Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I Left My Heart With Wine And Redwoods

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, November 25, 2007)

This is all a tad bit dry and rushed as I just wrote it all this morning and didn't take the time to really tweak it as much as I'd like, but you'll get he general gist of it all. Hope you enjoy…


I didn't post a blog here last week because Skip and I decided to take a short vacation up to Northern California. Every year on the weekend before Thanksgiving, the Farallon Restaurant (http://www.farallonrestaurant.com/) in San Francisco hosts an event called PinotFest: A Public Tasting Of A Sexy Wine (http://www.farallonrestaurant.com/pinotfest.html). We went to this event two years ago and had a blast, but missed it last year because we were in South Africa. Two years ago, we drove up, tasted the pinots and drove back home the next day. This time, we decided to make a short vacation out of it.

We left Friday afternoon, drove up the incredibly dull Highway 5 and made it to San Francisco 6 hours later. We arrived in the city late enough to avoid most of the horrible traffic that city gets every rush hour, hitting just a bit of it going over the Bay Bridge into downtown. Once there, we drove to Chinatown and checked into our hotel, The Grant Plaza Hotel (http://www.grantplaza.com/). It's a small hotel near the Chinatown Gate. It's not the best hotel, but its small rooms are comfortable and affordable, especially for a hotel in downtown San Francisco. We had a bit of a problem with some loud, early-morning girls in the room next to us, but other than that, our stay there was uneventful.

Once we were checked into the room, we called several friends to see if they were into meeting us for dinner and drinks. Our friend, Karl, came direct from work and suggested we go to a small French Bistro a block away from the hotel called The Café de la Presse (http://www.cafedelapresse.com/cdlp/). We arrived to find it was Beaujolais Nouveau (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beaujolais_nouveau) time. We only get this special wine once a year, so we proceeded to order multi glasses of all three wines the restaurant offered. We enjoyed this wine with a light meal of salads, escargots and a delicious Tartes Flammbe au Saumon Fume, which is a sort of flatbread pizza with smoked salmon, red onions, capers and a horseradish crème. It was about that time that Stoo Odom, ex-TWR bassist and current Graves Brothers Deluxe frontman, showed up with his girlfriend. They had already eaten, but dived right into the wine.

After dinner was over, Stoo suggested that we go up the street to a hole-in-the-wall bar he knew, so we walked the five blocks up Grant Street to the Li Po Cocktail Lounge (http://www.yelp.com/biz/YfTg4ghDPIF48HxcFQvJdQ) where we found a brightly lit, dumpy bar with a few people in it. Stoo suggested we try the "secret drink" that was like an extreme Mi Tai, but I stuck with wine and we all retired to a large booth in the corner to talk. Downstairs, in what was described as an old opium den, there was a dance party going on and you could hear the thump-thump-thump of the heavy bass coming up through the floor. The bar was dirty, but comfortable for a short time, until the powers that be decided to jack up the volume of the music just as the bar started filling with SF trendies. We fled into the night and because we wanted to get up early the next morning, we called it an evening, said our goodbyes and fell asleep in our rooms. It was great to see Stoo again. We don't see enough of him and next time we're up there, we're going to have to make more time to hang with him and several other friends we rarely see.

Saturday morning, we were out of the hotel by 8:30 so we could drive to Karl's apartment and help him get his cat into the vet. While Skip drove Karl and Kitty to their appointment, I stayed behind to do some internet stuff I needed to get done, but before I knew it, they were back with a healthy cat and a healthier appetite. Karl lives in Noe Valley, near the Castro, so we decided to walk down to the street to a restaurant named Savor (http://www.yelp.com/biz/oUQQwcwKfcdj0Xn-TpatYw) for breakfast. My corned beef hash with poached eggs over potatoes was a thing of early morning wonder and with a couple of mimosa's my belly was full and my eyes were open for the rest of the day.

After that, we just chilled at Karl's apartment for the rest of the afternoon until it was time to go to Pinotfest. This is probably the second best wine tasting that Skip and I regularly go to. The only one I enjoy more is the Santa Monica Bonaccorsi event at the Wine House every summer. There are hundreds of Pinot Noirs to try. Pinot Noir is Skip and my favorite type of wine. It's a red wine that goes well with meat or hearty fish. We used to get it cheap, but since the movie "Sideways" made pinots popular, we have to be careful now, as the price has skyrocketed. I love that movie, but still curse it for that turn of events. While tasting the wines, waiters circle the room with plates of yummy food, such as duck gizzards grilled with bacon, risotto balls with cranberry, salt cod balls, various cheeses, foie gras, and a whole lot more. We tasted a whole lot of wine, the highlights being:

Peay, Pey-Marin, Brewer-Clifton, Sea Smoke, Soter, Bonaccorsi, Talisman, Testarossa, Domaine Drouhin, Merry Edwards, Fort Ross (who poured a Pinotage, a wine we hadn't seen outside of South Africa before), Greenwood Ridge, and Fiddlehead.

Also good were wines from El Molino, Etude, Fiddlehead, Flowers, Thomas
Fogerty, Hartford Family, Iron Horse, Michaud, and Whitcraft.

And there were dozens more we didn't have the stamina to try.

Three hours later, we left Pinotfest feeling full and rather lightheaded. It was a good feeling.

Right next door was a Disney Store and we unwisely decided to take a look inside. Several stuffed animals, Christmas ornaments and "Ratatouille" items later, we decided we better get out of there before we go broke and headed to a coffee bar for gingerbread lattes and some rest. The coffee worked and an hour later we were ready for more drinks, so Karl suggested we go to the Sir Frances Drake Hotel and enjoy Harry Denton's Starlight Room (http://www.harrydenton.com/), a bar with some great views and a shamelessly flirtatious bartender. After several drinks and an hour or so of exchanging double-entendres with that bartender while he bought me drinks, we decided to call it a night as we wanted to get an early start to the Anderson Valley the next morning.

Sunday morning we awoke to foggy skies and slight hangovers, but got it together enough to check out of the hotel and drive to Karl's so we could pick him up for the trip. Karl inexplicably decided he had to do laundry and was in the middle of it when we arrived, so Skip and I headed down the street to Noe Bagel and had a great jalapeño bagel with jalapeño cream cheese. Double the spice and double the tastiness. By the time we devoured our bagels and made our way back to Karl's place, he was ready to go, so we piled everything in the car and headed to the Anderson Valley.

Halfway there, we decided we were hungry again and stopped in Santa Rosa for brunch at a place called Omlette Express (http://www.omelette.com/) that was surrounded by Peanuts statues. This was a nice touch considering the city was the home of the late cartoonist extraordinaire, Charles Schultz. Skip enjoyed a yummy Anchovy, Spinach, Scallions and Cheese omelette, but I opted for a salad and a Ruben sandwich, which turned out to be the perfect brunch for that day.

Then it was back on the road again, so we could get to the Anderson Valley in time to do some wine tasting. After a good drive down a curvy, small road through the California forest, we arrived at what is thought to be one of the most beautiful wine regions in the USA. The Anderson Valley (http://www.andersonvalley.org/) is a small valley just south of Mendocino (http://www.mendocino.com/), a small coastal town made famous by the Sir Douglas Quintet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Douglas_Quintet), who named one of their hit 60s songs after the town. Some of the best wines in the world are coming out of this valley and we were eager to try as many as possible.

The first thing we did was head to our hotel, The Boonville Hotel (http://www.boonvillehotel.com/), but it was only 1 PM and our room wasn't ready yet. We decided to start hitting wineries and check into the hotel later, just before dinner. Between 1 and 6 PM, we hit five wineries: Goldeneye (http://www.goldeneyewinery.com/), Greenwood Ridge (http://www.greenwoodridge.com/), Navarro (http://www.navarrowine.com/main.php), Sharffenberger (www.scharffenbergercellars.com), and Breggo Cellars (http://www.breggo.com/). I found I wasn't thrilled with the Syrahs coming out of the area, but the Pinots and Gewürztraminers were stellar wines. Navarro had so many great wines that we joined their wine club and Breggo had one of the best wines of the day, the Savoy Pinot Noir, which was just fantastic. Sharffenberger had some nice sparkling wines, but their still wines weren't all that. They did have a pourer named Rett, who managed to bring a whole lot of personality and fun to that tasting though. We were in the middle of nowhere and the last thing we expected to find there was an open queen with a biting sense of humor.

By the time we finished at the last winery, we were wined-out and decided it was time to check into the hotel. Once we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised to find out that we had been upgraded to the Studio room at no extra cost. The hotel has several rooms and we had reserved Room 7, which had a double bed and a twin bed in it. It would be tight with three people, but we figured we could make it work. But with the upgrade, we had a large room in a cabin outside of the hotel itself. There were two queen sized beds in there, one of them a sofa bed, and lots of room. The room usually goes for $275 a night, but we got it for the original $175 we agreed to pay for 7. They didn't even charge us the $25 for an extra person! I love stuff like that, so we'll be back at that hotel next time we visit. The only problem with the room was that since it was outside the hotel, we found that we couldn't hook up to the hotel's WiFi unless we carried our laptop into the hotel itself. But that was a small problem and the extra room for us to stretch out made it worth it.

We had a dinner reservation at the hotel that night. According to everything I read, it was the best food in town, so we were looking forward to it. My meal opener of Green Beans, Roasted Beets, Goat Cheese and Olive salad was fresh and light. The beets brought a great earthiness to the taste and the olives were a nice briny touch. Skip and Karl both had a Mixed Green Salad with Pomegranate, Basque Blue Cheese and Toasted Pecans that was also light and tasty. For the main course I had a Pan Seared Tombo Tuna with Black Olive Tapanade, Green Beans and Creamy Cauliflower Gratin. I thought it was very good, although the fish was a tad overcooked. Once again, the olive added a much needed uniqueness to the dish. Skip and Karl had the Grilled Brined Pork Chop with Basque Red Chile Cream, Gremolada and French Fries. It was a delicious piece of pork and the sauce had a wonderful bite and flavor. We then split a local cheese plate, with some unsurprising, but delicious selections, and two desserts, Fresh Ginger-Molasses Cake with Lemon Curd Cream and Chocolate Kahlua Pot de Crème with shortbread cookies. Both were lovely and a great end to a very good meal.

There are no TVs in any of the rooms, so after a short period of conversation about the day's events, we decided to hit the sack and get yet another early start in the morning.

We checked out of the hotel on a rainy Monday morning, somewhat bummed out by the weather since we were hoping to get in some good views of the valley that day. We decided to drive to Mendocino and get something to eat before filling ourselves with wine. As we made our way up the valley, the clouds started clearing and before we knew it, we had a beautiful, partly cloudy day on our hands. The drive to the town is gorgeous, following a river through forests of large redwood trees, until it all comes to an end at the ocean and some spectacular coastal scenes. I hadn't realized that Mendocino was so small, but we found the small Mendocino Café (http://www.mendocinocafe.com/) where I enjoyed a Thai Burrito with Stir-Fried Vegetables, Tofu, Rice and Peanut Sauce, with a Thai Chili Sauce on the side. It was a nice change to the normal bean-filled Mexican burrito. We also made a stop at the Mendocino Chocolate Company (http://www.mendocino-chocolate.com/) for some of the best chocolate I've ever had in the USA. I especially liked the Dark Chocolate-Raspberry Bark.

Then we made the amazing drive back through the redwoods to hit some more wineries. It's true that the Anderson Valley is absolutely gorgeous and is perhaps the most beautiful wine region we've been to in the USA. (The Cape Town region in South Africa is still the most beautiful we've been to in the world though.)

On this day we made it to: Claudia Springs/Harmonique (http://www.claudiasprings.com/ & http://www.harmoniquewine.com/), Roederer (http://www.roederer.fr/), Lazy Creek (http://www.lazycreekvineyards.com/), Standish (http://wine.appellationamerica.com/vineyard/Standish.html), and Toulouse (http://www.toulousevineyards.com/). Like Scharffenberger, the sparkling wines of Roederer were great, but the still wines were just okay, although I have to admit that I quite liked the Chardonnay, and I don't like many Chards. We found some great wines in the Harmonique Pinot Noir and all the wines at Lazy Creek and Toulouse. Lazy Creek, a very small vineyard in the hills, was the second wine club we joined. Toulouse was probably the most fun tasting we had. We met a couple who had been staying in the cabin room next to us at the Boonville Hotel and got in a long, drunken conversation about Scotland (the man was originally from Glasgow), wine and food with them. The wine maker was a very friendly sort and decided to let us try several barrel tastings of some of his upcoming wines. By the time we were finished there it was dark. It was the perfect end to a couple of perfect wine tasting days.

Now we were facing the three-hour drive back to San Francisco. But first, we had a stop to make. The one winery that everyone told us to go to was Esterlina http://www.esterlinavineyards.com/), but when we called to see if we could stop by (they are reservations only), no one answered the phones. So we made a stop by the Anderson Valley Market and Deli, which has a good supply of all the local wines, and purchased several Esterlina wines for later tasting. While we were there, we also stocked up on Doritos and Funyuns for the trip home. The trip back to Karl's apartment was rather uneventful. Karl passed out as soon as we were back in the car and Skip joined him about an hour later. The best thing was coming down the 101 out of Sausalito and seeing the Golden Gate Bridge ahead of me, all lit up with the top of the bridge sticking into the fog. It was a beautiful sight and it filled me with awe that such a man-made structure could be so absolutely amazing.

We got back to Karl's place and left for dinner at a Chinese place called Eric's Restaurant (http://www.yelp.com/biz/Ux_bs6eZ7WqIsLepTw1uBw) that was around the corner from him. Karl loves the place but I found the food to be underwhelming and poorly spiced. Each to his own, I guess, but I think this is Chinese food for American tastes and prefer something more authentic. With all the great Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, the fact that this place is so popular is rather puzzling.

After dinner, we immediately crashed for the night. Originally, we were going to stay at the Grant Plaza again, but Karl wisely talked us into canceling and we stayed at his place, taking over his bed while he slept on his couch. I don't think I could have driven any more that night, even just across town to the hotel, so I was glad we had cancelled the room that evening.

Karl had to work Tuesday morning and I got up just in time to see him off. Skip and I had plans to meet or friend Meredith Brody for lunch, before driving back to Los Angeles that afternoon. Meredith used to live here in LA and used to review restaurants for the "New Times" weekly paper before it became the "City Beat". Now she reviews restaurants for the "San Francisco Weekly". Two years ago, when we went to Pinotfest, she took us out to one of the best meals we ever had at a restaurant called Scott Howard (http://www.scotthowardsf.com/). You can read her review here: http://www.sfweekly.com/2006-01-11/dining/shock-and-awe/full. We were really looking forward to this meal. So we packed up the car and headed to the Marina to join Meredith at Palmetto (http://www.palmetto-sf.com/). Meredith had eaten dinner there a few days before and thought it was pretty great. Unfortunately, lunch wasn't quite as good. Our openers of Minestrone Soup with Fresh Summer Beans, Seared Rare Tuna Salad Nicoise, and House Cured Salmon on Potato Cake with Crème Fraîche, Pickled Beets and Watercress were all pretty great. I especially loved the clean taste of the soup. But service was off and it took more than half-an-hour for our courses to arrive. They were also very slow at bringing wine and water to the table. The restaurant wasn't very crowded, so there was really no excuse for that.

Meredith was looking forward to trying some of the pastas, but we found out that the pastas had just been removed from the lunch menu and all we had to choose from were a variety of sandwiches. On that front, we ordered the Niman Ranch Hamburger with House Made Pickles, the Roasted Garlic-Chicken Sausage Tartine with Crushed White Beans and Arugula, and Grilled Flat Iron Steak Tartine with Mushroom Duxelle, Crispy Shallots and Red Wine Jus. (A tartine is an open-faced sandwich.) All were good, but unremarkable and workman-like. Skip's steak was a good one, but was overwhelmed by the sandwich toppings. Meredith's burger was more well done that on the rare side of medium-rare as it was ordered. And my chicken sausage just didn't have much pizzazz until I added more mustard than I should have had to add.

For dessert, we had a trio of very good sorbets and a chocolate Pot de Crème that was actually more of a mousse, but was still rather tasty.

All in all, it was a nice lunch, food-wise, but it should have been much better than what it was. Seeing Meredith again was great though, as we see her too rarely these days, so we all had an enjoyable time. (You can read Meredith's review of Palmetto as of Wednesday November 28th at the SF Weekly site above.)

We made our goodbyes and packed ourselves into our car again to make the six-hour drive to LA. As usually, the drive down the 5 was unremarkable except that this time it was packed with Thanksgiving traffic and was more stressful than boring to drive down. I was happy to make it home and leave all that traffic behind.

So, it was a nice vacation. We hope to make it back to the Anderson Valley in July when Navarro throws it's wine club subscriber's party. I'm also hoping we can make another trek to San Francisco if the reformed My Bloody Valentine will add a San Francisco show to their American schedule, which is rumored to include the Coachella Festival this spring. I don't like going to that festival, but will happily make the drive to San Francisco to see them perform there. And that will give us a chance to see some of our friends we don't see enough again.

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