, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Santa Barbara from Stearn's Wharf.

Santa Barbara from Stearn’s Wharf.

I’ve never met a big city that doesn’t have a great reason for being built. Though the old adage for success in business – “location, location, location” – always plays a role in any city’s importance, the urban density, its excitement and endless opportunity, are only one part of a larger picture.

Los Angeles has a big personality profile. And there are two LA’s. One is the City and the other is the County. The County is vast and makes everyone and everyplace for miles around lay claim to being LA. Los Angeles (the City) is Hollywood, no doubt about it, but it’s also the important port of San Pedro, it’s Abbot Kinney’s Venice Beach, it’s LAX Airport, the major hub between Asia and Latin America, it’s still Vin Scully of the LA Dodgers, it’s Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.

But what is the most exciting part of living here is that when all of LA’s environs are  taken together (aka the County), you’re living in the second capitol cities of numerous countries around the globe. China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam (though that is shifting to Louisiana a little), Cambodia, the Philippines, South Korea (Koreatown is in the middle of LA the City), Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, El Salvador, Peru, Armenia, Lebanon, Iran (their nickname for LA is Tehrangeles) and I’ll bet there’s more.

Now take a good look at any big city carefully. My rule of thumb is about 90 minutes by car, bus or train outside of the downtown area will be a destination that answers the urban density, that makes bigger sense out of everybody living in the middle of it all. For us, one of those places is Santa Barbara, which leads to its pastoral wine roads, which leads to Paso Robles and Cambria, Hearst Castle, Highway One to Big Sur, Carmel, and then you’re in San Francisco. Not a bad place at all.

Beautiful Santa Barbara.

Beautiful Santa Barbara.

But do you like food? If you do, Santa Barbara is worth a stop. It’s the city Julia Child decided to relocate to for the final years of her life. Born in Pasadena, she opened up America to a better tasting world, which for her was France. You can’t blame her for not loving Thai food, that’s for our generation. But don’t be indifferent to tradition. We always pay our respects to her good taste when going to the American Riviera that is Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara Shellfish Co. was a Julia Child favorite.

Santa Barbara Shellfish Co. was a Julia Child favorite.

Santa Barbara is tourist friendly, and you’ll be right at home speaking and hearing languages other than English on the main street, State Street. The city building codes demand a uniform Spanish Colonial look, and in an era where one is overrun with out-of-place design, the peaceful harmony of Santa Barbara is a nice alternative.

A typical small plaza in Santa Barbara.

A typical small plaza in Santa Barbara off of State Street..

Over the last few years, Santa Barbara has added a lot of tasting rooms for wine grown over the hills in Los Olivos. Which can make for a great day trip from LA if you’re pressed for time, or can be a wonderful prelude to a bigger symphony the next few days in Wine Country.

We have a MUST stop for you. Au Bon Climat, founded by Jim Clendenen, led the charge establishing the highest quality of wine from Santa Barbara. All of these wines owe allegiance to France. Pierre La Fond of Santa Barbara Winery was an early advocate, and we always stop at his tasting room by the beach. You’ll find a charming photo of Julia Child in their tasting room (I’ll take a picture next time I’m there!).

The tasting room shelves of Au Bon Climat.

The tasting room shelves of Au Bon Climat.

As I said in my last post about Paso Robles, the best stuff doesn’t get out of France either, mes amis. The wines to the far right of the picture are family only reserves – you won’t find them anywhere else. Enough said and ask for a taste from the always knowledgeable staff behind the bar.

Colin of Au Bon Climat was helpful with tastes and tips.

Colin of Au Bon Climat was helpful with tastes and tips.

Wine tasting in the afternoon is a great way to prepare for dinner. There are so many places that finding just one for you is difficult. But let’s suppose you have only one day and once needs to be enough. I’d vote for great food with a view.

You can stroll the wharf while you'll wait for a table.

You can stroll the wharf while you’ll wait for a table at Brophy’s.

I’d recommend getting to Brophy’s Seafood around 5 PM, but the place is always packed with people, and most of them are locals (and you can go for lunch as well). Yes, there are many other great places to eat in Santa Barbara, but this is the place I took my mother-in-law (always a good sign) and she loved the place.

Brophy's is always packed and reliable.

Brophy’s is always packed and reliable.

If you have only one dinner in Santa Barbara, wait for a table where the people you see in the photo are seated at the right (there was a plastic wind break that night as it was quite chilly in March). Here’s the view for you if you’re eating outside….

Santa Barbara sunset at Brophy's in the Marina.

Santa Barbara sunset from Brophy’s in the Marina.

You’ll have good night’s sleep and then head a short distance over the San Marcos Pass to Cachuma Lake and Los Olivos, on the beautiful Highway 154. Which also saves you 20 minutes from the more obvious way of heading up Highway 101.

On your way to Los Olivos.

On your way to Los Olivos.

Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Ronald Reagan’s Western White House. One of the things about living in LA is finding the areas far from the madding crowd for all types of people. You and me, too. It’s worth the trip, that’s for sure. You can also hike all over these hills. One good one? Paradise Road.

And though I don’t have a photo, there is a weekend only breakfast opportunity at Cold Springs Tavern, an old West stagecoach stop. Tremendous food, they’re open for dinner most everyday if your schedule allows, and the atmosphere should satisfy you’re cowboy cum hippie dreams. Another place my father and mother-in-law loved (always a good tip).

When you get to Los Olivos do plan to stop. There are now so many wine tasting rooms that you don’t have to venture into the countryside (which would be a mistake as far as I’m concerned). So pace yourself and buy a sandwich to sop up all the wine you’ll be enjoying!

Great sandwiches at Panino in Los Olivos.

Great sandwiches at Panino.

A few Los Olivos wine tasting tips are in order. Highly recommend Longoria Wines (no picture) and Qupe and Carharrt (pictures).

Carhart's charming and tiny tasting room.

Carharrt’s charming and tiny tasting room and….

The sophisticated wines of Qupe.

across the street are the sophisticated wines of Qupe.

California wine often annoys the French. It’s like a savage teenager compared to the old elegance of Burgundy. But each year the wines mellow more and more, and the last decade has seen a big shift forward, combining flavor with refined complexity. Those often big flavors, or any of the things you notice tasting the wine, are the best clues to be used when creating a meal paired to the wine.

America is well known for barbecue. Not a big specialty in Paris. And the BBQ of the American South is bathed in tangy sauces, perfect for the humid climate that predominates the calendar. But we aren’t humid in California, and there aren’t any bugs in the summer like New England or Southeast Asia. It’s a dry climate, so don’t let high temperatures scare you, either.

All through this Central Coast region, you’ll find BBQ all right. By the name Santa Maria Barbecue, named for the city up the road on the 101. The barbecue is dry rubbed, no sauce. The perfect way to enjoy some of the red wines that drive the French nuts. The spice rubs of pepper and rosemary, salt and thyme, endless individual versions, can be found all over. Once you get used to Santa Maria BBQ, you might rethink other sauces entirely, as they seem to me to get in the way of the taste of the meat. At least you’ll have found the perfect match for the California wines you’ve been tasting.

Santa Maria BBQ in Los Olivos.

Santa Maria BBQ in Los Olivos.

One of my favorite roads in Santa Barbara Wine Country is the Foxen Wine Trail. It’s long, which is wonderful, a wine road version of a late piece of Morton Feldman. Call me sentimental but my car soundtrack is usually the vocal madrigals of Monteverdi. Somehow the endless love song lyrics and the timeless harmonies from Venice go well with red wine on a rustic road.

A dry vineyard by Foxen Winery.

A dry farmed vineyard at Foxen Winery.

Enjoy stopping wherever you think looks appealing, it’s hard to make recommendations. In fact, we force ourselves to always try new tasting rooms rather than keep repeating the same old standards. That’s true for my love of music and food, but more on that later. One favorite, Foxen Winery, now has two locations, both are good but the second one goes way back in time. Benjamin Foxen is that old character from California’s 19th century I’d love to meet. A British expatriate who settles in what will become Santa Barbara Wine Country back in the 19th century and marries a Native American woman. What a different world!

The old barn of Foxen Winery is still open.

The old barn of Foxen Winery is still open.

But I’ve saved my best for last. As John Cage said, always try to go the president of the company to study the subject you love.

Find Stephan Bedford of Bedford Winery in Los Alamos. Founded in 1876 (the same years as the Bayreuth Festival), Los Alamos is seeing its Main Street revitalized in the 21st century. Stephan might provide the most entertaining tastings in the state. For my musician readers, it’s as if my good friend Oliver Knussen were pouring your wine, with one story after another with knowledge that packs a punch and a laugh. Stephan loves Shakespeare. Or history, so a typical event at the winery will be a celebration of the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

And Stephan LOVES food, which is essential for us as well. The recipes on his website at bedfordwinery.com  are amazing and worth your time to prepare. I’m planning on following his lead and braising a goose in tarragon cream for Bastille Day, with his Dry Riesling.  I’m hoping for a Christmas in July result. I’ll let you know!

The gregarious and charming Stephan Bedford.

The gregarious and charming Stephan Bedford.

He passed the biggest American food test of all. This is an insider moment for my readers in 80 countries around the globe. If you ask a New Yorker “Where is the best pizza in New York City?” the correct answer is “It’s in New Jersey.” When my wife Jan, a native of Newark, New Jersey, asked this ultimate food question, Stephan passed with flying colors. Roaring laughter all around!

And Stephan did us one better. He named the Hoboken Amtrak Station as the greatest of them all. Why? As I said, Stephan likes history. It seems that in the Hoboken train station there is an oven from the 19th century, still in use, that results in the best pies in America. I’ll bet he’s right. Why history is not a boring subject.

Don't miss Bedford Winery. The best stuff never leaves the state, mes amis.

Don’t miss Bedford Winery. The best stuff never leaves the state, mes amis.

I’ll keep sauntering up the California coast in future blogs, completing the series I started in early March. It’s been gratifying to have posts about my California home be as popular as the more exotic locations of Vietnam, Laos, Hong Kong, or the excitement of Latin Grammy with Gabriela Ortiz that I’ve written about since September. This recent California trip was about work for the LA International New Music Festival and a meeting about Elliott Carter in Carmel. And that blog, pure music, is on the way as well.

But I don’t like to pretend that music is an independent endeavor. Nothing is. I’ve often written that I’m using this blog to explain, over time, the most often asked question I’ve received in over 25 years of concert programming, namely “How do you determine your programs?” History is one of the big clues, and from studying history the local narrative of a place, which for me is Los Angeles, falls into place. That’s why I love Vietnam and Mexico as well. Their national stories are just so fascinating that I keep returning for more. Music schools don’t help much, I’m afraid……

It’s not only the French who identify strongly with the countryside, mes amis. See you in the Edna Valley Wine Country, Morro Bay and Cambria soon!

Best, best, best,