a classic pot-still richness, picking up accents from its aging in Oloroso barrels for spice and vanilla and more from aging in Bourbon barrels, too. I'd like to call it a smiling whiskey, as that's what it leaves you doing after each sip.

And then the Redbreast 27 arrived. Think about what that number means--AOL offered internet browsers to the public for the first time the year that this whiskey began aging. And you can see what aged better. A 109.2 proof behemoth of all you might want, and things you didn't know you wanted, in an Irish whiskey, as its aged in Bourbon, sherry, and ruby port barrels. Rich, luxurious, it even offers more exotic fruit notes in addition to the more traditional plum and cherry fruit soaked in vanilla. 

As rich was the ganache, wisely salted (really the only way to enjoy chocolate fully). The sea buckthorn berry/grand fir oil sauce was a bit much for some--think mango and pineapple had a particularly tart baby--but I thought it provided a pleasing cut to the obvious richness of the chocolate. And, even to the whiskey some. So let's call this oddball the pairing of the evening?

I am a bit sad no future March 17 will ever live up to this one, for food or drink, for as the Pernod Ricard rep put it, all these whiskeys are highly allocated and he claimed to have never seen them poured at one event before. So I guess that leaves me green with Irishness, and you can just be green with envy. (Sorry.)

Friday, March 25, 2022

7 of the Best Small Wine Producers in Southern California to Try Right Now


While most people know the sad tale about how the auto industry and its corporate fellow schemers offed public transportation in Los Angeles, few know what Prohibition and urbanization did in Los Angeles' flourishing wine production. Indeed, the original seal of the County of Los Angeles — from 1887 until a surprisingly late 1957 — was a cluster of grapes.

In the last 30 years, wine production has exploded throughout Southern California. Take Santa Barbara County, which was named the Wine Enthusiast's wine region of the year in 2021. In the late 1980s, there were 29 wineries; today, there are well over a hundred (one might have opened during that sentence). And even Temecula has survived glassy-winged sharpshooters eating nearly half their vines in the 1990s and a bad rep thanks to recovering from that disaster to become one of the state's hottest wine regions. Now, Southern Californians are making wine from the Mexican border to the Cuyama Valley. Here are just a few of the best small producers.

Want to read the rest, then do so at KCET's website. (And thanks for having me back, KCET!) (That's Say When in the photo above.)

Friday, March 18, 2022

WOPN 2022: New Finds

Based on my two WOPN posts (so far, one still to come?), you must think all I do while there is get snapped in usies, but I wanted to start both posts with the only two of those social media friendly gang shots I was in all weekend in order to: 1) get some people in these blog posts (not only did I fail to take pictures of people, I had to grab most of the bottle photos from the net for this post--bad blogger!); 2) a big part of WOPN is the sudden moment a table becomes a party--who knew drinking in public led to talking to strangers?; 3) I wanted to point out there were lots of Pinot lovers crammed into the Bacara ballroom, and so I guess we all figure we're done with COVID (let's hope it's done with us).

So the angle for this post is new finds, and the funnest new find of the weekend was definitely Bee Hunter (see photo above). I'm historically a big fan of Anderson Valley wines, the gorgeous cherry of them, the hint of redwoods, plus the location itself is a beauteous land that seems to have banned all chain companies. Forget Starbucks and Mickey D's, even the gas station and supermarket go by people's names, not corporations'. So it's not surprising that's where the very personable Bee Hunter comes from, and the dynamo Ali from the Valley behind the table made sure everyone was tasting, getting info, having fun. She and her husband Andy DuVigneaud make a host of wines, from orange to after dinner, and then a fantastic phalanx of Pinot, including a luscious 2018 Anderson Valley that the Wine Enthusiast gave 96 points to, which suggests not all ratings are ridiculous. The charm and warmth of this winemaking couple shines through in every bottle.

Staying in Mendo County, I also really relished the 2020 Maggy Hawk White Pinot Noir. You heard that right--they get the juice off the skins fast enough it stays light, but light isn't the world for the flavor or texture. Especially after all the traditional Pinots, this wine, with its elegant peach and exotic fruit notes is a palate re-awakener. (And here I should admit that I might have written about this wine after a previous WOPN for a different vintage, but it seemed like a new find again, so I'm sticking with that.)

Then there are the places who find their great grapes from a wide range of places, which gets us to Auteur. While based in Sonoma, winemaker Kenneth Juhasz and his COO wife Laura Juhasz cherry pick from the best fruit they can find, and the best they were pouring at WOPN came from Manchester Ridge in Anderson Valley. Two thousand foot elevation, coastal, super stressed small cluster fruit and one big, big wine laced with saline from the ocean influence. Yum.

Sticking in Sonoma I heartily enjoyed the "sister" projects Works & Days (I mean, who doesn't love a Hesiod reference? or, if you'd prefer, a Prufrock reference to the ancient Greek?) and Coursey Graves (note the names rhyme--how to win over a wine-loving poet). Cabell Coursey was a delight to talk with, as he described his winemaking--for one thing, they age in terracota amphora and only use natural yeast. So you really taste the wonder that is their vineyards, and while I quite liked Works & Days 2018 Spring Hill Vineyard Pinot--everything you want a Sonoma PN to be, fresh and full, deep and racy--what truly blew me away was the ringer under the table, the 2015 Coursey Graves Syrah. Their website aptly describes it this way: "This wine blends American bold richness with a European elegance and style. Explosive aromatics of violets and blueberry, and focused flavor of blackberry, licorice, and pepper, this wine will age for a decade or more." Somehow they resisted using any exclamation points; I scribbled a rarely-used 5 stars in my notebook.

One of the keys to navigating so much wine in one room is listening to friendly recs. That's how I ended up at the Cobb Wines table, after bumping into the always-good-to-see Matt Mauldin (who works for the Miller Family Wine Co.), thanks to his advice. Think cool climate Sonoma coastal vineyards, and then some special magic for the 2016 Diane Cobb Coastlands Vineyard Pinot. The Diane Cobb block is the heart of their family estate, and winemaker Ross couldn't mess up if he's going to name a wine after his mother, could he? Given he's worked at the likes of Willams Selyem and Flowers before starting his winery with his family, no. Wine & Spirits named it the year's best pinot, and they might be right.
One of the great fun parts of WOPN is discovering a wine regional's or sub-region you didn't know about, and that's the case with Eden Rift, tucked in the Cienega Valley AVA right up upon the San Andreas Faultline. It's got a more famous neighbor in Calera but it's making great wine on its own, which might not be a surprise given Eden Rift is the oldest continually producing vineyard in California, planted in 1849. Throughout their tasting line-up they offered racy, grippy wines with good minerality. I particularly liked the 2019 Estate Pinot Noir (you can't even buy on their website yet), coming from what they hailed as their favorite recent vintage.

Note one running theme of this post: most of the new finds are going to be out of Santa Barbara as I'm a bit more attuned to what's happening here, but not always. Hence, Piazza Family Wines. (I will not make Mets or Belle & Sebastian jokes. I will not make Mets or Belle & Sebastian jokes. I will not like you if you say the Mets are a joke.) Ron & Nancy Piazza planted the famed Mt. Carmel Vineyard that long sold fruit to stars like Greg Brewer and Rick Longoria, and then became co-partners in Mail Road (see the old friends post), but wanted even more of a presence in the winemaking community. So they bought what was the Harrison-Clarke Vineyard in Ballard Canyon, renamed it Bella Vista, and most importantly, hired Gretchen Volcker as their winemaker (she also makes her own wines as Luna Hart). While the Ballard Canyon property lets them make some Rhone varietals, at WOPN it was the Mt. Carmel Pinot that starred, especially the so good if still so young (so how great will it get?) 2020 Mt. Carmel PN, ridiculously concentrated yet lithe, and with that windswept wild quality the hilltop site lends to wines. All in a 12.9% package, too.

To end on a bit of a palate cleanser, thanks to its bubbles, let's consider the easy to glug Neighborhood, 2020 Sparkling Pinot Noir 'Pet Moon Red' from Pali. Now, chatting with the ever affable Aaron Walker helps make any wine go down, but this pet nat--and I know, I know, it's a favorite for trendies who don't know what's good, only what's hip (and what the heck do I know, I just used the word hip)--this one is actually good, bringing the fresh and delight with plenty of berry and potpourri power. And if you can't enjoy something a bit unusual, and a bit less fussy, why would you care about WOPN finds, anyway?

Sunday, March 13, 2022

The Manor Bar’s Bookish New Menu Debuts in Montecito


Talk about a hot new cocktail menu — one of the highlights at the clubby Manor Bar at Rosewood Miramar Beach is literally smoking. And perhaps I should have said “literately,” as this inventive and inspired list is all based upon works of literature. 

That hot cocktail is the Fahrenheit 451, which arrives at your table in a smoke-filled lantern of sorts — you get to reach in and pull your old-fashioned glass out. The smoke, from dehydrated white sage, is redolent of the hills and the Bradbury novel about a dystopian future where firefighters burn books (hey, that could never happen).

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

Friday, March 11, 2022

Bill Foley Opens The Society: State & Mason in Santa Barbara’s Hotel Californian


“I could see the excitement in Bill’s eyes because of this space,” recalls Warren Nocon, who’s been managing the Hotel Californian since it was opened by the original owners in 2017. “It led to one of the fastest sales of a hotel I’ve ever seen.” 

That space, formerly a boutique, will be unveiled this week as The Society: State & Mason, the new Santa Barbara home for the Foley Food & Wine Society. And that Bill, if you don’t know, is Bill Foley, a businessman whose bio features the abbreviation NYSE quite a lot. But most importantly, at least for this story, he also owns 23 wineries around the world, assuming he hasn’t bought one since this story was filed.

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

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Bite into Santa Barbara Burger Week


I wrote one of the burger profiles for this week's Indy, about the delicious vegan bunless croquette they're doing. Here is my write-up:

Petit Valentien, semi-secreted off State Street in charming La Arcada, lives a delicious double life. On weekdays and weekend evenings, it’s French, thanks to co-owner Rob Dixon. But for weekend brunch, you get to enjoy Ethiopian fare, thanks to co-owner Serkaddis Alemu. And now, for Burger Week, you get to relish both cuisines on one plate with the French/Ethiopian Vegetable Croquette. 

Presented bunless, this three-bean veggie patty always mixes lentils, chickpeas, and black beans with onions, carrots, and beets. The rest, said Dixon, depends upon whatever else is freshest, from potato to eggplant. And you really get to sense the vegetables, pleasantly cubed up in the bean mix that remains relatively soft, except for the dusting of panko breadcrumbs that crisp up during the burger’s light fry. (That means the croquette is vegan but not gluten-free.) 

 What truly sets the dish off are the zippy Ethiopian spices worked in the mix that get a bit of a heat accelerant from a spicy avocado puree underneath. This is not a dish for heat-wimps: You will feel a definite slow-burn as you consume the croquette. The simple greens, tomato, and red onion salad, in its classic vinaigrette, makes for a good foil.

Care to read about the other 14 burgers that I did not write about, you can so that on the Independent's site. And go eat a lot of burgers and tell them the Indy sent you.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

WOPN 2022: Old Friends

Despite the many years I've been fortunate enough to attend the World of Pinot Noir (and is there a more annoying way to start an article?), I've never quite cracked the nut on the best way to cover it. There's just so much, and that's only considering Friday's and Saturday's Grand Tastings events. Over the two days at least 165 wines poured over my palate, so distinctions can get a bit blurry, and I'm not just talking about my handwritten notes.

That said, I decided one way to approach this year is splitting up some highlights into two different stories, this one called Old Friends, and then a later post I will call New Finds. (There might be a third post called Some Foods.) And to prove how hard it is to follow even my own outline, I'm going to begin with an old friend creating new finds--Larry Schaffer and his tercero wines. Those familiar with him know him to be warm, wise, chatty (he named two of his wine blends Verbiage), and an endless experimenter. He makes mainly Rhone varietals, but then there's that quenching Gewürtz he calls Outlier (since no one can pronounce Gewürztraminer), his Aberration red blend he asks you to chill, both a Cinsault and a Mourvèdre rosé.... He's hard to stop.

So, of course, he had to give in, finally, to the clarion call of Santa Barbara County and make some Pinot. And what did he show up with at WOPN? Four! All his 2020 fruit comes from Kessler-Haak and he's made a blend of three clones, each of which you can buy bottled on its own, too. Think of it as a delicious science experiment. As he put it, he thinks in Rhone terms, and compares the blend to a GSM, with the 113 clone playing the Grenache and providing the high notes, the Pommard 4 taking the Syrah role and providing the balance and bulk of fruit, and then the 114 doing its Mourvèdre impression and providing the undertones. At this point I think the blend stands out as it is so balanced, but who knows what time might show--the 114 seemed youngest as a solo bottling, and those who like their Pinots floral should gravitate to the Pommard. But, as always with Larry, it's all good. Especially if you get some of his homemade blue cheese bread with it, as tasters got to do. (Plus, bonus Shelby Sim of Visit the Santa Ynez Valley usie at the table--a good thing, as I'm so bad about taking photos of people.)

Of course if I go on at this length for every wine/winery I hope to write about this post will be longer than a CVS receipt and less valuable (and darn, I do need a two-for-one on toothpaste after all the red wine), so I'll try to speed things up. For example, here's a two-fer, what the pourer at the Hilt table called "The Matt Dees fun zone," since their aisle portion backed right up to the Mail Road position on the next aisle. I have praised Dees many a time and surely will do so again, but geez he's rocking it. At the Hilt has the the home field advantage of getting to play with Radian and Bentrock fruit (more on both in a bit), which means such wildness and bite to the wines in the best of ways. You can't drink the 2019 Hilt Radian--a wine to geek out on--without doing your best Colin Clive imitation and shouting, "It's alive!!"

Meanwhile over at Mail Road they were offering a vertical from 2018 to 2015, which was fascinating as the wine shifted from even to odd years, the former ones more opulent, the latter more Burgundian. Talk about a lesson in vintages, at least at Mt. Carmel Vineyard (we will visit Mt. Carmel again in the New Finds write up). Another lesson, I make a funny face when I silently express my joy in tasing a good wine, at least based on the pourers at this table after I had theirs. When one asked which vintage I preferred, I could only reply, "The last one I have tasted." Power, elegance, grace.

As for Hilt follow ups, I generally spend some time making sure I get to taste as many wines made from Radian and Bentrock as possible (and thank you, Matt and owner Stan Kroenke for still selling some of this fruit--how sad our area would be if everyone clamped down on what they owned like we were some BS place like Napa). Those sites never make anything less than very good wine, but two particular standouts this WOPN were the 2018 Radian from SAMsARA, which pushed the racy Radian experience to a delicious edge thanks with 100% whole cluster and 50% new French oak, and the 2015 Montemar Bentrock--yep, that's their current release of it, and it might have needed all that time as it's still a gnarly monster of Pinot goodness.

Speaking of monsters, I like big format bottles, I cannot lie, and every WOPN Paul Lato is sure to deliver on that front. It's always bit of a zoo at his table, but that 2013 Drum Canyon you see above was worth it, a spectacular expression of Sta. Rita Hills fruit with oodles of spicy notes and a finish longer than this whole blog post. Same for a Brewer-Clifton 2010 Cargasacchi from a bottle nearly as tall as me (I might exaggerate, but only a tad), the kind of pour you just walk around the hall and finish, as it would be a sin to pour it out after it waited for you, just getting better for over a decade. 

Not to be outdone with wines with some age, Gray Hartley as usual was behind the Hitching Post table with two oldie-but-goodies, a 2000 Sanford & Benedict and a 2002 Fiddlestix. The former had some bricking, sure, but still so much life, and then old notes only French Burgundies are supposed to get like graphite and tea. The Fiddlestix was so vibrant you wouldn't guess it was two decades in, and then amidst all the fruit, some mushroomy notes began to bloom on the finish. Such fun wines, and one of the reasons you go to an event like this--to get what you'd never have a shot at otherwise. I mean, he wasn't even hiding these under the table.

Then I want to highlight a few wines that just capture a sense of place, and in one case even a sense of an era. You could almost start a friction-created blaze trying to pass people to get near the Sea Smoke table (get it, where there's smoke there's fire?), and the 2019 Southing struts like the Sta. Rita Hills on steroids, and I say that as someone who loved every one of Barry Bonds' 73 homers in 2001, a pre-pursuit of balance year this lovable lug of a Pinot also reminded me of. Foxen rocked, as usual, but this WOPN I was most taken by their Santa Maria Valley bottling, in particular the 2017 Block 8 Bien Nacido. That's BN's highest elevation, so maybe that helps make it so wonderfully aromatic I was practically content just sniffing it, but after tasting it wrote "people don't know what cherry in Pinot Noir is if they haven't tasted this wine." 

Continuing north through California up Edna Valley way there's the 2018 Stephen Ross Stone Corral Vineyard, a site Ross shares with the alas not at the event Kynsi. Kettmann in the Wine Enthusiast put it this way, "Dark-cherry and black-raspberry aromas meet with loads of crushed slate and dried loam as well as hibiscus and rosewater on the dynamic nose of this bottling. The palate is also very rocky and mineral-driven, while showing darker plum and purple-flower flavors." That works. The mineral-driven nature really woke up my palate on a long Saturday afternoon.

To almost end, let's consider something northy north in California, one of my favorite vineyards, Savoy in Anderson Valley. Now owned by FEL, I've been going there since it was Breggo many moons ago, and it still makes one of the most elegant and haunting of Pinots. It's as if you can sense the nearby redwoods lurking in each bottle.

All that said, I'd be remiss not to mention two of the better out from under the table moments. Despite Chardonnay being Pinot's Burgundian brother (or is that sister? does it depend upon the wine?), and despite almost all of the wineries present making both, it's kind of considered bad form to play up your Chardonnays. Some place just went and poured them, and more power to them. Some hid theirs away. For example, Liquid Farm offered me a 2015 Golden Slope Chardonnay and lord knows it deserves its tip-of-the-cap name to the Cote d’Or, so creamy and luscious (it almost recalled one of my favorite SBC whites, Stolpman's L'Avion Roussanne, somehow).

In a complete different, equally pleasing way, Greg Brewer had his latest just-to-be-released 2021 Diatom Chardonnay hidden away. As Brewer puts it on his website, "Diatom is motivated by the pursuit of subtraction and refinement," which makes it a vision of purity. Alas, at that point in the tasting, close to close at 6 pm, I managed to make this brilliant observation as he drew the bottle out and said it was his new release, "You mean a 2022?"

Uh, no, this year's wines aren't released yet, as they are still sleeping in baby buds, dummy. I do want to give myself a bit of a break, though--what with no in-person WOPN last year, and the excitement of getting to see so many great wine friends again this year, it's tough to know what time it is.

Friday, March 4, 2022

A Review of "To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno" by Dinty W. Moore


If you’ve even wondered why the hell we came up with hell, this is the book for you. Dinty W. Moore knows of hell well, and in all sorts of ways— among his many books are The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes: The Naked Truth about Internet Culture in 1995 when future Facebook cyborg Mark Zuckerberg was only 11 and the genre-busting memoir Between Panic and Desire in 2008. But most of all Moore’s a recovering Catholic, so of course much of what he finds between panic and desire is guilt. Not to give away the book’s ending (we all die and who knows what happens) but check out Moore’s Index to espy the tone of the book: Augustine, Dante, Organized Religion, and Original Sin are the only items indexed. And the pages flagged for this fearsome foursome are for subjects like “makes us cringe,” “makes us doubt our worth,” “makes us loathe our very existence.”

Care to read the rest then do so at the California Review of Books.