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July 08, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, July 08, 2005

Where the main course is the wine Where the main course is the wine (July 08, 2005)

Vino Locale pours an education in local wine

By Aimee M. Male

Sometimes it takes traveling far away to truly appreciate what's close to home.

While in France and Italy, Randy Robinson stopped off in many small taverns and cafes, seeking to feed his life-long passion for great wine and food with local specialties. He noticed that many would only serve local wines -- often from grapes stemmed and crushed by village residents. Local produce was so pure, and the wines so plentiful, that one didn't have to look very far to find pleasure in food and drink.

Returning home, it was obvious what Robinson needed to do. Taking a cue from those local enotecas , or wine bars, he sought to create a space that celebrated local wines and food -- a place that could educate as well as entertain.

Just four months old, Vino Locale is bustling with both wine aficionados and beginners sipping some of the best local wines from Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Benito counties.

"I don't want to sell what people can find in Safeway," he said.

Robinson insists that his cafe is different than other wine bars, which are more often simply restaurants with lengthy wine lists. At Vino Locale, the main course is the wine. Menu items, as local and unique as the wine, are paired to go perfectly with each pour.

Most of the food served at Vino Locale is organic, locally produced and seasonally fresh. Local artisan producers feature prominently in menu specials, as well as everyday dishes. Creamy, tangy goat cheese from Harley Farms Goat Dairy in Pescadero is stuffed in organic baby artichokes. Natural sausages from Saag's Specialty Meats in San Leandro are grilled smoky-sweet for hearty sandwiches. Organic sun-kissed strawberries from Live Earth Farm near Watsonville swim in mascarpone cream for a sweet spring treat.

To support local agriculture, Robinson says, is to preserve a way of life that is disappearing all too fast. While the greater Bay Area was at one time covered in fruit orchards and small family farms, agricultural land has dwindled and local farmers struggle to make ends meet.

We need to "build awareness that these farms and farmers still exist," he said. "We need these people to survive."

Robinson stoked an early love for wine by working in wineries in both California and Idaho, where he split his time between childhood and college. After working in the restaurant business for almost two decades as a corporate trainer, he was ready for a change. As wine had always been his passion, he resolved to "get back into that."

Step into this cozy Victorian house on Kipling Street and you'll immediately understand Robinson's passion for all things local. Wine bottles line every bookshelf, as well as an ornate mantle piece in what was once a living room; rustic wine barrels from Page Mill Winery support a petite wine bar. Olive oils from Balzana in Santa Cruz struggle for shelf space next to biscotti from La Biscotteria Italian Baking in Belmont.

A spacious backyard boasts a koi pond and a champagne-bottle fountain, a trophy from Robinson's college days. Fragrant fresh basil grows lush in large terra cotta pots, while other fresh herbs, planted and tended by Robinson, line the sides of the garden.

Wines are offered by the taste, glass or bottle and prices are very affordable, considering how difficult it is to find -- let alone buy -- most of the wines at Vino Locale. Tastes are a great way to sample a number of different wines, with cost ranging from $1 to $3.50. A generous glass runs from $2 to $9.75 on the current tasting menu.

Don't get too attached to the tasting list -- Robinson changes it constantly, as there are simply too many good local wines. Every week a local winemaker is invited to meet and chat with customers, while each month a new winery is showcased on the cafe's ever-changing tasting menu.

Vino Locale offers plenty of delicious standbys and intriguing seasonal specialties. Crostini, or grilled baguette slices topped with any number of ingredients, are a perfect compliment to a tasting flight and a languorous afternoon.

During one visit I was lucky enough to sample an early spring favorite, fava beans on crostini ($6). A rare and ancient treat, the fava beans are blended into a garlic-rich puree spread over crisped bread -- a perfect pairing to my glass of Pietra Santa 2002 Pinot Grigio ($3.75). While I swooned, the waitress upped the ante and brought me a taster of Bonny Doon's 2004 Malvasia Bianca ($1.50) so I could see which I preferred. (I liked both, of course.)

Most plates are small and meant for sharing -- you could easily create a meal but that's not the point of Vino Locale. If you're looking for a dining experience (read: extravaganza) be sure to ask about the cafe's catered winemaker dinners, held on the 15th of every month. Details of dinners are included in Vino Locale's newsletter, sent via e-mail -- leave your address in the cafe's guest book before departing to receive it.

Plates are simple yet elegant. Robinson said a local favorite is Harley Farms goat cheeses with fresh baguettes ($6 for one flavor, $20 for a sampler of four), or a charcuterie plate ($9) that piles high savory Westphalian ham among other savory meats, with more baguette and artisan mustard.

The grilled sausage sandwiches are a good option if you need some padding following an enthusiastic tasting session. Served on a soft bun and sliced in two, a chicken and sun-dried tomato sausage ($6) is buried in sizzling grilled peppers and onions and slathered with chipotle catsup and aioli. Other sausage options include Yucatan turkey and smoked chicken basil, all from Saag's.

Fresh organic produce is always used in Vino Locale's salads, and menu options will no doubt change as summer produce starts to arrive. A simple, fresh spinach salad ($6) was a refreshing snack, with sliced pears and rustic, homemade croutons tossed with a beautiful white wine vinaigrette, surprisingly sweetened with a bit of pear puree.

Vino Locale is a perfect starting point for an education in local wine and food. And from this, you'll be ready to explore the world truly with all your senses.
Vino Locale, 431 Kipling St. in Palo Alto; (650) 328-0450

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