On the oyster coast

The view from the picnic area at Hog Island.

To celebrate a friend’s 30th birthday, the team headed out to the wild and rugged coastline near Point Reyes on Tomales Bay to consume large quantities of oysters.

It is unfortunate for me that most marine life is off limits. I have the appetite and constitution to consume and imbibe almost everything except for animals that swim, crawl or merely exist in the ocean. I have had my fill of trout, bass and catfish but for some reason when I have nibbled on delicacies such as sturgeon, salmon, swordfish and other such fare, my stomach revolts in a most unpleasant manner. I was not looking forward to oysters, but I was eager to get out to the coast.

I have always loved the drive out to the Sonoma or Marin county coastline. The drive is even more enjoyable this time of year during a day with an unsettled sky hung with heavy, gray clouds that occasionally part allowing brilliant rays of sunshine to drench hills that are a shade of green so vibrant it almost seems unnatural. The winding roads, gnarled coastal trees and large formations of gray rock dotting the many cow pastures make one feel as if you’re in another time and country even though Petaluma or Novato and traffic-jammed Highway 101 are almost just over the next hill.

After the pleasant drive, I had an immediate reminder as to why Christine and I don’t travel out to the coast much on food expeditions. As I stepped out of our car I was met with the nauseating smell of seafood emanating from piles of oyster shells that had been thrown on the Hog Island’s parking area. I can’t stand the smell, it’s a rotten, decayed odor that hovers over decrepit piers or bait shacks. I admit, for all my pretensions of loving the good life, I just can’t stomach the thought of eating some of the fishy things like oysters that other people love. I am resolved to try them at some point in my life, but on that particular day with a two-hour drive to get home, and the chance of digestive stress, I was not going to experiment.

If you do like oysters, I am told by many that Hog Island has wonderful oysters grown on site in the clean waters of Tomales Bay. Our group had rented two tables in the picnic area at Hog Island with wonderful views of the bay. Christine and I had brought along a bottle of sparkling rosé wine and a still rosé Syrah that she said paired well with the oysters. For myself, I had a ham and salami sandwich. (And frankly, it was a damn good sandwich.) Hog Island’s picnic area has grills available for warming oysters although you need to bring your own charcoal or buy some at the Hog Island store. Dogs are allowed and we brought CoCo our lab but you have to keep them on a leash.

Shuck, slurp and repeat.

For most of the afternoon, our little picnic point was buffeted by cold winds coming off the water. Later in the day, however, the clouds opened up to reveal a blue sky and the sun. The sunshine and convivial atmosphere of oysters and an open fire made me feel as if I was back in Nantucket or some other glamorous destination. But then I thought, no, I’m on the beautiful California coast near Pt. Reyes. This is one of the most gorgeous areas in the country. One can find Hog Island oysters at the Ferry Building in San Francisco or at the Oxbow public market in Napa. A really fun experience though, even for an unhappy soul like myself for whom the delights of oysters are forbidden by a fickle stomach, is to visit the island first hand. I may not have enjoyed the oysters but I loved the beauty of the coast and the company of good friends.

Tasting Notes: Quixote Winery

The distinctive cupola of Quixote Winery peeks out from trees in front of the cliffs of the Stags Leap district in Napa Valley.

A buddy and me were just driving along Silverado Trail in Napa recently without any plans and time to kill when he suggested we check out Quixote Winery. A few years ago, my friend John had installed wireless internet at the winery and he remembered the winery’s wild architecture.

As luck would have it the winery, which is usually only open for tastings by reservation, had opened its doors  to the public for tastings that afternoon. Quixote Winery is worth a visit just to look at the grounds and the winery, but the wines turned out to be quite good too.

The building has no straight lines and is decorated with tiles and glass painted in bright shades of blue, yellow, red and other colors. My friend and I felt a little sheepish walking into such an artistic and sophisticated tasting room wearing jeans and sneakers, but we were quickly welcomed by the enthusiastic tasting host named René. (Funny side note, John thought René said his name was Ernie when he said hello and so he sat through the hour-long tasting wondering how a Swiss dude picked up the name Ernie.)

Tasting at Quixote feels like being inside a work of art and it actually quite literally is. René explained to us in detail how the building was designed by Austrian artist Hundertwasser. I’m no art student and my art appreciation is pretty poor, but René had a book of Hundertwasser’s art for us to enjoy and we received a quick tutorial on the Austrian’s bold works of contemporary art. The artist created several building projects in Europe but Quixote Winery is his only American piece and after finishing the winery Hundertwasser passed away. The building reflects his style of no straight lines, a “living roof” planted with trees and grass, and cupolas and towers dotting the structure. I had thought I would find it uncomfortable and intimidating to taste in such an artistic building but instead found it to be a warm and inviting atmosphere for a tasting.

It's a cool scene at Quixote Winery. I didn't see any windmills though.

And the wine was great. Our tasting cost $20 each (the tasting fee was waived with a purchase) and included four vintages. We started with a Cab that was quite typical of the Stags Leap area of the Napa Valley. Quixote prides itself on its estate Petit Sirah. We tasted two, an ’05 and an ’02. The ’05 was quite nice with strong flavors and a bone dry finish but the ’02 was really good although at $70 a bottle it was too steep for my modest means.

I did buy a bottle of the winery’s ’05 Grenache-Mourvedre blend ($40 a bottle), which René said is quite a rare blend. This wine had just a great balance of fruit and acidity and it was really approachable. John, who enjoys wine, but readily admits to being a novice said he could just drink it all day. On the palate the wine had red fruit flavors like a little bit of strawberry and a nice clean, finish.

A visit to Quixote Winery brings you to an intriguing intersection of art and wine. Such a combination can be found at other wineries, but exploring the relationship and similarities of fine wine and fine art is too complex for my simple musings. Instead, I’ll just say that the art inherent to the building broadened your understanding of what a space can be and prepared your palate for the artistry of winemaking.

The Art of Hundertwasser can be found in every corner of the winery. Even the bathroom was pretty wild.