I was lucky enough to return recently to Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn for lunch and a wine tasting. Several years ago I was there during a big storm, which rolled in as we were eating and was quite an unforgettable experience. The drive home was memorable as well, with Highway 1 littered with boulders and rocks brought down by the ferocity of the wind and rain.
This year the trip was during perfect weather, and the experience was different. For some reason, I am usually the driver and I don’t really mind, but I did not drive this time. Driving this route demands attention, so the driver misses a lot – but as a passenger, it is a glorious trip. I was able to see even more than usual as we were in a very slow line of many cars following a tanker truck that for miles refused to pull over.
The theme for the lunch was wine from Spain’s Rioja region, where the Tempranillo grape is the predominant varietal and considered Spain’s noble grape. “Tempranillo” translates to “the early one,” as the grape ripens early and does well with a short growing season. The grape has a thick skin, and consequently the juice tends to be on the tannic side and often requires considerable aging to balance.
Rioja has a northerly climate, and only two or three vintages per decade will have a growing season sufficient for an outstanding vintage. It has long been thought it is a distant clone of Pinot Noir, though recent DNA tests have cast doubt on its origin. Tasting the wines, Pinot Noir would never be the first guess. The wines tend to have flavors of tobacco, leather, plum, cherry and cassis. Sounds and tastes like a Bordeaux blend to me.
Riojas come in three classifications: Crianzas are aged for two years, Riservas for three and Gran Riservas for five or more. One can buy a decent Crianza like a Marquesa for less than $20 or spend upward of $200 for a Muga Rioja Aro.
Check out the Spanish section where you buy your wine and you will find many very good wines for less than $20, some less than $15.
The view up and down the coastline seems to go on forever on a clear day. We were even treated to the sight of a California condor flying by, which looked more like a small airplane or a hang glider than a bird. Food and wine just seem to taste better in a Post Ranch setting. Craig von Foerster has been the chef at the Ranch’s Sierra Mar restaurant since 1998. He outdid himself for this lunch. Sweetbreads in a Madeira reduction sauce with chanterelles followed sliced chicken sausage on a bed of risotto. The main course was boneless short ribs with rare slices of rib eye on hash with quail eggs.
Brown-bagged flights of Rioja accompanied the courses. There were 16 wines, and the clear winner was a 1995 Bodegas Mayor de Migueloa “1619” Gran Riserva. I didn’t love it – my notes said it was old and over the hill – but everyone else seemed to like it. My favorite turned out to be an older wine also, a 1994 Vina Valoria Gran Riserva. It did not show its age, and I found it to be elegant and balanced. The group picked it second. You can still buy these old wines for approximately $40.
This wonderful spot for lunch is no more than a two-and-a-half-hour drive. There is an extensive wine list, the food is always terrific and the view is always great, rain or shine.