USA, California: food and wine lover’s guide

I have visited the West Coast of the USA around a dozen times over the past 20 years or so, as recently as 2014. However this report has not been regularly updated and is very out of date, though I have realised that a great deal of the information is still relevant, and I will update the report eventuallyy. Meanwhile do double check facts and telephone numbers carefully.

My visit to California (with a side trip to Nevada) in October 1999 mixed a little wine business with a lot of pleasure and I had a chance to meet up with a few e-mail wine-pals en route. I visited the vineyard country of Sonoma and Santa Barbara. In previous trips I’ve spent a lot of time in the Napa valley, so it was good to explore some less familiar wine areas. I toured a large area of the state between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The following notes cover those vineyard visits, restaurants and wine-shopping experiences that particularly stood out on this trip. 

Part One: wineries and vineyards

I based myself in the town of Healdsburg at the northern edge of Sonoma to explore the area around Dry Creek and Russian River. We stayed in the Dry Creek Inn, a property of the Best Western group, which is large, comfortable and fairly functional, but has a fitness centre and nice touches like a bottle of local Chardonnay in the refrigerator for your arrival. Healdsburg itself has a pretty square and some good restaurants so makes a fine base for exploring this area. In Santa Barbara we stayed in the wonderful Cheshire Cat B&B. Again Santa Barbara is a great destination in its own right, but makes an excellent base for getting to known the vineyards of the southern Central Coast.

mick unti
Unti, Dry Creek Road, Sonoma
Unti represents the charming, less commercial face of wine tourism in the glittering Napa/Sonoma areas. Napa in particular is now such a well-worn tourist trail that you’ll rarely have a chance to meet the wine-makers; only paid guides and sales assistants. Here, Micky Unti will greet you in his small winery and pour you a sample of his fine Syrah, Sangiovese or Zinfandel. Unti have a passion for Chianti (the winery walls are plastered with Tuscan photos, posters and souvenirs) and their wines are restrained, balanced and classy. They are currently building a lovely little garden with a couple of picnic tables – ideal as they just across the road from the Dry Creek Grocery Store where sandwiches and deli items can be purchased.

Joseph Swan, 2916 Laguna Road, Russian River. Telephone 707 573 3747
Swan is a long-established and much-loved venue for cognoscenti of Russian River Zinfandels, whose vintages from the 1970’s arespoken about in reverential tones. Since Joseph Swan’s death, the winemaking has been in the hands of Rod Berglund. The tasting table just inside the door of the winery is laid out with all the current releases for you to sample. Though most authorities mutter that Swan has never been the same since the founder’s passing, I found the range of 1997 Zinfandels and Pinots to be lovely, distinctive wines and the winery has a knowledgable and friendly atmosphere that is very welcoming. As a bonus, a few cases of older vintages are usually on sale alongside the current releases.

Pezzi King, 3805 West lambert Bridge Road, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma. Telephone 707 431 9389
I’m not so comfortable in settings like Pezzi King’s very commercial tasting room and shop. Here an admitedly lovely, large garden area with patio, tables, chairs and parasols leads into a tasting room that’s stacked with merchandise: wines of course, but also books, glassware, foodstuffs, aprons, coasters, candles, decorations….. you get the picture that Pezzi King is far from a “meet the winemaker” experience. The basic range of wines is on free tasting, but it’s $2 per measure if you wish to try any of their upper-end bottlings. The wines are good – the chardonnays balanced and the cabernet juicy and structured – but the whole setting might appeal to day-trippers rather than serious winos (am I sounding like a terrible wine snob here???).

Rafanelli, 4685 West Dry Creek Road, Sonoma. telephone 707 433 1385
Dave Rafanelli is one of the leading lights of the Valley, respected by other winemakers and with a devoted following for his structured, layered, deeply-fruited zinfandels and cabernets. You must make an appointment to visit as this is a totally low-key and non-commercial operation: Mr Rafanelli will probably be driving his tractor out in the vineyards or busily tending the winery if you turn up unannounced. In the wine-shed you can taste the current vintages and purchase a maximum of 2 bottles (everything from Rafanelli is rationed to meet demand). The fact that you are interrupting his busy schedule doesn’t show in Dave’s friendly welcome, but this is undoubtedly a venue for the more serious student of wine.

Sanford Winery, 7250 Santa Rosa Road, Santa Barbara County. Telephone 805 688 3300
Sanford is few miles from Buelleton/Solvang the nearest towns. It was baking hot on the day I visited, and a relief to step into the charming, homely tasting room decorated with stunning photographs of the Santa Barbara wine country. >The whole range of wines is on tasting, from their flavoursome and surprisingly grippy “Vin Gris” (a rosé Pinot Noir) through to their barrel select Chardonnay and Pinot. The friendly staff offer detailed information on each wine. All the Chardonays and Pinots were extremely good in my opinion – unlike most critics I think I slightly preferred the oaky but balanced Barrel Select Chardonnay to the Estate bottling. The only wine I wasn’t keen on was the overly oaky Sauvignon Blanc. All in all a great visit – friendly dog too

Au Bon Climat & Qupé, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara County
Talking about friendly dogs, Pip is a one year old border collie that would melt the sternest heart – what a beauty! Pip is just one thing that keeps Au Bon Climat’s winemaker Jim Clendenen busy. This passionate gentle giant of a man is the finest Pinot Noir producer I have come across outside Burgundy. ABC/Qupé is not open to the public unfortunately, so I was privileged to have a wonderful visit there that’s worth a feature article of its own.

Part two: Restaurants

Restaurant Gary Danko, 800 North Point Street, San Francisco. Telephone 415 749 2060
Opened only a few weeks before my visit, this is the restaurant of highly-regarded chef Danko who quit the Ritz Carlton to go it alone. There are two dining rooms with a cocktail bar in the middle. Decor in both is classy with simple artwork and furnishings. The menu offers a mix-and-match approach: half a dozen dishes are listed in each of 5 or 6 sections (appetisers, fish, entrées, salads, etc.) and you choose the number of courses you’d like from as many or as few sections as you like, paying simply by the number of dishes ordered. You may also choose the tasting menu of 7 small courses selected by the chef. The food was extremely good in a lighter, modern style. Best dish for me was probably a grilled lobster tail served with niblets of sweet corn and a fresh tomato salsa but dessert was also gorgeous: a bitter-sweet chocolate soufflé served with hot vanilla and coffee sauces. The wine list is extensive and pretty evenly split between domestic and European wines, particularly French. Prices are on the high side for both food and wine, but its a great “special night out” spot and the standard is very high. Around $200 for two including tip.

Indigo, 687 McAllister Street, San Francisco. Telephone 415 673 9353
This funky and laid-back restaurant has a large downstairs bar that’s cool, dark and atmospheric, contrasting with the airy open-plan dining area on ground level. This was a very good meal served by friendly staff. The menu is a limited choice single sheet of A4 job, and the style is kind of Pacific-rim nouvelle cuisine, though with healthy portions. I had grilled chicken breast with warm puy lentils, asparagus and rocket pesto in a viognier jus, though the barbecue pork tenderloin on a bed of kale and spiced pecans in a marjoram infused sauce was great too. Winner of a Wine Spectator award for excellence, the wine list looked very interesting and mostly domestic. As we were there for a get-together with a few other wine-nuts however, we arranged a bring-you-own corkage fee. Casual, good value and very good food. Around $90 for two.

Lulu, 816 Folsom St, San Francisco. Telephone 415 495 7810
Lulu has a big reputation for food and wine. It is a very urban restaurant, bustling and fast-paced and stylishly designed as a central pit surrounded by raised walkways, which include a wine bar. The wood-fired oven influences many of the dishes, including excellent pizzas. The food mostly leans towards southern France, but is light and contemporary. There is a very good wine list and by the glass selection. The one jarring note was our sullen waiter. Around $40 at lunch for two with a glass of wine.

North Beach Pizza, Columbus Avenue, San Francisco.
A real neighbourhood favourite and a bit of an institution. North Beach’s pizza’s are superb and huge – a regular is enough for two hungry tourists in my opinion! The place isn’t fancy, but the staff are very cheery and welcoming and the pizza toppings fresh and abundant. Cheap, at about $40 for two including beers or wine.

Shiro, 1505 Mission Street, Pasadena, Los Angeles. Telephone 626 799 4774
The first of 2 Pasadena restaurants, each of which were right at the top of my Californian dining experience. Shiro is now a bit of a legend – readers of Gourmet magazine voted it 2nd best restaurant in Los Angeles whilst I was there. Chef Hideo Yamashiro serves a distinctive blend of fusion cuisine, majoring in fish dishes that are as fresh and mouth-watering as they are inventive and surprising. My tempura of halibut had two perfect oblongs of thickly-cut fish on a delicious sweet and spicy sauce. The little side dish of a tiny potato dauphinoise and some al dente vegetables was playful and delicious. Wines are well-chosen, biased towards whites and the US. Decor is simple, prices for food and wine moderate. About $110 for two.

Xiomara, 69 North Raymond Avenue, Pasadena, Los Angeles. Telephone 626 796 2520
Expect the unexpected. I loved this meal. Xiomara has apparantly had a chequered history: 3 years ago it was a good traditional French restaurant that was in decline. Reborn, it is now serving a really succesful and entertaining melange of Cuban and Asian food. This “Nuevo Latino” cooking is based on dramatic combinations of ingredients and cooking methods that work amazingly well: cuban fried rice with rock shrimp, avocado and plantain; yucca-crusted tuna in a keffir lime and coconut broth; boneless half duck smoked with tea leaves in a tamarind sauce (sensational!). The other great thing about Xiomara – apart from very friendly staff – is the wine list which is long, well planned and includes a large choice of half bottles and wines by the glass. Best of all, mark-ups are very low with many wines at or about retail price. The Mambo cocktail, made with freshly-pressed sugar cane juice, rum and lemon is well worth sampling to kick off your night in style! Highly recommended based on this evidence. $120 for two.

2117 Sawtelle, Santa Monica, Los Angeles. Telephone
This is a nice Japanese-influenced fusion restaurant sited, like lots of good restaurants in Los Angeles, in a mini shopping mall. We dined on the outdoor terrace with evening temperatures in the 70’s and enjoyed a great meal. An assortment of dim sum-like starters were tasty and whetted the appetite. Daily specials are chalked up on a board. I had a beautifully cooked lamb dish that came delicately flavoured and spiced. The tarte-tatin was gorgeous – especially with Baumard’s sensational Coteaux du Layon 1990 (unfortunately not from the list, as this was another bring your own bottle get-together of wine-nuts). Around $100 for two.

Pane e Vino, 1482 E, Vallet Road, Santa Barbara. Telephone 805 969 9274
Santa Barbara is well-blessed with good restaurants. This Italian eatery was the venue for yet another off-line dinner. We sat on the terrace, where large heaters took the chill off the evening air. The food was quite traditional in style with antipasti, soups and salads to start, then Italian soulfood classics like braised veal shank or hearty pastas. The standard is very high, the bread and olive oil top-notch, and the service both efficient and informal. Around $130 for two.

Aja, 1812 Cliff Drive, Santa Barbara. Telephone 805 962 0337
This one’s off the beaten track and was discovered only with some local insider info. A tiny japanese-influenced fusion restaurant which is very informal and unpretentious. The food is the reason you’re here, and that is very good: the corn fritter appetisers were yummy: little plump dumplings with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. The sushi is well worth trying. Fish is a speciality, and my Sea Bass was spot-on in terms of cooking, seasoning and freshness. There’s also an intriguing selection of micro-brews.

Brigitte’s, 1325 State Street, Santa Barbara. Telephone 805 966 9676
Right on busy State Street, where many of the bars and eateries veer towards fast-food and tourist-traps, Brigitte’s is along-established favourite. It’s a medium sized and comfortable dining space, with bright but traditional decor and properly napped tables. The food is very good here, though neither outstanding nor especially inventive. The wine list is a touch pricy, but overall it’s a top choice if you want to dine in the centre of the action.

Edgardo’s Café Veracruz, 494 North Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Telephone 760 320 3558
Edgardo serves up authentic coastal Mexican food that was an eye-opener for me. Here are fish, chicken and pork dishes with terrific flavour and texture, made using traditional and time-consuming techiques. The Cochinita Pibil is baby pork that has been wrapped in banana peel and slow roasted so that it falls apart as soon as your fork approaches. Service was a bit under pressure, but charming. $60 for two with a pitcher of beer.

Paris casino-hotel, Las Vegas Nevada. Telephone 1 800 Bonjour
Paris had opened just a week before we stayed there. It’s a few years since I’ve visited Las Vegas and, as I’d been told by many people, there seems to have been a most unexpected burgeoning of fine food and wine opportunities on the Strip. Some of America’s top chefs can now be found in fancy casino restaurants. Paris is a hoot, especially if you’re familiar with the other one in France. There is a complete (and beautifully done) half-scale Eiffel tower that soars into the desert sky with regular elevator rides to the top, as well as complete re-creations of idealised yet familiar Paris street scenes throughout the complex. The fact that all the staff greet you with a bonjour and a merci is quite charming in its own way (especially with the broad Nevada accents and mispronunciations). The quality of the bedrooms is superb: acres of marble, plush carpets and expensive fitments.

Paris Casion: Le Provençal
Italian/French themed and the most cheesy of the three with singing waiters in faux-mediterranean costumes, but good hearty food. Basically there are only a dozen entrées chalked on blackboards, all of which are accompanied by an appetiser and dessert sampler – about 5 little starters and 5 little desserts. Good wine list, not particularly French or Italian. My duck, served with a rich reduction and caramelised shallots was good. Around $100 for two.

Très Jazz
Very cool – a real escape from the casino cacophany. A sophisticated and contemporary space, with jazz in the background (including a live band late in the evening) and a very up-to-the-minute menu with lots of seared this, drizzled that, and towers of the other. Actually very good quality cooking. Around $100 for two.

Café St. Louis
Our favourite breakfast spot. People watch from a pavement café table as Paris goes about its business. Take my tip: unless you are ravenous, share the petit déjeuner – a basket of truly wonderful and authentic croissants, pâtisserie and gâteaux with fresh orange juice and real, strong coffee. Not expensive either.

Part three: wine Stores

Brief impressions of just some of the stores I couldn’t resist a browse through. California (San Francisco in particular) is studded with good wine stores, so by no means a comprehensive list.

Premier Cru, 5890 Christie Avenue, Emmeryville, San Francisco. Telephone 510 655 6691
Very nice selection here, big on Burgundy and Germany as well as domestic wines. Tasting bar, moderate prices.

The Napa Valley Winery Exchange, 415 Taylor Street, San Francisco. Telephone 415 771 2887
Small specialist store – does indeed buy and sell I believe. The trophy wines are in evidence at steep prices, but there’s a broad selection of good stuff apart from those.

The Wine Club, 953 Harrison Street, San Francisco. Telephone 415 512 9086
Rock bottom pricing and an enormous selection in this convivial stack ’em high warehouse. The range is not down-market however, with lots of fine wines from everywhere, Bordeaux and Burgundy in particular. Tasting bar.

Friendly Spirits, 572 Castro Street, San Francisco. Telephone 415 864 2223
Another small emporium whose range was very interesting including lots of New World and quirky choices alongside established Californian names. I was a bit put-off by the friendly sales assistant’s lack of knowledge.

The Wine Cask, 813 Anacapa Street, Santa Barbara. Telephone 805 966-9463
Widely recognised as one of the best wine shops in Southern California, the range is enormous and there’s a regular tasting programme.

Renegade Wines, 417 Santa Barbara Street, SB. Telephone 805 568 1961
I didn’t actually manage a visit here in a cramped schedule, but the delightful David Russell – former buyer for the Wine Cask – is a new partner in the business. Look out for interesting things to come.