Thursday, December 31, 2015

For a Good Time, Call

Like anywhere else, it helps to know people.

In this case, it was a winemaker and his wife who suggested we meet at the New Orleans via Cali-themed Parish Café for beignets and Bloody Marys.

The charming restaurant does only breakfast and lunch seven days a week (nice schedule if you can get it) and its walls are covered in Big Easy-related art, so plenty of musicians represented. The soundtrack was vintage: the Turtles, the Hollies, a little Elvis with "Suspicious Minds," that sort of thing.

From the various hearty offerings, I decided on eggs with country ham and grits, surprised only when a thick piece of ham steak arrived instead of the salty country ham promised. Maybe they don't know the difference in California, but don't try to serve ham in place of country ham to a resident of Virginia and expect to get away with it.

That said, it was plenty tasty.

We walked off breakfast at a nearby vintage store and by vintage, Californians mean stuff made after 1940. The first thing I saw on walking in was a three-part tin exactly like one I have, purchased in the mid 1980s, if that gives you any idea what antiques are to these people.

After ogling 20th century artifacts, we hit the road. Despite spending the rest of the day in Dry Creek Valley, the rest of the day was anything but. Dry, that is.

From there, we headed to a nearby barrel room (located in a former cow barn, right down to the troughs still in place next to racks of barrels) to alternate through recent bottled vintages and barrel tastings of wines, many of them Italian varietals, crafted by the man who'd sat across from me at breakfast.

His pride in what he'd crafted was obvious - and deservedly so - but what surprised us was the array of Italian grapes they were growing, such unlikely things as Negroamaro, Aglianico and Sagrantino in addition to more usual suspects of Nebbiolo and Montepulciano.

After several tastes of hearty reds, his wife poured her taste into the bucket and rolled her eyes. "I think I need a steak." We'd finished our NOLA breakfast an hour ago,

There were so many wines to taste that it took us a couple of hours to sample them all, but along the way we heard all kinds of terrific stories about other wineries and winemakers (does anyone really need an 18% wine?) so the time passed quickly despite the heatless barrel room temperatures that had me periodically shivering.

From there, it was barely a mile or two to Lambert Bridge, a winery oozing charm with a functioning mill wheel and a persimmon tree heavy with fruit and almost no leaves.

Our pourer Shelby asked where we were from, leading to yet another discussion of the crazy weather - both here and back home- as we proceeded through the Signature Tasting. Shelby got a tad mixed up, pouring us a Zinfandel we weren't supposed to have and agreeably laughing it off before breaking a wine glass. Pouring isn't her regular job, she assured us.

Sipping a Viognier so unlike our Virginia take on the grape, I glanced over, amazed to see a VT cap on the guy next to us. Could it be that multiple Virginians ended up at this winery at the same time?

The foursome were from Austin, but it turns out that between the four of them, two had gone to Tech, one to UVA for grad school and one formerly taught at UR. They were as stoked to meet us as we were them, well, except for the one who grinned at us with dazed eyes and announced, "I'm drunk."

It happens, hon. They all but carried her out.

Dinner involved meeting the winemaker and his wife for drinks at Barndiva, a tres trendy little place that was part wine bar, part art/décor shop, but also with silent films playing on the back wall (and a stage for karaoke on other nights) and dinner at Scopa, a sliver of a restaurant in downtown Healdsburg

Walking in with him was like walking in with a rock star and not just because he had two bottles of his wine in hand. After much fawning over him and his wines, we began eating and sipping in earnest, the table soon covered in glasses and platters.

Fat meatballs made with spicy Calabrese. Grilled baby octopus with cauliflower, pinenuts and currants. Scopa chopped salad with chicories, more Calabrese, chickpeas and ricotta. A special of mixed mushroom boudin that was like earthy silk in my mouth.

That got us through the first three wines (it was winemaker Wednesday, after all, and not the one accompanying us) before moving on to the main events and the bottles of Orsi Aglianico and Montepulciano our tablemate had brought.

Tomato-braised beef and pork rib sugo over spahettini, tomato-braised chicken with greens and polenta and the awe-inspiring grilled rib eye steak for two with rosemary-roasted potatoes and arugula salad, a behemoth of a dish that the four of us failed to finish, despite how beautifully it paired with his wines.

Midway through eating, the winemaker's wife elbowed me and asked if that wasn't Seth Rogen sitting at the high-top table right behind us. Damned if I knew, but our pixie waitress (whose cat had the oh-so clever name Feral Fawcett) provided confirmation and low-volume "Pineapple Express" jokes ensued.

Fortunately, the observant wife had also had the foresight to order chocolate soufflé when we'd ordered our mains and the airy dessert - with a small pitcher of cream- took a beating from the four spoons attacking it while the winemaker, a native Californian, regaled us with stories of boyhood fishing trips in the area. "We'd catch 60 steelhead full of roe in one weekend!"

Seth, it should be noted, passed on dessert, or perhaps was just eager to get his date home. We lingered because it's vacation.

And because you never know when your next dinner with a rock star will happen.

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