Crispy California Waiting For Rain

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This may seem to be my Halloween column, if you look at its date, but I didn’t set out to scare anyone. My intention was to report on a trip I made to California wine country. It was an escape from the East End’s pumpkin-seeking hoards that prompted me to head west over Columbus Day weekend. For many years, I had wanted to spend a little downtime in Sonoma, so with that in mind, I headed to Healdsburg, in the heart of the Dry Creek Valley.

My plan was to reconnect with some old friends, Peter and Pat Lenz, who founded the Lenz Winery in Peconic back in 1978. We had joined forces then to start the Long Island Wine Council in order to create some quality standards and regional cooperation, with considerable success. Peter, who was raised in Germany and trained in exactitude by Mercedes Benz, and Pat, who was a noted sculptor and chef before she became a vintner, were always ahead of the curve in innovation and sophistication. And their restless energy and creativity—and Peter’s acquired passion for windsurfing—drew them away from Peconic in 1988 to San Francisco’s larger—and windier—bay.

With various twists and turns along the way, the Lenzes ended up in Healdsburg just as the city was beginning to shake off its dusty aura of orchards and truck farming to enter the glory days of California wine’s expansion and exaltation. While everyone else planted chardonnay and cabernet, the Lenzes decided to dedicate their small new vineyard to syrah, the red grape of the Rhône Valley. They bought a 5½-acre plot with a farmhouse and imposing old slaughterhouse, which Pat promptly turned into a peaceable, kingdom-themed art gallery and studio for her own sculptures, and those by others. They named their studio/winery “Duchamp,” after the French sculptor whose witty surrealism aligned well with the Lenzes’ own aesthetic philosophy.

Near their slaughterhouse, the Lenzes also converted an industrial property alongside Foss Creek into a small hotel, also called Duchamp. This is where I headed for my October Sonoma sojourn. Voted by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the Top 25 New Hotels Worldwide, the Duchamp Hotel was also lauded by Travel and Leisure as a “minimalist’s dream come true.” With her sculptor’s sensibility, Pat designed the hotel’s six private cabins around a grove of 50-year-old olive trees, with a long lap pool and deep hot tub as a central focal point.

The Lenzes have, themselves, traveled to every part of the world, always first class, and they know all the details that make a destination worthy of a detour. If your taste runs to Relais & Chateaux grandeur, with crystal chandeliers and thick pile carpets, this is not the place for you. But if you seek serenity in a wonderfully distinctive, spotlessly clean and comfortable location, as I do, the Duchamp is a happy revelation.

The Lenzes’s syrah is also a happy revelation. I preferred it to all the chardonnays, sauvignon blancs and cabernets I tasted on my trip. It’s a ripe, lusciously spicy and deeply flavored wine.

It’s always a treat to follow the past into the future, as I did with my visit to the Lenzes in Sonoma. So where’s the Halloween trick, you may be wondering?

The scary news out of Sonoma and, in fact, all California is its lack of water. Duchamp has its own good well, but I passed one vineyard after another that looked so parched as to be crispy. I saw abandoned fruit farms and dying trees as I drove down into the Central Valley. The shortage of water extends beyond irrigation. A Sonoma judge recently ruled that the vintners can use water as frost protection only if the salmon have enough water to migrate.

The day I left San Francisco, a much-anticipated rain failed to materialize. So much of our food and wine come from California that their drought must concern us all. And it should make us here, in rain-fed Long Island, more keen than ever to preserve our own farmland.

We all want fresh, good food. On my United Airlines flight home, I read its CEO’s excitement to be offering “enhanced meals … using high quality ingredients.” I almost bought one of their chicken salads for $9.49 until I read the “fresh product ingredients,” including “chicken breast: water, modified corn starch, seasoning, vegetable oil, sodium phosphates, chicken base (chicken meat including natural chicken juices, salt, corn maltodextrin, cane sugar).”

Scary, right? Happy Halloween.

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