Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cruising Carmel

is known for many things – Pebble Beach, great food, expensive homes, and its dog-friendly appeal. The cool thing about Carmel is you can drop your car and not need it for the weekend. The street grid, one square mile by one square mile, has everything you need: lodging, food, shopping, wine tasting, the beach and more. Sure there are a few sights that require a brief drive like Point LobosCarmel Mission, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but you can come to Carmel and literally not drive for days.

The old world charm of Carmel draws people from across the globe and one of the novelties is that there are not any addresses, seriously. Directions are given as: “on 7th between San Carlos and Delores,” or, “the northwest corner of Ocean Ave.,” but the town is immensely walkable. Known for shopping, there are plenty of clothing stores, a few antique stores and tons of art galleries. The best is the Carmel Art Association; a co-op of 120 talented artists all of whom live within a 30-mile radius. The association was founded in 1927 and you will find oil and pastel paintings, wood and ceramic sculpture and whatever an artist dreams up. Artists bring in new works on the first Wednesday of each month, ensuring a constant rotation. 

Wrath Tasting Room
Wine tasting rooms have exploded in the tiny hamlet and Caraccioli Cellars is located right downtown. Their focus is sparkling wine and they are one of the few to make sparklers in the entire county. Their wines range in price from $20 to $57, and tasting fees start at $5 and head to $15. And Caraccioli is one of the few places open later (Carmel is notorious for rolling up their sidewalks early) so you can sample a sparkler from Pinot Noir of Chardonnay before or even after dinner! Wrath Wines too has a tasting room in Carmel Plaza and pours mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made by the crazy talented Sabrine Rodems. And there are at least half a dozen other tasting venues, so go explore.
The pristine white sand of the Carmel City Beach is dog friendly too. As you stand at the water’s edge to your right is Pebble Beach, to your left is Point Lobos. It’s often best to walk down to the beach as the parking during peak times is congested. However, if you walk, remind yourself that you need to head back uphill all the way to town (Carmel is built on an angle), but it’s a good workout.

The Carmel City Beach
For a fabulous meal, consider Mundaka, a tapas restaurant styled in the Spanish motif in a casual, informal environment, something a little unusual for Carmel’s white table cloth dining venues. Chef Brandon Miller creates a terrific diversity of small plates like the Galleta (fried quail eggs on top of a biscuit and iberico gravy), and Coliflor, which is blanched cauliflower topped with a gratin of pureed cauliflower, horseradish,  gruyere cheese then baked, resulting in deftly prepared crowns, soft but with an al dente crispness to them. But my favorite, much to my surprise, were the Hamburguesa; lamb sliders with a slice of pickled cauliflower, with string-thin French fries. The lamb is delicately counterbalanced with the slightly tart cauliflower, creating an earthy tang. To wrap up the Pan Chocolate is, in essence, a fudge-like bar of chocolate with an immense amount of pure cocoa, topped with sea salt and drizzled with a wee bit of olive oil.

Breakfast at Em Le's
For breakfast consider Em Le’s, the hole-in-the-wall which first opened in 1955 and still provides big breakfasts. The space is small but the large omelets will ensure that you’re full for a long time. It is mainly a locals place and that’s really half the fun. Bistro Beaujolais hints at French overtones including crepes, French onion soup and Croque Madam. Inexpensively priced it’s a fine stop for lunch inside the Carmel Plaza, the only outdoor mall in the city limits.
Hofsas House

End your days at the family-owned Hofsas House, a terrific dog-friendly hotel. I’ve stayed here many times and the 4th floor rooms with Dutch doors are the best with their views across the Cypress trees to the Pacific Ocean. The rooms are large, a few antiques scattered about and it’s comfortable and casual allowing you to relax. They have a year-round heated outdoor pool, a European dry sauna and an informal continental breakfast available in the lobby of coffee, yogurt and pastries. There is wireless access, and it’s an easy four block walk to the town core. They accommodate lots of large gatherings like family reunions and clubs, and have a dedicated building for just this kind of thing. And they have their own parking lot. That might seem like a non-mention, but many hotels in Carmel don’t have one. In fact on my last visit one of the premier properties (with no parking lot) meant that the Lamborghini was parked on the street! Carmel is expensive but Hofsas House is reasonably priced with seasonal rates averaging $150 to $170. 




Sunday, November 6, 2011

Say Cheese: The Sonoma/Marin Cheese Trail

I like cheese. Scotch that, I love cheese. I’ve been on wine trails, hiking trails, even a bourbon trail, but nothing is quite as sensual as a cheese trail. Sonoma and West Marin Counties, north of San Francisco, are returning to their roots as dairies and creameries flourish with tours and tastings of artisanal cheeses from cows, sheep and goats with unique flavors and a definite sense of place.
The cheese trail is spread out (pun intended) covering nearly 30 dairies and creameries, so the easiest thing for cheese trail ingénues is to drive from Petaluma to Point Reyes which can be easily accomplished in a weekend.

At the Weirauch Dairy
Petaluma, off Highway 101, just west of Sonoma, is home to Weirauch Farm & Creamery who focus on sheep cheese, though they make some cow cheese too. Carleen and Joel Weirauch have a farmstead operation; they make cheese from their own herds. Their farm tours are $15 per person and are for cheese club members (so join up!) and you’ll see the entire cheese-making process, and hang out with the sheep in the pasture. They’re cool people and they love cheese – who else would aspire to make sheep cheese for a living? The tour ends with a cheese tasting of which their Harissa-spiced sheep cheese is amazing. Dedicated to sheep, (Carleen tells me one of their wedding presents was their first two sheep – all I got were crappy placemats and weird-o serving trays) Joel spent a year with cheese makers in France learning the ropes. Available at local farmers markets, if you see Weirauch cheese, get some.

Jana McClelland milks a cow...wow!
For McClelland’s Dairy it’s all about milk, butter, cheese and ice cream…and cows. McClelland’s offers a terrific 1.5 hour tour, and allows you to see firsthand the entire process of running a dairy, complete with sustainable design, as well as sampling their terrific butter, and you get to milk a cow by hand (insert joke here_____). Jana McClelland tells me that milk is 87 percent water (no wonder it looks translucent), whereas her golden-hued butter is 85 percent butter fat, making it rich, creamy with a deep yellow color and a slight nuttiness. A great product and wonderful tour, this is perfect for the kids. McClelland’s is Animal Welfare Certified.
The cool Metro Hotel in Petaluma

While in Petaluma, a surprisingly pretty Victorian town, there are plenty of restaurants, art galleries and antique shops, and the Metro Hotel is a cool place to hang for the night. The building was part of an old estate, formerly the maid’s quarters. The Metro is funky, colorful and off-beat with a decidedly Parisian theme. Rooms have claw foot tubs, hardwood floors, free wireless and it’s within walking distance to downtown. There’s a small continental breakfast every morning which can be enjoyed inside, or on the side garden patio. Or visit Della Fattoria, the best known bakery just up the street with fresh baked breads, scones, croissants, and they use McClelland’s butter in their pastries.

A multitude of cheese at Cowgirl Creamery
Get to the Point
The drive to Point Reyes from Petaluma is less than 30 minutes. Once there Cowgirl Creamery is one of the well-known cheese makers in the region and they are distributed nationwide. Their creamery is the de facto stop for not only sampling Cowgirl cheeses but other locally made cheeses. They also have a cantina on site making sandwiches and salads using their cheese. True to their original vision of supporting local dairies and creameries, you’ll also find organic ice cream from dairies like Strauss. Cowgirl sources their milk (they don’t own cows) from local farmers who produce organic milk, in which to make organic cheese, of which their Red Hawk truly represents a specific sense of place, since it’s only made in Point Reyes due to the large concentration of a specific bacteria in town. There’s a large window to watch the cheese making, frankly a rather dull process since milk is poured into stainless steel vat and it churns away.

Getting Point Reyes cheese ready for shipping
At Point Reyes Farmstead, their tours are something of an event, usually running about four hours, but include an hour long tour of the property, tucked away unseen above Tomales Bay, a visit with the baby calves and ending with a cheese and wine pairing and a chef prepared four course meal utilizing Point Reyes cheese, so you get the farm to table experience. Events begin at $75 but you’ll be immersed in a world you probably didn’t know existed. They are known for their blue cheese, but also make an award winning cheese called Toma, which I adore. The Point Reyes Vineyard Inn is an ideal choice for lodging while there. First off, it’s a house (not a B&B, nor hotel), and you have reign of the kitchen, a TV room and spacious living room. The second reason is that they make wine on the property and the tasting room allows you to sample a variety of wines, including Pinot Noir grown just steps from the rooms. If you stay there, you get a complimentary tasting, otherwise its 5 bucks per person and it’s the only winery in the area.

Street grilled oysters from Tomales Bay
In Point Reyes there’s plenty of hiking, kayaking in Tomales Bay, and visiting the famed lighthouse. It’s quiet here, well, except for the weekends when the small town of 350 more than triples. You’ll find live music and plenty of oysters being grilled outside, harvested from several of the local oyster fisheries in the bay. While on the cheese trail, be warned that tours mean you want comfortable shoes that can get dirty (watch out for them cow patties), you’re on a farm, not a red carpet.

Weirauch Farm & Creamery (http://www.weirauchfarm.com/)
McClelland’s Dairy (http://www.mcclellandsdairy.com/)
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company (http://www.pointreyescheese.com/)
Point Reyes Vineyard Inn (http://www.ptreyesvineyardinn.com/)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Chamisal Vineyards: A Day in the Life

You probably have never heard of the Edna Valley. It’s sandwiched between San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach, and this small inland wine growing region, home to a dozen wineries, is beginning to get its share of attention. The first vineyard planted here was Chamisal Vineyard in 1973. It then became another winery but has now come back (forgive the pun) to its roots. Fintan du Fresne, a New Zealander by birth, is the winemaker here. Chamisal has reclaimed not only its name, but its emphasis on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I got to spend a few days with Fintan, Fin as he’s called, during the 2011 harvest.

Fin explains calcareous soils
Before we get to grapes, a word about Fin’s hair. In these photos it’s a mohawk. Every year during harvest Fin cuts his hair; not only a change of appearance, but a sign of the forthcoming harvest. It made me think about doing some yearly thing as a writer…I don’t know, maybe a slice of pie each time I meet a deadline (I simply can’t pull off a mohawk like Fin).

Chamisal makes 50,000 cases a year of wine, predominately Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but there is also Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Gris and a very intriguing stainless steel tank Pinot Noir (virtually all Pinots are barrel fermented or barrel aged). Though Fin has a preference for indigenous yeasts (those yeasts which live naturally in the vineyard) he uses some cultured yeasts – those grown specifically for the purpose of making wine. “With cultured yeasts I can still direct the flavor profile,” he says, meaning he doesn’t have to rely on wild yeasts that may do something unexpected during fermentation. He produces three Chardonnay’s (ranging in price from $18 to $38) and three Pinot Noirs ($38 - $80). I’m a fan of the lesser expensive Chard and Pinot, not because of the price, but because the Chard is stainless steel fermented making it light and crisp with terrific acids, but used to match with food.

The Pinot is a blend of 9 different clones and has traditional soft raspberry notes. The other Chards and Pinots use more oak, not a bad thing; I just prefer a lighter style of wine, but check out their entire portfolio and find what your like. They offer 2 different tastings of wine priced at $9 and $15, and many of their wines are tasting room only, so you won’t see them on store shelves. They have a lovely outdoor picnic area where you can get a bottle of wine and share it with your friends (call me I’ll be right over!). Chamisal is SIP certified, (Sustainability in Practice) a Central Coast-based sustainable farming certification process, which is more rigorous than many sustainable programs on the state and federal level, and takes into account whole farm integration of its resources. To that end the wines are made in concert with the environment. After all, it’s important to have respect for our earth with our farming practices. But harvest is not all work.

Just pressed Pinot Noir grapes at Chamisal
We kayaked at Morro Bay with a crew from Central Coast Outdoors, who provide a great selection of adventure trips, and paddled the back bay observing shore birds, seals, sea lions, and making a brief appearance - an otter.

At one point a seagull hopped aboard Fin’s kayak, looking for food, but the bird decided to just hang out and, apparently being a free-loader, stood on Fin’s bow for about 10 minutes. Back at the winery we tasted through tank and barrel samples of wines he’s currently working on.

Fin and the free-loader seagull
Specific to this, he lets me taste Pinot Noir clone 667, picked and crushed the day before. The bright pink juice is sweet (as wine grapes are) and still has scents of the dirt and the vineyard. Another tank sample, in the thick of the fermentation process and also clone 667, was picked and crushed a week prior. There is little tannic structure and the fermentation causes a nearly astringent mouth feel but it is a more mature example of the first tank sample, a simple grape-juicy beverage. Eventually these Pinots will be blended into either their estate wine, or maybe their Monologue, a high-end Pinot Noir made only in certain years when the exact conditions are right to create an outstanding wine.

Barrel samples of Pinot Noir

Chamisal Vineyards is, like many of the wineries along the Central Coast, an operation making terrific wines from the calcareous soils in the region and taking advantage of our particular growing seasons. And this is what life is like on the Central Coast, it is work mixed with play, a sense of urgency counterbalanced with a sense of the long view. So stop by Chamisal in the Edna Valley, or any Central Coast Winery and you will be engaged by these juxtapositions. Enjoy, educate yourself and experience what the Central Coast has to offer.
Working at Chamisal Vineyards

Chamisal Vineyard: www.ChamisalVineyards.com
Central Coast Outdoors: http://www.centralcoastoutdoors.com/

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Strolling Solvang

Though Solvang started in 1911 as a Danish retreat from its native homeland; it’s still ripe with Scandinavian heritage and a new modern sensibility. In the 1950s, far earlier than other themed communities, Solvang sealed its fate by keeping a focus on Danish architecture, food, and style. An easily walkable town, Solvang is home to Mission Santa Ines, a motorcycle museum, bakeries, oak studded parks, shopping and a bunch of other stuff. Extensive information is listed in my national travel book, Santa Barbara & The Central Coast. To some Solvang might seem like Denmark on steroids, but the colorful, charming town is unlike anywhere else; a great escape from the tedious mall architecture that dominates much of America. You’ll notice storks displayed above many of the stores, a traditional symbol of good luck. 
At the Elverhoj

To fully understand Solvang visit the Elverhøj Museum (805/686-1211, http://www.elverhoj.com/) which is a delightful and surprisingly cool place. Not only do they offer table top and kitchen linens and local crafts, they have a comprehensive history of the area with nostalgic photos of the early settlers. Of particular note is the typical Danish kitchen, hand painted in green with stenciled flowers everywhere, pine floors, countertops and tables, it gives an idea of how creative the Danes made their homes, no doubt in an effort to brighten bleak winters. The museum features exhibits of traditional folk art from Denmark like paper cutting, lace making and those famous wooden shoes.

A bird near the hand is worth...

Made popular by the film Sideways, Ostrich Land (805/686-9696, http://www.ostrichlandusa.com/) is 2 miles before you reach Solvang from highway 101. At first glance it seems somewhat prehistoric and you’ll see massive birds in the distance wandering through the shrubs their thin necks sporting small heads and big eyes. They usually keep their distance and only approach when there is food, and yes, you can feed them. You need to hold the food plate firmly in your hand as they attack the plate with a fierce determination. You can also shop for ostrich eggs, ostrich jerky as well as emu eggs and ostrich feathers.
Ballard Canyon is popular with cyclists, runners and anyone in a car. Just off the main street in Solvang, you will pass vineyards, bison and cattle and the road drops you out near Los Olivos. What makes this road so wonderful is the complexity of straight parts, mixed with gentle curves and occasional steep climbs, and of course, the bucolic scenery. Access Ballard Canyon from downtown Solvang heading north on Atterdag. The hill climbs for a while, then drops you down into the canyon. Veer right onto Ballard and take that all the way through and meet up with Highway 246. 
Beautiful Ballard Canyon

The Book Loft (805/688-6010, http://www.bookloftsolvang.com/) sells predominately new books with a small section of used. This 35 year-old two story store has a wall to wall, very well organized selection of authors including locals. The wood stairs creek as you venture upstairs. It has the feel of an old bookstore, not sanitized with fancy shelves, and in fact these shelves were all hand made. They also have a nice selection of antiquarian books and upstairs is the Hans Christian Andersen Museum.

Elna’s Dress Shop (805/688-4525) is the stop for handmade Danish dresses and costumes. If you’re searching for that perfect Danish outfit for a young one, here it is. Aprons, caps and brightly colored simple dresses, some with beautiful lace are off the rack, or they will make one for you. They have a few Danish pieces for young boys as well, and yes, these are pretty darn cute.

You can't go wrong with these cute outfits

Presidio Winery (805/693-8585, http://www.presidiowinery.com/) is one of the few wineries in all of the Central Coast to be certified as a biodynamic winery. Owner Doug Braun’s wines are quite good and his style of winemaking is more restrained than most that you’ll taste in the area. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and late harvest wines are on offer at his storefront on Mission Drive. Winemaker Megan McGrath-Gates produces terrific white wines at Mandolina (805/686-5506, http://www.llwine.com/) a bright and airy tasting room with exposed beams on the ceiling and a copper topped wood bar. The focus is on Italian varietals: Pinot Grigio, Barbera, Dolcetto, and Sangiovese. There’s a delicate touch to the wines due to Megan’s sensibilities, plus she studied in Italy. There are many other wineries within walking distance so check them all out.
Bit O' Denmark at right
The Bit O’ Denmark (805/688-5426) is the oldest restaurant in Solvang (1929) housed in one of the very first buildings the original settlers built in 1911. Known for their traditional smorgaasbord as well as roasted duck and Monte Cristo sandwiches, they also cook up Danish ham and pork. Their extensive smorgaasbord includes medisterpolse (Danish sausage), frikadeller (meatballs), rodkaal (red cabbage), spegesild (picked herring) and an array of cold salads. The room to the left as you enter is the best, with large curved booths. Ingeborg’s (805/688-5612, http://www.ingeborgs.com/) has been making traditional Danish chocolates for nearly half a century. Over 70 varieties of chocolates are here, handmade on the premises. Grab a seat at one of the six round red barstools and enjoy their ice cream. Root 246 (805/686-8681, http://www.root-246.com/) by contrast is sleek and sophisticated, this newest addition to the dining scene has upped the ante. It looks like it belongs in Hollywood, not in rural Solvang. But that’s part of the evolution of Solvang’s wine country cuisine. Chef Bradley Ogden has started over 10 restaurants and knows how to create exciting food. The menu rotates depending on seasonal ingredients. You’ll find oysters, organic mushroom flatbread and a variety of fish and game dishes. For amazing Italian fare, visit Cecco Ristorante (805/688-8880, http://www.ceccoristorante.com/) and get their wild boar sausage pizza, or for something completely different, try the Risotto Nero; rice is covered with black squid ink, scallops and a lobster broth and highlighted with red onion and heirloom tomato. It’s dark, seductive and amazing. Chef/owner David Cecchini also makes his own wine!
Stroll Solvang, or take a ride

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Everybody’s Gone Surfin’

The Rincon
You may not surf, but that doesn’t mean that a visit to the Central Coast should be devoid of surfing. The surf culture is iconic at the Rincon, that long right break straddling Santa Barbara and Ventura counties but it doesn’t matter where you go, from Ventura to the Hearst Castle, you’ll see surfers everywhere.

Best Surf Spots
The Rincon is the Central Coast’s most famous surfing landmark; a small thin strip of land with a large point, hence the long right break. In the early 1920s a road was built to connect Ventura to Santa Barbara as there was barely much room there since the cliffs plunged directly into the Pacific Ocean. At first the Rincon was built of rustic logs, then wood planks, but they kept getting washed away by the pounding surf. Finally Highway 101 was built, though as you drive it, you understand how little room there is between the cliffs and ocean. Much of the Rincon portion of the highway still abuts the water and during storms, it’s common to have the ocean splashing over onto the highway, soaking cyclists and drivers alike. But this is surf central.

Lakey Peterson

Santa Barbara native and 2011 USA Surf Team member Lakey Peterson says; “Rincon is unbelievable to have in my back yard, and all the right hand points are so fun. I’ve grown up at the Rincon my whole life, and you get to know everyone. I love home in the winter - that’s when we get our ground swells, and when it’s good here it’s unbelievable.” And she should know: she’s been in the water since forever and you can check her out in Nike’s latest surf film, “Leave a Message.” (http://www.lakeypeterson.com/) Wintertime is when the Rincon is at its best as north and west swells sweep in, wrap around the shallow cobble point and peel off with an almost predictable evenness around the bend. To access the Rincon, exit at Bates Road from the north or south off Highway 101 and head south to the parking lots. There’s a small gate that leads down a path behind several residences, which drops you at the rocky beach. If you head to your right you’ll get towards the point and you can jump in the water.
Surfers are a protective lot; they don’t want you horning in on their special breaks. Nonetheless, Santa Barbara has many prime surf spots. The best time to surf is in the winter and after that, the fall. The primary swells are from storms in the North Pacific which generate waves as they approach the West Coast. Spring swells tend to be wind generated and often less powerful.
C Street in the morning
C Street is the nickname for California Street, which is near what is commonly called Surfers Point at Seaside. For surfers, it’s simply referred to as “C Street.” Early mornings are favored for surfers in this spot close to the pier. There are three distinct zones along this mile long stretch of beach. At the point is the Pipe, with some pretty fast short breaks. Moving down the beach is the Stables which continues with the right breaks, with a low shoulder, and then you have C Street breaking both right and left.

Leadbetter Beach and Point

Santa Barbara
Leadbetter Point near City College is small, fun, easy waves and good for beginners. There are a lot of peaks along this small right point break. Take

Cabrillo Blvd.
past Stearns Wharf and turn left into the pay parking lot. Campus Point at UCSB is a small right point break with a small beach break and the cliffs lead west to Devereux Point, another right with many peaks. It gets crowded sometimes as students simply cross the street from their dorms and hit the waves.

Catching the waves in Pismo

Pismo Beach
The Pier is one of the more popular spots and the waves peak on the beach and also on the south side of the pier. Generally there are beautifully shaped waves though they are likely to section on you, but you can still catch a long ride from time to time.

Surf Classes
If surfing is new to you or you want to brush up on your skills, in Santa Barbara, Surf Happens Surf School (http://www.surfhappens.com/) will teach you the basics individually, as a couple, or even for a team building exercise. Surf Class (www.surfclass.com) in Ventura teaches everyone from novice landlubbers to rusty shredders. Their two hour classes limit class sizes for individual attention. They will also teach you surf etiquette and lingo. The Ventura Surf School (www.venturasurfschool.com) will also teach you to surf and they offer a week log surf camp as well. They provide classes for just kids too. If you just need gear, swing by Seaward Surf and Sport (http://www.seawardsurf.com/) which is the place to go to buy or rent most anything for the water. Bikinis, body boards, sunglasses, wetsuits. They are a half a block from the beach so you can rent, then jump directly in the water.

Everyone surfs, even these winemakers from the Central Coast!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

California’s Historic Wineries: Time in a Bottle

Old wine in old bottles
Wine has been in California since 1779, thanks to the Spanish who brought it up from Mexico and planted it at Mission San Gabriel in Southern California. The rest is, as they say, history. Here then are both historic winery buildings, as well as wineries that produce wines from historic vineyards. Yes, you can taste history.

Northern California
Gold has always been integral to the fabric of the Sierra Foothills (El Dorado, Amador and Calaveras counties) and people still flock to Gold Country in search of new discoveries. The main one these days is wine. With the massive influx of people searching for gold in 1849, enterprising men and woman planted vineyards to make wine to sell to the miners. In many instances formerly drinkable water from local rivers became so heavily polluted by mining that cheap wine was preferred, and safer. California’s gold rush faded by 1855 and the throngs of people moved to the larger city of San Francisco. That move caused the demise of the Sierra Foothills wine region, where there were hundreds of wineries. The mass exodus however spawned the growth of another wine region…Napa.

The old walls of the Coloma Winery still stand
One of the first commercial wineries in the entire state, the remains of it, still stands today not far from where gold was discovered in Coloma, north of Placerville. The Coloma Winery was built in 1852, believed to be the very first commercial winery in California. It’s known that the first vintage of their wine, made by Martin Allhoff, was in 1858 which was distributed throughout the region and western Nevada. Sobon Estate is on the site of the first commercial winery in Amador County, dating to 1856, and the original winery, though not functioning, can be toured and it’s free. The old cellars are heavy with must and age, but it’s very cool. (http://www.sobonwine.com/) Just down the road, Deaver Winery in the Shenandoah Valley still has original Mission vines from the late 1800s and they make a port with it. (http://www.deavervineyard.com/). Scott Harvey Winery makes a zinfandel called “1869” from a vineyard planted in, well, 1869, also from Amador County. In Napa, the Charles Krug Winery was built in 1860 (the Mondavi family has owned it since the 1940s).
The Redwood Cellar at Charles Krug
 The original redwood cellar was recently restored to its stunning glory and it’s a state historic landmark. Robert Mondavi (Peter Mondavi’s brother) still presides over the wines at age 97. (http://www.charleskrug.com/)  

Southern California
Grapes were grown throughout the California Mission chain as sacramental wine, but also to produce raisins – easily portable food sold to travelers. The “Mission” grape, a hybrid of different grapes, was high in sugar, low in acid, and produced a thin rustic wine which by most accounts was pretty bad, even though wine and brandy production was a significant source of income for some of the Missions. Mission Santa Barbara established a vineyard and winery between 1824 and 1834. About 1820 San Antonio winery was built in what is now Goleta, just north of the City of Santa Barbara for use as sacramental wine. The lonely historic adobe winery is still standing nearly 200 years later, though on private land. I had the good fortune to visit and see the old barrels and winemaking equipment. 
Santa Cruz Winery - in its heyday

In Santa Barbara in the late 1890s about 200 acres of grapes were planted on Santa Cruz Island, just off the Santa Barbara coast, the remnants still standing on the interior of the island. And while you’re in Santa Barbara, if you drive on De La Vina Street,
well, it used to be covered with vines.

Saucelito Canyon Winery in the Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo County was so remote, when they originally planted vines in 1880, the Feds trying to find it during Prohibition, couldn’t. Good thing too. Great zinfandels come from these true old vines and if you ever get a chance to visit the original homestead (it’s not open to the public but their tasting room is) go! Their “1880” zinfandel is made from grapes grown on original rootstock. It’s a magical place – and it’s where I asked my wife to marry me.

Saucelito Canyon Zinfandel vines on their 1880s rootstock
Gypsy Canyon Winery off Highway 246 near Lompoc has original Mission grapes on site too, and they produce Angelica, a sweet wine made from brandy and Mission grapes from an 1860’s recipe. (http://www.gypsycanyon.com/). In 1919 the first known grapes went into the ground in Monterey County, a remote place called Chalone, where the Chenin Blanc still produces fruit! And around the same time, commercial vineyards were planted in Paso Robles.

Grapevines can be amazingly hardy. (While I was in Spain in 2010, I visited a fat old vine still producing grapes which is 140 years old). So visit some of California’s historic wineries, sip history and be part of that continuum.
Santa Barbara Mission with grapevines (now gone) in front
For more information about California's wine and wineries, take a look at my books, Santa Barbara & The Central Coast, and California Wine Country. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Summer at the California Central Coast: Get Your Tan On!

Kayaking in Ventura Harbor
Say summer and you automatically think about being outside. Who stays indoors except for cranky people and vampires? The California Central Coast is prime outdoor territory for summer fun as this stretch of coastline from Ventura to Monterey is ripe with plenty to do. From tide-pooling, surfing, hiking and biking, to a romantic stroll as the Pacific tickles your feet, here are some suggestions to get out, get some sun and uncover the coast!

My wife over looking Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island
Perhaps the best playground for outdoor fun is to visit the Channel Islands National Park (www.nps.gov/chis/). These islands, just off the coast of Santa Barbara, are great day trips and get you back to pristine California as it was hundreds of years ago. Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Rosa islands are best accessed from Ventura Harbor. All three islands have indigenous plants and animals, such as and the smallest fox you’ve ever seen, the Channel Islands Fox, and over 140 other species found no where else on earth. You can camp overnight, or spend a day or half-day roaming the place on moderate hikes with a trained naturalist. Island Packers is the official concessionaire and they do a great job of getting people to and from the islands. WATCH my 2 Minute Travel video shot on Santa Cruz Island here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jf7Va2jxbA&feature=plcp

Guided kayaking tours of the Channel Islands by folks like Blue Sky Wilderness (http://www.blueskywilderness.com/) gets you up close to the volcanic rock and sea caves on the islands, including Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the world, located at Santa Cruz Island. Picnic on the island and explore parts few people have walked on. Though the waters are cooler, you can also snorkel off all three islands and immerse yourself near the kelp forests. You’ll spot the California State Fish, the Garibaldi, see sheepshead, and other cool sea life. Or if you dive, the islands are great spots to scuba. I usually dive around Anacapa and the backside of Santa Cruz. There are sea lions, dolphins, crabs and everything else under the sea. Use the Peace Boat (http://www.peaceboat.com/) my favorite dive boat, which departs from Ventura Harbor. They are professional and best of all, after a long day of diving you can warm up in their on-board hot tub while eating ice cream! Of course, you can always kayak within the confines of any of the harbors, like Ventura, Santa Barbara and Monterey for a more sedate experience.

The Channel Island Fox
Aside from the Channel Islands, here are other great Summer suggestions:

The bike trails that hug the Central Coast are inspiring. The Waterfront in Santa Barbara is one of the best. You can rent a bike or surrey and leisurely follow the ocean down to the Andree Clark Bird Refuge, which passes the Santa Barbara Zoo, beach volleyball nets and languid palm trees. It’s flat, fun and you won’t break much of a sweat. In San Luis Obispo, the best spot for hiking, walking and biking is Montaña de Oro Park: 8,000 acres of coastal bluffs and coves to mountainous shrub-covered hills to lush valley’s of dense eucalyptus groves. It’s beautiful and truly a gem on the Central Coast. (http://www.slostateparks.com/montana_de_oro/default.asp).  


Carmel City Beach
The white sand beach at Carmel City Beach is immensely popular and within walking distance of downtown Carmel (www.Carmelcalifornia.com/). The views north are to Pebble Beach, and south you can see Point Lobos, another great hiking park. Walk, bring the dog and relax, then head back to Carmel for lunch, or wine tasting in Carmel Valley. Leadbetter Beach is one of the best beaches in Santa Barbara because it has a large grassy area with picnic tables, some shade, restroom facilities and outdoor grills. Plus you’re a short drive to State Street, Santa Barbara's main drag for shopping, outdoor dining and the SB vibe. Moonstone Beach in Cambria has long been popular due its more rugged coastline and handicap accessible boardwalk which runs the length of the low bluffs. There is also beach access, restaurants are close by, and restroom facilities are located at both ends of the beach. Plus you can find, yes, moonstones. You might also see otters.

My whale watching boat leaving Morro Bay
Whale watching in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Morro Bay can be an awesome experience and these spots have reasonably good chances of getting pretty close to humpback and blue whales. There are numerous boats to take you around, either by sail, on a catamaran or on a traditional fishing boat. Having seen whales up close, it’s an experience you don’t want to miss. Of course, no one can promise you a whale sighting, but if nothing else, you’re floating on the Pacific, and that ain’t too bad!

Or, if you’re the more adventurous type, the Bella Monterey Bay (http://www.bellamontereybay.com/) is a great sailing boat which holds only 6 people and tours the bay and shoreline of Monterey. This is not for the faint of heart as this baby sails, which means it can get choppy on the open ocean and you will have to gingerly navigate your way around the vessel, depending on the wind, but you’ll have a blast.

Renting a surry along Santa Barbara's coastline
On Board Nautical in Morro Bay (http://www.onboardnauticalevents.com/) is for those who just need a relaxing ride on the water without spilling their cocktail. Chef-prepared foods and live entertainment on this classic 1960s yacht means you can kick back as you cruise inside Morro Bay gently and slowly, staying within the confines of the protected bay. For other great information about the Central Coast, check out all 4 of my travel books, in paperack and as a download on Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Michael-Cervin/e/B004APYU4S

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Spirits of Ventura: Tequila, Beer, and Lemons, Oh My!

No, this isn’t a ghost story, unless beer and tequila frightens you. This is liquid satisfaction in downtown Ventura. Located 60 miles north of Los Angeles, Ventura has long been like that middle child in every family – ignored and left behind in favor of the flamboyant kid, namely Santa Barbara. But Ventura is rapidly changing; there is a laid back vibe, easy beach access, strong arts community, and the culinary scene is taking off. But what’s really getting attention is our friend, alcohol.

Anacapa Brewing Company
Wine is booming with nearly 15 wineries from Oxnard to Ojai. But wine gets the lion’s share of attention already, so it’s time to uncover other sweet juices of joy. Micro-breweries are ubiquitous along the Central Coast, but currently in downtown Ventura there is only one: Anacapa Brewing Company. Housed in a 130 year-old building, the narrow interior is bookended by exposed brick walls. Owner Danny Saldana offers five brews on tap, and new brews coming on line all the time. You can only buy them here, or bring in your growler for a fill-up. Their hops come from Yakima, Washington, and their malts from Canada. The result is finely balanced beers; everything from porters and hoppy double IPAs to lighter lagers. They also have a large food menu and are located right on Main Street. (http://www.anacapabrewing.com/) 

Dr. Adolfo Murillo

Mules haul out the agave
What does a local optometrist do when his family ranch in Mexico is up for grabs? Since the ranch was located in Jalisco, Mexico, Dr. Adolfo Murillo planted blue agave in order to produce tequila. All tequila must come from the state of Jalisco otherwise it ain’t recognized as tequila. His organic approach to the barren and difficult ranch land has resulted in better quality agave, stronger, and healthier. Adolfo has shared his organic protocol with other farmers in Mexico, regardless of the crop, and currently there are farmers growing organic in multiple states. You can find his Tequila Alquimia in restaurants and bars in Ventura. His is one of only three or four of the 1,150 different labels of tequila in the world to be certified organic by the USDA. There is the blanco, reposada, añejo, and Extra Añejo, aged six years. These are smooth tequilas, beautifully made and they make excellent margaritas. Adolfo’s recipe defies the conventional approach: One part tequila (he prefers the blanco over an aged version), one part fresh lime juice, ½ part orange juice, and ½ part agave nectar. That’s it, no need for triple sec or Grand Marnier. And the result is a fresh, crisp flavor with the fruit and tequila being balanced. Or have them at room temperature, as these are sipping tequila’s, not shooters. Does organic really matter in a tequila? Well, consider this: the average growing cycle of blue agave is 7-10 years; that’s nearly a decade an agave plant can soak up chemicals, toxins and pesticides. With Tequila Alquimia, there are no chemicals in the ground to begin with. So there. (http://www.tequilaalquimia.com/)

James Carling
Ventura is also home to vast citrus orchards, specifically lemons. So if you’re of Italian descent limoncello is customary back home along the Amalfi Coast. If you’re the husband/wife team James Carling and Manuela Zaretti-Carling, you bring Italy to California. They had been making their limoncello at home for 10 years and were eventually persuaded to move into commercial production. Ventura Limoncello has scored tremendous medals and awards at spirits competitions, even beating itself in one competition. So what is limoncello? Just the best damn lemon liqueur you’ll ever taste. Lemon peel, neutral spirits, sugar and water. There ya go. But the simplicity of ingredients should not belie the quality. James doesn’t use vodka as he believes that vodkas give the liqueur a harsher taste. Only the top layer of the lemon skin is peeled, all by hand, then it’s infused in large glass jars (metal containers leave an aftertaste) with the neutral spirits. In addition to their original version, they produce a crema, one made with milk, and an orange-cello made with blood oranges. Smooth, viscous and addictive, you need to find this when you’re in the area at local restaurants and bars, and take a bottle home with you. Leave it in the freezer and pour it directly into your glass. (www.VenturaLimoncello.com) 
Lemon rinds in neutral spirits, relaxing.

All these diverse liquid refreshments can be found by simply walking Main Street in downtown Ventura, and these family-owned businesses deserve your attention, not just because they offer a local flavor to your visit, but because these are excellent beverages. For more information about Ventura/Ojai including the wines and restaurants, shopping and outdoor activities, check out my Moon travel book, Santa Barbara & The Central Coast. Salud!