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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

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