Friday, March 31, 2023

Centuries of Knowledge and Stock Power Kopke Port


It would seem trivial to suggest port might have its moment since it's been around for centuries. The Douro Valley, where the fortified wine comes from in Portugal, is the third oldest official wine region in Europe after Chianti and Tokaj. What's more, while that designation for the Douro came in 1756, Kopke has been making wines since 1638. Heck, that's the year Dom Pérignon was born, and I mean the monk, not the Champagne house. If Shakespeare could have lived to 74, he might have sipped Kopke's first vintage. 

That means Kopke's got a track record and a cellar full of deliciously aging wines and ports. I had the great fortune to receive the fancy box of samples you see above in three different stages of unpacking, and then got to take part on a Zoom tasting with Carla Tiago, Kopke's winemaker, and Serge Lozach, managing director of importer Wine in Motion, a few weeks ago. In many ways the hour was an education in port as much as a tasting, so here's a quick report (no pun intended).

It turns out you can use more 100 varieties of grapes to make port, as long as they are native to Portugal. Sometimes Kopke calls the varietals, as they do with their 2012 Colheita Tawny that is equal parts Touring Nacional, Touring Franca, Tinta Roriz, and Tina Barroca, and sometimes they are a bit coy and say "traditional Douro grape varieties." Guess you have to protect the brand. The wines are all fortified to 20% ABV with neutral spirits.

And it's important to introduce the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto, the government-run agency that strictly regulates (and also promotes--could you imagine the ATF doing that here in the U.S.?) port production. They keep an eye on those "brandies" used for fortification, they help decide what it means to call a port a 10 or 20 years old tawny. For that's not a strict math equation, that is, you can't go "current year - # of years on bottle = year wine was made." It's a declaration of style and quality and depth, so a 10 years old might have wines blended in that are older or younger than ten years, but it tastes--consistently--the same. And the Instituto is a big part of that actually meaning something.

Most striking for Kopke is they have helped pioneer white ports, a category the Institute only classified in 2007. The two in the tasting were both fascinating, expanding my mind as to the possibility of port. It pours more golden than white, and both the 2003 Colheita White and the 20 Years Old White were honeyed without toppling into saccharine, and rich with dried fruits, marzipan, and molasses notes. At this point and throughout the tasting winemaker Tiago stressed the "freshness" of the wines, and they definitely felt not just lively but alive, tethered by good acidity to match the sugar. Indeed, all the Colheita--think vintage--bottlings especially seemed evolving, and Lozach insisted when we tasted the Tawny Colheita 2012, to jump ahead a bit, that if we gave in ten more years in bottle, it wouldn't even taste like the same wine.

The 2003 white had a finish that could complete the whole Camino de Santiago (ok, that's in Spain, I know), wile the 20 Years Old White almost had more complexity, if a tiny bit less clarity of purpose. The refinement of the 2003 stood out. What also became clear is how well these wines might pair with a variety of foods. Too often people get stuck in the sweet pairs with sweet mindset, and save port for dessert, but these whites could easily add depth and intrigue to a buttery lobster or a turbot in cream sauce.

The tawny wines also delighted in a completely different register, offering more fresh fruit notes--cherry and plum--but also caramel, cinnamon, even tobacco in the 20 Years Old tawny. 

If you're wondering, since it is a fortified wine, port can last if you store it in the fridge. (Indeed, you want to chill it before drinking, too.) The vintage wines need to be consumed quickly, but the year designates can hold for up to three months. Even though my guess is if you get a bottle from a great house like Kopke, you'll never get close to that deadline.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

A Review of "Six California Kitchens"


Sally Schmitt’s posthumous publication Six California Kitchens proves you can write a powerful memoir one recipe at a time. Whether the book will become enough of a legacy to vault her into the position she deserves, praised alongside “inventors” of California cuisine—farm-to-table, local, seasonal—like Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Nancy Silverton, and Mark Peel, only time will tell. But it’s also telling that Schmitt and her husband of 64 years Don were the founders of the French Laundry in 1978, which they sold to now world-renowned food superstar Thomas Keller in 1994 so they could get out of what they already saw was a rapidly commercializing Napa Valley. And note Keller pens one of the two encomiastic forewords; the other is from the founder of the famed Mustards Grill, Cindy Pawlcyn, who also, alas, generally doesn’t receive the kudos she deserves. 

 So, yes, there is a not-so-secret feminist core to this book, as Schmitt argues against the sad sexist trope “women are cooks and men are chefs” one unfussy but brilliant plate at a time. (In 1952 she graduated from UC Davis with a degree in, of all things, home ec.) Schmitt is also very much a mother, too, that “stumbling block” that often derails a woman’s career. Her solution was simple—have the whole family work for you. Not surprisingly to this day the Apple Farm, the idyllic spot the Schmitts took to in Mendocino County, eventually growing 80 heirloom varieties of apples, making all sorts of take-home products from that fruit and more, and most importantly, teaching cooking classes, is managed and run by Sally’s daughter, Karen, and son-in-law Tim. And Don was there all along, going from an Air Force vet to a banker to a sommelier on-the-fly, especially thanks to all their Napa winemaking friends.

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

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Toma Changes Hands, Not Direction


The essential news is that there is no news — while Tom and Vicki Dolan have sold their beloved Toma Restaurant & Bar, new owners Sam Grant and Julian Sanders insist, “We’re keeping Toma [as] Toma, and then we will build from there.” That means the Foodie Award-winning spot will still be serving up those tuna cones and fresh squid ink pasta. 

Both Grant and Sanders realize, though, that Toma is more than its menu. “The place has such great bones, and its history means so much,” Sanders explains. “There are regulars who had their rehearsal dinner here thirty years ago [when the building housed Emilio’s] and they still come in excited about carrying the tradition on.”

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Women Winemakers Wow at Community Celebration

Community is too often a bullshit word, cheaply thrown about to either make people work harder than they are getting paid to work feel better about their crummy jobs or to convince consumers what they're buying is somehow blessed with kindness and not just transactional.

And then there's the rare event like the Sixth Annual Women Winemakers Celebration held on Sunday, March 12 at Mattei's Tavern, Auberge Resorts Collection (that's not as bad as Francis Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, at least). It really felt special, over 30 Santa Barbara county women winemakers, and 13 culinary participants, and women photographers and musicians and florists and press agents having fun, exhibiting terrific taste and talent, and welcoming all. Like magic the event even had blue skies in this sodden excuse for a Southern California winter that those of us who drove from the ocean side of the mountains figured was just more of the drizzly same.

In her moment before the attentive crowd co-organizer Karen Steinwachs of the terrific Seagrape Cellars said she was spurred into action by Patricia Arquette's call-to-arms Oscar speech in 2015 (this year's fest also happened to be on Oscars Day), and she realized "there are more women winemakers here than anywhere in the world--why not play that card?" Six years in Steinwachs and her team certainly have the play down perfectly, even if she jibed, "Trying to manage sold-out event is much more difficult than selling an event in the first place." 

That sell-out was capped at a number that meant plenty of room to move, especially in the gorgeous outdoor grounds at the back of Mattei's (although it's crucial us tall folks duck heading under the scenic, yet low-beamed, water tower). The food-to-drink mix was as smartly designed and thoughtfully ratio-ed as the Santa Barbara Food + Wine Festival at the Natural History Museum back in the days when the wise Meridith Moore ran that delightful event. (And not surprisingly, she was brought in to help organize this one this year.)

The community reached across winemaker generations, with longtime stalwarts like Kathy Joseph of Fiddlehead and Lane Tanner of Lumen pouring alongside names new to me (at least) like Anna Clifford of Final Girl Wines and Alice Anderson of âmevive. And then a long list of some of our regions best winemakers no matter gender: Alison Thomson of Lepiane, Jessica Gasca of Story of Soil, Angela Osborne of A Tribute to Grace (Gasca and Osborne were at the same inspiring table, even), Amy Christine of Holus Bolus and The Joy Fantastic, Rachel DeAscentiis of Say When, Anna deLaski of Solminer. The list could go on and on. Simply put--if there's a wine you like locally, the odds are good a woman made it.

The utter creativity on display also impressed. Sure, you could have a special SRH Pinot at many a table, but then there was the refreshing zest of Dreamcôte's Prickly Pear Hard Apple Cider, or the winningly floral Grüner Veltliner from Camins 2 Dreams, or a tantalizing Sparkling Rosé Méthode Champenoise, in half bottles, of all impractical things as sparkling is just that, from Future Perfect.

Future Perfect's logo also connected to the 2023 beneficiary of this non-profit event, The Rainbow House, the first LGBTQIA+ community resource center in the Santa Ynez Valley. Inc. Their hope is to create a refuge for the queer community that stands as a beacon of acceptance and peace.

The Mattei's team at work on their two dishes--I only ended up trying the delicious duck wonton-y item on the left, alas. And, alas here I didn't write nearly enough about the delicious food, like Melissa Scrymgeour's gumbo z'herbes and black eyed peas (a tribute to Nawlin's great Leah Chase), and Erica Velasquez's yellowtail "hamachi" sashimi gorgeously plated, and Jessica Foster's ever-exceptional confections, and Theo Stephan's olive oil blood orange cake. 

Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann admitting that at least on this day she had a cushy job.

Emmy Fjerstad of Forsu Wines, her business so small it doesn't even have a website.

Petit Verdot, Dolcetto, and more at Final Girl.

And then as final evidence of community, yep that's Alecia Moore of Two Wolves doing the palms up in the black t-shirt in the Barn (sounds like a Clue guess!). You might know her better as Pink, or should I type P!nk, selling out a SoFi Stadium near you soon. But for the day she praised her team, poured well-crafted wine, chatted (her table did have the longest line all afternoon, even if everyone was cool about it and didn't get all selfie-demanding or anything, so go SYV!), and then won the raffle for the Estrogen Collection of over 50 bottles of women-made wine. 

The afternoon couldn't have been a more powerful celebration of International Women's Day.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

World of Pinot Noir 2023: New Finds


Let's make this very clear to start--by "new finds" I mean to me, probably not to the rest of a wine savvy world. I realize that you don't have to be Oregonian to know about Ken Wright, for example, but you could also be me and not know his lovely wines well at all. And if you want to read the first part of my 2023 World of Pinot Noir coverage, that's over at my Old Friends post.

All that throat clearing aside, let's begin with Chardonnay to really shake stuff up. And a relatively new project, too, Walson Holland, doing boutique-y things based in Ojai, but with grapes from all sorts of fine sites. Take the 2020 Chardonnay from Duvarita, which is so west in Santa Barbara it lies outside the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. Deliciously mineral, magnificently saline, this is a fascinating wine. Plus the marketing is topnotch--check out the release box in that first photo. (It's not a surprise winemaker Benjamin Holland did some time with Sine Qua Non.)

And while we're enjoying whites, I'd be remiss not to single out 2021 Sojourn Cellars Sangiacomo Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. Elegant layers of apple and lemon-lime cascade over a steely structure. Given 70% of what Sojourn does is Pinot Noir (which was also scrumptious), it was fun to find this singing Sonoma white.

Then again, Sangiacomo Wines itself, which for 80 years sold their grapes, have only been making their names wines since 2016. (Heck, they have two different websites for the two different operations.) North Coast legend James McPhail makes their wines, 5 Chardonnays, 8 Pinots, 1 Vin Gris of Pinot, or as the person at the table put it, "you only do this when you own the vineyard," since they grow grapes specifically for that punchy product, no saignée for them. Their 2021 Five Clone Pinot Noir Roberts Road Vineyard was ridiculously seductive, with a velvet mouthfeel and their website description nails it: "Bursting with fresh red fruit flavors including raspberry coulis, sun-sweetened Bing cherry, and freshly picked wild strawberries with notes of five-spice rounding the palate."

Sangiacomo Fedrick grapes are just one of the sources for the 2019 MacRostie The Loch, which also features Pinot from Olivet Lane, Rodgers Creek, Gap’s Crown, Wildcat Mountain, and the Dutton Manzana Vineyard. While many wineries tout a single vineyard designate as the peak of their programs, at MacRostie the goal is to blend the best of the best barrels, hence this wine that, in the spirit of the upcoming Oscars I noted "was everything everywhere all at once," and therefore as wildly enjoyable as that film. Winemaker Heidi Bridenhagen has crafted a powerhouse gem.

An equally impressive Sonoma showing was the Pinot from Red Car, whose name makes it clear they started in Los Angeles. (They've been completely Sonoma-based since 2010.) Their 2020 Estate had some charming blood orange notes to its fruit, but the standout for me was their 2020 Heaven & Earth, an organic vineyard at 500 feet elevation eight miles from the Pacific. The pourer said, "When you get up there, you don't see any other vineyards around." Based on the multi-faceted wine, that's going to change, with its brambly blackberry and marine influence.

Let's keep going north, to the Willamette Valley and Ken Wright Cellars. I have to be honest and admit I don't know Oregon wines anywhere near as much as I should, especially once I learned that Wright was the first Oregon winemaker on the cover of the Wine Spectator way back in 2015. (Of course, I don't read Wine Spectator anymore, either, but oh well.) I particularly enjoyed his 2021 Shea Vineyard Pinot, a mere 12.8% ABV but still enticingly floral with a kind of chalkiness that worked, attesting to the marine sediment soil of the site.

That's too neat a segue not to take to get to the wonderful work that Jessica Gasca is doing at Story of Soil. She was pouring back in the hard-to-leave corner where the Santa Barbara Vintners Association ruled the roost, and CEO Alison Laslett and Director of Operations Phil Carpenter hosted wineries that didn't want to pony up the hefty cost for their own table. Gasca was kind of enough to share her sold out 2021 Gold Coast Pinot, and it showed her appreciation for that Santa Maria vineyard where she first got the wine bug as an intern. Profound and round, it kept going and going and was never gone. 

And let's end on what was truly a new experience for me, Haliotide. A tiny, family-run producer in SLO County, they make single vintage, single vineyard sparkling that's some of the best I've had from these parts. What's more, winemaker Nicole Bertotti-Pope and viticulturalist Lucas Pope are hoping to make wine for the future, and sure enough, the 2017 Blanc de Blanc that popped out from under the table was their best, for as my note put it, "They've got ambition." The 2018 Extra Brut Rosé was a delight of grapefruit and bread notes. I would never have guessed something this good would come from a vineyard a mere 1.5 miles from the Pacific in Avila Beach.  

But that's why you go to World of Pinot Noir--your world always gets deliciously expanded every year.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

World of Pinot Noir 2023: Old Friends

Excessive and obsessive at once, World of Pinot Noir features over 175 wineries all focused (in theory, as there is always a stray chardonnay or pet nat or cab franc under some kind winemaker's table) on one stinking grape. Sure, pinot noir goes by other names, and let's not even get into clonal variations, of which there are over 40, many of which pourers will proudly enumerate for you as they splash your glass. But, c'mon, it's much ado about one varietal. I know more than one winemaker who shakes their heads sadly about the event, even if they make a pinot themselves.

So why does this annual spectacular, for many years running (when Covid allows) held at the ocean-side wonder that is the Bacara, continually enchant? Sure, it's true of other varietals, but pinot comes in many styles, seductive, elegant, brooding, so it's a wine for your many moods. Pinot is finicky and hard-to-grow, and we all love our problem children. Pinot is one of the most versatile food wines, profligate in its qualities that lead to perfect parings (salmon? Santa Maria tri-tip? sure!). Pinot is perfume, pinot is place. 

WOPN underlines all of that, especially in the Friday and Saturday Grand Tastings. This year, instead of emphasizing terroir by grouping wineries by region, each day was an alphabetical zag and zig of tables. Where you wind up, no one knows, as going in you realize you can't drink it all. So you visit familiar folks, especially when winemakers themselves are pouring. And you visit wineries you never heard of as it's good to expand your vinous horizons. And sometimes you just go to way more Oregon wineries than usual, as your +1 for the day has a daughter in college there. Reasons don't always rhyme.

With all that out of the way, let's get tasting. Last year I hit on the division of Old Friends/New Finds as an organization principle and I liked it so much, it's back this year. Consider it a tradition. I mean, it that's better than the weird post when I did parody of a Larry King column, no?

Speaking of king Larrys, of course I visited tercero's table to see where Larry Schaffer's pinot project was at two years in. Schaffer never lets his winemaking muse get bored--he's got 34 different wines for sale on his website right now, from Clairette Blanche to a carbonic Mourvèdre--and the new 2021 Pinot goes into bottle this week, so we were getting a barrel tasting. He insisted it was "just an inkling of what it was going to be," but a fine inkling it was, all fruit from Kessler-Haak. He only makes fascinating wine, and this Sta. Rita Hills gem is rich and promising.

Rich and delivering was the word across the board with tiny Montemar's production. This one-time garagiste operation currently produces upwards of 1,200 cases a year, still relatively small potatoes, but they get grapes from some of Santa Barbara's best sites. Take their standout 2016 Barrel Select--note they let wines sit a bit--made from 50% Radian and 50% Bentrock grapes. Such wildness and power from the far western end of SRH.

Another bottle singing at its slightly-aged peak was Seagrape's 2015 Mermaid's Pearl. It's no surprise Karen Steinwachs makes terrific wine, but this barrel select, made only in the years she thinks the vintage is worthy of the project, had a perfume and a depth they could lead one to drown. Oh, yeah, mermaid!

Age might be one of the keys when it comes to old friends, after all, as was very clear with the 3L format 2013 Pisoni Paul Lato was pouring at his table. Lato loves going big and old at WOPN, and it's a clever way to show off the structure of his wines. Refined but still with plenty of zingy black cherry fruit, this pinot offers a complexity, minerality, and floral lift that is lovely. 

I was going to try to leave out too much bragging about the glories of the media room, where about 100+ wines await journalistic contemplation, but did have to mention the Fiddlehead 2011 Fiddelstix in magnum that waited for us there. Press isn't really worthy of such goodness, the age giving the wine more earthiness and a soupçon of mushroom. Time is very good to some of us, as long as some of us are wine.

As classic pinot old-timers go, it's hard to beat Willams Selyem, and I've been a proud and glad member of their mailing list since the 1990s at this point. (I am old, too, you see.) They were pouring two of their still young but far from shy 2021s--their Russian River Valley blend from 10 vineyards and their Westside Neighbors. The first offered brightness, freshness, and some whole cluster punch, singing a song from basso to tenor. The Westside Neighbors got by on its aromatics, a big bunch of blueberry, and a stony long finish. Sometimes the classics are hard to deny.

Not that you shouldn't mess around with things, as Aaron Walker can attest to at Pali. Over Pali's brands they now make 50 different wines, and one that stood out was the 2021 Wild Series Sta. Rita Hills Pinot. Created primarily for restaurant lists and wine shops, the Wild Series wines (there's a Chardonnay, an orange and a rosé) are meant to move thanks to their pricing and accessibility and natural fermentation, neutral oak, hands-off approach. Turns out if you start with great grapes, everything will be fine.

And to segue towards the New Finds post, it seems fitting to stop at the Bonaccorsi table. Wine, of course, is memory, and in many ways each sip is its own elegy--singing its last praises as you down it. The tragic loss of Mike Bonaccorsi in 2004 could have been the end of the winery too, but first his wife Jenne Lee did more than carry on, and now Mike's brothers Rich and Joe are in charge. So when you're told the 2019 Fiddlestix is Joe's first wine "tip to tail," you know it's a moment of continuation, transition, and most importantly, beauty. To quote Jeb Dunnuck: "Smells and tastes complex, every sniff and sip revealing something else: intense raspberry, white pepper, watermelon, green tea, red licorice, kumquat, button mushrooms. An almost ethereal weight in the mouth; very lively and bright and beautifully textured, with a hard candy essence to some of the fruit, and a saline minerality toward the firm, tight finish."

Saturday, March 4, 2023

A Review of "No Machos or Pop Stars"


Polymath producer-musician Brian Eno has this great theory about “scenius” as the corrective to “‘genius,’ which exemplifies what I call the ‘Big Man’ theory of history – where events are changed by the occasional brilliant or terrible man, working in heroic isolation.” You don’t even need to sic the use of man in that quote, as we all know how he-heavy official history is. Eno would no doubt approve of Gavin Butt’s insightful and informed No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk, as it makes a distinct scenius case for the creative caldron of that north Yorkshire city in the late 1970s. 

Butt, a professor of fine art at Northumbria University, provides this precis in the introduction: “No Machos or Pop Stars follows a select band of art school students—and their compatriots—who dared, for a time, to imagine things could turn out differently to what became Thatcherism’s neoliberal makeover for 1980s Britain. It tells the story of a dialectical entanglement of punk rock and art college radicalism through which both were sublated, in the manner of the Hegelian Aufhebung, into artistic forms that variously attempted to plot alternative routes out of the crisis that had befallen postwar welfarism—alternative, that is, to avant-garde art or rock industry business-as-usual.”

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

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Anchor Rose Blooms at the Harbor


It’s rare a place recently opened is instantly a family legacy, but not every place is Anchor Rose. The bubbly, quick with a hug owner-operator Amy Rose knows everyone’s name as she cruises the dining room with the to-die-for harbor and mountain views. “I’m married to my work and my children are my people,” Rose insists. But it’s what the spot means to her for her father, Bob Rose, that’s the real story.

Bob Rose lived in Santa Barbara and Goleta for 50 years, leading a restaurateur’s life, including buying Harry’s Café after the original Harry. Eventually his career led to owning six Black Bear Diners in the San Joaquin Valley. Though born and bred in Santa Barbara, Amy was living in Europe managing several Lululemon locations when her dad reached out in 2015 to say, “Come help me retire.” So she came back to the states and put her business acumen to work.

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