Monday, November 13, 2017

Fine Wines and a Fabulous Inn in Fair Play

The great room at Lucinda's Country Inn in Fair Play, California
Driving along winding, two-lane roads lined with vineyards on my way to Lucinda’s Country Inn in Fair Play, I fell behind a pick-up truck with a bumper sticker that read, “Napa Makes Auto Parts – El Dorado County Makes Wine.” The apparent quip against the more well-known wine region is gaining traction.
Lucinda's County Inn at dusk

When Lucinda and Daryl Sullivan bought the property to build their bed and breakfast inn in 1997, there were just six wineries in Fair Play. There are now 30 wineries in the region, 60 total wineries in El Dorado County, and dozens more nearby in the neighboring Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley.

Tasting room patio at Skinner Vineyards
The Sullivans first fell in love with Fair Play in the mid-1960s when they came up to drive car rallies around the region. Looking for paper plates tacked to trees that marked the route, they followed country roads through gorgeous landscapes that alternated between dense forests and rolling hills. “All the roads connect in loops,” explained Lucinda.

Those same interconnected roads now serve as tasting routes through a burgeoning wine region producing about 3,000 cases a year. Windwalker Vineyards and Winery lies just up the road from the inn and offers a lovely tasting room with good wines and a shady deck for picnicking. A little further up the road, Skinner Vineyards sits at the top of a hill offering commanding views and exceptional wines from a family that first began producing wines in the Sierra Foothills in 1861.

Outdoor deck at Lucinda's Country Inn
Centrally located along the winetasting routes, Lucinda’s Country Inn provides a perfect base for exploring the wines and beauty of the region. Designed and built as a bed and breakfast in the early 2000s, the inn has a contemporary style with many eco-friendly considerations. Solar panels provide 90% of the inn’s electricity and tankless water heaters provide instant hot water. The inn’s cottage and four spacious guest suites each offer pillow-top king beds with separate seating areas, remote-controlled gas fireplaces, flat screen televisions with HD DirecTV and DVD players, private decks, well-stocked kitchenettes with complimentary sodas, waters, and snacks, and spacious baths with upscale amenities. One of the suites and the cottage feature sunken spa tubs; another suite offers a tiled soaking tub.

Vineyard Suite at Lucinda's Country Inn
A large common-area great room features an inviting fireplace flanked with leather couches. Just outside on the deck, an outdoor fireplace is ringed by cozy patio furniture with shade umbrellas and an outdoor bar. The inn is nestled on 11 quiet, forested acres with more outdoor seating scattered around the inn, a bocce ball court, and a charming creek that was once claimed by gold prospectors.

On Friday and Saturday nights, the innkeepers serve complimentary wine and snacks. A home-cooked breakfast is served each morning. The inn also hosts periodic farm-to-fork dinners and murder mystery dinners.
Fair Play Cottage at Lucinda's County Inn

When I arrived to the inn, I was warmly welcomed by Lucinda and Daryl and the aroma of chili simmering on the stove. My room, the Vineyard Suite, was decorated in shades of cream, sage green, and lavender and featured a double-sided, see-through gas fireplace connecting the bedroom and living room. The overstuffed furniture makes an ideal spot to curl up with a glass of wine in front of the fire. A step-up arched entry to the bedroom and a skylight over the bed adds a touch of romance. The large windows in the living room and bedroom offered peaceful views of the forest. The kitchenette was thoughtfully and generously stocked. The bath featured a spacious shower the innkeepers comically refer to as the “human carwash” for all of its nozzle options.

Lucinda's Country Inn's Strawberry Yogurt Parfait
In the sunny dining room the next morning, I was treated to one of Lucinda’s breakfast specialties, Country Huevos Casserole. Served in an oval ramekin, the dish featured scrambled eggs topped with melted cheese and the delicious chili that had been simmering the night before. The dish was paired with a strawberry yogurt parfait and warm lemon almond scones. It was the perfect start to a crisp fall morning and full day of exploring Fair Play’s wineries.

Lucinda's Country Inn

6701 Perry Creek Rd.
Fair Play, CA 95684

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Secret Garden in Santa Barbara

Wood Thrush cottage at Secret Garden Inn & Cottages in Santa Barbara
When I first visited the Secret Garden Inn & Cottages a few years ago, I arrived to the delicious smell of a cardamom-spiced bread that the owner, Dominique Hannaux, had just pulled out of the oven. Standing in her kitchen, Dominique wore glasses and an apron over a t-shirt and a long, flowing skirt. Wiry tendrils of gray hair had escaped her ponytail and were floating around her face. She spoke with a French accent and looked every bit the part of a slightly eccentric, French painter.

Secret Garden Inn's garden patio and cottages
Dominique broke off a morsel of the bread for me to sample and explained that she hadn’t followed a recipe, that she had just been experimenting. The sample was divine.

Meadowlark guest room at Secret Garden Inn & Cottages
Dominique learned to cook watching her father and her grandmother cook while growing up in France. She loved to read and poured through recipes in her grandmother’s cookbooks. When she was 17, she cooked her first Christmas dinner under the direction of her grandmother, whose health had begun to fail. At 20, when Dominique had a place of her own, she began to cook for friends. “I discovered I loved it,” said Dominique, “It’s a little like painting: a little of this, a little of that.”

Dining room at the Secret Garden Inn & Cottages
She cooked on sailboats for a while and then eventually made her way to Santa Barbara, where she bought the Secret Garden Inn and Cottages in 1999. Secluded behind high hedges and nestled amid lovely gardens and pathways, the inn is located in a residential neighborhood, not far from Old Mission Santa Barbara and State Street. The main house, a simple 1905 farmhouse, consists of a living room, a country dining room, kitchen, and two guest rooms. Six additional guest rooms are scattered among the garden cottages, each with their own private entrance. Named for various birds, the rooms have a homey feel with cheerful colors, floral patterns, and an eclectic assortment of furnishings. All of the rooms offer private baths, televisions with DVD players, and wireless internet. Many of the rooms have clawfoot tubs; five of the cottage rooms also have private decks with small Jacuzzi tubs.

Garden patio beneath the shade of the persimmon tree
Beneath the sprawling branches of a persimmon tree, a garden patio with café tables and chairs is an ideal spot to enjoy breakfast or a glass of wine. One of Dominique’s most popular recipes, her persimmon and orange nut bread, is made with fresh persimmons she picks from the tree when they begin to ripen in the fall.

Dominique's ingredients for French toast
The inn serves wine and hors d’oeuvres on Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 6 p.m. Sweets and hot water for tea are set out each evening at 7 p.m. Each morning, Dominique prepares and serves a gourmet breakfast featuring her quiches, crepes, fresh-baked scones, muffins, sweet breads, fresh fruit, coffee, tea and juices. Guests have their choice of enjoying breakfast in their room or private patio, in the dining room, or on the garden patio.

When I last visited, Dominique treated me to French toast and shared with me her easy recipe for making it. “The best things are the easiest things,” she said.

Dominique's French toast
In a bowl, she whisked two eggs with half and half and a generous dash of cinnamon and then dunked day-old slices of Brioche into the mixture. With melted butter sizzling in a pan, she transferred the slices to the hot pan. Once brown, she flipped the slices to brown the other side. To finish, she transferred the French toast to a plate and sprinkled it with powdered sugar.

Secret Garden Inn & Cottages
1908 Bath Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
805-687-2300 / 800-676-1622

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A New Star in the Santa Ynez Valley

Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa’s new restaurant, The Bear and Star
Waygu Meat Loaf at The Bear and Star
In Chef John Cox’s hands, a dish as humble as meatloaf takes a gastronomic turn into greatness at Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa’s new restaurant, The Bear and Star. Having earned accolades for his ventures in micro-regional cuisine at Sierra Mar Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, John is now the leading force behind the vision and culinary team for The Bear and Star, which just opened this past spring.

Like the late Fess Parker, John hails from the Lone Star state but also calls California home. In developing The Bear and Star, John sought to combine the techniques of a chef with both the Parker family heritage and his own to create a “refined ranch cuisine” that draws upon California’s bounty.

With the meatloaf, John aimed to create the best possible version of the dish using Waygu beef raised just seven miles away on the 714-acre Fess Parker Home Ranch. The meatloaf is topped with a rich, house-made ketchup using tomatoes grown on the ranch and smoked on-site.

Chef John Cox of The Bear and Star
Sourcing the meats and vegetables almost exclusively from the ranch, John is kicking the concept of farm-to-table dining up a few notches. “We wanted to create a sustainable eco-system on a scale that has meaning,” said John.

Fess Parker Home Ranch
The ranch is raising 120 head of Waygu cattle on the spent grains and pomace from the Parker family brewery and winery. The manure from the cattle in turn feeds the organic vegetable gardens. The ranch is also raising chickens, quail, rabbits, pigs, and bees and tending to over 200 hundreds of acres of orchards and vineyards. Horseback tours of the ranch are available.

The menu is for the restaurant is dictated by the ranch and changes daily. The night my husband and I visited, we were treated to a number of John’s sophisticated riffs on classic Southern fare. The piping hot, cast-iron cornbread featured a delicate honey glaze. The fried green tomatoes were served with watermelon and unexpectedly well-paired cheese sauce. Queso-stuffed jalapenos were wrapped in bacon and served with a smoky chipotle sauce. The brined, double-cut pork chop was perfectly prepared with a slight smoky edge and served with cheesy grits and wine-braised cabbage. We finished the meal with chess pie topped with fresh berries and whipped cream.

The Chef's Room at The Bear and Star
The service is generous, friendly, and unpretentious. The décor is a cozy cowboy chic. Sliding barn doors open to a dining room with oversized, brass tack upholstered chairs and throw pillows with a Southwestern vibe. A longhorn skull hangs above the fireplace. The adjacent Chef’s Room is an inviting, light-filled space lined with bookcases holding the chef’s personal collection of cookbooks, backlit displays of pickled vegetables, and a viewing window into the kitchen. Hidden behind a wall of wine with rolling doors, the restaurant’s Wine Room is a discreet and glamourous venue for intimate gatherings with a grand dining table, tufted red velvet chairs, and state-of-the-art, temperature-controlled wine storage.

Nearly all of the dining implements are locally sourced. The restaurant’s ceramic dinnerware is made by Rolled Oats Pottery a few miles away in Solvang. The water glasses are hand-blown in Santa Barbara. The leather placemats, linen napkins, and star-shaped iron trivets are all locally made. John has even designed a special wooden room-service box with a drawer for holding a bottle of wine and unique ceramic dinnerware that can both stack and cover dishes to be delivered to the room.
Room 8 at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa
Pool at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa

While the restaurant is a star attraction, the accommodations at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa are nothing short of sublime.  Our room was a spacious suite with vaulted ceilings, two gas fireplaces, a luxurious king-size bed, and two separate seating areas with stylish furnishings in red, cream and blue hues. The enormous tiled bath featured a soaking tub, glass shower, and a wide vanity with two vessel sinks. The suite also featured beautiful built-in cabinetry, a wet bar, wide-plank wood floors, white plantation shutters, and framed sepia-toned photographs of the Santa Ynez Valley.

The inn also features a beautiful rimless swimming pool with a shaded arbor and fire pits and an on-site spa offering a variety of esthetic and massage treatments.

Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa

2860 Grand Ave
Los Olivos, CA 93441

Second, third, fourth, fifth and seventh photos courtesy of Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa.  Other photos by Ranee Ruble-Dotts for CABBI.