As Santa Cruz emerges from its wintry slumber, the sights, sounds and sumptuous flavors of our vibrant home come alive with the sunshine of spring. Thereâ€™s plenty to keep you and your appetite busy, but if you need some inspiration, take note of the tasty ideas on the following pages. We have bites and sips that will satisfy you no matter the mood you find yourself in as the weather warms up. Feeling stressed? Slow down with a traditional tea ritual at Hidden Peak Teahouse (page 52), or unwind over a pint of organic brew at the mellow new beer hotspot Discretion Brewing (page 44). Enjoying an adventurous streak? Try a Beer Float from The Picnic Basket (page 34), or consider stopping by the Young Farmers and Ranchers annual Testicle Festival (page 59).
On a health kick? Dine at Golden Carrot-winning eateries (page 14), sip on locally made kombucha wine from Brew Dream (page 38), and find sweet satisfaction in raw, vegan, gluten-free Coco-Roons (page 30). And if, after considering all of these options you find yourself feeling indecisive, sign up for a Santa Cruz or Capitola Food Tour, and let history buff Brion Sprinsock take the reins on your culinary journey (page 6).
But the best way to celebrate both the spring season and your local food community is withâ€”what else?â€”a delicious picnic. Check out page 10 for an example of how to pack a picnic basket to the brim with Santa Cruz-made delights.
Now dig in. | Elizabeth Limbach, Editor / View as PDF >
A Tasty Trail
Food tour participants get schooled in local gastronomy as well as Santa Cruz and Capitola history
Fueled by his passion for Santa Cruz County history and a penchant for delicious meals from locally owned restaurants, Brion Sprinsock leads the Santa Cruz and Capitola Food Toursâ€”scenic strolls flavored with enlightening stories, and the best, sometimes overlooked, eats around.
Sprinsock and his wife, Kristine Albrecht, started the Santa Cruz walking tour in 2011 and added the Capitola tour last year.
Both tours take about three and a half hoursâ€”covering around 1.8 milesâ€”with 15 to 20 minute stops at designated restaurants. In Santa Cruz, partakers nosh on Mediterranean-inspired American cuisine at the Center Street Grill, sample vegetarian Sri Lankan fare at Malabar, cool off with fresh organic offerings from The Penny Ice Creamery, and more. Capitola tour-takers taste Island Fusion dishes from Paradise Beach Grille, experience traditional English tea at The Quail & Thistle Tea Room, and visit the illustrious Shadowbrook Restaurant, among other stops.
â€œYou get really full, but the walking allows your food to digest and it also cleanses the palate,â€ Sprinsock explains.
The idea, he says, is to get people to try great food from places that they may normally overlook, as well as give them a personal connection with those restaurants by sharing stories about their histories and the people who started them.
Sprinsock, whose interest in local history was sparked by historian Sandy â€œThe History Dudeâ€ Lydon, says that the food is what draws people to the tours, but itâ€™s the history and architecture that make the experience truly memorable.
â€œIf you just take the 10-by-10 block area of Downtown Santa Cruz, there are so many interesting stories to tell that people never hear about,â€ he says.
Sprinsock delves into historical anecdotes and points out Victorian architecture along each route.
On the Downtown Santa Cruz tour, for example, his topics range from the history of the Neary-Rodriguez Adobe, which he says is the oldest structure in town, and the origins of Mission Plaza, located above Pacific Avenue, to the evolution of downtownâ€™s architecture and the ways in which the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake changed the cityâ€™s look.
Sprinsock likes to keep the groups small and intimate, usually no more than 10 to 12 people.
â€œIt makes it so you can ask questions and enjoy the company,â€ he says. â€œSharing a meal is the best way to get to know someone.â€
While the tours are perfect culinary and cultural samplers for out-of-towners, Sprinsock says they appeal to locals as much as
to tourists. In fact, since they started two years ago, he says about half of their customers have been area residents.
Local businesses are also benefiting from the tours: last year, Sprinsock says the tours brought in $15,000 for local restaurants.
When it comes to selecting stops for his culinary excursions, Sprinsock says, â€œTo be on our tour, a restaurant has to be unique, it has to be unrepeatable, and locally owned.â€ | Joel Hersch
Tickets are available online at santacruzfoodtour.com with a 25 percent discount offer, bringing the cost of each tour down to $59.
An Online Kitchen
A day in the life of local vegan blogger Amey Mathews
In her 13 years of veganism, Amey Mathews has received the question (often with raised eyebrows and an incredulous tone) â€œWhat do you eat?â€ a few too many times.
After years as a self-professed â€œunhealthy vegetarianâ€ whose diet consisted mainly of bread and cheese, going vegan forced Mathews to reassess her kitchen routine. â€œNow I go to the farmersâ€™ market twice a week and [my diet] totally revolves around veggies,â€ says Mathews, a local yoga teacher. â€œThatâ€™s absolutely one of my favorite things about being veganâ€”how much it expanded my tastes.â€
Eager to show the world what a vegan eats (and perhaps put that repetitive question to rest once and for all) Mathews started the blog â€œVegan Eats and Treatsâ€ (veganeatsandtreats.blogspot.com) in August 2006.
â€œWhen I first got interested in vegan cooking, I looked online and there were maybe three or four vegan blogs, totalâ€”which is hilarious because now there are, like, three or four thousand vegan blogs,â€ she laughs. But her original intentâ€”that the blog be a form of activismâ€”quickly evolved.
â€œI realized that on the Internet no one looks up opinions they find challenging just to read about them,â€ she says. â€œYou go to the Internet for what you already want. So I have a lot of people who arenâ€™t vegan who read my blog, but they are at least interested in cooking and eating vegan food. The majority of people who do read it are vegan. The blog turned out to be more like a community of friends, and about sharing successes, and sometimes failures, in the kitchen.â€
She picked up a few key lessons in blogging early on that helped shape the site: No. 1, she says, is that â€œplenty of meals are unremarkable and donâ€™t need to go down in history.â€ This means blogging less often, but with a higher quality of posts. â€œI wait until I have something more interesting to post about,â€ she says.
The second most important thing to know as a food blogger, says Mathews, is that readers want to see big, eye-catching photos. Now armed with an SLR camera, Mathews has upped the ante on â€œVegan Eats and Treatsâ€ images, but says she doesnâ€™t take it as seriously as some other online foodies.
â€œThe best bloggers are people who eat cold meals, which Iâ€™m not quite willing to do,â€ she says. â€œThey take a lot of time, a lot of staging, and they have light tables and backdrops. Iâ€™ll do my best to take a good picture, but after five or six snaps, Iâ€™m ready to eat.â€
On a recent sunny afternoon, Mathews set the table at her Soquel home with a home-cooked meal certainly worthy of a post: potato salad with peas, sorrel and shallot vinaigrette, and open-face sandwiches with avocado and lime spread on homemade â€œGreen Monster Breadâ€ (from the cookbook â€œVegan Sandwiches Save the Day!â€), topped with grilled herb tofu (crusted with fresh parsley, dill, basil, garlic and marinade) and New Native sprouts. For dessert, she served up â€œGrandaddies Cookiesâ€â€”a recipe she based on her late grandfatherâ€™s favorite dessert of mocha almond fudge ice cream doused with Disaronno. (See page 60 for the recipe.)
She describes the blog as â€œlighthearted,â€ and says that, at its core, itâ€™s simply about tasty food.
â€œI certainly have strong feelings [about veganism], and Iâ€™m so committed to it,â€ she says, â€œbut I think you can win a lot more people over with a good attitude and good food.â€ | Elizabeth Limbach
Reminders of Rome
Casa Nostra Ristorante serves Italian food as traditional as it gets
At a little restaurant called Casa Nostra, just off Highway 9 in Ben Lomond, stepping through the front door transports you into old country Italy.
Italian opera plays, the hot aromas of spicy sausage and pasta fill the air, and Raffaele Cristallo and Pasquale Biancoâ€”both owners and chefsâ€”are talking, sometimes yelling, in Italian, about how to make the perfect carbonara.
Casa Nostra, which opened in December 2012, is owned and operated by Italian-born Cristallo and Bianco, and also Mario Ibarra, who is originally from Mexico but has cooked in and owned Italian restaurants for many years.
Bianco, head chef at Casa Nostra, hails from Benevento, Italy, but has worked in the restaurant business in Paris, Sweden, and San Francisco. Heâ€™s a big man with a goatee, excited blue eyes and a bright-white chefâ€™s uniform.
Sitting at the front bar, where Cristallo serves up a variety of imported wines, such as Negroamaro red, and Lavazza Italian coffee, he and Bianco recount tales of learning to cook gourmet dishes alongside their mothers (mandatory training in Italy) and meeting one another, all the while emphasizing the pride they take in creating authentic Italian food.
â€œWe have been knowing each other around 15 years,â€ Cristallo says with a thick Italian accent. â€œI met Pasquale in San Francisco for the first time, and we were both fresh from the boat.â€
Casa Nostra offers many classic Italian dishes like Fettuccine Alla Bolognese ($12.50), a pasta cooked with tomato, cuts of pork and beef, and a cream sauce, as well the Linguine Ai Frutti De Mare ($17), a seafood pasta plate complete with fresh mussels, clams, calamari, salmon and shrimp simmered in white wine. But, Bianco notes, the carbonara ($11.50) is the real test of Italian culinary authenticity. Itâ€™s a spaghetti dish with pancetta, onion and a cream sauce made from eggs.
When Italian tourists come in and taste the carbonara, they are extremely pleased, he says. â€œCarbonaraâ€”thatâ€™s the classic,â€ Bianco says. â€œYou go to Romeâ€”you find it exactly the way we make it.â€ Similarly, they boast that only here does the Italian Bolognese taste exactly as it does in Bologna, Italy.
â€œLike the bruschetta,â€ Cristallo says happily, both hands in the air. â€œWe know how the bruschetta is supposed to be tasting!â€ | Joel Hersch
Casa Nostra Ristorante, 9217 Hwy 9, Ben Lomond, 609-6132, ristorantecasanostra.com. Monday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Farm to Pizza
Bantam reinvents the pizza wheel with creations that offer a true, seasonal taste of Santa Cruz
The key to making authentic Neapolitan pizza is in the crust, says Bantamâ€™s head chef Melissa Reitz.
With an open stove burning almond wood at close to 1,000 degrees, Bantam pizzas cook fast, searing the outside into a flavorful crunch, while leaving the inside with just the right amount of chew. The mix of textures, garden-fresh veggies and high-grade meats from local farms, not to mention the laid back, social atmosphere of an old school pizzeria, are all giving the new eatery a good name.
When husband and wife duo Benjamin and Sarah Sims opened the restaurant in the heart of the lower Westside last November, they introduced to the neighborhood a casual but classy fusion of traditional Mediterranean cooking with a Californian, farm-to-table sensibility.
Sims, who honed his pizza-making artistry at Chez Panisse in Berkeley before working as a chef locally at Oswald Restaurant and most recently at Ristorante Avanti, says he wanted to explore a more playful, relaxed culinary style than he was able to practice previously.
â€œI always wanted something that was a little bit more neighborhood-y,â€ he says. â€œI wanted something that was a little bit more now.â€
The restaurant is spacious, with large windows and rustic wood plank wallingâ€”materials salvaged from a friendâ€™s barn. The prep kitchen and fire stove are situated along the back wall, where pizza dough is mixed and spun up into the air for all to see while the sound of seasonal veggies being chopped fills the air.
â€œThatâ€™s part of keeping it casual,â€ Sims says, â€œ[weâ€™re] not hiding in the back. We really like people to see us cooking and see where their food is coming from and how much care all the cooks are putting into it.â€
While the Margherita ($13) and the Marinara ($10) pizzas are staples, the rest of the menu changes daily and depends on what Reitz purchases at the farmersâ€™ market. With the dawn of spring, the pies took on a fresh quality reflective of the areaâ€™s fruitful fields.
â€œSpring time brings in a freshness to add to the food,â€ Reitz says. â€œIt makes things more exciting.â€ Her go-to ingredients arenâ€™t always the obvious choices, however. Earlier this year, she worked with Italian chicory and wild nettles, and concocted balsamic-esque syrup from pinecone resin.
True to its tagline â€œDonâ€™t Panic, Itâ€™s Organic,â€ Bantam uses all organic ingredients from local farms. Some of their local veggie suppliers include Mariquita in Watsonville and Route 1 Farms in Santa Cruz, while their meats, which come from naturally and sustainably raised animals, is produced by their neighborhood butcher shop, el Salchichero, and Fogline Farms, where they buy chicken.
Those chickens go into Bantamâ€™s best-selling dish (which, surprisingly, isnâ€™t a pizza): gluten-free fried chicken ($16), served with roasted carrots, fennel and spicy herb salsa. Reitzâ€™s secret? She soaks the poultry in buttermilk, dredges it in rice flour, and then fries it.
For Sims, watching Bantam become a community hub is incredibly exciting. He says thereâ€™s been more support for the restaurant than he could have possibly expected.
â€œThereâ€™s this feeling of pride and accomplishment that I get as an owner when people finish their meal thatâ€™s new to me,â€ he says. â€œWhen diners stop to thank me for opening Bantam, I feel this great satisfaction.â€ | Joel Hersch
Bantam, 1010 Fair Ave., Santa Cruz, 420-0101. Beer and wine. Open Monday through Thursday, 5 -9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 5-9:30 p.m. Closed Sundays. No reservations.
Three Pizzas to try
Wood Fire Woodie Pizzeria in Scotts Valley offers a bevy of unique and tasty pizzas, but The Kona Gold, $17, is a good bet. It contains fresh kona pineapple, hickory-smoked bacon and a three-cheese blend on top of fresh tomato sauce. 3105B Scotts Valley Drive, Scotts Valley, 316-9001, woodfirewoodie.com.
At Engfer Pizza Works, on Seabright Avenue, Meganâ€™s Vegan Pizza makes for a tasty choice for herbivores and omnivores, alike. Itâ€™s made with an organic tofu spread in lieu of mozzarella, and toppings of the customerâ€™s choosing. Price varies. 537 Seabright Ave., Santa Cruz, 429-1856, engferpizzaworks.com. | Kim Reyes
Pizzeria Avanti, a new offshoot of the beloved Ristorante Avanti, offers an enticing array of traditional and distinctive pizzas, including the prosciutto, arugula, tomato sauce, and Parmigiano-Reggiano pizza ($15 small, $25 large). 1711 Mission St., Santa Cruz, 425-1807, avantipizza.mobi.
Cafe IvÃ©taâ€™s artisan treats find a following on the Westside
Yvette Bilanko attributes her love of food to her upbringing in an Italian neighborhood in Chicago. With ready access to fresh ingredients, her father prepared the familyâ€™s meals from scratch. At Cafe IvÃ©taâ€”the eatery she opened in Santa Cruz in June 2010â€”she insists on following in his footsteps.
â€œI grew up with all of this absolutely wonderful food,â€ she says, â€œwhich gave me a really good palate.â€
It was necessity, determination, frugality, insisting on the finest ingredients, and a little bit of luck that fueled the twists and turns of Bilankoâ€™s culinary life.
She learned to cook when she married her husband John Bilanko, but it was a 1972 issue of Bon AppÃ©tit that led her to discover her passion for creating in the kitchen.
Johnâ€™s career as an international attorney led them to relocate to suburban North Chicago. Their family grew to include four daughters, and they had invested in commercial real estate when an economic downturn resulted in Johnâ€™s loss of employment, and left tenants unable to pay rent. To make a living, the couple decided to open a cafe like those they enjoyed in the city, serving good Italian coffee and food, with attention to details right down to the house-made caramel sauce and mayonnaise.
Inspired by the resourceful way in which her parents were raised in a little town near San Remo, Italy, she sought creative and useful solutionsâ€”what to do with egg whites left over from making mayonnaise, for instanceâ€”and found herself researching recipes in the library.
It was fate that brought their signature scones to the Bilankos. A customer had requested some, but they were time-consuming to make for a mother of four. Bilanko attended a food show in a Chicago snowstorm, and discovered a mix created by graduate food science students. The pastries were a hit in the cafe. When the students were ready to move on, it was John who jumped at the chance to buy the recipes, leading the family into the wholesale food business. In 1999, the scones were a finalist in a Fancy Food show and made Oprahâ€™s O! list.
After visiting their daughter in Santa Cruz, the Bilankos fell in love with its bay that reminded them of San Remo and the availability of fresh and artisan ingredients. At 50 years old, the determined couple packed up their award-winning scones and little else, moving their gourmet operation initially to Harvey West, and then opening the cafe on the Westside.
In addition to its signature scones, Cafe IvÃ©ta offers fresh-baked pastries made on-site daily, including blinis, bread pudding and Cowboy Cookies, which are crafted with pecans, oats, chocolate chips and coconut. Breakfast and lunch are also served, with standouts like a chili chive biscuit with poached egg and bacon and a caprese sandwich with fresh mozzarella and homemade pesto and mayonnaise. | Karen Petersen
Cafe IvÃ©ta, 2125 Delaware Ave., Santa Cruz, 713-0320, iveta.com.
Taste the Love
Wonderfully Rawâ€™s Coco-Roons make a splash far beyond Santa Cruz County
The Wonderfully Raw headquarters off of Hangar Way, in Watsonville, is perhaps the sweetest smelling warehouse around.
As home to the companyâ€™s flagship product, Coco-Roons, the space is filled with the aromas of vanilla, maple, lemon, strawberry and other all-natural flavors that make their way into the popular raw treats.
At the mouth of the warehouse, workers busily stack and shrink-wrap pallets of Coco-Roons that are destined for more than 1,000 stores across the country. Surveying the fortress of boxes of fresh product, thousands of pounds of almond flour in sacks, and an arsenal of 55-gallon drums of unfiltered maple syrup, CEO and â€œMacaroon Mavenâ€ Sequoia Cheney chuckles. â€œWhen I first started, I was buying the ingredients at Nob Hill. Now weâ€™re doing contracts with thousands of pounds,â€ she says.
In the back, past a clean commercial kitchen filled with employees in crisp white lab coats and hair caps, lies the heart of the operation: a custom-made, walk-in dehydrator. Inside, the air is warm and even thicker with the smell of cookies. Cheney raises her voice over the machineâ€™s loud whirring to explain that 800 cases of Coco-Roons are made in eight hours in the dehydrator.
As a raw product, Cheney explains, â€œthis cookie is dehydrated at 118 degrees so that all of the vitamins, enzymes and minerals are still intact.â€
At 58 years old, Cheney never expected to be running a new business. â€œWeâ€™ve been doing this for two years now, and weâ€™re still in shock,â€ says Cheney, who formed the company with her gourmet chef son Eric Hara. â€œIt feels like a dream.â€
The determined seed for Wonderfully Raw was planted when Cheney was diagnosed with diabetes six years ago. After years of running art therapy programs in a Southern California hospital and then in prisons, Cheney and her husband, Jack, opened an alternative healing center in Watsonville called Three Trees. The diabetes diagnosis came as a big surprise.
â€œAfter having had such a healthy lifestyle, and doing all of this alternative healing, I thought â€˜how can I get diabetes?â€™ But it was really a gift because it put me on a journey to find out even better ways to eat,â€ Cheney says. Intent on healing herself, she trained at a raw chef school in Mendocino and was off all medication and had reversed her diabetes within a year of the diagnosis. In the process, sheâ€™d caught the raw food bug, and was teaching raw cooking classes and selling raw items at Three Trees. The online grocery store Santa Cruz Local Foods soon began selling her goods, and, not long after, New Leaf Community Markets showed interest in the Coco-Roons. â€œThey loved it and said â€˜We want â€™em, how quickly can we get them for all eight stores?â€™â€ Cheney recalls, â€œI said, â€˜Wow, can you give me 30 days? I donâ€™t have a bag or a label.â€™â€
The Coco-Roon was designed as a tasty treat for those with dietary restrictions: in addition to being raw, they are gluten-free, dairy-free, low in sugar (unfiltered maple syrup is the sweetener), low carb, and organic. â€œFood is medicineâ€ is the companyâ€™s guiding philosophy. Wonderfully Raw recently launched a new productâ€”raw veggie snacks called Brussel Bites and Snip Chips that are similar to kale chips.
Seated in the office, sounds of the industrious warehouse streaming in, Cheney pulls a piece of paper off of a bulletin board. Itâ€™s a letter from a 10-year-old boy in Yuba City, Calif. that came in the mail a few days earlier. Attached to the thank you letter is a photo of him with a wide smile on his face and a bag of Coco-Roons in his hand.
â€œI get these daily,â€ Cheney says. â€œThat makes it all worth it, when you know youâ€™re changing someoneâ€™s life. When a kid takes the time to write youâ€”câ€™mon. Thatâ€™s the best thing in the whole world.â€ | Elizabeth Limbach
Find Wonderfully Raw online at mycocoroons.com.
Brining Wine to Life
Brew Dream and the wondrous new world of kombucha wine
Brew Dream pegs its unique wines as â€œkombucha-style,â€ but when speaking to people for whom the trendy term â€œkombuchaâ€ holds little meaning, owners Chase Fortner and Laura Bradford use descriptions like â€œsparkling fruit wine,â€ â€œprobiotic wine spritzer,â€ and â€œa fresh take on sangria.â€
Seated under a large oak tree at Brew Dreamâ€™s idyllic Ben Lomond winery, the pair cracks open a bottle of Apple White. Pale brown and lightly effervescent, the wine evokes the flavors of fresh apple cider with a subtle, yet noticeable, alcohol presence. Sweet and crisp, the drink has very little of the vinegary aftertaste normally associated with kombucha, whichâ€”for Santa Cruzans not in the knowâ€”is a popular health tonic made from tea and fermented yeast and bacteria.
The Grappleberry is rich and fruity, and more like a red wine than the Apple White is like a white. Brew Dream, which officially launched in January, strives to source only local and organic ingredients, and the owners are currently experimenting with a variety of fruits and flavors. A blackberry red, blueberry red, peach white and blueberry ginger are all in store when the season is right. All Brew Dream wines are crafted by hand in small five-gallon batches.
â€œOur whole philosophy now is to keep it local, with seasonal flavors depending on what fruit is available,â€ says Fortner, who began brewing kombucha wine as a hobby five years ago. Although the winemakers are tightlipped when it comes to their processâ€”they are, as far as they know, the first kombucha winery in the countryâ€”they explain that it involves combining winemaking and kombucha brewing methods.
“It’s a fermentation of kombucha tea, fruit, and wine, which, when fermented together, provides all the probiotic benefits of kombucha with the added flavors of local fruits and wines,â€ Fortner says.
Brew Dream is truly a product all its own: part fruit wine and part live probiotic health drink, it comes in a champagne bottle with a cider cap and is caffeinated, thanks to the green tea base in the kombucha. Even its alcohol content is unique at around 7.4 percentâ€”much higher than regular kombucha (which is typically .5 percent), and less than most wine. Unlike many wines, itâ€™s best to drink Brew Dream fresh or soon after purchasingâ€”although it wonâ€™t go bad if kept longer, its taste and makeup will change as the yeast continue to feed off of the sugars in the wine.
The concept was so new that the government agency in charge of wine labeling, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, wasnâ€™t sure what to do with it. â€œThe wine people in the labeling division didnâ€™t know what kombucha was,â€ says Fortner. Brew Dream eventually got the word â€œkombuchaâ€ on its labels, and hope to someday also get approval for â€œprobiotic.â€ Many of the purported health claims associated with kombucha are not scientifically backed, but Fortner and Bradford are looking to produce evidence for the theories they hold about their product.
â€œItâ€™s probiotic, so while it gives you a buzz, it settles your stomach and aids in digestion, and it detoxifies your liver while youâ€™re drinking,â€ says Fortner. â€œWe are going to start working with a lab in Petaluma [Calif.] to back up some of the probiotic and health claims we have.â€
Reactions to the wine have been positive so far, says Bradford. Itâ€™s a hit on the festival circuit, as well as in local health food stores like Staff of Life.
â€œIf you donâ€™t feel like drinking sometimes, and youâ€™re at a social scene, itâ€™s a nice alternative to having a full liquor drink or a beer,â€ says Bradford. â€œIt is lighter and seems easier to digest and handle.â€
So far, the duo says Brew Dream is proving to straddle the line between kombucha and wine gracefully, attracting fans from both sides of the spectrum.
â€œOne of the most common things we hear back,â€ says Fortner, â€œis that people who donâ€™t like kombucha, and sometimes people who donâ€™t like wine, like it.â€ | Elizabeth Limbach
Brew Dream is available at Staff of Life, New Leaf Community Markets, and at brewdream.com.
Ten Local Wines To Try This Season
Artesana Wine: Tannat-Merlot 2010
Artesana is an ultra-premium boutique winery based in the Canelones region of Uruguay. With a blend of 53 percent Tannat (the signature varietal of Uruguay) and 47 percent Merlot, this bold and spicy wine has gorgeous exotic flavors and is muy bueno. Imported by Epic Wines of Aptos, the Tannat-Merlot is sold in restaurants and wine shops throughout California and can be purchased locally at Soif, Vino Prima, Cava, Deluxe Foods of Aptos, Michaelâ€™s on Main, Johnnyâ€™s Harborside, Mint, and Oak Tree Ristorante. ($20) 419-7485, artesanawine.com.
Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard: Grenache 2010
This delicious 100 percent Grenache wine is all about dark raspberries, exotic spices and white pepper. It has a lovely spicy complexity with flavors of wild strawberries and a peppery character commonly found in this variety. Very flexible, it will pair easily with just about everything, from pizza and pasta to poppadoms and paella. ($18) 334 Ingalls St., Santa Cruz, 426-6209, santacruzmountainvineyard.com.
Heart Oâ€™ The Mountain: Pinot Noir 2009
When you buy a bottle of estate-produced Heart Oâ€™ The Mountain Pinot Noir, thereâ€™s also a little bit of history attached: the grapes were grown on the old estate of famous movie director Alfred Hitchcock, which is now in the hands of the Robert Brassfield family. Fortunately for us, winemaker Brandon Brassfield is dedicated to his craft, and makes some of the finest Pinot Noir around. I particularly love the 2009 Pinot with all its rich and spicy intrigue, earthy aromas, and full-bodied flavors. ($48) Visit heartothemountain.com for where to buy, as the estate is not open to the public.
Corralitos Wine Company: Syrah 2010
Luscious plum is accented with bright raspberry and crisp acidity in this excellent wine, which will pair well with many kinds of food. A touch of oak and hints of black pepper give this ruby beauty a spicy warmthâ€”a flexible wine to open up for any occasion. Corralitos Wine Company now has a tasting room in the Store More America building in Aptos. ($27) 9687 Soquel Drive, Aptos, 709-1500, corralitoswinecompany.com.
Poetic Cellars: Mantra 2007
Try this delectable blend of 45 percent Mourvedre, 45 percent Syrah and 10 percent Sangiovese to get a delicious surprise on your taste buds. Succulent red fruit from the Mourvedre and the richness of the Syrah come together in harmony with the Sangiovese and create a smooth and special amalgam. ($34) 5000 N. Rodeo Gulch Road, Soquel, 462-3478, poeticcellars.com.
Loma Prieta Winery: Viognier 2009
As a lover of Viognier, this is one of my favorites. A deserving gold medal winner in the Sommelier Challenge International Wine Competition, this luscious wine has beautiful notes of vanilla and tropical fruit with superb aromatics and a vibrant hue. Touches of sweet lychee and honeyed apricots add to its appeal and make it a wine to crack open and simply enjoy anytime. Although the wine is available in stores around town, I would suggest a visit to the Loma Prieta tasting room, which has stunning views of the Monterey Bay. ($24) 26985 Loma Prieta Way, Los Gatos, (408) 353-2950, lomaprietawinery.com.
Bruzzone Family Vineyards: Chardonnay 2010
The Bruzzone family started out making Chardonnay from grapes grown on their property in Scotts Valley in 1999, and their wines just get better and better. Hand harvested in late fall and oak barrel processed, this 2010 estate-grown Chardonnay is fresh and bright with hints of apple, citrus and a lovely touch of light coffee. Bruzzone wines are available in stores and restaurants all over the Bay Area. ($27) 438-3120, bruzzonevineyards.com.
Vino Tabi Winery: Pinot Gris 2009
Vino Tabi means â€œwine journeyâ€ in Japanese, so take your own little excursion and try this aromatic Pinot Gris. Delightfully refreshing, this is a good wine for those who like something on the lighter side. White peaches on the nose with ripe peaches and stone fruit in the mouth, and a crisp fresh grapefruit finish. Pinot Gris pairs well with a wide array of food. Head to Vino Tabiâ€™s tasting room on the Westside to try their other wines. ($25) 334 Ingalls St., Santa Cruz, 426-1809, vino-tabi-wine.com.
Martin Ranch Winery: Sauvignon Blanc 2011
Sauvignon Blanc is one of my all-time favorites, and Martin Ranch makes a good one. The J.D. Hurley 2011 Sauvignon Blanc has subtle aromas of green apple and light grassy straw with flavors of apricot and citrus fruit. An ideal wine to consume in the spring and summer months, itâ€™s also great to pair with fish or to take on a picnic. Martin Ranch has â€œkissedâ€ the wine with a hint of Semillon by adding just 1 percent to the 99 percent Sauvignon Blanc. ($20) 6675 Redwood Retreat Road, Gilroy, (408) 842-9197, martinranchwinery.com.
Bargetto Winery: Chaucerâ€™s Honey Mead
As well as making their well-known Bargetto wines, the winery also makes dessert wines under its Chaucerâ€™s label. Taking you back to brews made in medieval times, the Chaucerâ€™s wines are made from pure fruit and contain honey from hives in Northern California. This mead will go well with dried fruit, nuts, and most certainly with a hearty variety of cheese. You can also add a few spices and serve it heated. ($15) 3535 N. Main St., Soquel, 475-2258, bargetto.com. | GT Wine Expert Josie Cowden
â€˜Wisdom, wit, kindness and beerâ€™ is the motto at Santa Cruz Countyâ€™s new brewpub, Discretion Brewing
There was nothing very discrete about Discretion Brewingâ€™s March openingâ€”the countyâ€™s new brewery has been generating buzz for months.
â€œSince we put our sign up on 41st Avenue, every day we had people coming in saying â€˜Weâ€™re so glad to have something on this side of townâ€™ or â€˜I live just down the street,â€™â€ says Dustin Vereker, the breweryâ€™s Chief Beer Ambassador and son-in-law of owners Kathleen and Rob Genco. â€œFolks seem really excited that we are opening.â€
After a few years of planning, the Discretion team, themselves, are also excited to be up and running. â€œWeâ€™d been talking about starting a family business of some sort for years,â€ says Kathleen,
who quit her job at a private school two and a half years ago to make this family-owned organic brewery a reality.
While the breweryâ€™s reception has been anything but, the â€œdiscretionâ€ moniker translates into its overall mission and vibe: from the off-the-beaten path location, tucked away just off of 41st Avenue, to its desire to be more of a mellow place for community gathering than a rowdy watering hole or sports bar. (To foster that, they close at 8 p.m. and donâ€™t have any televisions.)
â€œWe wanted something that implied subtlety and thoughtfulness and kind of a safe place, a sanctuary,â€ says Kathleen.
For the most part, the beersâ€”all organicâ€”will also stick to that theme.
â€œWe donâ€™t necessarily want to have huge, in-your-face, high-alcohol beers all the time, which is sort of a trend,â€ says brewer Michael Demers, who has been brewing professionally since 1995, most recently at Boulder Creek Brewery. â€œWe want to offer more sessionable beers that people can come and enjoy a few and still be able to leave and be safe.â€
The opening lineup includes a German-style pilsner, a mild brown ale, a â€œnice and hoppyâ€ American IPA, and a strong ale that embodies both the bold and slightly sweet style of a traditional English old ale with that of a West Coast American ale. â€œIt wonâ€™t be big and hoppy like an IPA, but it will have some bitterness to the backbone,â€ explains Demers.
Discretion expects that its lagersâ€”the pilsner, and others in the worksâ€”will be what set it apart. â€œThat is a niche that is not filled in Santa Cruz Countyâ€”no one is really doing lagers except for maybe once in a while as a specialty,â€ he says. This is because they are more difficult and time-consuming to brew, which Demers says is worth it. â€œTheyâ€™re our personal favoriteâ€”we all love them,â€ he says.
The space is designed so that patrons can see the beer making. â€œYou can smell the process, you can see the process, you get the whole experience,â€ says Vereker. Demers will be on hand to answer questions and will provide tours to those interested in a firsthand look at where the magic happens.
The breweryâ€™s unique take on pub food is also sure to make it stand out. Discretion has paired with Main Street Garden & CafÃ© for its taproom fare, which is inspired by, meant to pair with, and often made using Discretionâ€™s own beer. Main Street will operate as a pop-up at Discretion, serving up seasonal, sustainably minded dishes like pilsner-braised Brussels sprouts with breadcrumbs and chili made with Discretion beer and sausages from Fog Line Farm pigs (which, as it happens, feed on Discretionâ€™s spent grain).
But for all of its distinctiveness, the Discretion team considers itself one part of a larger whole. They were regulars at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing before deciding to open their own brewery, and say they have received continued support from that Westside beer hub and many others. â€œItâ€™s very much a community,â€ says Kathleen. Discretion is one of three microbreweries to open in the county this year, bringing the total number of local breweries to around 10â€”making the Santa Cruz craft beer scene officially a force to be reckoned with, says Demers.
â€œSanta Cruz is now getting to the point where it can be considered a beer destination,â€ he says. â€œEach brewery is different and produces different tasting beers. There is room for more.â€ | Elizabeth Limbach
Discretion Brewing, 2703 41st Ave., Ste. A, Soquel, discretionbrewing.com. Open 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. every day.
Tea Here Now
Hidden Peak Teahouse is Shangri-la in Downtown Santa Cruz
David Wright, co-owner of Hidden Peak Teahouse, has a message for the people of Santa Cruz: slow down.
â€œThatâ€™s what tea has done for thousands of years,â€ Wright says. â€œIt inspires people to slow down, and reminds us that itâ€™s OK to stop.â€
As I dip down the Plaza Lane alleyway off of Pacific Avenue, and step inside Hidden Peak Teahouse, I almost turn around to make sure I am still downtown.
Eastern dÃ©cor, tea ware, intricate wooden tables, and antique furniture fill the space. No one is using phones or computers. A table of three men converses over a plate of steamed buns, while a nearby woman sips a small bowl of tea without taking her eyes off a book. A record player fills the air with waves of analog sound.
Wright is quick to welcome me to this otherworldly sanctuary. With a beaming visage and slender frame, Wright resembles a plain-clothed, middle-aged monk. He ushers me to a private tearoom where we sit around a wooden table that looks as if it has grown up and out of the floor itself.
â€œThe thing thatâ€™s most important, they call it the mother of all tea: water,â€ Wright says as he fills an electric boilerâ€”the only apparent electrical device in the teahouse.
Wright became interested in tea in his late teens, around the same time he moved to Santa Cruz, and began experimenting with it more in his early twenties. He soon found a passion for pu-erh tea and the gung fu style of ceremony, but didnâ€™t truly fall in love with the traditional beverage until he shared it with his wife and co-owner Marilee Wright more than two decades ago.
â€œThe only reason Iâ€™m doing this is really because of her,â€ Wright says. â€œSheâ€™s the one who got me inspired.â€
The Wrights opened Chaikhana Tea Culture, their first teahouse in Santa Cruz, in 2003, but eventually outgrew the small space. With the help of â€œtea angelsâ€ as Wright calls them, he and his wife were able to open Hidden Peak Teahouse in March 2012.
After the water is boiling, Wright pours it into the clay teapot, a glass pitcher, the small ceramic cups, and douses three wooden figurines, called tea pets, which occupy the table. Wright pulls me into the moment with the pageantry of the gung fu ceremony.
The cup of unblended brick pu-erh tea is earthy, but sweet. This is one of the more popular teas at the teahouse, and one of Wrightâ€™s favorites. He recommends all newcomers try pu-erh, but Hidden Peak offers all manners of tea, from oolong to green.
After a thorough discussion of tea cultureâ€™s past, present, and future, Wright explains why the name Hidden Peak was chosen.
â€œItâ€™s where the teas grow in the high mountains,â€ he says. â€œYou have to go through the clouds to find it.â€ | Aric Sleeper
Hidden Peak Teahouse, 1541 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, 423-4200, hiddenpeakteahouse.com.
Taylorâ€™s Tonics uses Santa Cruz roots to craft old-fashioned libations
So begins the story of Taylor Peckâ€™s rise to artisan soda maestro. The journey began in an apartment at UC Santa Cruzâ€™s Kresge College, where, in 1995, Peck and some roommates put on events on campus, and then in town, under the name Nub Circus. The real adventure began during summer break in 1996, when Peck and future part owner of his business Nate Brogan traveled across the country selling raw-food burritos and chai tea, â€œwhich, in 1996, despite its hundreds of years of infiltrating other cultures, was more or less new to ours,â€ says Peck.
The road trip culminated with a stop at Burning Man, where they set up a booth and served free chai. â€œThat was when I realized it was a big thing, and it was there I had my epiphany that I wasnâ€™t going back to school,â€ he says. He took a leave of absence from college to pursue a beverage career, and never looked back. â€œIâ€™m sure they expire, but for all I know Iâ€™m still on a leave of absence from UCSC,â€ he jokes.
The chai-focused company took an unexpected turn around four years ago, when it got stuck with a large amount of a unique chai concentrate they had made for a client. â€œWe were sitting on enough inventory of this concentrate that it could have toppled the company if we hadnâ€™t found an outlet for it,â€ says Peck, who decided to test it out in a chai soda concept he had been contemplating. â€œIt was an immediate perfect fit. It was meant to be.â€
Now 16 years old, the company has morphed into a craft brewer of all-natural sodas, including the flagship Chai Cola, that hearken back to the early days of botanically rich soft drinks. â€œIt comes form a period of time when sodas were first coming into vogue medicinally,â€ explains Peck, adding that Taylorâ€™s Tonics are made in small batches by hand using distinct, mostly organic ingredients. â€œThereâ€™s a certain amount of magic and witchy-ness to everything we do.â€
The small company now has sodas in 700 retail locations across 40 states, and recently opened a store, The Fizzary, in San Franciscoâ€™s Mission District, where they carry 900 varieties of soft drinks from craft soda companies, of which Peck says 25 percent are natural and 10 percent are organic or â€œearth-based.â€ While most of its operations now take place in San Francisco, Taylorâ€™s Tonics still has roots (and a Watsonville facility) in the Santa Cruz area. â€œSanta Cruz established our company ethos,â€ Peck says.
â€œWeâ€™ve cycled through 16 to 20 product concepts, looking for â€˜the one,â€™â€ he adds. â€œTaylorâ€™s Tonics is the first one we genuinely think has national legs.â€
Although, while they are certainly better for you than a soda of the conventional, high-fructose corn syrup variety, Peck is quick to point out that Taylorâ€™s Tonics are still a treat.
â€œWe are trying to enrich our product with the original botanicals [found in sodas],â€ says Peck, â€œBut when someone asks, â€˜Is this good for me?â€™ I say that we have one guaranteeâ€”we guarantee it will make you not thirsty.â€ | Elizabeth Limbach
REBBL With a Cause
New beverage combines taste and quality with a humanitarian mission
Five years into its existence, Half Moon Bay-based nonprofit Not For Sale took stock of its work combating global human trafficking and decided it needed a new approach.
â€œWe looked at everything and said â€˜we are going to be doing the same work forever unless we start addressing the root problems,â€™â€ says Allison Trowbridge, Santa Cruz native and NFSâ€™s vice president of strategic partnerships. â€œ[We asked] â€˜What would it look like to go to the source of the issue?â€™â€
The organization decided to focus on the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon, where they already had long-term relationships with the indigenous tribes and boots on the ground working to protect them from trafficking.
The idea was born to create a separate, for-profit beverage company that would source ingredients from the region, creating a sustainable enterprise. The end result is REBBL, a line of health tonics that hit storesâ€”beginning with New Leaf Community Markets in Santa Cruz Countyâ€”this spring. In addition to coordinating the procurement of the herbs REBBL uses, NFS will be a benefactor of the new company.
â€œThe funds that come back allow us to reinvest in the region,â€ says Trowbridge, explaining that NFSâ€™s work in Peru includes job training, putting children in school, artisan training, and community development.
REBBL CEO Palo Hawken was brought on to develop the tonics, which come in Hibiscus Mint, Ginger Citrus, and Forest Berry. His vision was to craft good-tasting drinks using legendary, therapeutic-strength medicinal herbs in levels that â€œhave biological relevanceâ€ and arenâ€™t just â€œmarketing gimmicks.â€
â€œWe are taking the culmination of thousands of years of work and knowledge and reverence for a few culturally important herbs from around the world and giving them a place in the modern North American supermarket,â€ Hawken says.
It was important to him that the products stand on their own two legs as desirable drinksâ€”a distinction that will ultimately make the tonics an even more powerful agent of change, he says. â€œMost efforts like this, to me, are not destined for success,â€ says Hawken. â€œUsually the quality of the product takes a backseat to the focus on the message, and the assumption that the message is enough to exist in the marketplace. Well, the marketplace is ruthless. It buys what it wants and rejects what it doesnâ€™t. What we have here is a product that completely justifies its own existence, which is ultimately to Not For Saleâ€™s benefit.â€ | Elizabeth Limbach
For more information, visit rebbltonic.com and notforsalecampaign.org.