The Little Guys Steal The Spotlight: Garagiste Paso Robles

If you know and love wine, you know that a lot of the wine culture is inextricably tied up in a huge amount of tradition, old names, old world reputations and estates and old (but time-tested) methods and techniques for making predictable, classic products that people have come to appreciate sometimes over many centuries.

There are rituals to be followed, traditions to be observed and passed on, conventions that are assiduously maintained.  Anyone familiar with any area with a wine culture and industry will know exactly what I’m talking about.

We clear on that?  Good!  Now throw it all out the window, because the world of wine that most people never hear of (but must surely suspect exists) is about to be thrown wide open this weekend in Paso Robles to blow your wine-loving mind sky-high.  The Garagiste Festival is in town, and a wine underground that you may only have heard hints of will be on full display.

So, then:  What is a garagiste?  I’m glad you asked!  Straight from the horse’s mouth:

GARAGISTES – (garage-east) n, Fr. – A term originally used in the Bordeaux region of France to denigrate renegade small-lot wine makers, sometimes working in their garage, who refused to follow the “rules.” Now a full-fledged movement responsible for making some of the best wine in the world. Who’s laughing now, Francois? Syn: Rule-breakers, pioneers, renegades, mavericks, driven by passion.














This, my friends, is where all those mavericks, all the free thinkers and DIYers who either don’t, won’t or can’t fit into those same traditions I mentioned let loose.  Yes, there are literally thousands of people, all over the world, who know exactly what they’re doing, they know the grapes, the know the techniques, they know the history and they take what they want from it for their own creative visions and leave behind what doesn’t square with that.

So, I can hear you asking yourself:  “OK, they do things their own way.  Won’t that come out, well, odd?  Funky?”

In a word:  NO!  I’ve sampled a few myself and although I was skeptical at first, I have had wine from these producers that utterly floored me; better, in fact, that many of the big players who are forced, either by management or financial concerns, to keep doing things the same way, every time, to get cases out the doors.  The Garagistes are small time in production, but BIG time in creativity, attention to detail and in love for the passion they’re pursuing.

Surprise yourself.  Get out there.  If you love wine, I guarantee you you’ll love what you find here.

Over 60 wineries, most of whom you’ve never heard of.
Over 200 wines (easily).
Up close and personal with the people who make them.  And they want to talk to you!
Absolutely no pretense, attitude, ascots, smoking jackets or noses held high.  This is wine by experts with no time for attitude.

Oh, and as an extra added super bonus:  cheese and charcutertie will be provided by the amazing folks at Vivant Fine Cheese.  They get things right in about 1000 ways and will make the wine all the better with profound knowledge of what goes well with what.

This is wine culture and wine on the cutting edge, and an entirely new and vibrant universe for the taking.

See you in Paso Robles this weekend!

Bleu d’Auvergne in the Key of Tablas Creek Major

This will be the first in a series of posts/reviews about blue cheeses and how well they pair with white wines. Yes, I know, most people think of big, bold reds and steak with pairing blues, but the creamy tang inherent to most strong blues goes incredibly well with a number of whites that are often overlooked. In fact, to really get that sort of “Aha!” revelatory moment that comes from mixing moldy cheeses and wine, paring a blue with the right white wine is far more likely, to me at least, to bring that about. The frequent salt overtones of many blues really just pair up better with whites, including slightly sweeter ones. Tawny ports can do the same thing, if they’re old enough, but the big reds traditionally paired with great blues just leave me flat.

Clairette & D'auvergne #3
Clairette & D’Auvergne #3

This will also be a rather odd review, since although the blue in this case is fantastic, its rewards pale in comparison to what happens when paired with confounding and exquisite 2015 Clairette Blanche from Tablas Creek Vineyard high atop the mountains west of Paso Robles. So, yes, while it IS about a blue cheese, it wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t had that wine to go with it. It made all the difference.

First off: I am a blue cheese nut. A devotee. An aficionado to the Nth degree. A bluecheeseaholic. If it’s moldy, I love it. If it’s moldy and pungent, I really love it. Blue cheese can be rather polarizing, in the truest sense of the word; very few people fall in that tiny patch in the middle of opinions that either love it or hate it.

Secondly: I love novelty, surprises and the obscure, even if it turns out that what I thought was obscure at first just was my lack of knowledge or awareness. That’s how I first stumbled upon Tablas Creek. While researching new places to taste, I kept coming back to a number of things. They’re about as far west on the wine map you can go before everything just stops (although our friends at Rangeland have the honor of being furthest out) and I kept eying varietals theyoffered that I’d simply never heard of. Picpoul? Vermentino? Tannat? Petit Manseng? Huh? Never heard of them, had to try them. So let’s see here…. on the edge of the Paso wine world? Check. Utterly foreign-sounding grapes I knew nothing about? Check. Let’s do this!

I learned a couple things by finally visiting. Tablas Creek isn’t as remote as you might think, once you become familiar with the layout of the roads and districts of the Paso Robles area.  But that’s all right, because what they do with what I thought were oddball varietals they do with such finesse and creativity that I signed up the day we first arrived, back in 2010.  And, as it turns out, most of the wine world doesn’t think they’re all that oddball after all. I’ve stayed with them because Tablas and their winemaker, Neil Collins, and his team of wizards, never fail to both impress and surprise, combining the traditions from their old world roots with France’s Château de Beaucastel and new world imagination and inventiveness.

Which brings me back to both this cheese and the wine I paired it with.

D'auvergne up close and personal
D’auvergne up close and personal

Bleu d’Auvergne is a big blue, in the best ways that blues can be big, but it’s not the absolute hammer that some of its relatives (Roquefort or Valdeón) can be. Tangy but creamy, run through with just enough mold, in this case from rye mold, and it has plenty of what I call the dry funk that typifies blues at the spot where the roof of your mouth, the back of the tongue and nasal palate come together. People who love blues love them for precisely this. You just can’t get it from anything else. It’s aged only for a few weeks, which is exceptionally short for a blue, but nonetheless offers the soft lusciousness that can typify some cheeses aged for far longer. You know you’re eating not just a blue but a quality one with d’Auvergne, and it’s a bit of a conundrum: young and still creamy and spreadable, strong but not the strongest, and run through with that ineffable quality that makes blues, well, blue. Not as salty as many blues, and quite buttery, and that makes it pair all the better with Tablas’s latest surprise.


Still life with Clairette & D'auvergne and pepperoni grease
Still life with Clairette & D’auvergne and pepperoni grease

Before I tried it, Tablas Creek’s 2015 Clairette Blanche was yet another of their wines I’d simply never heard of.  Totally off my wine radar. A varietal from the Great Unknown. A grape that in France is used more as a base for blendings, not as a stand-alone single varietal estate bottling. A young white that came from a very odd harvest year of far less yield and a LOT of intensity. But how to describe it? Saying it’s like a Chardonnay with overtones of a Sauv Blanc, for example, is just skirting around the issue of how to express how this unique grape comes across on the palate and shortchanges its particular nature; it’s its own being, but I found that in terms of what I want to say, it’s both maddeningly distant and conspiratorially intimate. Sort of like a Vermentino? Kind of citrusy but still rich?  Confoundingly exquisite in that, yes, it’s fruity and creamy, but in a way unique and singular to this fruit and how it was crafted into wine, and while I can urge you to try it for yourself, I just can’t express exactly why you should in the way I’d like to.  It’s maddening, but wonderfully so, and that simply doesn’t happen very often.

Paired with the Bleu d’Auvergne, it was far more a case of the wine making the cheese better than the cheese helping the wine; the Clairette Blanc adds just enough fruit and acidity to bring out the best in the d’Auvergne and compliment its creamy nature. It’s got just the right finish to pair perfectly with that dry funk of the blue. Together with the wine and cheese, I also had some pecans and artisanal pepperoni, making a wonderful mix of spices and texture, but above all of those, the Clairette stood out like the true, unique star that it is. The cheese was great. The salumi and nuts worked well it. But the wine? The wine was something else and it completed what that cheese could and should be.

Clairette & D'auvergne before the the feast
Clairette & D’auvergne before the the feast

Just a quick adviso: they only made 50 cases, so run, don’t walk, for this exceptional result of a low-yielding, intensely fruity and lush harvest and a single varietal that you’re likely not going to find anywhere else from a California winery. It’s meant to be consumed young, so with the passion and the enthusiasm of Tablas members and fans, it’s not likely to last.

Yeah, it’s kind of a big deal around here……

Over the past few years, starting in 2010, there’s been a confluence of two really great things, both of which make each greater than the sum of their collective parts and both of which are uniquely Paso Robles in location and style:  burger Sundays at Lone Madrone winery with chef Jeffery Scott.

Chef Jeffery Scott
Mr. Maximum Utmost, Chef Jeffery Scott

As simple as it sounds, yes, it’s just burgers and, yes, it’s at a winery high atop the mountains west of Paso Robles and, yes, there’s music, but taken together, they come to more than that.  It’s become quite the popular Sunday go-to event for locals interested in truly gourmet burgers and Paso’s finest wines and ciders all wrapped up in a festive but laid-back atmosphere.

Ah, Barbera, you magnificent creation....
Ah, Barbera, you magnificent creation….

Lone Madrone is the personal winery of Neil Collins, the winemaker in the team that carefully and patiently built up Tablas Creek Winery over the years.  In this case, that’s like his day job, his straight gig; Lone Madrone is where he gets to play by his own rules, where experimentation and creativity run free and the results are remarkable.  As an added bonus, he happens to be a lover of fine ciders, and makes his own, Bristol Cider.  When the summer days get hot, and they can get quite hot around Paso, a chilled cider can make for a tempting addition to the burgers.

Ice cold Bristol cider on a hot Paso Sunday
Ice cold Bristol cider on a hot Paso Sunday

Chef Jeffery Scott is one of the most well known and in demand caterers on the Central Coast who combines his own personal skill at creating exquisite food with the ingredients and culture of Paso Robles region.  He brings a creativity and skill set that most people might think wouldn’t include something as barefoot-in-the-Summer and carefree as burgers, but it’s that same talent that slyly elevates these to a higher plane.  They’re not the burgers of your childhood (unless your parents were trained chefs, that is).  They almost always consist of two options:  one with beef, the other with lamb.  I recommend taking a date so you can get one of each and sample off each others’ plates.  Each time I’ve tried them, they’ve always been different with toppings ranging from grilled onions to various pestos, relishes, vegetables and surprising and compelling cheeses.  Chef Jeff is a certified Matrie Fromager and, putting it mildly, somewhat enthusiastic about cheese.

Such simplicity and yet still so beguilingly delicious
Such simplicity and yet such depth of flavor
Sunday burgers
Sunday burgers

But above and beyond all this, the music, the setting, the drinks and the food all combine to make something unique, to my experience, in Paso, and I’ve been coming here a long time:  a real community event, with a LOT of locals in attendance, and almost everyone there having some sort of long-term tie-in with either the food or the wine or both.   Lone Madrone is a family run operation, and it’s easy to pick up on that vibe and be taken in by it.  Don’t worry about fitting in; people there are welcoming, they talk to each other and are quick to treat you like one of their own.  Something about combination of the wine, the burgers (made with those wines in mind) the sun and the music brings it all together and makes for one of the best ways to slowly close out a Sunday.


LAWineFest 2016. The best of everything.

Wine has been around since in one form or another since about 7000 BC, and it’s a pretty safe bet, knowing wine and knowing its enthusiasts, that people have been getting together to drink it, talk about it, share it, comment on it and generally celebrate it for about as long.

A lot of tasting still to come. Ascension Vineyards.
A lot of tasting still to come. Ascension Vineyards.

Wine tastes great. It inspires camaraderie. Story telling. General mirth and merriment. It can create a lot of smiling faces.

Theirs was a happy wine.
Theirs was a happy wine.

I have no idea what the first people to do so called it (other than fun), but for some time now we’ve called it a wine festival, and the latest iteration of that that I just attended was the utterly and pleasantly surprising LAWineFest.

I had no idea what to expect, not having attended before, but having been to mad houses like the garlic fest up in Gilroy and some other similar ones, I went with an open mind, ready camera and empty glass. There were some big names there, pretty much known by everyone with a passing familiarity with California wine, there were beer brewers, food vendors and producers and some people who make the things that lovers of wine and food tend to be interested in, from fine cutlery to the latest BMWs.

Let the Caducious flow!
Let the Caducious flow!

And the people? The LAWineFest did Los Angeles proud: in glorious and typical Los Angeles fashion, there was every type of person, from every sort of background, in every sort of fashion (and then some), mingling, carousing, getting along famously, eating and generally sharing a passion for the love of the grape.

Eagle Eye 1
The amazing Bill Wolf of Eagle Eye Vineyards
Happy Faces 2
Roxanne Wolf of Eagle Eye spreading the word.
Happy Faces 1
A revisit of that Malbec? But of course.

What I discovered, completely to my surprise, was some of the best cheese I’ve had in forever from Vagabond Cheese and some wine crafted by tiny producers (also known as ‘garagistes’), in a special weingarten of sorts, the Boutique Wine Garden, separated from the main area, that were easily the match of some of the best producers I already know. Had I tried only one of them, Vinemark Cellars, and left it at that, it would have been worth showing up and then some for completely turning my head around with astonishingly great wine.

Vinemark 2
The astonishinlgy great Vinemark medal winner.


To top it off, some of the most remarkable salt (yes, salt!) from the Laguna Salt Company. Wonderful flavored and spiced salts that I’m going to feature at some point in the near future. I can still taste the memory of their Spicy Garlic Salt, and already have ideas how I can use it in my own kitchen.

Laguna Salt Company
Laguna Salt Company

All in all, a resounding success. Great wine, great food, from cheese to food truck lobster rolls and beyond, and a whole sea of smiling faces.

Lagunitas makes everything better.
Lagunitas makes everything better.

My God……it’s full of cheese!

Like Dave Bowman taking his final steps into the Obelisk in A Space Odyssey: 2001 and being almost speechless, a cheese shop, a great cheese shop, should be like a portal to a whole new world. A place that can transport you into new flavors, discoveries and surprises and leave you not quite the same as you were before. And like the dimension he ventured into, there should always be a higher intelligence, guiding you along the way where you need it, exposing you to things you’d not normally have seen (or tasted). That’s not likely to happen at in the cheese section of, say, your local Safeway. It’s not going to reliably happen, if at all, at a cheese counter or an cheese ‘island’ at some of the higher end groceries.

That, my friend, requires a real, honest-to-goodness cheese shop, and hopefully one headed up by someone like Danika Gordon, owner and font of all cheese knowledge, at Vivant Fine Cheese (805-226-5530) tucked away at 821 Pine, suite B, just off downtown in Paso Robles, CA.

Vivant Storefront
Vivant Storefront

Cheese, as wonderful and deep a creation as it can be, can also be intimidating, on the level of wine, for those who aren’t familiar with it. One can be confronted by seemingly innumerable slices, rounds and wrapped up little cuts and chunks of it, of all imaginable shapes, colors and sizes. There’s a lot of it out there, and a guide can get you where you want to go. You just have to overcome any hesitancy about asking.

That’s where people like Danika come in. She’s not just a local, she’s a native of the Central Coast. She’s been involved with cheese and dairy from the industrial distribution level to the retail boutique level with artisanal, smaller producers to making her own (and it’s gooooood). I came to her with questions. She had the answers.

Vivant's AMAZING Honey Chevre
Vivant’s AMAZING Honey Chevre

Can you introduce me to cheeses that are locally produced in the Central Coast?

“Can do.”

Can you give me the story behind the producers of those cheeses?

“Can do.”

Can I try all these cheeses at your store?

“Absolutely can do.”

And I did. And they are fantastic.

Vivant Bishop's Peak
The exquisite Bishop’s Peak

Turns out, there are three small(ish) producers of cheese in Paso Robles area: Central Coast Creamery, Stepladder Creamery and Vivant itself, with its first product, a honey Chevre, now available at Vivant. She had everything they made and led my through a tasting of seven of their various cheeses, ranging from Rioly Run, a beer-bathed cow’s milk cheese in a Gruyere style, to the exquisite Big Rock Blue to Holy Cow, a fantastic take on what first comes on as Emmenthaler, but has its own unique notes and finish.

Yet more golden wonderment, ready for the eating
Yet more golden wonderment, ready for the eating

What brought these all together for me was the knowlege she had of where each cheese came from, the story behind them, the styles they represent and even what they might be be paired with. Side note: although I didn’t take the plunge, Vivant also offer wine and cheese pairings, on site, to best show how each particular cheese might match up to a number of different local wines.

Vivant merchandise
Some of Vivant’s glorious compliments to their cheese

That adds up to a pretty towering presence in the local winery scene as well. Quite apart from the store that sells cheese to the public, Vivant is intimately involed with most of the top wineries in the area as the supplier of cheese for their pairings and events. When it comes to who the big players trust for the right advice and the right cheese, look no further. Those sort of relationships and that sort of trust at that level translate directly down to what you’ll find at the more immediate level of walking into the store and availing yourself to her knowledge and advice as to what might suit you. Vivant, quite apart from the local people I was interested in, has well over 150 cheeses from all over the cheese making world, making a fit for your taste almost a foregone conclusion. Adding to that they can create cheese-themed lunches or plates to take away, and there’s pretty much no cheese-need that cannot be fulfilled.

Still more temptations
Still more temptations

On a final note: don’t feel indequate in your knowledge of cheese. Ask, ask, ASK! An expert like Danika is like a sommelier; not there to be intimidating, but rather there to help you make the best possible choice based on what you like, and to help you uncover new tastes and savor new things you didn’t know you would like.

That’s why she’s there, thankfully, and that’s why I can’t imagine a better introduction to the fantastic cheeses of the Central Coast.

The Midweek Cheese Update: Ewenique

I was introduced to this little wonder by Danika, owner, cheesemonger and font of cheese knowlege at Vivant Fine Cheese in downtown Paso Robles, CA (more on that amazing operation in just a few days).

As far as I can tell, it’s the only cheese from the Central Coast Creamery that they don’t actually make themselves:  they have it made to their specifications in Holland, age it for 4 months and bring it back for us to enjoy.

A relatively soft sheep’s milk cheese that still is toothsome enough to hold up well with surprisngly long and lasting mouthfeel.  It doesn’t possess a strong nose, but it does show a soft, enticing scent that comes to its natural fruition on the first bite.

Ewenique, Vivant Fine Cheese
Ewenique, Vivant Fine Cheese

The flavor is confounding in the best possible way.  I can’t really say it’s like anything more commonplace that might spring to mind (Gouda, etc…), but it’s smooth with a lot of presence, unexpectedly sweet and nutty at the same time and right up front, until those notes start to fade and a supple creaminess remains.  It finishes strong with that note, punching above its weight in richness.

This would go really well with some of the bigger, more stand-up-take-notice whites from the same area (Hahn’s SLH Chard, for example, or a Blue Steel Chard from D’alfonso Curran, a bit further south, or Points West White from Lone Madrone)

It would probably get you a knowing nod or questions at a party with fellow cheese fans, but the way I prefer to serve it is, well, to myself.

It’s that good on its own and even better with a little imagination.

On Photography

Ragged Point in Mist
Ragged Point in Mist

I come from a family of musicians, and was myself a musician and composer for most of my adult life until my first marriage broke up, went through two complete career changes and was diagnosed with severe depression. I lost my muse and haven’t picked up an instrument or written a score in roughly 14 years.

However, in that time, I met the woman was was to become my 2nd wife who herself was already an avid and accomplished landscape photographer. After one too many trips where she shot and I impatiently sat/stood around waiting for her to finish, she got me a tiny Panasonic FS7, and I started to shoot along with her. That was 5 cameras and several years ago.  I now have a new muse.  She shoots Canon full frame, but I, having started off with such a small (but optically quite good) camera, liked the small form factor and stayed with Panasonic, first going to an LX5 and then to a GH series camera and I’ve stuck with them ever since. I really like the mix of quality and size in Micro Four Thirds, and likely will not be changing to Full Frame.  I shoot a GH4 now.

Yes, I know that the depth of field and high ISO noise will never equal that of larger sensor cameras, but frankly I don’t care as that doesn’t come into play with what I’m now shooting, and the small form factor (and table tripods) can really let me get up close and personal w/out having to lug around a lot of unnecessarily heavy or unwieldy gear and BIG lenses.

Sunspot, Drum Canyon Road
Sunspot, Drum Canyon Road

I shoot a mix of Panasonic and Olympus lenses, and have tried using legacy glass, but found it to be somewhat less-than-ideal for what I shoot.  I process through Lightroom exclusively, and use NIK plug-ins, but have found myself gravitating more towards Capture One for its better pure RAW conversions, but that remains an commitment not yet taken.  There’s always a learning curve that involves not just learning new methods and interfaces, but trying to get the same results that used to take only seconds.

I shot for several years landscape/architecture almost exclusively, but have always had a fascination with shooting things far more close-up and intimately than in landscapes, so product shots and near-macro shooting, as this new project requires, present new ways of looking at things that really captivate me.  I really like creating small stories and stoking the imagination of a viewer with the set-up required for presenting what people would like to eat (or at least vicariously experience).

Lone Fisherman Approaches in Rain, Pismo Beach
Lone Fisherman Approaches in Rain, Pismo Beach

While photography is always about the light, this forces me to grapple with it MUCH more directly than I ever had to, since I now can (and have to) control it; I’m not sitting on a ridge line or high up in Sierra granite, waiting and hoping for the right light, the right clouds, the right timing, etc…  That’s wonderful, of course, but now I’m in control of how many more factors come into play, and that’s charmingly challenging.  With landscapes, I can always look back and think of how I might to things differently next time, but with food, product and interior shots, and can make sure that the right changes are in place before the next time.  That can’t happen out in the wild.

Looking at what I’ve shot from the very beginning, I have a tendency to try and create ‘dreamscapes’, for lack of a better word, or to convey an otherworldly or ineffable aspect of what is otherwise just the natural world, and this has so far has carried over into shooting food and products.  What I shoot, no matter what it is, is a personal interpretation what I see (or sometimes want to see) in the subject; I’m almost never there to create a photographically authentic reproduction of what I’m shooting; I’m not shooting for a clothes catalog.  I try to render how the subject feels or should feel to me in such a way that the viewer not only sees what I want them to see, but their imagination is sparked such that they create their own mental picture of how it could be for them.

Sunrise, Dover Canyon Road
Sunrise, Dover Canyon Road










A lot of that has to do with light, light that I now control, and with what’s there; just enough to make the right shot, nothing distracting or extraneous.  Not that it’s necessarily synesthetic in reality, but to me, when done right, one ‘hears’ a photograph in the silence of other things; what’s left out is as important as what’s there.

I hope my shots sound good.

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this Middle Kingdom

I am a native of Monterey County, growing up in, quite literally, the place that Steinbeck called the Pastures of Heaven.

Underwood Road, Corral de Tierra
Underwood Road, Corral de Tierra

I grew up surfing the MoCo coast from Santa Cruz through Big Sur and down to the Hearst Ranch, hunting to the north around the San Luis Reservoir and even having a summer job in high school working in the fields around Salinas as an irrigator.  Traveling as a kid to parades in Solvang, backpacking in the Los Padres Wilderness; my family went everywhere around the central coast.  The Monterey Peninsula was always an destination that held my imagination tightly because that’s where we’d usually go to dine out and where the fanciest restaurants I could think of were.

Sunrise, The Three Sisters, Highway 46
Sunrise, The Three Sisters, Highway 46

Studying at university in Germany gave me a chance to travel all over Europe and awaken in me a nascent interest in everything new, and that included what I could eat.  The first memorable meal I ever had outside the US was at 20 years old, with my father, at the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen where we dined outside on marinated herring.  I’d never had it; as a kid it had sounded gross (either pickled or it’s what Pondus the Penguin ate) and we both were more than pleasantly surprised that a fish could be so firm, so rich and sweet and sour at the same time.  Nothing at all like the snapper or salmon I had known growing up back home.

Still, food wasn’t a central interest of mine until well later, after graduate school, when I went to work in Los Angeles for a huge Japanese transnational trade firm called Mitsui.  That offered me not only the opportunity to open my eyes to all that Los Angeles had to offer in terms of food, nothing at all like now-provincial looking Carmel and Monterey, but it gave me an education in just how broad, varied and dynamic one of my favorite cuisines was compared to what I had know before moving there:  Japanese food.  I also traveled all over the world, getting to try all sorts of cuisines and food cultures in their own environments.  Indonesian, Chinese in China, you-name-it.  If I could try it, I did.

Over time I began to wonder, if food was so good in all these exotic places, and I was from a place that the people I’d meet overseas considered exotic, what about the food native to the place I’m from?  Not the lettuce or artichokes or various row crops it’s so famous for (Salinas!  Salad bowl to the world!), or the fried calamari available on just about every pier from Santa Cruz to Carpinteria–but rather how what’s grown or produced there is made, what it eventually becomes and who’s producing it?  What’s being done with it and in what ways?  What are their stories?

Sunspot, Zaca Station Road
Sunspot, Zaca Station Road










I didn’t get to dwell on that very long, however, as things change, including lives and marriages, and mine did exactly that.  Other things took priority.

Years after leaving that company, Los Angeles, and my entire life there behind, I returned in 2008 for love and the woman I would eventually marry.  Like me, she loves food, and cooking, but she was a photographer.  Over time, it must have rubbed off, and I became one, too.  This allowed me to give in to the wanderlust I’ve always had, wondering what’s down every backroad I’ve even seen, and it gave me an excuse to show her the wonderful places that I’d grown up with and never known as a photographer:  Big Sur, Point Lobos, and, especially Yosemite.

We also share an interest in wine, especially California wines, and under the dual attraction of photography and wine we made our first trip to Paso Robles, specifically to find a winery called Tablas Creek that had varietals we’d simply never heard of. Vermentino?  Picpoul?  Tannat?  Not only were they exotic, but they were flat out delicious.  And, as it turns out, the entire area was overflowing with vineyards and wineries.  Not only was the Paso area just as beautiful as Monterey County in its own way, but the wine was amazing, and I’d never heard of it growing up only 60 miles or so north.  Driving through Paso as a kid the only things we’d see on the highway on the way to Los Angeles was a huge sign for Meridian, and that was about it.  And now it was suddenly like this great, unknown wine civilization.  Something totally unexpected.  THAT called for more exploration.  Wine and photography!  We couldn’t think of a better mix, and for the past 8 years, we’ve spent more in in that area than anywhere else, by far.

As it turns out, where great wine is made and sold, complementary artisinal and high-quality foods eventually find their way into the scene, and the two become synergistically greater than the sum of their parts.  A new culture is born, and they all compliment each and become inseparable.  When I was a boy, Paso Robles was nothing like it is now.  The Black Oak diner of old, just off the highway, with its free almond samples, is long gone.  Now fine restaurants abound, there’s a cheese shop (or three), olive oil of the highest quality is grown just outside town (and sold in town), and gourmet foods of all sorts are available.

The same thing with Monterey.  When I was a kid, it was a working fisherman’s town, complete with off duty soldiers in town on the weekends and an honest-to-god biker bar on the west edge of town.  Dive bars were easy to find, and fine dining was to be had over the hill, in Carmel.  It’s an utterly different place now, driving overwhelmingly by tourist dollars, the aquarium, and high-profile, high-dollar events, mostly involving either gold or motorsports.

But all these places and the changes that came with them meant a lot more money, and that meant a lot more people providing higher quality services and products to those who came and expected them.

Sunspot, Drum Canyon Road
Sunspot, Drum Canyon Road

That’s what this blog is all about.  I now am in the position to hear those stories from the artisans and craftspeople, from the growers and producers who provide things from wine, to oils, to nuts, crops, cheeses, honey and the list goes on and on–as well as the growing number of restaurants that have adopted the farm-to-table approach that makes use of this bounty.  Who are they?  What else is there to discover that’s made here, and how do they all come together, promote each other and thrive in each others’ company?  Over the years, we’ve come to know several of the most prominent players on the coast for a number of different things, especially wine, but we’ve only scratched the surface.

Moonset, The Vampire Tree, Vineyard Road
Stormbreak, The Vampire Tree, Vineyard Road










I intend to eat and drink my way through this glorious Middle Kingdom, California’s central coast, in every way possible, and write about and photograph the entire experience, and I’d love to do it together with you.

Welcome to my Middle Kingdom Feast.