A handful of us went to California to eat some food, to try some wine, to escape winter.
A number of you have asked, "How was California?"
So here's your answer, but also with a focus on what we learned along the way.
1. California weather is weird. Weather is weird all over the United States this winter, but right now most of California is in a severe drought. The tour group — 14 of us — flew to Los Angeles on Feb. 6 and started north up the Pacific Coast highway. As we drove through Malibu, it started raining. And it kinda sorta rained the next couple days. But California has microclimates, meaning that because of hills and the Pacific Ocean, one town may be warmer and drier than another.
That's part of what makes it such an interesting place to farm and make wine. A good farmer of vintner will find what works best in his or her field. And because of the range, you get all sorts of crops.
In Paso Robles wine country, we tasted big jammy red wines. The hot temperatures there make the grapes ripen in a way that makes those wines possible.
But at Tablas Creek Vineyard, that heat is harnessed to turn Rhone varieties of grapes into wines that mimic those of Chateau de Beaucastel in the south of France. Over at Laetitia Vineyard & Winery in Arroyo Grande, the 70-degree average temperature and cool morning fog means that pinot noir is easier to make and bottle.
The full range of food that California produces — at least during what we call winter — was on display at the Santa Monica Farmers Market on the morning I left to come home. The tour group had already fled. Trip co-leader Jay Fields was riding his bike farther north.
Santa Monica (yes, there's a boulevard and it's near the ocean, like the song says) was gray and foggy the morning before, but the sky was bright and blue as the farmers set up tables and tents full of strawberries, citrus, dates and all sorts of other vegetables.
2. Getting bubbles into wine is funky.
Don't call it champagne unless it's made in France, but the process to make sparkling wine is fascinating.
At Laetitia, they press the grapes over a three- or four-hour period to get very clean juice. The stems and skins are kept out of the process as much as possible.
The wine is fermented in an open tank and then bottled. Once there, it's aged and then "riddled," according to Carmen Hickey of the winery.
That means the bottle goes on its side and is given a quarter-turn repeatedly for a period of time, often by hand.
During that, the sediment gathers in the neck, which is then frozen and the plug is disgorged, or shot out of the bottle. It's filled with a bit more wine and corked. And if you're buying sparkling wine, from France or California, "brut" means dry and "sec" means sweet.
Sparkling wine isn't just something to pop on a special occasion. It goes with food.
"Just about anything can be paired with a sparkling," Hickey said.
3. California is crunchy. And it's not.
In the middle part of the country, we have stereotypes about the left coast of the United States.
There's a sense that everyone there wears black and eats tofu.
It's easier to find vegetarian or vegan food in California than in Indiana. No question.
And it's more difficult to find sausage gravy in California than here.
I heard a food vendor in the Santa Monica Farmers Market complain that a local food radio show is too meat and potatoes. But when I listen to the podcast of KCRW's "Good Food," I'm amazed at how it's a very California perspective, not a Midwestern one like Lynn Rosetto Kasper's "Splendid Table."
Californians tend to be thinner than Hoosiers. They tend to exercise more. Some dress better. Since I was in metropolitan areas, there were very cool restaurants, but Pink's hot dog stand in Los Angeles hasn't stuck around since 1939 by serving health food.
We encountered some folks who go about their daily jobs of making donuts or doing custodial work. And at the Spudnut shop in Santa Barbara, it could have been the Midwest. Except the sun was shining and it was 55 degrees.
4. Fresh food is best food.
California produces staggering amounts of our food in the United States. According to an article in Slate.com this summer, the state produces:
• 90 percent of our broccoli
• 95 percent or more of our artichokes, walnuts, kiwis, plums, celery, garlic and plums.
• 71 percent of our spinach.
In California, chefs have access to amazing ingredients. And the West Coast influence has created the Kogi taco truck that serves amazing Korean tacos. The Nickel Diner puts avocado on its version of the BLT. The Firestone Grill in San Luis Obispo turns a cut near the beef sirloin called tri-tip into amazing barbecue. A shrimp taco I had in Santa Barbara was one of the best I've had because the shrimp was just so fresh.
We'll continue to eat California food. And drink the wine. But local is better and I'm looking forward to local produce here.
Is it summer yet?
It was a great trip. And we're planning more. There's serious talk of a bus trip to Traverse City in October. Stay tuned. You're all invited.
I'm hungry. Let's eat.
Marshall V. King is managing editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth. You can reach him at 574-296-5805, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.