Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Travels and tastes - California's wine country ( part 2)

The next day, determined to stay in down to earth Sonoma and to visit some of the small family wineries, we set out early.  It was hot the previous day, but early morning didn't give any indication it was going to be any worse today.  As the day progressed the tasting rooms were pouring more cold whites than reds, the concrete coldness of caves and wine making rooms felt better and better and by two in the afternoon we regretted every sip of Cab Sav and Zin as the thermometer in the car registered at 108F.  It was time to get inside, cool off, and get a bite of food and No Wine!

A fish taco to beat the heat

We tried to make our way around the Sonoma square and check out all that was closed the night before, but our legs felt like lead and the intense heat broke us and forced us to grab a quick bite and seek relief back at the hotel pool.  By that evening we were so overheated, over-wined and just over-everything, that the thought of driving somewhere (especially back to Napa) for a fancy dinner made us sick.  So we blew off 3 sets of hard to get, coveted reservations and got take out BBQ at a little whole in the wall in Calistoga.  This little shop is so inconspicuous that we drove past it 10 times before we saw it, with no pretense to greatness they are truly are masters of BBQ. 
Buster's BBQ

Served the old-fashioned way, in greasy boxes, with a slab of toast and the best BBQ sauce on the side, Busters BBQ joint didn't disappoint. And this is typical California... great, absolutely mind blowing food everywhere, fancy restaurants, tiny joints, trucks, stands, supermarkets, you don't have to seek it or research it, you just have to eat it... everywhere, without prejudice for the store front or their price list.  The best food doesn't have to be expensive or complicated; it just has to be done with love and few choice ingredients.  And the wine...oh the wine...let’s just say, unfortunately it is very good, almost everywhere.

Why unfortunately? Because despite the fancy of California, I love my North East wine country like no other...because good wines are few and far in between back home, it is unfortunate that my beloved country side has to pay the price in unapologetically imperfect wines. In my heart of hearts I will always be a New York girl, rooting for the home team, and I feel almost a sense of unfairness that the “planet California” gets it all... good food, good wine, good weather... at least their real estate is too expensive and the schools suck, ok I feel better now....

So back to the wine, I finally got a good sense of the region and will feel way more confidence in the wine store in front of California shelves now; I also got to try really amazing Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandels.  The most valuable discovery was how the same grapes from different vineyards compared and changed their nature with years.

I never got to experience these side by side tastings before...I also got a sense that I may know more than I think I do. Either that or I got seriously humored by the sales staff at almost every tasting room.  The comped tastings, the extra  pours of what is not on the tasting menus, the very generous pours in the first place and unprecedented personalized attention everywhere...either I am special or the sales folks make commissions of the wine clubs...something tells me it is probably the later, although I can still pretend to be the wine connoisseur, very few people I know will call me out as a fraud. 
Russian River valley and the coast
As we sucked on the BBQ ribs and took sips of great wine we had to contemplate the next and last day of our trip.  The weather forecast was optimistically promising temperatures of 102F, we knew we could not brave the heat and wine intensity in the valley and sitting in an air condition hotel all day was not an option, so I made a strategic decision to head for the coolness of the coast, passing through the Russian River valley on the way. 


If I had to do this trip all over again, this is where I would start and stay.  One day, when I come back, I will stay on the west side of route 101 and enjoy not only cooler breezes but wonderful redwood forests, peaceful Russian river, unreal Pinot Noir and eventually the breathtaking beauty of the coast.  This is the wine country that I love, small, family wineries, inexpensive tastings that are often comped upon your chit-chat with the sales folks. No tourists, no buses, no neon lights, the barrel rooms no bigger than my garage doubling up as tasting rooms. 

Winery dogs lounging around in the cool indoors and you get to step over them on your way to the bar...

Anticipating the heat we started out early and hit the wineries just as they were about to open, 10 am is kind of early to start drinking but I saw that some of the wineries open as early at 9 a.m.  I don't know about you, but at that time of morning I am still nursing a hangover from the night before. A lot of hard dedication and self-discipline goes into swallowing you morning coffee and bravely taking a sip of Syrah...

The most memorable tasting was at the Woodhead winery where not only the views we amazing but the Pinot Noir was astounding, crafted by the Russian winemaker, it was one of the best wines we tasted on this trip...

By the time the heat was biting at our heals we made it to the coast where I needed a sweater because the temperature dropped by over 35F. 

On the way, we stopped at a smoked salmon cart ( I can’t call it a truck or even a full fledge cart, just a slightly insane looking guys selling freshly smoked salmon out of a cooler).  I was famished so I tore right into it and arrived at the beach greasy in fish fat, spitting bones and scales, but it was worth trying. 

The view is breathtaking, the people are obnoxiously law abiding by loudly calling you out from across the street for illegally parking and happy California cows are grazing across the roadway enjoying a million dollar view of the ocean.  But the real winners here must be the dogs.  Allowed on almost all beaches, parks, trails, businesses, with every storefront spotting a bowl of water by the door, these guys are definitely enjoying life. 

Except the poor little dog kayaking in the San Francisco bay, he didn't look too happy. 
Where was I? Oh, the coast... as we drove down to Bodega Bay the real hunger could no longer be held back by bits of smoked salmon and the signs for fresh sea food signaled time for lunch.  We decided to forgo the clam chowder, as excellent as it must be, it was still relatively hot for such a hearty meal so I went for crab cake salad instead.  Now, did I mention before that the food is excellent everywhere, let me say it again...stupidly good food!

The crab cakes were one of the best things I ever ate, light as air, fresh dungeons crab meat dressed up with only a few simple ingredients... totally worth the mild allergic reaction later.  All in all, the trip to the coast was well worth it and not just for the cool air and the crab cakes...
Back home in Napa as we waited to be seated at Mustard's grill, both of us realized that even the air is starting to taste like wine now and we can’t take it anymore.  Another sip of it would make me ill so dinner went with Bloody Mary's and beer. 

 A final birthday wish upon the tallest and tastiest lemon merengue tart I ever seen and our trip was over.... but not before one more special tasty treat...
I picked this place for breakfast before the long plane ride home not for practical reasons.  First it was about a 40 minute detour from the ride to the airport, second, I saw the chef on the Next Iron Chef completion and having heard of her elsewhere wanted to eat her food and just eat somewhere I can be star struck if I glimpsed the chef.  This place showcases to the world what Californian farm to table cuisine is. 

Zazu restaurant and Farm -  you could drive by it and not even give an old shaggy building a second glance, if you park, you might just walk past the front garden of herbs and veggies mistake it for an unkempt  flour bed, you may miss the golden plum tree in the parking lot... but then you will be missing a lot.  The place sits 40 at most and serves brunch Sundays only.  Their menu for dinner and breakfast changes daily and features literally 3 or 4 dishes, usually pork and bacon oriented.  They are known for it and raise the pigs on their farm, hence the French country decor sprinkled with pig centric accents.  The food is simple to the bone and focuses on fresh seasonal ingredients sourced from their farm.  In fact it is so good that for a while there I kept eating long after full just to savor another byte. 

Dutch baby is a baked pancake that is custardy on the inside and crispy souffl√© - like on the outside, served with the sweetest strawberries and bacon, it is practically sinful.  The brunch dish called "Spudorama" features 5 ingredients - a mountain of baked potatoes pan fried to an even golden delicious crisp, melted cheddar cheese on top, a scoop of freshest sour cream, a sprinkle of scallions and a fried egg on top.... that is it... it is so good, that you are still tasting it hours later unwilling to give up the memory of a perfect bite. 

With the last bite our trip was now really over and our dream house picked...our California wine country experience was now done... and here is what I know, everyone who will ever visit here will have an experience they crave.  The nature lovers will get the views and the forests, the parks and the hikes, the health consciences will get the bike trails and the running paths, the picky will get driven to private wine tastings in stretched limos with a personal sommelier, the adventures will drive or hike away from the crowds and follow the not-so-beaten paths, but all will one day come back for more... I set out to eat and drink and to get some culinary inspiration and that is what I got.
I will come back again to California in a few years, but not before I visit my beloved Finger Lakes a few more times, just to remind myself where my heart truly lays.  I guess when it comes to the wine country I will always be in a New York state of mind...

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