Julia Child spent the last years of her life here, so of course Santa Barbara is still throwing her birthday parties — this past Sunday, August 15, would have been her 109th.
The Santa Barbara Culinary Experience, in partnership with the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, celebrated in a variety of ways, the capstone being a blowout dinner on the Canary Hotel rooftop featuring Finch & Fork’s recently hired executive chef Craig Riker.
While many at the event shared stories of Child’s kindness and giving nature, it was winemaker Greg Brewer’s reminiscence that summed up her truly larger-than-life stature, and not just because she was 6’2”. To quickly summarize an anecdote Brewer put much more charmingly — of course, we’d all enjoyed his 2012 Brewer-Clifton 3D sparkling to start the evening, so that surely helped — after 9/11, famed wine critic Robert Parker was so shaken, he almost gave up on what he saw as a trifling profession, or so he told Brewer as he tasted with him. Evidently after that, Parker ran into Child, and she insisted his work was of great value, buoying him up.
Credit: George Yatchisin
Cut to a party in Santa Barbara at Antonio Gardella’s house, Child happily sitting with a full flute of Champagne. Brewer-Clifton had just earned a stellar Parker writeup, and Greg himself was there, with some of the highly acclaimed vino. Gardella asked Julia if she wanted to try, she nodded yes, and shot-gunned her full flute, holding the empty glass out.
Brewer and Gardella insisted she should have a more appropriate glass, but she wouldn’t have it. Instead, she downed the pinot noir in one gulp from the flute, too. The kicker: when Brewer said, I’m so glad you encouraged Parker, she replied, “I was glad I revitalized him — he’s really cute.”
That Julia joie de vivre was certainly honored by the wine dinner at the Canary. Riker, after his years preparing high-end vegan food at Oliver’s, made clear he knows his way around meatier things, too. The menu was chock-full of Child favorites, in particular vichyssoise and boeuf Bourguignon, and Riker more than acquitted himself. Too often chefs feel they’ve got to do something drastic to reinvent classics, but Riker was willing to let terrific product sing on its own, with a nice modern curlicue here and there, like the artistic float of edible flowers in the rich vichyssoise, or the just-smoked-enough mushrooms in the deeply flavored beef dish.
Given one of Child’s favorite quotes was “everything in moderation … including moderation,” it’s only appropriate that the wines from Brewer-Clifton and Cambria, both of Jackson Family Wines, poured freely. “This is not just a job; it’s a passion,” said Cambria winemaker Jill Russell while pouring a 2018 Cambria Viognier with the frisée salad avec lardons, the richness of the wine doubling the yolky goodness of the poached egg that dribbled on top.
And then the Brewer-Clifton 2017 Machado Pinot Noir, served with that Bourguignon, might have been an analog for Child herself: big and almost ungainly but with a unique voice that charms, and then a beauty and intelligence that just grows. The wine is both 100 percent whole cluster and has no new oak, so all of its structure comes from the grapes themselves, a sort of magnificent inner fortitude. Approachable yet unique, it just makes you want more. And that was Julia Child too.
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