WINESLACKER..the lazy drinker's guide. Another 'slacker yammering on about drinking.

February 2, 2011

Quaffing Peaceful Forgetfulness…Nepenthe

Filed under: California,pinot noir,Restaurants,Uncategorized — Dex Wineslacker @ 12:08 am

The story goes that Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles found the cabin in 1943, during a drive through Big Sur on the recently completed two lane road, Highway 1. So charmed were they by the cabin, the views and the wild romantic coastline that they bought it on the spot, basically with the cash they had in their pockets, a little over 165 dollars, as a down payment. Apparently, they never spent an entire night in the cabin. Considering the rest of their lives, they could have used a little more time at the cabin and less time in Hollyweird.

View From Nepenthe

In 1947, what had been a love nest for Rita and Orson and originally a stop over for the Trail Club of Jolon, became the home of Lolly and Bill Fassett and their five children. The Fassetts had the idea to use the land and it’s unique, spectacular views for a restaurant, bar and rest stop for the tourists drawn to Big Sur for its beauty and drama. Access to the previously remote Big Sur was facilitated by the new Highway 1, the first road built all the way through the rough, cliff strewn, mountainous coastal area. The Fassetts say it took over two years to get the deed signed over by Welles and Hayworth, because both of their signatures were needed and by 1947 they were separated and far from each other.

The designer of the restaurant, working with Lolly and Bill Fassett, was Rowan Maiden, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Maiden, son of a wealthy real estate businessman, trained at Taliesin, the home and architecture school of Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1939. While at Taliesen, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, Maiden met Germaine Schneider, who was the daughter of Wrights’ gardener and the companion of Wright’s daughter, Lovanna. Apparently, it was a past-time of Wright’s wife at the time (and last wife, Olgavanna) to play at cupid, making matches among Wrights’ students at Taliesin. In the nineteen forties, Maiden and Germaine, by then married, were living in Monterey, California. Maiden, who was killed in an accident in 1957, never became as famous as his creation at Big Sur, however he did go on to design many beautiful single family houses, particularly in the Bay area, often featured in magazines and highly prized by their owners.


One can see, by the enduring quality, simple and yet effective design of Nepenthe, Maiden’s great talent. The materials were culled from the local area, including redwood beams, glass,  and adobe bricks, hand made by Lolly Fassett, and probably her young children. The body of the restaurant is effectively hidden, while the views of the magnificent hillsides and drops to the wild ocean below, the stands of fir and coastal redwood, the emerald pastures and constantly soaring raptors and occasional Condor, are laid before the diners in the interior and casual visitors to the decks. There’s a large patio at the entrance of the restaurant, the center piece of which is a large, welcoming fire pit.  One can see a reproduced Nepenthe interior, filmed on a sound stage  in the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton vehicle, The Sandpiper, from 1965. The film also features real-life scenes of the area.

Nepenthe takes pride and full advantage of their place in the side pocket of one of the World’s great wine growing and vinting areas. The restaurant has an amazing number and selection of fine local wines by the glass, 1/2 bottles, standard 750 ml bottles and larger bottles, and the great, curved redwood bar. The Elegant Companion and her ‘slacker ordered up a 1/2 bottle of Navarro’s lovely cool climate Pinot, Methode Anciene, and relaxed into the best seats at the ocean side counter. They ate and drank and pointed out birds, watched for whale spouts and quietly remembered nights, friends and lovers, misty mornings and  music, in that may we say, magical, quiet and fragrant place.

The place was completed in 1948, the year the ‘slacker was born, and he has been there many times, beginning when he was just a child and continuing, although not often enough, into late middle age. Nepenthe, still open and welcoming to the famous, the creative, the curious, the casual visitor; the sojourner, the pilgrim, the hungry and thirsty, is still owned and operated by the Fassett family. Still quietly serving Ambrosia Burgers with a side of Nepenthe.

Originally published by the Wineslacker, in similar form, on Open Salon.

March 21, 2010

Food and Wine Along the Way II…

Filed under: California,Justin Winery,Monte Bello,Restaurants,Santa Cruz Mountains — Dex Wineslacker @ 1:05 am

Restaurants of quality seem to radiate from the mothership of San Francisco.  The best of them, of course, feature a wine list including wine from one of the great wine producing areas of the world, California.  The Wineslacker and Lovely Companion dropped their back packs in Los Gatos, the night before the journey up the hill to Ridge, hit the local Trader Joes for provisions and sought out a local eatery that looked like it had a wine list.  They settled on the lively looking ViVa! (their exclamation point).  Bright, modern decor and a very well attended bar, they settled in for some Mediterranean cuisine and a local glass o’ supt’n.  They ended up sharing, as the ‘slacker IS a giver, a cracker crust Tuscan pizza and a fabulous butter-nut squash soup.  The ‘slacker ordering up a glass of Downhill’s “Susannah’s” Barbera, 2007 and the Delightful Traveling Companion, a Ventana, Monterey County Riesling, 2008.  The Downhill Barbera, a Los Gatos winery, turned out to be a light, fruity, very drinkable and enjoyable Barbera, one of the underestimated, more successful Italian varietals to translate to California.  The ‘slacker rarely meets a Barbera that he doesn’t like. The Ventana Riesling was excellent; fruity but not cloying, full of flavor but with great mouth feel: great examples of superior wine making from wineries practically in the neighborhood of the restaurant.

ViVa actually has a wide ranging wine list, with excellent examples of the local craft, including 36 wines by the glass, from a reasonable $6.50 a glass to $17 (for a Steele, “Stymie” Merlot, Lake County, ’06, you’re moderately better off to get the bottle for their price of $68).  Now, buying by the glass is like buying your morning coffee at Starbucks (ok, not THAT expensive).  However, if you’re like the ‘slacker, despite his shaky reputation, ya pretty much sticks to one or two glasses a meal.  So, you probably don’t need a bottle unless you have at least 4 people at the table, all of whom want the same wine. Buying wine by the glass allows for greater flexibility in your wine choice and a chance, if you’re friendly (and not suffering a transmittable disease), to taste at least two wines at an affordable price.

To get back to ViVa’s wine list, they include outstanding wines from the area including Rombauer, Fogarty, Steele, Kathryn Kennedy, Sarah’s Vineyard, Creekview, Downhill, around the corner, Justin, from Paso Robles, Bernardus, from Monterey, Storrs, from Santa Cruz Mountains, Heller Estate, from Carmel and other great choices, including a limited, but happy, selection of sparklers, including Dom Perignon, if you must splurge.

On the Southwest Rail at Nepenthe

Next time, the Wineslacker covers two classic restaurants in the Big Sur wilderness, one of which has been in business, under the same ownership, for over sixty (60) years. It’s older than the Wineslacker!

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