Orange muscat at Enz Vineyard from the 1800s. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on June 1, 2023. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox each Friday, sign up at

Far more than enjoying a glass of something especially unique or delicious, my favorite part of writing about the wine industry is driving down empty roads in the middle of nowhere through landscapes that — aside from perhaps more recently planted grapevines — remain almost exactly as they were centuries ago. In fact, when I was asked out of the blue a decade ago to become Wine Enthusiast’s critic for the Central Coast and Southern California, the primary reason I agreed was because it gave me so many more roads to explore beyond my backyard of Santa Barbara County.

Since then, I’ve traveled deeply from the redwood mountaintops of Bonny Doon, fire-scarred canyons of Cachagua, and fog-drenched mosslands of San Simeon to the savannahs southeast of Paso Robles and dusty hills surrounding Temecula. But there’s still so much more to explore, and that’s what keeps me wading through the more mundane parts of the job, like tasting two dozen wines before lunchtime almost every morning that I’m home. (Sounds dreamy, perhaps, but it’s pretty rote.)

Gimelli Vineyards | Credit: Matt Kettmann

The most effective quench for my empty-road thirst might be San Benito County, which, aside from the suburbs and strip malls of Hollister, remains an extremely rural, often outright desolate collection of ranges and dales lying between the Salinas and San Joaquin valleys. You can drive for miles and miles without seeing so much as a rickety barn and a couple of cows, so much that you may wonder whether you slipped through a time warp or just missed a turn. I got my fix of that last week, when I spent three days up there meeting with winemakers and grape growers while touching vines that, in many cases, date back to the late 19th century.

Having grown up in nearby San Jose — where I imagine my ancestors encountered a similar landscape when they started raising sheep there in the 1850s — I’ve known the region since childhood: golfing with my dad and uncles at Ridgemark and San Juan Oaks, and looking for bats in the caves of the Pinnacles, long before it was a national park. I’ve also visited much more recently as a wine writer as well, once writing this story that included the rebirth tale of Eden Rift.

Matt with fourth-generation grape-grower Pat Wirz and dinner at the Eden Rift | Credit: Matt Kettmann

But this trip was the most meaningful visit yet. I finally landed an assignment to focus solely on the region itself and was able to lure a bunch of San Benito–enamored winemakers down from their home bases in more urban areas like Napa and Berkeley to share their experiences with me. Together, we learned more about the deep history of the region, shared a locally farmed dinner together, and toasted the ongoing renaissance, in which grapes that were once all consumed by massive brands like Almaden Vineyards are now going to these thoughtful, creative, sustainably minded artisans.

I’ll save the rest for my forthcoming Wine Enthusiast feature, due out this fall, but will draw two Santa Barbara connections for you. The first is Ken Volk, whose eponymous brand — which he founded in the Santa Maria Valley after selling his Paso Robles–based winery Wild Horse in 2003 — sourced literal tons of San Benito grapes each vintage. Ken Volk was the bridge between the Almaden era and today’s surging interest, and he deserves all the credit he can get for breathing new life into places like Enz Vineyard. (I wrote a little about that here in 2017.)

Credit: Matt Kettmann

Ken was unable to make it up for my visit, so instead I stopped by his house on a creek in San Luis Obispo, got the nickel tour, and snagged a case of cabernet pfeffer, négrette, and other bottlings that he made over the years. I vowed to return for dinner one day, and I’ll be jumping in that creek no matter what season it is.   

Credit: Matt Kettmann

The second connection goes back to my earliest days as a “serious” wine writer: Mike Kohne, who was working at Foley Family Wines back in the early 2000s. That’s when we met, in part due to our mutual friend Jonathan Alpeyrie, the photographer I traveled with to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2004 on a trip that led to my first Wine Spectator feature — and, in many ways, a wine-writing career. (We also did this cover story for the Independent.) I’ve stayed in touch with Mike over the years, through his advocacy for the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey, where he sourced many of his Mercy Wines, and through his consulting job at Eden Rift, among other reasons.

Crave Wine Bar owners Mike Kohne at Maura Cooper | Credit: Matt Kettmann

The Eden Rift gig is what opened his eyes to San Benito, and he’s now growing roots there. In January, he opened Crave Wine Bar with his life/business partner, Maura Cooper, in the heart of downtown Hollister. We cracked a few bottles together during my visit, and then went to dinner at Paine’s Restaurant, apparently the only place open on Monday nights there. (Seeing that it was packed, someone may want to reexamine that long-held formula.)

With a wine list that features many San Benito–sourcing brands, Mike’s goal is to educate the fast-growing city’s residents about the amazing wines grown right in their own backyards. Amid his already long career in wine that stretches from Napa to Santa Barbara, Mike realizes how critical San Benito is in the grand story of California wine.

Both of us are betting that this forgotten stretch of the Central Coast will regain its rightful place in the eyes of consumers some day soon. We also agreed the next morning in so many words that drinking bottles of wine ’til nearly 2 a.m. may not be the wisest move for a couple of fortysomethings.

Stay tuned for the full story this fall, and check out my Instagram highlights if you’d like a visual sneak peek.

From Our Table

The Leta Restaurant outside bar | Credit: Courtesy

Since I took off last week from writing the now award-winning Full Belly Files, there’s a lot to catch you up on. Here we go:


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