I recently decided to shift gears from “frequent drinker of wine whose tastes are just barely in the zip code of ‘discriminating'” to “serious oenophile with a thorough knowledge of the wine-producing world and the ability to both navigate the wine aisle and order a bottle for the table with confidence.” To that end, I’ve spent the past six months or so going to more wine tastings, trying wines outside of my comfort zone, and having my husband administer blind tastings on me. Basically, I love wine and everything about it—not just its admittedly anesthetic properties, but everything, from the history to the terroir to which glass will best reveal a Burgundy Grand Cru in all its glory.
In hopes of further formalizing my education, I started looking into various wine courses, exams, and certifications. There’s a community college in Dallas that offers a twelve-week sommelier course, and there are a few other programs in the area as well, ranging from single-day crash courses to months-long intensive training in all things vino. After much investigation and speaking with a few industry insiders, I realized that “all roads lead to Rome,” as they say, but for my purposes, all roads pointed toward the Court of Master Sommeliers.
I’ll save the nitty-gritty details of the CMS Introductory Course and Exam for my next post, but suffice to say, I was eager to take the Level 1 exam (the Court has four levels, the fourth being one of the world’s most notoriously difficult exams) and since it wasn’t being offered in the Dallas area anytime soon, I decided to look at the cities where it was being offered and pick one where I’d enjoy spending a few days. I spotted a December date in Laguna Beach and it was a done deal. I registered for the course and decided to build a weekend getaway for my husband and myself into the trip.
We flew into LAX on a Friday morning, picked up our rental car, and drove the short distance to Pann’s Restaurant, a quintessential diner featuring Googie architecture and a classic menu.
After lingering over a few cups of much-needed coffee, we drove to Beverly Hills. Michael had never seen it, so we quickly hit the highlights, cruising down Rodeo Drive and stopping for the requisite selfie in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel. I realize that the city is a microcosm of all that is shallow and meaningless and unrealistic in this world, but I have to admit, it was hard to feel unhappy there.
Fortunately, my euphoria merely multiplied as we continued on our way, heading up to Santa Barbara, where we had plans to spend the weekend. Apparently we just missed the ferocious storm that had torn through the drought-stricken region. It was raining when we landed at LAX, but by the time we pulled up in Santa Barbara the sun was out and the only clues that there had been a storm were the crashing waves and the hundreds of fallen palm fronds strewn all over the streets.
We stayed at the Hyatt Santa Barbara and were given a room with a small balcony and an ocean view. We were exhausted from our early flight so instead of going into town after checking in we went to Trader Joe’s, picked up some snacks and some wine, and went back to our room to enjoy the scenery.
I’ve had a handful of moments in my life where I’ve experienced complete contentment—a feeling that I could die and be completely happy with my life—and sitting in our room with a glass of wine and the sun setting on the Pacific just outside our window was one of them. I’ve been in the depths of an existential crisis as of late, and I desperately needed that moment of utterly unbridled happiness.
After sipping a glass or two of wine we got dressed and headed to State Street. I’d bought us tickets to a reading of A Christmas Carol at the Granada Theater. We weren’t sure what to expect, as neither of us had been to a “reading” before, but it ended up being one of our favorite memories of this Christmas season. It took place in a small-ish room and there were only about fifty people in the audience. Two actors, one in the role of Charles Dickens and one in the role of his assistant, performed the entire thing without missing a beat. Afterward we were welcomed into the lobby for eggnog and cookies. It was magic.
The next morning, after a blissful night of sleep, we went back to State Street, picked up some coffee at a small cafe, and went for a walk on the pier, which was populated with fishermen and large birds.
For breakfast I had my heart set on something simple, like a bagel, but Michael wanted something a little more substantive and preferably Mexican in nature. A quick Yelp search and I’d eliminated the chic, champagne-brunch type places on State Street and found Lito’s, a hole-in-the-wall of epic proportions. I wasn’t all that hungry and planned on getting two eggs and toast, but my knees buckled when I saw the menu. Here’s a look at the ensuing feast:
After breakfast we meandered our way over to The Biltmore, a Four Seasons location with a stunning ocean view. At Trader Joe’s the previous day, the lady at the checkout had asked where we were from, what we were doing in town, etc., and insisted that we stop by The Biltmore for a cocktail. And I’m glad that we did. The grounds are impeccably manicured and the interior is a designer’s dream. We sat on the patio for a single drink—I wish we could’ve lingered all afternoon, but we had places to go.
Next up was Cold Spring Tavern, a cozy bar that looks like a place where Bilbo Baggins might live. The best part is that it’s tucked away up in the mountains, and, given the forest setting, it’s hard to believe you’re only 20 minutes from the beach (consequently, that’s one of my favorite things about California, how the scenery changes so quickly, allowing you to have pretty much any kind of day you’d like). The air there was cooler, from the shade of the trees, and the only sound was the creek gently rushing by. I hate to use the word “magic” again, but it was.
Once inside the bar, we sat at a small corner table near the fireplace. We were still full from breakfast but I can’t say no to pub food, so we each ordered a beer and Michael had a bowl of chili and we split an order of Sierra Nevada beer-battered onion rings. I swooned.
The bar is brimming over with character. According to the tavern’s website, it was built in the 1860s as a way station for the travelers along the new “turnpike” on the recently-constructed San Marcos pass. I don’t know how much of the original structure remains, but the ambiance has certainly lingered. Every picture and crack on the walls seemed to whisper the secrets of the tavern’s decades of thirsty patrons. Though in particular, I was taken by the framed newspaper clippings reporting the passing of some of Cold Spring’s most beloved canine customers.
Our bellies now overly-full, we drove back down the mountain, stopped briefly at our hotel to layer up, and then headed to the Santa Barbara Sailing Center for a sunset sail. Aside from a gaggle of super cool, super drunk college kids, it was breathtaking, and I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
We stayed in that night and got up early the next morning to drive back down to L.A. to meet up with my favorite aunt and uncle. With the exception of my parents, my entire family lives in California (we moved to Texas when I was in middle school, much to my relatives’ bewilderment), and I haven’t seen my Aunt Kay and Uncle in nearly ten years. So we arranged to meet up with them at Clockers’ Corner at the Santa Anita Racetrack, where you can buy coffee and breakfast and watch the horses work out. The mountain backdrop on a clear day is almost as gorgeous as the thoroughbreds.
After the racetrack I dragged Michael to one of my favorite childhood haunts: the Farmers Market. I used to go there often with my mom on the weekends. We’d meet up with my aunt and my grandma and get donuts and wander the stalls, and my grandma would always get me one “present”—a Golden Book, pair of Minnie Mouse ears, a few strips of those flavorless dot candies that you can never totally peel off the paper (does anyone actually like those?). I’m happy to report that it’s one of those few places that remains today exactly as it is in my memory. Even the rickety old chairs at the tables scattered around the market seemed to be the exact same ones from twenty years ago. Which I love. So few things in life are able to resist change, so I appreciate the fortitude of the things that do.
I’d kind of like to think that we fall into that category too.
To be continued . . .