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james laube's wine flights

Eureka For Wine Lovers And A Perfect Pancake

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 22, 2008 5:28pm ET

Ambiance and company are part of most dining experiences -- and sometimes they are crucial elements. So is one’s hunger level. When you’re famished or thirsty, most things – even simple fare and ordinary wines -- taste pretty good.

On my President’s Day weekend fishing getaway, I had two memorable dining experiences – one at The Carter House in Eureka and the second on a riverboat.

Frankly, there aren’t many food and wine havens once you leave Healdsburg in Sonoma on Hwy. 101. It’s a long but beautiful drive winding through the spectacular redwood forests and past rushing rivers, with periodic glimpses of the Pacific Ocean in all its rugged glory.

The Carter House’s Restaurant 301 is a great dining spot with an elegant old hotel dining room and a sensational wine list. It has earned Wine Spectator's Grand Award in each of the past seven years, and it bills itself as the foremost dining spot between San Francisco and Seattle, which covers a lot of territory and leaves plenty of room for debate. But once you pass Cyrus in Healdsburg, put your money on 301. Does anyone know of other spots in between worthy of recommending?

I’ve known proprietor Mark Carter for years, since he’s a regular at the Wine Experience as an elite member of the fewer than 90 Grand Award-winning restaurants in the world. And for years he has graciously extended an invitation, as in, “Please come and visit me!”

Last weekend I made my second visit to The Carter House and had a great meal with Mark Carter and two terrific Napa Cabernets – a 2002 Harlan and a 2004 Colgin Herb Lamb Vineyard. Carter is such a wine lover that owning a great cellar wasn’t enough; he decided to start his own namesake label in 1998. It specializes in Napa Cabernet, with Nils Venge overseeing winemaking. Carter and Venge also bought a winery in Calistoga, called Calistoga Cellars, and renamed it Envy, producing a Sauvignon Blanc and soon a Cabernet from the surrounding vineyard.

While dinner at 301 was a white-tablecloth and fancy stemware experience, I then moved north to Gold Beach on the Oregon coast, where I stayed for two nights at the Tu Tu' Tun Lodge. Sitting right on the Rogue River, it's a classic mix of cabins and hunting lodge décor. I dined with friends in a cabin and enjoyed the casual outdoor setting.

My second memorable meal came aboard a chartered 30-foot aluminum jet boat. We were anchored in chilly waters in a tight canyon on the Rogue somewhere near the hamlet of Agness when our guide broke out his camping stove and began to prepare breakfast. I’d been up since 5:45 and was starving and just as startled to see our guide Terry Kennedy prepping his Coleman propane gas grill.

The temperature was cold at about 40 degrees, but comfortable. A swift moving river, towering trees and snow-capped mountains provided a stunning setting, and Terry’s pancakes were the best I’ve ever had – cooked to perfect crispness and soft in the middle. It turned out that the recipe was pretty simple, as you might expect – made from a package pancake mix and cooked in Crisco cooking oil.

We eagerly ate the flapjacks, but focused our attention on what turned out to be a banner day of steelhead fishing—we boated four steelies. Still, those of us on the boat remarked on Terry’s breakfast. I’ve never had a guide prepare a meal, much less cook on the river. Later, as we recounted the day’s highlights, we all agreed that the pancakes were the best we’d ever had, a perfect 100-point rating on that frosty morning on the river.

Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  February 22, 2008 7:04pm ET
Haven't made it up far enough to eat at the 301. However, the Joel Palmer House in Dayton, OR is incredible. A must stop on a Willamette Valley tour. When the truffles are in season, the special truffle meals are to die for. They have a great wine list specializing in all the Oregon wines and some other varietals. Harvey should put them on the GA lists, but probably doesn't because their lists is mostly Oregon Pinots. Every other publication rates them #1. Red Hills Provincial Dining,Dundee, OR. normally on the GA list is also a spectacular resturant.
Michael Green
San Diego, CA —  February 22, 2008 7:43pm ET
James, I spent part of my honeymoon in Mendocino County and recommend two places - Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino for dinner and the Little River Inn for breakfast (and the view!). Cafe Beaujolais has a cool little wine list that's predominantly Californian, and an excellent dinner menu. They used to be a WS award recipient, not sure why they fell off. But if you go make sure you make a reservation as it's very small. And if you go to the Little River Inn, try Ole's swedish pancakes and anything with their ollallieberry jam.Mike
Robert Fukushima
California —  February 22, 2008 8:01pm ET
James, There is something about food eaten on the bank of a river, in the depth of winter, on a steelhead stream, that food is always incredible. As for 301, a lovely place, and really, a very nice wine list hidden in a little blue collar city.
Ron Zimmerman
Woodinville, WA —  February 23, 2008 1:18am ET
Hard as it might be to believe, the wine list at the Carter House/Restaurant 301, in Eureka, is truly one of the great lists of the world, not just California. And as for California, I am unaware of any list that approaches the magnificence of what Mark Carter has put together with his selection of the great wines of that state.
Phillip Dube
South Florida —  February 23, 2008 6:34am ET
I've also had a great meal at Avalon in Eureka. Great food at good prices, a nice wine list, and a bit less stuffy than 301.
Bryan Bucari
Baton Rouge, LA —  February 23, 2008 11:40am ET
James, I had the Envy Cabernet '05 and immediately added it to the wine list at my restaurant...wonderful stuff. Hopefully you will be able to taste it soon.
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  February 24, 2008 12:19pm ET
James, How was the 2002 Harlan Estate drinking? I have only one bottle...and it's always nice to get an update on how a wine is evolving. As it has just reached the 5 year old mark..I had thought I would pop it when I get my Masters in 2011. Any thoughs?
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  February 24, 2008 8:26pm ET
Interesting, in fact. After Harlan said his wines were primarily made to be "drink now" and not made for aging (see older JS blog on the 97 Harlan), I decided to drink my 99 and 01 soon. Wines drank in Jan,the 99; and early Feb, the 01. The 99 was nearly gone. The fruit and the essence of the wine ,on balance, was history. It was a waste of money, and a bit of misery, that I had properly cellared this wine until now. Average rating from the four of us who drank it:84. 99 paired with filet mignon. The 01 was probably at or slightly past peak, but still a wonderful wine, rating 92. 01 paired with grilled rack of lamb. The VAs were out of balance with the fruit and acidity. Another overripe wine that's starting to lose it fast. At the prices paid for these wines, I was the loser for not drinking them 2-4 years ago. Believe Harlan, "drink now".
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 25, 2008 4:51pm ET
Kirk, the Harlan was terrific and I think it will be for several years, given proper storage. Thing is, I don't think many of the young, opulent wines of today will give more with time -- and certainly not more flavor -- which is why I recommend drinking them sooner than later.

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