This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on September 30, 2022. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox each Friday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.
Even though I love a road trip, I won’t usually endure 10 hours of driving just for dinner.
But when Randall Grahm is finally ready to reveal the earliest results of his ambitious Popelouchum project to the world, you will actually find me cruising up 101 to a hotel in Monterey on a Saturday, hopping in a hired car for 45-minute rides to and from his property in San Juan Bautista that evening, and then jumping right back on 101 at 8:30 a.m. the next morning to head home.
While I missed two of my son’s flag football games and my daughter’s dance performance at the Goleta Lemon Festival, last weekend’s commute was certainly a worthy mission. Not only did I get to sit across from Grahm, his partner, Chinshu, and his very bright daughter, Amélie, at dinner, but I also got to hang with fellow wine scribes Elaine Chukan Brown of JancisRobinson.com and Jonathan Cristaldi of Food & Wine and Decanter.
For those unfamiliar with Popelouchum, where Grahm hopes to develop an indigenous California grape of sorts, I first wrote about the project seven years ago in this profile for Wine Enthusiast. I also touched on it a bit again in this Full Belly Files from August 2021, when I met up with Grahm to taste his Language of Yes wines, which come from the Santa Maria Valley’s Rancho Real Vineyard and are a partnership with E&J Gallo.
Popelouchum remains Grahm’s baby, but Gallo is certainly playing a supportive role. They hosted us journalists for the weekend at the Portola Hotel near Cannery Row in Monterey, and the dinner also featured the latest Language of Yes releases: a 2021 rosé based primarily on the grape tibouren and a super-fresh 2021 syrah — very much in the Grahm style, put powered by the distribution mastery of Gallo.
On the strictly Popelouchum front, we tried a hard cider, a zippy grenache gris-grenache blanc, and an herb-inflected pinot noir alongside dishes prepared by Michelin-starred chef Jarad Gallagher, who owns The Smoke Point BBQ in San Juan Bautista. There was also a peach liqueur that we added to sparkling riesling as an aperitif and a peach coulis for dessert — those stonefruits came from Popelouchum.
Grahm, who was walking with a cane due to a recent knee replacement surgery, is refining some of the bolder statements he made early in the Popelouchum days. He’s realized that accepting some traditional Old World grape varieties into his bottles is not the end of the world, and that it’s gonna take even longer than he first imagined to develop a unique grape. But he’s still crossing grape varieties — some via the whims of nature, some directed by human hands — and the plan to arrive at California’s own grape continues apace.
Though it wasn’t poured during dinner, there’s also a new bottling of ruchè from Popelouchum, which I received in the bag that was left for me at the hotel. I sipped a bit before catching a ride to dinner — and promptly texted a picture to Will Henry of Lumen Wines, who recently planted some on his Santa Maria Valley property at Grahm’s suggestion.
The other writers tried a bit when we got back to the hotel as well, but there wasn’t enough left in my bottle to properly finish off the night. So we wound up hitting the bar for a bottle of Caraccioli bubbly and then a Brewer-Clifton Machado Vineyard from 2018. The latter was graciously provided to us by our wine world friend Simonne Mitchelson, who happened to be in the hotel bar, meeting with a distributor as part of her job with Jackson Family Wines.
Did we need all that wine to finish the night? Probably not, but I was certainly craving diner food the next morning, and wound up chewing down an artichoke heart and garlic scramble at the Old Monterey Cafe. With that, I was back on the road.
Cellar Adventures: Presqu’ile and Chanin
Due to my role in reviewing wines for Wine Enthusiast — in which most wineries send two bottles of each wine in the event one is corked — I have a lot of wine in my “cellar,” which is an umbrella term for the bottles stashed in my garage, multiple closets (six to be exact), and even under my bed. This newsletter feels like an appropriate forum for shining the light on some gems that I pull out from time to time.
Last Friday, I tried two older pinot noirs: the 2012 Presqu’ile, an earlier release from the Murphy family’s Santa Maria Valley estate, and then the 2014 Chanin from Los Alamos Vineyard. Both were utterly distinctive and addictively delicious.
Coming from such a cool climate, the Presqu’ile was loaded as expected with toasted bay leaf and bloody meat elements, alongside muddled, still slightly tart fruit. The Chanin was all about capturing the aromas and flavors of earth, from wild mulberry to sifted loam to beach tar. It smelled more like Burgundy than many Burgundies I’ve had, if that makes any sense. If you have or can find them both, they’re drinking well right now.
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South African Spread
A few weeks ago, I joined Ernst Storm at his winery — located on the Presqu’ile property — for a braai, which is basically South African for “backyard barbecue.” Like many vintners, Storm hosts lunches frequently during harvest — even in years like this, when the heat and odd rains made for a compact picking window, especially for winemakers like Ernst who make lighter styles of wine.
On Fridays, they make things even more fun by doing blind tastings, with a fun guessing session after each taste bottle. I brought six bottles to share, including a 1988 Babcock Grand Cuvée Chardonnay. It was quite brown to the eyes, but was still very lively in acidity on the palate, and one of the stars of the show. Other highlights included a cab franc from Chinon, a Ridge Monte Bello, a Vieux Telegraphe from Chateauneuf du Pape, and a Champoux Vineyard blend from Andrew Will in Washington.
The edible highlights were the special South African treats: beef jerky called biltong; a homemade sausage spiked with clove and coriander; a peri peri of chicken livers; and, my favorite, the braaibroodjie, which sounds more like “bri-brecky” when Ernst says it. It’s a grilled cheese, filled with tomato, onions, and chutney, and its kix of sweet, smoky, and savory never fails to impress.
Of course, I didn’t get a picture of that dreamy sandwich, but you can instead enjoy these shots of the sausage and the chicken livers.
Vintners Fest Picks
In this week’s paper, I queried a number of winemakers who will be pouring at the Santa Barbara Vintners Festival on Saturday, October 8, at Mission Santa Ines in Solvang. Their answers ranged from gewurztraminer to carignane. Read all about it here.
From Our Table
We published a lot of stories while I was away this summer. Here’s what you may have missed:
- George Yatchisin spoke to Cindy Black about St. Bibiana pizza back in July.
- Then he went to Los Alamos to try a new summer menu at Norman in the Skyview Hotel.
- Rebecca Horrigan got the lowdown on music and eats at Local in Montecito in August.
- George sipped Validation Ale in the Funk Zone earlier this month.
- George also got friendly with steaks at Rare Society.
- I talked about an ownership change at The Brewhouse, whose original owners are ready to celebrate at next week’s Oktoberfest.
- Just this week online, and hopefully in print next week, Rebecca tells the delicious tale of shawarma at Tamar, which pops up Monday to Wednesday for lunch at Third Window every week.