Full Belly Files: A Week in the Life … of Me | Stars of the Rhône Valley

A Typical Week for Our Food & Drinks Editor

Tasting Jonata wines at The Hilt was one highlight of a busy week. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on February 25, 2022. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox each Friday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.


It’s been a busy week since I filed the last Full Belly Files, which you read on Fridays but I turn in on Wednesdays. While it didn’t involve any travel beyond the Santa Barbara County lines, which I tend to do a couple of times per month for my Wine Enthusiast work, the number of restaurant and winery visits reminded me a bit of life before the pandemic, when finding a balance between reporting (an extroverted practice) and writing (a very introverted trade) was a constant challenge.

People often wonder about what my life is like on a day-to-day basis, and how I juggle so many balls at once, so let’s take a look at this past week to see what the typical experience looks like, at least in the “pandemic-lite” form. 

Wednesday:

Arrow wearing the cone of shame after his procedure. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

After filing last week’s Full Belly Files, I started my Wednesday like most days of the week: going through email (a 24/7 duty), handling any loose ends for that week’s print issue, and simultaneously blind-tasting wines for my Wine Enthusiast job, usually between 12 and 20 on every morning that I am home and not on a critical deadline. I did 17 that morning, a mix of flights between chenin blanc, chardonnay, grenache, and zinfandel.

(A screwball for this day was that my dog, Arrow, was getting neutered, so I had to be on call for any surprises from the vet or from our kids’ school, since my wife also had to go to her UCSB office that morning and run a training.) 

At 10 a.m., I interviewed Story of Soil winemaker Jessica Gasca about a unique vineyard in Los Alamos and her work to support farm workers as president of the Vintners Foundation. Both will be stories at a later time. 

Then I finished my story about Broad Street Oyster Company (which I’d worked on ’til about 7 p.m. the night before) and then started our weekly 1 p.m. editorial meeting, which we still do via Zoom. 

At 2:30 p.m., I interviewed Eric Nielsen, co-founder of Kompas Wine Club. He’d dropped off a few wines from his last shipment a month ago, so I reached out to finalize that story. Then I wrote the bulk of that story, which I turned in the next morning before 8:30 a.m.

That night, with Arrow finally home, albeit drugged up and wearing the cone of shame, I made dinner, which is my task almost every night of the week. Then I tuned into a Stars of the Rhône tasting hosted by Ian Blackburn of Wine Cloud Inc. and starring guest commentary from Michael Larner of Larner Vineyard in Ballard Canyon. (More on that below.)  

Who knew that a Juice Ranch jar would shatter so much? | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Thursday: 

Amid wine tasting, emails, a managers’ meeting, and playing a still-ongoing game of phone tag with Eric Jensen of Booker Wines, I shattered my longtime glass vessel for spitting wine. I started using the mini-milk container bottle from the Juice Ranch when I started my reviewing job back in March 2014, because its shouldered neck ensures the expelled wine doesn’t spit back. I also thought that, if I ever dropped it, the heavy glass would break into a couple pieces. I was wrong. It shattered into something like sand and triggered a half-hour cleanup session. 

Matt Dees is the winemaker for The Hilt and Jonata wines. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

That afternoon at 3:45 p.m., I met with our longtime contributor Leslie Dinaberg at Reunion Kitchen + Drink down at East Beach to discuss future projects. It was my first time there, and by 4 p.m., the place was buzzing with full tables. My spicy margaritas were great, as were the avocado wontons and bacon-wrapped jalapeños. The latter was recommended by the server, and I was happily surprised that they weren’t the unbalanced versions sold at so many places around the world. Old-timers are lamenting those loss of the East Beach Grill, and while I can certainly see the dire need for a to-go window that serves simple things like burgers and fries, Reunion seems to be doing quite well already. 

My next stop, at 5:45 p.m., was a three-hour-plus dinner at Bedda Mia, the new Sicilian place run by Alberto and Elaine Morello of Olio e Limone fame. Joining me was my Sicilian friend (and winemaking partner) Giuseppe Bonfiglio to judge the authenticity. Alberto gave us the full rundown and a full meal, to which Giuseppe said, “This feels like home.” Story to come.  

Friday: 

If I’m spending the time and gas money to head to the Santa Ynez Valley, I always try to line up multiple appointments, usually crossing assignments for multiple publications. 

My first visit on Friday at 9 a.m. was to the new tasting room for The Hilt, where Christine Doran gave me a tour of the place before we tasted about a dozen wines with winemakers Matt Dees and Drew Pickering, both of whom I’ve known for a long time. This was a trifecta on the assignment front: I am doing a tasting-room roundup for 805 Living; it was a great update for my future reviews of the wines for Wine Enthusiast; and I’ll be doing a feature on The Hilt for the Independent in due time. 

The “Caviar Cone” is an umami-bomb hit at Peasants Deli in Solvang. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Then, at about noon, I went to Alma Rosa’s new tasting room in Solvang, again for the 805 Living story but also as more reporting for an Indy feature that I have been working on about winemaker Samra Morris. Channing Jones gave me the rundown there, and I learned that she’s the granddaughter of my friend Larry Hogan, who’s made Sagebrush Annie’s wine up in the Cuyama Valley for decades. 

For lunch, I swung by the new Peasants Deli, where I’d been invited to try the Godfather sandwich before the place even opened. It was delicious, as was the caviar cone, a flaky wrap of manchego foam, caviar, and jamón Ibérico. 

When my architect friend Brian Zant texted a picture of his wine glass outside of the Hitching Post II, I quickly went that way to say hi and wound up hanging with Zant and the legendary Frank Ostini for a while, talking about the wine and restaurant industries. Our conversation veered into older vintages of wine, and I thought it might be a good idea for the Independent to start a wine club that featured such wines. “That is a great idea,” said Frank. We’ll see.  

That night, after making my special bean-and-cheese burritos for dinner — I, however, was still full from lunch — I took my son to his 8 p.m. soccer game.

Saturday: 

Though a day of rest for many, Saturday mornings are when I tend to taste through lots of wines, usually close to seven flights of varying styles amounting to as many as 30 wines. Then I spend an hour or so breaking down the boxes that have arrived throughout the course of the week and filing them away in my wine coolers for future review. Very often, right when I put the final box in the recycling bin, another truck shows up with more wine. 

For dinner, I made peanut-sauce baked tofu, udon noodles, and salad.  


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Sunday: 

Here is the carignane from the new line of Funky Town wines by Ampelos Cellars. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

I didn’t really work at all on Sunday, instead riding bikes, playing a little tennis, and eating a fried chicken sandwich for lunch at the Creekside. For dinner, we tried the Impossible sausage meat, which I turned into a meat sauce and served atop shells made by Mission Rose Pasta.

Monday: 

I spent most of my holiday writing wine reviews. While I taste wine all month long, I only take notes and score the wines each morning. The reviews are due at the end of the month, so that’s when I start turning those notes into actual sentences. I wrote about 80 of those on Monday and have another 150 or so to go by the end of the week. I can do about 30 an hour if that’s all I was focused on, but it never is, as I cannot stop multitasking. So the 80 reviews probably took about four hours, but I was able to tackle a lot of correspondence and Independent duties in the meantime. 

Around noon, my wife, daughter, and I stopped by Samsara Wine in Goleta, where Matt Brady shared sips of his recently racked clairette blanche as well as chardonnays from Zotovich and Francesca vineyards. For lunch, we hit up Los Arroyos on Calle Real, where I tucked into pozole, a warm salve for a somewhat cool day. Leftovers for dinner. 

Tuesday: 

Tastings, emails, and my weekly editing of The Restaurant Guy consumed Tuesday morning. I handled captions and other questions about this week’s food section, and transcribed some notes from recent meetings into my laptop. My lunch meeting was with my longtime friends Rebecca and Peter Work at Ampelos Vineyard, located just west of Buellton. We made about eight batches of wine together from 2012 to 2019, and they wanted to show me their new series of fresh, natural-leaning wines called “Funky Town.”

Over sandwiches, we tried the piquette, clairette blanche, “orange” albarino, and carignane, a red grape that I helped turned Peter onto. (We made a 2019 from Camp 4 Vineyard together.)

On Tuesday afternoon and evening, amid making an Indian food dinner, I wrote another 40 reviews, filed a complicated photo assignment, and edited two stories for next week’s Living section, one by a friend who is dealing with long COVID and the other our introduction to a new fitness column. 

Wednesday:

This morning, it’s 9 a.m., and I have been writing this newsletter for about an hour. I took this somewhat rambling week-in-review angle because I couldn’t think of what else to focus on this week. I advocated for us to start these newsletters a long time ago, but it turns out that writing something brand-new beyond the existing duties every single week is pretty onerous and mentally taxing. But I did it again. 

I hope to write another 100 reviews by the end of the day, and have meetings at 10 a.m. (contributing editors for Wine Enthusiast), 11:30 a.m. (with our new Indy writing fellow, Vanessa Vin), and 1 p.m. (weekly editorial). I also need to edit a story about XO Burgers, start writing a lengthy winemaker feature for next week’s issue, and transcribe notes about a fried chicken house in Isla Vista (also for next week’s issue, ideally).

The Takeaway: 

That’s a pretty good rundown of a typical week, although it doesn’t dwell too much on my responsibilities as a husband and father or cover the range of other things that I am handling at any given time, like planning upcoming work trips, reading books for future articles, conspiring on my own books with potential collaborators, and setting reservations for meals with visiting winemakers, publishers, and the like. 

It’s not a bad gig, as you can see, but it’s far from a breeze. 


STARS of the Rhône Valley

Ian Blackburn led an informative tasting of Rhône wines. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

I met Ian Todd Blackburn right before the pandemic down at a Beverly Hills event to promote the latest projects from the Japanese creators of Drops of God, a manga about wine. (I wrote this piece for Wine Enthusiast about it later.) A veteran wine buyer and expert in wines from around the world, Blackburn runs a series of “STARS” tastings, which were traditionally in person but shifted to digital for obvious reasons.

A couple of weeks ago, he invited me to his “STARS of the Rhône Valley” tasting on February 16, when my friend Michael Larner of the Larner Vineyard was playing co-host. Mike is great, but I really accepted because I saw the stellar wines that were being showcased, including a coveted Jean-Louis Chave from Hermitage

There were a few dozen people on the Zoom, and Blackburn presented each wine with videos from the producers themselves as well as live commentary from their importers. We were also encouraged to chime in as guests. 

The info was great, as were the wines, from the lush yet still crisp Chêne Bleu Aliot Blanc (where our own Doug Margerum was an early consultant) to the old vine Domaine De La Janasse from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We also enjoyed wines from Domaine Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage, Domaine Faury Vieilles Vignes, and Domaine Le Sang des Cailloux. The iconic importer David Shiverick even joined us to share his thoughts, though, of course, he was drinking top-shelf Chave Hermitage ($300-plus a bottle) while we were merely blessed by the $70 version. 

As a fan of cool-climate syrah, nuanced grenache, and all of the other lesser-known grapes of the region, I’ve long been fascinated with the Rhône Valley, and it’s been atop my list of places to visit for years. This tasting only made me crave such a trip even more. 

To tune into the next STARS, which is focused on Baja California, at 7 p.m. on March 23, click here


From My Table

Winc Wines made a nice pairing for Broad Street’s seafood. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

In this week’s issue:

  • I wrote a fairly long piece about Broad Street Oyster Company and its move into the small kitchen space behind Shaker Mill at 418 State Street. It’s a bit of an ode to the glories of brilliantly fresh seafood, and reveals that there is likely more and bigger Broad Street love to come for Santa Barbara. Thanks to well-known Santa Barbara County winemaker Ryan Zotovich from Winc Wines for picking up most of the tab that day. We chowed down on our lobster rolls, crab claws, shrimp cocktail, and oysters while talking about Winc’s strategies and tasting his latest wines, whose aim for freshness worked perfectly with the seafood. They’re also screaming deals. I’ll be writing about that one day later this year. 
  • I also tell the backstory of Kompas Wine Club in this week’s issue. I met co-founder Eric Nielsen when he was head of PR at Sonos and I was writing this profile of the Santa Barbara–based audio company, Sonos Spins into Control.” He was part of large layoffs a year later and mentioned to me that he wanted to start a wine club. I didn’t think it would work, as the competition is to tight, but Eric managed to carve out a solid niche, and Kompas is doing well. I highly recommend a subscription for anyone seeking sustainably minded global exploration as part of their weekly drinking list.

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