|Judy Starr (left), proprietress vintner of Starr Ranch in Paso Robles; and some of her Hachiya persimmons (right).|
Over time, the Paso Robles Valley has become our place to unplug from L.A. It’s more accessible than Napa, Sonoma, or Mendocino. Paso, as the locals like to call it, is just as beautiful with its idiosyncratic scenery: mossy oaks, winding country roads, and fertile rolling hills. We’ve had great experiences visiting the wineries and their winemakers. One in particular, Judy Starr of Starr Ranch
, has become our newest partner in the “Locavores Lifestyle.” She’s given us a deeper appreciation of both wine and persimmons, two things we both love.
We first came to know Judy during monthly wine tasting, fine dining and camping weekends last spring. On these trips we headed to Paso’s less travelled northwest corner, past the north end of Vineyard Drive on Chimney Rock Road, and we keep returning. A vintner who is a foodie at heart, Judy has spent the past ten years developing one of the valley’s premiere vineyards, growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Roussanne, Viognier and Mourvedre -- ideal for producing Bordeaux and Rhone varietals. The proprietress is pleasant, conversational and intensely knowledgeable. Tara also describes Judy as “channeling” Martha Washington, who was also from the southern United States, before transplanting to the east coast. Without sinking into hagiography, think of a founding matriarch.
A visit to the ranch
|Fall colors at Starr Ranch|
|Persimmon trees and vineyards|
It’s easy to miss Starr Ranch’s unobtrusive sign because of the many curves on Chimney Rock Road. A sharp turn leads up a majestic driveway lined on both sides by 100 persimmon trees. To the left are sloping planted vineyards and to the right, cattle graze. Once inside the gate, there is another breathtaking vista of undulating Adelaida Hills, covered with patchwork plots of various orchards, each one distinct.
The 200+ acre ranch sits on calcareous, limestone soil considered to be exceptional for growing fruit and vines. All of this rests in a bowl shaped by hills and valleys that frame the horizon. Signs point us to the ranch’s Big House, Little House and Tasting Room, which really is a full production and storage facility. Restraining our excitement to keep from kicking-up dust, we slowly wound down the “Crooked Road” which we found was the namesake of a meritage (blend) the proprietress and her daughter made in 2005/6.
For all this ranch’s grandeur, its environment is surprisingly relaxed and low-key. The indoor tasting bar faces what looks like a scientist’s laboratory which, after the grapes, is the guts of the winemaker’s tool chest. An outdoor tasting area is in the garden. Need a rest? Rocking chairs, tree swings and hammocks abound with picnic tables and even a dart board. A tasty snack of mandolin sliced and dried persimmons is offered for sale in the tasting room.
Based on a noblesse oblige
model of agribusiness, wine and walnuts are Judy’s cash crops and where her money is made. The other edibles being grown at the ranch include several types of high-end apples, pears, stone fruits, and other assorted crops from a victory garden. These other harvests, all top-notch, supplement the staff’s wages.
Harvesting grapes and persimmons together
|Draping Hachiyas ready for harvest|
|Hachiyas for Forage ripening by windowlight|
|Starr Ranch Hachiyas in the Forage kitchen|
|Persimmon Orange Blossom Agua Fresca|
|Croissant made with Judy's persimmons, cream cheese, and marscapone|
The last time we visited the ranch was in October to partake in the fall harvest. This meant first walnuts, then grapes, and lastly, persimmons. Helping with the latter two crops, Lew cut bunches of grapes while Tara mogged with Judy one gray cool morning. Mogging is winemaker lingo, meaning to pick through and discard leaves and loose stems, cull moldy grapes, all the while patting down and tucking-in the bunches. This way, they fit snugly without being crushed into the containers, some of which are to be delivered to another local winemaker, of which there are a number. As an ambassador of northwest Paso wines, Judy freely offers referrals to other small boutique wineries in the area such as Dubost
, Tolo Cellars
. Among the new winemakers she has attracted to share her facilities is Bob Fuller with his Deodoro
label. When we get to drink the final product of our labors, we’ll enjoy the satisfation of having participated in its production.
After a short rest, we started on the Hachiya. Judy reminded us that the persimmon tree is known in Greek as Diospryros, or “food of the gods.” Her trees are highly prolific, organic, and dry-farmed. With the Hachiya variety, the fully ripened fruit is so soft that it’s nearly impossible to transport. Judy tends to harvest these persimmons about two weeks prior to the fruit’s ultimate gushy ripeness. This is why the delivery of a Starr Hachiya is truly precious cargo to be treated with special care. It’s difficult to bring a ripe Hachiya to market without damaging it.
Tending a persimmon bounty
Here’s what we do to control the timing of the Hachiya ripening process. Each persimmon should get equal opportunity to face the warming sun on a table or window sill. Rotate the globes a third of a turn every morning. As they ripen, the golden orange skin turns translucent. The persimmons practically glow and are supple to the touch.
We do this with Judy’s Hachiyas, as well as with our own grown by Lew in the Santa Monica backyard. When Judy provided about 120 Hachiyas to Forage restaurant this fall, we passed on our ripening tip, and the restaurant reported good results.
At the point the fruit ripens, we tend to leap at the opportunity to consume the voluptuous orbs that, as Judy notes, “practically shout beta-carotenes.” The more patient may choose to refrigerate the ripe fruit, which arrests the aging process and preserves their vitamin A, potassium, iron and calcium.
The remainder can wait for their time in the sun in an opened-top paper bag in a dark and cool, not necessarily refrigerated place. Keep in mind the weight of the fruit. Store them no more than 3 or 4 deep, though we have been known to pack them more tightly. When that happens, we rotate the ones at the bottom of the bag to the top, every other day. Don’t fret over any blackened skin as that’s part of the natural burnishing process.
Tending a persimmon bounty mindfully is a way to honor nature’s process. By paying close attention to re-enacting what is happening on the tree, and by taking these steps that requires all of 10 minutes per day for 124 persimmons, you are merging with the larger organic cycle. Mornings that begin with handling fruit adds immense pleasure to the entire day. Feelings of gentleness are invoked in us from being good stewards to these persimmons.
Stay Tuned and Ever Onward, Ma and Pa Locavores.