Sensing the Golden State

The artists and makers taking deep dives into the earth, waters, and flora of California in order to capture and craft a sense of place.

What does the Golden State sound like? Taste like? Smell like? How does a wet season in the Coast Ranges present itself to our senses? A citrus harvest in the orchards of Ojai? A tule fog in the winter quiet of the Central Valley? A heaping palette of grapes ready to face the crusher in Sonoma? To find out, we had a chat with a few artisans who make California, at its most elemental level, manifest in their work.


SENSE OF SMELL: JUNIPER RIDGE

“We make people’s homes smell like the mountains,” says Hall Newbegin, founder of Juniper Ridge. The company’s line of soaps, incense, and perfume oils are made from the all-natural essences of shrubs, tree bark, and wildflowers gathered in the wilds of the desert and Pacific Northwest. “What we are doing is what Guerlain did in France a couple of hundred years ago.”

Whereas Guerlain’s olfactory domain encompasses jasmine and Provençal lavender, the Juniper Ridge crew dives their mossy heads into cedar from the Sierra and creosote from chaparral. Favored foraging regions include the Siskyous, as well as California’s central coast, which Hall defines as “Cambria Hall up to Mount Tam or so.” Western juniper is sourced from the Modoc Plateau to the Oregon border.

Proper botanical Latin names spring easily from Hall’s tongue: Hymenoclea, Larrea tridendata, Juniperus occidentalis. When his team arrives mountainside, “we pick a place and start harvesting there and figure out what we’re going to put into the product to make it real,” he shares.

Real is the operative word. True to nature is the goal. “The product should evoke the place,” Hall says. “It’s not about smelling good. Nobody likes the Mojave smell, but we catch a bit of the magic in there.” That doesn’t mean they want any products to actually smell bad. Hall shares a laughably memorable misfire. “I tried to capture the ocean with mussel smells,” he recalls. “It smelled really gross—just made me gag.”

After the natural ingredients have been harvested, Juniper Ridge uses essential oil distillation, a technique practiced since ancient Egyptian times. For some botanicals they use a hydrosol “flower water” process, and they also do infusions, such as “putting hummingbird sage into jojoba,” Hall explains. “We separate the goo from the liquid using a press. The thing we try to capture from the infusion process is the base notes of a plant.”

Seasonality changes the aromatic components of the company’s ingredients—whether a wild plant is harvested in a dry season or in springtime when the waters are running. “We’re never going to be consistent,” Hall says of his products. “Every batch is different.”

SENSE OF SOUND: DARK WATCHERS

Violinist Edwin Huizinga lives in Bonny Doon amid the redwoods above Santa Cruz. Music brought him to California in 2005 when he was invited to perform at the Carmel Bach Festival. Later, while pursuing a master’s degree at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he kept returning to the Big Sur area to hike and explore. “It seems to be a mecca for a lot of other artists to come and perform or build some roots and get away from the crazy life of touring,” he says.

It was there that he met Jonas Bonnetta, an ambient musician who lives in Canada, and the two became fast friends. With a shared love of the area, they decided to make a recording of original compositions based on the land and waters and native fauna.

“The icing on the cake was that this amazing organization I work with, the Big Sur Land Trust, invited us to do a residency at one of their properties, a thousand-acre ranch,” Huizinga says. “We ended up staying for two weeks and making this album of improvised and composed music, Jonas on piano and electronics and myself on violin, with all these nature sounds that we collected. We went up to the headwaters of some of the streams of Big Sur and caught a lot of different sounds, both in the air and in the water, because we had microphones with us that we could submerge under water.”

Their recording treks included overnight hikes. Particularly evocative, Huizinga says, was “the dawn chorus in the morning. One of the hills on the ranch has an enormous amount of wildflowers. There would be this unbelievably loud hum from tens of thousands of bees pollinating.”

The composition is being mixed into a forthcoming album called Dark Watchers, named for characters in old folklore from that part of the coast, mysterious cloaked figures who guard the hills. A release is planned for later this year. When a specialist from the Ventana Wilderness with whom the musicians consulted expressed delighted surprise upon identifying, in the raw audio, the warble of a yellow-breasted chat, Huizinga and Bonnetta knew they had—as we say in California—struck gold.

The work had its debut in April at a couple of movingly memorable evening performances at Glen Deven Ranch and at Tor House, the home of 20th-century poet Robinson Jeffers. Under a full moon on a very windy night, sounds layered upon sounds played to the visual accompaniment of a custom film montage by independent filmmaker Douglas Mueller, whose assignment from Bonnetta and Huizinga had been to capture the beauty of the area, but “nothing that you’d see on a postcard.”

From Mueller’s vantage point in the balcony on performance night, “I could hear the gasps and visceral responses,” as the audience listened to this intimately transcendent soundtrack of their home environment. “People wiped away tears when the show ended.”

SENSE OF TASTE: GRAY WHALE GIN

A bottle of gin is ideal for capturing terroir because all that’s needed for a neutral spirit to qualify as gin is the presence of juniper berries during distillation; the rest of the botanicals are where the distinctiveness and creativity of a particular brand come in.

The inspiration for Gray Whale Gin, says master distiller Marsh Mokhtari, was an “insatiable appetite for all things Californian.” His company’s product is a way to “taste your way along the migratory path of the beautiful Gray Whale that has its babies down in San Ignacio and migrates all the way up the Californian coast past Oregon, into Washington, and then into the Arctic.”

“We wanted it to be authentic,” adds Jan Mokhtari, the other half of the husband-wife founding duo. “We wanted to craft it ourselves.” So craft it they did. Over a period of three years, they tested 152 recipes, sourcing and rejecting ingredients along the way, tweaking the formula to come up with just the right flavor profile. The product is a true London Dry-style gin, made with just one distillation with nothing added at the end.

The smooth mouth feel comes from Capay Valley almonds. Fresh fir tree tips from Sonoma County add a menthol-like coolness. There are lemons, limes, and oranges, “all hand zested,” Marsh says, “which, as you can imagine, is a real pain in the ass. But the flavor is completely different. You don’t want to go into the pith, the white stuff underneath the zest. It requires a delicate hand touch.”

And then there’s the kombu. Jan’s hope was to incorporate an oceanic element into the formula. First they tried nori (which is used to wrap sushi) from the coast between Jenner and Bodega Bay, but found it too muted. Next they tried sea palm, grown on the outer rocks in violent parts of the coastline, but it was too briny. The couple’s Goldilocks moment came with the first test of kombu, a seaweed used in miso soup. “Both of us looked at each other with goosebumps,” Marsh recalls. “We were like, wow, we really stumbled on something that’s exceptional.”

Exceptional, indeed: Gray Whale Gin’s very first batch was awarded a silver medal at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The best way to sip? Jan recommends a Gray Gimlet:

  • 2 ounces Gray Whale Gin
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1⁄2 ounce agave syrup
  • Shake ingredients with ice.
    Strain over fresh ice. Garnish with a twist of lime peel.
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