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Farm-to-Spa Cuisine at California’s Famed Golden Door

The spa has always been at the forefront of local, organic cooking

The Golden Door, considered the world’s best destination spa, is named for its entry door, emblazoned with a gold-colored, bronze and copper, gem-encrusted Tree of Life, which opens to a raised boardwalk through a verdant canopy that leads to the minimalistic, art-filled, Honjin-inn-style retreat

During my sixth visit this past August, I was as impressed as always with the farm-fresh, creatively cooked, perfectly-presented spa cuisine. And I felt lucky to once again meander amid the Japanese-inspired landscape — with its antique bell, waterfall features, and koi pond — and receive daily massages, beauty services, and an individualized fitness routine (my favorites take place in a warmed exercise pool). Yet it’s the beautiful, clean, pure food that I have most appreciated since my first magical seven-night stay, in 1996 (and which I try to replicate at home).

Eating healthfully has always been a priority to Deborah Szekely, who founded
The Golden Door in 1958 as a more luxurious and intimate (for 40 guests, one to a room) option to Rancho La Puerta, which she created in Tecate, Mexico, in 1940. This daughter of vice-president of the New York Vegetarian Society grew up listening to health lectures on the radio before she established her well-deserved reputation as the “Godmother of Wellness.” Perhaps those early “speeches” influenced the decades of weekly after-dinner talks, where she has inspired countless guests at both spas to choose natural, organic, and mostly vegetarian food in appropriate quantities for a person’s size. I have always taken notes when she speaks and found this memorable quote from “The Door,” December 2011: “Our body is our best friend, but we have to treat it like a treasure.”  At 95, Szekely’s active life continues, but she is no longer involved with The Door.

Joanne Conway, a former guest, purchased it in 2012, and while maintaining its original vision and ambiance, she has also renovated the facilities, refurbished the décor, greatly expanded the acreage and created The Golden Door Foundation, which benefits charities, primarily to help abused children. Now, with 600 acres, there are avocado groves, 60 acres of citrus groves officially certified as organic, and a newly transplanted olive orchard with 250 trees. These will soon produce Italian varietals to be harvested and pressed into gourmet olive oils.

The daily program has changed little over the 20 years of my experiences. Year-round, seven-night women’s, men’s, and coed stays continue. There are more men’s weeks now and the occasional option for shorter (even three-night) stays. Newly launched theme weeks, activities, and treatments have been added, but the culinary routine remains constant.

Most breakfast trays are delivered to rooms at 7:30 a.m., after many guests have returned from a hike (with 25 miles of trails, there are a multitude of choices). Of course, the orange juice is freshly squeezed, the salmon is smoked in-house, and the berries for the yogurt are grown on site. (In 2003 or 2006, I was served a quinoa-stuffed baked apple, and it was the very first time I had tasted the crunchy, gluten-free grain.)

By 10:50 a.m. — after hikes, yoga or tai chi, cardio or private training sessions — the staff sets out the crudité platter and mugs filled with hot tomato-potassium broth. The easy-to-replicate, V8-style beverage (mostly low-sodium tomato juice and vegetable trimmings) has long been my microwave-warmed, mid-day drink of choice.

the bento boxThe bento box

Lunch is served poolside at umbrella-topped tables. Lump crab and avocado stack, grilled chicken Caesar salad, or a turkey sandwich sounds ordinary but tastes extraordinary. For example, turkey arrives on a rosemary-studded focaccia, spread with a spinach and microgreen pesto and topped with grilled red onion and avocado. My favorite is the sushi-style bento box (presented in a beautiful compartmentalized box for sale at the gift shop), which contains togarashi seared hamachi (tuna); Golden Door shrimp; a California roll; udon noodles, turmeric and ginger pickled vegetables, soy-marinated shiitake mushroom, and a pickled cucumber salad.

At 3:50 p.m., a tray of berries and fruit appears in the lounge.

Promptly at 6 p.m., the antique Japanese bell rings to announce dinner. Most guests dine together in the redecorated dining room and arrive for hors d’oeuvres wearing long yukatas —white Golden Door logo-decorated kimonos — sometimes over the provided sweats and T-shirts.

Dinner entrées include a variety of fish, poultry, and vegetarian options. I enjoy fennel-dusted poussin (a tiny chicken), sea bass en papillote (steamed in paper), Mexican dishes such as chicken or bean fajitas, and a variety of Asian-inspired items: miso soup, miso-glazed black cod, teriyaki tofu, Vietnamese spring rolls or a ginger garden soba bowl with wild mushrooms. Herbs and house-made preserved lemons, pickled vegetables, or candied pecans enhance dishes. Satisfying desserts delight, such as cookies or yogurt with berries at lunch, and crème brulée, spiced nectarine cake, orange blossom ice cream and persimmon pudding cake, at dinner.

I always opt to tour the garden. This summer, farm manager Wil Ryan led four of us through the five culinary, floral, and herb gardens (among the 20 herbs are tension-dispelling lavender and mood-boosting lemon verbena); he pointed out vegetables and rare heirloom fruits (there are 50 tomato varieties) starting in the 3,000-square-foot computerized greenhouse. Then, he introduced the fenced-in flock of chickens, which provide farm-fresh eggs, before others joined us for a garden lunch, set under a tent.

Executive chef and culinary director Greg Frey Jr. conducts the weekly cooking classes and heads the staff, who prepare pre-hike coffee and mini-muffins, three meals, and two snacks daily — including vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options — and service a multitude of individual requests, from dietary preferences, restrictions, and “druthers” to extras. While salt, sugar, fat — even carbs and calories — are carefully considered, this “cuisine minceur” hardly seems anything like “diet” food.

One evening, Frey greeted the kimono-clad guests in the bamboo garden, where we were seated at three long tables strewn with floral arrangements and lighted by round, electric chandeliers hanging from a huge tree. Each bamboo tree had been planted in honor of a guest’s 10th visit; these days, with a plethora of bamboo, name plaques that honor guests hang and tinkle with the breeze, like a wind chime.

Details are what continue to keep The Golden Door so special!

Wine Travel Irvina Lew

Will Fly For Wine

Thomas Jefferson—who tried in vain for success as a vintner—endured weeks on transatlantic crossings and on horseback to visit wineries just to swirl, sniff and sip. Today, prestigious wine regions are accessible within two hours of major cosmopolitan cities, including New York City with its proximity to wineries on Long Island, in the Hudson Valley and in Coastal Connecticut. But for those looking for a break from New York, there’s no need to buy a horse, of course. Hop on a plane and clink glasses in some of the world’s most famous wine regions.

Mendoza, Argentina (Santiago, Chile)

Mendoza is the world’s fifth biggest wine producing region, in large part because of the weather. Hot dry days and cold nights make it perfect for producing Malbec, Argentina’s best-known grape. Mendoza City is central to 1,500 regional wineries and offers museums, parks and familiar luxury hotels—including The InterContinental Mendoza with its casino. Bodega Familia Zuccardi in Maipú is a 30-minute trip and the prestigious Bodega Catena Zapata, in the desert-like Valle de Uco where the winery rises like a Mayan temple, is only 50 miles away. Algodon Wine Estates, a hacienda-like resort set amidst the rolling foothills of the Sierra Pintada Mountains at the base of the Andes, is three hours away. It’s worth the trip for oenophiles looking for a well-rounded experience. The resort offers its few dozen guests and second home owners barbecue feasts, called Asado, winery visits, horseback riding, golf and a pool. Go.

Sonoma, USA (San Francisco, California)

In the nearby Russian River Valley, La Crema opened a new visitor center on the fabulous Saralee’s Vineyard for tastings, wine education and culinary exploration. Each September, people flock to Kendall Jackson Winery for The Annual Heirloom Tomato Festival. The two-day charity event is complete with chef-staffed booths, a cook-off and a tasting of each of the 150 different heirloom varieties grown on the winery estate’s vegetable garden. Executive Chef Scott Romano reigns at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen in charming Healdsburg and serves dishes developed by his mentor, the late Long Island chef Gerry Hayden. The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn—with its mineral springs and spa—is a comfortable and convenient base for a California Wine Country tour. Go.

Burgundy, France (Paris, France)

Visitors to Burgundy pass wine estates colored in burgundy (grapes), green (vines) and gold (sunlight), which match the region’s famed glazed-tile roofs. The route reads like a famous wine list: Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Nuit St. George, Pommard and Meursault. On European Waterway barges, the crew cooks, pours and drives to and, thankfully, from the tasting rooms. In Beaune, the Hotel Le Cep, an affiliate of Small Luxury Hotels, combines two historic mansions separated by a 16th century courtyard. Its Spa Marie de Bourgogne offers massages within a panoramic tower. From here, walk to wine merchants and the historic Hospice de Beaune and bike (40 minutes) to Puligny Montrachet for an al fresco lunch within a 17th century building at the 13-room Hotel Olivier Leflaive. Go.

Douro, Portugal (Porto, Portugal)

Quinta da Roêda (12)

The Douro Wine Region starts up river from Porto, the 2000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage city. Oenophiles drive, ride the rails or cruise on Emerald Waterways to visit its long-established port wine estates. In 2015, the 57-room Six Senses Douro opened within a 19th century turret and arch studded country house, which New York’s Clodagh transformed into a modern, multi-level spa hotel, 90-minutes from Porto. The wine library stocks local wines including Van Zellers Douro DOC wines (Quinta Vale D. Maria 2013, a Douro Red, ranks in the TOP 100 in 2016). And the owners of Croft, Fonseca and Taylor, who constructed The Yeatman, a Relais & Chateaux in Porto, recently launched the 43-room Vintage House, located riverside in Pinhão not far from the visitor center at their Quinta da Roêda estate. As for the view, it’s unbeatable. Guests are known to savor the view of rugged, vine-covered hills as much as they savor the world-class vino. Go.

Penedes, Spain (Barcelona, Spain)


The picturesque Catalan wine region of Penedes, which is best known for its Cava sparkling wines, is an hour from Barcelona. As an idyllic home base, there’s the luxurious Mandarin Oriental Barcelona with its spa, the high-rise Melia Barcelona SKY with its new YHI Wellness Spa or Hotel Bagues, a small luxury hotel in a historic palace on Las Ramblas. This is the pedestrian street boasting the bustling Boqueria market and the Liceu Theater, which connects Gaudi’s gorgeous modernist achievements with the waterfront statue to Columbus. Vilafranca del Penedès—reached by car, train or on a Viator wine tour—is the place to experience the wine and architectural artistry at the extraordinary Waltraud Cellar for Bodegas Torres. This wine estate was established by the Torres family in 1870. Designed by Javier Barba of BC Estudio Architects in Barcelona, the GREEN tri-level structure has an underground cellar, cloister-like meditative space, a museum and tasting room with the spot’s finest wines. Go. 

Read The full article at Long Island Pulse


The Pacific Coast Wine Trail

Wines, Waves, and Wonder along The Pacific Coast Wine Trail

The opportunity to meet winemakers and discover 10 tasting rooms which participate in the Pacific Coast Wine Trail tempted me to take a week-long road-trip along a 28-mile stretch of the famous California Highway 1 Discovery Route. The tasting rooms are clustered in or near five scenic seaside towns on this northerly section of the 100-mile San Luis Obispo County coast, which is located mid-way between San Francisco and Los Angeles (about a four-hour drive from either) and less than an hour from San Luis Obispo airport (SBP).

Visiting these tasting rooms–which feature small-batch wines sold mostly to wine club members, walk-ins and to some restaurants–offers a memorable chance to learn about less familiar wines and visit the Central Coast, particularly Hearst Castle. No other topographical, architectural or artistic venue can compare with the beauty of the 165-room Hearst Castle, which newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst chose to build on his childhood private campgrounds (which once extended over 250,000-acres). However, what became evident is that Hearst’s vision and decades-long dedication to the fruition of a challenging project are qualities that many of the entrepreneurs whom I met shared, albeit to a less extravagant extent. During our face-to-face conversations in Morro Bay, Cayucos, Harmony, Cambria and San Simeon, I was as fascinated by their unique and intriguing ventures as I was impressed with the results of their efforts.

I drove north from Los Angeles and met my friend Carole Jacobs, my former editor at Shape and current editor at TravelGirl, who drove west from her home in the High Sierra’s to accompany me. Though she spent most days hiking, biking and researching articles about the region’s outdoor recreational activities and I spent mine traveling to tasting rooms, wineries and vineyards on the ambitious itinerary the folks at PCWT had planned, we connected with each other—and often with tasting room owners–at meals.

Chuck Mulligan at Harmony Cellars–which launched in 1989 and is the oldest and most established winery along the Northern Central Coast—was the first winemaker whom I met. (Click here for details on their latest wines). Mulligan, who holds a degree in Enology, produces 7000 cases of hand-crafted, small-lot wines made from grapes grown in Paso Robles and has won hundreds of accolades. We lunched on the terrace outside the barn-style tasting room, where I also met Kim, his wife and business manager. Their complex—complete with a sterile winemaking facility, a gazebo and gorgeous gardens is on a glorious rolling 140-acre estate which has been in Kim’s family for more than 100 years, just off Highway 1 and 5 miles south of Cambria. It’s so idyllic, it inspires lovers to marry there! To add to its appeal, it’s located in the teeny tiny town of Harmony, population 18, which also boasts a glass blowing facility, where a group of artisans work and sell their wares.

At Stolo Family Vineyards, General Manager, Maria Stolo Benetti, introduced us to her dad and business partner, Don Stolo, and a few of the female family members who staff the rustic-style tasting room. The vineyard—where grappa was produced during Prohibition—and where vines were planted in 1998, is the closest to the coast and Cambria’s only Estate Vineyard with a winery and tasting room on property. Vines thrive in the unique microclimate, which is just three miles from the Pacific on winding, rural Santa Rosa Creek Road. Stolo Family Vineyards produced its first vintage in 2004; in 2015, they produced 1500 cases, which included coastal-style Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Carole and I were hosted as houseguests, there, and we stayed in the two guest rooms (each has a full bath) built above the garage behind the Don and Charlene Stolo’s farmhouse (c. 1880), where the shared balcony overlooks Don’s Giverny-inspired garden–complete with a little wooden bridge–and bedroom windows view the vineyard. (The family is planning to welcome club members in the guest lodgings.)

We dined with Jim and Debi Saunders of Hearst Ranch Winery at Black Cat Café, in Cambria, where the menu features fresh farm-to-table fare.  Jim shared the story of meeting Steve Hearst at a fund-raiser where they “won” a private tour of the castle. After gifting Hearst with wine produced at their Saunders Vineyard, in Eastern Paso Robles, the two businessmen realized that they shared a vision for sustainable agriculture, nature conservancy and fine wines. Subsequently, they became partners and produce award winning wines from varietals that include: Syrah, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Tempranillo. They sell the wines–plus Hearst Grass-Fed Beef, olive oils, books and branded clothing–at the Hearst Ranch Winery Tasting Room within Sebastian’s General Store (c. 1852) in Old San Simeon Village (on the west side of Highway 1, across from the castle entry). When I visited–at noon on Valentine’s Day Weekend–the parking lot and picnic tables were full, the food line was long and three servers were busy pouring samples on the inlaid copper bar!

Cambria is an artsy community with impressive restaurants and galleries and four store-front tasting rooms. During lunch at Linn’s Restaurant (that day, the menu featured fresh Dungeness crab and their famed Olallieberry pie), Steve Thompson–who owns Twin Coyotes Winery with his twin brother Stu—discussed his operation. They source grapes from their own small, sustainably-farmed, 45-acre vineyard and from other vineyards in the Paso Robles area that adhere to their strict standards. The brothers, who make small batch wine and sometimes work at night, branded their business after the coyotes, which howl during the process. Winemaker and wine consultant, Signe Zoller, a highly acclaimed industry pioneer (formerly of Kendall Jackson and Meridian Winery) and one of its few women, helps the brothers craft their award-winning wines, including the rare Vermentino.

At the speak-easy-themed Black Hand Cellars tasting room, winemaker Tom Banish explained that his family has a long history of winemaking and that the winery draws its name from the Black Hand Mafia, members of which craved Tom’s great-grandfather’s wine. As a wine maker, Banish has 15 years prior experience working with some of the region’s prestigious wineries. He incorporates organic-style farming methods for his estate grown Syrah–such as using natural pests to keep the plants in check–at Torie Ranch Vineyard, on the West side of the Paso Robles,

We joined Todd and Kendra Clift, owners of Moonstone Cellars, for brunch at Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill. The restaurant is located amidst the ocean-front B&Bs and hotels just across the street from the surf and a short distance from their very busy tasting room—with its wall of award ribbons–on Main Street, in Cambria’s West Village. Todd, who started his winemaking career scrubbing barrels and learning the importance of sanitation as an apprentice for Chuck Mulligan at Harmony Cellars for five years, started making wine under the Harmony Cellar’s bond and even met his wife, Kendra, there! Their micro-boutique winery started in 1998 as a father and son venture and the two still take turns doing punch-down. The winery produces about 3000 cases of wine from grapes carefully sourced from vineyard owners who are as passionate about growing (and delivering) the grapes as Todd is about making wine.

Cutruzzola Vineyards’ tasting room, which opened in February 2015, is a chic space also on Main Street in Cambria’s West Village. Lisa Miller explained that she and her partner, Francis Cutruzzola, grow their grapes, nearby, on 47 acres eight miles east of Cambria, which they purchased in 2000 and where two acres are devoted to Pinot Noir and five to Riesling. They started planting in 2001 and after some setbacks trying to get the vines well-established, Lisa described her first sales to restaurants that the couple frequented from the back of her Honda. She sold 87 cases of 2009 Pinot Noir! Currently, the tasting room offers four varietals: a 2011 Riesling, 2012 Riesling, 2012 Pinot Noir (which Miller calls the vineyard’s “signature wine”) and 2013 Zinfandel.

Cayucos is a small, low-key seafront resort—complete with a fishing pier—located between Cambria and Morro Bay. Cayucos native, Stuart Selkirk, established Cayucos Cellars in 1996 after a decade devoted to making wine. I met him and his daughter, Paige, two of the five family members involved in a hands-on operation that produces 500-800 cases annually at their tasting room in Cayucos. Selkirk’s grapes are grown in small vineyards in Paso Robles and Templeton; he credits wild yeast, long barrel time and no filtering for the production of their natural, ready-to-drink wines.

En route to Morro Bay, I stopped off at Highway 41 Antique Emporium—a 12,000 square foot mall where more than 70 vendors specialize in vintage clothing, modern items, jewelry and collectibles. The mall is home to the weekend-only tasting room for Cuatro Dias Winery, which is located under a covered outdoor space adjacent to the mall’s welcoming garden terrace. Owner and winemaker Greg Allen, a firefighter from Southern California, established Cuatro Dias Winery in 2001 and named it for his four day off work week. Allen, who studied enology, sources grapes in Paso Robles and beyond and makes wine in Paso Robles.

Morro Bay, a destination where tourists admire its steep, 581-foot volcanic rock located just offshore its busy harbor, is home to an especially fine waterfront restaurant, Windows on the Water, where Executive Chef Neil Smith creates dishes from fresh foods that are local, organic and sustainably farmed. There are two neighboring tasting rooms on the Embarcadero. One, Chateau Margene, is the only wine label on the PCWT with which I was formerly familiar and it was the last one on my schedule. Michael (a seventh generation Californian) and Margene Mooney are members of the Paso Robles CAB (Cabernet and Bordeaux) who enjoy a wonderful reputation for the fine wines that their boutique, micro-winery produces. Unfortunately, they weren’t available but I learned that their first wine was a 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon and that their annual production is about 2500 cases, some of which are sold on an allocation basis. The second tasting room, MCV Wines–which advertised wine and chocolate pairings for the Valentine’s Day weekend—is located next door, so I stopped by and met owner and winemaker Matt Villard. He uses grapes from a Paso Robles vineyard and specializes in producing blends of high quality Petite Sirah. According to Villard, MCV Wines, which opened its doors in 2011, is looking forward to becoming the next new participant in the Pacific Coast Wine Trail.

During the week-long adventure, I used the map and listings on the PCWT brochure and tasting passport (it’s available at each venue), met fascinating folks, tasted high-quality, lesser-known varietals and learned more about these wineries, which are among the 200 wineries that are part of the Paso Robles AVA.

Best, while driving Highway 1 from one venue to another, I watched with wonder as waves crashed the shores on one side of the road and cattle grazed the rolling hillsides of the other.


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Allegretto Vineyard Resort

Earlier this February, I took a road trip on Highway 1 Discovery Route, through San Luis Obispo County, a 100-mile stretch of topographically stunning, coastal California, midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. From Los Angeles, I drove north as far as San Simeon, where I revisited the wondrous Hearst Castle; en route back, I spent six nights discovering a myriad of tasting rooms for which most of the vintners grow or source grapes from vineyards in nearby Paso Robles.

I extended my stay to visit Paso Robles and spent two nights at the Allegretto Vineyard Resort by Ayres, which had just opened in late 2015. Douglas Ayres, its visionary owner, fell in love with the rolling ranches in Paso Robles and decided to build a Tuscan-style inn here. The villa — complete with hundreds of antiques, a chapel, Mediterranean-style gardens, a bocce court and vineyard — sits on a 20-acre site near Route 101, just a few minutes from downtown Paso.

From the portico, I entered a soaring lobby where a huge glass chandelier changes color and the fireplace warms the seating area. The wide galley is lined with paintings by Russian Impressionists and landscapes by local artists, statuary and sculptures, antiques from India and family photographs. It leads to the central courtyard, an intrinsic part of the villa lifestyle, which can also be reached from the small, non-denominational, French-inspired Abbey through a Romeo and Juliet Tunnel, scaled to accommodate a horse and rider (or small carriage). There’s even a fountain and a double staircase, ideal for a bride and groom. Inside, there are small private dining rooms and boardrooms, plus a trio of meeting rooms that expand to a ballroom.

Allegretto Resort


Off the lobby, Cello dining room serves freshly foraged and locally sourced, Italian-inspired fare prepared by Chef Eric Olson, formerly of Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, and local wines including at least one made by Allegretto. The restaurant opens to an open-air, covered terrace on one side of the portico, while the spa opens to a private outdoor lounge on the other. The six-treatment room spa offers a tiny boutique, a lounge, wide corridors, high ceilings, a sauna and a couple’s suite. I received my Caudalie vinotherapy facial from Ashley, the aesthetician with a golden touch.

There are 171 accommodations in the mostly two-story structure, of which mine was a large, ground-floor room with 14-foot ceilings. The entryway held an armoire closet (with safe) and a piece housing a fridge and Keurig coffee pot. Farther inside the room included a king-sized bed, a sitting area with a couch and desk and French doors leading out to a terrace abutting the central courtyard. In the bathroom were a large glass shower (the 16 suites have bath tubs), double sinks, a monogrammed black washcloth for makeup removal and the perfect makeup light.

The resort is a 30-mile drive across Route 46 from Cambria on the coast, a beautiful drive that cuts through the hillsides and is worth it for those accustomed to a touch of luxury, even while visiting wine country.

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