9 Places to Dine After a Day of SLO Wining

novodishAbout halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Luis Obispo wine country unfolds along the seafront side of the Santa Lucia mountain range in San Luis Obispo County.

Adjoining American Viticultural Areas are Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley, and the average distance between the wineries and the Pacific Ocean is just five miles. It’s a true maritime climate, and one of California’s coolest for wine grape growing.

Most of the tasting rooms have a laid-back vibe, with stunning scenery against a blue-sky backdrop. And once you’re done tasting wine, a number of exceptional restaurants beckon for a wind-down dinner. Here are nine of our favorites…

  1. Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steak House

Renowned for its outstanding menu and spectacular pink and gold décor, this award-winning restaurant features amazing oak pit-barbecued steak, fresh seafood, vegetarian entrees, a superb wine list, decadent desserts and nightly entertainment. Its Silver Bar offers cocktails, wine, beer and appetizers. 805-543-3000.

  1. Big Sky Café

Featured in a Wall Street Journal story on where to eat in San Luis Obispo, this casual and contemporary downtown eatery features fresh market cuisine and 20 local wines by the glass. Organic products, fresh seafood and many vegetarian choices are included on the eclectic international menu. 805-545-5401.

  1. Café Roma

A quintessential Central Coast experience. From its classic Italian dining room to its covered patio and casual bar, you’ll be transported to Italy when you walk through the doors. Its classic seasonal menu is complemented by more than 200 Italian and local wines. 805-541-6800.

  1. Lido Restaurant & Lounge at Dolphin Bay

Enjoy stunning ocean views and farm-to-table cuisine, expertly paired with fine local wines. If you’ve been wine touring all day, two bottles may be brought in and opened with no corkage fee. Locals enjoy the weekday sunset happy hour, as well as the exceptional weekend Champagne brunch. 805-773-8900.

  1. Luna Red

Located at the Mission de Tolosa in the heart of San Luis Obispo, this restaurant serves innovative, globally inspired cuisine sourced from local growers and purveyors. It also offers a wide selection of local and international wines, and features live music on select nights. 805-540-5243.

  1. Novo

Set against a rich, eclectic backdrop, Novo’s international flavors are the leading ingredients in an exotic dining experience. Located in an historic downtown building with spectacular creek-side seating, it’s a favorite with locals and tourists alike. It features an extensive global and local wine list, and has a downstairs “cellar room” for private parties or large groups. 805-543-3986.

  1. Rooster Creek Tavern

Creative appetizers, main-course dishes such as Cane Rum Cured Salmon and wood-fired artisan pizzas are just part of the culinary allure of this restaurant in the village of Arroyo Grande. The wine list is extensive, spotlighting numerous local estates. 805-489-2509.

  1. Splash Café & Artisan Bakery

We can think of three reasons to frequent this charming café: 1. for a bowl of clam chowder as a prelude to a fresh seafood entrée; 2. for an amazing breakfast pastry, baked fresh daily; 3. for a box lunch to accompany a wine country picnic. 805-544-7567.

  1. Windows on the Water

The menu changes with the seasons at this fine-dining restaurant overlooking Morro Bay and Morro Rock. Local sources are used for fresh fish, vegetables, fruit, herbs, livestock and seafood, and the award-winning menu is accompanied by a thoughtfully selected wine list. 805-772-0677.

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Posted in Our Wine Travel Log

How 9/11 Changed My Wine-Drinking Philosophy

9-11-2011aThirteen years can pass in the blink of an eye — something we’re reminded of each holiday season, each birthday and now on this 13th 9/11 since the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Virtually every American was touched in one way or another by that horrible day, including America’s wine family. Among them was Eric Munson, who lost two brothers-in-law (the brothers of his wife) on that fateful day, as described in this blog from 2007.

As was the case with the Kennedy assassination 38 years earlier, most people will never forget where they were when New York’s “twin towers” came crashing down that morning.

Two of my good friends, Donald and Nancy Dudzinski, happened to be on vacation in California’s North Coast wine country. They recall stopping by a winery in Sonoma County that morning and being somewhat surprised to find the tasting room open.

“What can we do?” the staffer told them. “On a day like this, drinking wine is probably a good thing.”

Paranoia was rampant in most of America’s big cities. Officials took immediate steps to protect their tallest buildings, fearing that additional airplanes could be coming their way. But in California wine country, calm intermingled with the sadness of the day. It seemed unlikely that terrorists would spend their resources on destroying lightly populated winery buildings when so many more lives could be ended by targeting skyscrapers.

And so, my friends went on with their day, taking a few bottles and a picnic lunch to Lake Sonoma, where they sipped and snacked in near silence, made eerily so by the events of that morning.

A few days later, with America’s airplanes grounded, they kept their rental car and drove it home to Chicago.

That’s where I was living at the time, and I’ll never forget how the downtown area cleared out within a couple hours as the magnitude of the attacks became apparent on television. Commuter trains went off their light mid-morning schedules, instead adopting a “load-and-go” policy. By lunchtime, downtown Chicago was a ghost town.

I worked in a high-rise, and remember going outside and trying to figure out what it would take for an airplane to strike that building. I concluded that it would take some pretty sophisticated maneuvering, so I decided to stay put. I believed I was safer there than in my high-rise apartment building, which was just three blocks from the famous Sears Tower — a much more likely target.

Finally, around 3 o’clock, I decided to walk home. I made the three-quarter-mile trek in record time, as there were few fellow pedestrians to maneuver around and only a handful of cars (mostly taxis) on the street. That meant I could ignore the “Do Not Walk” signs and go non-stop.

A two-block perimeter had been set up around the Sears Tower (now known as the Willis Tower), which meant I had to take a slight detour. Police officers stared at me as I strolled alongside the red cones and other more secure barriers they’d set up.

Once I was home, I did what virtually every other American did that day: I turned on the television set, soaking in the sights and sounds provided by CNN and other news outlets, and tried to understand what had happened.

But this was one of those occasions when understanding was unattainable. I recall opening a bottle of wine to help anesthetize my psyche.

It was red wine, but I couldn’t tell you the variety or the brand. I do know that it was one of the best bottles on my rack, and I recall reaching for it because, as I continued to watch the horrific images on TV, I came to understand that no tomorrows are guaranteed.

9/11 impacted everyone differently. Some decided to bury the hatchet with estranged family members, something that (fortunately) did not apply to me. Others updated their “bucket lists” and began contemplating where they wanted to go once the airplanes returned to the skies.

For me, that was the day I stopped aging wines and began drinking them. It’s a philosophy I still embrace today, 13 years later.

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Seeking Bubbly Bliss as Autumn Beckons

sparklingwine914It wasn’t until 2008 that “Prosecco” — the Italian name for sparkling wine — was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Oh, Prosecco had been around for generations. But it had not yet become trendy enough in the United States for the word to be considered part of our lexicon, as I explained in this blog written that same year.

In the six years since it became okay to say “Prosecco,” things certainly have changed. Imports to the United States have doubled from 16 million bottles to 32 million bottles, the spike in popularity boosted, in large part, by millennials. Not only is that generation partying with Moscato, they’re toasting with Prosecco.

One reason, of course, is price. Prosecco tends to cost less than Champagne, the famous sparkling wine of France.

Another is flavor. Prosecco makers clearly understand that American palates also expect quality, and many have invested in state-of-the-art equipment to help ensure that their bottlings are just as consistent from year to year as their French counterparts.

Which style of sparkling wine do you prefer? Prosecco? Champagne? Perhaps sparkling wine from another region of France, known as Cremant (typically with an appellation name tagged on)? The Sparkling Wine Sampler being featured by Vinesse provides an opportunity to sample three exquisite sparklers side by side at a very reasonable price.

Earlier this year, we posted a recipe for an Italian-style risotto that’s made and pairs perfectly with Prosecco. It also matches nicely with Champagne and Cremant — a special culinary treat, particularly as the cooler autumn weather beckons.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes

Quake Reminds Us That You Can’t Put a Price on Human Life

TrefethenTwo weeks and two days have passed since the largest earthquake to hit Northern California in a quarter-century rocked the Napa Valley.

We reported on the quake the day after it hit, sharing friend and colleague Jim Caudill’s early impressions. He was awakened by the shaking, and the word he used to describe it was as good as any other assessment I’ve heard in the quake’s aftermath: “gnarly.”

The next day, we included a picture of a badly damaged historical building at Trefethen Family Vineyards. Its damage looked a lot like that sustained by so many buildings in downtown Napa.

Early assessments of the overall damage ranged from the tens of millions to a billion dollars. Such assessments are educated guesses, at best, and we probably won’t know the full economic impact for months.

One thing we all can agree upon is that the timing of the earthquake — 3:20 a.m. — couldn’t have been better, as magnitude 6.0 quakes go. Most of Napa Valley’s wineries sustained little, if any, structural damage. Their greatest losses came in the form of lost wine, spilled from broken and shattered barrels. Had the quake occurred during regular operating hours, it’s likely those flying barrels would have killed several people.

Lost wine is sad. Lost lives would have been tragic.

Once the clean-up was completed at wineries, many owners began thinking about how they could better “ride out” the next big quake — which could come in 25 years or 25 days. According to one report, most of the destroyed barrels were set loose from two-barrel racks, whereas sturdier four-barrel racks seemed to fare better. It also seems that the higher the racks were stacked, the more likely they were to let barrels loose.

Moving forward, winery owners must assess their rack systems not only as “line items,” but for their safety. The two concerns are not independent of one another. In the case of Silver Oak Cellars, according to an Associated Press report, “each full barrel that stayed put and didn’t break represented upwards of $32,500 in wine saved.”

But beyond that, we should not forget that every life saved is priceless.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Exploring the Olive Oil-and-Wine Connection

Wine Olive PairingCalifornia’s climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean, and perfectly suited for growing olives.

Lot, hot, dry summers promote growth of olives with optimal oil and antioxidants that are believed to enhance health and longevity.

Numerous olive varieties are grown in California, the most prominent being Manzanillo, Sevillano, Mission, Ascolano, Frantoio and Arbequina. Harvesting at varying degrees of ripeness captures a wide array of flavors — just like what happens with wine grapes.

This means California’s artisan olive growers are able to create a bounty of diverse, extraordinary Extra Virgin Olive Oils that cover an incredible spectrum of flavor possibilities. There truly is an olive oil for virtually every palate and culinary use.

A company called We Olive opened its first store in 2003 to create a place for these artisan growers to market their products. Now, it is California’s premier olive tasting bar and retailer, offering olive oils from more than 20 producers at eight locations throughout the state.

Tasting an olive oil is the best way to be sure it’s what you like — and what you’d like to share with others. We Olive provides a place where people can enjoy the full spectrum of the finest olives, olive oils, other foods and gifts that the Golden State has to offer.

It’s kind of like going to a winery’s tasting room, only with a different product to taste, assess and, perhaps, purchase.

A few years ago, Carol Firenze wrote a blog about the similarities (and a few differences) between wine and olive oil. One main difference is that olive oil typically does not age well; it’s best to consume it within a month or month-and-a-half after opening the bottle. Check out Carol’s informative blog here.

Many wineries in Italy have been making olive oil for generations. In recent years, a growing number of California wineries have joined their Italian cousins in that pursuit. Two of my favorite olive oils made by Golden State vintners come from Jacuzzi Family Vineyards and B.R. Cohn Winery.

Jacuzzi is located in Sonoma, and its award-winning olive oil is produced on the estate by The Olive Press. B.R. Cohn, in Glen Ellen, named its home vineyard after the grove of Picholine olive trees on the estate; it’s called Olive Hill Estate Vineyard.

Want to try a dish that successfully marries food, wine and olive oil? It’s tough to beat this Pizza Margherita recipe from Dominic Orsini, the winery chef at Silver Oak Cellars. The recommended wine pairing: Cabernet Sauvignon.

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In October, I’ll be spending five days in Barcelona. Like Italy, Spain is known for its olive oil, and I hope to find some unique bottles to bring back home. Have you been to Barcelona? If so, could you recommend an olive oil “destination” for us to check out? Click on “Leave a comment” below this blog’s headline, and let me know!

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Posted in Vinesse Style

Dealing With Hangovers — Before and After

Red_Wine_Pouring2Wine is not a beverage that one binges on. We don’t “shoot” wine, like some consume whiskey, tequila or other potent potables.

Rather, most people sip wine, or enjoy it as part of a meal. As a consequence, wine hangovers are rare.

But let’s say you had one too many, and on the morning after you’re feeling the effects of the night before — right between the eyes.

How does one deal with a wine hangover?

Well, whatever you do, don’t drink more wine. (Not yet, anyway.) The “hair of the dog” approach never really works. It may re-numb your senses for a while, but before long that annoying headache will be back, perhaps stronger than before.

Many people start chugging coffee… which also is a bad idea. One of the reasons you have that headache is because you’re dehydrated. Alcohol does that. Coffee is packed with caffeine, so drinking it to cure a headache will not work; it’s just likely to make you more alert and, thus, more aware of your headache.

The best beverages to fight a hangover are packed-with-Vitamin-C juices, sports drinks that are not loaded with caffeine (such as Gatorade), or — the best choice of all — water.

Once you’ve rehydrated your body, the headache associated with a hangover will begin to subside.

Of course, the best advice in dealing with a hangover is to avoid it in the first place.


By drinking just as much water as wine. I do this simply by alternating sips: a sip of wine, a sip of water… a sip of wine, a sip of water. Add bites of food to the “rotation” to further mitigate the affect of the wine’s alcohol.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Because you have to pace yourself, preventing a hangover can actually enhance your wine-drinking experience.

You’ll also remember it better.

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Posted in Wine and Health

5 Tips for Pacing Yourself When Visiting a Tasting Room

duckhornvineyardsThe first time I visited “wine country,” I knew nothing about wine. Nor did I know anything about visiting a winery tasting room.

I was a reporter covering a different industry entirely, and I was on a junket with about 10 other reporters to the San Francisco Bay Area to witness the unveiling of a revolutionary new product — synthetic (non-wood) bowling lanes.

One evening, the group of reporters was treated to dinner at a Yugoslavian restaurant. We were encouraged to order anything we wanted — both food and wine.

I opted for the pepper steak, which was one of the specialties of the house, and a fellow reporter and I took a blind stab at the wine list and “selected” a bottle of Duckhorn Vineyards’ Three Palms Vineyard Merlot.

We liked the wine a lot, and decided to spend a day in the Napa Valley before we returned home.

That day, from 10 a.m. until around 4:30 p.m., we hit every winery we could along Napa Valley’s Highway 29. At that time, most of the wineries offered free tasting. Those that charged usually threw in a logo wine glass as part of the nominal fee.

I really don’t recall much about that day. My friend’s wife assumed designated driver duties after the second stop. By noon, my buddy and I were blitzed.

Free… or almost so… wine: What a concept!

I don’t think we even stopped for lunch. We just kept going. We were on a mission to drink as much wine as we could, although we told ourselves it was all in the name of education.

When I look back on that day, more than a quarter-century later, I just shake my head. There’s virtually no chance any learning took place that day. If we did pick up a morsel of information here and there, it had to have been lost in the haze of all that alcohol.

Still, we’d had a great time, and we wanted to learn more — really learn.

So, when we got back home, we began planning our next wine country trip. Rather than simply dropping in at any winery that had an “open” sign, we did some research and put together an actual itinerary.

Over the years and after countless wine country trips, we learned how to pace ourselves and get the most out of a wine-tasting expedition.

Gleaned from all of that experience — what we’d done wrong and what we’d done right — here are five tips to help you get the most out of a visit to a winery tasting room…

1. Make a plan.

Decide which wineries you want to visit, and map out a logical order so you don’t have to backtrack.

2. Plan no more than three winery visits per day.

And spread them out. For example: 10 a.m. to 12 noon… noon to 2 p.m. … and 2-4 p.m. If you have time between stops, grab a bite to eat, or check out some of the shops in the valley’s towns. There are a number of art galleries in the valley, too.

3. Spit.

Wineries place “dump buckets” on the tasting bar for a reason. They want to keep visitors sober and everyone in the valley safe. If you’re not comfortable spitting out wine after swirling it around in your mouth, do the next-best thing: drink no more than half of what you’re poured.

4. Carry water with you.

While tasting wine — or drinking alcohol of any kind, for that matter — you need to keep hydrated.

5. Take advantage of “winery experiences.”

More and more wineries are offering enhanced tours and tasting programs that involve snacks or even multi-course meals. Some can be pricey, but if your budget allows, such “experiences” not only can be fun, they can help you pace yourself.

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Posted in Wine Tips

The Order of Things: Getting the Most Out of a Wine Tasting

iStock_000015284487SmallThe first time you visit a tasting room at a winery, it can be a daunting experience.

Daunting in a delicious, palate-awakening, senses-satiating way… but daunting nonetheless.

This is especially true if the winery offers lots of wines to sample. Some have so many that they restrict guests to a certain number — perhaps five or six — and ask the guest to select them.

Did we mention daunting?

I recently visited a winery that had 23 wines available for tasting. I kid you not. Twenty-three. Its pricing was eight tastes for $10.

Fortunately, since I’ve been doing this for a while, I knew what to do to narrow down the candidates.

First, I asked the tasting room attendant to name their best white wine, their best red wine and their best dessert wine. An experienced attendant will have been trained to know what to pour when such a request is made. Those that haven’t will typically reach for the most expensive bottles. Either way, I’m going to get tastes of three wines that probably are quite good.

After that, I look for unusual wines — a lesser known varietal, a promising sounding blend, a single-vineyard bottling. That often will complete the lineup, but if I still have a choice or two available, I’ll look for designations such as “Reserve” or “Winemaker’s Selection,” etc.

You can use those tips to create a pretty nice selection of wines at just about any tasting room.

One other strategy is to simply put your tasting fate in the hands of the attendant. That usually works fine, since they should know the product line. But if you opt for that approach, just be prepared to answer the question, “What kind of wine do you like?”

Once the lineup of wines for tasting has been determined, you still need to figure out the order in which to taste them. Again, the tasting room attendant should know what to do. But should they hesitate, here are a few guidelines to remember:

* White before red.

* Red before sweet.

* Light before heavy.

* Sparkling before all.

* Sweet after all.

Following that “order of things” will enable your palate to taste every nuance of every wine. If you taste a sweet wine before a dry one, the sugar remaining in your mouth will mask the flavor of the dry wine.

A visit to a winery tasting room need not be a daunting experience. In fact, it should be both educational and fun. Follow the basic guidelines we’ve outlined, and you’ll be in for a memorable day.

And we mean memorable in a good way.

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Tomorrow: How to pace yourself when tasting wine.

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Posted in Wine Tips

In the Land of Whiskey, a Wine Festival Beckons


photo by Beth Sachan

If we were to play a game of “beverage word association,” and I were to say, “Wisconsin,” your response likely would be, “Milk.”

After all, Wisconsin is the “Dairy State.”

(Alternately, you might offer, “Beer,” since Milwaukee is the home of the Miller Brewing Company.)

Okay, let’s play that game with another locale. Are you ready?


I’m guessing your first reaction was, “Whiskey.” Which would make sense, since Tennessee is home to Jack Daniel’s.

So it may come as at least a mild surprise that on the weekend of September 20-21, Nashville will play host to the Music City Food + Wine festival.

It will feature the usual array of culinary and wine-tasting opportunities, and its “main event” — dubbed “The Grand Taste” — has been described as “a tour of flavors featuring Nashville’s finest.”

That’s hard to argue, given the all-star lineup of chefs scheduled to participate:

* Sean Brock

* Tyler Florence

* Amanda Freitas

* Mike Lata

* Tim Love

* Masaharu Morimoto

* Aaron Sanchez

* Frank Stitt

* Michael Symon

* Jonathan Waxman

* Tandy Wilson

* Trisha Yearwood

*Andrew Zimmern

It promises to be a memorable weekend of food and wine adventures. And since it’s Nashville, chances are you’ll get to hear some great music, too. Much like Austin, Nashville is known for its abundance of live music venues.

To learn more about Music City Food + Wine, click here.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Pinquito Beans: A Key Part of a Santa Maria-Style Barbecue Feast

In yesterday’s blog, we shared the history of the Santa Maria-style barbecue, as well as my favorite place to partake of this unique regional cuisine — a restaurant just north of Santa Maria called Jocko’s.

Today, we share a recipe for one of the key ingredients of a Santa Maria-style barbecue meal. It’s a popular side dish for grilled tri-tip steak, and we suggest serving it all family-style with Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel.



  • 1 lb. Pinquito beans
  • 1 strip diced bacon
  • ½-cup diced ham
  • 1 small clove garlic, minced
  • ¾-cup tomato puree
  • ¼-cup red chili sauce
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard


1. Cover beans with water and let soak overnight in a large container.

2. Drain, cover with fresh water, and simmer 2 hours or until tender.

3. Sauté bacon and ham until lightly browned. Add garlic, sauté a minute or two longer, then add tomato puree, chili sauce, sugar, mustard and salt.

4. Drain most of liquid off beans and stir in sauce. Keep hot over low heat until ready to serve.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes
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