Birthday Sideways by Loris Scagliarini

My wife's birthday and mine are just five days apart and on the occasion, we love to take a few days off on our own, going on short road trips or soaking in one of the hot springs in nearby Napa or Lake counties. This year, following what appears to be a new California trend, we decided to take our own Sideways trip in one of the lesser known, up-and-coming wine countries. Brigit, my wife, kindly also agreed to amuse me and make no hotel reservations, but instead drive toward a designed area, stopping in places that attracted us along the way. I used to do this a lot when I was living in Italy.

Originally published on WineCountry.IT in October 2005
All right reserved • © (Lorini) Loris Scagliarini

On an October midday, the two of us and our 18-year-old Roman cat Maya, left sunny Marin County and headed south on beautiful, scenic Highway 1, driving leisurely and enjoying the breathtaking views of rocky cliffs plunging dramatically into the ocean, that is, after we left the foggy blanket that wrapped us from Sausalito, just before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, all the way to Pacifica.

Brigit Solè-March: We're out of the fog, but the coastal wind is still pretty chilly
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We spent the first night in Carmel-by-the-Sea, at the Carmel Resort Inn, an original, unpretentious, homey hotel consisting of independent wooden bungalows scattered in a pleasantly landscaped block between Second and First Avenue on Carpenter Street, about a mile from the ocean and a few walking blocks from the cute downtown with its art galleries, boutiques and restaurants.

We dined at Tutto Mondo Trattoria, an excellent Italian restaurant just off central Ocean Avenue, on Dolores Street. Though we usually prefer Italian wines, we had decided that on our 'Sideways' trip would drink California wines only, and for our first dinner Brigit choose a 2002 St. Francis Old Vine Zinfandel from Sonoma.

It was very good, jammy, full-bodied, well-balanced and with just the right hints of oak, but I consider its 15.5% alcohol content to be way too high for a table wine.

In fact, one of the reasons why I do prefer Italian wines is their lower alcoholic content, in addition to the greater variety and flavors offered by the Italian wine production in general. With some notable exceptions, such as Amarone from Veneto and Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany among others, most Italian wines average between 12% and 13.5% alcohol by volume.

Italians enjoy drinking their wines with their long meals and the lower alcohol content allows for a few more glasses at dinner without waking up the next morning with dry, unsavory mouth and heavy head.

The next morning we drove south deciding to spend the next night somewhere near Hearst Castle after calling to reserve a tour, just like Jack and Miles, the two Sideways "heroes", do in the book (but not in the movie).

A beautiful morning on the beach at Carmel, in the brisk coastal wind.
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As Brigit and I are no match to Miles and Jack when it comes to drinking, we did not have wine during the day, stopping instead from time to time to take pictures of the landscape and of colonies of elephant seals laying leisurely on secluded beaches or playing in the water. We stopped at Nepenthe, in Big Sur for a wineless picnic,.then drove south, past Gorda to Cambria, where we stayd at the Moonstone Inn, a cozy, older hotel with furniture too big for the small rooms.

We stayed there about ten years ago and had fond memories of the place, located across a quiet neghborhood street from a quiet stretch of Moonstone Beach. The place is certainly not luxurious, but the welcome and care given to the guests by the current management is superior. As we were checking in, the lady at the counter asked casually which wine we prefere among Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Sauvignon, so she could bring to our room a glass of our favorite wine. Upon learning that we were in a celebratory trip for both our birthdays, she asked if we liked Champagne. Brigit, who loves Veuve Cliquot, and Malibran's Gorio Prosecco Extra Brut in particular, but likes sparkler in general, ligfhtened up. Thus we where delivered a bottle of Mastantuono Winery California Champagne cooled in a silver cooler with a small plate of cheese, crakers and some grapes.

Apart my disapproval for the use of the Champagne definition, the wine is a regular sparkling made with the method Charmat, has 11% of alcohol and the flavor is slightly bitter with hints of ripe apples. I gave it 82/100, Brigit 87/100. We sipped it sitting outside chatting with other guests and Bob Clunies, the owner, a San Franciscan transplanted in Cambria.

We remembered a nice nearby fish restaurant where we eat a decade ago, and found out that the Sea Cest was still there, served only seafood and did not accept credit cards. We took the short stroll by the beach and enjoyed a gorgious seafood meal with a splendid 2004 Central Coast Voigner by Alban Vineyards, to which both of us gave 95 points. Back at the hotel, we soak in the jacuzzi overlooking the beach, before slipping into a refreshing sleep at the light of the gas fireplace.

We awoke to a gorgious sunny morning and, while having the abundant breakifast that we selected the day before and was delivered to our room at the requested time, from our window we could see a whale blowing water not far fom the shore in her rather early migration south. After a morning soak in the hot tub, we took a stroll on the beach, sharing it whith fewer than a handful of people, one painter who was catching the morning impressions on canvas, and a rather large colony of young seagulls feasting on big messes of kelp washed ashore overnight.

It's a sunny morning without wind and the holes in the rocks form natural art
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So recharged, we hopped into the car and drove the few miles back north to San Simeon, where we had a delightful (wineless) picnic in the equipped park by the beach maintained for this by the local administration.Then we drove up to the Hearst Castle Visitor Center and joined the other many tourists, arriving from all over the States as well as from overseas. The extra luxurious former residence of William Randolph Hearst, which he shared mostly with his misterss, actress Marion Davis, rather than his legal wife, Mrs. Millicent Hearst, née Millicent Veeronica Willson, who actually lived in New York, was as we remembered from previous visits, but the hills and coastline vistas offered by the mountaintop compound and the extensive antique European art collection displayed throughout the main residence was worth revisiting.

I tend to agree with Miles bitternesh at the display of such a massive wealth concentrated in the hands of a single person and the power that goes with it. As Dave, our tour guide of the day said, at one point Mr. Hearst runned 94 companies, including movie production and a news empire. Actors, film directors and producers were all too eager to show him their latest movies in his xx-seat theater and hope as hell that he liked their work, as his judgement could make or brake a career. In fact, when Orson Wells produced Citizen Kane, the not so pleasant portait of an extremely powerful man loosely inspired to Hearst himself who did nor appreciate the effort, Welss name wasn't heard off much after taht in Holliwood. On the other hand, when in the 40's Mr. Hearst showed appreciacion for a young preacher named Billy Graham, all of a sudden the audience to his meetings balloned, helping him establish the religious congregation that lasts to these days.

Leaving the castle we drove south again to Higway 46, that took us inland to Paso Robles and its 150 or so wineries. On our way we stopped at Mastantuono Winery where we tasted their red wines, a Zinfandel, a Sangiovese and a Cabernet Sauvignon. We choose the latter to take back with us to pour it at the blind tasting organzed within the Italian Flavor Forum II, where three Californis red face off three Italian wines in the same price range, judged by a mixed panel of Italian and US wine professionals.

After setting down in historic Paso Robles Inn located downtown in Spring Street, we headed out to dinner at Buona Tavola, an Italian restaurant about a block down the same road. As we had been so pleased with the 2004 Alban Vineyard Voigner the night before, we choose the same wine from the 2003 vintage from the rather intersteing, if not extensive, wine list. The fresh, herbaceous nose of the wine introduced the slightly bitter, fresh, pleasant taste and confirmed the quality and consistency of this Voigner that complemented perfectly my grilled "Pescespada" (swordfish) and Brigit's "Tortelloni di Zucca e Mascarpone" (Pasta stuffed with Pumpkin and Mascarpone Cheese).

Afterwards we walked back to the hotel and closed the day with a relaxing soak in the open-air hot tub, under the trees of the Paso Robles Inn gardens.

Flocks of seagulls on Moonstone Beach. There are far more birds than humans around here
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The morning is bright and hot.

After a rich breakfast at the Paso Robles Inn Steakhouse we start hitting some of the wineries along Highway 46 and around paso Robles. The panorama is definitely rustic compared to the landscaped environment of Napa, but the vineyards seems to be doing pretty well and the wines are holding themselves pretty well.

We finally choose a Donny Boon Nebiolo and Fratelli Perata's Bimbo Grande (Big Child), a Sangiovese-based blend, to complete the lineup of california wines that will face three Italian red at the October 19, 2005 blind tasting, organized on the occasione of the Italian Flavor Forum II at the Golden Gate Yacht Club of San Francisco, California.

As we drive back home on highway 101, we noticed how, little by little, cattles have disappearing and vineyards have taken over. South of Coalinga for instance, where just a few years ago there where miles of golden rolling hills dotted by cows, now the green of the vines rolls as far as the eye can see.

Wine is becoming more and more appreciated and used in the United States, and with good reason. Though it contain alcohol, varioius studies suggest that daily consumption of one or two glasses of wine may have healtful effect in most  people. The keyword, as often it happens to be, is 'moderation'.

Further north we drive across huge cultivated fields, wih pickers working in lines

When we cross the Golden Gate Bridge the fog is dense as it was when we left. We found the sun again right where we left it, shining on the Sausalito houseboats.

We are happy to be home, but truly happy to have taken the time off to do it. Seeing the places where the wine is made, with its burned out, dry soil and dusty roads, puts the wine that you drink

  1. Birthday Sideways – October 2005
  2. Italian Sideways 2006 – April 2006
  3. Partially Aborted Sideways – October 2006
  4. Lonesome European Sideways – March - April 2007
  5. European Sideways 2008 – February 2008
  6. Southwestern Sideways: A Quest for Western US Wine Not From California – October 2007
  7. Iowa Sideways: A Quest for Wine in the Midwest – November 2007
  8. Vinitaly Sideways 2008 – April 2008
  9. Birthday Sideways 2008: Lake Tahoe & Yosemite Park – October 2008
  10. Arezzo Wine Sideways 2009 – February - March 2009
  11. Vinitaly Sideways 2009 – April 2009

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Journals and Journeys • © Loris Scagliarini (Lorini) 2000-2016