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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

A Bad Month for The River: Acqua Pazza, Tulip Hill Winery Close Their Doors

To say December was a terrible month for food and drink at The River—the Rancho Mirage shopping center, located at 71800 Highway 111, described as “the premier destination for food, fashion and fun” on its website—is a bit of an understatement.

First came the closure of Acqua Pazza, one of The River’s anchor restaurants, on Sunday, Dec. 14. Then two weeks later, on Dec. 28, Tulip Hill—the only winery that made the Coachella Valley its home base—was slated to close its doors.

It’s been rumored for months that Jerry and Barbara Keller, the owners of Acqua Pazza, were looking to sell the decade-old restaurant to focus solely on their popular Lulu California Bistro in downtown Palm Springs. According to that same rumor mill, a sale of the restaurant fell through at the last minute, leading to the restaurant’s shuttering as the lease expired at The River, a shopping center which business owners say has been suffering from a decline in traffic in recent years.

“It’s been a great 10 years, but all good things come to an end,” said a notice posted on the Acqua Pazza website. “It is with sad feelings that we thank all our wonderful friends, customers and especially our magnificent staff who made Acqua Pazza such a lovely place to dine. We will miss everyone. We will now be able to put all our efforts into Lulu—already one of the valley’s most successful restaurants. Lulu’s continuing growth, including a substantial catering business, is an exciting full-time job for all of us!”

Over at Tulip Hill Winery, owner Kristi Brown placed blame for the closure squarely on the decline of The River. Tulip Hill had called The River home since December 2002.

“For the past several years, Tulip Hill has struggled in overcoming the declining traffic at The River in Rancho Mirage, as businesses have closed, and the tenant retail spaces have remained empty without being replaced by new businesses,” she said in a letter posted on the Tulip Hill website. “Tulip Hill has continued operating despite these head winds, but today, I am writing to let you know that … Tulip Hill Winery will be permanently closing the doors of our retail tasting room and gift shop at The River at Rancho Mirage.”

Of course, not all is bleak at The River; the shopping center remains the home of some of the valley’s most popular chain joints, including P.F. Chang’s, Yard House, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, and the mysteriously perpetually busy Cheesecake Factory. Some local joints worth noting remain at The River as well, most notably the popular-as-ever Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse. Still, it’s heartbreaking to see two much-loved local businesses close their doors—especially during the holiday season.

So long, Acqua Pazza and Tulip Hill. You’ll be missed.

In Brief

Our sincere sympathies go out to the folks at Bernie's Lounge and Supper Club. The restaurant, at 292 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, was gutted by a fire on Christmas morning. Fingers crossed for a quick rebuild. ... A new sushi joint has come to Cathedral City. Hamachi Sushi recently opened its doors at 31855 Date Palm Drive, in the shopping center anchored by Cardenas and CVS. A sign on the door—posted right above a liquor-application notice—promises “the best fusion sushi, teriyaki and tempura. Muy pronto esperalo.” … The Real Italian Deli, which has delighted customers in Palm Desert for a year or so now, has opened a second location in Palm Springs, at the intersection of Sunrise and Tahquitz Canyon ways … Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, a fast-casual barbecue chain that serves up pretty darned good ’que, will be opening at the intersection of Ramon Road and Gene Autry Trail in Palm Springs sometime this month. The folks at Dickey’s have been whetting locals’ appetites for several months now by making appearances at events, including the Desert AIDS Walk back in mid-October. Follow www.facebook.com/DickeysPalmSprings for updates and more information. ... Chill, the upscale bar going into the old Rainbow Bar and Grill space at 217 E. Arenas Road in Palm Springs, should also be opening any day now. Watch www.facebook.com/chillpalmsprings for news. … Yet another opening to talk about: Dish Creative Cuisine will soon be opening at its new location at 1107 N. Palm Canyon Drive. However, a new restaurant has already set up shop in Dish’s former home, at 68525 Ramon Road, in Cathedral City: Mike’s American Bistro. Learn more at www.facebook.com/mikesamericanbistro.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

I’ve mentioned wine clubs to folks who don’t spend much time in tasting rooms.

“I think there’s one of those around here,” one woman said.

A wine club, right? A place where like-minded people get together to sniff and sip? Not exactly what I’d meant. At wineries, club membership is more like frequent-buyer programs. It gives wineries a consistent source of income. It gives me a consistent source of wine. Signing up means agreeing to buy something like a case of wine a year, or maybe three or four bottles every three or four months.

The wine shipments are discounted—and that’s the big draw. Some wineries release special bottles, limited-production stuff, only to their members.

As a member, a simple aficionado like me gets to feel like a member of the winery’s extended family—drinking with the homies, at a place where everybody knows your name.

I’ve been a member of as many as nine wine clubs at the same time. My husband Dave is also a joiner. Once, between us, we were in 14 wine clubs. That’s before we maintained two separate households. Now I’m in two clubs.

The trend’s obvious: I join when I’m a little tipsy, usually after I’ve tasted wine at one or two places during a trip to wine country. I can resist the impulse for my first few ounces of wine. But by the third or fourth winery, I’m itching to hand over my credit card.

The process can be accelerated by a trip to a winery’s barrel room. That’s where a prospect gets to taste unbottled wine to identify its potential. Wine out of a barrel is deceptively light, but jam-packed with alcohol. Oh, yes, this is good! I’m fine. I’m fine. Then I’m signing on the line.

I joined a club the first time I went wine-tasting in Amador County. Dave and I barely dented the long list of places to go. The Amador Vintners Association has 40 members, all with tasting rooms. And not all wineries are members.

So much wine. So little lunch. So fast to sloshy am I.

By Winery No. 3, I was ready for the pitch: Do I want to buy the yummy wine I’m drinking for less, less, less? Do I want to drive back to Amador for free pasta? Because I’ve been invited to join Villa Toscano’s Bella Piazza wine club! All I have to do is fill out a card, hand over my credit card information—and I’m one of them.

The thought of a pasta buffet hooked me. Free noodles sounded irresistible to my growling stomach. I imagined coming back for a weekend and dining on linguine dripping with pesto. Sampling wine and more wine.

Over the years, we’ve been back to Amador plenty of times. I never did get to the pasta buffet.

No matter. Wine club wine, it turns out, is the gift that keeps on giving—and the charges on your credit card keep mounting. If you can’t pick up this season’s shipment at the winery, they’ll ship it to you.

You can cancel. But that means a phone call. Or an email. So much work!

These days, I join clubs to buy consistently great wine that’s more affordable to members. As a member of Myka Cellars in the Santa Cruz Mountains, wine crafted by genius winemaker Mica Raas is half-price all the time. That $44 bottle of 2011 Reserve Malbec? It’s $22, any time I want it. Which is basically now.

Locally, Tulip Hill’s September wine-club shipment included four bottles of wine, retail value $132, for $60. That means I basically paid about $15 for the newly released 2010 Tracy Hills Inamorata—a mouth full of flowers and raspberries! (Opened it within days. Drank it. Mmm.) It’s $36 in the tasting room.

Most wine clubs include free tasting flights for self, partner and friends. Some tempt me with winery swag. At one winery, new members were rewarded with a wine glass that holds an entire bottle. Who thinks that’s a good idea? I do.

When we were members of Winery by the Creek in Fair Play, we could sign up to spend a night in the winemaker’s cottage—in the middle of the vineyard—for the cost of cleaning the unit. If we timed it right, we could be there for the sister winery’s all-you-can-eat pizza buffet on Friday nights. So, it was like $40 or $50 to eat, drink and stay in a cute cottage in a field of wine on the vine. Yeah!

Unlike the pasta buffet, we actually made this happen. Twice.

And the Winery by the Creek’s wine kept coming. Shipments of six bottles at a time. Drinkable and affordable. We possessed our own wine jug that we could refill with sfuso—loose wine—from a giant stainless steel tank. Damn, I’m pretty sure we had two refillable wine jugs.

Finally, though, I dashed off the sad email. Consider me cancelled. I did the same with seven or eight other wineries.

Why would I end such beneficial relationships? To save the expense, sure. And the wine was piling up, indeed. But most importantly, the upside of wine clubs is also the downside: We ended up going back to favorite wine regions and spending all our time at member wineries, picking up bottles for which we’d already paid, and tasting loved but now-familiar wines.

It was hard to discover new bottles of bliss.

Sometimes you want to go where everybody does not know your name. But they’re still glad you came. They might even take you into the back and give you some of whatever’s in the barrel.

Below: A perk for members—the pond-side picnic grounds at Indian Rock Vineyards in Murphys, Calif.

Published in Wine

My wine glass is half-full, its stem pushed flat into light sand.

I aim my camera at the glass. Click. The top part of the glass distorts giant waves crashing into the shore. Click. A haystack rock occupies space between wine and brim. Click. Sky meets sea in a blur of blue. Plus wine glass.

Dave appreciates the crashing waves while I capture the moment for perpetuity. He’s plenty ready, though, to drink some Tulip Hill 2010 Lake County Aglianico. We’ve brought a half-bottle, left over from last night’s dinner. Dave’s glass is half-full, too. That’s the way with wine: You don’t fill glasses to the brim. Plenty of space gives the wine room to breathe. And all that air is good—until it’s not. Too much exposure to atmosphere, and your wine gets flat, insipid, tasteless.

It’s Labor Day weekend, and though we live apart, my husband and I have spent some weeks together, on and off, in Italy, Nevada and California. Now summer’s over, and I go back to assistant-professoring on a Cal State University campus. Dave works for a federal agency in Reno, a long drive from me.

This fall, we begin our fourth year living apart. We’re getting kinda used to it.

For our last weekend of summer, we plan a wine hike on the California coast. I wrap empty glasses in dish towels and put the aglianico—a limited release to wine-club members—in a silk wine bag. Fancy.

Because we’re complete dorks, we don’t say “wine hike.” Instead, we baffle friends by intoning “WEE-nay HEE-kay,” which we imagine to be the Pacific Islander pronunciation. After all, Dave contends, we began the WEE-nay HEE-kay tradition in 2011, when I left our home for a tenure-track teaching job in Hawaii. That academic year, Dave flew to Oahu about seven times, checking cases of wine as his luggage. Then we’d lug bottles of our favorite wines on various hikes, many up the leeward side of the Ko‘olau Mountains. When we reached a clearing with a view of Waikiki, we’d get out the sandwiches and uncork the wine. We had earned our red, red rewards.

We went on one of our first wine hikes during the summer before I left for Hawaii. I presented an academic paper at a conference in Granada, Spain, and then we kicked around for a couple of weeks. We made our way to the Andalucia region of southern Spain and caught the once-a-day bus from Malaga to the smallish city of Ronda. We decided to explore the labyrinthine roads outside the city. At a market in the town’s historic quarter, we acquired fresh bread, salami, queso manchego and a bottle of Descalzos Viejos. The DV is a Ronda (Spanish) wine with a (French) Rhone-style blend of garnacha, syrah and merlot. We knew nothing about it. But, hey, local. Taste the terroir and all that.

While other tourists stood at the top of the world, taking photos from the city’s walls, we descended 100 meters down into El Tajo canyon. From there, we looked up at the city’s architecture, including a giant arched bridge over the Guadalevin River. Parts of the bridge dated back 2,000 years to a time when the Romans shoved its civilization down the somewhat compromised throats of Celts and Phoenicians. And Rome fell. And Islamists controlled the area through 1485 when the Christians arrived. Inquisition ensued.

Any questions?

Southern Spain isn’t unlike Southern California. Summers are toasty, arid. That day, I took photos of a blooming cactus and felt right at home.

We picnicked on a mossy stone wall along an ancient cobblestone street, along a river, with a cute little foot bridge. We sipped Descalzos Viejos and declared it the best wine ever. Tourists far above us looked tiny. We imagined their jealousy, watching us enjoy this taste of Andalusian countryside and culture. We rose our plastic hotel cups in a toast.

Que bueno caminar con vino. How nice to walk with wine.

These days, I prefer drinking from glasses of the breakable variety. Aesthetically pleasing. More photogenic. Tricky to shove in a backpack.

Our Labor Day hike involves about 4 miles of tramping along a path overgrown with invasive but elegant pampas grass. Our destination: a stretch of the Pacific Coast that’s accessible only by boat or this trail.

We locate shade under a rocky outcropping, a sandy spot with a spectacular view of crashing waves. On the beach, a medium-sized tree, uprooted and turned to driftwood, rolls in the surf.

Dave opens the bottle and declares his intention to stay a while. He can stare at waves for hours, he says. I pour and take photos, looking through my glass.

We have cheeses—Cypress Grove’s Lamb Chopper and a hard parmesan—and slices of homemade sourdough bread. Dave dips sourdough in a jar of huckleberry jam and apologizes for getting bits of bread in the jar.

Crumbs don’t bother me. Dave picked those tiny huckleberries and then spent an hour sorting them to remove stems and green bits. I made jam. That was yesterday’s date night.

Some couples spend every weekend together. Hell, some wake up every day in the same bed. I’m pretty sure we did this for, like, 28 years. Now we have space, lots of space.

We don’t twist our tongues over this. We savor our wine and flick grains of sand from our cheese. We talk about California wildfires, earthquakes in Napa, patterns in the waves and our kids. Stratus clouds form on the horizon.

Then our bottle’s empty. We drain our glasses. Best wine ever—every time. The tide’s coming in, and before dark, the Pacific will wash away the grooves left in the sand by our wine receptacles and selves.

The designation of September as California Wine Month has lowbrow wine critic Deidre Pike drooling in her cab. It’s the perfect excuse for a humanitarian trip to delicious Napa.

Published in Wine

For Tulip Hill Winery president Kristi Brown, one day per year is usually better than every other—and it’s not even a holiday.

It's the day when winery staff, family, friends and wine consultants meet to blend Tulip Hill’s wine.

“A fun day is a blending day,” Kristi Brown says. “You sniff them all, taste them, look at their color. One might have a great bouquet, another nice color, another fruit or acid or finish or tannin.”

Ten to 15 people sit around the table, tasting. Each blend may take four or five—or maybe 10 attempts. Each time, the mix shifts incrementally. They’ll try 3 percent petite sirah, instead of 2, Brown explains, or 11 percent merlot instead of 9.

She thinks back to earlier days, when the blending partiers would watch winery founder Robert Henderson “Budge” Brown Sr., Kristi’s father. They’d know when a mix of varietals hit the mark.

“He’d get this glimmer in his eyes,” says Kristi Brown, “and we’d know: That’s the one.”

Budge Brown, perhaps best known as the founder of Manteca Waterslides water park and the inventor of the fiberglass waterslide tube, died when his plane crashed in May 2011 in the Eldorado National Forest in Amador County.

“My dad influenced and affected a lot of people,” Kristi Brown tells me. “So many people from so many phases of his life.”

The Tulip Hill tasting room has been open in The River in Rancho Mirage since 2002. Kristi Brown considers the Coachella Valley an ideal location to feature her father’s wine—which is made from grapes grown outside of Tracy, a six-hour drive north. She and her partner, Sara Hammond, the winery’s marketing specialist and wine-club coordinator, moved to the area from Orange County.

“When we first started checking the desert out, 11 years ago,” Kristi Brown says, “you had this valley full of amazing restaurants with incredible wine lists. Obviously, there’s a consumer here who loves that lifestyle. But nothing was going on in terms of wine.”

At that time, the Coachella Valley boasted a couple of wine shops and grocery stores with wide selections—and that was it. Eventually, larger bottle shops opened, a couple with wine bars cordoned off from the rest of the shopping area.

But 11 years ago, the Tulip Hill tasting room became the sole winery tasting room in the Palm Springs area. It still is.

“We really are the only one,” Kristi Brown says.

The weather—not counting sizzling-hot summer months—is what drew Brown to the area. She soon fell in love with the desert and the people. Many Palm Springs-area residents are transplants, she’s noticed, from all around the United States, Canada—the world.

“People are here because they want to be here,” she says. “And everyone seems relatively happy.”


Jimmy Boegle and I are the only people in the winery around noon on a Saturday (although it soon starts getting busier). We start by tasting whites, as we light-heartedly joke about shopping for excellent “breakfast wines.” Sales associate Jean Pond (pictured) doesn’t miss a beat, pouring us a crisp 2009 sauvignon blanc.

“This would go well with fruit and lighter cheeses,” she suggests, pairing morning foods on the fly. “But I’d have to have truffle scrambled eggs.”

The wine is crisp, fruit-forward—a perfect day-starter. With sangria in mind, Boegle buys a bottle, and also picks up a case of the 2010 Trace sauvignon blanc, a sister-label steal, for $49.99. Tulip Hill bottles wine under three labels that include its value brand Trace, and its distribution label Tulip Hill Cellar Select.

Pond has been pouring wine at the Tulip Hill tasting room for six years. She raves about the Mount Oso vineyards near Tracy. Grapes are grown at low elevations, from zero to 500 feet above sea level. The vineyards receive only about 8 or 9 inches of rainfall each year.

Vineyard manager Jeff Brown irrigates using water from more than 100 feet below the ground, “stressing (the vines) to create small tight berries with amazing flavor,” as the winery’s website notes.

Boegle and I work our way through a half-dozen distinctive wines, including the complex 2008 Tracy Hills Mirage ($22), a merlot-syrah blend that combines flavors of fruit, earth and spice.

Many of Tulip Hill’s most-intriguing wines are creatively named blends like Sangiovignon, a cab-sangiovese blend ($25); Nerovignon, a blend of cab with the Italian varietal Nero d’Avola ($28); and a tasty-licious Cabepulciano ($32)—45 percent montepulciano and 55 percent cabernet sauvignon.

I buy the latter bottle, receiving a Wine Club discount that knocks a few dollars off the price. Being a Tulip Mania Wine Club member means invitations to wine-release parties, pairing events and winemakers’ dinners, as well as complimentary tastings at the Rancho Mirage tasting room.

About 600 locals are in Tulip Hill’s wine club, Pond says, which now totals about 1,200 members. Tulip Hill ships its wine to members across the nation.

“If you live in Minnesota and you want California wine, well, you can’t buy our wines anywhere else,” Pond says.


The Browns started growing grapes in the 1980s. For years, their grapes were sold to other California wineries. Budge and his wife, Arlene, shared a dream of making their own wine, though—and in 2001, the Browns decided it was time.

Tulip Hill was born.

“My dad was one of these really great guys, a visionary, an entrepreneur and an inventor,” Kristi Brown says. “He was always going 100 miles per hour.”

Budge Brown loved wine—and he was generous with it. When Kristi Brown would drive home to Manteca during her years at the University of California at Santa Barbara, her father would take her downstairs into his wine room.

“It was nothing glamorous,” she says. “Don’t conjure up the wine cellars of today.”

Her father would start pulling out bottles, assembling a case for her to take back to college.

She’d return to Santa Barbara with some mighty fine wine. “I’d go back to my college buddies,” she recalls, “and while most people were drinking Boone’s Farm or whatever, we were drinking some quality California reds—Silver Oak and Groth and all these great wines.”

Kristi Brown has fond memories of drinking wine with her father in Napa, under a big oak tree in the rolling Pope Valley. “He obviously enjoyed drinking the fruit of his labor,” she says.

After his wife died of breast cancer, Budge Brown established the Cleavage Creek Winery in Napa, donating a percentage of its profits to the Bastyr Integrative Oncology Research Clinic.

Family friend Ronn Wiegand, a master sommelier and wine consultant, calls Cleavage Creek a testament to Brown’s character. The Cleavage Creek labels featured photos of breast-cancer survivors.

“How audacious was that?” Wiegand says.

Ten percent of the gross sales from every bottle went to the Bastyr University clinic, which Budge Brown had visited and approved.

“This was vintage Budge,” Wiegand says. “He wanted those donations to have an impact on finding a cure for breast cancer—and as quick a one as possible.”

Wiegand met Budge Brown at an evening wine-appreciation class that Wiegand was teaching at Napa Valley College. Brown asked Wiegand to taste Tulip Hill’s syrah, a wine that went on to win several wine competitions.

“I was enthusiastic, very impressed by the wine,” Wiegand says. “Over the years, we became friends. I enjoyed his enthusiasm for the wine industry and his think-outside-the-box mentality.”

After Budge Brown’s death, the family sold the Cleavage Creek Winery. The family retains the Tulip Hill brand, the Mount Oso vineyards outside of Tracy and the Rancho Mirage tasting room. Budge’s son Jeff grows grapes. Kristi runs the business.

Wiegand participates once or twice a year as a consultant and says he’s enjoyed many blending events with the Brown family and friends.

Kristi Brown credits Wiegand with having an uncanny palate. Though she was an English major in college, she’s learned plenty about wine from working with experts like Wiegand.

“Over the years, you begin to train your own palate and learn those pearls of wisdom he passes along,” she says.

What does the future hold for Tulip Hill?

“After 11 years at The River, we’re pretty content where we’re at,” Kristi Brown says. “We have a nice loyal following in the desert.”

Tulip Hill Winery's tasting room is located at 71800 Highway 111, No. A125 (at The River), in Rancho Mirage. For more information, call 760-568-5678, or visit tuliphillwinery.com.

Published in Wine