Mission San Gabriel’s grapevine could date back to the 1770s. | Credit: Somm TV

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

I grew up a couple miles from where the suburbs encroached — and eventually devoured — Mirassou Vineyards in the foothills of East San Jose, where my dad’s side of the family had settled as shepherds around the late 1850s.

But it wasn’t until I started writing about wine after college that I realized how integral those old vines were to the development of California’s wine industry in the late 1800s, and that the Santa Clara Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains predated the now-famous regions of Napa and Sonoma as commercial winemaking hubs.   

It took me even longer to understand that Southern California came before Northern California in the state’s winemaking movement, and that Los Angeles was the true hub of American winemaking, at least until the Gold Rush shifted population and wealth toward the Bay Area.

There’s now a wealth of information about all of these eras, but it was a new generation of Los Angeles that fully brought this to my attention — and continue bringing this fascinating slice of liquid L.A. history to the rest of the wine-curious public. Now collaborating under the banner of the Los Angeles Vintners Association, the brands Byron BlattyCavaletti Vineyards, and Angeleno Wine Co. are growing and making wine from numerous Los Angeles Basin vineyards, from Malibu to the Antelope Valley to Rancho Cucamonga, including many forgotten spots where old vines still survive. I did a big story about them in June of 2021 for Wine Enthusiast.

The ancient jewel in the crown is Mission San Gabriel, where a tree-trunk-sized grapevine dates back to an unknown vintage, but possibly as far back as the 1770s. I visited the mission one morning in February 2021, with Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers in tow, and got a great history lesson from Terri Huerta, who had recently started working with the L.A. Vintners to showcase the vine.

Under the farming guidance of Cavaletti owner Patrick Kelley, they’re trying to improve the health of the already sturdy vine and increase the grape yields. And each fall, the vintners gather volunteers, climb up ladders, and harvest the grapes — which are a hybrid of the Mission variety and the native California variety Vitis girdiana — from the pergola, all to make a small amount of fortified wine based on the old angelica recipes preferred by friars.

This whole process is the subject of a new half-hour documentary called The Oldest Vine that will screen on Somm TV on December 12. I watched the film this week, and found it to be a great introduction to Southern California’s wine history as well as to the charming, humble vintners involved, namely Kelley, Mark Blatty of Byron Blatty, and Angeleno’s Jasper Dickson and Amy Luftig Viste.

“We’re standing on the birthplace of California wine,” said Blatty, whom I wrote about even more recently in this Full Belly Files from September. “These are literally the oldest vines in California.”

There’s probably some room for quibbling over that without the required hard proof, but the anecdotal is pretty solid. Why and how the grape was hybridized remains a mystery — though I like the nod to the potential that an Indigenous person handled such work, if it was intentional — and there is not much known about what this particular grapevine was used for historically. Wine for mass? Angelica? Just shade?

Mark Blatty of Byron Blatty is a leader in reviving the Los Angeles wine scene. | Credit: Somm TV

In any case, it’s a fascinating project. Or as Blatty explained, the work is special whether they’re the first one to ever make wine from this 200-year-old vine or just the first ones to do it in 200-plus years.

Even more exciting, the Somm TV marketing team also sent a small sample of the angelica that they made from the Mission San Gabriel grapes. Like was done in the mission period, they fortified the wine at the start of fermentation, and then let it rest in barrels. The result is a brownish-ruby color, loaded on the nose with cigar-box and dried-fruit aromas. It’s even more exciting on the palate, with snappy red fruit, caramel, tobacco, and warm, liqueur-like touches.

As Dickson mentioned in the movie, it would go great on ice cream. But good luck tracking it down — they’re barely able to make a barrel a year.

Sign up for Somm TV and watch The Oldest Vine for yourself here.

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Seats Left for Epicurean S.B.’s Justin Werner Dinner

Chef Justin Werner comes to Epicurean S.B. on December 4. | Courtesy: Epicurean Santa Barbara

Prior to the pandemic, I was an active member of the advisory board for Epicurean Santa Barbara, a supper club of sorts that hosted numerous events each month to showcase chefs, winemakers, and other food and drink creatives from around California. I wrote about them a couple of times back in 2018: One article was based on an event I attended, and the other was about their extensive anniversary party they hosted at the end of that year. I also previewed a dinner that they did with Law Estate in 2019 and put together a panel of Jim Clendenen and Adam Tolmach that I wrote about in my 2020 book Vines & Vision.

Epicurean S.B. is still going strong, and the founders Keith and Amy Robinson are especially excited for their Sunday, December 4, dinner, billed as “Chef’s Table: A Night of Luxurious Bites with Justin Werner.”

The Orange County chef, who’s worked with Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio, and at Noma, is preparing a feast of luxury-level ingredients, including Kobe A5 beef, foie gras, lobster, truffles, and chocolate. That explains the $350 per person price.

Seating is limited to 12 people, and only two seats remain right now. Full details and tickets can be found here.

Turnpike Restaurant Intel

A couple of weeks ago, I put a call out for anyone who could help a reader named Jack track down information about the Turnpike Restaurant, which once occupied the IHOP on Calle Real where a new Chick-fil-A is moving in soon.

Tom Patton, the managing partner of the Ramada by Wyndham Santa Barbara, which is across the street, was happy to oblige.

Credit: Matt Kettmann

“Both the restaurant & hotel were originally constructed for Howard Johnson by John Lucian in the late 1960s,” he reported in an email. “They operated under the Howard Johnson flag for a few years before going independent as the Turnpike Lodge and the Turnpike Restaurant. The receipt that your reader inquired about would be from 1979. We leased the restaurant to IHOP in 1986 where they operated for several decades before relocating to Goleta. We then leased the site to Chick-fil-A who are going through the permitting process.”

“Although John Lucian is deceased, his two daughters (Dawn & Karen Lucian) and I are the general partners in the business,” he wrote. “It was fun to see the old receipt from Turnpike Restaurant pop up in your email.”

I sent that along to Jack so that he could know more about the jacket that he found with the Turnpike Restaurant receipt in the pocket.

Congee for World Cup

Credit: Matt Kettmann

Last Sunday morning, when much of the globe turned to their TVs to check out the beginning of the World Cup, I decided to make my first-ever batch of congee, which is also known as jook in some cultures, but perhaps better understood to Americans as rice porridge. I’ve been reading about it a ton in food magazines over the past few years, and it seemed appropriate to welcome the most popular sports event on the planet with what’s probably the most common breakfast in the world, thanks to its popularity across China and Southeast Asia.

I had made a bunch of rice the night before to go with our grilled miso-ginger-soy beef, mahi mahi, and shrimp skewers, so I was well equipped with leftovers. I simply added some watery broth, soy, scallions, ginger, and garlic to a cup or so of rice in a pot, cooked it up, and mashed it up with a hand-blender until the consistency seemed likable. Then I topped the porridge with a soft-boiled egg, sesame seeds, more soy and scallions, and chili crunch.

I was pretty pleased with the result, and even had more for lunch. I’ll be making more congee one of these mornings, maybe with some bacon. 

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