WELCOME BACK, "MAD MEN"!
IN THIS ISSUE
SIPPING AND SAVORING SANTA BARBARA COUNTY
By John A. Curtas
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
AU REVOIR TO A GREAT FRENCH CUISINIER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Mondavi Family Estate
By Andrew Chalk
SIPPING AND SAVORING
SANTA BARBARA COUNTY
by John A. Curtas
Solvang, California, used to be a paragon of kitsch, corny architecture and lots and lots of butter cookies. When last I visited ten years ago, it was, as one local put it, at the tail end of its “outlet store phase,” and the Danish bakeries nearly outnumbered the vacant storefronts-–which is really saying something. These days, a great ableskiver, cheese Danish, or thin, Danish pancake accosts your waistline on almost every corner, but the real reason to come here is that this formerly sleepy little hamlet--known affectionately for decades as “Little Denmark”--has quietly become the wine capital of central California.
Before illuminating the food and wine possibilities throughout the area, a little geography lesson is in order. Calling the Santa Barbara wine country the Santa Barbara Wine Country is a bit misleading, since the vineyards and wineries don’t even appear until you’re about forty minutes north of the city. The Central Coast is a more generalized description, but even that may confuse the novice, since the entirety of the Central Coast stretches roughly 250 miles from San Francisco County to Santa Barbara County. No matter what you call it, this area is huge, with more than 90,000 acres planted with wine grapes and home to around 360 wineries. The good news is that Solvang puts you right on the doorstep of all of it, and over the past decade the entire town has developed a food and winey vibe that matches the excellence of the unique wines surrounding it.
Two other towns, both so tiny they make Solvang seem like San Francisco, compose the oenophilian epicenter of the area. Buellton is for the budget traveler, home to a few motels, one good restaurant, several diners, and the only inn and eatery in the world named after a legume soup: Pea Soup Andersen’s, and say what you will about, it has endured for 90 years on the back of its thick and silky broth, redolent of nostalgia and pea-ness. One slurp of that soup, and a stroll around the premises, will take you straight back to 1962. Andersen’s is virtually unchanged since then in offerings, accoutrements or attitude, and that’s just the way it should be.
The one good restaurant in town is also the famous one. The Hitching Post II is where “Sideways” (above) was filmed in 2003, and everyone stops by the bar to check out the modest wall of photos showing Miles and Jack (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) doing their thing and posing with cast, crew and employees. What I love about HPII are the smoky “barbecued” steaks (right)--they call grilling “barbecuing” out here--and the ever-changing selections of Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post pinot noirs. What I don’t love is that nothing else on the menu rises to the level of those steaks--or the pea soup down the street. If I had to plan a meal over again, I’d start with some hap-pea-ness at Andersen’s, savor a steak and pinot at HPII, and grab a left-over Danish in my room for dessert.
Meal disappointments are quickly forgotten, however, once you hit the two, tiny streets of Los Olivos, a village that has also grown up a lot in the past decade. What used to be barely a blip on the map, with a single, tony B & B--the Fess Parker Inn--is now home to more than a dozen tasting rooms, art galleries, gift shops and one serious restaurant, Sides. Located in the old Sides Hardware and Shoes store, it is the perfect place to relax once tasting fatigue sets in, and the minimalist menu cleverly disguises some real serious work being done in the kitchen. Our midday meal sounded as utilitarian as a crescent wrench when we ordered it: soup of the day--carrot-ginger (left)--fish tacos and a corned beef sandwich. But what appeared was house-made corned beef, sashimi-grade albacore, and an intense, beautiful soup, revealing a certain level of kitchen sophistication we had not previously encountered in trips to the area.
Like most restaurants in the area, Sides charges only retail prices for the wines on its list, yet another reason to appreciate the unassuming nature of this wine region.
You could lose yourself just walking around the various Los Olivos sipping parlors--especially the Syrah-based beauties of Andrew Murray and Mikael Sigouin’s dense and vivid Grenache blends at the Kaena tasting room--but that would leave precious time to search out new finds, like the Beckmen Winery (just five minutes out of town, specializing in Rhône varietals) or visit old friends like the Quonset hut tasting room at Foxen, still as rustic and charming as ever twenty years after I first stumbled upon it.
Stumbling becomes a problem when you do eleven wineries in one day (helpful hint: learn to spit gracefully), and becoming wined-out is a pitfall best avoided by pacing yourself. Another way to dodge this inconvenient truth is to walk a lot, and nowhere in the area is more conducive to drinking and strolling than Solvang. The town has undergone quite a facelift, and what were once faded storefronts and empty windows are now teaming with tenants, an amazing number of which focus on eating and drinking. Once you carbo-up with a kringle cake, 7 sisters coffee cake, or a cinnamon bun and sip some remarkably good coffee from Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery, you’ll be ready to swirl and sip all day.
What used to seem an afterthought in Solvang is now front and center, as the town boasts a number of tasting rooms and wine bars, all within a short walk of each other. The great thing about wine bars, as opposed to tasting rooms, is that you can sample bottles from throughout the area, not just a single winery. The great thing about The Good Life is that they also serve fabulous craft beers, along with some serious charcuterie, and will happily chat you up about some obscure stout or whatever pinot noir Lane Tanner has just released. (Note: Lane Tanner sold her interest in the “Lane Tanner Winery” in 2010; just as “Sanford Wines” are no longer made by Richard Sanford. Both individuals still make wines--under the Sierra Madre and Alma Rosa labels, respectively--and the wines are as worth seeking out as their winemakers are difficult to keep up with.) After some cheese with some California brews, it’s back to the barrels--in this case the Toccata Tasting Room--where Italian varietals boasting big flavors at reasonable prices are the rule.
The “Sideways Effect” did more than put Solvang in touch with its inner oenophile, it also brought modern cuisine to a place where the food used to be as dated as the half-timbered architecture. Fifteen years ago, your choices were either a chain restaurant or anything you wanted as long as it was wrapped in a pancake. These days, the town sports two restaurants--Root 246 and the Succulent Café (right)--with serious intentions.
My dinner at the SC--a house-made charcuterie platter, pumpkin seed-crusted rack of lamb, and bacon-wrapped diver scallops--married perfectly with a 2010 Ken Brown pinot noir. All of it was served by a wine-knowledgeable staff in a room where I couldn’t hear myself think. After dinner, I strolled past Root 246 , which had a raucous bar scene going on and what appeared to be a much quieter dining room. Everything on its menu (côte de boeuf, lamb 3 ways, cassoulet) seemed perfectly suited to the bold, smoky pinot noirs that put this region on the map, so we resolved to book it for our next trip to this delicious wine country, which I hope will be very soon.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
It’s hard to imagine it’s
been ten years since the opening of BLT Steak,
a restaurant that had more influence on that
staid genre than any other up till then.
BLT serves lunch Mon.-Fri. and dinner nightly.
TO A GREAT FRENCH CUISINIER
For some in the food media, the death this week of French master chef and restaurateur Roger Fessaguet at 82 was yet another blow to the legacy of fine dining in NYC. Yet for me it was more a case of “The king is dead, long live the king!” For Fessaguet’s true legacy was to leave an indelible trail of impeccably crafted cuisine whose principles of French classicism are still the inspiration for fine dining at a time when so many young chefs, held aloft by the same media, delude themselves into believing they are re-inventing the wheel every time they pick up a knife.
in 1968 Fessaguet, then executive chef (later
partner) at the renowned La
Caravelle on West 55th
Street, made dishes praised by the Times’
critic Craig Claiborne: “The stuffed turbot,
imported fresh from European waters but as sweet
in flavor and as tender in
texture as if it had been pulled within the hour
from the waters off Long
Island. The stuffing was Nantaise style — a
mousse of sole, fresh cream, deftly
mixed herbs such as rosemary, bay leaf and
thyme, and a suggestion of
classic dish requiring immense precision to make
correctly, but one probably considered
Yet imagine for a
moment that the same dish were to be found on the
menu at a hip new downtown
restaurant with an under-30, tattooed chef. Chances are the food press
would fawn over both the chef and
the dish, for Fessaguet’s dish is not so different
from one currently being
cooked up in Chelsea at the new Willow Road, as
described by The
Ariel Levy: “Risotto
is made with
barley, which the kitchen folds with fat clam
bellies, leeks, and a touch of
crème fraîche dissolved in clam
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
It was an historic moment when Robert
Mondavi founded his eponymous winery in 1966.
What is less well known is that he jointly
founded it with his oldest son, Michael. More
than just a name on a legal document, Michael
was actively involved in the establishment and
evolution of that winery with its focus on
superior wines and made the wine for the first
eight years of its existence. Subsequently, he
took charge of sales and marketing and later
Column Sponsored by Banfi Vintners
by Cristina Mariani-May
April Showers of Red and White Goodness
Spring finally kicks into gear, we are reminded of
the fragility of Mother
Earth and her bounty.
importer representing several family wine makers
from around the globe, I often
like to point out that all the wines that we
represent are green, some of them
greener than others.
of all are classified as Biodynamic or certified
of the most interesting selections
of eco-balanced, organic and biodynamic wines comes
to us from Chile and the
vineyards of Emiliana.
Recommended – green wines for Spring:
Natura Chardonnay In the cool coastal Pacific climate of the Casablanca Valley, organically grown grapes are hand picked during the last week of March, and vinified in stainless steel tanks, free of the domineering influence of oak. On the nose, tantalizing citrus aromas of grapefruit and lime blend with notes of pineapple, all of which reappear on the palate and finish with balance thanks to the wine’s freshness and natural acidity. Delicious with spring salads and seafood dishes.
Natura Carmenere – From the rustic isolation of the Colchagua Valley, this intense and voluptuous offers aromas of cherries, chocolate and spice, coming together in ramped up volume on the palate with soft, round tannins and firm, well-balanced structure. Great balance between fruit and oak, with a long, juicy finish.
Novas Sauvignon Blanc Gran Reserva – Hailing from the San Antonio Valley’s thin rocky and clay soils, the organic grapes for this wine are harvested by hand in March and undergo fermentation in stainless steel to preserve their bright fruit character. Herbal notes mixed with citrus and soft floral hints fill the bouquet; the taste is medium bodied with grapefruit flavors joined by a delicate acidity and a touch of minerality.
Novas Pinot Noir Gran Reserva – The grapes for this wine are grown in the cool, coastal Casablanca Valley’s permeable sandy loam soils, and harvested by hand. After a cold soak on the skins, the wine is aged for 8 months in French oak barrels to add character, depth and roundness. Bright ruby red in color with attractive aromas of berries, strawberries and notes of spice and cocoa, this wine bursts with fruit flavor, layered with earthiness. Delicious with white meats, light sauces, full flavored fish and shellfish, cured ham and sushi.
Coyam – A blend dominated by Syrah with nearly equal parts of Carmenere and Merlot balanced by “soupcons” of Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre and Petit Verdot, from the Colchagua Valley estate called Los Robles – Spanish for the oaks, called “Coyam” by the native Mapuche people in their own language. Hand harvested certified biodynamic grapes are naturally fermented in French oak barrels. Coyam is largely unfiltered and aged for 13 months in barrels. Aromas of ripe red and black fruits integrate with notes of spice, earth and a hint of vanilla bean. Elegant expressions of fruit are delicately interwoven with oak, mineral and toffee.
Ge – Chile’s first certified biodynamic wine, the name Ge is a nod to Geos, the earthly environment pulling together all the elements that surround us. Ge is a blend of nearly equal parts of Syrah, Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the deep soils of colluvial origin in the coastal range, which lends mineral complexity. Naturally fermented in oak barrels, Ge is deep plum red with violet tones; it offers intense aromas of black fruits and berries alongside mineral notes and a soft touch of tobacco leaf. Generously fruity with cedar notes, Ge is well balanced with tremendous volume, well rounded tannins and a long finish.
For more information please visit http://www.banfiwines.com/winery/emiliana/
Cristina Mariani is
not related by family or through business with
John Mariani, publisher of this newsletter
WHY THERE'LL ALWAYS BE AN ENGLAND
A 51-year-old English woman was recently buried in a coffin emblazoned with the logo of her favorite coffee, Costa, and the words "One shot, extra hot skinny latte," printed on one side, which, said her husband, brought a "smile to our faces at a time of sorrow."
VENN DID YOU SHTART TO HAF DESE, VAT YOU CALL
"For the last several years, I have been obsessed with the Vietnamese snack known as nem nuong, charcoal-grilled pork most often eaten with herbs as a component of a rice-paper roll."--Jonathan Gold, "Brodard Chateau elevates Vietnamese street food," LA Times (3/21/14)
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