Full Belly Files | Wined and Dined, from Backyard to Ballroom
This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on February 3, 2023. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox each Friday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.
My food & wine world ricocheted from modest to marvelous and back again over the last two weeks, bouncing from takeout tasting lunches in my backyard to a glitzy ballroom award gala that even Governor Gavin Newsom (almost) attended.
Such extreme fluctuations illustrate where today’s wine industry exists, bouncing from humble pleasures at home for all income levels to luxurious affairs historically only open to the wealthiest. Though, as you’ll see below, there’s conscious and seemingly committed energy moving to open even those fancy doors to a more diverse community.
Let’s start with the marvelous: Wine Enthusiast’s annual Wine Star Awards, held this year at the Westin Saint Francis on Union Square in San Francisco. This was the sixth time I’ve been part of this luxe tuxedo’d affair, in which I like to say that wine-adjacent celebrities like John Legend and Jon Bon Jovi have “opened” for me. That’s technically kinda true, so long as you understand that my “act” on the same stage tends to come an hour or so after these guys sang songs for the crowd (Legend in 2016; JBJ in 2020), and consists of me reading a teleprompter in order to present one of the awards.
This year, I was handing out the Wine Star Award — which is basically the only Oscars-like thing in the wine business, as far as I can tell — to Hope Family Wines from Paso Robles. Austin Hope brought a big crew to accept the award, including some from the vineyard team, which was a great treat for them and a thoughtful move on Austin’s part. None that gathered on stage for the group picture had been with the winery for less than 23 years.
Hope gave a heartfelt, moving speech, as did Nicholas Miller, who was earlier awarded Wine Executive of the Year. Miller, wearing the most fabulous suit of the evening, loudly called for more inclusion in the industry, demanding that the powerful people in the room hire more women, more people of color, and more members of the LGBTQ+ community. That talk followed the Social Visionary Award presented to Tahiirah Habibi of The Hue Society and the Sommelier of the Year Award for Tonya Pitts, a Black woman who’s worked in San Francisco for decades, serving as a role model for countless young wine professionals.
Perhaps it was because it felt like the first real Wine Star gala since 2020, or perhaps because the wine industry truly is caring about change, but it felt like the most meaningful edition of the event that I’ve ever attended. But don’t just take my word for it. I was sitting with Doug Margerum, who was nominated for Winemaker of the Year, and he gave a thumbs up as well. (Just don’t ask about the corked carrots.)
The event is a whirlwind without much free time, though with plenty of perks, like a multi-course dinner for the magazine team at One Market on Sunday night. On Monday, I did manage to walk five miles through Chinatown, North Beach, Russian Hill (steep!), Polk Gulch, and the Tenderloin. The latter neighborhood is incredibly tragic and a bit scary even during the daylight hours right now, with open drug dealing, bodies lying everywhere, and tents occupying most of the sidewalks. I couldn’t remember the last time I was in a place where I hoped for the lights to change color quickly in order to ditch particularly dicey corners.
The Tenderloin beckoned because I was craving Chinese chicken noodle soup at Hai Ky Mi Gia, which was founded in 1987 on Ellis Street by Tuan Hua. His family is ethnically Chinese but lived in Vietnam, and fled to the United States in the late 1970s since the Vietnamese government of that era wasn’t keen on minorities. That makes the food, which is officially considered Teochew cuisine, a hybrid of Chinese and Vietnamese influences.
I ordered the simple chicken soup with rice noodles, which was much like pho, but the noodles were slightly wider. It was just what I needed after the long walk, though I’m certain there are better dishes on the menu. The tea was hot, free, and refilled, which reminded me more of Chinese restaurants than Vietnamese ones.
Then I was off for three nights in Paso Robles and Avila Beach, meeting with more than a dozen, mostly SLO Coast winemakers over the course of my stay there. More on that visit in next week’s edition.
What about the modest, you ask? I’m referring to the recurrent lunch tastings I have with winemakers in my own backyard. This started during the depths of COVID. Instead of buying a camping trailer like so many others — we were quite close ourselves — we built a pergola and outdoor kitchen in our backyard in late 2020. By 2021, winemakers were wanting to meet with me, but restaurants were still a little dicey, and only a few establishments really understand and can accommodate people tasting multiple wines over a two-hour lunch.
Why not just meet in my backyard? I think Wynne Solomon of Peake Ranch was my first guest, but I’ve since had many others. They tend to bring the food, and I always suggest choosing from the strip mall selections on Calle Real near my house, where there’s Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Korean (on Patterson), sandwiches, burgers, and much more, all locally owned and operated.
Last week, Jill Russell of Cambria stopped by on Wednesday, bringing Thai food from Meun Fen to share. We tried her chardonnays and pinots as well as the brand new rosé from 2022. It was only the second or third finished 2022 wine that I’ve tried to date, and it’s a fruity gem. Cambria recently redid their tasting room in the Santa Maria Valley, so put it on your list if you’d like to see the region’s ocean of vineyards while trying Jill’s latest.
On Thursday, Eden Rift’s winemaker Cory Waller and their PR consultant — and my good friend — Sao Anash took their backyard seats. They opted for sushi from Sushi Teri, which was incredibly fresh.
Eden Rift is the brand that took over a huge chunk of a historic property in the Cienega Valley south of Hollister, and Cory is making impressively delicious pinot, chard, pinot gris, and old-vine zinfandel. The 2019s were on fire that day. In an added bonus, Matt Brady of Samsara stopped by toward the end of our meeting as well, so it was a twofer of sorts in my backyard.
On the docket for next week: a quick trip up to Daou in Paso Robles to film a three-part documentary series as part of a Wine Enthusiast campaign.
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As I write in the lead to this story, the Garagiste Festival was the prime place to discover small-batch winemakers when it began back in 2011, and that is still the truth today. The “Southern Exposure” version — it originated in Paso Robles, hence the geographic note — hits the Santa Ynez Valley next weekend, meaning that there will be plenty of new Santa Barbara County brands to find.
But there will also be producers from Los Angeles County, where a renaissance is underway. I interviewed one of them for this story: Hermann York, which sources from the Cucamonga and Antelope valleys, among elsewhere. They’re on the “natural” side of the style and flavor spectrum, and, as it goes in that realm, their artist-crafted labels are really fun and attractive.
They’re just one of the many wineries that really don’t show their wines in many other settings other than the Garagiste Fest, so check it out and wow your friends with knowing the latest brand before they do.
See garagistefestival.com and buy tickets here.
Food as Medicine Class
The Apples to Zucchini Cooking School, which has long been known for its children’s cooking classes, is now also teaching adults, thanks to a grant from the Ardmore Institute to fund a new “Food as Medicine” program. There will be three sessions, and the first begins on Tuesday, February 21, 6-8:30 p.m., at the school’s teaching kitchen inside the former Garden Street Academy, next to the Mission.
Dr. Ryan Arnold will teach the Tuesday night classes, which are hands-on and will focus on “Mediterranean Menus” for the first series. They can only accommodate 12 participants, and the cost is $350 (some scholarships available), so sign up soon!
The website is atozcookingschool.org and the direct link for classes is here.
From Our Table
In case you didn’t see these stories:
— Daisy Ryan of Bell’s in Los Alamos was named as a semifinalist for a James Beard Award in the Best Chef: California category, Finalists named on March 29. Read their reaction here.
— Rebecca Horrigan spent a few months visiting many of the new tasting rooms around downtown Santa Barbara. Here’s her report.
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