Wine in O.C.: A Tale of Two Fests

Laguna Beach is cool enough to host two major wine events on a single day, as Orange Coast Senior Editor Anne Valdespino pointed out last week in Taste of Orange County. Here are her après-fest impressions.

Last Saturday was crazy fun as I went to both the “Laguna Beach Uncorked! International Wine & Food Fest” and “Ultimate Wine Festival.” The first took place at the Festival of the Arts grounds and it was a homey affair with food from local restaurants. Best bites included Broadway by Amar Santana’s miso-marinated pork belly on a stick and lobster meatball by K’Ya Bistro. The whole thing felt like a preview to Sawdust Festival with girl-with-a-guitar entertainment, living statue from Pageant of the Masters, and an emphasis on partying rather than serious wine tasting. “Please come back,” said one pourer, “I don’t want to have to take all this home.” Not to say there weren’t some lovely wines there. Jeff and Julie from Thompkin Cellars poured Troisième Degree ($30) and others; we tasted Chateau Montelena’s chard and cab, as well as pinot noir from Domaine Serene and delicious sauv blanc from Tres Sabores ($19).

Then it was off to the “Ultimate” fest at Rock’N Fish. There it was all about the wine. Tray-passed hors d’oeuvres floated by ignored. We were getting whiplash trying to decide which big boy vintner wines we would taste next. Far Niente poured their chardonnay along with a tasty pinot called En Route ($50); Nickel & Nickel was showing a Kelham Vineyard cab ($95). Opus One had a window table—you had to present a wooden nickel to get that, so no sneaking back for an extra pour. Villa Creek’s GSM blend, 2009 Willow Creek ($40) impressed us and so did Silverado’s Mt. George Merlot ($30)—moreso than Silver Oak’s Twomey Merlot ($50). Their Napa cab ’07, which we usually love, had a clove finish that really shut down the fruit.

The afternoon just kept getting better with pourers who really spoke knowledgeably about the wine. And organizers say it will be an annual event—we’ll be back for sure next year. There were some heavy hitting winemakers to catch up with. Heidi Barrett of Screaming Eagle fame brought her La Sirena wines to show, including a dry moscato in a pretty blue bottle ($30) and a syrah ($40). They weren’t really in the same league with Opus but she said they’re wines she likes to drink, and made to go with lots of foods, in the case of the moscato that would be oysters, Thai, and Mexican food.

What I really wanted to taste was her Barrett and Barrett wines, made by her and her famous husband Bo, the guy responsible for the Chateau Montelena wines that wowed the French back in the ’70s. I’ve never tasted Screaming Eagle cab and I mentioned that. She told me to try her La  Sirena cab ($150). We asked if she thought cult wines were a good or bad thing. “It’s a  mixed bag for sure,” she said. “[Cult status] doesn’t come from the winery. You just have to make the best wine you can and sometimes it builds this following but you can’t predict it. Occasionally the wine becomes too precious and people don’t actually drink it, it becomes a commodity.” I’ll say. A 6-liter bottle of Screaming Eagle sold for $5 million at the Napa Valley Wine auction in 2000.

We also were delighted to speak to Amelia Morán Ceja, president and owner of Ceja Vineyards. She’s jazzed about their new restaurant, Bistro Sabor, in downtown Napa. One of our favorite wine topics is pairings with Mexican food. She had a lot to say on the subject.  “As long as the wine has bright acidity it’s perfect for Mexican foods,” she said. “One of my favorite pairings is our crisp chardonnay with a Dungeness crab quesadilla.”

Sign me up. Her pinot noir was really delicious, with soft cherry com ponents, and so balanced I could see it going with Mexican dishes, and the milder flavors of tapas and French bistro food. I mentioned that masa has its own minerality, she said the mineral notes in a good chard makes the corn taste sweeter in the tamales with poblano chilies and cheese that her sister makes. She said when she moved here from Jalisco as a girl—her father was a migrant worker—she missed Mexican food so that’s why she’s bringing it here.

You can find out more about Ceja in a new PBS documentary called “Dreamland,” which chronicles a day in the life of 12 different California residents. Ceja was chosen to represent the wine industry in Napa. We can’t wait to see the show, visit her new restaurant, and taste more of her wines.—Anne Valdespino 

(Photo by Goodger Photography/Courtesy Laguna Beach Visitors Bureau)

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