Monthly Archives: June 2016

Wine on the American Riviera:  Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail, Part 1

Join the CD for the first in a two-part tour of Santa Barbara, California’s Urban Wine Trail, where we’ll visit three of Santa Barbara’s more refined tasting rooms.

The crown jewel of the self-proclaimed American Riviera, Santa Barbara is part beach resort town, part college town, and increasingly, part wine town. The city’s Urban Wine Trail offers a convenient alternative to the scenic but long drive between vineyard-based wineries in California’s geographically large Central Coast AVA/wine region.

CD followers know well by now that I make good use of my recent proximity to Napa and Sonoma Counties in Northern California. I am a huge fan of their big, fruity, bold and balanced Cabernet Sauvignons, Zinfandels, and the surprisingly delicate but memorable rosés and sparkling wines. The wines of California’s Central Coast region, however, offer a contrasting style – one I wasn’t sure I could embrace. After a recent trip to Santa Barbara, an adventure on its Urban Wine Trail, converted my skepticism into real appreciation.

  
What initially was to be a beach weekend retreat turned into a full day of trekking – wine trekking, that is – when the weather turned gloomy and rainy. If you’re unfamiliar with Santa Barbara, the American Riviera is a pretty good descriptor. The city’s Mission style architecture and cobblestone-paved, pedestrian alleys adjacent to State Street, its main avenue, are filled with an odd mix of retail, restaurants, and wine tasting rooms adorned with sometimes inexplicable sculptures and painted wall signs. It’s Mediterranean Europe – and I mean all of the Mediterranean plus some not-so-Med German and UK influences – meets California; resort chic meets college Bohemian; NorCal meets SoCal. With so many contradictions in personality, it is little surprise the city’s tasting rooms are equally as diverse and eclectic.

We began our afternoon on the northern end of the Urban Wine Trail, in the La Arcada pedestrian shopping area just off State Street, at Cebada Winery‘s tasting room. The small tasting room (really, a loft) opened in 2015 inside/above Isabella Gourmet Foods, so it is quite the newcomer. Yet it draws fervent devotion from its reviewers, so I had to try their vertical tasting.

The 2013 Chardonnay was significantly lighter in body than a Napa Chardonnay, and its nose and overall complexity perhaps not as high, but it was smooth and appealing to me, as someone who doesn’t gravitate towards Chardonnay. Cebada’s 2014 Chardonnay, in contrast, was a bit too new and neutral and could use a few more years’ aging in the bottle.

  
The Pinot noirs impressed me much more. The 2011 Pinot was smooth and pleasantly fruity, but the 2012 was an outstanding Pinot. It was smooth and light. Its cherry aromas had depth – a mix of sour, ripe, and a hint of dried cherry, and with slight spice on the finish from the neutral oak. It was even better paired with dark chocolate. It was no wonder that Wine Enthusiast rated it 92 points.

How could we follow up the ’12 Pinot? Why, with one of the best California dessert wines I’ve ever tried, Cebada’s 2011 Forbidden fruit Libation! The 90% blueberry wine is fortified with 10% brandy. Yet it lacks the cloying heaviness and sweetness of a port and would be perfect in all seasons. We were told that once open, it remains drinkable for more than four weeks in the refrigerator, perhaps even at its peak after two to three weeks.

We followed Cebada’s suggestion and walked through La Arcada to Sanford Winery‘s posh tasting room for their winemakers’ flight, which allows the taster to compare wines horizontally (same vintage, same grape varietal, different vineyards). Two sailing partners, Sanford and Benedict, launched the winery in 1981. Sanford boasts the oldest grapevines in production, and they still grow on original 1976 root stock.

The 2013 Gravity Flow chardonnay is the product of grapes from two vineyards. I found it to be light with notes of vanilla on the oaked finish. It had a moderate complexity characterized by delicate hints of minerality, green melon. The Estate-grown 2013 Sanford and Benedict Chardonnay, produced from those “oldest vines in Santa Barbara County,” was less noteworthy for me, as it seemed slightly heavier and less complex.

As for Sanford’s Pinot noirs, La Rinconada Pinot noir was marked by the aroma of sweet, fresh cherries and a touch of oak. It drank smoothly; I enjoyed it. Again, the Sanford & Benedict vineyard didn’t quite deliver for me. Its Pinot noir was tart and acidic to me but more smooth and with a touch of spice on the finish.

  
Our next stop was a planned visit to Jamie Slone wines, which I picked based on reviews and their own advertisement of their Bordeaux blends. We were not disappointed at the family-owned winery and tasting room’s selection and quality.

Their Sauvignon blanc was straightforward and light, mimicking the style of New Zealand’s. The rosé was one of the more unique and best I’ve had lately, with bold watermelon notes. Pinot noirs were respectable, if not memorable. They offer more unique blends, including P1, an Australian blend, BoRific, a merlot-heavy Bordeaux blend, and their own Super Tuscan-style Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese blend. The Super Tuscan was full of lush, ripe red fruit; the BoRific a less complex but decent imitation of a right bank Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon had more of a cool-climate, earthy feel like a Chilean cab. I’ll still take Napa cabs any day.

  
The first half of our urban wine trail trek concluded with three great finds from Santa Barbara County’s notable wineries. Next week, I’ll take you to Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone for a more eclectic, crowd- and newbie-friendly tasting adventure.

The flying trapeze as life metaphor: The CD’s non-culinary adventure in West Oakland

In life, we are faced with pivotal moments that define us, inspire us, and help us see ourselves and our world in a new light. While this blog obviously seeks to do this through the shared experiences of adventures in food, drink, and culture, this post takes that theme in another direction. Today, I share with you the awe-inspiring experience I had in a trapeze class in West Oakland, CA and the resulting lessons I learned about life.

I wrestled with the idea of deviating too far from my theme; I mean, the blog is the CULINARY Diplomat (AKA the art of cooking, whether it’s mine or someone else’s). I’ve broadened that notion to include beverages too, but a high-flying, adrenaline pumping trapeze catch? I finally told myself that it’s my blog, and I can post what I want! This experience provided me some much-needed inspiration, a sense of achievement, and some real life lessons. So here I am. I choose to share this experience with you readers, hoping you’re reading this because you’re already open minded, and because it made me look at my path in life, and most centrally, the concepts of fear and trust, much differently afterwards than before I set foot in that gym. These days, in light of so much complexity, hate and tragedy highlighted in our world, couldn’t we all use a personal victory? Couldn’t we all be inspired to do better, be better?

When a friend asked if I’d be willing to give trapeze class a try, I shrugged and said “sure.” I’m always up for a physical and mental challenge and a new adventure, so I was excited to give it a try. Having hit a milestone birthday this year also might have motivated me to test my own physical and mental limits. But I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. If you want to see the short version of a first-timer’s experience, watch the Sex and the City season 6 episode, “The Catch.” It’s a nicely condensed summary of the real experience of trapeze.

In my real-life existential experience, the school, Trapeze Arts, was located in West Oakland, which is well known to Bay Area locals as a not nice neighborhood, especially when a random shooting took place at the rapid transit (BART) station a few months ago. It offers ostensibly low enough rent to support a warehouse-turned gym. 
Inside, I was reminded of my days as a competitive gymnast.The gym’s centerpiece was the trapeze net, bookended above by two towering trapeze platforms. A group of flyers were finishing their workouts from the previous session. They were impressive, and watching everything from simple catches to awe-inspiring twisting layout (flip) catches. I certainly hoped none were beginners!

We started practicing the basics on a 6′ high bar over an 16-inch mat, instructed by an Argentinian who had just arrived in the US and apologized for his (charming) stilted English. I did one practice of knees up and over the bar and a release. I rehearsed the bar grab at floor level. And then it was time to climb the platform and give it a go.

To say that platform was much higher than it looked from the ground is an understatement. It was terrifying. After a teenaged girl took her turn, it was mine. I was harnessed by one of the instructors. He hooked the bar, and I winced as I released my grip on a wire supporting the platform to grab the trapeze with my second hand. Thankfully, the harness held back the momentum, and I positioned myself, waiting for the command to jump.

 

The initial jump (freeze frame from a video)

 
And I jumped, blindly into the abyss, hoping my grip would hold. I had a moment of tunnel vision (and audio) and couldn’t quite register the primary coach’s instructions below. I swung back and forth, kipping a bit as I’d learned as a gymnast and as I’d seen some of the more experienced flyers do. And then I heard yelling from below at me not to swing. Oops.

  
Next, he called for me to put my knees up. Wait-what? Already? I thought that wouldn’t happen right away. Stunned, I did as instructed. It was a bit awkward getting my knees up and hooked over the bar, much less graceful than I’d hoped. But suddenly I was upside down.

  
He called for me to release my hands. Come again? Already? I let go and reached forward. And physics took over, and I hung from my knees – still alive! Hands finally returned to the bar, and knees and feet went right-side up. I got the call to release, and plopped to the net. A rush of adrenaline and a sense of accomplishment ensued.

I repeated that sequence once more, still shaking with fear, but more confident and better able to follow instructions. Lest I fall into any sort of comfort zone, the instructors told three of the four of us newbies to move on (a frightened young Australian woman refused to give the knees up a go, and thus ended her date with the trapeze). This time would include the previous sequence, followed by a release and flip, guided in the harness.

That release move was something I knew all too well from my childhood, and yet all I could think of now was the crazy (rare) injuries. I was the first in line to try it, yet my fear got the best of me. I released, feeling a twinge of regret and failure. Watching my fellow beginners, I realized it was much simpler than the gymnastic version. The lead coach explained to me, “Trapeze is all physics. Gymnastics is physical strength and timing. You’re used to doing the work. With the trapeze, it’s all physics. Just listen to my timing. Physics will take over.”

What a simple idea rang true for me. I’ve always had an independent spirit. I was raised to believe I could do and be anything if I worked hard enough. If *I* worked hard enough.

Yet my adult life has been trying to teach me that I – and my development personally and professionally – are dependent upon others in my life, on my circumstances – more than I’d like to admit. But when presented with choice, I can choose to listen or disregard. I can choose guts (risk) over fear and trust myself – and also those who guide me.

So I chose to listen and press on. I completed the release move, which was incredibly easy, taking virtually no physical ability (except me knowing from experience at which part of a flip to open up).

And now it was time to move on again. Time to attempt the catch that eluded Carrie Bradshaw. On the ground, the lead instructor repeatedly told us, “You are not doing the catch. You reach out and wait for Andrew to catch you.”

  
I was up first of the newbies. I felt like I was literally flying blind, but I decided just to listen. Just to go for it. One instructor was seated and swinging away on the opposite trapeze like an enthusiastic child on simple backyard swing. He and the instructor on my platform exchanged “listo”s, and then they called “ready” to me. I jumped and proceeded to hook my legs on the bar as before. This time, I released, arching and reaching. The instructor, Andrew, and I made contact. I felt his grip, released my knees, and I was flying safely. I released, elated. I made the catch! Ok, minor point: I let myself be caught. I just got out of my own head and shut out my fear.

  
In hindsight, the catch was the easiest and most comforting part of the sequence. It was extremely nice to leave the hard part to someone else, to trust. That night, I left with the giddiness of Childhood Me learning a new skill or winning a medal at a meet. It was the feeling of personal triumph, but as the experience sank in, I reflected at how this experience seemed to be a metaphor for life.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity just to try the trapeze. But once I showed up, it was my choice whether to take a risk and trust the instructors – and to trust myself. I could have given up. I could have seen the view from the platform and just backed down. I could have not listened and not attempted the flyaway, not attempted the catch. But something made me listen, trust (with a healthy dose of fear and adrenaline remaining), and literally let go of that bar, of that fear. And it felt great!

When I walked in that night, I had no idea that I would complete three successful catches on my first session. I would have never done so if left to my own devices. The instructor on the ground pushed me, the instructors up high supported me and encouraged me as if I had no alternative but to succeed. And the results spoke for themselves. It truly was all physics, not physicality. It was all attitude and mental courage.

In psychology, there’s a phenomenon called the fundamental attribution error. We are more likely to attribute behaviors in others to personality and to attribute circumstances for our bad behavior. Taking it a step further, we are more likely to give ourselves credit for our successes and yet see others’ successes as a result of circumstances. Wow.

From my trapeze experience, I wanted to immediately praise myself for doing something daring. But as the lead instructor pointed out, from a sheer physical standpoint, it’s all physics and not one’s own physical ability. It boils down to getting out of your own way mentally to Just Do It. Trusting the person on the other side to catch you. Trusting yourself enough to let go. And allow the physics to do the work.

Isn’t that true in life – for all of us? Couldn’t we all show a little courage? It is so much easier not to try something risky in life, to give up safety in our comfort zone. But those who end up making the most out of life – our heroes, (good) leaders, entrepreneurs, advocates and activists – all have something in common. They stepped out of their comfort zones, daily, if not in one meaningful, impactful instance. How do we know our capabilities, our limits, unless we test them?

San Francisco’s Kokkari: Incomparable Five-Star Greek food and ambiance

When I imagine the perfect setting for an upscale Greek meal – outside of Greece – I now will visualize Kokkari Estiatorio, an experience without equal on the U.S. West Coast. Its execution, ambiance, and service left virtually no room for critique during my recent visit. You know a restaurant experience is sublime when you couldn’t have ordered any better. None of the “I wish I’d ordered the…”
Situated on a stretch of Jackson Street in the northernmost reaches of San Francisco’s Financial District, Kokkari is surrounded by some of San Francisco’s culinary heavy hitters like Quince and Cotogna, as if these restaurants needed to distance themselves from the overpriced franchises of international celebrity chefs closer to the heart of the district. The entire FiDi, in my opinion, is nothing much for looks. In general, I think of it as 1990 frozen in time – Wall Street hit the West Coast’s financial center a bit later – ok, maybe not frozen thanks to 25 years of wind, fog, and minimal upkeep. A bit harsh? Perhaps, but my point is all that neighborhood charm (or lack thereof) goes – stays? – out the window once one enters Kokkari Estiatorio.

  
Inside Kokkari, unvarnished wood, rustic chandeliers, and woven textile tapestries transport the diner back to the Old World (Ok, a modern Old World). We instantly relaxed.

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part of Kokkari’s wine cellar

We ordered a bottle of 2009 Rosati Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Mendocino County, which had an unexpectedly high alcohol content for a cab (at 14.9%) and a great nose of ripe red fruit. It was a bit heavy for delicate Old World food, but Kokkari’s flavors could hold up to just about anything – not least the potent pine aromas of classic Greek retsina.

  
Kolokithokeftethes, or Zucchini fritters = perfection. I’ve had some memorable incarnations of them in the past (Washington, DC’s Zatinya being one of them), but I think Kokkari’s won my heart. They were light, melt-in-your mouth texture, with a flavor tough to describe because each individual component was so well matched with the others that the sum is far better than each part. They were accompanied by thick, rich tzatziki.

A word on Kokkari’s tzatziki: If you can imagine a farm-to-table condiment, this is it. The yogurt base is thick and rich; the cucumber subtle yet omnipresent; the dill fresh as if picked that day; the garlic enhancing and synthesizing the flavors – that ingredient you don’t really notice because it’s doing its job. It was so good, we had to order a side order of it.

  
We ordered the Maroulosalata, generous portion of chopped salad with the salty, lemony tang of romaine and radicchio lettuces, kalamata olives, and pine nuts dressed in a feta vinaigrette.

  
Our polished server brought us a complimentary beet mezthede (mezze) called pantzaria. despite our pants already being full (sorry, how could I resist a terrible turn at wordplay), we devoured.

  

  
At that point, we should have stopped there. Every dish was fantastic, but I had little room for my main course – lamb souvlaki. The lamb was seasoned expertly, but it was perhaps not as tender as I would like. Had I been more hungry, and had I not tasted the perfection of the previous dishes, I likely would be raving about the lamb now. What I will rave about were the roasted fingerling potatoes. I rarely eat white potatoes (not a lot of nutritional value), but these were irresistible. Dipped in a bit of tzatziki, they are an addiction. I’m relieved they aren’t readily available.

  
We had no choice but to request takeout boxes to save our lamb and tzatziki, and though we were painfully full, we had to see if Kokkari could elevate baklava the way it did every other staple of Greek cuisine. The verdict: the baklava was good but not memorable or distinct, but the accompanying vanilla-praline ice cream was one of San Francisco’s best (a tall order with greats like Humphry Slocombe and churned-to-order Smitten, or my own homemade creations!). It was impossibly creamy, smooth.

Kokkari offered everything one would want in experiential dining – ambiance, attentive service, and memorable food. To say I couldn’t envision it better myself is an understatement. I will return!