I haven’t posted much lately, because not much has been happening … at least not until this week. My mom was in town for my birthday on April 1, and we had a really great time. She was here for almost two weeks.
After talking with her a lot about the last two years, I decided that I am going to write a book about my experiences for the last few years. I have been working on that pretty consistently, trying to do a little bit of work at least every day. So there hasn’t been much current stuff to write about from Ocean Beach other than the obvious.
Both times we visited multiple wineries (through the Harvest Hosts program, as usual), and had amazing dinners at the local restaurants. We decided to head back to wine country for a couple of days.
This time was no different … well, except it was very different. We didn’t take Dolly, which felt kind of weird – we decided to save gas and time by taking Belinda’s mother’s hybrid SUV, and we also took Belinda’s mom, Betty, and her friend, Ron. We stayed in an Air BnB instead of a hotel or RV, and we were there for two nights and three days.
Two or three wineries per day should really be anyone’s limit if you’re actually trying to enjoy yourself. We wanted to sample the best wines and bring back our favorites; if you have too much wine in one day you can’t even keep up with the wines that you like.
Still, Beli’s mom kept referring to us (lovingly) as “borrachitas.”
On Monday, we arrived an hour before our Air BnB check-in time, so we stopped at Bianchi Winery for a tasting flight. Belinda decided to become a wine club member (which often saves you a lot of money if you’re enjoying the wines from that particular place), and I got a bottle of the Chardonnay.
For the most part, Paso Robles wineries specialize in reds. Most place have at least a white blend or a rosé, but they all have great selections of GSMs, Cabs, Pinots, and all the best red varietals. Which Belinda and I both like, since we are mostly fans of reds as well. This Chardonnay from Bianchi almost had a creamy or buttery effect as you sip it … perfect to pair with an amazing dinner.
Speaking of dinner, we revisited a place that was our second favorite restaurant in Paso: The Hatch Rotisserie, a relaxed but classy joint that serves delicious food. It was fried chicken night, so we had to try it…
… but the star is their most amazing mushroom appetizer – it’s a handful of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, wood-grilled, so they have a huge smoke flavor, topped with parmesan and green onion and then served with a spicy aioli.
It’s super simple but executed in a way that just makes you crave more of it every bite you take. It’s magical.
While we were waiting to get a table at the Hatch, we stopped at a small tasting room called CaliPaso Wines, which had a delightful red. This was perhaps our third communal bottle of the day… so, you know, it was a long trip.
The next morning, we found a coupon in our AirBnb for a 2-for-1 wine tasting at Barton Family Cellars, also known as Grey Wolf, which happens to be just next door to another one we wanted to revisit, Dark Star Cellars.
After a tasting and lunch at Grey Wolf, we went to Dark Star.
We had stayed at Dark Star before, when we were in the RV, since it’s a Harvest Host, and I was eager to go back and get a bottle of their “Chain Reaction” party blend.
They have a lot of other great reds and whites, all of which are unique because they rarely filter either type of wine, so the flavor is heavier.
They have a great homey atmosphere at Dark Star – the last time we were there, the vintner had a baby on her hip, and this time, little Lucille was running around with her big sister and chasing the chickens that roam the property. It was delightful to see the same people again!
That night, we returned to downtown Paso Robles (where most of the restaurants are), and had another incredible meal at the Fish Gaucho restaurant. We split the tab again with a bunch of small shareable plates and appetizers, like oysters…
… and halibut tacos …
… as well as an amazing pork chop dish with Brussels sprouts and mezcal applesauce.
It was incredible. I don’t think I have ever had a bad dish in Paso Robles; but also my friends tend to gravitate towards the five-star joints. Thank goodness they also help me pay!
I have a special place in my heart for VOTM; it’s the only winery of which I have ever become a member, despite the relatively high number of wineries I have visited in the last two years. The owners, Victor and Jennifer, are the nicest people you’ll ever meet; and they both had totally different careers before Victor got the idea that he wanted to grow grapes and make wines.
They have a lovely family, a super comfy and well-designed tasting room, and their wine club has the best perks – Victor used to be a sound engineer for all of the big names in the music industry, and he’s a huge music buff, so every membership comes with a personally curated Spotify playlist. When we showed up on a Wednesday, a day they are typically closed, Jennifer was kind enough to open up just for us and gave us all a free tasting using my membership. I tell you, they’re the best people.
Chronic was literally the first wine I had that I ever enjoyed (although certainly not the last); Belinda made me try their Sofa King Bueno (say it fast) years ago, and it’s one of the best red blends you’ll ever drink.
Chronic is literally across the street from Vines on the Marycrest, and since Belinda had a membership at Chronic … well, let’s just say, the vehicle was a lot heavier on the way home.
Be sure to follow Starbright’s Adventure on social media to see how I’m pairing all of this amazing wine. I plan to be around Southern California for the summer, mostly because the gas prices make it prohibitively expensive to go anywhere, but also because it’s the best place to be during the summer. Hopefully I can save enough to make it to my sister’s house in Houston by September.
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As I mentioned in my previous post, my friend Belinda is one of my oldest friends, and it was really a blast having even a short trip with her. We managed to fit a truly incredible amount of fun and food into a small amount of time!
After our incident with the snowy mountaintop, we decided to take it easy for the rest of the trip. Our first evening on the road had been at Giessinger Winery in Fillmore, where we enjoyed great wines as well as the quaint little town and the local farm-to-table bakery. (We also stayed at Giessinger on the way home, so see the end of this post for more about the lovely town of Fillmore.) The next night we were at the top of that precarious mountain, and we didn’t want anything like that anymore.
But we can always count on Harvest Hosts to be a good time, so we headed towards Lodi and planned to decide on a Harvest Host when we got there. We were supposed to meet a friend there, but he got delayed for a couple of days. So we headed slightly east, to the Somerset area, where there a ton of wineries, and several are Harvest Hosts. Since we had already stayed at a winery, we opted for the one guy in that area NOT growing grapes – the Windmill Creek Olive Oil Company.
(We needed olive oil anyway.)
It was really great to sample Windmill Creek’s olive oils and balsamic vinegars, and we got to pick up some awesome gifts for friends … or at least the ones who don’t drink wine. Then we headed to Lodi for a couple of days.
Like several areas around California, Lodi has rich farmland that has become a “wine country” — and as such, there are a bunch of wineries and farms that are Harvest Hosts as well.
As a kid in California, I always thought of “wine country” as Napa Valley. When I moved to San Diego as an adult, like everyone else, I got suckered into at least one birthday or wedding party in the nearby wine country of Temecula. I never realized how many “wine countries” there were, nor how organized they were. Lodi, Napa, Somerset, Livermore, Paso Robles … all of them had great wine associations and easy local signage that made it easy to taste and visit there.
Anyway, we didn’t want just wine, we are foodies as well. We really wanted to stay at the Spenker Family Farm that first evening, but we couldn’t confirm with the hosts in time. Luckily Viaggio was nearby and was beautiful.
Viaggio Estates is a spectacular winery and event/wedding center jut a few miles away from downtown Lodi. It was a little chilly outside, but we enjoyed the lovely grounds and the whole event center. It was a very peaceful and relaxed place to spend the night.
Wine tasting during a pandemic is unusual … there are rules against actually sitting or standing at the bar, or handing glasses back and forth. Some of the wineries insisted on plasticware for tasting or standing outside for your flight, but the best ones, like Viaggio, gave you a flight, glasses for the actual sampling, and extra munchies for the process.
In the cooler for the cheese and charcuterie, we noticed some Spenker Farms goat cheese – yes, it is literally a winery, a goat cheese farm, and a Harvest Host – so we had some amazing goat cheese, salami and crackers with our Viaggio wine! Around the same time, the Spenkers got back to me to confirm our stay for the next night, and we were so excited to hang out there and pet the goats who made the cheese we had just eaten.
So, for two nights in a row in Lodi, we sampled local wines and local goat cheese. It was incredible. The Spenkers gave us flights of their local wine as well as their homemade cheeses; paired perfectly. We ended up buying a ton of different cheeses — they had a soft chevre, a spicy aged cheese and a hickory-smoked gouda that was divine.
The Spenkers also make soap and lotion from their goat milk, so you know I got some of the all-natural goodness to take home!
We also got to meet up with someone important … my buddy Seth is a cannabis grower who produces high-quality CBDs for cancer patients and other people in need. He started helping me with CBD treatment years ago when I had breast cancer, and he has been a good (if only online, until now) friend since then. When I was re-diagnosed this past summer, and set up my GoFundMe to raise money for my adventure, he donated a ton of his own money, then started an auction to raise thousands of dollars more, by selling his own hybrid seeds! His company, Str8organics, does a lot of great things for the community, and he’s just a really awesome guy. He even bought us a lovely sushi dinner!
It was a blast to meet him in person and enjoy the best sushi and Japanese food in Lodi. If you want to support Str8organics’ mission, please click here and buy some merch!
The next night, we were scheduled to meet up (socially-distanced) with a friend who had just moved to Sacramento. We told him we would arrive at night, so we had all day to hang out and check out Sacramento. Neither Belinda nor I had ever really been to the area, so we checked out the internet for suggestions.
Like I mentioned last time, I could write a huge post on every aspect of this tour, Instead I will just give you the highlights.
The very first stop was Mayahuel, a Mexican restaurant that has a tequila museum; so, we could have spent all day there. Instead, we had 2 hours and 57 minutes left of a three-hour tour. Plus, I still had to drive an RV later, so Belinda took one for the team and drank my share.
At least the virgin cocktail was pretty.
As I said, you can spend a whole day just at Mayahuel, learning about tequila and mezcal and the history of Mexican food and Mexican-Americans in Sacramento. Most people don’t think of Sacramento as being the melting pot of cultures that it is, or the farm-to-table capital … at least, I didn’t. I was really pleasantly surprised by the beauty and culture and history of the whole area. In San Diego we tend to think we have a monopoly on California’s beauty sometimes.
We also got a sample of this amazing poblano crema soup. It was just enough to energize us for more walking. We continued down K Street, which the city has designated for public art and recognition of historic areas.
Although the tour took three hours, not all of it was walking around, and it was only a total of a few blocks. I was a little worried that a three-hour walk might be too much for me, but it was perfect. The second stop was the Allspicery, a lovely little spice store right next to the state capital building.
Because of Covid, we weren’t allowed to go inside or sample any spices, but we each got a custom blend of tea and seasoning spice mix, and I was allowed to kind of lean in the door to quickly take some photos without touching anything. But just being able to smell the cloud of sensory delight when the door opened was enough to keep us going.
The next stop – after a lot more art and history – was a Nashville hot fried chicken place, which I was looking forward to, especially after my recent trip to Hattie B’s. Nash & Proper used to be only a food truck, and got a brick and mortar store right before the pandemic hit. Luckily, they were well set up for takeout, and haven’t suffered as much as other businesses that weren’t able to adapt. And they still have a food truck schedule. The chicken sandwich was really good; although I have to say I have had better.
Then again, I am a food snob. Our next stop was the best of all.
The Odd Cookie is a bakery, a deli, and a bar. And it’s no joke. The owner and head chef is an art-loving, super-creative, whiskey-slangin, rock music-blaring, purple-haired GENIUS.
You know how sometimes, the fancier a cupcake or cookie is, the worse it tastes? When they pack all the fondant and paint and stuff, so it ends up tasting more like plastic than food? Yeah … this isn’t that.
Observe this brief video of the display cases:
As part of the food tour deal, I got to pick one, which ended up being one of the hardest decisions of my life. I picked the Great Balls of Fire (see below) … and we took a four-pack to my friend’s house for later, so I got to eat one of those banana ones as well!
If you’re ever in Sacramento for a day, I highly encourage you to check out the Local Roots food tours, and the Odd Cookie bakery. It was a day well spent.
That weekend was my friend Ali’s wedding anniversary, and we had yet to meet her husband (we hadn’t seen each other in about 10 years). We decided prior to arriving that the four of us would be headed out to the Calistoga area to celebrate their anniversary in some hot mineral baths. So after a night outside their house in Fair Oaks, we drove the short 2 hours to Calistoga, found a sweet hotel, and they checked in while we parked Dolly outside. It worked out really well, since Belinda and I got full use of the room, bathroom, and pool/spa area, but we could still camp in the RV and give our friends some wedded bliss privacy. Calistoga is still in the Napa wine valley, so it’s beautiful and lush, but it’s much less snobby and pretentious (or so we were told).
On our way north from San Diego, Belinda hadn’t been very picky about where we went or what we did; with three small exceptions: she wanted, when we visited Paso Robles, to visit a four-star Italian restaurant, and to taste wine at a winery that was one of our favorites, and, she wanted to have dinner at the Calistoga Inn. She offered to pay for my dinner at both locations, but that wasn’t why I agreed … Belinda is one of very few people whom I trust explicitly when it comes to food. Even if it’s something I wouldn’t normally want to try; if she tells me to, I will. If she says this restaurant is the place to eat; I’m there.
Of course, the Calistoga Inn needed no introduction. We ordered half bottles of wine and fresh, farm-to-table appetizers. But I stayed clear of it all because I knew that this yoooge ribeye was on its way!
Isn’t that glorious? I also splurged on dessert; I got a peanut butter chocolate pie, with a glass of the dessert port they recommended and a couple fingers of a glorious 18-year scotch. It made my tummy hurt a bit the next day, but it was worth it … I mean, I hadn’t had scotch in almost a year, but if you can’t enjoy a scotch when you’re having an epic meal in wine country, when can you?
On our way out of Calistoga the next day, we stopped at the California Old Faithful attraction, which was actually really nice.
It’s a private attraction (pretty much every landowner in the area has a mineral spring in their backyard) and they have these cute little pool cabanas and a petting zoo and garden to hang out at in between the eruptions, which happen every 45 minutes or so.
We finally had to begin heading south, so we went a short drive southeast to Livermore, yet another of California’s many wine countries and a very peaceful and nice town.
We camped at another Harvest Host, the Leisure Street winery, which had tons of lovely space to park and drink and walk around. There was a huge parking lot and lots of permanent campers who worked at a nearby electrical plant, so we got to meet some interesting people.
In a way, pandemic traveling makes you feel a lot more isolated from people, but that’s another great thing about Harvest Hosts. We got to meet lots of great people – hosts and other guests – at the socially-distanced wineries. Even better, we were able to support small businesses who need the money in these crazy times!
The next day we headed to my great-aunt’s house in Santa Cruz. I hadn’t seen Aunt Lesley in about 10 years, and I was looking forward to seeing her and to meeting my third cousin I had never met before. I initially parked on her street, a lovely tree-lined cul-de-sac smelling of eucalyptus, but after a quick (masked) hug, we insisted that I park in her driveway. As she was guiding me in, I didn’t notice (not did she) a piece of gutter sticking out from her carport at a weird angle. I didn’t see it until it was smashing through my window!
Belinda had a tiny cut, but other than that no one was hurt. The problem is that I have a $1k deductible and my RV is 25 years old. so finding a replacement piece of glass isn’t easy. As I write this, I am sitting in San Diego, recovering from this trip, and waiting to see a mechanic who can find us a replacement. It’s only the glass that’s broken, so if I am lucky (and I usually am), I can get a replacement from a junkyard for cheap. Worst case scenario, I need to get a custom-cut piece of tempered glass, which will be less than my deductible but still expensive.
That night Aunt Lesley took us to a lovely dinner at a scenic spot in Santa Cruz (check out the Crow’s Nest if you’re nearby), but I felt really bad about not seeing her for 10 years and then basically crashing into her house. I guess Dolly likes to make an entrance.
But we still had things to do. We still had two days planned in Paso Robles and another back in Fillmore before we headed back home, so we patched up the broken window and got the heck out of there!
First we went straight to Dark Star Cellars, a small but very cute winery on the outskirts of Paso Robles. They have a great tasting room, which I am sure is a lot of fun when it isn’t a pandemic, and their vintners are very educated about their wines. We had a great tasting and bought a couple of bottles, then cooked ourselves a great dinner and relaxed in the RV all night.
The next day, we knew we were going to throw down at this fancy Italian dinner Belinda kept talking about, so we decided to be productive early. Belinda gets to do a lot of her work remotely and had been working a couple of hours per day while we were stopped. So we emptied the dump tank (I am getting really good at it now) and filled Dolly up with water, then cleaned ourselves, and I did laundry while Belinda got some work done.
That afternoon, we checked into our Harvest Host (Tobin James cellars this time), and had a great tasting.
Pro tip: the back side of their tasting menu has the reserve bottles that they don’t sell at Costco. That stuff is way better than the mass-produced bottles!
We then took an Uber to Chronic Cellars, one of our favorite brands, This was literally the only winery that we stopped to drink at that wasn’t a Harvest Host. And while it isn’t technically mandatory to drink at the Harvest Host, the idea is to support the business while they let you camp for free.
But we had to go to Chronic .. as you can see, Belinda is the Ultimate Fangirl.
The Chronic Cellars wine is incredible, but I really love their designs and their labels.
We spent a pretty insane amount of money on merchandise, but it was worth it!
So. About this Italian restaurant. As I mentioned, Belinda hadn’t insisted on much, but this was one of the restaurants and spots she insisted upon. She said it was better Italian food than she had enjoyed while she was in Italy, and that I had to try it. And everywhere we went in Paso Robles, when we mentioned that we were headed to Il Cortile for dinner, the person we said it to got a dreamy look on their face, and then quietly mouthed the words “you’ll love it!”
We did not hold back. The first course was the antipasti … we got a beef carpaccio with parmesean sauce and shaved truffles. It was DIVINE.
I really could have left it there, but we kept going, We had lots of good bread and balsamic/oil for dipping, and we also ordered a polenta and poached egg antipasti dish. Then we (wisely) split a pasta dish, so we could each properly annihilate an entree. This is the pappardelle noodles with a wild boar ragu. Literally every bite (and you know it was washed down with some impeccable wine!) was perfect.
Belinda had opted for the Osso Bucco, since she had it there before and was in love with it. I had to go for the veal chop, and I was not disappointed. I think there was a little veggie or something in there, but wow, that shank.
It was epic.
Our last night on this trip was back in Fillmore. I picked that place because if you’re heading south, it is the last Harvest Host before Temecula. Also, it’s about 30 minutes from my brother’s house, so he came to hang out with us when we stayed there the first night, and the last night he came to take me to his house for my nephew’s birthday party. But I also went back there because we really loved the Giessinger Winery, and the area it’s in is fantastic.
The first time we stopped there, the server told us about an amazing bakery where we scored a bunch of yummy baked goods for the rest of our trip.
The winery is situated right in the historic downtown area, which is super adorable, and there is a (now-closed) railroad and historic railroad station. We were able to walk to get sushi the first night, and when we went back, we had some excellent Mexican food.
I am currently recuperating and getting Dolly fixed up, and I plan to be out in the desert for the majority of the month of March.
In April, I will be headed back east, and I plan to go to my mom’s and then to the east coast for a couple of weeks before I head back to San Diego again for more doctor’s visits in June.
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This Saturday I enjoyed an afternoon of Latin food and music from all over southern California, including tons of delicious wines and sangrias, and more than one type of tequila (hiccup). I got a little sunburned, but it’s a small price to pay to enjoy all the bites and drinks I want for three hours, while partying at the Embarcadero Marina Park.
It was a beautiful day, and the sangria was flowing like … wine.
Most of the vendors were drink companies, so the few that were food had pretty long lines. Luckily they were all delicious, so who can complain? I really loved the bacon-wrapped hot dog con todo (with everything)…
… and the Sheraton’s sample of marinated pork loin, savory sourdough bread pudding, house salsa roja and pineapple mostarda:
There were many other fine offerings, like this fancy short rib appetizer:
… potatoes with three “Mojo sauces” from Driana (Chef Adriana from the Food Network):
My first guest post! My fellow Tennessee State University alumna Stacey Diltz is the President and CEO of StaceyWines.com, and a resident expert on the most delicious and popular wines. She was kind enough to let us in on her favorite new pairing!
Frost Bitten Ice Riesling
At a recent Food & Wine experience in Atlanta, I discovered paradise … in a sip and a taste.
I am not usually a fan of creamy cheese, or as I used to call it, “soft cheese.” But as my palate developed in wine appreciation, so did my palate in cuisine. Frost Bitten Ice Riesling is made in the style of an ice wine with a hint of acidity that is common amongst Rieslings; but Ice Wine is a bit sweeter due to crushing the grapes after they are frozen. Soft cheese and a sweet icy wine are a perfect pair.
The sweetness and acidity matched perfectly with Secret Des Lys cheese and Epoisses cheese from French Cheese Club umbrella and also the Le Roule Garlic & Herb cheese log. The Secret Des Lys cheese is a triple-cream cheese with a fluffy texture and a buttery sweet taste. The Award winning Epoisses is a soft cheese washed with Marc De Bourgogne. The paste is richly flavorful.
Lastly, the Le Roule Garlic & Herb cheese is simply delightful. Rich and bursting with garlic flavor, it balances perfectly with the apricot, peach and acidity profile of Frost Bitten Ice Riesling. Truly a winning match!