Monday, May 30, 2011
So, Saturday morning, Kathy and I loaded the wine carriers into the hatchback, and took a relatively quick motor jaunt up to the Sonoma Valley. Kath had had the presence of mind to make a lunch reservation, through Open Table, at the Mayo Family Winery Reserve Room, an elegant little bistro and tasting room on the Sonoma Highway south of Santa Rosa.
Mayo Family is a small producer of super-premium varietals, and the Reserve Room offers a seasonal multicourse prix-fixe menu of small bites paired with matching wines. Their spring menu offers a seven-course progression; courses include a celery root “linguine” with fava leaf and Meyer lemon butter, a bit of pan-seared duck breast with blood orange and chili oil, and a broth of charred corn and bacon with truffle cream and crispy prosciutto. Pretty heady, and very tasty, stuff.
Our reservation up north was for 2 p.m., so we set out from Oakley around 9 a.m., intending to taste our way from the south end of the valley and working our way up towards lunch.
We hit our first Sonoma stop, Cline Cellars, an hour later, minutes after they opened: just the way Kathy had timed it. Kath had planned all along to take this opportunity to join Cline’s wine club, what with their commitment to Oakley fruit, and some small-production bottlings available for sale and tasting only to club members. They have a limited “Small Berry Mourvèdre” made from the grapes of Oakley’s old vines, and we wanted to get our mitts on some. We did, as well as on five additional selections, all deeply discounted as a welcome to the club. We opted against having our quarterly selections shipped, as an incentive, like we need any, to visit the winery in person for future wine pick-ups and tasting.
Working northward, we discovered a few pleasant surprises in the form of co-op tasting rooms, where multiple tiny producers who could never afford to set up their own visitor facilities band together in one location to pour their wares for the public. Boutique wineries such as Cass, Keating and Enkidu were just a few that truly impressed with offerings ranging from a Napa Petite to a Malbec from Sonoma’s Rockpile AVA to a Paso Robles Viognier.
By the time 1:45 p.m. rolled around, we found ourselves draining our last drop of said Enkidu Petite Sirah, loading our purchases into the car, and all ready for lunch at Mayo located one block south. A nice confluence of timing and navigation.
Kath and I came home with a bottle of the Viognier that was paired with the corn/bacon/truffle cream broth. The 2007 Mayo Family Saralee’s Vineyard Russian River Valley exhibits a really delicate pale straw, almost wheat, color in the glass, with a honeyed nose of light oak and hints of butterscotch. A lot of Viognier can be overpoweringly cloying on the nose and palate: all flowers and over-ripe peaches. But this Mayo has a nice acidity and medium viscosity showcasing subtle apricot and stone fruit notes on its long finish.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
You have to understand that it was still way too early for me. I never grew up with pets, and Kathy adopting Otis when I was out of town on a gig in 1999 turned out to be a godsend. Taz coming home from the Humane Society two years later completed our little family.
A crappy two months, beginning in March, 2011, and ending a couple of weeks ago, in May of the same year, left Kathy with a void in her heart. We lost both of our old ladies within two months, and this big McJoint was not the same without kitties.
After Tazo was put down, I went, a few days later, to our local vet to drop off surplus food and treats that could be used in-house or dispersed to local shelters. When I popped in, the two techs on duty looked at each other and broached the subject that had apparently been the topic of conversation awhile: A fit-in-your palm calico (Taz’s breed) had survived a fall off of a roof, and everybody immediately thought of me and Kath.
OK, she was super-sweet, but sometimes coveted furniture and window treatment$ shakily affixed to walls preclude a kitten. Not to mention that I am now getting mailings from AARP, so raising a kitten while on the cusp of senior-citizendom just isn’t viable.
So, Kath comes home last week with printouts from kitty Web sites. Uh-oh. One thing leads to another, and less than a week after being childless, we are following Kath’s printed directions to Tony LaRussa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) in nearby Walnut Creek, CA (BTW: it’s a couple of blocks from where Otis used to get her cancer treatments). The “Tony LaRussa” name may ring a bell: He was a major league baseball player for the Oakland Athletics back in the day; he’s currently an MLB manager. Years ago, while Tony was playing, a feral kitty ran out onto the field during a game, and it took a cadre of staff to corral the lion while the innings were delayed. Tony took the kitty home. His ARF is a “no-kill” shelter, accepting animals from various regional facilities that may not follow that mandate. Kath had already printed out info on a pair of sisters that had come in from Martinez Animal Control, and that had been at ARF for three months, with the expectation of being adopted together.
Yep. No further questions, Your Honor.
I don’t know what it is about cat names, but Kathy and I do not want to mess with them at adoption. We had two females with monikers “Otis” and “Taz.” So now, we are the official parents of a couple of 4-year-old sister sibs named ‘Fritter” and “Baklava.”
And they’re already driving me nuts. They’re a lot more actively curious than were Otis and Taz, and their love of high places such as book shelves and window sills could put that “Man on Wire” dude to shame. Baklava and Fritter have basically claimed the second storey as their home, but we’re trying to transition them to feeding and using the litter pans downstairs. We’ll see how it goes. They’re a couple of sweet girls, but man, they can be a couple of handfuls (handsful?). Here’s to new beginnings.
Speaking of beginnings, this week heralded the official start of U-Pick cherry season. We blogged a bit about it last year; it’s the time of year when thousands of fruit aficionados from all over the state swarm Brentwood and Knightsen orchards, grab a bucket, and pick (and snack) their way down the rows of trees and other plantings heavy with produce.
Memorial Day weekend tends to see the biggest crowds, but as we did last year, Kathy and I hit the fields a week earlier. Yesterday afternoon, to be exact. We got a later start this year, arriving at Nunn Better farm to load up on sweet red cherries. We were shocked to see the crowd of cars already parked, and entire families beating us to the bounty. We needn’t have worried: There were plenty of ripe cherries on the trees for everyone, and I don’t think it took us 25 minutes to fill a bucket. Seven pounds of delicious fruit, $2.50 per pound, cash only. Time for stop number two.
We motored down the road to Papini Farms in search of apricots. We were offered our bucket, and then directed to the rows in the orchard that were designated for picking. We hand-harvested a few pounds of the golden burnished stone fruit, before strolling the cherry rows. The Rainiers looked a little immature yesterday, but Kath and I made a mental note to check in at Papini later in the season.
Our final farm stop was at Chan’s Fruit Stand, where the strawberry fields were packed with U-Pickers. The rows weren’t as muddy as they were last year, but the plants looked pretty picked-over, evidence that this mob probably had had more success filling their boxes than we did. Still, we managed to harvest a reasonable haul, before retiring to a wine bar in downtown Brentwood to reward our agricultural efforts with a well-deserved glass.
In the space of one week, Kathy and I have adopted two new kitty members of our family and experienced firsthand a bit of our area’s ag heritage. Whether felines or fruit, it’s definitely U-Pick season in CoCo County.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Our poor little Taz left us on Monday. She never quite recovered from her surgery earlier this year and weighed less than five pounds in her last week. Although she still liked cuddling up with us at night we had to check repeatedly to make sure she was still breathing. Tony and I had many discussions about how we would know if was the right time to help her on her journey. I know that we made the correct decision.
Our other departed kitty, Otis (oy, what a couple of months it has been) had been gaining weight so ten years ago we thought we would get her a friend. We adopted Taz from the Humane Society and realized quite quickly that Otis wanted nothing to do with her. Best laid plans, huh?
When we adopted Taz she was skin and bones and her previous owners had given her up because they could not afford the vet bills. We found that she was food obsessed. We had to lock Otis in another room so that Taz would not eat all of the food. Tazo Marie bloomed to a very heavy 13 pounds and was on a low-carb diet (which we named “Catkins”).
Taz (or Tazo, Tazo-Tea) was always “little.” Even though she was seven when she came to live with us she seemed like a kitten. She loved to chase yarn and steal rubber bands. But most of all, she LOVED people. She needed to be in someone’s lap at all times, and that person was usually Tony.
Taz and Tony had a special bond. He was very gentle with her (unlike the rough-housing that Otis and I participated in) and she followed him everywhere. Tony had always wanted a “fireplace kitty” (a cat who would curl up in front of the fireplace with him) and that was Tazo. Many times I would come home with groceries, expecting help carrying them in, only to find Tony stuck in a chair with a sleeping kitty on his lap.
The only bad habit that Taz had was her incessant meowing—usually at 4:30 in the morning—trying to get her “people” up to feed her. Her meow was like the way Laura Petrie said, “Ohhhhh, Roooooobbbb,” on the Dick Van Dyke show. Man, she could howl.
Tazo, you were a very good kitty and we miss you tremendously.
Monday, May 9, 2011
So, wait; you’re telling me that I never wrote about the little town of Isleton, California? It’s this little town of fewer than 900 people, located along the Sacramento River/San Joaquin River Delta that defines our Oakley old vine vineyards.
Kathy and I drive through Isleton every time we make our increasingly frequent trips farther east along the Delta water levee to 3 wine company in Clarksburg (FYI: the highway diverts you through downtown [well done, Isleton town fathers!] but there’s usually a California Highway Patrol cruiser at the trough of the road: speed trap!). But Kath and I always reminisce about the time we actually stopped for lunch in Isleton, a couple of months after we relocated to Oakley around Labor Day 2009.
Movin’ on up from a 1,000-square-foot Seattle bungalow to a joint three times the size in Northern Cali, we were in the market for some new accouterments. In the autumn of 2009, we found ourselves in a shop in downtown Berkeley purchasing an area rug. The loquacious cashier was the coolest, despite at least six customers behind us; upon learning that we were East Bay transplants, he immediately drew us up a list of towns to visit once we cross the big divide from CoCo County into the great beyond of Sacramento County. Yeah, like we’re not in das sticks as we are.
But our Crate&Barrel guide was prescient: Isleton, first on his list for us, was a wonder. OK, it has seen boom and bust, better days, with a huge Asian population working in the dozen or so canneries that made Isleton “The Asparagus Capital of the World.” The main drag can be walked in 15 minutes, and its now-mostly empty 19th-century storefronts just beg for creative tenants. It’s like a set for the movie “Westworld,” (which I shamelessly watched again the other night, and remembered that the novelization of the screenplay that I checked out of the Ottawa, Canada, public library in my youth, along with an Amarillo Slim guide on the then-new Hold’em Poker).
The 70’s Woody Guthrie bio-pic, “Bound for Glory,” directed by Hal Ashby, was shot in Isleton.
So, November of 2009, Kath and I go to Isleton for lunch. We wander, see lots of empty, closed storefronts, a bit of seismic work indicating commitment, and some great plaques. Chinese “tongs” (a gang term now, but one that truly means “community organization”) had actually been the original influence on at least one side of the street. The local history museum indicated that Chinese kept to one side of Main Street, Japanese to the other.
But gotta tell ya: If ever a group of artists, bakers, winemakers, brewmeisters, ceramicists and writers decide to descend on real estate, this is the hook-up.
Oh, yeah, lunch in fall of 2009. So Kath and I park, walk, and are ready to leave. The professional drinkers’ bar across the street brings back ‘Nam flashbacks of White Center, WA’s taverns. But the diner across the main drag is das bee’s knees.
Isleton Joe’s posts a banner touting the “Isleton Crawdad Festival.” Sadly the economy dealt a blow to this annual celebration; it has been canceled for the first time in years; an event that allegedly tripled the population of “The Little Paris of the Delta” every Fathers’ Day weekend.
Oh, yeah, lunch. We sit in a booth, order two rations of crawdadi. OK, Kath likes them more than do I, but a couple of glasses of house white make the medicine go down. In the most delightful way. Isleton Joe’s is famous for serving crawdads, and the place has a distinct “Northern Exposure” vibe (see photo with this post). There’s an old bar on one side of the joint, and the diner on the other side of a dividing wall. The clientele was a mixture of bikers, seniors, tourists, families and farmers. And we had just happened, on that visit in 2009, to have stopped in for lunch on one of Isleton Joe’s Saturday afternoon oyster barbecues held out on their outdoor side patio.
We ended up staying for hours. After our lunch. Outdoor karaoke was being hosted by a dapper older gent who, Kath and I were convinced, just had to be Isleton’s mayor (kinda like Maurice from “Exposure,” but friendlier). We had plates of big barbecued Pacific oysters on the shell, smothered in garlic butter. We shared a table with strangers who quickly became new friends. We listened to bad Elvis performed by one of the local old-timers known for his Elvis, and even got up to dance when we weren’t running into the bar for wine refills. It was a blast, and I can’t believe that it took Kath and me until yesterday, Mother’s Day 2011, to return.
So yesterday, Kathy had a yearning for crawdads, so we motored out over the levee to — as Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean sing in the picture “A Mighty Wind” — “E _ _ A _ _ _ OE’S.”
We ordered the Crawdad Platter for Two and a couple of glasses of the house white, and then settled in to soak up the Cicely, Alaska, vibe. First, we spied signs that exclaimed that the Crawdad Festival was back this coming Father’s Day weekend. But now it’s called the “Cajun Festival” because apparently during Isleton’s yearlong hiatus from the fest in 2010, some other municipality or organization bought the trademark to the name!
Unfortunately, I also spied a wall notice that we had missed another oyster BBQ held just the weekend before. But there still seemed to be a fair amount of activity out on the patio: no karaoke with Mayor Maurice, but tunes pumped outside from the interior jukebox, with a steady stream of patrons of all stripes coming and going for drink refills.
Our crawdads came in a huge bowl, were seasoned outrageously with a great blend of Old Bay and other spices, and accompanied with cocktail sauce, lemon wedges, hardcore garlic bread, one Wet-Nap and not nearly enough napkins for the damage I was doing to our surroundings (Upon looking at her own hands after using the moist towlette after the meal, Kath remarked that her poor hand cleanup made her look like she’d applied self-tanner really, really badly). We ordered another glass of wine and mosied out to the patio to soak up some sun and relive as much as we could from 2009’s BBQ event. Yeah, there were no oysters this time, no family-style seating and no karaoke.
But the vibe was pretty darn close. Isleton, and Joe, probably demands nothing less.
On the drive home, we decided to stop in to the new Delta Farmer’s Market stand at the intersection of Highways 160 and 12. The sign said “Wine Tasting Saturdays and Sundays” and you don’t have to ask me twice. Our host was hilarious, she waived the $5 tasting fee, knew her stuff (she used to work for Beringer), and despite the fact that they were pouring into those little plastic cup things, Kath ended up loading her arms with a half-dozen selections, one of which was a 2007 Andrus Island Merlot from California Cellars located on Isleton’s outskirts.
Andrus Island itself is an Isleton neighbor on the Sacramento River, cooled down at night by that Delta breeze we experience here in Oakley. Coming from Washington state, which cut its teeth on Merlot decades ago, we rarely seek out a Cali Merlot. But the Andrus Island 2007 sneaks up on you. It’s got an earthy garnet color in the glass, almost like a Pinot disguise. The nose reveals bright cranberry fruit and a certain spiciness. It’s tight on the palate, nowhere near the lapel-grabbing Merlots in WA state’s past (present?), but the mouthfeel is of earth and cloves.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
For the very first time, the City of Oakley has put together a bocce ball league through their parks and recreation department. Oakley has over a dozen parks citywide, but the park near our house has two bocce pitches, and that’s where we play. Turnout has been phenomenal, so much so that to accommodate all who signed up, teams play every two weeks, rather than weekly. Nearby Brentwood has had bocce for a while, and once Oakley started the program this year, a lot of bocce carpetbaggers migrated our way. Yeah, as with all things, there are some folks who are really hardcore: There were entire teams that had signed up together as one unit; others who were upset that each match consists of two games rather than what I gather is regulation-play three. Then there are the inexperienced single players like myself who just want to have a few laughs and learn something new. I’m pretty lousy, but I have made a couple of fluky good shots in my two outings so far. Fat lot of good they’ve done my team; we haven’t won a single game yet.
Yesterday, Kathy and I motored down, yet again, to Livermore, this time for the city’s annual WineFest. A neighbor had told us about it last year, and oddly enough, we ran into them yesterday at the event. We really hadn’t been in the heart of Livermore’s downtown, and it’s a charming area. For the fest, they block off an entire section of the main drag, and line it with an array of vendor booths (a lot of the usual suspects: Avon, Kettle Korn, etc.) As well, three wine tents throughout the venue featured sample pours from local wineries.
Kath and I had actually visited most of the actual wineries on previous trips to the outlying rural sections of the city, but it was nice to reacquaint ourselves with some of their wares, as well as be introduced to a couple of spots on the wine map that we hadn’t yet visited. One old familiar acquaintance, Crooked Vine Winery, was pouring their estate-grown Petite Sirah yesterday. It prompted Kathy to remember that we bought their 2007 Petite on a visit this past February. Pulling it out of the cellar upon our return home, Kath suggested that it would pair nicely with that night’s dinner of pan-seared lamb chops with fresh mint salad. Man, she was right. As usual. Crooked Vine’s version is a more elegant, less rustic varietal rendition of Petite, with a smoothness that doesn’t grab you by the lapels to demand attention.
It had been a nice, civilized day, as we soaked up some sun and tasted our way through WineFest, and then, as we headed back to the car, we discovered a great little wine shop downtown, run buy a friendly guy who used to be a regional wine buyer for Cost Plus World Market. The shop is tiny, but his selection and prices are a wonder. We came away with a few finds. Surprise, surprise.