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Have liver, will travel

Monday, September 05, 2005


If ever in Cambria on the central coast, you may want to spend a few sips in Fermentations, a tasting room/accoutrements shop for all things grape. Proceed with caution: they do sell those "Sister Mary Martini" cocktail napkins and various vine-adorned towels and the like. And the service is... inconsistent is the charitable word, and I will be charitable because our first visit was really enjoyable.

We happened upon Fermentations through canine serendipity. One early morning, while playing with our dog on the beach in Cayucos, we met a woman and her Aussie Shepherd, who was much better about going into the water than our wave-fearing Weimaraner. While her dog tried to coax and corral ours into the surf, she told us that she worked at Fermentations up in Cambria, and we really should try this amazing $20 Cabernet Sauvignon they carried. We suddenly knew how to spend our afternoon, once woofy was cleaned of sand and sea and resting on his blanket in the room at the Cayucos Beach Inn, a very dog-welcoming little place we'd found online (well, the Alcotourist found it and surprised me--it was our anniversary). Several hours later, we were sampling chutneys on pretzel sticks and sipping a sublime 2002 Maloy O'Neill Cabernet Sauvignon. At $20/bottle or $18/bottle by the case, it was truly a find. Production was limited and they were on their last case, we were told. We purchased a mixed case with a couple of bottles of a crisp, dry Rusack Sauvignon Blanc for those white drinkers we know (I believe it was a 2001 and $15/bottle) and an olallieberry wine by Chaucer--a little tip of the hat to another regional fruit. (A moment's digression--we used to do this a lot, buy a little dessert wine for fun if it was a regional specialty, but I have to admit we've ended up with a motley bunch of fruity muscats, berry wines, and raspberry liquers that we never really want to drink. Because they have taken up so much precious space in our wine refrigerator, we've stopped buying them and are trying to diminish our current supply through gifts at dinners and so on. Like olallieberries? Invite us over.)

This first experience at Fermentations was so much fun (I think we even bought a port chocolate sauce or a chardonnay mustard), our satisfaction with the Maloy O'Neill so complete, that we took my parents there when they flew out for the holidays. Sadly, the holiday atmosphere was less than jolly (was it the Sideways effect already? The movie hadn't been out that long). It took a lot of coaxing to get a tasting started by the woman behind the counter. She was so stern and lacking in enthusiasm for the wines, that my dad even wandered off to look at the aprons, knicknacks and overpriced corkscrews. The limited-production Maloy O'Neill we had purchased? Still there, four months later (although, in fairness, it truly is limited production. Why do they feel the need to lie? It's not an "act now, supplies limited" infomercial. This may be a subject for a future post...). We were down to our last bottle of those we had previously purchased, and did in fact buy another, happy to have the chance. My dad made his bewildered Kermit the Frog face at the woman's scowl and I bought him a cream sherry for his trouble. Then we got the hell out.

Still, if you are in Cambria for other reasons, I do encourage you to go to Fermentations. Try the Maloy O'Neill (they are onto their 2003, a 120 case limited release, according to their website). It is worth buying and the winery is appointment only. (If you plan ahead, maybe you want to reserve a visit to the winery itself!) If you have the service we experienced the first time, or meet up with the woman whose dog played with ours, you are sure to have a good time. Just keep your eyes on the wine, and ignore those frosted glasses with the grapes painted on them. Try the chutney.

A Few Words About Pizza Port

I discovered Pizza Port in late 2000 or early 2001, while training for the California AIDS Ride. Some extremely clever fellow had worked out a training ride that began at the Irvine Amtrak station, snaked through the hills of Rancho Santa Margarita, then past San Luis Capistrano, San Clemente, Camp Pendleton (a Marine base, where, pre-9/11, we could actually ride through, including a short spell on an abandoned air strip), San Marcos, Leucadia, and finally, Solana Beach.

The thing was, Pizza Port was right next to a U-Haul rental place in Solana. We would all pitch in for a U-Haul, load up our bikes, and then take the train from the Solana Beach station back to Irvine while one poor stiff had to drive the truck back.

At the time, Pizza Port was a secondary notion to me. It just happened to be the restaurant next door to the U-Haul place. The first time, I would have gone to the Mexican place up the street, if I had my druthers. But then I knew nothing of the hoppy treasures that awaited me in this humble pizza shack full of wooden picnic tables and coin-op video games.

Everybody stepped up to the Pizza-ordering counter (which is separate from the beer-ordering counter), and I was somewhat puzzled by an esoteric menu. Having lived in California at that point for eight years, I was well aware of the "California-Style" pizza, as interpreted by CPK and Wolfgang Puck. These are the pizzas that make New Yorkers laugh at California. Puck's are famous for "no sauce"—WTF?? And CPK is famous for putting anything on a crust—tandoori, pad Thai, Peking duck, you name it. I was hungry (and a little nauseated, as always after a 73-mile bike trip), and really not interested in exotic flavors. Fortunately, I didn't have much choice in the matter, since the only vegetarian (yes I am, what's it to you?) pizza they had was the "Laguna." I ordered a personal-sized one and paid.

Another rule of thumb for the uninitiated:  If good beer is on tap, don't bother with anything in bottles. Beer on tap is generally fresher and closer in character to the brewmaster's vision than what you can get in a bottle. That being said, a bottle of Stone always beats an MGD on draft.
Then I moseyed over to the beer-ordering counter, and discovered that they had Stone beers on tap. My mood brightened. Stone, at the time, was just about the best microbrewed beer you could find in Los Angeles. They don't mess around with "Lites," Hefeweizens or any other namby-pamby recipes. They're all about what they call "big character" ales—Arrogant Bastard, Smoked Porter, Ruination IPA, and so on. But I'd already tried all the Stone beers they had on tap, and I wanted to take a chance. If memory serves, I ordered a Swami's IPA, which Pizza Port brews on-site, and paid again.

It's time for a dissertation on IPA, or India Pale Ale. Let's start out with Stone's Version:
The History of India Pale Ales: Originally developed in the late 1700's, British breweries would send beer via sail to the troops and British expatriots in India. Problem was, there was no refrigeration and the ocean voyage took nearly five months. As a result, the beer would usually arrive in compromised condition. Well, the brewers of the time didn't know as much about beer as we do today, but they did know that both hops (where we get the bitterness in beer) and alcohol act as natural preservatives. So, they came up with a brew that was intensely hopped and rather high in alcohol—thus the birth of the "India Pale Ale."

This is one of the few pieces of copy from Stone that isn't totally surly. Greg Koch, their CEO, is an insufferable megalomaniac, and usually the copy follows his snarky, arrogant disposition. In fact, there is a lot to be surly about when discussing the British colonization of India, and I feel an occasional pang of guilt for loving a drink that slaked the thirst of the minions of the avaricious crown. This can be particularly embarrassing for me when I order a Samuel Smith's IPA at Shalimar to go with my Malai Kofta. For more on IPA, see wiki.

Now that you know about IPA, you need to know about hops. Fellow hop-head and alcotourist, Ken Wells, explains the hop in several extended narratives in his book, Travels With Barley: A Journey Through Beer Culture in America which is required reading for any follower of alcotourism. There are lots of interesting things to know, but here are just a few:
  • Hops are a relative of cannibis.
  • Cultivated hops are always female plants that reproduce asexually (sorry, guys).
  • Hops weren't introduced into British beer until the 1500s, and it wasn't until 1629 that cultivation began in the "New World."
  • The Yakima Valley in Washington State is the Hop Capitol of America.
"What the hell does any of this have to do with Pizza Port," you may ask. Well, it's a good primer for those of you who may wish to order there. Pizza Port is very laid back, and you can, by all means, go and blithely down a few easy-drinkin' pints over a slice of pizza. but I think it's always more fun to know and appreciate what you're putting into your body.

So, we all sat, shameless in our spandex biking gear, at a picnic table inside, and sipped our beers until the Pizza was ready.

Swami's IPA was fantastic, surprisingly malty for the style, but the bitterness was just the right mix of floral aroma and piney taste. The yeasty esters in the head were another joy to me after a long ride. It should be said that after exercise, one's palate is particularly sensitive, and after riding 73 miles on a bicycle, this IPA was almost overwhelming. IPA isn't for everybody—bitter is generally not a desirable in the American flavor lexicon—but if you open your mind and really try to appreciate how the hop counterpoints, yet accentuates the sweetness of the malt, you may well become a hop head yourself.

They called my name and I picked up my pie. It was not the effete California-style pizza I expected. It was thick and robust, the sauce had explosions of garlic and pesto, and the olives, mushrooms, onions & artichoke hearts struck a perfect harmony. The Swami's complimented it beautifully—my hypersensitive palate was inundated with bubbly, astringent, and smoky flavor. It was a good thing that I had a long train ride back to Irvine in which to recover before driving home. Long cycling trips also make you a cheap date.

Since that time, I've stopped at Pizza port, whether on bike or car or train rides, almost every time I go down San Diego way. Now, they've got a couple of other restaurants that are closer—one in Carlsbad and one in San Clemente—but there's something sentimental about that little shack in Solana Beach that makes me like it best. I've got the Alcotouristess into the act, even though she's a "malt freak" and not a hop head like yours truly. She likes their seasonal Dawn Patrol Dark, a smooth dark ale that's not quite a brown, not quite a porter. We also have discovered their wholegrain beer crust (highly recommended) and every once in a while, you can get a delicious, hearty Mexican pizza with black beans and zesty pico de gallo as the sauce.

And now for the biggest treasure of all. Usually, if they're not slammed, you can belly up to the taps and ask to taste a few of the offerings. This is how I discovered "Hop 15," an incredible IPA dosed with 15 different kinds of hops. You will never taste a more complex IPA. It is extremely bitter, though not as alkaline as Rogue's Brutal Bitter. The first thing that strikes you is the incredible floral aroma, somewhat reminiscent of a sundown stroll through the herb gardens at the Huntington. Then, upon tasting, you get a mouthful of citrus and pine—ruby red grapefruit, lime, and cedar, if you want a Parkeresque list. There's really not a discernable malt base, just the incredible warmth of alcohol. Hop 15 doesn't appear on any of their regular menus, as I'm sure it's not cheap to make, but I never fail to ask if it's on tap when I visit.

One last note on Pizza Port. On a recent trip to New York, we discovered a great little place in Greenwich Village called The Hop Devil Grill, which merits a full report later. We had just crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on foot, having just had the best pizza on earth. The folks at Hop Devil are serious about their beer. They boasted about their super-sophisticated tap system, and were proud to pour us tastes of almost anything that struck our fancy (again, it was a weekday afternoon). We were replete with Grimaldi's pizza, and were happy to see that east coast beers were catching up to the Pacific Northwest (I don't know that I'll ever enjoy the syrupy Magic Hat #9, though). Anyway, we brought up Pizza Port, and the owner said he'd visited often and enjoyed the beers.

"Shitty pizza, though," he said.

We smiled politely. The thing is, New York pizza actually should own the appelation of "pizza"—like the way Champagne is only from Champagne, and everything else is "sparkling wine." Maybe Pizza Port's pizza isn't, by the classic New York definition, really pizza. But it is good in its own right, and doesn't deserve to be called "shitty."

Chicago deep-dish on the other hand....

—The Alcotourist