Tacos El Gordo in San Diego, how is it possible that I didn’t know you? I’m late to the party but I got here as quick as I could!

It’s hard to believe that Tacos El Gordo in San Diego wasn’t on my radar before last week. But thankfully, that culinary lacuna has been remedied.

An early flight to California had left me with some free time last Monday before our family’s Rosh Hashanah dinner. And although an attempted visit to the legendary and now Michelin-rated San Ysidro taquería Tuétano ended in failure (because it was Labor Day and the restaurant was closed), the taco fantasies of at least one lapsed Californian were fulfilled that day when the Google landed them at the amazing and totally packed Tacos El Gordo on Palm Ave. in an old converted Taco Bell in Chula Vista.

You’d be hard pressed — or should we say, hard rolled — to find an eatery that hews so closely to the tacquerìa model of the Ciudad or Tijuana, both cities where said traveler spent a lot of time as a youth.

Tempted by the brains tacos, said traveler opted instead for the venue’s flagship dish, tacos de adobada: corn tortillas laden with marinated pork that has been fired in a vertical broiler.

cabeza = head

tripa = tripe

buche = pork stomach

suadero = rose meat (so called because it is pinkish in color; see here and here)

sesos = brains

lengua = tongue

Like their counterparts in Mexico City and Tijuana, the chef at the adobada station is as colorful in their delivery as they are histrionic in their carving.

Everything was so tempting, including the loaded fries. But a first visit to this amazing restaurant called for the classic.

Tacos El Gordo opened in Baja California in the 1970s and launched its first location on the U.S. side of the border in the late 1990s.

I can’t believe I hadn’t found this place until now. But I got here as quick as I could and now there’s no turning back.

Hack alert: if you’re not ordering the adobada (which is clearly the restaurant’s most popular dish), you can skip the main (and very long) ordering line and use one of the specialized lines for fries and tacos with other fillings.

A couple of wonderful new releases from Los Pilares in San Diego: skin-contact Falanghina and Assyrtiko co-ferment.

You can take the grape out of Italy but you can’t take Italy out of the grape.

The chiasmus flowed through my mind when Eric Van Drunen and Michael Christian poured me the first of their latest releases from the Los Pilares winery in San Diego, California last week.

The wonderful Los Pilares skin-contact Falanghina from their 2020 harvest — one of their best to date, they said — had all the hallmarks of great Falanghina: freshness, good acidity, and classic notes of citrus and minerality. On-the-skins fermentation gave the wine a creamy texture that made me crave for some grilled fish tacos (mahi mahi, if you don’t mind). But the thing that really impressed me was how clean and focused this wine was.

The fruit for this wine, like all their labels, comes from San Diego-county grown grapes, including vines on tribal lands. It was barely 13 years ago when people would still sneer when the seemingly oxymoronic expression “San Diego wine” was uttered. Eric and Michael seem to have put that old chestnut into the roaster for once and for all, as the metaphorizing goes.

The other wine that had my tongue on its toes was this excellent Assyrtiko-Mission-Barbera co-ferment.

Los Pilares grower Coleman Cooney has been experimenting with new grape varieties for years now and this is definitely one of his best efforts imho.

The Mission, a California native that has been deservedly getting more and more attention in recent years (thank you, Bryan Harrington), seemed to give this wine the “lift” that young sommeliers look for these days. But it was the Santorini grape that imparted the rich saltiness in this wine. Eric and Michael served it cellar temperature: it was one of the moreish wines that you just can’t put down. Vibrant fruit, nice acidity, and best of all, fresh and extremely clean on the nose.

Both wines were 1,000 percent winners on my palate and in my book (sorry for the mixed metaphorizing).

It seem like only yesterday (the now prehistoric 2016 to be exact) that snootiness was still required when discussing the wines produced in “America’s finest city.”

Does anyone remember wine professional Allison Levine writing about a Los Pilares wine for the Napa Valley Register?

“I was told it was from San Diego,” she reported. “Yes, you heard me correctly — San Diego, the beach city at the bottom of California.”

In all fairness to Allison (and beach/bottom alliteration aside), she liked the wine, even though she relegated it to the dust bin of “natural wine,” always a non-starter for the Napa set. But her note still oozes with the disdain that northern Californian natives feel for their southern counterparts (sorry for the Google alert, Allison!).

I grew up in that “beach city at the bottom of California” and it was great to be back and taste some of my county’s most recent viticultural efforts. As the allegorizing goes, BOTTOMS UP!

Until we meet again, Jaynes Gastropub. “We had some good times, didn’t we?”

Above: the Jayne Burger — “Niman Ranch ground beef, aged Vermont cheddar, house pickled onions, garlic aioli, fries.”

The year was 2009 — and oh what a good year it was — when a lapsed New Yorker cum native Californian sat down in a newly opened restaurant in Austin, Texas with his southeast Texan bride-to-be.

“What a great place you have here!” he said to the server as he approached their table.

“Thank you,” he replied. “Have you ever heard of a restaurant called ‘Jaynes Gastropub’ in San Diego? The owners modeled the restaurant after Jaynes.”

The Texan joint was a nearly cookie-cutter version of the San Diego original.

Above: “We had some good times, didn’t we?” wrote Jayne and Jon on their social media yesterday. Jaynes’ opening coincided with the first boom of natural wine in the U.S.

From the “custom millwork, zinc bar, mosaic tile floor all the way up to the 1920′s tin ceiling” to the large mirrors and Anglophilic paraphernalia adorning the walls, Jaynes made you feel like you had traveled to another time and place.

When it opened in 2007, the restaurant rode atop the new wave of gastropubs that opened across the U.S.

Guests would work their way through appetizers like Gambas al Ajillo, Chips and Gravy Poutine, Queso Fundido, Crispy Calamari, munching away and washing it down with groovy European wines and international craft beers.

You’d ask for a bottle of lithe Nebbiolo or a hearty Mourvèdre as you struggled deliciously to decide between mouth-watering mains like Lamb Shepherd’s Pie, Steak Frites, or the legendary Jayne Burger (above). Or sometimes, you’d just order nearly the whole damn menu and share with friends around the wonderful hand-crafted community table on the patio, the wine and music flowing all the while.

Jaynes was good eating at its best, in a time when Americans were still learning a thing or three from British gastropub culture — comfort food prepared masterfully with the highest quality ingredients.

Above: Jaynes was also a place where great musicians gathered and great music happened — paired with white Burgundy and old Nebbiolo.

Yes, I’m so sorry to say but you read that write: Jaynes was.

Yesterday, Jayne and her husband Jon announced in an Instagram post that the restaurant will not reopen.

The only thing that attenuates our sadness is the tide of warm memories that fills our hearts and minds.

Jaynes gave Tracie and me so much. It was one of the backdrops of our early courtship, the host of our wedding reception, and the place where everyone knew our names when we returned to my hometown. Our children played there together, we played countless concerts there.

Above, from left: John Yelenosky, Megan Yelenosky, Jayne Battle, Jon Erickson, Tracie Parzen, and Jeremy Parzen at Jaynes — where else?

Jayne and Jon, Tracie and I can’t thank you enough for the hospitality, the generosity, the friendship and solidarity that you’ve shared with us over the years. There will never be another Jaynes and the magic of those years will forever be inscribed in our hearts, in the name of joy and love.

We’re looking forward to the next chapter in your lives. Or should I say, all of our lives? For none of our lives will be the same without Jaynes Gastropub.

Keep smiling through
Just like you always do
‘Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away
So will you please say hello
To the folks that I know
Tell them I won’t be long
They’ll be happy to know
That as you saw me go
I was singing this song
We’ll meet again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day

Museum of Man Us. A shout-out to brother and museum director Micah Parzen.

Images via the Museum of Us Facebook.

It was ten years ago this month that my brother Micah Parzen, an anthropologist and attorney, became the director of San Diego’s iconic Museum of Man.

As of yesterday, thanks to his efforts, the museum is now called the Museum of Us.

From his earliest days as steward of one of the city’s most recognizable and influential cultural institutions, he talked privately about his desire to make the museum’s name more representative of the community it serves.

The blowback from city patricians was unexpectedly harsh.

In a world where citizens of all walks of life are more actively reflecting on the significance of urban iconography, it may be hard for some to understand why people would react so aggressively to the thought of updating the museum’s name. But it took my brother a decade to achieve the political balance and capital that made it possible.

It’s part of his overarching campaign to “decolonize” the museum commmunity in the U.S. by recognizing and addressing systemic disenfranchisement.

“Change is hard and change is messy,” he said in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribuine, “but it can be transformational, too. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

Read the interview and coverage of his efforts here.

If you’ve ever flown into the main San Diego airport, it’s more likely than not that you passed nearly directly over the museum (above). In many ways, the unmistakable neo-colonial Spanish baroque architecture is a symbol for the city itself, a synecdoche of its cultural history and past.

Today, that museum is the museum of us. And that’s thanks to my brother. We couldn’t be more proud. Be sure to check out the Union-Tribune story.

Slow Wine Guide 2020 to feature 200+ California wineries.

Above: Rhys Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. One of the things that has amazed me about California viticulture is how so many of the top growing sites are located in heavily wooded, wild areas.

The first edition (2018) of the Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California featured 70 wineries.

With the second (2019), that number grew to roughly 120.

With the third (2020), it’s looking likely that the guide will include more than 200 estates.

(As in years past, the guide will be published in the spring and hard copies will be available for purchase at each of the events along the Slow Wine tasting tour across the U.S. It will also be made available for download.)

These last three years of working on the guide have been an eye-opening — or should I say palate-expanding — experience for me.

There’s so much great wine in California, I’ve discovered, that never seems to get the media coverage it deserves. As I’ve written here on the blog, I believe that’s partly due to the fact that a lot of California’s greatest wines are sold nearly exclusively to mailing lists and high-end restaurants. The iconic wines of Philip Togni, a Napa benchmark, are a great example.

Above: Mark Pisoni showing me his garden insectary at the family’s Pisoni Ranch. There’s a waiting list for those who want to buy the estate’s top wines.

It’s also due to the fact that there’s a relatively small group of “new wave” producers who have received the lion’s share of the media’s attention over the last 10 years or so. The new kids on the block, most of them négociant labels, make great wines, too (and I’ve tasted a lot of them over these last three years as well).

But I’ve also met a myriad of legacy growers who have quietly gone about their business of growing and raising great wines for decades, often without the media attention they merit (especially among the new generation of wine writers who’ve emerged since the advent of the enoblogosphere).

The expansion of coverage for this year’s guide is thanks in great part to our new senior editor Pam Strayer, a former environmental and health journalist who now writes passionately and expertly about organic and biodynamic viticulture.

Thanks to her extensive contacts on the ground and her impressive experience tasting wines across the state, our team has managed to nearly double the number of wineries we covered last year.

The energy and commitment that she brings to our work have been an inspiration for me.

From Pam’s About page:

    A leading specialist on American wines from organic and biodynamic vineyards, Pam Strayer is the author and publisher of 7 apps as well as forthcoming new web sites and books for the wine industry and consumers. She also consults to organic and biodynamic producers and organizations on marketing, strategy and communications.
    She is currently organizing a webinar for Women of the Vine & Spirits that will be held on Oct. 18 on the organic and Biodynamic sector of the wine industry (open to WOTVS members as well as the public) and writing an article for Beverage Media called “Green Wine: Where Are We Now.” She is also working on new books, Organically Napa, and Organically Sonoma, to be published along with a new newsletter.

Her wonderful blog is a great resource for those who follow organic and biodynamic grape farming in the state. I highly recommend it to you. She also leads consumer tours.

Apotheosis: Napa Valley finds one of its greatest expressions in Philip Togni

Above: “mountain” Cabernet Sauvignon Napa has become all the rage over the last decade or so. Togni planted at 2,000 ft. in 1981.

A most remarkable thing happened during my August visit to Philip Togni Vineyard on Spring Mountain Rd. not far from the western border of Napa County.

“Buona sera!” exclaimed dottor Togni when a Slow Wine editor stepped out of his truck.

“Buona sera,” replied said editor. “Come sta?”

“Bene, grazie. Benvenuto!” answered the iconic St. Helena grape grower and winemaker, whose family produces one of Napa Valley’s most coveted wines.

Above: the soils of the Togni vineyard are primarily volcanic in origin.

It should have come as no surprise: before settling with his family in the mountains to the west of St. Helena, the polyglot Philip Togni studied winemaking and made wine all over the world, including France, Chile, and Algeria. He had already mastered many languages before reaching California in the 1970s. But it was his Ticinese heritage that prompted him to study the language of Dante at Napa Valley College, he told the editor — in impeccable, seamless Italian.

(See Frank Prial’s wonderful 1990 profile of Togni for the Times.)

Above: the rocky soils and their drainage are ideal for the classic Bordeaux blend favored by the Togni family.

Over the course of our late afternoon visit, dottor Togni and I spoke almost exclusively in Italian.

But when it was time for a walk around the vineyard and tasting, his daughter Lisa, the current winemaker, switched to English as our lingua franca.

After three seasons of working with the Slow Wine guide, I’ve had the chance to experience their extraordinary wines on a number of occasions. And I have to say, they entirely reshaped my understanding of what Napa Valley can be.

They only make two Philip Togni wines: an “ageworthy Margaux-type” blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, their flagship; and a sweet wine made from Black Hamburgh, a rare table grape evidently not found elsewhere in Napa. Wines not deemed worthy of their top label are sold under a separate label.

Above: the Togni family crest in their barrique room.

There are few wines from Napa that achieve the elegance, balance, and clarity of the Philip Togni blend, made from the same vineyard each year. As for many Napa icons, Bordeaux is clearly the model, as they acknowledge. But the freshness and the vibrant acidity of the wines make them stand apart from the crowded field of predictable valley floor offerings.

Some would ascribe the brilliance and deliciousness of the wine to the altitude and exposure of the site. But when you stroll through the vines, planted on rocky volcanic-origin soils and surrounded by forest and wildlife (not far from the Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, where some of California’s most inland redwoods breathe), you begin to wrap your mind around what an exceptional site this is.

Above: the Togni family — figlia e padre — feel that their wines should be drunk only after a decade out from the vintage. 20 years, said Lisa, was when they really start to hit their prime.

The gently spicy oak was present but very much in balance on the 2016 Philip Togni poured me in their cellar. It had been open for two days, she said, and the slightly underripe red and black fruit was showing gorgeously.

In another era, a less experienced taster might have dismissed this wine because of the presence of oak. After all, many young wine trade observers still believe — wrongly — that oak is by its very nature “bad.” In fact, oak aging, in the classic French style, is what gives this wine its extreme finesse without compromising its lean character.

Sadly for me, the wines land above my price ceiling and I’ll probably only ever get to taste a properly aged Togni wine when and if a generous collector takes pity on me.

In the meantime, I’ll feel glad that the Togni family has shown me the true potential of Napa Valley viticulture — the appellation’s apotheosis.

La ringrazio, dottor Togni, per la visita, davvero eccezionale. Arrivederci.

At Kistler “setting the tone” for greatness…

“Maniacal.” That was the word that sprung to mind during a walk through Kistler Vineyards’ main farm and winemaking facility in Sebastopol last week.

Maniacal farming practices. Maniacal vinification protocols.

Winemaker Jason Kesner (above) chuckled in agreement when a wine blogger shared the thought with him. The vineyards he oversees are among the most (literally) manicured you’ll ever find — each bunch coddled to perfection, each cluster pampered until it realizes its full potential.

When we headed inside the winery proper, he showed me the temperature-controlled tanks used for fermenting the winery’s Pinot Noir.

After the grapes arrive during harvest, he told me, a 24-hour crew manually monitors temperatures in the vats in at least four places. Temperatures inside the vessel, he explained, vary from top to bottom. And while most winemakers, even the best ones, would perform a classic however quasi-robotic punching down of the must and skins, his team manages the cap in accordance with each tank’s particular and ever-changing thermal profile. No one’s sitting a home checking on the temperature of the vat with a smart phone app, hitting a button to warm or cool the tank, and then going back to sleep. No, at Kistler each tank is watched over with meticulous precision — exactness that echoes throughout the winemaking process.

Note how the barriques are perfectly aligned, Jason suggested when we visited one of the four Chardonnay fermentation rooms.

“It sets the tone for everything we do,” he told me.

The aesthetic touch may seem like affectation to some. But when it comes to the clarity of fruit and the elegance and balance of the wines, the taster realizes that Jason’s perjinkities are the product of the deep-reaching thoughtfulness and nuanced soul that he and the owners of this iconic estate summon to deliver these spectacular wines.

All of Kistler’s Chardonnay vineyards are planted to the “Wente” clone (as opposed to the Burgundian “Dijon” clones). The concept of the winery has never changed since its inception. The clone is always the same. The farming practices are uniform (and uniformly maniacal). The winemaking approach is unvaried. As a result, each bottling is reflection of the place — of the terroir — where those grapes are grown.

I’ve written before about how an inexperienced taster, clouded by peer pressure, didn’t have the palate or tasting chops to understand what makes these wines great.

Generous friends and colleagues have treated me to bottles of Kistler over the last two decades and I’ve come to appreciate, greatly, the compelling wines Jason and his team produce. When I visited last week, I wasn’t surprised to discover the ethos and ethic that make them a supreme expression of Californian viticulture.

Thank you, Jason, for one of the most extraordinary winery visits of my career. And thank you, Katie, for the fantastic tasting!

Prayers for our sisters and brothers affected by California wildfires

Our thoughts and prayers go out this morning to our sisters and brothers affected by California wildfires.

The photo above was taken in early September of this year in Oregon House, California (Yorba County), about an hour’s drive south of the town of Paradise, which has been all but leveled by the natural disaster.

It gives you a sense of how much fuel — dry brush — the fires have to feed on.

Check out this terrifying photo posted by my friend Melanie K on Instagram from Santa Monica. Apocalyptic is the first word that comes to mind.

The fires were never this bad or this frequent when I was a kid growing up in California. This year’s fires are already on track to be the state’s deadliest and most devastating ever.

Our hearts are heavy this morning as we pray for the victims and their families. G-d bless them all.

Thoughts and prayers for our sisters and brothers in Michael’s path

Hurricane Ike struck southeast Texas, where Tracie’s parents live, just a month after we started dating in 2008. Back then, people in Louisiana and Texas were still reeling from the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane season, which included Katrina and Rita.

These days it seems like a given that hurricane season will deliver devastation by means of a massive storm like Florence or Michael.

A year after Harvey, you can still see debris piled up along the streets of our neighborhood. For many residents here, it was the second or third time their houses flooded in three consecutive years.

Does it really matter whether or not humankind is to blame for climate change? I believe it is but that’s beside the point: the climate is changing and the storms and devastation are becoming more and more frequent, the human loss and damage more grave. The same can be said of the wild fires in California where I grew up.

Today, our hearts, thoughts, and prayers go out to all of our sisters and brothers in Michael’s path.

Image via the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Flickr (Creative Commons).