California Winemaker Dives
An insider’s look at the places wine pros go to kick back, chow down and drink up.
dive: a cheap disreputable nightclub or dance hall [syn: honkytonk]
Cheap? Disreputable? For the purpose of this article, we beg to diverge from the dictionary definition of dive. On these pages, a dive is a place where winemakers go to be themselves. They’re not wooing buyers or presiding over a dinner at a white tablecloth restaurant. They’re where they want to be with their friends, enjoying themselves, laughing, gossiping and escaping, however briefly, from the pressures of being California winemakers. Here are some of the most popular winemaker hangouts.
Pancha’s of Yountville
6764 Washington Street, Yountville
Best time: late at night
When limo drivers cruise down Yountville’s chic Washington Street delivering tourists to The French Laundry, that “click” you hear is them locking the doors as they pass Pancha’s.
The rickety old alehouse is on the wrong end of town. The owner’s mom, Jenny, who doubles as bartender, says only that it’s been around “for many, many, many years.” It looks more like a Central Valley juice joint than something in Yountville. Locals joke about a certain disreputability. “Don’t sit on anything at Pancha’s. In fact, don’t touch anything at Pancha’s, except your own beer bottle. And maybe the darts,” advises Lori Narlock, media relations manager at Wilson Daniels.
(One patron wrote on yelp.com, “After I saw the couch, I decided to call it a day.”)
The place is a real dive: flies circle around the dilapidated front entrance, a taco truck sits in the empty lot next door, and the sign over the bar—Smoking permitted, enter at your own risk— is no joke; patrons happily flout state law. (Another sign says Rehab is for quitters.) And Pancha’s has something else you won’t find at the aforementioned French Laundry, or at nearby Bouchon, Redd or Bistro Jeanty: pool tables. Funky it definitely is, but Pancha’s is also a longtime favorite of hard-working local vintners. “Kinda like a poor man’s version of Vegas” is how Michael Quinn, president of Michael-Scott Wines, describes it.
“Pancha’s is where we go late at night when we’ve had that last bottle of wine at some fancy place and need one more beer or shot,” says Lang & Reed owner/winemaker John Skupny. Adds Schramsberg’s winemaker, Keith Hock, “The cool thing about Pancha’s is that they were serving beer in a can before beer in a can became hip again!”
Boon Fly Café
4048 Carneros Highway, Napa
Best time: breakfast
For Napa winemakers looking for a hearty breakfast in Carneros and the southern valley, the Boon Fly Café is the go-to place.
“You always see a lot of Carneros guys,” notes Eric Davis, the cafe’s young manager. “Saintsbury’s just across the street, the Carneros Creek guys are in four or five times a week, and the Mumm [Napa Valley] people come in all the time.” On a recent morning, Sean Foster, Merryvale’s winemaker, and his assistant winemaker, Michael Cruse, stopped by for breakfast. “This is Napa service without the pretense,” says Cruse. “During harvest, it’s filled with guys who you can tell have been working all night. They can cut loose, have an omelet, some bubbles to take the edge off, a Bloody Mary.”
You wouldn’t exactly call Boon Fly, with its high loft ceilings, boho- inspired exposed air ducts and attentive waitstaff, a dive. Maybe an haute-dive. Walk in, smell the griddle cakes, butter and freshly brewed coffee, enjoy classic rock on the radio, read The New York Times for free and relax.
1180 Rutherford Road, Rutherford (on the corner of Highway 29)
Best time: dinner
“This is our favorite peoplewatching place,” says Mario Monticelli, winemaker at Trinchero Family Vineyards, speaking of the Rutherford Grill. It’s around 9 pm, and he’s with his wife, Anna, the winemaker at Piña Napa Valley. The place is packed with what seems like every winemaker in town. It’s noisy, raucous and friendly, with lots of laughter and bottles being passed around. Nearby, Elias Fernandez, the winemaker at Shafer Vineyards, is happily relaxing. “This place is like Cheers,” he grins. “Everybody comes here.”
The Grill is right in the heart of Napa and parking is easy, “so coming here is a no brainer,” says Kevin Morrisey, the winemaker at Ehlers Estate, who stops by often on his way home from the winery. “I like the bartender,” says a smiling Janet Myers, the winemaker at Mount Veeder and Franciscan wineries. On this Friday night that bartender happens to be Chris Carpenter, Cardinale’s handsome winemaker. So the employees are toothsome, the wine list is awesome, the food as comfort-good as it gets. Don’t miss the Maytag blue cheese potato chips.
2902 San Marcos Avenue, Los Olivos
Best time: breakfast
“Sometimes,” says Michael Larner, general manager of Larner Winery & Vineyard, in Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Valley, “you just want to hang out with other winemakers, where you can trade battle stories: who fell into the fermenter, who picked when he shouldn’t have.”
Larner was sipping his morning joe on the patio of Corner House Coffee, along with a group of buddies including Larry Schaeffer (Fess Parker, Tercero), Brett Escalera (Consilience, Tre Anelli), José Bauer (Rancho La Viña), John Wright (Standing Sun), Ryan Zotovitch (Zotovich Family), Matthias Pippig (Sanguis) and Chad Melville (Melville and Samsara).
Corner House is one of those preternaturally perfect little coffee shops, and in Los Olivos, it is the place for locals to gather in the early morning, before heading off to the wineries and vineyards.
Most mornings, the winemakers will park their pickups and 4-wheel drive vehicles along the road and stumble into Corner House. On a recent morning, the pattern was insider stuff: what the temperature had been during the heat wave, how much rain they’d got last week, who’s buying grapes from whom, who just got fired.
Corner House serves only politically correct Peet’s coffee. If the weather is nice, which it usually is, grab a cup, maybe with scrambled eggs on a bagel, relax on the wraparound deck and savor wine country.
5995 Stagecoach Road, Santa Barbara
Best time: weekend lunch
If it’s color you’re looking for, head on up into the mountains to Cold Spring Tavern. Take the 154, the old road between Santa Ynez Valley and the city of Santa Barbara, wind your way through the bluffs and canyons high above Lake Cachuma, then turn off onto Stagecoach Road. There, down in a cool, shady gulley, is the old wooden tavern, built in 1886 and not changed much since.
Motorcycles are parked on either side of the narrow road, which spills down on one side to a stream and on the other disappears into an upslope forest. The biker crowd gathers here to drink beer, devour tri-tip sandwiches oozing with three sauces and, not infrequently, to inhale certain aromatic herbs. There’s often live rock or blues music.
Young winemakers and cellar rats also have adopted Cold Spring. “Everybody goes there,” says Steve Gerbac, assistant winemaker at Rusack and owner of his own brand, Dolina, “but not for wine. You go to get away from worrying about wine, have a beer, a Bloody Mary, relax.” Many younger winemakers live in Santa Barbara city because there’s much more to do there than in the valley, so they’ll hit Cold Spring for breakfast, drive up for lunch or stop for baby backs on the way home.
Mostly, everybody eats outside at big, campground-style tables. But there are indoor fireplaces for cold weather. There are apocryphal tales about fights breaking out, “but mostly,” says Gerbac, “Cold Spring is where you can get away from it all.”
Full of Life Flatbread All Natural Pizza
225 Bell Street, Los Alamos
Time: dinner, Friday–Sunday only
Los Alamos may be small, dusty and off the beaten path, but it’s home to the perfect winemaker dinner place: Flatbread Pizza. Its proximity to the 101 Freeway as well as its warm atmosphere and terrific food make Flatbread the perfect pit stop for winemakers transiting the valley.
“I’ll be coming back from Firestone to San Luis Obispo, and this is the only good place to stop where you can just walk in, have a great glass of wine and recognize a lot of people,” says Leslie Renaud, the new director of winemaking for Foley Wines. Although Flatbread is a pizza house, it’s the kind of pizza Wolfgang Puck would be proud of, with all ingredients organically grown within a 400-mile radius.
The bar area is noisy and friendly, the dining area rustic, with the pizza chef working his stone oven right out in the open. On any given evening, you might see Rick and Thekla Sanford (Alma Rosa), Dick and Jenne Doré (Foxen), Nick DeLuca (Dierberg), Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat), Jonathan Nagy (Byron) and his wife Clarissa (Bonaccorsi). A menu favorite is the 10-inch half-and-half pizza, evenly divided between, say, mushroom and caramelized onions on one side, pepperoni and peppers on the other. Winemakers will bring their own bottles and, says Nagy, “sometimes if you leave it for the staff, they won’t charge corkage.”
The Fremont Diner
2660 Fremont Drive (Highway 12/121), Sonoma
Best time: lunch
The Fremont Diner sits on the Sonoma side of the Carneros district, just past the old Stornetta Dairy, but it’s popular with vintners on both sides of the county line. Owner Chad Harris’s decision to call the funky old place a diner came about because “the food is traditional American, a lost art, and I want everyone here: the people who pick the grapes, who make the wine, people from the city.” The most popular lunch item is the brisket plate (California oak-smoked brisket on Italian brioche with barbecue sauce, collard greens and red onion juniper pickles, $11). Around noon on a recent warm day, the outdoor table area was packed with local vintners and growers, well into a second or third bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate the end of harvest. For decades, the diner was called Babe’s Burgers & Franks, and it still bears retro touches of times past: lanterns on wooden shelves, rusty milk kettles, old Coke crates and malt machines.
9113 Graton Road, Graton
Best time: lunch or dinner
Between Sebastopol and Forestville, Highway 116, the old Gravenstein (as in apple) Highway bisects the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley. At its center is the small town (population 1,800) of Graton—all four corners of it. And on one of those corners, in a wooden one-story building that looks like it used to be a western saloon, is Underwood Bar & Bistro. If there’s a winemaker’s bar in heaven, it’s Underwood.
“I come here all the time, so much so that I almost always order the same thing,” says Joy Sterling, from Iron Horse Vineyards. Her favorite may be yours, too: a dozen Hog Island Kumamoto oysters with a cheeseburger. She compares Underwood to the bar in Cheers, a theme that seems to resonate with winemakers statewide. “You always see people you know,” says Adam Lee, from the Siduri and Novy wineries. Underwood is clubby, friendly, unpretentious and warm, and the food—upscale bistro—is geared to the local wines. “This place is the best, man!” crows Dan Kosta, from Kosta Browne Winery. “Great atmosphere. Only problem is, I can never come here for privacy, because I know everybody who comes in.”