Eight years ago I was invited to be a wine judge by my esteemed friend Robert Whitley, of Wine Review Online. I had moved to California two years prior and my stated goal having left New York City, was to immerse myself in the world of wine, traveling through vineyards, inhaling cellars at harvest time, witnessing the evolution of the seasonsâ€¦pretty romantic sounding for a gal who was only recently living in the concrete canyons of Manhattan. Wine judging was a great initiation to California and its rich history of state fairs, and honest and straightforward competition in the agricultural realm, including the vinous vein. Wine judging sounds like an easy job. It ain’t. When I first heard of the Monterey Wine competition, I conjured up in my recent urban transplant kinda way, an idyllic setting of getting up in the town of Monterey on the coast at 9 AM, having a leisurely jog and coffee followed by a 10 AM wine judging with few wines, plenty of breaks and lots of espresso. Little was I prepared for what greeted me those eight years ago, when I arrived in King City, California 145 miles south of South Francisco: a no nonsense and proud agricultural town and the heartbeat of the nearby Salinas Valley where the fairgrounds are the setting for the competition. Intense rounds of wines, sometimes number over 100 in a day create a whole new definition of stamina. We are fueled by the collegiality, the friendly ribbing of our friends and colleagues in the wine industry but most of all by the chicken enchiladas of Rosa, who has been making Mexican home cooking for our grateful judges every Saturday for at least 10 years. Sorry, there has to be some pay off for the grueling judging work: you can only have Rosa’s food if you’re a judge or you worm your way into her heart. Good luck.
This leads to my theme of my post, an initiation of a series of places for Wine Judges to eat well while on the road judging. No disrespect to our hosts, but the every curious foodie in all of us judges wishes to break the bonds of the fairgrounds to venture out to try the local fare, and in the towns we visit such as Ontario, King City and the like we are likely to find some of the most authentic and delicious food there is to be had. Many of us are used to fine wine dinners, white table cloth restaurants, superior sommelier wine service, but inside most of us is a deep desire for the pure, soulful simple flavors of places like El Molcajete in Greenfield, CA, along Highway 101 just north of King City. We were directed there by our hosts from Ventana Vineyards in Monterey, who produce a killer Riesling whose 2006 vintage ended up being sweepstakes winner this year at our competition. We were told that the dish to order was the restaurant’s namesake Molcajete, which was a blend of steak, chorizo, chicken, cactus, spicy broth, queso blanco and lime all served in a Molcajete which is a Mexian version of the mortar and pestle of volcanic basalt which keeps the food hot and bubbling for a long time. Let’s just say it was a delicious dish that went down well with a Modelo beer: yum! Unlike our family owned carnitas joint we found at the Soledad Chevron station last year that sadly folded like many small businesses under hard time last December, Molcajete looks like it’s here to stay for a while.
I will be checking our the local fare in San Diego next month and be sure to check back in May when we descend upon Donahoe’s for fried chicken in Pomonaâ€¦bliss!