The Connoisseur Club

In the hills of Camarillo, local epicures toast the good life. MARK STORER swirls and sips—and feasts on the relationships within a loosely knit group of Ventura County gastronauts.

By Mark Storer—Photos by Gary and Pierre Silva


he hills above and north of Camarillo, called the Heights by residents here, are still green with the late winter and early spring rains. They roll into the foggy west and peer out over the Oxnard beaches and, if the fog lifts, one can see part of the Channel Islands, wreathed in blue sky and wispy clouds gathering on the horizon.

On a recent evening, cool ocean breezes swayed the queen palms and Boston ivy in Mark and Kathie Johnson’s backyard. Inside, Kathie was preparing to get out of the way while Mark was gearing up for an evening of spectacular hedonism. One would think that the guests might be sipping wine and eating cheese and crackers on the patio, looking at Anacapa Island and the sunset. They weren’t. All the guests were in the kitchen, jockeying for position at the stove, the sink, and the cutting board. Their goal? Impress the others with their feats of gourmet prowess and cooking while tasting a flight of Napa Valley Cabernets.

“Most of our tastings are blind,” said Charles Clark, a surgical technician at Community Memorial Hospital. “This one’s different.” The group gathers together about a dozen times a year, in various formations, sometimes tasting 30 wines a night. Not to worry, there is a good deal of expectorating. Except when there isn’t. This is not a gang of boys getting together to down a few drinks and raise the standard Drambuie, however. It’s a chorus of friends brought together by their highly developed palates and taste for the good life.

“Meeting groups of people like this really changed things,” said Johnson, who owns Commander Printed Products in Oxnard and has always enjoyed cooking and wine. “These guys are such fantastic cooks, and we tease each other and compete in a good natured way.”

Ask any pair or small group of them when they met and you’ll get a bunch of different stories. Clark and Steve Ruths, a psychiatrist, are the newest additions and have been showing up for about a year and a half. Johnson, Steve Grossman (an ambassador for Sierra Nevada Brewery; his brother Ken is the founder), and Tim Coles, a Southern California sales rep for the Grateful Palate, are the original members and have been together for “many years.” Coles owned the Conejo Wine and Provision Company in Thousand Oaks for a time, and it’s there that the group pins its origins. When his shop closed, Coles signed on with the Oxnard-based Grateful Palate. The company has since moved its headquarters to Northern California, but Coles runs things here.

The oldest of the oenophiles is Paul Fridrich, who owns his own printing company and keeps up just fine with the other 40- and 50-somethings. There is a kind of deference paid to him. Originally from the former Czechoslovakia, Fridrich slowly sips his wine and makes judgments with certainty. Kent Keating is a Ventura lawyer. Soft-spoken and a mean hand at a fresh and zesty Caesar salad, he’s a bit more cautious than Fridrich but still focused, and his judgments are final.

Ed Keay couldn’t be present on this evening, as he was traveling in Europe—so he had a life-sized photograph of himself sent to the house. As the group wined and dined, the effigy, smiling and holding a glass of wine, held court over the table. Every half hour or so, Kathie came out and placed a new bubble over Keay’s head with a new saying: Too hot! There’s way too much alcohol … A good European wine doesn’t stand a chance in this crowd.

Fragrant aromas begin to emanate from the kitchen and the appetizer courses are presented after a brief discussion about order of service. Grossman’s crab cakes topped with a green curry and loquat chutney quickly subsume a few small snacks, nuts and chips with some white wines. True to form, he serves the cakes with a 30th Anniversary Sierra Nevada stout.

The duck tacos, prepared by Coles, are a hit, at once meaty and delicate. Topped with cilantro, raisins, onions, and chipotle crema, the layers of flavor keep delivering. Coles says that making the tacos takes two days. “Food and wine and friends who enjoy it,” said Keating. “What more is there?”

Weeks before they gather, a flurry of emails fills my inbox. I’ve been added to the list and the gentle ribbing, straight teasing, and outright challenges and bravado get louder as the tasting nears. Nothing is off limits and no one member of the group makes decisions alone. From the wines to be poured to the foods to be paired, every email is a world of detail.

Johnson gave me an example of an exchange between he and Clark before a previous tasting. Clark wanted to talk about what kind of paprika to use in his dishes and, in a moment of grand teasing, poured it on thick. “Would you please be so kind as to identify the exact geographical location of your paprika sources? Would it be the milder Spanish paprika, or the stronger and richer Hungarian paprika?” He continues for a few more lines.

“Everyone really goes into depths in understanding food and wine,” said Fridrich. “It’s a real pleasure to talk to each other and share our thoughts.” Ruths agreed, “It’s a fantastic way to share a passion.”

The main course begins with Keating’s Caesar salad followed by Fridrich’s rich and tender osso buco, veal shank with a tomato ragu, and the Cabernets begin to pour. There are 10 of them to go through, and another main course featuring Clark’s filet mignon with blueberry chipotle compote, onions, and ancho chiles on top of cheese grits with cotija cheese crumbles.

Once the wines pour, the comments begin: The fruit is tired on the Pride. Yeah, the Della Valle is more open, more forward. These wines need some time in the glass, you guys are being too critical. A good-natured argument breaks out about the mouth-feel and the tannins of the Ramey versus the Colgin, and so the evening goes.

The last course is served at 10:30 and I prepare to leave just after 11:00. I worry about sleeping tonight, with all that food recently eaten, and though I avoided ingesting much alcohol, I’ve tasted some 20 wines with the group.

“The wines are what brings us together,” said Coles just before making his “major announcement” of the evening. “In August or September I’m going to host a Spanish wine tasting, and with it I’ll serve…”

“Paella!” shouted Fridrich. “Tim makes the best paella I’ve ever had. And that includes Spain. It’s absolute heaven.”

Coles started discussing the plans as the clanking of emptying plates gave way to a few last drops of wine. The evening breeze died down and the darkness was lit by the Camarillo city lights below and the stars drifting out over the ocean. Everyone drank a quick toast to Ed’s picture and we headed home—those who hadn’t expectorated with the help of a designated driver.

By the next morning my email inbox held four messages, some thanking everyone for the evening and one announcing a barbecued rib competition this summer. I hoped I was invited.


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