(Read notes on last year's ZAP--Zinfandel Festival)
Northern California wine country is inundated by more than 4.5 million tourists each year, most of whom visit between May and October. Highway 29 can be bumper to bumper in the summer and reservations for the top restaurants hard to obtain. That's why we like to visit between Christmas and New Year's when rain and birds are more prevalent than visitors and eateries have space for walk-ins.
McPhee's Grill in Templeton is always our first stop on the drive north. Chef Ian McPhee serves up the quintessential California Cuisine: fresh, local, quality ingredients simply prepared with subtle influences from around the globe. There are so many tasty dishes: the oak grilled artichoke, sweet potato fries, Ian's salad with artisanal goat cheese and meaty bay shrimp, the cedar planked salmon...this time we happily shared the succulent tempura prawns dipped in spicy peanut and sesame sauce redolent of mustard, with a side of lightly vinegared Asian slaw and pickled ginger--each bite a symphony of textures and flavors. We shared a glass of the house Pinot Blanc/Pinot Gris handcrafted by Jim Clendenen, the excellent winemaker at Au Bon Climat, from grapes sourced from his own vineyards plus the famed Bien Nacido vineyards. Au Bon Climat was listed on Robert Parker's Best Wineries of the World in both 1989 and 1990, and Clendenen was named Winemaker of the Year in 1992 by the Los Angeles Times, Winemaker of the Year in 2001 by Food and Wine Magazine, Winemaker of the World in 2004 by Germany's leading wine magazine Wein Gourmet, and in 2007 was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America--all these accolades, and the wine was only $9 for the glass! Bien Nacido's vineyards are in the Santa Barbara AVA where Southern California sun moderated by cooling fogs pushing inland from the Pacific Ocean create the ideal climate in which grapes can develop their truest varietal flavors with balanced ripeness and acidity. Their grapes are highly regarded and purchased by many notable Santa Barbara wineries, including Foxen, QUPÉ, and Fess Parker. The Pinot Blanc/Pinot Gris we tasted was highly aromatic, with the crispness of the Pinot Blanc nicely balanced with an almost unctuous, honey sweetness and round mouthfeel of the Pinot Gris. Karen McNeil's "The Wine Bible" (on display at the wine exhibit at SFMOMA--more on this below) says of the winemaker "flagship" Pinots: "Supertalented owner Jim Clendenen is an unconventional wild man whose passion for Burgundy shows through in his own Pinots, which are about as primal, sensual, and earthy as they come."
San Francisco was festive for the holidays with kittens in the Macy's window displays, ice skating in Union Square and high rises and bridges decked with lights for the season. We saw the wine exhibit at SFMOMA "How Wine Became Modern" which, since it was an an art museum, was more about the visual objects of wine rather than a comprehensive exploration of wine. An entire wall of bottles chosen for their ingenious label design held some of our favorite wines--like Freestone's FogDog and Goats do Roam. The "smell wall" of aromas found in wine, such as anise, was engrossing as was the exhibit of artists' innovations in wine glasses and a collection of important printed works on wine, including Karen McNeil's book mentioned above--a must-have for anyone looking for fundamental wine knowledge presented in an engaging style. But, in general, the exhibit seemed "thin" for such a rich topic; much better curated was the Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective. The photographer was born into a wealthy family, but spent his life documenting an extraordinary time period in human history--two World Wars, the Great Depression, Gandhi's leadership in Indian independence, the establishment of Communism in Shanghai, Mao's Great Leap Forward...a remarkable visual history created by a formidable talent! Enjoy the exhibit, then walk across the street to the Metreon for tasty Japanese food at Sanraku, with ample portions and a view out to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial fountain.
Yesterday, after breakfast at Café de la Presse (try their Oeufs à la Norvégienne which are Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon) we drove in the drizzle through the gently sculpted hills of Petaluma where muddy sheep speckled the emerald hills and grazed unperturbed by the rain in their wooly coats. We're staying in the lovely Bodega Bay Lodge with views of the vast expanse of the estuary and bay. The photo is the view from their Duck Club Restaurant. Last night the wind howled and drove the rain in diagonal sheets into the plate glass windows and the chimney whistled in the wind. Today the sun is out, but the wind persistent.
Rocker Oysterfeller's is worth seeking out, they use organic, local ingredients--and what a place to source food!--next to Petaluma's artisanal cheesemakers, Tomales Bay and Pt. Reyes fresh seafood, and Sonoma and Russian River wineries. We tried the 2008 Unti Petit Frere: a Grenache/Mouvedre/Syrah Rhone-style blend. Only 440 cases made, so it's a local gem, like most on the restaurant's wine list.