Monthly Archives: September 2013

Food and Wine of the Hitching Post


                      Photographs:  Karen Norton



The Hitching Post II Restaurant was a local legend long before the film; “Sideways” exposed it to a much larger audience.  Today, it is a must stop for those in town enjoying wine tasting or the many other attractive features in the north San Barbara County area.  While the

Frank Ostini Jr. and Gray Hartley

Frank Ostini Jr. and Gray Hartley

waitress, Mya, is still good for business, locals have appreciated open red oak BBQ grilling, “Santa Maria Style” since the Ostini Family opened the original Hitching Post Restaurant in nearby Casmalia, CA in 1952.  The in-direct open fire grilling method, rather then closed smoker, seems to generate great flavor in everything from filet mignon to salmon. The Hitching Post II also has its own house wines with a much different story than one might imagine.

Several years ago, I met Gray Hartley at a tasting event when he was promoting Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post Wines.  Experience tells us to be cautious when restaurants, especially BBQ restaurants, begin to make their own house wines, especially Pinot Noir.  Fortunately, we can all throw caution to the wind.  Beginning as a hobby, Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post Wines is a long-term business and personal partnership between old friends who are now serious winemakers creating fine wines from many of the top vineyards in the region.

As with most wineries in north Santa Barbara County, the harvest was taking place and the Hitching Post  staff was in fourth

new juice

new juice

gear,  moving  fresh grapes from trucks through the initial crushing process.  Hartley oversees the production of 17,00 0cases annually, but he was as excited as we were to watch the grapes come off the trucks and to visit the scales before the fruit was loaded onto conveyor belts, drawn through crushers and de-stemmers before resting in holding tanks awaiting a winemakers touch.

When asked what makes him a good winemaker, Hartley pauses for an instant before responding, “Frank.”  High school friend, Frank Ostini convinced him in 1979, to leave his fishing business in Alaska to pursue the dream of creating pinot noir and other varietals that people would want to drink, inside or outside the restaurant.  A self-described romantic, Hartley depicts his partner as analytical and pocessing scientific approach, providing a good balance.

Hartley Ostini 2012 Hitching Post "Pinks" dry rose

Hartley Ostini 2012 Hitching Post “Pinks” dry rose

Speaking of balance, Gray pours a glass of the new 2012 Hitching Post “Pink’s” Dry Rose, comprised of valdiguie (48%), Grenache 47% and Pinot Noir (5%).  Valdiguie, also known as Gros Auxerrois is a grape native to the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, near Provence, that is producing fine rose’.

While the “Pink’s” in the name refers to the salmon that Hartley used to fish in Alaska, the flavors and texture of this rose’ would pair nicely with the Hitching Post II BBQ Sautéed Mushrooms or Grilled Artichokes with Smoked Tomato Pesto.

The most popular Hitching Post wine is the “Highliner” pinot noir. The 2007 Hitching Post “Highliner” Pinot Noir ($40), named for the “great men of the Alaskan Salmon Fishery, combined the best barrels from four of north Santa Barbara County’s

Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post "Highliner" Pinot Noir

Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post “Highliner” Pinot Noir

extraordinary vineyards.  It expresses complex fruit flavors and should drink well for 5-6 years. The popular “Highliner” and other Hitching Post Wines are exported to 12 states, Japan, Denmark and Canada.

While most Hitching Post wines spend 18-20 months in the bottle before release, the 2008 Hitching Post “Hometown” Pinot Noir ($20)) was released after only 10 months, appealing to those who prefer the flavors and texture of young, value-priced pinot noir.

Frank and Gray both emphasize the need to keep flavors in balance; the flavors must be strong, but not dominant.  They aspire to create the Burgundian-style, food friendly pinot noir that can accompany all food including beef.

While Frank recommended the 2009 Hitching Post “Cork Dancer” Pinot Noir ($29), I opted

Frank Ostini

Frank Ostini

for the 2008 Hitching Post “Perfect Set” Pinot Noir (55) to pair with my fresh Grilled Salmon.  This pinot represents the best barrels from Fiddlestix Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills appellation.  As with grapes for her own Fiddlehead Cellars, owner/winemaker Kathy Joseph’s meticulous work in the vineyard has put her stock in demand by winemakers throughout the region.  The “Perfect Set” is aromatic, earthy wine with full fruit flavors, living up to its name.

The Hitching Post Wines portfolio include single vineyard pinot noir from four of the area’s renown vineyards including the Fiddlestix and Cargassachi Vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills and Julia’s and Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria.  Research will show that many of California’s fine pinot noir releases source fruits from these vineyards. The 2009 Hitching Post “Bien Nacido Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($42) expresses luscious, deep flavors with fully ripened, concentrated fruit.

Although they claim to not make wine for food, nor food for wine, this Hitching Post team, with their unique blend of

Barrel Tasting

Barrel Tasting

experience, were at the forefront of food and wine pairing.  With “no pretense,” they continue, since the first vintage in 1984, to use a “holistic” approach to winemaking and food preparation that helps maintain a healthy balance with each.

For those seeking heavier wines to pair with the wonderful open-fire flavors of beef, lamb and pork, the 2010 Hitching Post “Big Circle” Syrah ($24) and the 2007 Hitching Post Syrah “Alisos Vineyard”($30)  are both good alternatives.  The “Big Circle” expresses complex, balanced flavors and an acidity that makes it very food friendly.

One of the fascinating features of California wines is the multitude of human stories of people, their passion, desire and commitment to perfection.  Although the winemaking passion of Gray Hartley and Frank Ostini has become a $2 million annual operation, luckily they still see themselves as two friends making wine in their garage. Their allegiance to “trust the vineyard, trust your senses and share knowledge” is what makes everything about the Hitching Post operation especially appealing.


The Hitching Post Restaurant II in Buellton

The Hitching Post Restaurant II is located on Highway 246, less than a mile from the Buellton exit of Highway 101 and the nearby wine tasting room is in the ultra-modern Terravant Wine Company, shared with other local winemakers.  Stops at both should be part of any excursion to the breathtakingly beautiful wine region of north Santa Barbara County.


Kenneth Volk Wines


    Photographs By:  Karen Norton



Ken Volk is a winemaker, consummate in his knowledge of horticulture, terroir, soils and grape varietals.  He knows who farms the best vineyards and, more importantly, how to access the fruit that he can effectively mold into his fine signature wines.

Kennet Volk

Kenneth Volk

After spending a few hours with him, I realized that he has likely forgotten more about wine than I have ever understood.  He is also a genuinely nice-guy who gives freely of his precious time to share the passion that has made him one of the most influential winemakers in the country.

A love of horticulture, specifically citrus and avocado, led him to a degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and stints at a few wineries before starting Wild Horse Winery, which he built into a successful large-production operation.

His success drove him more to the business side and away from his ultimate desire to make wine.  He sold Wild Horse, assembled some land and in 2005, purchased the old Byron Winery site in Santa Maria and launched Kenneth Volk Wines, a smaller production boutique winery that allows him to be hands-on at every level.

It is harvest time in north Santa Barbara County.  With drought conditions and some of the hottest average temperatures on record, the grapes are ready.  These are critical times for winemakers who must convert newly picked stock into juice immediately to avoid impacts IMG_0513of the heat.  Once the grapes are ready, the window is very small.

On this morning, trucks are delivering about five tons of tempranillo grapes in large tubs, removed by forklifts, weighed and inspected before the initial process began.

Larger in size than most wine grapes, the dark clusters have been infiltrated by small green berries.  Ken describes them as seedless grape buds than did not form the necessary enzymes to mature and expresses concern they could impact the quality of the juice.  He decided to reduce the speed of the de-stemmer/crusher, directing most of the little green invaders with the stems and leaves.  Some of the nice grapes must be sacrificed, at significant expense, but the only decisive factor is to support and enhance the superiority of the harvest.

Before our eyes, the grapes are dumped into a machine as crankshaft moves the good grapes to crushing, separating any

Ken in the barrel room

Ken in the barrel room

debris. The good juice is immediately pumped to stainless steel holding tanks for the first pre-barrel fermentation process.  Surprisingly, dry ice is introduced to cool the holding tanks, helping to get the field heat out of the fruit while protecting against oxidation. While in the tanks, yeast is introduced and the juice is pressed down, separating from the skins.

Even the barrel room at Kenneth Volk Vineyards is unique.  The racking system for the 1,000-barrel places each barrel on rollers to provide more “lees” (dead yeast cells and pulp) exposure for white wines.  Once again, the extra expense and effort are intended to augment the bouquet and flavor of the juice.

Once in the tasting room, Ken becomes a “kid in a candy store,” willing to share any of his treasured releases, both diverse and abundant.  Before the wine, we tasted some albarino grapes, fresh from the vineyard.  The floral aromas, sweetness of the grapes was over the top, far beyond any white table grape. Next, we sampled some sweet, partially fermented albarino juice that was already expressing strong hints of melon and stone fruits. The final part of this tasting trifecta was the 2012 Kenneth Volk Albarino Riverbench Vineyard ($24), a crisp, refreshing wine with a nice flavor burst on the backend.

2011 Kenneth Volk Albarino Riverbench Vineyard

2011 Kenneth Volk Albarino Riverbench Vineyard

A nice surprise of this tasting was the 2010 Kenneth Volk Verdelho Pomar Junction Vineyard ($24). Grown in several regions throughout Portugal including the island of Madeira, verdelho plantings are expanding in many California appellations.  These grapes came from Templeton, south of Paso Robles to help create a brisk wine with a substantial burst of flavor and creamy texture on the finish.

A bit taken back when he suggested the 2012 Kenneth Volk Malvasia Bianca San Bernabe Vineyard ($24), Ken explained that his is not sweet, but dry, floral, aromatic and slightly astringent.  The vineyard, located along Highway 101, near King City is one of the warmest in the region for full ripening.

Next, we tasted the distinctively different 2011 Kenneth Volk Chardonnay “Jaybird” Santa Maria Valley ($22), crispy, totally sans oak and the oak-laden 2010 Kenneth Volk Chardonnay Bien Nacido Vineyard ($28), benefitting from malolactic fermentation and time in the barrel.   While poles apart, both wines share full flavor profiles and have been highly rated by Wine Enthusiast magazine.  The Bien Nacido Vineyard sources many high quality, well-farmed varietals to several winemakers throughout the region and here; we enjoy the rich texture, stone fruit and butterscotch nuances of a California chardonnay.

Volk’s winemaking skills were clearly on display as we tasted three unique pinot noir releases, two originating from the Santa

Tasting another release

Tasting another release

Maria Valley and another from an appellation in San Benito County that peaked my interest called Lime Kiln Valley.

The inland Lime Kiln Valley appellation, located south of the towns of Hollister and Tres Pinos, is known for soil composed of large amounts of limestone and dolomite.  All the Lime Kiln Valley vineyards are owned and operated by the Enz Family, who now grow many varietals exclusively for Kenneth Volk Wines.  Minerality in the aromas and flavors of the 2009 Kenneth Volk Pinot Noir Enz Vineyard Lime Kiln Valley ($48) are evocative of the fine, earthy red wines originating from the Burgundy region of France and, hence, my favorite.

With high expectations from this infamous vineyard, the 2009 Kenneth Volk Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard ($60), at a higher price, delivers that lush, velvety texture with flavors of strawberry and cherry following an earthy bouquet.

The value-priced 2009 Kenneth Volk Pinot Noir Santa Maria Cuvee ($30), awarded 90-points from Wine Enthusiast magazine, conveys another earthy bouquet followed by concentrated fruit on the palate.

Our tasting, far from complete, ended with five inimitable red varietals, many of which were new and fresh to my senses.  One of the common varietals used in ports and still wines from Portugal, the 2010 Kenneth Volk Touriga Nacional Pomar Junction Vineyard ($36) had robust floral aromas and complex flavors ending with a nice “slate” finish.

Ken Volk

Ken Volk

The Lime Kiln Valley AVA is, once again, showcased with the rare 2008 Kenneth Volk Cabernet Pfeffer San Benito County ($28), a varietal often confused with “Gros Verdot” from the Bordeaux region of France.  Many believe that these grapes are Gros Verdot, but our government only recognizes Cabernet Pfeffer.  Whatever the proper name, this drinkable wine adds a soft spice element to the bouquet and flavor.

Described with “aromas of humming bird sage and turned earth,” the 2010 Kenneth Volk Negrette Calleri Vineyard ($28), a

2008 Kenneth Volk Negrette Calleri  Vineyard

2008 Kenneth Volk Negrette Calleri

varietal originating in the Toulouse region of France, is dark red in color with softer tannins similar to Pinot Noir.

From the Basque region in southern France rather than the Rhone Valley, some winemakers in the Paso Robles region have begun to plant the rare Tannat grape.  Paso’s Bella Collima Vineyard sourced grapes for the 2010 Kenneth Volk Tannat Bella Collima Vineyard, a rich, full-bodied wine with robust flavors that pair well with meats and game.


2008 Kenneth Volk Mourvedre Enz Vineyard

I have long enjoyed mourvedre as an important component, adding richness to the classic “Rhone Blends” in both France and California.  A few of our winemakers, throughout variable regions, have experimented with 100% mourvedre releases.  Once again seeing the potential of the warmer Lime Kiln Valley vineyard, the 2009 Kenneth Volk Mourvedre Enz Vineyard ($36) seems to provide enough season for the grapes to properly ripen, resulting in resonant aromas and concentrated flavors that will age well.


Colorful barrel racks

As we were leaving the winery, Ken asked why I hadn’t commented on the multi-colored barrel storage racks.  He explained that each year, some racks are painted in the color of the NBA Champions.  There are red for the Miami Heat, black for the San Antonio Spurs, green for the Celtics and, yes, purple and gold racks that are beginning to rust and in need of a new coat.

Extraordinary wines, stimulating conversation and a behind-the-scenes look at the Kenneth Volk Vineyard operation made for a wonderful afternoon in the Santa Maria Valley.  It also gives me confidence that wines produced under Ken’s name will exceed expectations.



“Desperate Rain” – The Daniel Castro Band


Wherever Daniel Castro entered the vast continuum of blues music, he certainly looked back before forging forward with his style, bent through the affects of life.  The new release from The Daniel Castro Band, “Desperate Rain” offers a collection of original songs influenced by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, the 60’s British blues invasion among others, delivered through a modern, contemporary blues trio seeking out creative methods of releasing the music’s potential.dcb-1

Admittedly, I have a preference for the trio format in contemporary blues music, requiring each musician to be fully engaged with each other.  The tautness of these musicians is clearly expressed in “Almost Gone”, with hints of Clapton-Bruce-Baker of Cream and more recently, the John Mayer Trio. Drummer David Perper’s driving intro foreshadows what follows and Daniels’ stylized transition seems to search for the bass of Johnny Yu before shifting into a relentlessly resolute rhythm throughout the final note.


The individual and collective skills of this trio is also exposed in Daniel’s classic “No Surrender”, adding some nice vocal harmonies to their efforts.


From someone who was blessed to discover and recognize the value of blues music at an early age, listening to tunes like “Chrome-Plated 44”, “Worried Baby Blues”, and “Good Lovin’ Woman” renders me helpless to focus on anything else. Unswerving heartache, failed love affairs, hopelessness abound as the trio musically celebrates the faithful acknowledgement:

“I’ve got a good lovin’ woman,

She knows how to treat me right.

Ain’t no other woman in this world

Can keep me satisfied”



David Perper, Daniel Castro and Johnny Yu

David Perper, Daniel Castro and Johnny Yu

Tunes like these can still drive one to level-8 on the treadmill, get you to dance for first time in years and amp up the car stereo of youth, quickly turning down the volume during red lights to be less conspicuous.

This time through, one’s sense of the musical nuances, the arrangements and the musicians’ intuition are more acute.  The result is tracks like “Worried Baby Blues”, modeling the classics, now wrapped in a clean, present-day package that enhances Daniel’s unique style.

Dave Rubin of Guitar Player Magazine described Daniel as “one of the greatest guitarist to come bursting out of the highly competitive West Coast scene.”  He spent his childhood in the L.A. area listening to the likes of B.B. King and Albert Collins, paying his dues in the South Central L.A. blues clubs, backing many great artists of the time.  After relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area, Daniel soon became a fixture among North Beach blues artists, forming his first band in 1995.  Those early days in North Beach are celebrated in “Johnny Nitro”, a tribute to a fellow musician.

The new Daniel Castro Band evolved as a trio after reuniting with bassist Johnny Yu, who also contributed to the new arrangements.  Veteran drummer David Perper later became the last piece of the puzzle, commencing a new synergy that projects the passion and control defining Daniel’s music.

The opening phrases of the title track, “Desperate Rain” expose a more graceful and precise trio, with a nice interplay between guitar, bass and percussion. The piece intensifies into, instrumentally, one of their most complex arrangements.

The antonymic “Mr. Lucky” is another example of the trio flourishing.  Yu and Perper lay down the “bread crumbs,” allowing Castro to be adventurous and still find his way home. Daniel’s inexorable guitar is present throughout, seemingly crying the hard luck story:

“My mother asked the preacher

          Please pray for my son.

          Preacher told my mother

          Ain’t nothin can be done”




The harmonic opening of “Shelter Me” evolves into a persuasively stylized groove similar to Warren Zevon and later Bob Dylan recordings.  The depth of Daniel’s guitar style isDaniel-Castro-001-667x500 evident here, both ambitious and restrained.

The down-tempo, haunting “Dark Train” reminds us of our mortality and of the thin line upon which we all walk. The guitar solo, woven with Mid Eastern nuances, strikes a chord with the great Eric Clapton solo recordings.  As the final track ends, we leave with a firm impression of Daniel’s multifarious guitar style.

Castro’s life has been about “paying dues”, a thread woven within his music.  This recording with the new band is the result of hard work and persistence with assembled musicians who are capable of presenting the music with the respect it deserves.  The Daniel Castro Band consistently performs in Bay Area blues clubs and is just the thing for the “escape night” that you deserve.  Need we all be reminded that nothing is more inspirational and therapeutic than the “blues”.