BETWEEN THE WINESA Trip to the Beach: Living on Island Time in the Caribbean is a cheery first-person recounting of how two Vermonters, Melinda and Robert Blanchard, take up permanent residence on their favorite vacation spot, the island of Anguilla. The Blanchards, who had lost control of their previous food business when it went from cottage industry to corporation, decide to shake off the snow and the sour grapes by selling their New England home and becoming restaurateurs to the wealthy island tourists.
As a storyteller, Melinda (Mel for short) Blanchard has acquired her own sort of island rhythm, alternating between diary-detailed retellings of the day-by-day travails of building a restaurant long distance via Miami's Home Depot (i.e., back in the "real world") and frequent mentions of the personal time-outs, beautiful sunsets, pick-up friendships that become business partnerships, and temporary passions for sailing that she and Robert fall into. (Although both are listed as authors, Mel writes in first person.) She also has a pleasant post-Heartburn habit of tossing in the odd recipe, and an obvious fondness for the people and passion for the flora of the region. She easily evokes that peculiar sense of administrative limbo produced in the islands by the paradoxical confluence of good-humored indifference to urgency (hence, the references to living on "island time") and the enormously time-consuming bureaucracy that requires all paperwork in triplicate. The long build-up to the restaurant's opening night, which becomes a comedic near-disaster of too many customers and not enough dumplings and lobsters, has the ring of rueful truth cushioned by the comfort of ensuing success. It can be a little off-putting, or perhaps guilt-inducing, to read the references to extensive wine lists and expensive imported ingredients in a society where lean-tos are still fairly common, though the fact that Anguilla is a resort economy is a given for the whole setup. In fact, it gives a dramatic roundness to the story, because when Hurricane Luis ravishes the island, the resort, and the restaurant, it not only gives Mel a reason to pick up the pruning shears and get back to work, it also reminds us of the essential force of real island life: nature.
Still, this shapeliness loses some of its appeal when you notice the acknowledgments page. "The sequence of events in this book took place over a span of ten years and two restaurants. We have taken the liberty of condensing the time frame into one year so as to capture the spirit of life in Anguilla." That's some kind of island time.
Nevertheless, it's an ingratiating read and an easy one; and while I'm not sure I'll ever make Miguel's Banana Cabanas (a smoothie of Coco Lopez, Bailey's Irish Cream, bananas and white rum), or the cornbread with pineapple, creamed corn, and Monterey Jack, I might try the coconut-sesame jasmine rice for the grilled tuna. And I will hope to see that sunset over Anguilla.
Choosing a ChardonnayOn opening night, according to Mel, Bob Blanchard, who was moving from table to table, talking to guests and going over the wine list, "had difficulty cutting short a debate over the virtues of Napa versus Bordeaux, and could have talked for hours about why American vintners insist on making Chardonnay so oaky." I agree with his oak index, which I also find much too high as a rule; but on behalf of the millions of Americans who obviously enjoy an assertive oak element (and who may not know that "Napa" and "California" are not synonymous), I would point out that under the grandchildren of Ernest and Julio, the Gallo of Sonoma label has made significant advances in quality varietals (in the $12-$15 range) and, more notably, into single-vineyard varietals (in the mid-$20s) and even superpremium estate wines. It's the Goldilocks story, with the Gallo of Sonoma Chardonnay as the "baby" and the Estate Chardonnay as Big Bear.
The lower-end Gallo of Sonoma Chardonnay wines, both the Russian River and the Sonoma County blend, are surprisingly big buys for the price, with almost as much perfume and tropical fruit as Miguel's blender killers, and a lot fewer calories. The '97 Estate Chardonnay is even more tropical and showy, and at $45, up against stiff competition.
But all in all, it's the Mama Bears, the single vineyard chards, that seem just right for this book, either the $20 Stefani Vineyard from the Dry Creek Valley or the $22 Laguna Ranch Vineyard from the Russian River Valley (the tasted vintages were both '97s).
Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the Washington Post.