This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on November 18, 2022. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox each Friday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.
A Cruise Through Carmel
Much like it can be for out-of-towners telling friends about their visit to “Santa Barbara,” just uttering the name “Carmel” conjures up a bit of bougie elitism — especially, in both cases, if you over-elongate the “A”s. But just like it is for those of us who understand real life in Santa Barbara, the Carmel I’ve come to know since childhood is a much more dynamic mix of people and experiences than the ritzy-tourist-town label indicates.
As a San Jose native, my trips to Carmel-by-the-Sea started before I even recall, and my family’s connection to Carmel Valley runs deep: My great-uncle was the talk-show host/game-show creator turned hospitality mogul Merv Griffin, and we regularly had Western-style reunions at his hilltop pad overlooking those sun-soaked canyons. (I wrote this about Uncle Buddy, as we knew him, when he died in 2007.)
He was wealthy, yes, but that dusty, hot property was anything but bougie. Quite down-to-earth for the shiny career that he built for himself, Merv quickly ditched the talk-show game when his guests went from being heads of state to soap opera stars, and he frequently lamented the trending Hollywood trajectory of being celebrity for celebrity’s sake.
When I started covering the wines of the Carmel Valley for Wine Enthusiast almost nine years ago, I was reminded of how much I appreciated this comparably undisturbed sliver of California, where the immensity of nature is hardly held back by barbed-wire fences. I was also reminded how much Merv had to do with the creation of the region’s appellation: The narrowly defined rectangle swoops far up the mountain to snag his sauvignon blanc vineyard, a pretty obvious indication that he helped pay for the whole deal.
Over the past decade, I’ve become friendly with many of the winemakers who grow/make/pour wine in Carmel Valley and Carmel-by-the-Sea. So when my cousin decided to get married there last weekend, I used the opportunity to catch up with some of those folks amidst the wedding revelry.
Pulling into Carmel-by-the-Sea, my wife and I scarfed down salads from 5th Ave Deli, which, note to self for future, features quite a diverse spread of Indian cuisine, from roti to samosas. Then we battled the seaside town’s parking ridiculousness — what’s the use of a 30-minute time limit? — to make our way into Caraccioli Cellars, where Scott Caraccioli awaited with his bubbly lineup. (And also his chard, pinot, syrah, and brand new gamay.)
Though I’ve known Scott for a few years now, I met his dad, Gary Caraccioli, for the first time that afternoon. To say that he bore “some resemblance” to the other famous Garys of the Salinas Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands — the Pisoni and Franscioni versions, who also hail from Swiss-Italian settlers, and were high school classmates of Caraccioli — would be the understatement of the weekend. They’re a gregarious lot, to put it mildly.
After heading into Carmel Valley and checking into the Hidden Valley Inn, which is walking distance to the village center (though I never tested the theory), the evening affair was at The Wine House, where a buffet spread was showered in a bevy of various wines. The place is owned by the family behind Joyce Wine Co., but they serve many other brands as well. (Russell Joyce had to watch the kids that night, but he sent some wines down for me in his wake.)
The next morning, my brother joined me for a visit to Holman Ranch, which is a vineyard, winery, and venue that happened to be hosting my cousin’s wedding that evening. I’d connected with the property’s new CEO Kirstie Dyer on unrelated paths a few months ago, and a Saturday morning visit before the big bash seemed like a great multitasking move.
It was funny to have my brother see me in action on a vineyard/winery tour — he didn’t always approve of my cavalier attitude, apparently, but appeared to be having a great time, from overlooking the mountainside vines, to exploring the historic structures on this former dude ranch-to-the-stars, to tasting a wide range of barrels and bottles in the cave. The property is extremely impressive on all those fronts, and the wines, grown and made by regional legend Greg Vita, are really bright, expressive, and gluggable. Under Dyer’s guidance, they’re moving more into fine wine and away from events, though they’ll still host a dozen or so each year to pay the bills.
That afternoon, after lunch at Cafe Rustica, we made a stop to see Ian Brand at I. Brand & Family, one of the most important visionaries and mentors for this stretch of the Central Coast. Over his history-touching, ever-individualistic bottlings — which were poured for us by Nic Coury, who’s shot my stories before, though we’d never met in person — Ian and I traded wine industry intel as we tend to do.
Soon enough, it was time to head back to the hotel, don my tuxedo, and catch a ride up to Holman Ranch again for the ceremony and party. The wedding over-delivered on all fronts — open bar with good booze, great eats from apps to entrees, professional baseball players everywhere, teary-eyed speeches, a fantastically big live band. But what happens at Holman Ranch stays there, so you’ll just have to imagine the dancefloor yourselves.
Austrian Wines & Bettina Pies
As you first read in this Full Belly File from October about an awkwardly awesome lunch at Via Maestra, I’ve been hanging a bit with Alex Dessouky of Barrel Down Selections and Daniel Berman of Rincon Wine Group.
This week, they invited me to lunch on Monday at the ever-impressive Bettina in Montecito to meet with Kathi Moser from the Austrian winery Sepp Moser, which makes the sort of biodynamic, cool-climate wines that Dessouky seeks out. Rather amazingly, Kathi is the 17th generation (!!!) of her family to work in the wine business, a tradition that goes back to the 1400s, when private citizens began taking over from the region’s vintner-monks.
We tried a range of her zippy grüner veltliners, which worked magically with Bettina’s Little Gem and Caesar salads. The native Austrian grape is a chameleon depending on how it’s treated, and her reserve bottling revealed how much richness that grüner can deliver, pairing well with the stuffed dates and comforting corona bean dish.
Our kabocha squash and pepperoni pies were great foils for the rieslings on hand, but the treat of the day was the zweigelt, a red grape cross between St. Laurent and blaufränkisch that was developed in 1922. Kathi’s versions were super fresh and zesty, especially the younger twist-top one that sells for around $25. I really hope they land some accounts around Santa Barbara.
Mattei’s Tavern Talk
I got a sneak peek at the reenvisioned Mattei’s Tavern on Sunday, when the Santa Barbara Culinary Experience hosted a panel of the team behind the restaurant and hotel. All the seats were taken by the time I moseyed into the dining room, so I stood near the open kitchen, which was a little too loud to hear much of the panel.
But it did put me quite close to the food: Mouth-watering sliders, briny Hope Ranch mussels, and flaky pork ribs were just a few of the small-bite highlights. I look forward to a proper dinner someday soon, as the restaurant side of Mattei’s is now open for business. The Inn, meanwhile, will open sometime next spring.
Calling All Young Chefs
Do you know an aspiring young chef? Now’s the time for them to apply for the City of Santa Barbara Parks & Rec Department’s Chef Apprentice Program, which has introduced more than 300 high-school-aged students to the real world of professional cooking since 2009. Participants learn kitchen skills, safety rules, and meal-planning strategies while preparing multi-course meals to take home to their families during each class.
Open to 30 students, the program runs weekly from January to April at the Franklin Neighborhood Center and Westside Neighborhood Center. Learn more and apply at bit.ly/ChefApprentice.
Wine & Food To-Dos
Two interesting North County events popped up on my radar this week, and both are on December 9.
- The first is Clean Slate Wine Bar hosting a five-course dinner and pairing with the wines of Press Gang Cellars, whose owner Kyle Knapp is otherwise known as the winemaker for Stolpman Vineyards. Chef Melissa Scrymgeour is developing the menu, and it’s likely to sell out fast, since only 30 tickets are available. Click here for the $150 tickets.
- The second December 9 event is a Dickens Christmas Dinner in Los Alamos at Plenty on Bell, where Chef Jesper Johansson is partnering with Stephan Bedford of Bedford Winery to deliver “the magic of a 19th-century English Christmas.” The menu will feature roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, English trifle, Christmas plum pudding, and mulled wine, interspersed with readings of Charles Dickens classics by visiting guest actors. Tickets are $85, which include a bottle of Bedford wine. Call (323) 804-0928 or email [email protected] for reservations.
From Our Table
In case you missed some of these stories in recent weeks: