Note: This is the second in a series of travel essays about a recent visit to California’s wine country. This past week, Marieta and I were joined by close friends and fellow wine aficionados Mark and Tina Napolitano in beautiful Sonoma County, where we enjoyed tastings at several local wineries. Today, I shall focus on the experience of visiting and tasting one of the most famous wines in the history of California wine production — Chateau Montelena.
Visiting the famous winery known as Chateau Montelena is sort of like going back to your 20-year high school reunion and checking out whatever happened to the prom queen.
Is she still hot?
Now, she’s become a bloated glob of disappointment.
That’s basically Chateau Montelena in a simple cork twist.
I very much wanted to like Chateau Montelena — both the wine and the tasting experience. Unfortunately, I was grossly disappointed by both. My colleagues too, shared this monumental let down.
We all knew the marvelous story of how this famed winery basically transformed the modern wine scene, and initially put California on the map as a serious producer of fine drinkable wine. Back in 1976, everything in great in wine had to be from France. But Chateau Montelena’s entry into the blind tasting contest at Paris, and winning the top prize, stunned everyone — especially the French. That seismic event essentially created what became a sort of gold rush to the west. Only this time, prospectors were in a quest for the perfect cabs, pinots, and zins.
The early story of Chateau Montelena was captured in the vastly underrated 2008 film starring Alan Rickman (best known as villain Hans Gruber in the first Die Hard movie). It’s a wonderful underdog story of how a few people changed an entire industry, and altered wine consumption habits and attitudes.
Executive Chef Terry Lynch at El Segundo Sol, flanked by two loyal fans
Absolutely no detail is too small for master of food and beverage, Terry Lunch. When the famed partner-chef of the much celebrated Mon Ami Gabi Restaurant (inside Paris Casino) opened up El Segundo Sol, which offers highly-customized Mexican fare, he chose his recipes and ingredients carefully.
Take rice, for example.
That’s right — rice.
One doesn’t normally pay much attention to rice in Mexican cooking. Think of the typical spicy brown rice that comes with beans next to enchiladas. It’s a staple hardly worth noticing.
But when Lynch decided to head south of the border for his next cooking phase opening up this ideally-situated restaurant four years ago, he considered about 50 different varieties of rice. Fifty! After sampling everything on the market, Lynch finally found the perfect accompaniment for his one-of-a-kind cuisine — a jasmine rice he infused with garlic which makes for a special taste all its own.
Of course, no one comes to El Segundo Sol for the rice. But this story is emblematic of the overall approach this wonderful restaurant and its head chef takes with every preparation — from the bar to the kitchen. Only the freshest ingredients are selected and served. Cliche? Yes — but in this case it’s accurate. Everything is made in house, from scratch. Even the dairy products come from a small boutique supplier, Straus Dairy in Sonoma County (California).
Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse Barbecue is one of those hidden dives in a lousy part of town that serves not only outstanding food, but also once institutionalized a specific cuisine and way of cooking.
It’s been a Dallas mainstay since 1910. The original store opened on Inwood Road and Mockingbird Lane, near Love Field Airport, adjacent to Parkland Memorial Hospital, notable because that’s where President Kennedy was pronounced dead all those years ago.
Several other locations have opened up since then — all of them in Dallas. Why they don’t expand to other markets is a mystery. I think this establishment and recipe would drive every all the other frauds out of business. The original family that started the grand tradition of smoking beff retains ownership. Moreover, the Bryan Family has maintained the same cooking techniques that made this place world-famous. It’s been featured on The Travel Channel, The Food Network, and in all the popular cuisine press — justifiably so.
Every time I go back to Dallas, I try to make at least one trip to the best (beef) barbecue place in the world — and that’s Sonny Bryan’s.
I get to dine out with some really amazing people. Names that you would certainly recognize. Even the names you don’t know are often just as interesting, if not more so.
This is all taken for granted, of course. Every night is a potential feast, not only for the food and drink — but for the fresher garnishment of fond memories, provocative ideas, good fun, and plenty of laughs.
Still, I must say this. My favorite dinner companion remains the one person I never getting tried of being with, or listening to. She’s full of more memories, ideas, fun, and laughs than anyone I know, or could hope to know. Of course, I’m talking about Marieta.
Pay attention, people. Otherwise, you’ll be left out. You won’t get invited to dinner.
Over the next few months, I shall frequently be dining in mixed company.
What’s “mixed company,” you ask?
This means company which varies widely, from A-Listers (the most ideal dinner companions) down to lowly D-Listers (who should both be muzzled and minimized). Note that certain classes of people are banned outright. The banned class shalt not enjoy the luxury of joining me under any circumstances.
To ensure harmony and fluidity throughout the dining room as well as inspirit a congenial atmosphere at my dinner table, the following seating arrangements shall strictly be enforced. You are hereby advised as follows: