A quick stop in Sonoma before heading to Southern Oregon was part pilgrimage and part voyage of discovery.
The pilgrimage was to the place that launched the food revolution on the left coast—Alice Water’s Chez Panisse, still going strong in the same location not far from the UC Berkeley campus. In the 1960’s, Waters was ensconced in the hippie/free speech culture at UC Berkeley when a sojourn in France convinced her that the revolution must be catered. Upon her return, despite the fact she had no culinary training or experience, she opened Chez Panisse in 1971, dedicated to serving exquisitely prepared food using only fresh, local ingredients, a radical, new idea at least in the U.S.
Chez Panisse played a large role in my book American Foodie helping to develop themes regarding the importance of culinary pleasure in one’s life. But I had never had the chance to eat there until recently. Lunch in the upstairs café was the only option; no dinner reservations were available until next month. Iconic restaurants often have trouble maintaining their quality and cachet since people interested in food are notoriously fickle and perpetually seek out what’s new. But I’m happy to report that Chez Panisse is still at the top if its game. This salad of cucumber, Tokyo turnips, and radishes à la crème with watercress pictured above was as delicious as it is pretty, and the grilled lamb chops and braised shank dressed with yoghurt and mint sauce, accompanied by crisp, smashed then fried potatoes and greens, was the epitome of the up-dated, French country cooking for which Chez Panisse is known.
A second icon checked off my list was Littorai Wines. Biodynamic winemaking is still controversial but it is increasingly becoming accepted by the wine culture mainstream as a disciplined approach to vineyard management that forces winemakers and viticulturists to pay close attention to the ecology of their vineyards. Ted Lemon, owner and winemaker, was a pioneer of biodynamic winemaking long before it was cool. Having worked in France for many years, he had long noticed the failure of conventional farming to solve problems in the vineyard. Soon after starting Littorai in 1993 he gradually began to introduce biodynamic principles into his vineyard practice replacing fertilizers with compost and controlling pests with the strategic use of herbal teas and an army of chickens, ducks, goats and other animals that contribute to ecological balance. Biodynamics, as originally developed by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920’s, involved a lot of questionable metaphysical beliefs such as making harvest decisions based on the phases of the moon. Ted takes a bemused attitude toward most of that and bases harvest decisions on his judgment about when the grapes are ready. For him biodynamics is practical—healthy soils create healthy vines which produce better grapes for winemaking while preserving the soil for the future.
A tour of Littorai is one of the better tours you’ll find in the Napa/Sonoma area. The Littorai property is a fascinating study in biodiversity and the staff at Littorai do an excellent job of explaining how all the elements fit together to create healthy vines. We were fortunate to be able to chat with Ted for a considerable time about his life in the wine world and his fascinating approach to viticulture. The flora and fauna on this property are interesting in themselves independently of their contribution to wine quality. But does all of this lead to better wines? It’s hard to say. But his Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs sourced from Sonoma and Anderson Valley are fresh and elegant with significant tannic structure and an electric minerality that sets them apart from more typical Sonoma Coast fruit.
After all this history, it was time to seek innovation. I wanted to focus on wines made under the banner of “natural” which is the source of a lot of the energy and novelty in the wine world today. Unsurprisingly, Berkeley supplied the venue. Donkey and Goat is a small urban winery in downtown Berkeley sourcing grapes from the Sierra Foothills, Napa, and Mendocino with a yearly case production of about 6000. Their approach to winemaking is low intervention, meaning unfined and unfiltered, using only native yeasts and no additives or additional enzymes in the winemaking process, allowing fermentations to take their own course when possible. But they aren’t dogmatic about it. They use minimal sulfur when needed and will intervene if a ferment is going south. After all there is no point in wasting a good barrel of wine just to make a point. Their approach to winemaking is evidence that the natural wine movement is growing up, becoming more pragmatic and less ideological. Of course that means “natural wines” are not much different from traditional, artisanal wines which have long been made without much intervention from winemaking technology at least in good vintages.
What is different about these winemakers flying the “natural” banner is that they aren’t afraid to be unconventional. And winemaker Jared Brandt is no exception. His Twinkle bottling is a light Mourvedre that hovers uncertainly between a Rosé and a California GSM, airy and bright but with a tannic foundation that provides textural contrast and structural integrity. And his “orange wine” called Stone Crusher (see my review here) is an hedonic assault on the senses, one of the most distinctive wines I have sampled . The 2013 Syrah (Fernaughty Vineyard), (2015) Perli Vineyard Chardonnay, and a white Rhone blend called Eliza all had electric acidity and layered textures, taut, complex, and savory.
Thanks to a recommendation from Donkey and Goat’s tasting room manager, we headed up 101 to pay a visit to Healdsburg’s Idlewild Wines. Like Donkey and Goat, they profess commitment to low intervention winemaking. But what is extraordinary is their commitment to making wine, not only from Italian varietals, but exclusively from varietals found in Piemonte. Arneis, Cortese, Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo, sourced from mature vines from a vineyard in the hills of central Mendocino Valley, all were delicious and varietally correct albeit in a somewhat riper style than you would find in Italy. The Barbera was especially dense and fruit-forward; the Arneis surprisingly full bodied and luscious. But for sheer originality, Idlewild’s version of Cortese wins the prize. 25% of the grapes were fermented on the skins like a red wine and then left to macerate after fermentation producing a wine of extraordinary body and texture. But alas my heart was won by the Nebbiolo, because I’m always a sucker for Nebbiolo. Some very carefully handling of the grapes has produced a seductive, accessible wine with all the standard characteristics–rose, fennel, dried cherries, and tar–but without the mouth ripping tannins that require 15 years of bottle age to calm down.
With temperatures soaring alas we had to abandon wine tasting in the valley and escape to Bodega Bay in search of cool temperatures, oysters and crab, happily consumed under this jealous eye.