The next day, I returned to that place where my fascination with wine first started three years ago, Sonoma Valley. In order to maximize the number of wineries we could visit (as my wish list was rather long), we opted for the private car option. Driving out of downtown San Francisco, the astonishing beauty of the region comes at you quicker than a slap in the face with the varied landscape of green mountains, meandering creeks, and, approaching Sonoma on Highway 12, endless perfectly lined rows of vines stretching as far as the eye can see. My heart skipped a beat as my vision blurred with the passing of each cluster of grape vines. Whoa baby, we’re in wine country.
We worked our way north along Highway 12, starting with two wineries owned by the same family directly across the highway from each other, Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards, entering Cline’s front door as soon as they opened at 10:00 am.
Things were chaotic at Cline Cellars this morning, despite the fact that we were the only visitors this bright and early (two other groups came through in the middle of our tasting). Boxes were being passed back and forth between those behind the the tasting bar and those in the storefront area. The staff was clearly distracted, passing us between two different pourers between passing the boxes of wine, and somehow managed to pass up Cline’s highly regarded zinfandels in our tasting sequence. Of the reds that we did sample, all had alluringly fragrant noses and gorgeous deep hues, but upon taste, all needed more bottle aging (all reds we tasted were 2006 and younger). They just weren’t quite there yet. We ended up grabbing a bottle of 2003 Ancient Vines Carignane from the clearance bin (as it turns out, the passing of the boxes was the final step in cleaning out inventory for the year) for the sheer sake of having an inexpensive souvenir bottle. Ironically, when we finally opened the bottle for a rosemary rotisserie chicken dinner back home in Texas, the woody and slightly spicy tones of the 2003 Ancient Vines Carignane put us in awe. A little cedar, a little nutmeg, it tasted like Christmas. Maybe we should have bought a couple bottles of the 2006 (which we found chalky at the tasting) and let them sit for year or two, maybe.
We had better luck across the street at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards, that’s Jacuzzi as in the family who invented the Jacuzzi Whirpool Bath in 1937. We found a lot to like about Jacuzzi’s friendly and knowledgeable pourers and their Italian styled wines, including the crisp and not too sweet Moscato Blanco, the chocolatey smooth Lagrein, and the fruity Barbera with a big bite. Jacuzzi’s tasting room shares a building with the tasting bar of Sonoma Valley’s first olive oil producer, The Olive Press. Word on the foodie street is that olive oil is the next big thing from California (old news to Californians, news to the rest of us), and it’s easy to see why after tasting a few varietals from The Olive Press. Favorites from the tasting included the grassy and slightly sweet Sevillano and the fruity and pungent Koroneiki. Needless to say, with all that we found to like, we left Jacuzzi Family Vineyards/The Olive Press with an enormous cardboard box of wines and olive oils, happily buzzed from the wine tastings and completely ignoring the logistics of flying back to Texas with so many glass bottled liquids.
We proceeded north on Highway 12 to Glen Ellen, stopping at Imagery Estate Winery.
Imagery Estate Winery is housed in a modern-funk, industrial-hippie space with an air distinctly different from the traditional charm of Cline Cellars and the Tuscan villa feel of Jacuzzi Family Vineyards. Though attached to the larger Benziger Family Wineries on the business front, Imagery is a small operation, selling wines only at its winery and online. Each bottle’s label features a piece from a local artist displayed at Imagery’s gallery, giving both the bottles and the winery tasting room an artsy edge. When we first introduced ourselves to the pourer and mentioned that we were from Texas, she immediately poured us two of Imagery’s sweeter wines, the Rose and the Moscato Di Canelli, and the syrupy sweetness from both shocked our tastebuds. After explaining to the pourer that we preferred bold red wines (and after the confused daze on the pourer’s face relaxed away), we moved onto Imagery’s impressive list of reds, including the fruity, light Mourvedre with a slight oaky aftertaste, the smooth and lightly tart Malbec, a Tempranillo that reminded me of Inwood’s only less chalky (this one made my mouth water for food immediately), the peppery and dark hued Petite Sirah, and the Pallas Estate, a Cab/Malbec blend produced 100% biodynamically and aged in French Oak for 18 months. The Pallas Estate was easily the most memorable wine we tried on this trip, with a long smooth finish with all sorts of flavors dancing on the tastebuds, cherry, cocoa, the bittersweet earth… Of course, by the end of this tasting, logic kicked in and we realized the impossibility of manually carrying home multiple cases of wine. So we marked down our favorites on a tasting sheet for a future online order, purchasing only the Tempranillo on this visit with the intent of a comparison tasting with the Inwood Tempranillo.
The Imagery Tempranillo got my mind on food, which meant we needed to have lunch ASAP before hangriness (so hungry that we’re angry) kicked in. Tasting over a dozen wines on an empty stomach is rough, so we worked our way north to Kenwood and stopped at Cafe Citti (9049 Sonoma Hwy, Kenwood) for lunch. Cafe Citti is just one of the gazillion examples of why Bay area residents are so darn lucky when it comes to food. These casual, relatively inexpensive establishments with carefully prepared food and great wine atmospheres are so common in northern California yet nonexistent in Dallas. Cafe Citti is a counter-service restaurant with an Italian menu of sandwiches, pizzas, create-your-own pasta plates, rotisserie chicken plates, and specialties like ravioli and gnocchi. Plates range from $7 (sandwiches) to $14 (specialty pastas). The roadside cottage is small but lively with a completely packed dining room, each table with at least one bottle of wine and loads of laughter and chattering accompanying the meal. The festive atmosphere is contagious. I left the hangriness behind me in line and shuffled up to the cash register with a huge grin when it was finally my turn to order lunch.
Even though the four of us each ordered our own lunch plate, it quickly became a family style affair with everyone digging into everyone else’s food. I guess I’m not the only curious eater in the family. Lunch entrees included delightfully tart and briny linguini in a creamy white wine clam sauce,
a chalk board special of porcini mushrooms and penne pasta in a creamy garlic sauce (an earthy dish in great contrast to the sharp flavors of the white clam sauce of the previous dish),
slightly undercooked tortellini salad accompanying a golden juicy half rotisserie chicken stuffed with garlic and fresh herbs,
and my choice, a ridiculously rich tuna-egg-mayo salad on housemade foccacia bread with a side of crunchy cabbage salad.
If any tuna salad can be classified as mind-blowing, this one would have to be it. As I shamelessly shoved the mayonnaise delight down my throat, I thought of my best friend from college who accompanied me on my first trip to Sonoma/Napa and was absent on this trip. Beyond the fact that we have quirky personalities that somehow fit together without too much friction, I think it was our mutual appreciation of tuna sandwiches that really cemented the friendship. Hmmm. I was lost in my own semi-intoxicated thoughts about planning the next girls’ trip to wine country so we could all enjoy this awesome tuna sandwich together when a surprise showed up on the table.
A complimentary cannoli for the birthday girl! A member of the waitstaff must have overheard our discussions about my birthday and thoughtfully prepared this delicious surprise. I love when a restaurant pays attention to the details, especially at a counter service place where attentive service is not the standard but a great bonus.
My better half licked the chocolate sauce off of the cannoli plate, marking the end of lunch. We headed next door to VJB Vineyards & Cellars’ tasting room where, for the first time on this day, our tastings were poured by one of the owners of the winery. A winemaker’s enthusiasm for his own products inevitably surpasses that of the most zealous and passionate employee, guaranteeing a memorable experience for the visitor. Highlights of the tasting included the barely oaked, light style Chardonnay (rare considering the usual butteriness of California Chards), the full bodied Rosso (a Zinfandel/Shiraz blend with 3% Chardonnay added for an interesting initial nose), the fruity and tart Dante (a Cabernet/Sangiovese blend with a big kick), the earthy Estate Cab, and a barrel tasting of the 2006 Primitivo, a grape whose roots are closely related to that of Zinfandel. VJB also makes two ports, one red and one white, but I found both to lack the complexity of a true port.
If my tasting notes seem to be getting shorter, it’s because of the growing wine buzz clouding my brain and my tastebuds.
Turning off of the main highway onto Adobe Canyon Road, our next stop was Kaz Vineyard and Winery, the smallest production winery in Sonoma county to sell to the public. Owned by winemaker Richard Kasmier (also known as Kaz) and ran by a crew of his own family, Kaz Winery has that intimate feel that one finds so often at Texas wineries. With uniquely funky labels (example artwork can be seen on Kaz’s website), strange wine names like Hooligans and Dudes, and a decidedly hippie feel, it’s no wonder visitors come to Kaz again and again for that escapist atmosphere (escapist for former flower children, anyway). Standouts at Kaz Winery included the smooth 2003 Mary Tauge (oh how punny), a Cab/Petite Verdot blend and the 2005 Dudes, a mouthwatering Petit Sirah with a surprising kick. On the whole, I found Kaz’s red wines a little on the tart side and yearned for a more smooth finish on all of them (with the exception of the Mary Tauge).
By the time we had circled our way onto picturesque and windy Bennett Valley Road, I was, in short, out of it. We arrived at Matanzas Creek Winery, where, upon the opening of the car door, the distinct smell of lavender rushed to awaken my drunken senses. Well, sort of. The smell kept me awake, but didn’t do anything to sober me up. Knowing that I was approaching the limit of my alcohol tolerance (for daytime anyway), I stayed out of the tasting room, opting to stop and smell the lavender instead.
Endless rows of lavender bushes lined the hillside acreage of Matanzas Creek. If I were a romantic, I could go on and on about how the potent fragrance of the lavender added to my intoxicated state as I stood in awe, admiring the natural beauty of the landscape. Though some of that may be true, I was mostly just a drunk woman turning a quarter of a century in a giant bowl of potpourri, concentrating with all my willpower to be graceful and not throw up on myself. Glamorous, eh?
My better half braved the front and charged into the tasting room for one more round (I guess that also makes him the more alcoholic half?) The following report is based off of his tasting notes. In general, he found Matanzas Creek’s red wines to be a bit on the light and tart side, with the exception of the tobacco-ey 2002 Merlot and the earthy Syrah. Matanzas Creek also makes an interesting Sauvignon Blanc that has a crisp start but a slightly sweet finish due to its blend of 13% Sauvignon Musque.
Needless to say, I slept through most of the drive back to our hotel that afternoon.
Back at the hotel, I skipped the complimentary evening wine happy hour (the last thing I needed was more wine), downed a half a gallon of iced water and took a power nap. My tastebuds needed a break before dinner. I awoke an hour later, feeling fresher than I expected to, and dashed out the door to make our 8:00pm reservation at Bar Crudo (603 Bush Street at Stockton, San Francisco).
Bar Crudo ranks up there as one of the coolest restaurants I’ve ever been to. Ok, I know that’s a lame description, I’m not trying to compare this restaurant to some fashion trend or fun new technology. The tiny establishment (seats less than 20 including bar seating) gives a visitor, an outsider, the distinct feeling of running into a true local gem, a place that locals, specifically, locals who know their food, come for a unique dinner prepared with the utmost care. I think the only other restaurant I’ve ever been to that gave me this unmistakable feeling of “you’re completely in the right place, come and play voyeur to our local culture” was Straivaigin in Glasgow. Bar Crudo is ranked by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of Bay Area’s Top 100 Restaurants, but just under the radar enough to avoid significant outsider traffic. It’s not the signature go-to restaurant for foodie visitors (that honor belongs to The French Laundry or perhaps even Chez Panisse or Zuni Cafe, all fantastic establishments with much higher profiles), nor is the food focused on some trite stereotype (come get yer clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl!) The simply decorated small space is just a place for locals-in-the-know to linger over great small bites and a fantastic selection of beers.
Let’s talk crudo. What is it? It’s basically sashimi, western style. Now that basic Japanese foods have become mainstream, chefs are looking to put their own spin on raw fish at every opportunity. Crudo is on the menu of just about every upscale New American, New Italian, New-any nationality, and New-something-fusion restaurant, typically available as appetizers/starters. Bar Crudo serves small bites, with crudo making up about half of its menu “of cooked, chilled, or raw, fresh seafood paired with wine and an extensive selection of Belgian beer.”
We started with the crudo sampler.
It’s hard to imagine food this aesthetically beautiful in a completely unpretentious space, but such was the case at itsy-bitsy Bar Crudo. Clockwise from top left, tuna with soy and sriracha (ok, so I didn’t make good on my promise to not eat soy sauce for a week but it was delicious, so much so that I forgot to get a close-up photo), Rhode Island fluke with tomato tapenade and black caviar,
scallops with chickpea puree, orange, and microgreens,
and my favorite crudo of the night, arctic char with creamy horseradish, wasabi tobiko, and dill.
Did someone mention beer? Yes, the waitstaff will happily recommend something off of the extensive Belgian beer list to go with your choice of food. For me, a bottle of fruity yeasty Saison Dupont, and for the guy across the tiny table, the bitter and caramely St. Bernardus Abt 12. Considering that four years ago on my 21st birthday, my beer of choice was Coors Light, I think I’ve made a little progress.
Moving on from the crudo, an order of the colorful lobster & beet salad.
This is the dish whose taste lingered in my mouth long after I came back to Texas, whose taste I can still relive on my tastebuds as I write this post. Tender chunks perfectly cooked Maine lobster (not rubbery, not slimey, just meaty hunks of goodness) atop various roasted beets and creamy burrata cheese, topped with mildly sweet mache (lamb’s lettuce) and dressed with pistachio oil. Lobster meat has never tasted this delicate and sweet, beets have never seemed juicier, and what can I say about burrata cheese, except… where can I get cheese like this in Dallas?
Moving on from cold dishes to hot, we shared a bowl of buttery rich seafood chowder of fish, mussels, shrimp, squid, potatoes and applewood smoked bacon
and an order of mussels with garlic, chile, artichokes, and bacon in a white wine sauce. This dish was perhaps the only slight misstep of the night. The broth was tasty but needed a tad more acid and tartness for balance.
Bar Crudo will without a doubt be one of the most memorable restaurants of the year for me. It presented seafood in many varied forms with distinctly different tastes and textures. Through the course of the meal, we slowly worked our way from clean, fresh, discrete flavors to richly married, complex, hearty flavors, always highlighting the seafood ingredient(s) in each dish. Bar Crudo served up almost flawless food in an unassuming setting, and I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday dinner.
My “now I can rent a car and be a primary driver” birthday ended on a high note. One more day of foodie fun before returning to the Big D.
Onto Day 3
Back to Day 1