J. Riley Distillery: Inland Empire Now on the Whiskey Map

J.RileyJ. Riley Distillery, located across the parking lot from Escape Brewery in an industrial park in Redlands, Ca., is open for business after going through miles of red tape to get a tasting room license.

The J. stands for Jason, but as he tells me, “Everyone calls me Jay.”

Jason has been in the construction business for a decade or so and ventured into distilling whiskey in 2013. He opened his tasting room a couple of months ago (after aforementioned red tape), and now offers flights and mixed drinks Wednesday through Saturday, mostly at night but starting at 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

I’m not really a whiskey man, but what I tasted seemed high end. Jason’s craft distillery, as he calls it (the only one in the Inland Empire), currently turns out three whiskeys: California Clear, 1775 and Jeremiah Riley Bourbon, named after his son.

Jason has big ambitions for the place, including adding food service. He also offers cocktail classes from time to time.

Visit J. Riley Distillery at 721 N. Nevada St. Suite 206 B.

24 Hours of Wine

Craig Suveg in front of his backyard winery, where he produces 12 varieties under his exclusive Suveg Cellars label.

Craig Suveg in front of his backyard winery, where he produces 12 varieties under his exclusive Suveg Cellars label.

Let me clarify: No, I wasn’t on a grape IV, but I did attend two wine tastings at very different wineries, one nearing its 100th anniversary, the other pioneering a region of California where few vines are planted — in an unheralded 24-hour period of wine indulgence (a first for me and probably a last).

On Friday night, I attended a wine dinner with San Antonio Winery’s winemaker Anthony Riboli. The next afternoon I was at the Yucaipa home of Craig Suveg (pictured), who sources grapes from all over California — and even grows some Cabernet Sauvignon on his three-quarter-acre plot — to make 12 wines that he produces in a winery built behind his home.

The impressive thing about the San Antonio wines I tasted was the judicious use of oak, or sometimes lack thereof, as I am really an un-fan of overly oaked wines, which seem to flood the California market. (Surprisingly, I finally met a Zinfandel that I actually enjoyed and wasn’t repulsed by). The other impressive feature of San Antonio wines (which paradoxically seems to make most of its cash from the sale of the sweet Italian Stella Rosa brand, which I abhor) is that they’re price friendly.

(To note: San Antonio has vineyards all over the state, but produces its wines in its downtown Los Angeles winery/tasting room/restaurant. The event I attended was at its branch in Ontario, Calif.)

Craig Suveg, who opened his tasting room for me after I emailed him (appointments only or join his wine club), is quite the cognoscenti and, to boot, a big advocate of chocolate. He even had me pair a Syrah with a mouthful of half-eaten dark chocolate — what a divine combination and digestive treat!

I was most impressed by his Blueberry Thrill Special Reserve (yes, made from 100 percent blueberries), which took on almost Burgundian tastes and color. (However, I went home with a bottle of his Barbera since he wasn’t pouring that due to limited quantities left.)

I could write on and on about these two very different wineries, but in the meantime, you can learn more about them online: http://www.suvegcellars.com/ and http://sanantoniowinery.com/

4th Street Market: Upscale Food Court with Booze!

4th-Street-Banner

Of all the California cities I’ve visited, Santa Ana has always remained one of my favorites, perhaps because of my blue collar family roots. But this place has soul.

And now it has the 4th Street Market. Sign me up!

4th Street Market is what’s called an incubator. Restaurateurs starting out can rent a stall here and save all overhead except for rent for the stall. It’s arranged like a food court, but the offerings are varied and upscale and there’s even a bar called Recess.

Pig-Pen-DelicacyIf these restaurant entrepreneurs find success with the food-court approach, presumably they can move on to bigger and better things, i.e., their own stand-alone establishment.

I went because I’d heard a radio interview with one proprietor who ran a stall devoted to pig and bacon called Pig Pen Delicacy, and who can’t resist bacon? Not me, anyway.

So I fought an hour’s accident-delayed traffic on the notorious 91 Freeway to get to Pig Pen Delicacy and sample their maple bacon-jam hamburger (pictured on the counter at their stall).

The protein was cooked perfectly to my medium-rare taste, but the main taste was of maple. Perhaps a bit overpowering. Bring on the bacon flavor.

The barkeep at Recess recommended the banh mi at Sit Low Pho. (She didn’t mention the pho, interestingly.)

The edifice (which also features a courtyard as well as indoor seating) boasts one of the greatest coffee bars I’ve visited (judging by the gadgets and goodies they sell) called Portola, along with a meat market called Electric City Butcher. Check out all the establishments at 4th Street Market by clicking on the name.

I’m definitely headed back when I have more money and an emptier stomach, the 91 be damned!

German Grocery Chain Aldi Invades the IE

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Aldi in Moreno Valley, Calif.

German grocery chain Aldi has set up shop in the Inland Empire (the San Bernardino-Riverside-Fontana area made famous by two terrorists this past December), touting savings of 50 percent on your purchases.

Thing is, you won’t find many of the name brands you’re using to shopping for. Aldi uses what appears to be private label brands, or off-label simulations of what you’re used to buying.

But first things first: What strikes you first upon shopping at Aldi, which I did yesterday, is the quarter you have to insert into the shopping cart’s handle to unleash it from its station to which it’s locked. Yeah, no freebies here, as there are no hand baskets inside either.

It’s either rent the cart or use your paws, which a lot of people did (the cheapies).

Aldi does have a cashier, so it’s not a self-checkout joint; but no one will bag your foodstuffs, and bags themselves cost 10 cents each, which you can then fill once outside the store when done shopping. (Eerily, the cashier seemed to be the only person working inside the store, with another employee stationed outside to guard the shopping carts.)

Aldi reminds me a bit of Fresh & Easy (now defunct), but it’s about twice the size with bigger aisles.

As for those off-label food products, the two I’ve tried so far — Clancy’s wavy potato chips and Savoritz saltine crackers — taste remarkably similar to what I consider the real deal, and at half the price.

True, Aldi is no supermarket. You can’t get meat cut to your liking as there’s no butcher or meat counter, just prepackaged chicken and other proteins. The fruit and veggies are semi-abundant, but again, this is not your neighborhood supermarket. It’s a once-in-a-while destination to stock up on off-label products that you otherwise might not buy or consume very frequently because of price.

Aldi opened in early April in the Inland Empire, with a goal of 45 stores in California this year. Overall, the company hopes to open 1500 to 2000 stores nationwide by 2018.

Will Aldi be another Fresh & Easy, eaten alive by Walmart and supermarket competition? Time will tell. The store I visited certainly wasn’t very crowded, not at all reminiscent of the Walmart near me where I shop and have to fight my way through the aisles. However, the savings are not to be denied.

Wine and Art in Idyllwild

Idyllwild-Art-Walk-and-Wine-Tasting

Music accompanies the wine tasting at Idyllwild’s Art Walk and Wine Tasting.

If you can survive Highway 243 meandering around treacherous cliffs as you drive toward your destination, Idyllwild, Calif., yields some pleasant surprises in dining and arts and crafts.

I ventured there yesterday for the mountainous city’s 18th Annual Art Walk and Wine Tasting, mostly for the latter, though there was no lack of arts and crafts being touted. I was there solely for the taste treats and my first exposure to the city.

Unfortunately, for my palate anyway, all the wines were from Temecula, where it’s so hot with very little if any morning marine layer that the grapes don’t yield prime-time results.

If you get what I mean.

The stuff is drinkable, even pleasant, but you won’t be blown away by wines from Temecula.

Will I return for the 19th version of this yearly event?

Unlikely, but if I can get a helicopter ride in and out of the isolated place — which is extremely charming and much cooler than down in the plains where I live — I’d like to do a dining/shopping excursion for a few days.

However, I didn’t really see any airports or heliports close by. Therefore, well, you get the idea.

I’m too old for winding roads and treacherous cliffs.

Murrietta Lobster Fest: Pay for the Privilege of Paying More

Workers pull steamed lobsters out of huge boiling pots at the Murrietta Lobster Festival, top. Bottom, a better choice a block away, the Farmstead Market.

Workers pull steamed lobsters out of huge boiling pots at the Murrietta Lobster Festival, top. Bottom, a better choice a block away, the Farmstead Market.

I’m not sure what compelled me to buy a ticket for a lobster festival in the sweltering desert community of Murrietta, Calif., far from the Pacific Ocean and farther still from any lobsters of note.

But I did. And I went. Drove one hour each way. Ate nary a bite of lobster. Threw out half of my Goose Island IPA and departed in less than a half-hour.

I thought if I bought a ticket to a lobster festival, it would include the lobster. No way. They wanted $28 for a plate of the stuff.

I don’t even crave lobster; it only tastes good when it’s coated in melted butter. And look this one up if you don’t believe me: A lobster is nothing but an overgrown, ocean-bound cockroach.

Consider that the next time you go plunk down 5o bills for the stuff.

Oh, I did buy a commemorative t-shirt, which I’ll wear to the dog park later today. With my dogs, of course.

Fortunately, on the way out, I drove by — and stopped to shop at — a place called the Farmstead Market, where all kinds of locally sourced and unique foods, wine and beer were available.

Didn’t see any lobster anywhere in Farmstead. Nor cockroaches. Just good stuff — and air conditioning.

Jurupa Valley Brings Out Its Foodie Soul

Jurupa-Valley-Food-FestJurupa Valley, which was carved out of greater Riverside four years ago, ventured again into food festival mode on Saturday. Problem is, there ain’t many good restaurants in this western Riverside County zip code to support such a venture.

I’d have to say the two Mexican restaurants — Casa Diaz and Jose’s — offered the best vittles. I also had some fried chicken, Chinese food and pizza that I’m glad I didn’t have to directly pay for (all food was included in the $25 price of admission).

Now that I pulled out my crumpled-up program for reference, I notice that the event was officially billed as The 15th Annual Jurupa Valley Food Fest, making it more than a decade older than the city itself.

Actually, the outdoor festival was kind of fun even though it was about 185 degrees in the shade, but The Beach sports bar was steps away if you needed a cool one.

Which I did.

L.A. County Fair Wine-ding Down

On a recent Sunday, attendance at the L.A. County Fair was fairly light, but the wine poured freely (for a price, of course).

On a recent Sunday, attendance at the L.A. County Fair was fairly light, but the wine poured freely (for a price, of course).

I admit, the only reason I go to the Los Angeles County Fair, which opens each year on Labor Day and runs through the last weekend in September, is to sample the Gold Medal (their standard, not mine) wines they pour.

I remember before the Great Recession, in 2007 for instance, there would be lines three to five people deep vying to buy a flight or a glass or two. Now, if there are three to five people bellying up to the bar, it’s almost amazing.

I think I prefer the non-attendance version. It’s much easier to get personal attention and get recommendations from the wine pourers.

This year the judges evidently awarded their first-ever perfect score of 100 to a Malbec from Alamos Vineyards. It’s reasonably priced also at about $12 (available at Sam’s Club near me), but is it really a 100? I have my doubts, though there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s really good, in fact, just a tad over-rated.

The fair closes tomorrow in about 100-degree heat. I’ve been twice. I won’t be back.

Ban Budweiser. Nothing But Piss Water.

Cruising_OntarioThis rant against America’s best-selling beer comes courtesy of my experience the past two weekends.

First, Stagecoach Days in Banning advertised a beer garden, but when I got there, the only brews they were serving were from Budweiser. Piss water.

Second, the Third Annual Route 66 Cruisin’ Reunion in Ontario (continuing today) also promoted food stalls and a beer garden. Oh, yeah. More piss water.

Anyway, there certainly were — and still are today — tons of gorgeous, classic cars on display on Euclid Avenue, along with a multitude of food stalls, most featuring hot dogs, Mexican food, shaved ice and the like. And, oh, yes, the beer garden. What a waste of water and hops.

It was in the high 90s when I was there, and today it should top 100, but if you want to try a BLT Dog (pictured), as I did, then head on over. Parking is difficult, but if you love classic cars, the show is incredible.

Stagecoach Days and Lavender Fields Forever

The Highland Springs Resort and Grand Oak Steakhouse.

The Highland Springs Resort and Grand Oak Steakhouse.

When I was growing up, Banning was a high school in the South Bay of Los Angeles that always kicked our butts in every sport. Yesterday I ventured to the real live city of Banning in heat-stricken Riverside County for the city’s annual Stagecoach Days.

Perhaps I arrived a bit early, but there wasn’t much in the way of action, except for a bunch of food booths with no customers and a rodeo with few spectators.

I was hoping for a robust beer pavilion, but found only a Budweiser booth, so I passed on the beer idea.

Highland-Springs-Resort

One of the many food boots at Stagecoach Days in Banning, Calif.

I ended up returning to an old favorite, the Highland Springs Resort and its Grand Oak Steakhouse and acres of lavender bushes (plants? flowers?). I had a glass of wine, a bowl of potato soup with bacon and cheddar cheese, and bought some lavender chamomile tea before calling it a day.

Stagecoach Days continue today with another rodeo and a battle of the bands.