Certain enlightened types like to talk about “mindful wandering.”
I’m, ahem, a little ways from enlightenment. But I have found my happy place on a sunny Sunday to practice a distantly related meditation: mouthwatering wandering. The place: Carmel Valley.
After I. Brand and Family Wines (212-3600) settle into the former Coastview Vineyard tasting room next month and start pouring winemaker Ian Brand’s clever interpretations of coastal terroirs, the village will hold 21 different tasting spots within 1,000 steps. (Plus there are standout beer gardens like TrailsideCafe’s, where Oktoberfest is ongoing with dozens of German brews, and Valley Greens Gallery’s, where urban art meets high-gravity craft beer. And theJoyce Vineyards triple-venue food-and-drink complex at 1 E. Carmel Valley Road will begin buildout soon.)
Pair that with exemplary al fresco eating – Cafe Rustica, Lokal and Roux among them – and it’s hard to go wrong. Only one tasting room has wack wines, but relocated Chateau Sinnet (now on Center Street, 659-2244) still sells out its white Merlots and almond Champagnes.
All the choices can also lead to a paralysis of analysis. Fortunately I had a prompt: One of my visiting friends favors bigger red wines. So I steered for one of the very best Cabernet Sauvignons in the area, at Rombi Carmel Valley Village (659-7200).
Sal Rombi and his 2012 Merlot ($65) and 2011 Cab ($85) didn’t disappoint. Far from it. One big reason the juice is so good is that his vineyard’s so small (an acre and a third), so he can be out there coddling grapes with his rescue pooch Bella. The combination of Cachagua elevation, chalky soils and full sun mean he’s often the first of anyone to harvest in the region. It also means earthy and complex dark fruit flavors lifted by the influence of the surrounding bay laurel. It was impossible not to leave without a bottle of Cab he labels by hand, and that my friend says, with a happy sigh, “Smells like California.”
Next was a walk through the bocce-ball-and-koi-pond Talbott-Cowgirl grounds to feed the chickens with seed from the reconstituted gumball dispensers. But first a surprise intervened with its own small-batch tendencies.
Bunter Spring Winery tasting room (202-744-1343) presents the village’s newest tasting room next to Idle Hour at 9 Del Fino Place, across from Rustica. An English setter named Sally welcomed us at the Dutch door, as did a deep list of tiny production wines like the gently acidic and textured Fume Blanc with Santa Cruz grapes ($25, 31 cases) or the organic Spring Cowboy Surfer red blend ($25, 31 cases). The largest amount they’ve bottled on their current roster of 13 wines is 77 cases of an organic Paso Robles Cab blend ($25).
Mark Bunter spent decades in the cellars of wine institutions like Mondavi and Sebastiani, eventually hatching his own operation in a Napa Valley garage and planting Syrah on his dad’s property. According to the website, it sounds like an irreverent family operation: “The family all pitches in… brother Doug runs our Ozarks Marketing Division and mans the tornado early warning station (we’re the only Napa winery to have one)… Brother Mark (not a priest!) makes the wine… their kids and friends also help pick and bottle, or invent amusing reasons why they can’t.”
Branding is also playful: The estate Syrah and one of Pinots are labeled “Hippie” because they’re go au naturel, not fined, filtered or sulfite-infused. The Napa Cabernet Franc-Petit Verdot blend goes by the name “Garagitage.” But the winemaking reflects the tagline: “There is no excuse for bad wine.”
“I’ve been in the business long enough to know it’s 90-percent bullshit,” Bunter says. “I take the wine very seriously, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s an alcoholic beverage.”
The Spring half of the name was pouring when I was there and the reason the winery keeps a Washington D.C. number. Margaret Spring worked for years in the upper echelons of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for President Barack Obama before taking the wheel at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s increasingly ambitious Science and Conservation Department.
She tasted us on the 24-case organic 2014 Spring Pinot Noir ($30) with Santa Cruz Mountains grapes and it was too delicate and restrained not to take home to pair with sustainable seafood. Like the Fumé Blanc, it’s a nuanced and different expression than I anticipated.
“Mark’s pretty creative,” she said.
Bunter Spring will be the latest addition in the Weekly’s forthcoming Food + Drink glossy Oct. 20, which contains a number of epicurean elements, including the area’s most comprehensive wine maps.
From there it was a block to Corkscrew Bistro’s (659-8888) pebbled back courtyard. On came the haystack onion rings ($10), PB&J (pork belly with almond butter and berries, $14), caramelized pear-gorgonzola salad ($15), crispy cod fish tacos ($18) and one of the best burgers ($15) I tried when I ate my way into the doctor’s office for a cover story assembling the area’s top 20. Followed by lemon pie ($8) and bread pudding with wowser pumpkin ice cream ($9).
In the community park nearby, the relatively new farmers market enjoyed sunshine, Joe Lucido guitar and Wolfman BBQ. Around 15 vendors gathered as they do noon-3pm Sundays, next to big lawns begging for an Indian summer picnic, followed by more wandering.
~ QUICKBITES ~
- Jacques Pépin in the house.
- New brunch menu by Exec Chef Chad Minton has landed at California Market, Hyatt Carmel Highlands (622-5450): banana and nutella pancakes, Point Lobos eggs benedict with Dungeness crab 7am-3:30pm weekends. The fall cocktail menu rolls out soon; happy hour goes 4-6pm daily in the Sunset Lounge.
- It’s National Pizza Month. Apparently Knuckles (372-1234) knows this – note The Hashtag Pizza with pepperoni, sausage, strips of bacon, ham, an onion ring tower and Buffalo sauce drizzled on top.
- Aubergine (624-8578) in Carmel holds a four-course Terrior Dinner Tuesday, Oct. 11 with a South American theme ($110 includes wine pairings).
- Something special is happening off Dolores in Carmel at Cultura Comida y Bebida (250-7005). More on the blog.
- A promising pop-up cometh: jeninni kitchen + wine bar (920-2662) host master somm Chris Blanchard Sunday, Oct. 23, for a night of fried chicken, biscuits, mac ‘n’ cheese and collard greens ($36).
- The 28th Annual Taste of Carmel (624-2522) happens Oct. 6-9. Thursday (Oct. 6) brings the lush opening gala ($130) to Carmel Mission.
- Last week Oceana released a poll revealing 83 percent of Americans support new requirements focused on eliminating seafood fraud in the U.S. Right on cue for National Seafood Month.
- The Drummond Culinary Academy at Rancho Cielo (444-3533) kicks off the new year by serving dinner to the public every Friday evening from 5:30-7:30pm beginning Oct. 14. A glassed-in outdoor patio overlooking the Salinas Valley serves as the setting for the three-course prix fixe menu ($30) prepared and served by students. Reservations via 444-3521.
- Mulligan Public House, from the team that ran Brophy’s Tavern for years, is on course to open mid-month.
- Big Sur Food & Wine appears on the horizon Nov. 3-5.
- Glenmorangie Scotch Dinner at Rio Grill ($95, 625-5436) flows 6pm Thursday, Oct. 20, with four courses and a gamut of single malt scotch.
- Roman Payne: “To wander is to be alive.”