lulu, hillsider companion

lulu, hillsider companion

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

More Norcal wines, beverage training for front-of-the-house staff, and an update on Mt. Shasta flying saucer traffic

As it turns out, we didn't get a chance to make the planned drive over Elkhorn Summit and down the hills and canyons to the coast last week; things kept popping up that were just annoying or worrying enough to cause us to keep delaying it until we finally decided to postpone the trip until March. The upside is that I got some long-needed (and promised) landscaping chores done around the house, and I dodged the always-scary kennel bill from the good folks at Country-Aire who look after our canine companions for us when we travel. They do a great job, and we always rest easy knowing that Lulu and Pom are safe and sound, but it's a little disconcerting that I also know that I'm spending more on them than on my wife and me.

But, back to work. It has occurred to me that I've neglected to bring to your attention several of our far-Norcal wines that we've recently had the pleasure of tasting (drinking, actually) that deserve some love, and I want to correct that over the next few days. As it happens, the two wineries that produce the three wines tasted so far are within a stone's throw of each other (if you can throw a stone a considerable distance); Mount Tehama Winery is at Manton, in Tehama County, and Lassen Peak Winery is just a handful of miles due north, at Shingletown, in Shasta County. Both these wineries are producing rustic, youthful wines from classic varietals, the most successful of which, at this point in time, seem to be the Rhone-ish and Spanish types/styles, which makes more than a little sense given the micro-climates they're working with. I haven't yet had time to taste the full range of offerings from either, but I've been happy enough with the ones I have to be convinced that I should (and will) get to the rest.

The Mount Tehama 2012 Petite Sirah is the first wine I encountered from this little foothills-but-almost-mountainous area, and I liked it even though it has some minor issues that almost disappear with a little air, and will likely age out with a bit more bottle time. The wine is deeply colored and aromatic, with a restrained cedar note overlaying the black fruit and tar, and the nose opens immediately as the cork is pulled. The fruit is very forward, ripe-plummy and blackberryish, and a little bit hot at first (I said rustic, remember?), but it begins to smooth out and soften soon after opening. It finishes with a Rhone-y, tarry, earthy berryish quality that stays on for a while, and is about as close to an ideal backyard barbeque wine as you're likely to find in its price range (about $13 locally). It grows on you, and I picked up a second bottle two days later despite the fact that I tried to pick it apart when I first opened bottle1. Reminds me of '60s and '70s Lodi-area zins: farmers' wines, and I like it. According to Alain Teutschmann, Mount Tehama's owner, he has pretty good distribution in our part of the state, but those of you living anywhere south of Chico or in other parts of the country will probably be best advised to contact the winery and have it shipped directly to you. Their website can be found at

Next, we revisit the issue that plagues my (almost) every evening out: the lack of attention paid by so many otherwise good restaurateurs to the quality of their wine and bar operations. As most of you know, it drives me insane to see a poorly conceived and presented wine list in the hands of a wait staffer in a restaurant that I know to have an excellent kitchen, or to order a Black Bush on the rocks from a bartender in a fine house and receive a blank stare in response. Why does this happen? It makes no sense at all to me. It's just not that hard (or expensive) to train your crew in the basics of wines and spirits, to taste them through the spectrum of the common varietals and turn on the lights in their heads. You'll be surprised at the number of them who really care and want to learn, some because they're interested in making more money(increased sales equal increased tips), and some because they just want to be good at their jobs. And the beauty of it is that your purveyors will do the work for you (and usually foot at least part of the costs as long as you're buying from them). Come on, use your heads...

Lastly, for tonight at least, I can report that there has been no discernible UFO activity in or around Mt. Shasta during the last couple of weeks. Since discovering that we are living in full view of what is supposed to be a "portal" that sees quite regular traffic between our world and the other one, wherever it may be, my wife and I have been pretty conscientious about keeping an eye on the mountain, just in case, but we've seen nothing yet. However, we'll keep you informed.

I'm out for now.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Caldwell and Jorgeson on El Cap, New Clairvaux's Albarino, and preparing to head for the coast for a few days

Let's start with something uplifting this time: Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson's incredible attack on El Capitan's Dawn Wall, which is now in its 19th day. Don't know how many of you might be following this adventure, but even if you've never given rock climbing or mountaineering a second thought you can hardly have missed the national (and international) coverage that this amazing climb is generating. Caldwell, from Estes Park, Colorado, and Jorgeson, from Santa Rosa, California, are attempting a free climb of Yosemite's El Capitan's "Dawn Wall", a 3000 ft. more-or-less sheer granite face, meaning they are using nothing except their own hands and feet in the attempt, employing ropes only as lifelines in case of a fall, of which there have been a few. This is a feat that has never been accomplished, and one which many, if not most in the climbing community believed never would. Whether it will is still in some doubt, but the likelihood is growing much stronger now that Kevin has regrouped, finally overcome the brutal and dangerous pitch 15 after nearly a week's delay in trying to get past the treacherous area, and caught up to Tommy. Both climbers are now pushing for a summit within the next day or so, or so it appears. We wish them the very best of luck, and hope to see a successful summit this week. If you would like to see more in-depth reporting, and from a guy who has serious climbing credentials of his own, as well as some phenomenal photos of the climb in progress, go to Tom Evans's website: just google El Cap Reports. You'll be hooked...

We've written recently about several Norcal wines that have caught our attention, and we have mentioned New Clairvaux's barbera and their albarino, as well. We recently had a bottle of their viognier, believing that, based on the quality of the barbera and albarino, it was also likely to be a well-made and varietally true wine, and so it was. The viognier is fresh, fruity, forward, and just slightly firm toward the finish, a sign that it might take another year in bottle and develop some complexity. However, that being said, and also acknowledging I like the viognier a little more stylistically, I have to say that I believe that New Clairvaux has a potential gamebreaker in its albarino; I like that wine a lot, and I like it more every time I have it. Aimee Sunseri, New Clairvaux's winemaker, apparently has a feel for the grape, and she does a remarkable job with it. Having had the opportunity to enjoy several bottles by now, and to get responses from friends whose palates I respect, as well, I feel very comfortable recommending it highly; it's very versatile as a wine list addition, because it is equally enjoyable as a cocktail or aperitif wine as it is serviceable with many menu items in most restaurants. Try it; you'll be glad...

And, happy to say, we've convinced ourselves that it's time to head for the coast for a few days of recoup and regroup. I intend to email our friends in the Emerald Forest tomorrow to reserve a cabin in the redwoods for a couple of tired-out north-valley types to hide out in for a while, drink some good wine, eat some great seafood, and just hike, read, and watch the ocean roll in. It makes life seem sweeter.

I'm out for a few days. Take care.   

Thursday, January 8, 2015

More wine, our best to France, and thoughts on a book

First things first: I know that we have a number of readers in several European countries, including France. I hope that they see this within the next few days, if for no other reason than for them to know that we here, like all our right-thinking countrymen, stand with them in this terrible time. We are resolved to do all necessary to put an end to this senseless brutality, and we support them in their efforts to find and punish whoever is responsible for this cowardly act.

So, having gotten that off my chest, I guess this will be a fairly brief note only because there are more important things going on in the world at the moment (as there always are, but not always as outrageous as this particular incident).

One thing that has kept me entertained for the past few days is that I have just taken delivery of a couple of cases of assorted Martinelli wines that have been sitting at the winery for the past year or so as I shuttled back and forth between home (California) and New Mexico, where I was obsessed by a project involving trying to save a failing golf club (we were not successful, unfortunately). I had almost forgotten about the wines until Martinelli's Denise Robuchaitis, who I suspect is a customer-relations specialist, or should be if she's not, contacted me to inquire as to when I'd be claiming them. Long story made short, she got them off to me in a far more efficient manner than I deserved, and they showed up at my front door in short order. I admit that I always feel a little hypocritical when I indulge my weakness for the wines of a couple of "superhero" producers, Martinelli being one, but I can't help myself: I've been a fan of these wineries (Mayacmas is the other) since the dawn of wine-time, and I've continued to bite the bullet and buy a few bottles each year even as prices continued to climb. I doubt that I'll ever give them up, unless something dramatic and unexpected happens: Bob Travers has finally decided to hand-off Mayacamas to its next caretakers, so we'll see how that goes, but Martinelli seems to be set for continuing family control into the foreseeable future and should be (I hope) a stable ship. At any rate, I continue to brave my wife's flanking maneuvers and appeals to common sense (in truth, who does really need a $90 pinot noir or a $65 cabernet?) and buy them in moderation when my annual opportunities come around. And I still think it's money well spent...

In closing, just a little tickler for those of you who are true and dedicated students of gastronomy: my question is this: how long has it been (if ever) that you sat down with your copy of Larousse's Gastronomique  and just opened it at random and started reading? Try it. I guarantee you a full evening of fascination. It is an astounding work that transports food people (not just chefs and restaurateurs) back to a different world, when great cooks were viewed almost the same way as magicians and conjurers, so mysterious and complex was their craft. Reading its entries is almost an adventure, and it's easy to picture the ingredients as they are described, as well as to imagine the dishes coming together as the preparations are playing out. If you don't have a copy, go buy one; used book stores and flea markets are the best sources, because you'll usually find 30 or 40 year-old copies in well-cared-for condition with evident history of former owners at next-to-nothing prices. These old pre-owned books have a nice feel, and they need a home, so invest in one. It's a purchase you'll appreciate for many, many years to come, and you'll get a lot of enjoyment from it. And you'll learn a lot.

Okay, that's it for now.   

Monday, January 5, 2015

Back to Lemon Grass (Sacramento) and Other Holiday Stuff

Well, it was fun at times, but all in all, I'm glad it's over.

The holiday season is generally overhyped and oversold. Don't get me wrong, I love my family as much as the next guy, and I look forward to seeing and being with them (for reasonable lengths of time). However, everybody needs to understand that there is a shelf-life for everything, and we have far exceeded that for the holidays now that we've managed to stretch them for a full 2 months plus some. By the time my wife and I turned onto our little mountain road and crept quietly back into our corner of heaven we were ready to hide out for a while. And I truly believe that most, if not all, of our fiends and  relatives who found themselves ensnared in like traps felt the same when they were finally able to usher out the last guest, or wave goodbye to hosts as they backed out of driveways and turned toward home. Fun is fun, but enough is...

Having said all that, and probably ticked off at least one friend, in-law, or cousin, I have to admit that holiday travels do have a few upsides, one of which is the opportunity to dine in much-loved restaurants that you don't get to see often enough because of time and distance. One such eatery is Lemon Grass in Sacramento, Mai Pham's long-time Asian Fusion restaurant that serves as a neighborhood dining room for many locals. Situated in what used to be, many years back, a hamburger joint (A&W Root Beer, I think), the place is relatively small and unobtrusive; you can miss it if you're not paying attention. However, it's better if you don't, because the food is consistently superb: fresh, imaginative, immaculately prepared, and delicious. The only let-down for me, ever, has been the wine list, which doesn't measure up to the menu for imagination or depth, but is still serviceable. (It never fails to baffle me why so many good restaurateurs allow a second-rate wine list to detract from the overall experience of their clientele, but you already know that, so I'll leave it alone for now.) Anyway, the spring rolls were as light, fresh, and delicately delicious as always, and I had as good a seared ahi steak as I've been served anywhere, perfectly prepared and almost creamy on the palate, nicely set off by two sauces, the best of which was a black bean puree that was pretty close to genius. Didn't get a chance to ask question of our server since we were there on Christmas Eve and the dining room was slammed, but I would like to know exactly how it was made. Wonderful place, and you should try it if ever in Sacramento with a free evening on your hands; you'll be very glad you did, I think. It's restaurants like Lemon Grass that prove the point of quality enduring.

Two more items before I close this one out: first, as some of you know, my wife and I are lucky enough to have lived the last 8 years of our lives high on this hill in the very tip-top of the Sacramento Valley, with a wondrous view of both Shasta and Lassen from our home, the former to the far left (due north) and the latter to the far right (east-southeast). Being a mountain person, I've made an effort to learn as much about each of those 2 great peaks as I can, and recently, with time on my hands, idly Googled Mt. Shasta just to see what would pop up that particular day. Well, I can't tell you how pleased I was to see websites for a bunch of UFO-loonies glowing there on the screen; seems that Shasta is a portal (or wormhole, in their parlance) into another dimension from whence flying saucers pass from there (wherever it is) to here (here being here, where you and I live). Apparently this occurs on a fairly regular basis, judging by the number of people posting who claimed to have witnessed the act. I have to admit that this beats the hell out of me: I watch the mountain every single day under all sorts of conditions, rain or snow or blue sky, and I've missed all that. I'm skeptical.  But who knows...I've been wrong before.

Second, for you wine lovers, another barbera. As you'll know if you read this letter on a regular basis (a few of you do, I'm sure of it), we touted a barbera from Boeger a few weeks back, and enjoyed it so much that we drank several more bottles in the following days and began searching out other examples of the grape, having neglected it in favor of more stylish varietals over the past few years. I'm ashamed to admit that, because barbera (Louis Martini 1970 sticks in my mind) was one of my favorite indulgences (at 4.99/bottle) during that long youthful time when I had no money but a lot of fun, not unlike now, when I have no money but am older and still having some fun. Anyway, I've fallen in love all over again thanks to Greg Boeger's heads-up, and have now discovered another beauty; maybe not as assertive and grab-you-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck as Boeger's, but really good, and from nearby New Clairvaux in Vina, near Chico. New Clairvaux's 2012 is a different wine than Boeger's, being softer and more fruit-forward, and drinking best as soon as the cork is pulled, while the Boeger benefits quite a lot from an hour's air, and both are excellent and well worth your time searching out. Boeger's wines enjoy fairly wide distribution even outside California, but you'll probably have to work harder to find the New Clairvaux; you might visit their website for some clues as to availability, or email the winery for help.

Okay, enough for now. Some guys with chainsaws are here to start taking apart an old canyon oak that came down during the recent storms and which is now lying across a small ravine separating our property from our neighbor, and which will almost certainly cause the run-off flowing through said ravine to back up and flood said neighbor's hillside when the next storms arrive if left where it is.

Until next time.