Idyllwild

Of Southern California’s major mountain towns, the smallest and most isolated is Idyllwild. Other notable mountain destinations like Wrightwood, Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear, and their various neighboring localities all have much to offer, from skiing and snowboarding to lakeside activities and boating, but what sets Idyllwild apart is that is doesn’t have much of any of these to offer. There’s so much less to do in Idyllwild, in the best possible way.

Straddling Highway 243 in the San Jacinto Mountains, Idyllwild has been popular travel destination since the 1890s, but it was once the summer time home for native bands of Cahuilla Indians who migrated to the area to escape the summer heat of the desert valleys below. With summertime temperatures peaking in the mid 90s, the cooler mountain air is a welcome relief.

The locality that most visitors would call Idyllwild is actually several neighboring communities, each with its own personality and charm, though the largest and most central of them all is Idyllwild. The others include Pine Cove, Fern Valley, Mountain Center, and Garner Valley. The majority of these “Hill Communities” are mostly residential, but they have their destinations and their charm. But in general, it’s acceptable to group them into one destination which, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call Idyllwild.

There’s not a lot to do in Idyllwild. There’s no skiing, unless you enjoy cross-country skiing on dozens of miles of marked trails. And there’s no boating, unless you enjoy the 470 acres of pristine alpine lake and 12 miles of shoreline on Lake Hemet, stocked with rainbow trout and catfish. And there’s not much for entertainment, unless you enjoy world-renowned jazz artists appearing annually at the Jazz in the Pines Festival, or the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema. And the rock climbing really isn’t great, unless you love massive big-wall climbs on Suicide Rock and legendary Lily Rock (also known as Tahquitz Rock), second only to Yosemite in the west. And the hiking, well there is at least one taller mountain in Southern California. Just one. At 10,834 feet, the view from San Jacinto Peak was described  by John Muir as “the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth.” Its north escarpment rises over 10,000 vertical feet in elevation in over just 7 horizontal miles, and is one of the sharpest elevation gains in the contiguous US. But still, there is at least one taller mountain in Southern California. So I guess the question is, why even bother going to Idyllwild?

Lily Rock above Idyllwild

There’s shopping at countless quaint boutiques and shops, offering everything from antiques and home-made arts and crafts, to fine works of local art. And speaking of art, the arts community in Idyllwild is one of the finest in the region, bolstered by the Idyllwild Arts Academy, a world-recognized college-preparatory institute for education in the arts. Dozens of fine art galleries and studios featuring works in a variety of media to suite any taste color the community with a cultural richness and an artistic sophistication rarely seen in a town of this size.

The lodging choices are surprisingly diverse. Choose from any of the 20 or more local properties, with options ranging from bed and breakfasts, cabin rentals, and lodges, to sophisticated hotel properties with a full suite of services and luxury amenities. Most offer excellent rates, especially for non-peak weekends. Favorite spots include the Grand Idyllwild Lodge for luxury accommodations including private decks and in-house spa facilities, the Silver Pines Lodge for secluded cabins and a comfortable, homey feel, the Idyllwild Inn for themed rooms and a variety of studio, 1-room, 2-room, and 3-room cabins for any party size, just steps away from the most popular shopping and dining areas in town, and the Fern Valley Inn to get away from it all and relax in any of the 10 comfortable cottages. Most properties offer in-room fireplaces, and many of the lodges and cabin rentals welcome pets.

For those with simpler tastes in lodging, there are a dozen or so public and private campgrounds offering everything from primitive camping to RV resorts with pull-through sites and full hookups. Idyllwild County Park has a large number of wilderness and developed campsites which are open to the public, and private resorts like Thousand Trails offer a larger selection of amenities, and membership is not required to make a reservation.

Strawberry Creek through Idyllwild in Winter

The dining options are nearly as diverse as the lodging choices. Cafe Aroma is an Italian focused bistro on North Circle Drive. La Casita also on North Circle has excellent Mexican food. The Red Kettle in the center of town offers hearty breakfast classics and sandwiches, but isn’t open for dinner, and Mile High Cafe on Highway 243 at Saunders Meadow Road has many of those same classics, in a slightly less rustic, slightly more polished setting, and has a dinner menu as well.

The Gastrognome in the center of town is an Idyllwild standard for more sophisticated dining, and offers well-prepared American fare with a focus on fresh seafood, chops, and steaks. And the bread is legendary. The setting is refined but comfortable, and the service is without reproach. Fratello’s Ristorante offers authentic interpretations of traditional Italian pasta and meat dishes, along with wood-fired pizzas. The selection of red wines is ample, and includes a notable range of Italian and California wines.

Of course for many visitors, the best places to eat are more casual. I’ve been eating at Idyllwild Pizza Company for as long as I can remember. They make a great pie, and they’ve got a respectable selection of Southern California craft beers on tap. And speaking of local craft beer, in the same parking lot is the Idyllwild Brew Pub, a delightfully current food and drink place, with a large selection of beers made in-house, along and the most well-stocked bar in town. The menu is elevated pub food, excellent salads, and some surprising desserts. Standouts include the calamari sandwich on a hoagie roll with shaved cucumber and ponzu mayonnaise, and the bread pudding smothered in bourbon caramel sauce. It’s an easy walk back from the Brew Pub to your cozy cabin at the Idyllwild Inn.

One of Idyllwild’s biggest attractions– literally– is the trees. Most of the massive Jeffrey Pines that once covered the mountains were felled in logging operations in the early 1900s. There are still a few remaining Jeffreys dating from the pre-logging era, mostly those specimens which were not suitable for lumber due to their twisting, spiral trunks. Many of those survivors are now absolutely massive. You can tell them by their bright orange bark and staggering size. Smell the trunks and you’ll find a sweet, alluring vanilla scent.

The mountainsides have all but been reforested in the intervening years by dense stands of Ponderosa pines, which soar to slightly less lofty heights, but are majestic and fragrant nonetheless. The Ponderosas are however, slightly less hearty, less drought-tolerant than their colossal cousins, and have been stricken across the west in recent years by bark beetle infestation due to the lingering drought.

The only remaining questions one might be tempted to ask is, “Why Idyllwild?” For those of us who have been going there for our entire lives, it’s an easy answer.  It’s a small town take on mountain destinations. And let’s be honest, when you’re visiting the mountains, a small town feel is right. If you want alpine skiing, go somewhere else. You come to Idyllwild for the stunning natural beauty of the mountains and the trees, uncluttered by urban encroachments.  If you want quiet, tranquil beauty– which is what mountain destinations are all about– then Idyllwild may be the place for you.

San Diego Craft Beer

We’re living in a Golden Age of beer.

Craft beer has exploded across the country and around the world, growing far beyond its counter-culture roots. It has established itself as a new paradigm of quality American beer, and developed into a multi-billion dollar industry. New breweries open every week, and the area with the greatest concentration of breweries is the region around the city and county of San Diego, California.

Brew Kettle

San Diego County has over 150 breweries, and one of the hottest brands on the scene is a rapidly-growing brewery called Second Chance Beer Company (www.SecondChanceBeer.com) located in the Carmel Mountain Ranch area of San Diego. While this brewery may only be celebrating their third anniversary in 2018, the people running it are certainly not new. Partners Marty Mendiola and Curtis Hawes worked together for nearly a decade at a favorite San Diego brewpub, Rock Bottom Brewery near the UCSD campus, and, along with co-founder Virginia Morrison, the trio are now living their dreams of operating their own label.

Mendiola is a veteran brewmaster, past president of the San Diego Brewer’s Guild, and one of San Diego’s most well-respected brewers. The San Diego-native has nearly twenty years of experience making some of the region’s finest beers, bringing home 13 Great American Beer Festival medals and 6 World Beer Cup awards during his tenure. Noted for his English-style browns and Irish-style reds, Mendiola is also well-versed in San Diego’s signature beer, the West Coast-style IPA.

Second Chance Beer Company’s Marty Mendiola and Curtis Hawes

Hawes, the business manager, is a consummate professional, and life-long craft beer enthusiast. His business card actually reads “Chief Tasting Officer.” He’s a numbers guy, with an MBA, and 20 years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry. “It’s a perfect partnership,” says Hawes. “Marty is one of the best brewers in the region, and it’s my passion to help bring our beer to the world. I feel pretty lucky to get to work with him every day.”

Last year the company opened its first satellite taproom called the Second Chance Beer Lounge in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego, the heart of the craft brew social scene. “The neighbors are pretty happy we’ve moved in,” says Hawes. “The whole neighborhood is like a beer lover’s dream.”

The Second Chance Beer Lounge in North Park San Diego

Their work isn’t all hype, though. Second Chance posted back-to-back Gold medals from the Great American Beer Festival for its Tabula Rasa Toasted Porter in 2016 and 2017 (only the second time in history a beer has been awarded consecutive Golds), and grabbed a Silver for their Legally Red American Red Ale as well. The rest of their line-up features a range of seasonal and specialty beers, and an expanding core line of IPAs, Red and Brown ales, and even a notable Lager, brewed in partnership with the World Over the Line Championships, hosted annually by the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club.

San Diego has become an important destination for beer tourism in California, and Second Chance’s location close to the I-15 corridor puts them right on the map for the many of the beer tours that travel up and down that vital thoroughfare. “People come from all over the country to visit breweries and tasting rooms in San Diego,” says Hawes. With Mendiola’s record for award-winning beer, there’s little doubt that this growing trend will continue to bring beer lovers to the region.

Beer tourism is nothing new to Societe Brewing Company (http://societebrewing.com). Founding partners Doug Constantiner and Travis Smith were both life-long craft beer enthusiasts and home brewers before meeting in 2009 at, of all places, a brewery.

Troy Ashburn, Pintsman at Societe Brewing Company

Constantiner moved to California from Texas specifically to work in the craft beer industry, choosing San Diego because of the number of breweries in the region. Smith began his career at the highly-acclaimed Russian River Brewing in Northern California, and came to San Diego for the same reasons. The two became fast friends, and after a year or so of conspiring, decided to set out on their own.

The pair began production in 2012, focusing on making the best beer they possibly could. “From the beginning we’ve focused on quality, rather than quantity,” says Constantiner. “We don’t want to be a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Smith admits that demand for their beer is constantly growing. “No one can make enough beer,” he says. Remarking on the importance of quality, he says, “Every day, there are people trying craft beer for the first time, so it has to be good every time.”

Constantiner has a refreshing take on the relationships he and Smith have developed with other brewers in the region, who consider themselves colleagues, rather than competitors. “We owe a huge debt to breweries like Stone, AleSmith, Pizza Port—everyone that came before us,” he says. “They blazed the trail for us, and opened the world to craft beer. But they’ve also set a great example about being open and honest, keeping craft beer fun, and doing good things in the community.”

The barrel aging room at Societe Brewing Company

The partners identify four categories of beer they produce. Their “Old World” line features European-style beers, their “Stygian” line features a number of dark, heavy stouts, their “Out West” line heavily favors big, hoppy, West Coast-style ales, and a newer collection, the “Feral” line includes a selection of rich, interesting sour beers and other wild, unpredictable flavors.

“We’re making the beer we love, and the craft beer lovers in the region are loving it with us,” says Constantiner. And it seems that the rest of the world is enjoying it, too. Their Ferel beer dubbed “The Thief” took home a Gold Medal at the 2018 World Beer Cup in the Mixed-Culture Brett Beer category.

One of Societe’s noted influences is AleSmith Brewing Company (http://alesmith.com). Opening in 1995, AleSmith is the oldest stand-alone craft brewery in San Diego not connected with a restaurant (the only older brewery is the Karl Strauss brewpub in Downtown San Diego).

Like many of San Diego’s native brewmasters, owner Peter Zien began as a home-brewer, and a member of the local brewer’s club, QUAFF (Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity). Fellow QUAFF member and close friend of Zien, Skip Virgilio, founded AleSmith based on the strength of a now-legendary Belgian Strong Ale, the first San Diego beer to bring home a Gold Medal from the Great American Beer Festival. Zien worked with Virgilio early in the process, working for no pay, but enjoying being part of something that hadn’t been done before.

“It was like Tom Sawyer painting his fence,” says Zien. “We helped wherever we were needed, corking bottles, cleaning up, doing whatever we could do on a shoestring.”

Mash Tun at AleSmith Brewing Company

When AleSmith came up for sale in 2002, Zien took a hiatus from his legal career to make his hobby and passion for beer into his profession. At the time, AleSmith was producing around 400 barrels per year. In 2015, AleSmith produced 22,000 barrels, but after completing their 2015 expansion posted 65,000 barrels in 2016, with continued growth to 80,000 barrels in 2017, and is on track to produce 100,000 barrels in 2018.

“For 20 years now, we haven’t been able to produce enough beer to fill all the orders,” says Zien. “We’ve gone through 3 expansions now, and after every one, I think ‘this will be my last,’ but I’ve always been wrong about that. I can’t imagine needing to expand beyond our current capacity, but in this industry, never say never.”

That 2015 expansion and increased capacity ten-fold, while maintaining exacting standards for quality. The brewery (on AleSmith Court in San Diego, named for the brewery) services the largest taproom in San Diego, and is also home to the Tony Gwynn Museum, which opened in 2016.

Zien values the friendships he has developed with the region’s other brewers. “None of us feels like we’re in competition with each other,” he says. “We’re all trying to brew the best beer we possibly can, and make a few more barrels than we did the year before.” He also acknowledges the influence of Stone, both in the quality of their beer, and in their distribution network. “Without Stone, there probably wouldn’t be an AleSmith. They’re that important. I probably learned everything I know about this business from (Stone Brewing founder) Greg Koch.”

AleSmith’s line focuses on world-accepted beer styles, with Zien’s own unique spin, and a good measure of West Coast influence. “We maintain a regular line-up of classics,” says Zien. “I like beers that stand the test if time. We brew a huge variety of specialty beers, and people love to try new things, but in the end, they usually come back to the classics.”

With regard to the newer breweries which continue open every year, Zien is supportive and encouraging. “More breweries are good for the industry,” says Zien, “and what’s good for the industry is good for us all.”

Craft beer has become the modern standard for excellence and innovation in beer making, and nowhere is that revolution more prevalent than in San Diego and the region. The culture that has developed around craft beer in San Diego is a powerful, creative force that fosters and supports new breweries and new ideas, and enables veteran and new brewers alike to experiment with novel techniques, and rediscover traditional methods lost to time, creating a better beer drinking experience for us all.

Paso Robles: California’s Most Sincere Wine Region

Rows of grape vines in the Central California town of Paso Robles, with rolling hills in the background.

If you remember the Peanuts Halloween classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the titular Great Pumpkin was reputed (by Linus) to rise out of the most sincere pumpkin patch around. It always struck me as humorous that the relevant trait for the pumpkin patch was sincerity. How can a pumpkin patch be sincere? The question is perhaps answered in the statement that Paso Robles in Central California is California’s most sincere wine making region.

I’ll contrast this with California’s other premier wine making region, Northern California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys, which one could argued are somewhat insincere, this based on being overrun with tourists, and coated in heavy layers of pretense. The wine in Napa is excellent, to be sure, but much of the scene is quite firmly wrapped up in a sense of self-importance– one might even say it is fairly well lodged up it’s own backside. Enter Paso Robles. The wine is on par with much of Napa’s or Sonoma’s production, but with none of the pretense or pompous patronizing one can often experience in Napa. That’s why I’m comfortable calling Paso Robles California’s most sincere wine region.

The town is not on the Central Coast of California, nor is it in the Central Valley, but it is in Central California. It’s about half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco along Highway 101, and about 30 miles inland by car from the Central Coast town of Cambria near Hearst Castle. It straddles the Salinas River, and its rolling, oak-covered hills are home to some 40,000 acres of vineyards, and more than 200 individual wineries.

The commercial wine industry in Paso Robles began in 1882, though the Franciscan Friars of nearby Mission San Miguel planted the first wine grapes in the region around 1797. Much of the early wine produced in the region was Zinfandel, but today, Cabernet Sauvignon makes up the largest percentage of wines produced.

The dining options in Paso Robles are as varied as the wine choices, and a few notable spots include Berry Hill Bistro for salads, sandwiches, and comfort food, Buona Travola for excellent traditional Northern Italian fare, Paso Terra for traditional French preparations of fresh seafood, Cello for upscale modern Italian, and Margie’s Diner for huge portions of classic American diner fare and great breakfasts. Nearly every restaurant in town has an excellent selection of fine local wines.

Paso Robles is not just about wine and food. Firestone-Walker Brewing Company produces dozens of excellent beers, including the now-legendary 805, a refreshing blonde ale named for the local telephone area code. Brewery and barrel room tours are available, and every year on August 5 (8/05), the brewery celebrates the date with special offers, exclusive merchandise, and live music.

The biggest event every year in Paso Robles is the California Mid-State fair in late July, which includes the annual Central Coast Wine Competition. A panel of experts blind-tests hundreds of local wines, recognizing the best Red, White, Rosé, Sparkling, and Dessert wines from the region. Other traditional fair activities include live music, livestock shows, and plenty of great fair food.

With so much to see and do in Paso Robles, one hopes that this gem of Central California will remain modest and relaxed, sincere, in a way that Charlie Brown’s friend Linus would appreciate. It never feels like a tourist destination, the crowds are moderate, the traffic is reasonable, and the locals are friendly and inviting. Here’s hoping it stays that way.