Credit: Courtesy

“You have the best job in the world!”

That’s the most common response when I tell people that I get paid to eat and drink for a living. 

I’m not gonna lie. While my job is a bit more complicated than that, the eating and drinking part is pretty dreamy. But it is work, requiring plenty of reporting, research, attention, experience, and then hours of transcribing notes, organizing ideas, and writing up each finished product, often on a tight, stressful deadline. So I don’t just eat, drink, and go to sleep, unfortunately. 

“How’d you get that job?” is the usual follow-up question. That’s also a complicated story, involving lucky internship assignments about online airline ticketing, chance encounters in Belizean jungles, and rambles through vineyards-turned-minefields in war-torn republics. 

The short answer is that I’ve worked almost every day of my life for the past 22 years, walked through every opportunity door that opened, and generally tried to be a respectful, nice person, which goes a very long way in industries like journalism and hospitality where connections and reputation are the primary currency. 

But it’s not all glory, despite the sheen. This week, I returned to the Central Coast Wine Competition, a contest umbrellaed by the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles. It was my fourth time serving as a judge, joining other journalists, educators, chefs, and wine professionals to blind-taste a frightening amount of submissions over the course of two days. 

My tally this year was more than 100 wines in a day, and I had to bail before day two for another trip down to San Diego. As I’d witnessed in years past, the submissions keep getting better and better, the styles range widely, and not everyone’s palate or preferences are the same. 

I’m used to the blind tasting, spitting, and scoring process, as I review about 200 to 300-plus wines every month in my role as contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast. But contests like this are a serious grind, leaving mouths battered and minds slightly hazed. Once, they brought in a guest judge who’d won some auction — an amateur, in essence — and he didn’t fare too well. They don’t do that anymore.

The moral of the story is: Be careful what you wish for, which was also the name of a short video that Stan Roden and Phyllis de Picciotto made about me a few years ago. It’s good work, indeed, but don’t get confused: It’s also work.

Sign up to get Matt Kettmann’s Full Belly Files, which serves up multiple courses of food & drink coverage every Friday, going off-menu from our regularly published content to deliver tasty nuggets of restaurant, recipe, and refreshment wisdom to your inbox


Al pastor on the author’s grill. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

The butchers at Santa Cruz Market in Old Town Goleta looked at me askew when I told them I wanted to make al pastor by using my rotisserie rig, which meant doing it horizontally on a grill rather than on the vertical trompo, which translates to “spinning top,” common in Mexican restaurants. But they warmed up when I explained myself more, and they sliced the pork shoulder super thin. 

I marinated that in a blend of achiote, pineapple, rehydrated guajillo chile, chile de árbol, orange juice, and other spices that I no longer recall, then stacked the pork, with pineapple and onion slices, onto the spike, and fired up the grill. It worked, especially atop the handmade tortillas pressed by my son, Mason, and Neighbor Steve, whose green and red salsas topped the meats. 

The edges were excellent, while I found the middle a little gummy. I realized that, in restaurants, you always get crispy bits because they are constantly shaving off the outer layer. (I made sure this week at Los Robles Café in Paso Robles.) 

I don’t think I can pull that off, and I’m not buying a trompo, because my garage can’t fit any more cooking gadgets. But the photos were certainly a hit on Instagram. 


I plan to share some secret or at least early advice on wines to hunt down in this newsletter, essentially wines that I’ve reviewed but before the scores are released. I’m not gonna tell you the scores, but you can bet whatever I put here is 90 points-plus, with something else to consider as well.

Santa Barbara County’s fierce fleet of female winemakers is getting tired of being grouped together, wanting rightly to just be known for their talents rather than gender. As they should, especially when the young class is killing it.

Wynne Solomon at Peake Ranch is one of my current heroes, and not just because she brought great Indian food from Masala Spice to my backyard the other day. The 2019s are her first fully in charge, estate-winery-based vintage, and they are fire. I’m a nut for cool-climate syrah, which she tackles with savory glee, but I’m wondering whether I should focus more on cool-climate grenache, where tension and intensity collide. Go buy her 2019 Peake Ranch grenache now. 

Up the coast a bit, Gina Giugni is occupying her brand’s name like few others. Not only is her smile contagious, but this Lady of the Sunshine is making wines of freshness and fun. I’m pretty certain her husband, Mike Guigni of Scar of the Sea, gives a hand — or maybe it’s the  other way around? — but Gina’s style is on point if not defining today’s natty-but-good zeitgeist. I’d recommend them all, but for this newsletter purpose, pop that Lady of the Sunshine “Stolpman Vineyard” Ballard Canyon Sauvignon Blanc 2020. The melon-meets-lime-meets-sansho-pepper pop will keep you coming back. 

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