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.