Hanging out in Rockford: California—Part Two

July 1, 1993

Hanging out in Rockford: California—Part Two

By Mike Leifheit, Columnist

When I was building the Irish Rose Restaurant in Rockton (originally called Norte), Tracy Redding and I went to California to look at the wood-fired oven we were to have installed in the new restaurant. Last week I told about our visit with Alan Scott of Oven Crafters in Petaluma-Marshal, Calif. After we saw Alan, we journeyed to San Francisco to eat at the Hawthorne Lane restaurant, which used one of Alan’s ovens.

We spent the night in San Francisco and then decided to pay an impromptu visit to Dave Homewood’s winery. We drove out of the city and across the Bay area bridge, then north into Sonoma. I knew the way because I had all of California for my territory when I worked for Royal Crown Cola company. I used to find new ways home just to see the California countryside. I love California.

We found the Sonoma Winery Association just outside of the city of Sonoma on the start of the Silverado Trail. Dave’s was the first winery up the road. We wound our way north, about a mile, I think, and then took the first right turn. There it was, but the gate was locked and nobody appeared to be home. Just at the moment we were ready to give up, the door to the butler building that served as the winery opened, and Dave walked out. I called to him, and he didn’t recognize me, but then as he walked closer, he broke into a smile.

My real connection to Dave was my friend Bill Benson. Bill is the cabinetmaker who refinished the old bar at the Irish Rose downtown. I remember I told him that I wanted it to look like my mother and father’s Muntz TV cabinet, and it does. Bill and I were in Inherit the Wind at the Park Art Cinema in 1962 when Ruth Ann Johnson (Ruthie or Miss Johnson) moved tt there after the Harlem School Board banned it in response to a protest by Reverend George Pitney. (Yep, right here in River City, Creation one, evolution zip, and in 1962! Who says we’re only 20 years behind the times?) Bill has always been best friends with Dave. I first tasted Dave’s Chardonnay at Bill’s house; it was magnificent.

We arrived on a fortuitous day; serendipitous things were afoot. Dave had just acquired a new vineyard. Previously, he had purchased all his grapes. Now he was to own his own estate. This was the first day he would be in control of his new property. Would we like to go along, he asked. The question was unnecessary; of course, we would. But first a tour of the winery, and a blessed introduction to a winemakers tool, the wine thief. We sampled and sampled. Then, half-tipsy, Tracey called her father to brag about where we were and what we were doing. Her father was jealous. He should have been.

Dave’s wines were not just good, they were great. I especially liked the Pinot Noirs. His Chardonnay was a knockout. It had just gotten a top rating from a San Francisco restaurant magazine. To drive the point home, Gloria Ferrar drove up in her SUV and purchased several cases of the Chardonnay for her tasting room. (If I was more important, I would have thought he staged it.) After all of this, we went to a Mexican restaurant that was a favorite of Dave’s. He brought along a couple of bottles of Pinot Noir, “just to prove that It could stand up to a burrito.”

Then we were off to the new vineyards. We followed a road that snakes through to the Napa side, and then started the slow climb up Mount Veder. When we got to Dave’s property, it was glorious. A 4,500-square foot California house overlooked the green valley. The nearest neighbor was about a mile away. There was a swimming pool and a hot tub. I jokingly told him that I used to like him but not any more.

The following day we were on our way over to Napa. We were on the highway that traverses the mountains. We passed Chalk Hill and then stopped at the Rodney Strong winery. As we tasted the wines at Rodney Strong, we both noticed that they weren’t any better, and in some cases, not nearly as good as the wines we had tasted at Dave’s the day before. You can taste Dave’s wines at the Irish Rose Norte in Rockton tonight, 624-6163 and at the Irish Rose River District tomorrow might, 964-0480. There were still 20 tickets available at both restaurants at the time of this writing.

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his Web site: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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