Arizona…Not Forgotten

It’s been a while, ok it was August, since Troya and I visited Arizona. I know, that was my first thought too, AZ in Aug, that’s not very smart. But off we when to Sedona for a little well deserved relaxation and time together. I have been to Phoenix several times and I have to admit that my impression of the state was influenced by what you see in and around Phoenix. I had seen pictures of other parts of the state, most notably Sedona, but in my mind AZ had heat, Saguaro’s and, well, heat. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised on several levels.

First of all driving up to Sedona from PHX airport is a trip I recommend. You get a real feeling of how not all desert is the same and you can definitely tell when you are in different parts of the state. Then, when you get to the Sedona area and see all the red

rock mountains rising up from the desert floor you know right away why this is considered a special, and for many people a spiritual, place. The resort we stayed at, L’Auberge de Sedona , was an incredible place with individual cabins overlooking a brook with running water and surrounded by tree’s and greenery, yes all this in AZ in IMG_20140807_174748726Aug. Can’t find that in California in August. Each cabin had its own deck and outside shower, Troya’s favorite part.  While it was hot, mid to upper 90’s, it never felt uncomfortable or limited us in doing anything (it’s a dry heat, right). Not only did not I expect our resort to be right on the brook, with an outdoor eating and imagelounge right on the banks, but I also did not expect water (outside of needing more while poolside) to play a major theme for the whole trip, from our afternoon picnic and wine sitting on the shores to a slow water river rafting trip with Verde Adventures. They also offer Wine tasting tours. What, you say, wine and rivers in Arizona?

And this brings us to the second big surprise of the trip. I knew that some people were making wine in Arizona but I have to IMG_20140808_140434903admit that I imagined it as roadside swill with little character. With the smile that comes with humble pie I can say that they are doing some truly amazing stuff with their wines. To appreciate AZ wine you will have to put aside your pre-conceived notion of what Arizona is and what it is not. Yes, Phoenix is Phoenix and I will not try to change that perception, but not one is growing grapes in Phoenix and not all of AZ is the valley of the sun. The state actually IMG_20140808_152429759_HDRhas many different climates and soils, all the ingredients for terrior. And while wine has been made in the state for many years at this time the big production wineries have been slow to take advantage. That means that the wines you do find here are generally smaller production with all the good and bad that comes from that. We spent our “wine tasting” time in the Cottonwood and Jerome area of the Verde Valley Wine Region. We did find some pretty bad wine, but IMG_20140808_153428243_HDRwe also found some really amazing wine with more flavor, layers and character then I would have ever expected. Caduceus Cellars really stood out with some amazing Rosé and one of the best Sangiovese’s  I have tasted. The highlight of the day was spending time at Passion Cellars IMG_20140808_161608651_HDRand getting to meet Cody Burkett, aka The Wine Monk. Passionate and entertaining, he was able to give a very concise overview on the history and business of Arizona wine. It’s a budding industry there but do not be surprised if they start making some noise and giving Cali a run.

Spirits of Mexico


It must be Christmas in September.  I am (If you didn’t already know) a huge tequila fan.  So, when a friend told me about an annual tequila event in sunny Del Mar, I got packed and headed to the airport.  The Spirit of Mexico: Mexican Spirit Tasting Festival is an event I will return to every year.  This year it was held at the Del Mar Fairgrounds next to Del Mar Race Track.  It was a great location for a great event.  Over 30 vendors pouring their best Tequila, Mezcal and Rum from Mexico.  Some of the vendors were small distilleries only producing 1000 bottles.  The big boys, like Herradura and Milargo, were also there.   As I walked into this event, I felt like a kid about to open all his gifts under the tree.  My sights were set on tasting ALL the  spirits being poured.   In the end, I ran out of time not enthusiasm.  It was speed dating with 30+ lovely ladies.   Of all the lovely ladies I dated that day, these were my favorites:
U4rik Tequila.  Just launching in the US and international markets.  Smooth…hints of lite vanilla, oak and agave.  100% puro de agave.
Don Fulano. 100% puro de agave.  Reposado.  Full oak, agave nose.  Mouth; agave on the front, smooth finish of French oak and caramel.
El Cachabilla.  1000 bottles in US.  Small production from  Tequila Mexico. 100% agave.  Extra anejo…yeeeeaa!!!  Double distilled.  All the hint of agave, oak, vanilla, caramel and lite smooth tannins.
T1.. Blanco ultra fine.100% de agave. double distilled, triple filtered.  The  Reposado looks and smells like a Blanco but has classic Reposado flavor.  Anejo.. agave and pineapple goodness.
T1. “Tears of Horona”. Double distilled extra Anejo.  The nose was of wood, tobacco. and agave.  Mouth;  Orange blossom, agave and caramel.  Nice…
On a side note, T1 is a creation of Master Distiller German Gonzalez Gorrochotegui.  Master Distiller of Chinaco.  T1 is his new brand.
Mexican moonshine.  Double distilled, triple filter in Kentucky oak whisky barrels.  18 months  in barrels, 100% puro de agave.  Nose of honey, wood and agave. Mouth; agave, tobacco and balanced tannins.
Critalo Tres Marcos..  Extra Anejo. The nose is awesome pineapple sweetness. There is smoke and caramel on the tongue.   Really good. The 3-5-7 blend is a blend of three-year old, five-year old and 7-year-old tequila.  It had a  strong agave nose.
The price point for these ranged from $45 to $80.  Well worth the investment.  The following also deserve mentioning.
Cantina Fortaleza.  Resposado. Nose of agave and pepper. 100 % de agave. Mouth;  Lite pepper, agave and oak.
La Gran Senora..  Jenny Riviera line of Signature tequila .  Reposado, 100 % de agave.  Agave front, full agave and tannins on the finish.  I was not  a fan of the Reposado but I did like the Anejo.  It had a nice vanilla agave nose. Agave on tongue with lite tannins.
Casa amigo.  Reposado, 100% agave. Agave, vanilla on the  nose. Mouth; Full agave and tannins on front and back. The  Anejo was the same with a little more oak on the finish.
Dirty Tequila Liquor.  Pineapple and cinnamon.  Tequila version of fireball whisky.
Tequila Celestial.  100% puro de agave.  The Reposado had heavy tannins and agave. The Anejo was the same but with smoother tannins and oak.
In the end, I had the opportunity to meet some of the best tequila makers in the world and taste the results of their hard work.  I can’t wait to see what is under the tree in December.

Soquel Supper Club

Soquel Supper Club

Everett Family Farm

While the rest of the world is usually dusting of their BBQ and breaking out the sunblock in June, we here in Santa Cruz are usually stuck in “June Gloom” which means heavy fog, cold temperature and some evening fires. This year we have been blessed with an anomaly in the jet stream and have had weather the rest of the country would envy. It was on just such a perfect summer evening that Troya and I ventured to Soquel to partake in our first Soquel Supper Club. These events are hosted by Back Porch and Uncie Ro’s and held at the Everett Family Farm. The concept is simple, great food made from local ingredients paired with local wine on a local farm, what’s not to like? Everett Family Farm is located on old San Jose Road back in the valley. A gorgeous property by the creek where they grow organic 20130627-203229.jpgvegetables and fruit and raise chickens for eggs. All of these can be purchased at their stand on the property or at the local farmers markets. Both Uncie Ro’s and Back Porch are locally famous chefs who specialize in local/organic fare that can be found at the farmers markets but also do special events such as this.

Soquel Supper Club

Bubbly at the Soquel Supper Club

The evening started with a glass of sparkling which we both enjoyed, not too sweet and not a lot of yeast that some sparkling are prone to. It lost its bubbles quickly, but that was likely due to the fact that we were drinking out of wine glasses. The wines of the evening were from both Odonata Wines and Armida Wines. Neither of them have a sparkling on their list so I do not know where it was from but I think it was from Odonata. The first course of the evening was Tuscan style Panzanella paired with a 2011 Gewurztraminer from Armida. Troya did not enjoy the salad as much as I did with several types of tomatoes, cucumbers and bread crumbs. The pairing was very nice and the Gewurztraminer was a perfect summer sipping wine, not too sweet with a nice clean, floral body. Next came a Tomato Bisque with a Brie Panini paired with a 2011 Russian River Valley Chardonnay also from Armida. This was the hit of the evening and for a second we almost wished it was cold and

Soquel Supper Club

The Amazing Bisque

foggy and we could have had more of the bisque and Panini by a big fire. The Chardonnay was a bit on the dry side, not much oak or butter and I do not think I would have wanted to drink it alone, but it went perfect with the bisque. The main course was a wood fired steak with a blue cheese and tomato reduction paired with a Barbera. The meat came from el Salchichero, a butcher shop on the west side that is dedicated to local, sustainable meats. They smoke their own meet in house and also make their own sausage (we have yet to try but will be doing so very soon). These steaks had a great flavor, much more then big store bought meet, and the reduction added just enough flavor without being overbearing. The Barbera, I believe from an Armida off brand, was very soft with some tannic flavor at the end. I thought it went very well together, Troya not so much. The desert was roasted stone fruit in a honey glaze over vanilla ice cream paired with the 2011 Syrah Desert from Odonata. The stone fruit was a perfect ending to the evening, and while the Syrah Desert was good, we both thought it was a bit big for the stone fruit. Having been in BC recently we both thought a nice ice wine would have gone much better.

Soquel Supper Club

Water pump on Everett Family Farm

So, if you are in to this kind of thing, great local food paired with great local wine in a picturesque setting, the Soquel Supper Club is something you have to try. Your next opportunity will be on July 25th followed by August 22nd.

Picnic At The Windy Oaks

wpid-IMG_20130601_130951_912.jpgIt was a magnificent weekend in the Monterey Bay area, high 70’s to low 80’s, no fog, no clouds. We do not get a lot of those. Troya suggested we take advantage and have a picnic lunch so after a quick stop at Deluxe Foods to stock up on some Irish cheddar and a little slice of triple cream Brie, boar meat sausage, rosemary garlic sourdough, some almonds and fresh strawberry’s we headed up to Windy Oaks winery. Having been there before, we were familiar with their long list of amazing Pinot Noir’s, a little pricy but worth it on special occasions like this (see our prior post on Windy Oaks). We had not explored the property last time we were here but were told they had a great little picnic spot. We choose a bottle of Diane’s Block and headed out on the trail. After a moderate 5 minute hike to the top of a Knoll they have several tables set up between grape fields and under several oak tree’s giving the perfect amount of shade. The view down into the valley is spectacular. Great food, great wine, great location, the only thing missing was Brax and Hill (suckers had to work).

Nicks Next Door with Terry and Kuk

2013-03-19_19-05-58_472After talking about it for just about a year we finally got Brax and Hill to join us at Nick’s Next Door for dinner in Los Gatos. What used to be Nicks on Main, a small but cozy storefront restaurant that felt packed in and busy all the time, in a good way, is now a posh building all on its own with outside/fireside seating. Nick is moving up in the world. Wanting to ensure we had wine to match the meal we know we were going to have we brought a ’10 Terry Hoage 5 Blocks and Brax and Hill brought a ’09 Kukkula pas de deux. Of note, after reviewing their wine list you will not be disappointed with the choices if you leave the wine to Nick. The list is long with lots of variety and many excellent choices.

Before I go into detail about the meal (getting hungry thinking about it) I want to say a few words about our wine selections. To be honest, I was a little worried. Kukkula wines are generally big, the kind of wine that goes well with spicy food or a big piece of meat. Terry Hoage wines, while they have a lot of flavor, are generally soft. The kind of wine you want to drink all by itself. I was concerned that the Kukkula was going to overpower the food and the food was going to overpower the Terry Hoage. Happy to say that I was dead wrong on both accounts. Both wines paired incredibly well with all the food. The Kukkula softening and blending much better than anticipated and the Terry Hoage stepping up to all the flavors in the meal. We either got really lucky or we are getting really good.

On to the food.  To start Troya and I shared the warm spinach salad with goat cheese, roasted shallots, a crispy onion ring with a smoked bacon vinaigrette and the mushroom soup. The salad was good, but with all the powerful ingredients I was expecting a bit more flavor. The soup was great, very nutty and flavorful.  We all shared the Risotto Croquettes with parmesan cheese and confit of pancetta, the Steak Tartare with pommes frites and a fried egg on toasted sourdough, and the Dungeness Crab Toast on sourdough with lemon-basil aioli. The risotto Croquettes were good, but seemed to be missing something and did not stand up to the other starters. The steak tartare was awesome and the fries that come with it put mc-y-d’s to shame (not an easy thing to do). The Dungeness crab toast was good but lacked the crab flavor that I was hoping for, seemed to be drowned out a little.

Now a quick word of warning. Nicks Next Door is the type of place that is torture trying to decide what entrée you want. Every time you think you have made up your mind you get the feeling you are going to miss out on something else. So what did the FTF do when faced with such a dilemma, we thought of you, our readers. Selflessly we decided to pick 5 entrees to split between the 4 of us so we could review as many of the entrees as possible. Oh, the sacrifices we make……..We finally settled on the Chilean Sea Bass with chilled artichoke hearts, braised fennel and a pepper and nicoise olive ragout, the Abalone special, the Pan Roasted Colorado Lamb Chop with rosemary gnocchi, english peas, morel mushrooms with a red wine demi, the Caramelized Scallops with duck fat infused faro and roasted red pepper sauce and the Orrechiette Pasta with Duck Sausage, roasted peppers, sweet onions, carrots asparagus and tomatoes.

It’s a lot of fun to be able to taste so many incredible dishes but you have to be 2013-03-19_20-15-34_176careful that you clean your palate in between tasting or you lose the subtleties of some of the flavors and some of the more delicate dishes will be overpowered. It was interesting that we all had our own favorite, and that my favorite was last on some of our lists. For me, I put the Orrechiette Pasta with Duck Sausage first. The pasta was very good, and the sauce was nothing special, but the duck sausage meatballs were incredible and carried the entire dish. Next was the Pan Roasted Lamb Chop. Done well lamb is one of my favorites and this had all the qualifications. Tender, not gamey and the gnocchi and mushrooms with the demi was a flavor fest (this is the one that could overpower some of the other dishes). Following this was the Carmelized Scallops. Not much to the plate, but they  were phenomenal.  Not fishy or salty like some scallops can be, not too mushy or rubbery like others can be. Incredible flavor and perfect texture. Next was the Abalone. I have only had abalone a couple times before and its had been very tough although it has very good flavor. This was very tender, not chewy at all. The flavor is somewhere between calamari and conch. Last was the Sea Bass. This dish was still very good with lots of flavor but it was very subtle and could not stand up to the other dishes or the wine. Likely our fault for ordering it with all the others.

All in all our second visit to Nicks was a fabulous night out and we have converts in Brax and Hill. Likely because of expectations, we did not leave as starry eyed as the last time, typical for second visits, but Nick did live up to the challenge and I would recommend a visit to anyone in search of fine food in the South Bay.