Friday, December 22, 2023

A Review of "Blood in the Machine" by Brian Merchant


Walter Isaacson’s Elon Musk biography sold nearly 230K copies in its first eight weeks in stores and is currently at #47 in Books at Amazon. Brian Merchant’s Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion against Big Tech sits at #17,280 in Books. That’s just one way to say our fascination with the mighty always trumps (verb chosen advisedly) our interest in history’s “losers.” The Luddites have been pummeled so badly by history we don’t even use the term accurately. 

So it’s fortunate Merchant has written this engaging corrective that leans into rightfully earned polemic in its final chapters. Merchant, a Los Angeles Times technology columnist and author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, sets himself to a difficult task, for the Luddites have been misrepresented and slandered since they first took hammer to power looms in England in the 1810s. Even today, as he points out, a Google search will tell you a Luddite is “small-minded” and “resists progress.”

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

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Cheers for Rip It and Sip It Cocktails


I have to admit I'm skeptical of premixed cocktails, as I so enjoy making them myself. Searching for a recipe (or developing my own), getting more and more and more ingredients, preparing my own shrubs and booze-soaked cherries and saline solutions, using wonderful's all part of the drinking process that connects me with history and culture. And then I share them with people I love as a way to make it clear I do.

But if someone's going to let me try their product, I sure will. And NIO Cocktails won over me over. If you're in search novelty, taste, and ease, it's a product that's hard to beat. It doesn't hurt they provide accurate takes on the classics--from martinis to mai tais--and some intriguing new concoctions, like the Garden of the Zar (free of any Russian T as who wants to seem Russian right now?), featuring Ketel One vodka and elderflower liqueur from Bols. There are 20 cocktails currently to choose from.

NIO stands for Needs Ice Only, but to be fair, they also often suggest a twist, as they should to complete, say, a Boulevardier or Sidecar. (We Californians are so spoiled with our citrus trees abundant in every yard, of course.) But if you are shy easy access to an orange or lemon, all you need to do to "make" a NIO cocktail is to shake the attractive box that at least reminds late middle-aged me of an old school 5-and-a-1/4 inch floppy disc (or New Order's "Blue Monday" 12"), rip off its corner (note--you will spill a teensy bit of the first cocktail you do this with in your learning curve), pour into a rocks glass loaded with ice, and drink.

That does mean every NIO is on the rocks, but it also means you have no other accoutrements to wash but the glass when you're done. So it's not only simple on the making, it's simple on the clean-up. Double win.  And even if your sidecar is powered by Remy XO and Cointreau, that 100ml pour ends up clocking in at a mere 28.8% ABV. Given Cointreau by itself is 40% ABV, these end up lighter mixes, too. That's particularly good to keep you from molesting someone under the mistletoe and regretting it later.

NIO began in Italy--Milan, no less, so that's why it ranks well on style points--and has had its US debut this fall. They like pushing the box as a way to order, which makes sense, as you need a bunch of cocktails ready to go. In fact, I could see these most useful for a party where you don't want to wear out your shaker muscles or just would rather everyone gets a tipple quick without much muss or effort. Plus, conversation piece! That the drinks all begin with top shelf booze doesn't hurt, either. If you're wondering about the price, they come in at abut $10 a drink, which would be a bargain at a bar anymore. 

Mollie Does Deli

Chef Mollie Ahlstrand has been a local icon for three decades. Her treasured Trattoria Mollie on Coast Village Road set the bar for Italian cuisine in the region, and welcomed patrons like Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, and Ahlstrand’s personal favorite customer ever, Kirk Douglas. In 2018, she moved from Montecito to Santa Barbara proper, opening Mollie’s on State Street next to The Granada Theater. But, as she pointed out in a recent interview, “There was the mudslide and the Thomas Fire and COVID … and the rent and the taxes.” Ahlstrand closed the spot in 2021.

So it might seem surprising she’s back with Mollie’s Italian Deli in the Shepard Place Shops in Carpinteria. The strip mall storefront has seating for a dozen people, plus a few more outside, and is squeezed between the Culture Skate Factory and an animal medical clinic. Coast Village Road the location decidedly is not, despite the attractive white tile walls inside and the homey copper pots, clearly functional and not just decorative, along the walls.

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

When They Do the Double Duck, That's Me Dancing*

To be honest I'm surprised that I have used the tag "duck" only six times in the history of George Eats. It is one of my favorite dishes to order out, partly because it still seems special to me--we certainly never ate it in my house growing up--partially because, even though I realize the ones you get out are farmed, it feels like someone had to hunt for your dinner, and how cool is that?, and partially because the few times I've tried making it at home have been mediocre at best, plus a mess to clean up after. 

So I have ducked twice in the past two weeks, both memorable, and both drastically different despite being versions of duck confit at their base. How could anything cooked very slowly in its own fat not be delicious? Duck has a distinct advantage being filled with duck fat, of course. The result is tender yet still gamey, with a flavor that lingers.

Above you see the duck from Gala, in Santa Barbara in the chic redo of the old Pacific Crepes (and beloved and lamented wine bar pop-up Five and a 1/4) location. Get ready for buzz--people are eating at the bar that fronts Anacapa, large groups are partying, cocktails shakers make their magic song--yet it can still feel romantic and special. The couple who opened the spot, Tara Penke and Jaime Riesco, have tons of industry experience and a restaurant in Barcelona, so sure enough, Gala has a European feel to it. 

And a delicious dish of duck. Note it's a full dish, too, and that's crucial. While you can get sides, what comes on this plate expresses all sorts of balance and delight. Confit by its nature is rich--that's why you order it--so having some greens with a piquant vinaigrette is a perfect counterweight. Those velvety mashed potatoes add creaminess to the mix, and a different kind of richness than what the duck delivers, both earthy--potato, after all--and ethereal--no doubt more than you want to know of cream and butter. And then there's the duck gravy, that embarrasses any pan-dripping alchemized into genius sauce before it.  They could sell that on its own, no doubt. The sprinkle of preserved kumquat adds just enough whimsy and acid and color.

Unfortunately I don't have a photo of the second duck dish, as I was too hungry to take one. We were in Cambria recently, staying on Moonstone Beach, and had the great pleasure doing a holiday twilight tour at Hearst Castle (bonus photo below). That meant we were dinner hunting on a Sunday at 7:30 pm, which, we discovered, was a risky position. We had hoped to just walk to one of the two places near our hotel, either the Sea Chest or the Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill, but both shut down for weeks in December. Thanks, off-season! 

So we ended up at Robin's in the village of Cambria itself. Tucked in a hobbit-esque cottage decked out tastefully for Christmas with a fireplace roaring, it tuned out to be a delight. Its ethos is straight from the Moosewood era, but unlike some places you might remember from Santa Barbara's not-too-distant dining past, it also evolved a bit with the times, doing veggie and healthy without simply steaming your broccoli and dousing your brown rice in Bragg's. There I ordered Duck Colorado: duck confit, roasted polenta, cumin sumac roasted baby carrots, red mole sauce, queso fresco, and a handful of tortilla chips. The old pro of a waiter brought out the sharp knife with the gorgeous bowl of food only to say, "Not that you're going to need it." Sure enough, the meat dropped from the bone like someone losing their robe to seduce you. That mole hit all sorts of wonderful notes from its mix of sesame seeds and almonds and who knows how many spices. The heat didn't blaze, but slowly warmed, perfect for a chilly December evening. 

Clearly there's more than one way to serve a duck.

*Pardon the 32-year-old Liz Phair non-sequitur of a title....

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Third Window's Boffo Bierbara

I don't know how I have been so remiss never to post about one of my favorite annual food-drink events in  Santa Barbara, in particular because it honors Saint Barbs herself. The St. Barbara origin stories, as with most of the old time saints--you know, the ones before the Romans even knew they'd need an M to count years--is murky, but basically she was a babe so her dad locked her up in a tower to keep her safe. (And keep her valuable to sell when a rich suitor came a-courtin'. It wasn't the good old days.) Pagan dad was later shocked to learn Barbara found the Catholic God in the meantime. Indeed, she convinced workmen to put a third window in a bathhouse on the family property, in tribute to how light comes in to one's soul through the trinity. Unhappy dad asks her to recant. She refuses. Turns her over to be tortured into recanting. She refuses. (Note: bad parenting.) Sentenced to death, her dad Dioscorus offers to wield the beheading sword himself, killing Barbara, only to be instantly smote by a lightning strike. So henceforth, St. Barbara is the patron of protection from things that go boom, especially thunderstorms and gunpowder.

Kris Parker, owner of Third Window Brewing, jokes, "Since all the mountain ranges were taken when we were looking for a name for a brewery that had an affinity for monastic ales, we turned to St. Barbara as a way to honor the town we are in." A graphic designer loved the idea--no surprise, as they have a nifty logo for all their merch--and Third Window was born. Every year for St. Barbara's feast day, December 4th, Third Window releases Bierbara, a strong ale that varies from year to year, and holds an actual multi-course feast. This year was number X. (Might as well stay with that Roman counting, no?)

There's Kris Parker, left, discussing one of the special pours before one of the courses. To his right is chef Logan Jones of Tamar, who has had an off-and-on pop-up at Third Window in the past (and currently at the old Tyger Tyger location Fridays), and given his foods all about Middle Eastern flavors, it seemed a particularly good fit for a feast day for someone rumored to have lived in that general region. It certainly worked this night, and he joins the line of esteemed chefs to prepare the Bierbara Feast these past ten years, including John Cox when he was at Bear & Star and Justin West when he owned The Mill's Wildwood.

Please note that non-optimal lighting makes these photos less the sell they should be. Every dish, brought out family style and placed so every four people had a platter to share, was as gorgeous it was delicious. Take that salad above, vivid with its Castelfranco and Treviso red-ivory streaks and then enough variations of shades of white to make you want to bring in an Eskimo who has all those supposed words for snow to help make distinctions--mixed chicories, Belgian endive, Asian pear, sheep's milk cheese, daikon radish. Toss with some toasted hazelnuts, sugar snap peas, and preserved lemon vinaigrette and you had a wonder of a winter salad. Especially when paired, like-to-like, with a lambic beer, a Ranch Koelschip re-fermented on Regier Farms peaches for an extra-sour-sweet snap of fruit. 

The second course offered the delight of ranch oak-smoked lamb kofta meatballs, crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, full of flavor, sat in some of the yummiest cucumber and mint tzatziki I've ever had, somewhere between that Greek dip and a raita, punched up with black garlic chili oil. As a delivery vehicle there was Michelline Parker's soul-satisfying sourdough bread, grilled and drizzled with just enough olive oil. All of that good taste was amplified by the vivid Winter Saison '23 poured alongside, an imperial aged in Cognac puncheons, mellow and bright and artfully acetous, with the exact additions of ginger and orange peel without overpowering the ale's balance. The beer did that fine cleanse the palate trick that helped keep the food course seeming light.

The third course proves yet again brown foods might be made for the belly but not for Instagram. That's the fall-off-the-bone tender braised Fess Parker (what else?) beef short rib amidst a stew of homey loveliness--braised wheat berry porridge, pomegranate, toasted pistachio, roasted turnip, butternut squash, smoked dates. Atop the savory crunch of crispy shallot. Winter savory eating at its finest, so good you could have it without the beef and be completely pleased, and I say that usually not a huge fan of the whole porridge/oatmeal/congee texture of foods. (I tell myself I'm saving them for my toothless 90s.) But this dish I ate with relish. And drank with the '23 Bierbara, this year an abbey-style quad aged for a year in Willett Bourbon barrels, then rested on roasted pistachio and pomegranate. Super smooth for its no doubt high alcohol content, it was vivid with vanilla, piquant with the pistachio and pomegranate that the food also delivered. As ever, something special. (It's probably on tap/in bottles at the brewery soon if you want some.)

Note the reason for the season beer was poured alongside course three. For dessert we each got a generous glass full of dark chocolate budino, a very adult pudding that took a bit to get to through the whipped cream, tangerine segments and candied rind, and the peanut brittle that Chef Jones should be selling on its own. The beer match once again went for the samesies trick--the method of this feast's madness was always amplification, intensity, underlining--a bourbon-barrel aged walkabout, an imperial chocolate stout made with Third Window's almost neighbors 24 Blackbirds cocoa nibs, vanilla, and backyard orange peel. It could have been dessert in a glass itself, but we also had a dessert in another glass. 

And at least two of us were very glad we waddled our fested selves the 2.3 miles home on foot, reminiscing of deliciousness all the way.

Monday, December 4, 2023

All Hail Another Year of Jubelale

Given Anchor Brewing is gone, and along with it its annual Christmas Ale, it's good some seasonal winter warmers are continuing their traditions. Take Bend, Oregon's Deschutes Brewery, which has released its 36th edition of its Jubelale. This dark ale is long lingering and warming, offering aptly seasonal notes of chestnut and allspice and smoke. Think of Jubelale as one of those beers that teaches you how to drink it, moves your taste buds around to best accept its enveloping warmth. With surprising oomph for a mere 6.7% ABV, it's a strong ale that won't punch you upside your head if you drink two. Bring on the snow, or at least the ugly sweaters.

Not that the art for Jubelale is ugly in the slightest. In face, there's a contest every year for new art. The festive scene for 2023 showcases a design by former Deschutes Brewery employee, Ben Woodcock. Deschutes press release informs: "Ben worked at the Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House for nearly a decade where he served up tasty food and beverages as he made his way through graphic design school at Portland State University. During his time with Deschutes, he also created elaborate one-of-kind chalk art that frequently graced the walls of the restaurant. Today, Ben is a multidisciplinary artist, designer and educator in Portland who still creates unique chalk art for Deschutes at the Portland Public House." So that's a cool way to support the employee team and make things a bit more personal and personable. Which is what a good beer does, no?

Friday, October 27, 2023

Way Back Machine: "Reed It and Weep" (Nov. 2, 2006)


One from the vaults: This originally appeared on an old blog, and I like it enough to republish and share, especially since it's the 10th anniversary of Lou's passing. (Ten years already!) As for the image, that's from a compilation disc that turned me on to Lou and the Velvets when I was a freshman in college and I was busy growing my ears. To be honest, as much as the music, I was thrilled by the wonderful Ellen Willis-penned liner notes, which got me into her as a writer, too. 

Heading into last night's Lou Reed show right here in Santa Barbara, instead of having a Reed or Velvet's tune in my head, I just kept running that Pixies' lyrics, "'I want to be a singer like Lou Reed,' 'I like Lou Reed,' she says, sticking her tongue in my ear." Perverse, I know, but what better thing to be to prepare myself for Lou, the man who sang about how heroin was his life and his wife the very same year the Beatles got by with a little help from their friends, the man who would deign to play a brittly-sweet version of "Femme Fatale" at this very show, only to hold off singing the title words until the very very last run through the chorus, the man who got the line "she never lost her head even when she was giving head" onto the radio in what is the only song of his ever really to be played on the radio in a 40 year career. 

Sure enough, the show was perverse, too. Reed's touring with longtime band-mate Fernando Saunders and Rob Wasserman, thereby kicking out the drums for a double bass approach that suits many of his songs quite well (even ones he never played--would have loved to hear "Doing the Things that They Want To" or "Perfect Day" or "Kill Your Sons" with one bassist sawing and one plucking, but that's just a way to say Reed has too many good songs and most of them create rock art, and I flip the words very intentionally). They opened with a noise-strumental that functioned as sound-check, which was a good thing since Wasserman's bass originally was mixed so as to move the audience's viscera. Then they set the tone for the evening with an odd lope through "What's Good" and while Wasserman and Saunders pushed the song with its nifty lifting little bass hook, Reed seemed indifferent to the guitar riff, toying with it and the lyrics, too. The tension kind of worked, as the song itself is all about oxymorons like "life's like Sanskrit read to a pony" and "what good is seeing eye chocolate." Reed's great theme all along has been thanatos v. eros, and how much we can love death and kill love. It's not accidental that his Robert Wilson collaboration, which he played a bunch of songs from, is The Raven

So the show was far from perfect, but nobody looks to Reed for that (you want perfect go fall asleep to Celine Dion or somebody). He played two cuts from Songs for Drella, the terrific work he and John Cale created for their mentor Warhol, and instead of blasting through "Forever Changed," which would have really rocked with the double-bass-bottom, he did the talksong with wind effects "The Dream," which Cale does on the recording, as if to reclaim that cut and prove he is and was and will always be the genius (while reveling in the lines about how Andy thinks he's a jerk--despite his immense talent, Lou's one of those assholes who likes to walk around saying, "Yep, I'm an asshole"). I mean, when the show opened and he got a partial standing O just for coming out on stage he did this little hands palmed-out at his sides Jesus blessing like we could all lick his stigmata or something. Then after "The Dream" he revamped "Faces and Names," one of those songs that makes it seem as if his favorite lyric-writing trick is to repeat phrases till they turn noise. 

But then there was a you-got-your-money's worth "Sword of Damocles," too. The synth riff from the recorded version got turned into a bowed bass part, and Reed was even generous enough to let Saunders play one amazing solo on some bassthingy he had on a stand. It was so hot that Saunders just tossed his bow mid-run, as it cramped the free flow of the picking. This song also features some classic Reed lines like, "There are things we can't know/maybe there's something over there/Some other world we don't know about/I know you hate that mystic shit," which is good for a goof, bad for scansion, and very much like something he might have actually said to a dying friend. Even when he's full of it, that's who he truly is. 

When "Damocles" started I thought it was "Street Hassle," but then they did close the full set with that epic of the demimonde. Why not, when you've got a mini-string section? Even after decades of rap music, the lyrics still kind of shock ("when someone turns that blue it's a universal truth and you know that bitch will never fuck again"), and the music was pretty relentless--neither bassman ever relieved the "do-dum-do-dum-dum" with the "bum-boo-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum" rising part on the recorded version--so it was sort of "Street Hassle" on its way to "Sister Ray," but that's Lou for you. He giveth, and he taketh away. Someone from the crowd at one point yelled "We love you, Lou," and he replied, "I love you,'s been a long time, I guess you could call this a relationship." that might sound heartwarming, but he did write and sing "Street Hassle," so there's no rest in a relationship with Reed. Then again, here's a guy who you know is always thinking--cause he says it in almost every song--that we're all gonna die anyway.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

A Review of "Why We Love Baseball" by Joe Posnanski


There’s that terrific anticipatory rush you can get when attending a classic movie in a theater and a beloved scene is about to happen. Think Gene Kelly wearing that manic, just-found-love grin, waving his driver along and starting to doo-doo his way through the intro of the unforgettable title number of Singin’ in the Rain. The whole crowd practically sighs, ready to relish four minutes of splash-dancing perfection.  

That’s a huge part of the fun for a fan reading New York Times bestselling author Joe Posnanski’s latest, Why We Love Baseball: A History in 50 Moments. Ah, it’s the Jack Morris-John Smoltz Game 7 World Series duel from 1991. And here comes Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 Series, lost in the deepest depths of the Polo Grounds’ centerfield.

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

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Have a Little Hedonistas de la Fe in Me


It's National Mezcal Day, so let's celebrate with a terrific artisanal product, Hedonistas de la Fe. As with many mezcals sold in the U.S. market, Hedonistas came to be when some Americans obsessed with the drink and enough money and business acumen to want to build a brand went hunting in Mexico for a mezcalero they loved. Co-founders Bhalin Singh and Jim Beaubien discovered Gerardo “Kaín” Santiago Hernandez in Matatlan, Oaxaca and knew they had their man. Kaín is a fourth-generation mezcalero, doing things the right old way, from sourcing agave to roasting for days over mesquite to natural fermentation to double distillation. 

Hedonistas also gets to celebrate the wide-range of flavors mezcal permits. While tequila must be made of Blue Weber agave, there are actually over 250 varieties of the plant, and about 30 have been used to make mezcal. At this point, Hedonistas keeps its product line to four, but each is quite distinct.

They kick off with the mezcal most folks have had, an Espadín. This bottling is the only one of the four that comes from cultivated agave, and as part of the their sustainability efforts, Hedonistas replants as many as they use to distill. As you can see from the photo above, all four styles are crystalline, bordering on shimmering clear--part of the no additives process. Let's get to the smoke issue quick, too. Yes, that's one of the major distinctions between tequila and mezcal, but to act as if that's the only difference is like saying the only difference between the New York Giants and the San Francisco Giants is which coast they play on. I'd rather suggest the difference is more like that between football and baseball itself, with mezcal the more interesting, evolving, thoughtful, and varied, just like the national pastime. 

So with the Espadín you get the smoke on the nose and initial palate, but some of the taste of smoke is from burnt grapefruit peel, it seems. Each sip is integrated, complicated, lingering. There are floral notes, and notes of white pepper. It lasts. Hedonistas suggests you can mix this one for cocktails, but it seems too good for that, unless you really want to impress. And I am quite taken by some of their cocktail recipes on their website, in particular the Last Rite No. 1, made with the Espadín, yellow chartreuse, Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, and fresh lemon juice.

Moving up the ladder of complexity and price we get to the Tobala, the first of the wild agave sourced by trained jimadors who harvest the plants near the end of their 10-12 year life cycle. Think of Tobala as the whisper-to-a-scream mezcal--it starts attractively come hither on the nose with orange blossom notes, but then builds to a crescendo on its long finish with a hit of pyrazines--that green pepper flavor that makes Cab Franc so distinctive. For its late oomph it still is both sophisticated and inviting.

The Cuishe is kind of the flip side to the Tobala, enticing you in with a nose that makes you feel like a walk through a florist. Tropical, with a lingering note of petrol like in a Reisling, it's a tender mezcal, even down to having the smoothest mouthful of the four. Note that it doesn't give you a bit of alcohol kick at the back of the throat, like you got snapped with a tiny towel, just to remind you you're drinking firewater, if still very elevated booze. (All four come in at a kicky yet controlled 46% ABV, if you were wondering.)

Then there's the Tepeztate, which will make you rethink what mezcal can be. Green and grassy, the plants that make it up mature at 20-22 years (they're old enough to drink themselves in the States!). Think of it as the sturgeon of agave, well, not in flavor, of course. Hedonistas suggests it has a Calvados-quality I didn't quite pick up, but it is to be savored like a fine Cognac, without a doubt. 

You've probably guessed from the buzzwords handmade, artisanal, wild, and all those years it takes for the plants to be old enough to be harvested and distilled that this stuff doesn't come cheap. The range goes from $64.99 - $199.99. It's up to you to decide what's too dear for you. But if you can afford it, you won't go wrong.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Bluewater's Terrific Second Tuesday Tastings

Bluewater Grill has been opened five years now, but it has had to re-think itself constantly thanks to pandemics and the like. The focus has always been on sustainable seafood, though, served in one of Santa Barbara's inimitable locations, on Cabrillo, staring out at Stearns Wharf and the harbor. Heck, it's even got a mock lighthouse tower to draw visitors in. 

That doesn't stop them from instigating a program called Second Tuesday Tastings. For October and National Seafood Month, Bluewater turned to Spain for inspiration (mostly with the wine parings), and offered up this deal: an appetizer of panko artichoke hearts with brava sauce with a glass of Abadía de San Campio Albariño and an entree of chipotle blackened swordfish alongside a pour of Marqués de Riscal Verdejo. The special two-course with wine pairings ran $55 per person, which is quite a deal, especially if you consider that signature swordfish dish goes for $38 on the regular menu. I mean, I usually don't get an app and two glasses of wine for 17 bucks, do you? 

Besides photographing well with some palm trees as a back drop, the Albariño, is a perfect it takes some time for fall to fall on Santa Barbara wine, super-grippy, presenting its lemonsicle flavors with a richer mouthfeel than usual for the varietal without going flabby.

That also made the wine a fine foil to the heaping helping of artichoke, golden brown fried in that panko so it almost looks like mozzarella fingers, but is much lighter inside. Clean, crisp, and crunchy. Brava sauce makes you say bravo on the finish, tomato's hearty essence ringing out and bringing some acid needed to the fry-ness of the artichoke. It's so good, you will no doubt sop up any left over with the old school San Francisco-style sourdough (which arrives at the table warm--nice touch).

The Marqués de Riscal Verdejo comes off as more of a country cousin compared to the sleeker Albariño, greener and grassier and more Sauvignon Blanc-y, as it were. Still, it pairs very well with what a GM insisted is a blackened swordfish with chipotle dirty rice, as opposed to a chipotle blackened swordfish. Distinctions do matter, in numerous ways, starting with the dirty rice that had some warming not burning chile heat, a scattering of black beans, endnote a hint of pork (good news, pescatarians!). The swordfish rub offered a bit of a kick, too, but it doesn't hurt for theme to end with an inner glow, especially if you're sitting outside. (And if you can, snag one of the amazing tables outside the second floor bar, as the view alone is worth it.)

Also note this is a serious plate of food--it's not a precious dollop of rice besides an inch by inch fish cut. And that corn and avocado add just enough Southwest to help the dish soar and sing.

Service was flowing smoothly--pleasant, attentive, unrushed. It was a new GM's first day, so if you go in be sure to welcome Annia Bonifaz, who is happy to be back at the Santa Barbara location (Bluewater is everywhere, from Catalina to Phoenix). 

Even better, since they didn't feel they got the word out fully about this month's Second Tuesday Tasting, they're going to repeat it next Tuesday, October 17. 

Friday, October 6, 2023

Way Back Machine: I Want Me to Want Me (never published)


One from the vaults: There was some anthology called Pop 101 that I almost had a piece in, but either it never came out or they dropped me from it and I didn't get the note. But here's that essay from 1997 about 1979--oh, nice symmetry--that will tell you more than you need to know about young me. And maybe young some-of-yous, too.


 I want me to want me. 

Living all the subtraction of adolescence in New Jersey suburbia, hanging out in each other’s basements. An innocent age, the 1970s, and we ached with crushes we thought were love. Of course, we just wanted to get our rocks off. 

Add up all that wanting, multiply by all that not getting, and infinity plus one seems like an actual possibility. The mall didn’t cut it. Anthony Matarazzo’s 440 Plymouth Road Runner didn’t cut it. Even Saturday Night Live, back when it was good, didn’t cut it. As for the rest of TV, we somehow knew Lauren Tewes, who played Julie, ship’s social director of many of our dreams, however perkily lustable, would be a washed up druggie by 1985. That Love Boat always ended up back in port where it started.

Which gets me to Cheap Trick, who, for a couple of years there, me and millions of teenagers loved. A perfect image for male teendom: the band is half beautiful boys and half unlovable losers. And as for the girls: just the name Robin Zander could make damp many a nubile’s sweet underthings. Or so us boys thought. This boy, though, was no Zander. Instead Huntz Hall look-alike Rick Nielsen seemed more like me, nerdy even with, or perhaps because of, that lead guitar prowess (read technique). Why else would he play three guitars at once? It was a hope that he could ward off geekiness with his many magic wands. 

 But what happens when the geek lurks inside? 

 I could play no instrument, but I was a charter member of the fraternity of air guitarists, and that’s pre-TC, even (Tom Cruise in Risky Business). No, I wasn’t that guy who, instead of dancing at each high school dance, would maniacally windmill air guitar like Pete Townshend when the DJ played “Won’t Get Fooled Again”—come to think of it, that was Anthony Matarazzo. But in private I would stroke away, yes indeedy. 

Now, don’t hear any slumming puns, for Cheap Trick, despite that drummer who smoked while he played and seemed as if he lured tykes into his backseat with candy bars, even despite his image, was slight, light, Midwest, sweet. C’mon, “I Want You to Want Me,” has the sexual heat of Kathie Lee Gifford. Its big hit version was recorded live in front of people who didn’t even know English. 

 Cheap Trick is just evidence that we can not only endure but prevail, over darn near everything: the 1970s, adolescence, parents, Catholic high school, the evils of rock ’n’ roll. I saw them back on the Dream Police tour, 1979, when they packed Madison Square Garden and hoked it up and rocked it out and blew opening band the Romantics, decked in red leather new wave jackets, out of the arena and it seemed to matter and maybe I screamed the words or more likely I sat there quietly beaming, projecting like mad that I—-a non-musical, non-dating, soon to be goddam valedictorian--was all four guys, long-haired posterboy rockers (and a matching set, at that, one blond, one brunette) on vocals and bass plus the two wise-guy axe-wielding, drum-bashing, dare-to-be-proud nerds. 

As the band themselves put it: I surrendered, I didn’t give myself away. Lost in the lift of loud, noise bristled away my sins of being young and there I was: Me. I took the train back to Jersey, and, like any good rocker, went to school the next day on four hours sleep to ace my AP history exam with a best you can get 5.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Way Back Machine: "No Corn, No Sop, No Tatters, No Depression: Wilco at the Bowl, 9/7/97"


One from the vaults: Having had the great fortune to just see Son Volt in town, and knowing Wilco are on their way (even if I'm not going this time), it made me wonder how an Independent story I wrote way back in 1997 still read. Now you can see how it still reads, too, from a time so long ago when newspapers weren't on the internet (so were still a semi-going concern).

Bipolar thinking can get you in a whole heap of trouble, if it’s fair to call stupidity trouble. Let’s just take the 1970s; yeah, them again. It’s mighty easy to reduce ’70s music into opposing camps — disco versus punk, say, or singer-songwriters versus arena rock. But such lines exist merely because critics, eager to fill column inches easily, need ways to show they can make distinctions. (Note most can make only two.) Take Fleetwood Mac. At what point do they cross from a band of three singer-songwriters into arena rock: When Rumors moved its 4 millionth unit? And yes, yes, I know, they were once a blues band and later something for the Clintons and Gores to bop around to as a way to prove they are hip, god help us. (Further evidence the Democrats are just Republican Lite.) 

Simply put, the “everything is one thing or the other” theory merely means everything not one or the other doesn’t exist. There are many musical 1970s out there vanished to us, as if hidden in hangars in Roswell, or something. A cult of believers might insist that a Big Star or a Cleveland punk scene existed, but most people, in pod-like serenity, go on believing only what radio dishes up for their ears, to mix both UFO references and metaphors. 

But the boys in Wilco aren’t most people, and that’s why you need to go see them on the Sheryl Crow bill this Sunday at the Bowl. They named themselves after an old radio for a reason, given they receive transmissions from across the eras. And to put those transmissions in context, it’s necessary for you to sit yourself down and listen to a bit of musical history. 

Wilco exists because Uncle Tupelo doesn’t, but I can tell I probably already lost too many of you. Which is sad, ’cause Uncle Tupelo was one of the best bands of the early ’90s that never got heard given too many people had flannel in their ears and teen spirit in their noses, but nevermind that, that’s a different story. Tupelo knew punk meant, at its very black heart, being uncool, and in 1990, that meant liking, or I should say likin’, country. And that’s real country: Uncle Tupelo’s first album is called No Depression after a Carter Family tune and now No Depression is the name for all like-minded musicians, such is the UT legacy. That Tupelo could like country and still like Black Flag and Neil Young only sounded on paper like a way to clear rooms or break rental agreements. On record, and even moreso live, it was the music that bar sawdust would sing if it had a voice (not to mention amps and fiddles and pedal steel and heart and brains). 

The Uncle Tupelo story ends in 1993 with their fourth album, Anodyne, when Jay Farrar, or so it’s rumored, given the group has never made completely public the causes of their split, said it was all over. Maybe he knew that they could never top Anodyne, an album that whistles round the river’s bend (“Acuff-Rose,” “New Madrid”) and then rocks back up the other bank (“The Long Cut,” “We’ve Been Had”) stopping mid-river for an anthem about the Civil War, maybe, or maybe just love and its uncivil wars (“Chickamauga”). Fans could only fear that the end would mean what the end of the Replacements or the Beatles meant—yet more once-talented people doddering on as if they could even touch the hem of the musical garments they themselves once wore. How sad to once be someone, to once have had talent, if only (and only can mean most nearly everything) the talent that came from the spark and rub of others. 

Maybe not having even Mats-sized success saved Tupelo, though. For now it’s time to risk, once again, bipolar thinking. UT split into two, Son Volt led by Jay Farrar, and Wilco, led by Jeff Tweedy. Most Tupelo fans, if they were betting sorts, put their money on Son Volt, given Farrar always seemed the soul of Tupelo, while Tweedy seemed the engaging cut-up; sure enough the first cut of the first Wilco album is “I Must Be High.” Turned out, though, that the old bipolar thinking trap swallowed whole any bettors, for if Farrar took the better voice (one person has said he sounds as if he’s lived three lifetimes, already) to Son Volt, Tweedy got to take the rest of Uncle Tupelo to Wilco. And by Anodyne that really meant something; the rest of the band could flat out play, seemingly any sort of music. And they did, and do, on two albums, now — A.M. and Being There

This is modestly ambitious music. It cops, more than a hook or a line, a vibe, a feeling that time is such a silly thing we’ve shackled ourselves to. Real music is outside time, which might be why it moves us so — not just a recording of a tune but the tune itself seems out there, somewhere, floating, waiting, like A.M. radio waves bouncing about the planet. The subject matter of Being There is almost incessantly music itself; it’s as if Tweedy wants to define self-reflexivity to those put-off by postmodern theory. So he sings about life on the road, insists this sounds like “Someone Else’s Song,” and croons a mash note to the lamé-wearing Elvis. 

It’s not country, really, not by a long shot, given the first song sounds like a less in need of Prozac version of Big Star’s Third (talk about your albums left in Roswell) and drops lines from Peter Laughner, co-founder of Pere Ubu and one of the first punk martyrs. Referencing Laughner so early might be a clue, though. After all, Laughner, who was so punk he beat Sid Vicious to OD-ing, loved Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, and Richard Thompson, while writing “Life Stinks,” “Amphetamine,” and the scabrous ditty “Ain’t It Fun,” whose best lines we can’t print in this paper. 

There’s a lot of music out there. And if you play it like you know it, which has something to do with (and so help me I’m writing this) soul, and you sing it like you mean it (which is knowing the power of the pulled punch), well, you end up a lot like Wilco. Given so few bands do the first two, and so few have the smarts to know and the heart to love so many musics, there’s only one Wilco. Don’t miss your chance.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

A Review of "Misfit: Growing Up Awkward in the ’80s" by Gary Gulman


Gary Gulman is the kind of comedian you figured had a book in him, given his love of words and language that helped him craft a classic routine out of the creation of the states’ two letter abbreviations. (If you don’t know this bit, watch it now before reading this review; one delicious moment, “Ne’er-do-wells. How often do well? They ne’er do well.”) But there’s more—he’s also willing to open up in ways many people can’t. Check out his powerful, and powerfully funny HBO show The Great Depresh, where he intercut stand-up with footage of his fight with mental illness.

But wait there’s more—based on the painstakingly detailed tales of his K-12 education that make up Misfit—he’s a real-life Funes the Memorious. If that allusion is too-highfalutin, we can turn to one perhaps equally obscure if more middlebrow, the Disney live action classic The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, one of Gulman’s favorite flicks as a kid. Gulman even provides the phone numbers for his precious handful of friends when he introduces them in the book.

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

Monday, September 25, 2023

After Years of Hunting Rabbit, The Dead Rabbit

Finally going to a place you've have put the years into yearned-to-be is a fraught experience. Expectations of greatness are difficult to meet, let alone by something that hopes to be a pub. A really damn good one. Say, one that has twice been named best bar in the world at Tales of the Cocktail.

So maybe that's why instead of trying to write up my at last visit to the lauded Dead Rabbit in FiDi* New York, I instead decided to craft a cocktail from the bar's first book, The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog  Drinks Manual (Houghton Mifflin, 2015). Turns out that a Bijou, inspired by Harry Johnson's 1900 Bartenders' Manual, is an almost perverse delight--gin and sweet vermouth in equal parts, with some Green Chartreuse (get them monks into the glass for a good time), and soupçons of orange bitters, Angostura bitters, and Pernod. You do "garnish" by expressing orange peel over the drink, but discard the peel (pay attention, that detail will be important later).

*That's short for Financial District, and despite our desires, it's not, alas, pronounced, feh-DEE.

The Dead Rabbit--which takes its name from one of the Irish gangs that roamed these tip of Manhattan streets in the 19th century--earns its Irishness as its founders Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry are two self-proclaimed "Belfast boys" who first kicked butt in their hometown, then came to New York City, because if you can make it there.... (I so didn't want to do that, but couldn't help myself.) Of all things the location is around the corner from Fraunces Tavern--you know, where Washington bid farewell to his troops--so certainly offers historical bonafides. Even if most of the current TDR building was part of the build out beyond the heavy-hewed ceiling beams, it certainly has a been-around feel in the best way. You feel as if you're entering an old lair of cocktail loveliness.

It doesn't hurt that the service is far from gruff pub land. Someone opens the door as you climb the stairs to enter. You are ushered to the host stand, and led upstairs--if you are us with a reservation--to the Parlor, billed "the cocktail cathedral" on their website. (The first floor, the Taproom, offers punch and different drinks and Irish coffee and louder craic and conviviality; the top floor, the Occasional room, is for special events.)

If you get sat at the bar in the Parlor, as we were, no one will be standing behind you. It's only table and bar seating, loud enough to feel buzzy, but the buzzing won't takeover your head. Plus you get to order direct from the bartender, the only one, actually, who manages to work steadily but never in a frenzy. It's a place of calm. It's like they took service tips from the French Laundry, almost, how well-timed everything is, how knowledgeable everyone is, how pleasant. 

And then there's that book above (see the entire book as PDF online). Twenty-two cocktails await (a brief panic as to how to choose and choose the best!), arranged in pairs of Tradition and Tomorrow, although Tradition is mucked with in yummy ways most of the time. The categories: Effervescent, Martini, Gimlet, Egg White, Daisy, Whiskey Sour, Savory, Tiki, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Bitter. We scan through, and realize it might be smart for our hopefully hangover-free tomorrows to pick a core liquor and pick two of each we hope to consume over the evening. It didn't seem prudent to go from gin to scotch, say. That made whiskey an easy choice, given it grounded several of the categories.

Plus we both wanted a Buttoned Up (Chryss luckily got it), the traditional Old Fashioned. 

Each cocktail gets its own page--how seen and honored each one must feel in this temple to potent potables. TDR helpfully offers three distinguishing characteristics for each drink, a charming drawing from the Great British Bake-Off school of culinary sketches (except the finished product actually does look like its drawing at TDR), and the ingredients. Who doesn't want an opulent char, especially one that layers Angel's Envy Bourbon and Craigellachie Armagnac Cask Scotch? You know how it is--those who are buttoned-up often conceal the most power. Plus, what a perfect, clear hunk of ice. (I really need to raise my home ice game--TDR sort of shames me.)

I couldn't resist the Whiskey Sour of tomorrow, especially because I had to Google several of its ingredients (why drink what I already know?). The Amazake Kick lived up to its dried fruit, ready, robust descriptors. Amazake, which auto-correct doesn't know either, so I don't feel so bad having to look it up, is a traditional Japanese drink made from fermented rice; TDR gives even that a twist, via Ireland, of course, making theirs from soda bread. That helps led to the breadiness, of course, and the welcome homeyness is always darling in a drink. Once again there are two whiskeys--they love layering on the core pours--and then there's the odd Danish product Plum I Suppose, from Empirical, a bright botanical liqueur that brings marigold and plum. A drink like this one makes me want to be Sour a lot tomorrow.

We also ordered both versions of the Manhattan, what with our whiskey predilection for the evening and, well, that was where we were, after all. The "traditional" Jupiter Switch did what we like to do at home--use Amaro--but even gave that an unusual nudge by making it green walnut Amaro. Not that a hint of nocino is unwelcome or even that unusual in a Manhattan, but that earthy/nuttiness is a hearty touch, especially with the eucalyptus and cacao extending all the flavor's edges.

Tomorrow's Clare to Cádiz made me wonder if the present day and tomorrow are closer than they first appear. It's good to know elegance won't go out of style in the future, as this drink combines for a laser precise lusciousness, and then just enough extender notes--that hint of apple, the edge of nettle--to make it imminently quaffable. 

Most notable about all the cocktails--none were served with garnishes. The aromatics were all poured into the glass, and nothing detracted from the prefect crystal and the combined elixirs inside. And combined they always were. Cocktails at TDR--at least our four pours--all did that "let's make a whole new terrific taste" trick, as opposed to the, "I'm getting the whiskey, I'm getting vermouth, I'm getting the Angostura" bippity-bip moments of some cocktails elsewhere. 

I would also be remiss if I left out the food. I came in with little to no expectations there, assuming it would be all about the mixology. But I was sorely wrong. It's pub food, yes, but every bit as thought-through as the cocktail menu. Take these perfect deviled eggs, elevated with smoked salmon, herbed creme fraiche, caviar, espelette and dill. Savory, creamy, salty, devilishly addictive.

And we didn't photograph the rest of our food, partially as the light was dim enough (no, not too) that good photography wasn't easy, and partially because we were hungry (our evening came after a day of coast-to-coast flying and conquering the NYC transit system with two suitcases). Chryss had the fish and chips, a large enough platter we could have shared it even in our famished state--Harp Lager battered cod, mushy peas, crispy chips, and Ballymaloe tartar sauce (which made us recall our impressive lunch at Ballymaloe a few years back). Each item was nailed.

I went for the Bangers and Mash, a plate named simply so that every thirteen year old boy could suffer a giggle fit. The Cumberland sausage themselves were tasty little numbers, the pork in a good grind and well-spiced. But, of course, this dish is all about its accoutrements, especially that scallion-flecked mash potato, creamy yet not mush, and a lick-the-plate worthy gravy that brought the whole dish together.

The Dead Rabbit surpassed all expectations, and then some. It was mighty hard not to try one last tipple--I regret passing on their Irish coffee, but I don't regret not falling hard asleep that evening, too.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Drinking "Hidden" Italy: Poggio Stenti


With late September's plethora of perfect tomatoes, it's been sauce season*. We make so much we freeze it, too, so any evening's pasta can elevate with a blast of the bounty. 

*While I grew up in northern Jersey, I'm just too Slav through-and-through to call it gravy.

That means digging out the right wine to match from the cellar, of course. That's how I came to open a bottle of the 2018 Poggio Stenti Tribulo, a Montecucco Sangiovese DOCG. This is a wine that's very farm-based; the estate's 30 hectares contains vineyards, an olive grove and barley, spelt and wheat crops. So think integrative farming--done 100% organically--and some real terroir. Of course Montecucco isn't exactly a region many know (and only partially because the English language function on the consortium's website only works on a few of the site's pages). It's south of the more famed Tuscan regions like Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino, and closer to the Mediterranean (not that there's much sea influence). 

Even at five years in bottle, it opened a bit grippy to almost chalky, as Chryss put it, but with air it softened up some, while still packing Sangio tannins. The fruit presented raspberries leaning into blackberries, with maybe a quick nap of balsamic vinegar. But this isn't a fruit bomb, not with its suggestions of tar, earth, black pepper, anise. It grew more complex as the night went on (and don't you want your nights to do that?). 

Our tomato sauce was very pleased.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

A Review of "Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility," edited by Rebecca Solnit & Thelma Young Lutunatabua


It’s not lost on me that I’m reading Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility (Haymarket Books) as I take a fuel-guzzling flight cross country. As much as the 28 essays that Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua have gathered provide hope, ammunition, community, congratulations for small gains along the way, as much as I don’t need to be in the slightest convinced that our human-caused climate crisis is destroying our planet (I also have recently left Maui a mere four days before Lahaina was consumed), I stand accused, too. And let’s not even get to our beloved vintage gas-burning Wedgewood stove….

Of course, how can’t we all take the boiling/flooding/drought-stricken/on fire end of the world personally? A collection like Not Too Late by its very nature tends to speak more to the converted no matter how hard its authors hope otherwise, and even the converted among us always yearn we might somehow be exceptions. It certainly helps that’s it’s only a few pages into the book when co-editor Lutunatabua asserts, “The question shouldn’t be Will my actions be enough? but Will our actions be enough? This is a communal quest in which everyone can bring their talents, visions, desires, access—and if one person struggles, we can help each other up.”

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

Saturday, August 26, 2023

A Review of "The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder" by David Grann


A study of skullduggery and heroism, vainglory and stiff-upper lips, the unbelievable odyssey that is David Gann’s latest nonfiction work The Wager also manages to tear at the evils of empire, 18th century edition. That very direct subtitle makes clear the book won’t be a mystery: British vessels set sail hoping to bag a Spanish galleon loaded with treasure, all part of the now forgotten War of Jenkins’ Ear, endeavoring to sail around Cape Horn, a passage of unimaginable waves and wind, only to lead to…well, you just read the subtitle. But as a study of human will tested to its utmost, and beyond (eventually there’s even some cannibalism of corpses), The Wager (the all-too-perfect name of the ship that wrecks) fascinates. Gann (Killers of the Flower Moon) even gets to vividly paint a portrait of a roaring sea battle along the way. 

 To be honest, it’s a pretty critic-proof book. A page-turner thanks to the amazing twists and turns the ever smaller crew of the Wager suffers (passages about typhus and scurvy are particularly affecting), what’s most striking is how much Grann keeps writerly moves out of the way. Crucially, he’s an ace historian, digging through volumes of firsthand accounts of 1740-1746, synthesizing generally self-interested tales effectively. Central to that is an account written based on one of the perilous journey’s few logbooks, that of gunner John Bulkeley, devout Christian, experienced seaman, natural leader, reluctant mutineer. Alas, when those that survived the ordeal made it back to England, they were welcomed by the age of Grub Street, when “the loosening of government censorship and wider literacy” meant an insatiable appetite for what would not yet be called yellow journalism for several more centuries.

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Vivid Green Sodas Drink Furiously


How fitting with another Teenage Mutant Ninja Moneymaker out that Jones Soda Co. has concocted their current special release that has the glowing hue of Mutagen. The good news is the soda won't genetically modify you or you loved ones, artfully-named turtles or otherwise. Nope, this gloriously green soda shouts its flavors in neon--it's Hatch chile and lime. As the label suggests, the pepper temp is at best a low burn, one that kind of warms up your palate as you get to the bottom of the bottle. You get a bit of the smoky characteristic Hatch is known for, but not a ton--I doubted the chiles are roasted before being infused, or however their "natural flavors" are extracted. The color comes from Yellow 5 and Blue 1, btw, but this is soda after all. It's not like you drink it for your health.

It is mighty tasty and just fun to consume, though. How pleasing is that vibrant green? And if you're going to give in to the flabbergastingly successful Hatch Chile marketing campaign--how one valley conquered the rest of New Mexico's chiles, not to mention their Anaheim cousins, I'll never quite figure out--you might as well get a smile out of it.

The consumer-provided "Reel labels" are a hoot, too. Each bottle offers a QR code so you can upload an image and maybe one day your photo will grace something retina-burningly chartreuse too.

For further research--seeing how well this Hatch Chile and lime works as a mixer in a cocktail; I'd have to imagine a splash of mezcal couldn't hurt.

Monday, August 14, 2023

A Review of "Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House" by Alex Prud’homme


Freedom Fries—the bogus re-naming bestowed by right-wingers requiring simple-minded revenge during the Iraq War when France was a hesitant ally to the US—weren’t the first occasion food nomenclature became a patriotic battlefield. During World War I, Herbert Hoover, then the head of Woodrow Wilson’s Food Administration and years prior to his own presidency, decided sauerkraut was too Germanic to stomach. He renamed it Liberty Cabbage. If tasty bits of trivia like that entertain, they will be one of the many motors propelling you through Alex Prud’homme’s extensive and entirely fascinating Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House

 Believing “the president is the eater in chief,” Prud'homme explores not only what was eaten and with whom in the White House, but also the history of U.S. food policy. In his introduction he asserts, “[The President’s] messaging about food touches on everything from personal taste to global nutrition, politics, economics, science, and war—not to mention race, class, gender, money, religion, history, culture, and many other things.” Overall, the enlightening volume — complete with 10 presidential recipes so you can play White House chef at home — provides Prud’homme with the opportunity (as he told me in an interview I conducted with him for a different publication) “to look at American history through the lens of food, which, oddly, has never been done before. I was surprised to find out there hadn’t been a book quite like this, so that was a blessing for me.”

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

Monday, July 17, 2023

CA Shindig at the Shore

What could get more California Wine Festival, Santa Barbara edition, held this past weekend, than this view? How much could anyone argue with that?

True enough, there's so much going on--vendor booths hawking clothes, cakes, candles and more, a "Best Tri-Tip in the 805" competition, live Caribbean music from the band Upstream, booths offering beer--its emphasis is almost more on fest than wine. But wine ultimately is all about good times, making memories, enjoying. So the Festival had that down.

Not to downplay the wineries present. The event really does span the state, from Navarro Vineyards in Anderson Valley all the way to a host of wineries from Temecula with a stop at the Tri-Valleys tasting table (that's Livermore, btw), so you could taste all sorts of varietals. It does provide a kind of odd portrait if you hope to make some more conclusive opinions about the vinous state of our state, but there was plenty delicious to be had, from old faves like Navarro and Napa's Cuvaison and Paso's Austin Hope to newer discoveries (at least for me) like Mizel Estate, in the Malibu AVA, or Goldschmidt Vineyards, pouring elegant, built for aging Bordeaux varietals from Alexander Valley and Oakville.

Call me a homer, but of course some of the best showing pours came from right here in Santa Barbara, and I could have happily camped at the Santa Rta. Hills Wine Alliance table, which kept bringing out different wonderful gems as the afternoon went on, from Loubud sparkling to Pinot Noir from Dragonette, Brewer-Clifton, and Montemar. When I wind up turning one down as it's just an SRH and not a Radian Vineyard, well, we are pretty lucky, you know?

The main section of the fest certainly offered plenty for carnivores, what with all the samples for the tri-tip contest right inside the gate (each festival-goer got a vote). Other food was dotted throughout the spaciously laid out area in Chase Palm Park, giving people plenty of room (even if there's always somebody who parks himself--yes, it's generally a dude--at the front of the wine sample line to chat and drink through, folks behind him be-damned). Some you could buy--those cakes at SiSi Cakes sure looked delicious--and some you could sample, as they lured you into a purchase, like the super tasty crackers at Savory Bites

We were lucky enough to score VIP tickets, and that section of the festival offered even more upscale eats, even better, more from Santa Barbara, too. (OK, I really am a homer.) From Blue Owl's fried rice to Finch & Fork's wheat blini with Santa Barbara Smokehouse salmon, green olive, agro dolce, and bachelor button, many a taste tempted. Special credit to Finch & Fork for making something you could just pop in your mouth--people don't think through the ease of eating issues for festivals enough. Sure, it's great be generous, but if half the bigger bite you prepared ends up on my shirt, I won't think super kindly of you, restaurateur.  

That's not to say other food didn't also impress--the faux nigiri offered by Fysh Food was not just scrumptious, but also sustainable (please tell me our oceans won't be empty of fish by 2048), and Rosalynn Supper Club, which I'm probably not hip enough to eat at in LA itself, had two flavor bombs, a scallop with cilantro roasted scallion chimichurri, green Szechuan peppercorn, aged soy, and red chili oil, and a "flank steak" that was actually pork, seared and served with a mix of passion fruit herb sauce, Nam Jim, fish sauce, This chili, mint, Thai basil, and cilantro. Just the full listing of the items should make it clear how wild and rich these offerings were.

To be honest, throughout the festival, the vibe was a bit more LA than SB, with lots of folks so well-dressed and prettified that I joked many were likely to be the next victim on a season of White Lotus. But that's just me being provincial. A fun time was had been a lot of folk. I just assume many of them wound there way to the nearby train station and went south afterward.

A lucky few of us also had the opportunity to continue the party at an after event at nearby winery Skyenna. All thanks to sponsors Sommsation, who helped set up the wine and food pairings at the after-party (as that's what they do), and Hexclad, who also helped sponsor the VIP section and gave the cooks there some beautiful pots and pans to cook with.