The Vintners’ Holidays at The Ahwahnee Hotel 2013

Dining Room at The AhwahneeTroya and I have had our eye on The Vintners’ Holidays at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Park for a couple of years now. We usually plan a little get away for each other’s birthday gift, and while the Vintners’ Holidays happen around both of our birthdays it costs a little more than we usually like for our little gift. Last year we decided we would combine our two gifts and go see what all the fuss is about. The programs run through November and December each year and each program is either two or three nights. The only real addition on the 3 night program is a wine and horderve evening on the first night. The concept of the program is getting some of the more recognized wine makers in California to speak on various topics such as how certain wines are made or how they are different based on where they are from (yes, terroir) while also presenting their wine. Over the 2 days of the program you have four afternoon sessions, and on the last evening you are treated to a dinner with wine paired from the wineries in the program.
I had not been to Yosemite Park in a very long time and had never stayed at the Yosemite ValleyAhwahnee Hotel, so I was very excited. When making the reservations Troya was given the option of staying in a suite at a much discounted price, so this made our anticipation that much higher. If you have not been to Yosemite Park, or it’s been a while, you should go just to remember what this magnificent park has to offer and how small and fleeting it can make you feel as you gaze up at these colossal rocks that have been there since the beginning of time. The Ahwahnee Hotel was built in the 20’s as a way to attract the 1%-ers of the time to the park. Since then the list of dignitaries and royalty who have stayed there is as impressive as any. For its time I am sure it was as spectacular as any, and the architecture is still very impressive, built out of concrete to withstand a forest fire but textured and painted to appear log cabin-ish and appease the eye. We were told that Queen Mary had once stayed in our suite, and while elegant and spacious, it did feel a little run down. Unfortunately we did not get a chance to see one of the regular rooms so I cannot comment on what they were like.
Since we had the horderve evening on the first night we decided to stay with that theme and run to the village store and get some cheese/salami/bread/crackers and fruit and enjoy it in our room with one of the many bottles of wine we brought ourselves. While not a huge selection, what they had filled the need and ended up being one of our best decisions of the trip. The following night we made reservations at the Ahwahnee Dining The Dining Room at The AhwahneeRoom. Reservations required, dress code enforce. One of the most impressive and elegant dining rooms anywhere. Now if the meal could have just lived up to the buildup and setting. No complaints with the service, but the food had a cafeteria feel and taste to it. The presentation was unimpressive and food was mostly on the bland side. No disrespect, but it felt like it was being made for octogenarians.
The program itself was spread over the 2 full days there, with 2 afternoon programs on each day. Our moderator for the program was Dan Berger, a very well-known and Vintners' Holidays at The Ahwahnee respected wine writer and judge, who did a great job keeping the program flowing and interesting. The first program, given by Steve Urberg from Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards was entitled “The contribution of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the blending of Gloria Ferrer Mѐthode Champenoise Sparkling Wines” and was very interesting and informative. Steve spoke in detail about the Champenoise method of making a sparkling wine and how the California weather is ideally consistent for making this style of wine. He also spoke on the importance of the yeast in the whole process and how they use a proprietary strain in their process. Interestingly he also recommended that sparkling wines be Cheers at the Ahwahneestored upright so as not to come in contact with the cork which can cause it to loose elasticity. The next session, “sites, age and clones-single vineyard Chards & Pinots of the Sonoma/Marin Coast” was given by Dan Goldfield from Dutton-Goldfield. His talk focused mostly on the various vineyards they use and some of the history behind the vineyards and the winery. The following day kicked off with a talk by Robb Talbott from Talbott Vineyards on “Terroir based Chardonnay vs Commodity Based”. If you are not familiar with the term terroir it is a French term that refers to where something is from and that the location, soil and environment will all influence what produced there. With single vineyard/estate wines you can taste how the terroir influences the wine and how they will be different from each other. Commodity based wines are generally going for consistency and volume but end up with no soul. To quote Robb “wine grown in the right place speaks for itself” and the winemaker is more a shepherd, guiding the wine through the process rather than a creator of the end product. He also could not pass up the opportunity to share his thoughts on corks vs screw caps, feeling that screw caps eliminates the multiple variables involved with corks that can negatively influence the wine. However DanVintners' Holidays at The Ahwahnee pointed out that corks can enhance the maturation process while screw caps can slow the process so they will essentially be about 6 months apart if bottled at the same time. The final session was “Five vineyard lots-2012 Bien Nacido Pinot Noir” by David Duncan from Twomey Cellars. It took a little while to figure out, but what we did in this session was very cool. Their Bien Nacido Pinot Noir is a blend of several different vineyards and during this session we got to taste each one of those wines individually while we discussed to properties of each, and then tasted the blend, the finished product at the very end and were able to identify all the characteristics from the individual wines in the blend. That evening we were back in the dining room for a 5 course meal paired with wines (mostly ones we had not already tasted) from the presenting wineries. The food, from the same chef as the night before, was all very good and for the most part was well paired with all of the wines.
Dry Miror Lake, YosemiteFinal thoughts on The Ahwahnee Hotel Vintners’ Holidays; first, once we got use to the size and style of the program it was actually very enjoyable and informative. It would have been nice to have smaller sessions which would have given it a bit more intimacy. The Ahwahnee hotel, while still very elegant and impressive, feels a bit like it is living off of its reputation rather than living up to its reputation. And finally Yosemite Valley itself, which has to be seen to be appreciated, and will never ceases to amaze.

Booka Revisited

Booka in AptosA while back Troya and I visited Booka in Aptos. We were impressed with the food, felt the drinks and wine could use some work, and were not impressed with the service. Lored back by the food, our recent experience was quite different, for the better. The food was still excellent, maybe even better. The wine list has expanded, and the service we had was great. Myles, our server, was cheerful and knowledgeable, busy but very attentive, and had great recommendations on wine pairing with our entrée. Booka has broken through, it is now a “go-to” here in Aptos.

Rosé Challenge Results


Challengers are lined up

Challengers are lined up

1391463_1426580644220916_142933016_nThe first Santa Clara Valley Rosé Challenge  was held at the Dolce Hayes Masion in San Jose California.  A special thanks to Heather Moggia and the Dolce Hayes Mansion for their hospitalilty.  The tables were set and the wine was chilled. The challengers were Thomas Kruse Winery, Aver Family Vineyard, Sycamore Creek Vineyard, Guglielmo Winery, Clos LaChance Winery, Solis Winery, Jason Stephens Winery.  One of the things I like most about Rosé is that they are truly like a box of chocolates.  Each one is so different.  Some of the wines were single varietals and others were blends.  We lined them up head to head to see which wine makers inspiration would be most popular with our diverse group of participants.

We asked everyone to rank the wines from their most favorite to their least favorite.  The results were; 

First Place:  Solis Winery received the most First place votes followed by Aver Family and Thomas Kruse.

Jason Stephens received the most Second place votes followed by Solis and Sycamore Creek.

Clos LaChance received the most Third place votes followed by Thomas Kruse and a tie between Guglielmo and Jason Stephens.

Over all;  Solis received the most total votes followed by Jason Stephens, Thomas Kruse, Sycamore Creek, Aver, Guglielmo and Clos Lachance. 

It appears this group was drawn towards the sweeter rosés in the challenge.  A good time was had by all and we look forward to the next challenge. 


Manresa, Los Gatos

wpid-IMG_20131005_180542_669.jpgAnniversaries should be special. With this in mind Troya and I decided to visit one of the better known restaurants in the area, Manresa in Los Gatos. Any search result for Manresa leads to numerous praises, both locally and internationally, as well as numerous statements of sticker shock. So we were prepared to open up the pocket book, and then some, when we made the reservations. Like I said, anniversaries should be special.
As you approach the relatively non-descript building that houses Manresa you are instantly greeted as they open the door for you. I am not a spa person, but I imagine the service you get at a really good spa is similar to the service here. They have an almost army of service people working in unison to make you feel special. It almost feels choreographed. Not something I am used to but they do it with such grace it does not make you feel uncomfortable.
We got there early and decided to have a cocktail on the front patio and take advantage of the perfect evening. They have a long list of unique drinks that would make any mixologist smile as well as many classics. They also have many wines available by the glass and several beers. It was such a nice way to start it was almost disappointing whey they told us our table was ready.
Our table was almost directly in the middle of the whole dining area, perfect for a couple of people watchers like us. We even had a happy anniversary card on the table signed by the wait staff. You only get two options for dinner, both pre-fix menus. The first had each course listed out. The second had a long list of foods and flavors that the chefs could use in putting together your meal. As adventurous eaters, the choice, while expensive, was easy. The next option was deciding to select our own wine or partake in the wine pairing. Again, an expensive but easy choice. Then we just sat back and enjoyed the show.
Looking back, the meal was clearly separated in halves. The first half was seafood heavy with Abalone and milk panna cotta, Belon osters in lemon-seaweed ice and what was called a fall tidal pool salad. These courses were paired with several white wines, a Riesling from Germany and Sauvignon Blanc from France being the notable choices. All of these dishes and wines were good, but no home runs and we were getting a little concerned. The halfway point was the turning point of the meal, when it went from good to excellent. It started with a simple garden salad but with several sauces that made all the flavors of the salad come alive. It also included a porcini and pear soup that was phenomenal and venison with saffron and licorice. These dishes were paired with various red wines including a Nebbiolo, a Moshin Vineyards Zin, and a French Bordeaux blend that was the hit of the night.
In the end it was far and away the most expensive meal we have ever had, and while the food and wine were very good, the service made the evening. The meal took over 3 hours to complete but never dragged and we never felt forgotten. While memories of the details may fade, experience will not be forgotten. Anniversaries should be special.

Booka in Aptos, a possible go-to?

We have all been waiting for something to “stick” at the Bayview Hotel in Aptos, CA. Over the years several restaurants have come and gone. Some quietly, some in front of a national audience thanks to Restaurante Barolo being on the Food Networks Restaurant Impossible. That didn’t work out too well. Now we have Booka, the newest inhabitants at our local “haunted” hotel. Troya and I stopped by on 4th of July and enjoyed what they had to offer on this limited menu day, so we decided to return for the full experience. The new owners and both chefs hail from Israel and the menu definitely has a Mediterranean feel with a California/Organic influence as well.
We did not have reservations and were told we would have to sit at a table without shade. While it was one of the warmest evenings of the year in Aptos, we did not mind the table, but noticed many other open tables throughout our meal. We decided to start with a couple cocktails and appetizers. The drink menu has several intriguing mixology wpid-IMG_20130816_183250_692.jpgoptions, unfortunately at this and our last visit none of the drinks had the “pop” of flavor they should have given the ingredients, and all ended up looking and tasting very similar. Our appetizer fennel salad was good, decent portion, but nothing memorable flavor wise. The focaccia bread with three dipping sides on the other hand was fabulous. The bread alone has great texture and flavor, and the three sides, all unique and flavorful, each held their own. They include a lemon yogurt, a smoked eggplant and a roasted tomato. You cannot go wrong with any of them.
All of the entrees looked appetizing but I choose the halibut with polenta and Troya had the lamb pasta. I was very happy with my selection. The polenta was perfectly cooked, not gritty or mealy, but smooth and creamy with a smoky corn flavor. I have not had any wpid-IMG_20130816_185114_952.jpgbetter. The halibut was a perfect match and also perfectly cooked. Troya’s pasta was also very good. The noodles were handmade, not an easy find in this area, and the lamb had enough flavor without being gamey and was seasoned nicely with fresh mint. We both had wine with dinner, but nothing spectacular. I would have liked to see more options on the wine list, either intriguing foreign varietals or more of our various local wineries.
The one thing that kept haunting our meal was poor coordination. We ordered our drinks and appetizers at the same time yet waited over 5 minutes after our appetizers arrived for our drinks. We never had bread delivered to our table, but it looked very good at the other tables around us. We also mentioned that we were going to order wine with dinner, and while our server recommended we get our dinner choices in early so the chefs could get everything ready, we had to reminder her that we wanted wine after she delivered our meals. We then waited over 5 minutes for our wine. We did overhear her tell another table that this was her first waitressing job, so our experience might not be the norm, but we do remember waiting a long time for our drinks on our first visit.
So while they say that good service can make up for a mediocre meal, I would say the opposite is true here. And while good service can make one good meal, good food is what you build a restaurant around. They definitely have the core for a long term relationship with our beloved historic hotel, great food and great location. A little fine tuning and Booka could definitely become a go-to in Aptos!