Notes from the Edge: Observations From Big Sur Food & Wine IV
November 7, 2012
Despite the fact that the chatty group of 20-plus foodies was on the anchor leg of a four-hour, rollicking Magic Mystery Tour, pickled in fine wine from three standout wineries and sitting in a clump on the conversation-sparking patio at Kim and Gina Weston's Wildcat Canyon complex—between an outdoor bathtub fringed with foliage and the arresting Weston photo-studio space on the precipice of a ravine—the crowd was quiet.
For the opening Thursday event, one of the very first taste expeditions of Big Sur Food & Wine 2012, the group had been to a field on a cliff to have Ocean Sushi's Shiho Fukushima pair things like yuzu essence and squid nigiri with Birichino wines, visited a secret location for Pisoni-and-Franscioni Lucia label Soberanes, and then to the Westons' to sip Bernardus and eat Michael Jones escargot wontons, fried frog legs and savory okra.
Now they were going to a place in their minds to taste a different sort of Big Sur spirit.
Local professor, poet and Tor House Poetry Foundation stalwart Elliot Ruchowitz-Roberts was reading from a book of poems by Robinson Jeffers in big, beautiful chunks.
He picked what he would read carefully. One selection was "Return":
A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,
Let the rich life run to the roots again.
I will go down to the lovely Sur Rivers
And dip my arms in them up to the shoulders.
I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers
In the ocean wind over the river boulders.
I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,
That breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky,
The insect clouds that blind our passionate hawks
So that they cannot strike, can hardly fly.
Things are the hawk’s food and noble is the mountain,
Oh noble Pico Blanco, steep sea-wave of marble.
When Ruchowitz-Roberts was done, there was more quiet, at least beyond the Pacific's patient pounding in the background—not even a clink of glasses filled with Bernardus Sauvignon Blanc. Down the coast, Pico Blanco approved.
"Pretty magic," tour ringleader and BSFW VP Aengus Wagner says.
A comfortable, weighty sigh hung in the air, as did a feeling that this was Big Sur Food & Wine at its best: homespun, nature rich, familial, only partly scripted and organically poetic.
I've heard a question repeated off the record by longtime volunteers and even members of BSFW's leadership—and loudly on the record by suspicious members of the at-times-intense South Coast community—will BSFW, as it grows, succumb to pressures of bigger profits and sacrifice its by-the-bootstraps, community-benefit spirit?
(Here was how one staffer's email to me went: "BSFWF is supposed to celebrate local businesses, and strengthen ties in our communities, not be the 'premiere food and wine festival.' BSFWF has lost its way.")
But I wasn't worried, even as sponsors like Hyatt and Lexus made conspicuous in-roads for year four. I figured Big Sur is too irreverent, too close-knit, too independent. Leaders like Toby Rowland-Jones and Alicia Hahn are so thoroughly Big Sur they crap condor eggs.
I spoke to that soul of independence and unique character with a piece two weeks ahead of the event, one called "Edgy Eating: The daring art of crafting a Big Sur Food & Wine Festival that lives on the brink," describing what "just about everyone will be wearing: a costume that comes with a unique and high-quality foodie festival – a mask of sorts, one of those hard-to-shake looks that’s a lightly giddy mix of discovery and satisfaction."
Then I got an email.
Event COO Laura Doherty and company were angrier than Karl Rove on election night. My article, she wrote, would essentially doom the festival, because it described a wine with more medicine than grapes going on.
"Our sponsors will probably pull out," she wrote. "This will cost the community an unbelievable amount."
Sources have taken issue with what I've written plenty of times, so I wasn't terribly surprised that they might've liked the article worded differently. It was why that's what they wanted—because it would displease corporate sponsors—that worried me. That didn't feel very BSFW to me.
As it turned out, in the wake of the article ticket sales bounced. Cooler heads and apologies prevailed. The sponsors came away happy, and kicked in enough to make for a record year, though thankfully volunteers and the Big Sur character carried the event, as they always have.
Doherty, meanwhile, assures me BSFW would ditch big backers—even if they allow BSFW to give more to Big Sur Health Center and the volunteer Big Sur Fire Brigade—rather than let them dictate the tone of the event.
"We'll dump a sponsor before we lose our character," she says. "Someone controlling us is not gonna happen."
A new partnership with $1,600-a-night Post Ranch Inn further ushered in a new BSFW era. A big tent went up on its lower grounds and swank Lexus hybrids shuttled guests between parking areas and the main tasting arena (pictured at top), past the furnished Lexus luxury dome, a distance which covered all of about 150 yards. But for all of the new polish—Manresa "It" chef David Kinch even came down for a super-exclusive dinner at Sierra Mar—there was plenty of old-fashioned South Coast rustic and rowdy and last-minute arranging last weekend.
Here are some scattered notes:
Vegetarianism is not a death sentence. At a lot of events like, say, Pebble Beach Food & Wine, it can be damn tough to manage a serviceable meal without breaking dietary beliefs. But behold the Haute Enchilada (633-5843) station at the grand public tasting, where Kim Solana did wild mushroom tamales and even-better roasted-chile bisque to blow meat-free flaps off.
As one of my vegetarian food writers, Dave Schmalz, described the rich-yet-light portal opener, "It elevated the subtle flavor of chile to something like meat. It was all I wanted, all I needed. Straightforward flavor, so subtly spiced it wasn't even noticeable, delightfully low acidity. Just like drinking a mild roasted chile elixir, savory, thin gravy that livened the taste buds and satisfied a craving I didn't know I had."
At the meaty Wine and Swine situation at Henry Miller Library Friday night, veggies were never better—in simple, satisfying ways—than Esalen Institute Chef Phillip Burrus' signature kale salad. You'd never think raw, bitter and chewy would go down so beautifully. Meanwhile, Happy Girl Kitchen (373-GIRL) pickled and preserved enough veggies to feed a fire brigade.
Still, foie can be fabulous. Recovering vegetarian and Weekly environmental reporter Kera Abraham never really understood the deal with foie. But in her report from swanky Gateway to Big Sur opening night, "Gateway to Big Sur Kicks Off BSFW With Class," she writes, the "foie gras torchon with caramelized banana and beet gastrique from Brandon Miller of Mundaka (624-7400)…gave the fattened duck liver a smooth texture more like silky tofu. Honestly, I'd never understood the big whoop over foie gras, which is now illegal to sell in California. After this dish, I get it."
Onion jam can be joyous. Even at the orgy of tastebud stimulus that was the grand public tasting, Friend in Cheeses Jam Company leapt out. The onion jam sang on the palate, the clever marmalades were money, and other spreads like the Pinot cherry made local eaters wish the Santa Cruz spot circulated around here beyond Stone Creek Kitchen (393-1042).
Tents can be tedious. One of the downsides of the tent at Post (and the one at Henry Miller Library) was that it closed off eaters from the unparalleled setting that the Big Sur presents. I'm not the only one to think, "There's gotta be a way to flip up the sides."
Fortunately there was plenty of distraction—where else can you get Doctor's, Rosella's, Garys' and Pisoni Reserve vineyard tastes side-by-side?—and the tent did furnish shade under a cloudless sky. Two non-Pinot revelation: Spotteswood Sauvignon Blanc, which takes light, round and fresh to new heights. And crushed Funions give epic texture to Me and the Hound's powerhouse pork plates.
Walkabouts should be shouted about. Friday's Pinot Walkabout enjoyed beauty by way of backdrop (the incredible Sierra Mar kitchen garden, complete with 80-year-old apple tree with fruit the size of small footballs) and bottle contents (about 25 small-batch winemakers). Calera's single vineyard Pinots are a testament to wild yeast and obsessive attention. Peay and Cargasacchi are labels to latch onto if you ever see them, assuming you love elegant cool-climate Pinots. Buttressed by superlative Schoch Family Farmstead cheeses distributed by the cheesemaking brothers themselves, and running just $48, the tasting represented virtuous value.
Taphouse is part of the family. Big Sur Taphouse (667-2225), next to the linchpin Big Sur Deli (which, in turn, is next to the post office), is still worming its way into the woven fabric of the area, but a superb lineup of rare beers and well-curated drafts are helping. Saturday's post party helped break in the new back deck as DJ Banana Wander (aka Juice) spun vinyl.
(In a related note, it's a good sign when you see BSFW beer linchpin Antoine Riffis of Firestone-Walker Brewing Company when there for a tween-event lunch, though it's a bad sign when the spicy chicken sandwich special stars cold and shredded poultry. The cheesesteak was delicious, though.)
Dinner With Friends is no misnomer. Longtime Big Sur spirit and event volunteer Chelsea Belle Davey reports nothing less than a blast at Saturday's Dinner With Friends climax. "Such a fun atmosphere," she says. "All of the somm wine etiquette was generally thrown out of the window. A large round table sat on the deck and guests left bottles of wine for all to share. A wine key was at the center and people could try whatever they wanted, or take it to their table if it was a favorite. Ice buckets sat on the bench with chilled bottles, magnums on the back bar. Super casual even though some of the price tags were upwards of $300 a bottle."
Neither is Wine and Swine. Maybe the biggest winner at W&S was Treebones owner John Handy, who outbid his fellow pork enthusiasts to take home a 250-pound Niman Ranch pig, a case of Hahn estate vino and a dinner for six for $1,100 that goes back to the Big Sur community.
Sierra Mar seems ready to rule the South Coast. The sense that Post Ranch's gem of a restaurant will soon be insanely shinier was hard to shake as I ran into its new garden goddess, Fiona Bond, formerly of Happy Girl and Love Apple Farms. Jacob Pilarski, formerly the sous chef from Manresa, has just joined the team as chef de cuisine. Another new chef, Willy Ono, steps in as sous after time at the Mandarin Oriental in NYC, NOMA in Denmark, Mugaritz in Spain and Relae in Copenhagan. The taste of Big Sur menu debuts this month. Expect it to have no small piece of poetry to it.