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Approaching Riverbench

View approaching the vineyard

As you wind your way down Foxen Canyon road aka the Foxen Trail, you can’t help to think about the wonderful scenery that the road bisects. On either side ancient oak trees grow in pastures, some with grazing cattle others now planted with wonderful vines producing a host of fruit from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir and the noblest of grapes Cabernet Sauvignon. The nice thing is that you can choose to sample a handful of wines or less on your way to Riverbench or better yet hold off, show some restraint, have patience and wait till you arrive at the oasis nestled amongst the vines on the flat plain just past

Entering Riverbench

Coming into the winery

Rancho Sisquoc in the Santa Maria valley. The vines surround their beautiful tasting room, a converted craftsman style home, with a wonderful outdoor seating area perfect for a relaxing tasting and picnic.

Upon exiting the car we were struck by the quiet stillness of the area so peaceful, the perfect environment for wine tasting. Upon entering the tasting room you’re greeted by a warm comfortable room complete with fire place, lots of windows, a gift area and a long robust wooden bar for tasting with the days offerings written on the chalk board.

View of Vineyard

Having been to Riverbench several times at all different times of the year I have found the experience to encompass the seasons, a roaring fire during the colder months or enjoying a tasting out on the back patio during the warmer summer months. The winery has been around since 1973 growing pinot noir and chardonnay grapes and producing wines as well as selling their grapes to other wine makers.  In 2004 it was purchased by a group of families in the area and is making some of very fine chardonnay and pinot noir that are amongst some of the finest in the region. A few of my favorites are the One Palm Pinot Noir that makes the trek worth it on it’s own it’s deep rich cranberry color with notes of cherry and strawberry and an earthiness to it clearly reflecting the region that it comes from. From the first sip of this wine I was hooked, small case production which doesn’t take long to sell out every year. On another recent tasting I had the pleasure of tasting their Bedrock Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Rosé two other fantastic selections.

Budding Grapes

The Chardonnay is a crisp Chablis style wine that is completely fermented in stainless steel tanks that keep the flavors of the grapefruit and pineapple with a richness that lingers on the palate making it a pleasure to drink. And last but not least is their Pinot Noir Rosé, a delightful wine that is refreshing, a perfect summer wine that gives you the best of pinot noir flavor in a lighter wine that has notes,

Riverbench, Chardonnay, Rosé & Pinot Noir

believe it or not of jolly ranchers and watermelon with a dry finish that lingers to reveal a host of citrus flavors that make for a perfect ending. This Rosé reminds me of the Rosés from Provence that I tasted recently at an event. These are but 3 from their collection of wonderful wines that I have sampled. Each time I am in the tasting room there is a different flight of wines to taste. Laura the general manager is always very helpful and is always ready to answer your questions as it the rest of the very knowledgeable and friendly staff who are always ready to pour and engage in some good conversation time permitting. This is one vineyard in the Santa Ynez/Santa Maria region that is well worth a visit. For more information check out their website – www.riverbench.com

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Kaz, Pastry Chef Sequestered in the corner

I set my GPS with the address of the Test Kitchen and away I went. I came upon an old building with no name on it bathed in a red paint with black trim standing regally on Pico Bl. I parked in back and came through the back door and followed the signs downstairs into the kitchen. I walked in to see the crew from the  restaurant all lined up doing prep. The crew had been there since 10am busily getting ready for the evenings performance.  You see Test Kitchen brings in chefs from all over to test out new recipes and concepts for their restaurants or new establishments to be opened up. The prep was in the final stages when I got there. As always my first thing is to ask what else needs to be done.There were a few last minute things such as slicing some more cibatta.  I also had to use the slicer to cut buffalo tenderloin for Carpaccio. The Tenderloin had to be frozen to make cutting to the right thickness easy. The one thing that I don’t understand is why restaurant slicers are usually in less than optimal condition. Noisy seemingly on their last legs yet they do the job.

Christopher Barrigan getting ready for service.

Chef Adam Horton of Saddle Peak Lodge made sure that he had plenty of help in the kitchen, to keep things running smoothly making everything looking effortless. They put Kaz, the pastry chef, in the back corner of the kitchen like a sequestered mad scientist experimenting with all he could find.

I saw crisp chicken skin on his station and I was wondering what that was for. I soon found out, chicken skin nougatine. The  wonderful combination of flavors sweet  from the caramel, salty from the chicken skin and salt and and a bit of heat from green curry to finish it.

Chef Adam Horton getting ready for Service

Another item I saw on his station were apple slices that had been infused with hibiscus using the cryovac. The flavor combination of the hibiscus with the apple was addictive. This was part of their cheese course which included Parmegiano reggiano with white chocolate namelaka black olive nougatine and aviation cocktail sauce (gin, lemon juice sugar water Creme de violet) micro celery and a thin curved crostini. It is a very creative and tasty way to do a cheese course and tastes absolutely divine. The apple hibiscus combination is so refreshing and pairs perfectly with the intense flavor and saltiness of the  Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Chef Adam Horton, having servers taste the menu and answering quesitons

At this point the kitchen is shifting it’s energies to setting up for service. Meanwhile the front of house staff is busily readying the dining room for another big night. The next item on the list is to make on of each course for the wait staff to see and taste so they can accurately describe it to their customers. The chef gives the order to fire and the plates begin to materialize. One  by one they get put up on the pass and taken to the staff table so that Adam can

The open kitchen, a few hours before service

describe each and answer any questions that might come up. Wild Boar spread with grilled toast, Heirloom tomato buffalo and it’s cheese, Escolar with summac, edamame, horseradish uni, flavors of pho and puffed rice, Pork belly with vadouvan apple yogurt and cucumber, Elk with almond bacon brandied cherries and squash, Parmigiano Nero with apple hibiscus, white chocolate and olives, Dessert Thai green curry with chicken lemongrass cilantro and lime.

first 3 courses

First 3 courses - Wild Boar, Heirloom Tomato Buffalo, Escolar

The menu is heavenly and of course I had to taste each dish, for safety’s sake of course. They all passed with flying colors.

Last 4 courses

Pork Belly, Elk with squash scramble, Parmigiano Nero, Thai green curry

One of the new experiences for the Saddle Peak staff was the open kitchen which keeps everyone on their best behavior.

Joshua Pressman, checking tickets and plates as they go out

The Test Kitchen staff was very accommodating and everyone seemed to be working very well together. Service begins and there is a slow ramp up as the dishes are easily put together. One by one, Joshua Pressman, the expediter for the Test Kitchen, calls out the orders to the kitchen as Chef de Cuisine Chris Kufek confirms them and keeps the kitchen staff humming. The dining room begins to fill as sommelier and master mixologist

Christopher Barragan, working the drinks

Christopher Barragan is manning the bar pouring 5 drinks that he created just for the evening.  They are Tang’ent, My Darling Clementine, Q-Cumber, Pearl Jasmine, En Fleur, Testing Cocktail and Testing Mocktail, so ask for these when you see Chris at the Saddle Peak.


En Fleur - Gin, St Germaine, Sauvignon Blanc, fresh thyme and lime

Meanwhile Joshua Buckner, GM of the Saddle Peak  bridges the gap between kitchen and front of the house to make sure all is going well and of course it is.

Some of Adams friends and even current and former wait staff from the saddle peak come by to congratulate him and say hi.  The plates are going out at a steady pace one of the nice things about having only one set menu is it makes it easier for the kitchen staff while making the dining experience even more of a pleasure.


The board is filled with tickets

Service is at full swing now. The board is full with orders, “Carpaccio out, 53 four out, 4 elk grazing on judges table 44 out, a boat here for 31, 44 walking” are the call outs from Joshua to the kitchen as he inspects each plate for drips etc… before releasing them to the servers throughout all stages of service.

The focus and concentration of the expediter as he continuously scans the tickets is intense . Keeping the proper timing going is job “ad 2 more desserts, 5 all day” then he pulls the tickets down for those tables.

Ramon on Grill and Sean on squash scramble

The elk with beef sauce is so tender and sweet. The mesquite wood grill ads just the right amount of oakyness to the flavor captured with the sous vide process. The wild boar has a full flavor to it mixed with the reduced braising liquid with sherry wine. The flavor has that sweet fresh sense of the woods. The way it is raised,  there is a buttery quality to the meat that is not often found in boar.

The quenelle of lemongrass comes through beautifully. It’s like tasting lemon with the additional flavor of slight bitterness. It’s layered with candied carrot slices etc… A wonderful refreshing alternative dessert.


The line is filled and humming along

The call outs continue as the peak of the evening has passed. 9:04 and things are beginning to slow a bit. “27 pork is squeeling” as another order goes out. Ramon keeps the grill flowingChris Kufek works with Josh the expeditor to make sure that all flows smoothly. 9:09 a lull in the storm. Things are slowing. Then another wave comes in. There are 10 first courses being readied to go out. The dishwashers are humming along. Sean is busily making the butternut scramble for the elk as Ramon keeps the grill fired up and humming along with elk and the grilled cibatta slices to go with the boar. Pork bellies are frying and all cylinders are firing at the same time 9:19. Things can change at a moments notice during service. “25 & 54 elk grazing. 22 Abraham lincoln, Kufek you need boar for three Rick asks to get clarification, “pick up 3’pork 5 all day.” The board is full again and the orders are moving out.

Rick working the Wild boar

Josh comes back to tell us that the people are really happy with the food, “pick up 4 deserts goes the call as the plating continues.” Each facet of the meal is going out in perfect harmony with the next. The last table is in and now its just a matter  of working through each ticket and knocking them out one by one. One by one the dots go down on the plate then the cucumber balls and finally the pork belly, fried to crispy


Adam putting the finishing touches on Pork Belly

perfection with a soft center. One by one the tickets disappear and the last of each course gleaming. “33 fish are swimming” As the evening winds down the staff begins to clean up each station one by one as the last Wild boar Spread goes out, then the Buffalo carpaccio, then Escolar, the last of the pork belly and then Elk, and finally the Parmigianno Nero and last but not least the Thai green curry dessert.Meanwhile wellwishers come into the kitchen to congratulate Adam and staff on a spectacular meal. One person asks Adam how he would describe elk, “It’s like filet mignon on drugs”

It was a highly successful evening as Chef Adam Horton and the Saddle Peak team came together to do what they do best, create a great experience and make great food.

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The limousine pulled up to the Double Tree Hotel in Santa Monica it was a sight to behold a long white stretch Excursion Limousine that normally seats up to 22 people for our group of 6 plus myself. We transferred the lunch supplies for the day and I went in to find our guests from Ireland. Dorothy and Catherine, two sisters from Dublin on holiday here in Los Angeles.


Pouring a barrel sample for tasting at Wish Vineyards

We loaded into the limo and took off up the coast. Toward Malibu Canyon. It was a beautiful day, the heat wave had broken from the previous week and I was elated. We came to our first stop Wish vineyards a wonderful boutique winery in Hidden Hills that specializes in Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.


Looking at a Brix tester

We were met by the owner who is also a sommelier and has a degree in the culinary arts from Le Cordon Bleu.  She took us for a tour of her vineyard explaining how she came to choose the grape varietals to plant that are based on the micro climate which has hot days

Jan and Cathie listening to Sommelier at Wish Vineyards

and gets some of the cool ocean breeze coming through the canyon at night.She brought back barrel samples from her wine maker from her 09, 08 & 07 vintages and that gave us the opportunity to sample the progression of the wine making process. It’s interesting to see how much it changes with the barrel aging and then further in the bottle.


Showing us the Merlot and Cabernet Grapes

We also tasted the Cabernet and Merlot grapes where we could taste the basis from which each wine develops.  Once we got done with the barrel samples we tasted their Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and their new cab merlot blend which were all wonderful. The Merlot went well with our lunch.


Gourmet Lunch at the Vineyard

The Limo arrives at Malibu Solstice

Next we made the trek to Malibu Solstice a vineyard at 2100′, high up in the Santa Monica mountain range. This wonderful vineyard has a 360º view that is breathtaking. His vines are divided up with a northern and southern exposure. His only varietal is Cabernet Sauvignon and he’s been making wine since 2001.

2001 Malibu Solstice Cab

He has an interesting philosophy about his wines which is to let mother nature make the wine. Each of his vintages are very unique. Yes they are all cabs but unlike most wineries he doesn’t do any blending to even out the taste from one year to the next.

The North Slope at Malibu Solstice

So in this case he allows nature intent to dictate what his wine will taste like with each vintage and the result is quite remarkable.  We tasted his 2004 first then the 2005 both of which were very similar then the 2006 had a bit more spice and pepper to the finish. The terroir came through in the wine which added to the pleasure.

Tasting Inside the Estate at Malibu Solstice

Our Group at the Malibu Solstice Estate

The 2008 although young, for a Cab offered a completely different take more fruit forward. The 2002 was a the last one that we had and that was such a nice was to end the tasting.

The View from the Estate

A well balanced Cab that was difficult to put down.  Unfortunately we had to leave this wonderful environment to get on to the second half of our experience. Since we experienced 2 estates we next went on to experience some of the tasting rooms.

One of the Cielo Woodstock Collection Lables

Our first stop was to visit Cielo which makes both estate grown wines as well as wines using

grapes from both the central coast and Napa/Sonoma. There is a very distinct difference between the estate wines and the others.

Andrew Pouring for us

Cielo has a it’s woodstock series of wines that are all named after songs from the concert. These wines are easy to drink with or without food. Some of them are very fruit forward with many hints of dark berries flavors.

Catherine and Alex at Cielo

Their Estate grown wines have a bit more of a spicy finish. Again you can taste the distinct flavor of the Terroir, which is

Bill Hirsh pouring Purple Haze

mostly chaparral, on the finish. Andrew began our tasting. We tasted about 6 or 8 wines having our first whites of the day. The environment at Cielo is very relaxed. There was live music while we were there.

Tasting at Cornell

We were also fortunate to have Bill Hirsh also pour for us which made the experience that much more enjoyable. Next we descended upon the Cornell Winery to end our tasting extravaganza. We were treated to a private tasting in their special back room which has a wonderful long


Meat & cheese platter Yum

wooden table that seats about 20 people with chandeliers has such a warm inviting feeling to it.


A bit of local folk entertainment

We tasted a selection of other local wines Surfrider Sauvignon blanc, Malibu Sanity Chardonnay, Cielo Misty Roses, Mandolina Sangiovese Blend, Cantara Old vine Zin, Bodega Bomez de Malibu 2007 Cab, Malibu Valley Syrah and Anglim Grenache.

The one that truly stood out for me was the Malibu Sanity Chardonnay. We were also treated to a meat and cheese platter composed of 3 cheeses, baguette and an assortment of charcuterie which was very welcome after a day of tasting and also went well with the wines.


Old Cornell Post Office Sort Boxes

Once we were finished with our tasting we went into the private room at The Old Place, which is the former post office for the town of Cornell.

We were treated to some wonderful locally raised sirloin steak, white fish and chicken along with desserts which were out of this world. The nice thing about the cooking at

The Old Place is that their meats are all cooked over a hardwood grill which imparts a smokey flavor that is the perfect compliment to the atmosphere that surrounds you there.


Tim Skogstrom and Me

The day was full of fantastic experiences, socializing with wonderful people, great wines and fantastic food. The other nice thing is the luxurious transportation and the fact that you are taken around in the lap of luxury for the entire day. What’s not to like!

A quote from Bella Shaw, one of the people on the tour – “It was a fantastic experience because it wasn’t “commercial.” Not like a Napa wine tour at all, and Rico was the perfect host. Wish I still had my travel show
on CNN. This exclusive excursion would definitely be featured.”

For more information on how you can come with us on one of these tours visit – http://www.fineculinaryexperience.com/malibuwine.html

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Having 2 daughters one who is a pesco vegetarian and the other being vegan I have become sensitive to the needs of the non-carnivore for quite some. A trained chef myself it pained me to watch as my younger daughter go from eating everything to cutting out pork then beef then chicken and finally lamb and all other land creatures. I breathed a sigh of relief when she stopped there and I was able to at least cook a plethora of seafood for her. My older daughter had played with becoming a vegetarian off an on for the past 4 years and now has gone over to the other side and become a vegan. It pains my heart but if it makes her feel better, then that’s all that matters to me. So that’s the background. Now to the meat (pun intended) of the matter, don’t despair there are not only interesting BBQ options for the grill but also good wine pairings to boot.

For the pesco-vegetarians of the world there are always the 2 standbys grilled salmon and shrimp. For the salmon, get salmon with the skin on, it keeps it together and makes for easier grilling.  I like just some olive oil salt and pepper on mine and then put it on a nice hot clean grill, hot and clean being the operative words to prevent sticking, skin side up and let it cook for a bit. Look at the sides of the fish to see how far up it has cooked, try about 1/3 of the way up before flipping over. I like to use tongs for this so I don’t damage the fish.  Then finish the cooking on the skin side. Serve with lemon or a dill yogurt sauce. Grilled shrimp is great just marinated in olive oil, chili flakes, salt, pepper and some garlic for about an hour. Pull them out and squeeze on some fresh lemon, lime or for a twist orange and mix until it is all blended. Put the shrimp on skewers, if using wooden soak in water for about 30 minutes before using, then put on the grill using the same rules as with the salmon. With shrimp once they are reddish/pink on both sides then they are done. Don’t over cook them or they will turn to rubber.

For the Vegans out there you can make grilled tofu which tastes great. Use firm or extra firm tofu and cut in 1/2 inch slices. Marinate slices in a mixture of soy sauce, brown sugar, chili flakes and garlic for about 30 mins to an hour or you can use your favorite marinade from the store. The key is to let the marinade soak into the tofu. Once ready to grill, get the grill hot and clean and brush tofu with olive oil on each side and place on hot grill and let it do its thing. It won’t take long for it to warm through and create grill marks, flip over with spatula and apply your favorite BBQ sauce to the top then eat it like a burger or on top of a bed of mixed greens with a citrus dressing. You could also add some grilled spring onions to it for a bit of a kick.

Then there are always the standard Garden or Boca burgers. I prefer the Boca’s since they grill best. Trader Joes also has some great vegetarian/vegan sausages that are good such as the Italian blend and andouille both vegetarian and tasty.

Now what to serve with these delicacies well I asked Jon Troutman from the Cork’d blog to help me out and he recommended either a “Sauvignon Blanc or a Chenin Blanc and as he puts it two grapes that are food friendly with high acid levels and clean flavors that play well with vegetables, salads and cheeses.” I would also say that you might be able to go to a light Pinot Noir if you are grilling using BBQ sauces.

So there you have it my homage to the vegetarians out there. If you want more info please drop me a line at chefphotographervip@fineculinaryexperience.com and I’ll be happy to answer your food questions.

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Jon Troutman

My Website
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Posted: April 27th, 2010

Spring is very much here. April showers are almost totally behind us and May flowers are blooming. Guys, you know what that means…besides the fact that you have to change all the window screens.

We’re firing up the grill!
With barbecue ribs, kabobs, sunshine and teeny-weeny bikinis, comes the opportunity for some fun, synergistic food and wine pairings that will knock your guest’s socks off…and maybe even their tops. No longer will Budweiser and Wine Coolers satiate your company’s thirst. Your friends deserve better than cheap domestic brew and foofy-foofy, sugarfied malt beverages. We’ve got just the wine prescription to solve…

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RePosted from the Cork’d Blog

Finally, a Perfect Food and Wine Pairing System


Patrick (Kahuna) PetruccelloMy Website
· My Articles

Posted: May 16th, 2010

Years and years of drinking wine, and even more years of eating food, have allowed me to develop a precise system for matching the perfect wine with any food. A system so dramatic that it often inspires words like “Interesting”, “Amazing” and “Wow”. Now I share this secret with all of you. First you start by taking into account a wine’s traits; powerful, subtle, crisp, or sweet, and then you evaluate the food. Is the meal a robust meat, delicate fish or well sauced pasta? Easy enough. Well, my system uses none of the above criteria…

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One of the nice things about living in Ventura County is the close proximity to Santa Ynez. This wonderful area boasts numerous wineries along with several quaint areas to shop and dine. It’s a great place for a weekend getaway or just to spend the day.  So a few weeks ago I spent a Saturday with my mother up in the Santa Ynez Valley doing some wine tasting with the ultimate goal of picking up our wine club selection at the Koehler Winery. It was a beautiful October day as we made our way up the coast toward the Santa Ynez Valley. After passing through Santa Barbara the scenery changed. We were no longer in an urban environment. A 4 lane black highway bisecting the landscape. On one side the brown rolling hills dotted with rock formations and livestock grazing on the opposite side the deep blue waters of the Pacific Shoestring tasting roomOcean, oil drilling platforms rising above the water with the some of the channel islands creating a perfect backdrop.  It was a glorious site. We made our way through the changing landscape, leaving the coast as the 101 took us inland up into the Santa Ynez Valley. Through the rocky tunnel up, past the Wines from ShoestringPork Palace and several farms finally exiting the highway and making our way to our first stop of the day the Shoestring Winery.

The Shoestring winery is located off the main road 246 going toward Solvang. I remember it for it’s Sangiovese. We tasted Rose, Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Merlot & Syrah. If you like a slightly dry Rose its great as is the Syrah & Sangiovese. It wasn’t a let down by any stretch.

Next we decided to go to Buttonwood winery. ButtonwoodThe tasting room is very charming and it happens that when we were there it was very croweded. We tasted 9 wines and the 3 winners were Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and the Trevin which was wonderful.

Rideau vineyardsAlong the same road toward Los Olivos is Rideau Vineyards. This is a stunning property. I love the tasting room and the surroundings. The tasting room is plush and luxurious as are their wines. We decided to go with their estate red tasting which had a collection of wonderful wines. The Mourvedre was fantastic followed by their Estate Syrah & Petite Syrah both were excellent.

After a relaxing lunch in Los Olivos we decided to go to Curtis winery to see what they had to offer. They had some wonderful paintings on the walls. You can do tastings in both the main tasting room and theirCurtis larger more cavernous room that holds their stainless steel tanks. We had a nice tasting particularly their winemakers Pinot Noir. Other noteables were the heritage cuvee, viognier & Rose.

KoehlerOur final stop of the day was Koehler. In all honesty one of my favorites. I am a member of their wine club and for good reason, great tasting wines at a reasonable price. Dan helped us out as usual. The tasting room wasn’t too busy since we were there on a week day. We were there to pick up wine our shipment and as is tradition do another tasting. This time the Viognier stood out for their whites. As far as reds go I love them all but my favorites for the day were the Pinot Noir & their Grenache. It was a good tasting day as it always is in Santa Ynez.

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