On Top: Sal Rombi (with new rescue mutt Bella) admits his heart sings when he’s in the vineyard. Or as he says, “It’s a big up.”

On Top: Sal Rombi (with new rescue mutt Bella) admits his heart sings when he’s in the vineyard. Or as he says, “It’s a big up.” Photo by Mark C. Anderson.

Cab to Heaven

Rombi Vineyard lands in Carmel Valley Village with a world-class Cabernet Sauvignon.

It’s everything you want: balance, body, mouth feel, complexity, finish. Wine made from a single, local vineyard by a winemaker who spends as much time in the vines as anywhere else on the planet.

Only with little-known-but-about-to-break-out Rombi Vineyard, tucked in the hills past Cachagua General Store, it’s everything and then some.

All the hallmarks of an eyes-roll-back-in-the-head red are there in his unique Cabernet. Salvatore Rombi’s field is so boutique, meanwhile, he counts it by rows (21) rather than acres (1.3). The case numbers are similarly small (150/year). His passion, meanwhile, is as striking as the simple artistry of his labels – which he affixes by hand with his honey/local radio guru Kathy Baker. The south-facing chalk rock makes the vines work deliciously hard. And he’s not only walking the vineyard, where his dogs are buried, but he’s trimming vines (which took 14 days and 1,000 cuts this year), measuring pH and brix levels in his homemade lab, and fermenting the grapes in the modest winery he built next door.

Understandably, then, the Cabs start at $70. But that makes the Saturday opening of the brand-new One Center Street tasting room (659-7200) that much more newsworthy. Now you can try his smoky-kaleidoscope-of-flavor 2008 Cab or his similarly estate-bottled Merlot for $4 noon-6pm weekends.

If it sounds like a dream of sorts, that fits with the theme – and I’m not talking about the reverie that has been realized in the valley now that this new spot brings the total walkable rooms to 15. Rombi is living the dream. And waking up at his vineyard can feel like one.

::~ ::~

Consider it sibling rivalry revenge. When diners spotted – and adored – Rombi wines at Joe Rombi’s La Mia Cucina in Pacific Grove (373-2416), long the only place it was available, Sal’s little brother Joe told them it was his. Now, as Sal readies a spread of robust heirloom tomato salad, mama’s ravioli and sausages from secret sources, he says, “Mom taught Joe how to cook. She taught me first.” (And Joe is one gifted bambino.)

Though Sal grew up in commercial kitchens, and ran a feisty Old Row Cafe on Cannery Row with his brothers, Sal made his mint across four decades of real estate. But his real desire was something he started researching 35 years ago and started thinking about earlier. “My dream since I was 13,” he says.

He tells you he’s into it, but he shows you much more vividly: Hours sail by like Cachagua’s red-tailed hawks as he talks cordon – versus cane-pruning, barrel choices and bottle counts, labels crafted by industry luminary ICON – and pours tastes from each of his three vintages and barrel samples from several more.

Todd Kenyon, who once worked Bernardus’ grounds, helped design the vine lines. Greg Vita of Gallante acts as a steadfast consultant. Old friend and local somm legend Fred Dame told him around 2010 he had to submit his wines to L.A. International Wine Competition, where Rombi’s 2006 Estate-bottled Merlot promptly won silver. His Cabs and general old-school Monterey Italian affability – which is only amplified by Baker – merely won my heart.

::~ ::~

From the second-story cottage bedroom on top of the Rombi hill, the fog line fluffs up right to eye level. Look left, look right, and the clouds seem to hang at the same atltitude as the bed. Put differently, it’s more than the 1,600-thread-count sheets and resort-grade mattress that furnish a feeling of floating. Views of Joullian and Heller appear to the west, the vineyard to the north. The glowing cottage – which rents for $275 a night and feels a lot more like an airy cabin apartment with vaulted ceilings than a “cottage” – could be in Tuscany.

As in a dream, the elements seem more intensely present: The sky, the flora, the fauna.

“Wind direction, sun orientation, the dirt, the bees, the surrounding hills… the factors go on and on,” Rombi says. “That’s the beauty, the mystery of the wine – it’s everything.”

QUICKBITES

• Before it was Monterey Live, it was Viva’s. Way before it was Viva’s it was My Attic – 1937, to be precise. Now the venerable downtown Monterey spot is again My Attic (647-1834). Hit the blog for a peek inside.

• The British Bulldog Pub (658-0686) is closing for a few days, Aug. 27-30, to redo things… grand reopening is Friday, Aug. 31, with drink and food specials all damn day.

• Exciting news for the patch of nothingness between Wharf 2/London Bridge Pub and the Monterey Sports Center: Four of the five entrepreneurs who pitched projects for the former train station to the city are food folks, including Tanimura & Antle, Robbie Torrise of Ocean Fresh Fish, Bernardus pastry chef Ben Spungin and Trailside Cafe manager Sean Allen (see story, p. 11).

• Noodle kugel me, rabbi. Bring on the pastrami and potato latkes, the challah and the matzah. The free-admission 25th annual Jewish Food Festival grinds away 10:30am-4pm Sunday, Aug. 26, at Congregation Beth Israel in Carmel Valley. 624-2015.

• Food news from Monterey County Fair: Event reps say the push for the world’s largest strawberry shortcake “is taking on a life of its own” with the recent arrival of 334 boxes of frosting. There’s also a bargain $20 wine tasting/challenge Thursday, Aug. 30, and a beer tasting for the same price the following evening. MST does the designated driving free if you show a ticket to the Fair.

• No Italian restaurant I know brings the live music like Casa Sorrento in Salinas (757-2720) – Top Secret and B-Side Players play Friday and Saturday, Aug. 24-25, respectively – but the half price drafts and karaoke on Tuesday and half-price pitchers, spaghetti-and-meatballs Sundays is nice too.

• Limey Karen Anne Murray serves English breakfasts by reservation at her dainty Melrose Food Boutique, Teas & Catering (393-9479) – bacon and eggs, grilled tomatoes, British baked beans, scones, a pot of tea and a bag of her granola for $13, but only until the end of the month.

Jay Leno, Schmay Flemmo. I’ll take a Wyclef Jean sighting any day. He surfaced at Quail Motorsports Gathering during Monterey Car Week. Check out videos from the best events on the blog.

• Cool to see Thomas Perez at Masters of Food & Wine in Argentina, where he grows grapes, and David Bernahl golf bumming around with Thomas Keller in Carmel Valley. But my favorite Facebook post of late would be Sardine Factory Chef Brant Good last week: “Happy 100th Birthday Julia Child! I met Julia when I was 14 years old and wanting to become a chef. I lied to my parents and told them I was going to a friends house and took BART with my two Julia Child cookbooks in tow. She really encouraged me to become a chef. Very special lady and a big influence on me!” The American Institute of Wine and Food plus Les Dames d’Escoffier celebrate her 100th b-day Sunday, Aug. 26, with a gala reception ($175-$225) at Hyatt Highlands starring a kitchen stuffed with talented regional chefs.

• Much grub going on at West End Celebration in Sand City all weekend: Maha’s, Babaloo Cuban, Mr. Falafel, Sweet Elena’s among them.

Michael Bauer was made at Bernardus’ Marinus last Thursday. An insider says the team had a feeling it was the San Fran Chronicle super critic, gave him the “Michael Bauer treatment,” and he confirmed he was there on Instagram a day later. Bernardus’ fourth annual garden party ($65) – live music, new-release Bernardus wines, signature cocktails and hors d’ouevres is 2-5pm Sunday, Aug. 26. Heirloom tomato lunch ($95) happens Saturday, Sept. 1, 658-3550, www.bernardus.com.

• Wine and photos? Sign me up. “Apertures & Appellations,” a tasting Event at the Center for Photographic Art 4-6pm at Sunset Center Saturday, Aug. 25, featuring local photogs vineyard work and Boeté, Joyce and Pessagno wine for just $5 for CPA/Boeté members and $10 otherwise.

• The latest meeting on the Carmel outdoor market happens 9-11am Monday, Aug. 27 at City Hall. Anyone with ideas – for the market and beyond, in terms of downtown vitalization – is welcome. Though City Councilmember Victoria Beach leads an email announcement for the meeting with “We have a winner!,” no word on a manager is anticipated but it is expected that, after business owner and resident pushback, a move from closed-off streets to the Sunset Center parking lot will move closer to reality.

• Shop at Whole Foods Monterey (333-1600) Wednesday, Aug. 29, maybe grab a pizza from the new hot food area (or a $1.29 wheat dough ball to make your own!) and 5 percent of net sales go to Monterey Bay Aquarium and its Children’s Education Fund. Same for all NorCal and Reno stores.

• Tuesday, Sept. 11, Cantinetta Luca Executive Chef Jason Balestrieri teams with dynastic Aubergine duo Justin Cogley and Ron Mendoza for a mouthwatering heirloom tomato dinner ($85), which will sell out, and with good reason. 625-6500.

• “A tune is more lasting than the song of the birds,” goes an Irish proverb, “a word more lasting than the wealth of the world.”

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