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What’s old is new

NPA Chardonnay ©DPaul Brown

Just after Christmas, thanks to a windfall of Williams-Sonoma gift cards, we purchased a Soda Club Penguin Soda Maker. We really enjoy sparkling water, but more or less stopped buying it out of guilt for the amount of bottle waste involved. That, and our preferred brand is Gerolsteiner, out of Germany, and we just couldn't justify consuming such an absurd amount of food miles for something as pedestrian as water, when we live in a society where what comes out of the tap is more than adequate.

Now, with the Penguin, we have four one-liter carafes that we reuse to carbonate our Hetch Hetchy. The carafe goes into the device, the top is lowered, and you press down on a lever, which releases CO2 into the water. It makes a series of amusing sounds, starting with a gurgling that escalates to a high-pitched whine, and then a satisfying PFFFF as you release the pressure. And voilà, sparkling water.

Shortly after we became Penguin addicts, I jokingly mused that they should also make a device that turns water into wine. They could call it the JesusTM. After all, we face the same issues of bottle waste and food miles with wine (though we do drink a lot of locally-sourced wines), and there's not really an alternative.

Or is there?

I recently made the acquaintance of a certain Hardy Wallace. Anyone who dabbles in the intersection of social media and food/wine may find that name familiar. Last year, Murphy-Goode winery held a contest to hire a social media "lifestyle correspondent." Out of 10 finalists, Hardy, who writes the blog Dirty South Wine, was selected, this kicking off a six-month gig as blogger, vlogger and all-around evangelist for the brand. At the end of that six months, Hardy opted to take things a different direction.

Among the many people Hardy befriended in his tenure was Kevin Kelley of Lioco and his own label, Salinia. Kelley was in the throes of starting up a new wine product, called The Natural Process Alliance, a.k.a., The NPA. Hardy found something he could be passionate about.

The NPA's manifesto goes beyond the garden-variety green practices that –thankfully! — are infiltrating the wine industry today. Sure, the grapes are organic at least in practice if not always certification, but that's just one piece of the puzzle. Kelley is taking winemaking back to its roots, if you'll pardon the expression.

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An elegy for Eloise

Eloise ©Anita Crotty

(Image courtesy Anita/Married …with Dinner)

On our way home from Sea Ranch on Sunday we stopped in for lunch at Eloise in Sebastopol. It’s become our go-to spot when heading up to the coast, which we do with some frequency. This was perhaps our fourth or fifth visit in scarcely a year, our first being a celebratory dinner during an ersatz honeymoon last October.

Nablo09.90x33Shuna turned us on to the place, and in the months since we’d come to be very fond of it. We loved the charming and aromatic garden, full of lavender and herbs, that flanked the front. We loved the homey simplicity of the interior, the way the light played off the walls and filled the airy space. The service always was casual but not too casual, friendly without being inappropriately chummy. And the food — simple, well-prepared food — was a refreshing tonic to high-concept wine country fare. 

When we arrived this time, we had just come off two hours of winding Route 1 curves. I am not prone to motion sickness; the only time I have ever been afflicted was on a deep-sea fishing expedition on choppy waters for eight hours. Still, upon arriving I was feeling the kind of disorientation you do from a carnival ride or, say, a ritual hazing.

I was still shaking off the woozies when we were seated. We were six, at the tail end of the lunch service, and they seated us at the far end. As my senses came back to me, I became increasingly aware all was not right.

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Pulling muscle from the shell

Abalone ©DPaul Brown

Saturday afternoon, our final day in Sea Ranch, we went strolling along the bluffs. The sun was sparkling on calm seas, the sun shone warmly upon us, and a brisk, cool breeze buffeted our backs. Jim broke out the stunt kite, which pulled with such force it made the tethers hum like guitar strings, and forced him to crouch down to lower his center of gravity lest he be thrown forward.

Nablo09.90x33Down on the water, among the kelp tops, we noticed a red flag; moments after a man appeared in the rocks at the foot of the bluff, rising from the surf like Swamp Thing. Shortly thereafter, his friend came in with the red-flagged raft, containing two mesh bags full of abalone.

Our friend Joe is an ab diver. When we mention this to others, they remark how lucky we are to have a friend like that, but the reality is we’ve seen just one mollusk from him in the years we’ve known him. This is in part because abalones are pretty heavily overfished and the quotas are restrictive. But the real reason is that Joe is a master barterer, and abs make for good trade.

We’ve come to assume that all divers treasure their bounty so dearly, and small wonder. Ab diving is a dangerous business. Aside from having to immerse yourself in the shockingly cold waters of the Pacific, ab divers are allowed only to free-dive; no oxygen tanks are allowed. Abalone live in kelp forests and on the sea floor, so you have to have excellent breath control and dexterity underwater. Most alarmingly, humans in wet suits tend to resemble seals — and you’re in shark-infested waters. 

As we came back up the trail, the first diver was there, parked in the cul-de-sac around the corner from the house. Three large abalone lay on their backs on the road beside his truck. We remarked that he seemed to have a good outing. “You like abalone?” he asked.

“Sure,” we replied.

“You know what to do with them?”

“You bet.” DPaul and I remember very well our friend Kathleen preparing a sizable ab of Joe’s a number of years back.

“You want one?”

We hesitated. I replied, “Sure, how much?”

“Oh, no. You can have one. I get tons of these things.” He went on to explain he was in a competition, and so after measuring the three abs, gave us the smallest one, which was still some eight inches in length and easily three pounds. We had ample wine, so we offered him a nice bottle of pinot noir in trade.

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I'm on the road today, heading up to Sea Ranch to spend a long weekend with my husband, my mother and several friends to celebrate my birthday on Friday. Age is just a number, but this number will end with…

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Drink me: Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Despite my name, I am comprised of at best 1/16 Irish blood, perhaps significantly less than that, but that doesn't deter me from enjoying the holiday. If you're planning to partake this St. Paddy's Day, please do not debase yourself with weak beer tainted with green food coloring. You'll respect yourself more in the morning if you opt for a lovely Guinness. Or, if like me you live in the Bay Area and want to go a bit more local, quaff a pint of my new favorite beer, Russian River Brewing Company's Pliny the Elder.

Like a lot of Northern California microbrews, Pliny is heady and hoppy; but unlike too many other hop-headed beers that offer nothing beyond one-noted bitterness or, worse, a metallic tinge, Pliny is rich and complex. Sure, it's hoppy, but it's layered with bright, refreshing notes of citrus, delicate sweetness of orange flower blossoms and elderflowers, and a healthy waft of the evening breeze in Humboldt County. Or so I'm told. At any rate, it's balanced and utterly drinkable.

My friend Julie has been waxing rhapsodic about this beer for a while now, but I only recently had the pleasure of partaking at a recent installment of Book Club at Toronado. Suffice to say, it was love at first sip.

As for the name? While Pliny is best known for having witnessed, and died during, the eruption at Vesuvius, Pliny wrote a significant work titled simply, Naturalis Historiae (Natural History), an encyclopedia cataloging a mangificent array of understanding of the natural world. Among his achievements in his work as a natural scientist was to give hops its botanical name, or so sayeth the brewers themselves. And this beer's hoppy application is as fitting a tribute as any.

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Sonoma coast, my love


Have you ever felt you were meant — truly meant — to be someplace?

I have often said that my hometown of Schenectady, NY, is a lovely place to be from. I mean, it's a much underrated part of the country, rich with charm and history, but I spent my adolescent years pining for the great big world out there. I knew I was destined for a different place.

After leaving New York State, I had my dalliances. In the summer of 1990 I had a torrid affair with Santa Fe, NM, rocky and passionate. I even returned for a second summer, which was like going back to a boyfriend, only to remember why you broke up in the first place. In between I had a slow, steady and almost serious relationship with Sacramento. But I just wasn't ready for that kind of commitment.

That's when I met San Francisco. This was the city that, intellectually, I was meant to be with — after all, we have so much in common.  And eventually I did fall in love with this newest companion, for mind as well as body, but it took a solid year. Luckily, that perseverance has paid off with a rich and nuanced love that has paid itself back many times over across the years.

But secretly, scandalously, I love another.

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All right, people. I have heard your desperate pleas for my opinion on Cyrus. I have to confess, I almost decided not to post it after such a delay, but I feel better knowing that at least one other blogger out there is still catching up from President’s Day. And anyway, I did manage to scribble down my impressions on the bleary morning after, so why waste the effort?

My other hesitation in posting is that, despite or perhaps because of the amount of fawning praise I’ve read about it, I just wasn’t over-the-moon about the place. I mean, don’t get me wrong; it was good. Very good even. There were some things I really adored. But the whole was felt a little less than the sum of its parts. I think that had we not done this so relatively close on the heels of a life-changing meal like Alinea, I might have felt differently.

Nearly every thing they did well was mildly blemished, sort of a wabi-sabi approach, as if perfection would be an affront to the fine dining gods. As with another recent diner, they were very accommodating of dietary restriction, in this case DPaul’s wheat problem … with one little oopsie (read on). The service was professional yet warm and affable, but we ended up with a less than stellar table (why my reservation was inferior to others, I’m still not clear) with a lot of traffic, causing the back of my head to be brushed with every passing server.

Now the bar, that’s another matter. We specifically arrived early to have the opportunity to sit at the bar and sample one of mixologist Scott Beattie‘s world-famous concoctions, and we were not disappointed. DPaul predictably went right for the bourbon with the Frankfort Manhattan, featuring vanilla- and citrus-infused Buffalo Trace bourbon, which has since become our house bourbon. I, in turn, tried the Pelo del Perro, a palate-tickling affair of Charbay Ruby Red Grapefruit vodka, Chinaco Silver tequila, grapefruit juice, lime juice, agave nectar, grapefruit foam and a red-salt rim. The garnish were three minuscule rosemary blossoms floating on top, each a tiny explosion of woodsy bouquet. Perfect.

Though we both partook of the 7-course chef’s tasting menu, DPaul’s was
obviously  occasionally different due to the absence of wheat. Also, we
opted for different wine pairings to mix things up; I took the standard pairing, and DPaul selected the Grand Tasting pairing, customized to
highlight the chef’s tastng menu … at approximately twice the price.
Worth the differential? Sometimes.

We both agreed that it would be delightful to return and enjoy a meal in the bar area with some excellent cocktails. So, a happy ending by and by.

After the jump, the blow-by-blow description of our meal.

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Taverna Santi


At least part of the joy in going up the coast is the process of
getting there. We forged a plan: Stop in Healdsburg for some
provisions, head up to Geyserville for a nice lunch, and hit up a
couple favorite wineries en route back to River Road to stock up on
that particular necessity.

And so it was. After quick stops into Downtown Bakery for some sticky buns and a nice galette for our dessert that night and The Cheese Shop
for, well, cheese (and a hunk of Fra’mani soppressata sold in thickish slabs since she does not have a slicer … aroo?), we descended
upon the blink-and-you-miss-it burg of Geyserville for lunch at Taverna Santi. I had taken Santi on recommendation from my favorite Wine Country resource, Fork & Bottle (only to find out after the fact that it’s also a fave of my good friends at Married …with Dinner.)

Geyserville is over 150 years old, and apparently little changed during that time. The "downtown" strip of this diminutive town comprises maybe a dozen structures, all single-storey and looking torn straight out of the pages of an old Western.

Despite Santi’s imminently overlookable exterior, it is surprisingly
vacuous on the inside. The interior is classic Wine Country
trattoria — vintage wine and liqueur posters, yellow sponge-washed
walls and wrought iron and rustic wood furnishings. In fact, such a perfect snapshot of Tuscan-trendy décor from the early part of this decade, it’s almost retro already.

Still, we were greeted warmly despite arriving 45 minutes early for our reservation. As there was only one other table occupied, they didn’t seem to mind.

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