May 31, 2006
Getting Ready for the World Cup, Syrah Division

You are so lucky, many people say when I tell them I'm heading out to a wine tasting. And I am, I know it. If you are at all interested in wine, there's no better way to learn about it than to taste, and then taste some more, keeping an open mind, not paying much heed to labels, and listening for the concise and blunt insights of your guide.

Last night, Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti was the guide. For the second straight year, he'd been asked to nominate six American "cool-climate" syrahs to go up against 12 Australian and New Zealand syrahs from appellations with similar climates in a showdown to be staged in Australia later this year.

Corti had rounded up 39 syrahs from the 2003 and 2004 vintages, almost all of them from California, especially coastal areas such as San Luis Obispo County, Santa Barbara County and Monterey County.

We gathered in a large, warm and dark room in the back of Corti's grocery store along Folsom Boulevard, not far from the clanky machine that compresses boxes into flats of cardboard for recycling. It's a good reminder to spit. You don't want to get tipsy and run the risk of falling into that thing.

Corti arranged the wines in a single line around the edge of a long and narrow table. Each of the five participants circulated quietly about the table, pouring a sample, examining it, sniffing it, sipping it and eventually tasting it, then spitting into large buckets on the floor along two sides of the table.

About 90 minutes later, Corti convened the group and polled each participant on their preferences. The tasters agreed unanimously on only one wine, the Sonoma Coast Vineyards & Winery 2003 Sonoma Coast Syrah, which customarily sells for about $45. I liked the wine for its expressive smell, representing the blueberry and smoked-meat sides of syrah with clarity and freshness. It's a fairly lush wine - dry, balanced and with a measure of complexity missing from many of the other candidates. The oak on the wine was a bit heavy handed, but it had the ripe fruit to stand up to all that wood. Just 395 cases were made. Almost certainly, the wine will be one of the six to be shipped to the competition in Australia, though Corti first had to check with the winery to make sure a few bottles still were available.

Opinion was widely divided on the rest of the field, and Corti wanted to consider his notes, ponder the opinions of the other tasters, and check on availability before determining what other candidates would make up the American team.

May 31, 2006
Like an Old Photo, Icon Fades

Madonna, Jack Nicholson, not even Donald Trump could save Icon Restaurant & Lounge, which is to close any day now, report partners Randy Paragary and Chris Nestor.

Since it was made over from the short-lived Sammy Chu's and reopened as Icon a year and a half ago, the restaurant's most eye-catching design element has been large portraits of such icons as Madonna, Nicholson and Trump.

But the rest of the formula just hasn't clicked along the reviving R Street corridor. While the building that houses Icon is big, cleverly designed, relatively comfortable and easily accessible off busy 15th Street, Nestor blames the location for the restaurant's inability to generate sustained business and buzz. "Location, location, location. It didn't pan out as we would have liked," said Nestor in reflecting on the pending closure.

"We had a lot of regulars, but that location is kind of tough," he added. "It's time for someone else to try something different. I wish them luck. It's a weird location."

Whether that someone will be his landlord, Paragary, remains to be seen. Several potential operators have expressed interest in the site, but no deal yet has been struck. "I have some ideas of my own, and may end up doing it," said Paragary. If he runs it, the restaurant will be targeted more toward people who work and live in the immediate neighborhood, said Paragary. He isn't likely to create another destination restaurant like Sammy Chu's. If that sounds like the next incarnation could be a sports bar, Paragary only is saying that he's open to all sorts of options.

Nestor, meanwhile, will continue to operate his more successful restaurant, Ink Eats and Drinks, at 28th and N. He also isn't ruling out another new restaurant or two. "I'm definitely not out of the game. This is just a small minor setback," said Nestor. "I’m still young in this business, and I plan to stay in it a long time."

May 30, 2006
58 Degrees opens

The first of three prospective wine bars in downtown/midtown Sacramento opened quietly over Memorial Day weekend.

The expansive 58 Degrees & Holding Co., which also includes a wine shop, restaurant, and lockers for private wine storage, debuted in quarters previously occupied by the furniture store Slater/Marinoff & Co. next to the Mexican restaurant Zocalo along 18th Street near Capitol Avenue.

Already, a dozen of the shop’s 100 private wine lockers have been rented, reports Ian G. Smith, a partner in the enterprise. They can hold from eight cases to about 40 cases each, with rent ranging from $40 to $170 per month.
The lockers are intended to safeguard wines by keeping temperature and humidity steady, lighting low, security tight and vibration to a minimum.

Though not all the shop’s inventory has been stocked, 58 Degrees is expected to carry around 500 wines, focusing largely on small-production boutique labels with limited production, says Smith. They will not be necessarily expensive, however, with prices starting at around $8.

The international wine list of the wine bar - Bar 58 - offers 58 wines by a 3-ounce taste, a 6-ounce glass or a full bottle, with wines by the glass generally in the $6 to $9 range.

The menu, developed by David Feldman, who has put in stints at Enotria Restaurant & Wine Bar, Twenty Eight and Savoy 614, will be based in large part on locally produced seasonal ingredients. The opening menu runs largely to small plates of lighter fare, such as a country pate with apricot and fig chutney ($8), ahi tartare with avocado relish ($12), a spring vegetable risotto ($12) and a grilled steak sandwich with Brie, watercress and roasted-garlic aioli ($9).

Jeff Back, most recently of Seattle, and formerly of the Napa Valley resort Meadowood, is the shop’s resident sommelier.

58 Degrees & Holding Co., 1217 18th St., Sacramento, is open daily but Sunday, with the hours for the shop 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, for the bar and restaurant 3-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 3 p.m.-midnight Fridays and Saturdays.

May 30, 2006
New Summer Treat

The sandwich section in supermarket freezers devoted to ice-cream novelties is getting crowded, we discovered this Memorial Day weekend.

Just as warmer weather draws near, a new and intriguing sandwich is starting to appear alongside such perennial favorites as the Klondike, Mud Pie and It's-It.

The newest candidate to satisfy our hot-weather hunger for something both coolly refreshing and easy to handle has a sophisticated European flair to it. It's the Blisscotti, a sandwich in which a thick layer of ice cream is enclosed between two thin biscotti biscuits. Biscotti are crunchy Italian cookies often flavored with hazlenuts, anise seeds or almonds. Their popularity in the United States in recent years has paralleled the popularity of specialty coffee drinks, into which they customarily are dunked to soften them for easier eating. (In Italy, the firm biscuits traditionally have been dipped in the sweet wine vin santo, not coffee.)

The biscotti used for the Blisscotti aren't so much thick and sturdy as thin and pliable, with a somewhat buttery and almond flavor. They are firm enough, however, to hold solidly the dense yet creamy ice cream. The cookies also are spread with a thin layer of dark chocolate, but on the inside, against the ice cream, helping keep fingers clean.

The flavors mark a departure from the typical vanilla ice cream of more traditional ice cream sandwiches - "silky strawberry," "very vanilla bean," "cream coffee chip," "lively lemon zest" and "marvelous mint chip."

We tried the lemon and the coffee chip, finding both true to flavor, refreshing, balanced and rich. They weighed in at 230 calories and 8 grams of saturated fat for the lemon, 240 calories and 8 grams of saturated fat for the coffee chip.

Created and made by Cold Standard Inc. of Renton, Wash., and distributed by Dreyers Grand Ice Cream Inc., they sell for a suggested retail price of $3.49 for a two-sandwich box. We found them at the Safeway along Alhambra Boulevard, but Whole Foods Market, Albertson's and Raley's, among other markets, also are to be stocking them, say company representatives.

May 28, 2006
Same Old Tune

The Sacramento Jazz Jubilee this Memorial Day weekend is doing well muscially in its tribute to hurricane-wracked New Orleans, but if you head to one of the venues expecting concessionaires to acknowledge the Big Easy's other major contribution to American culture - the culinary arts - don't get your hopes up.

In visiting several of the venues Saturday, the only food and beverage we could find with a New Orleans attitude were the grilled oysters at the Firehouse Lot and brandy-laced coffee at Freeway Gardens, but if memory serves me correctly they're available every year. At Freeway Gardens you can find Italian sausage and Polish sausage, but no andouille sausage.

Nor, for that matter, could we find a muffaletta sandwich, a po' boy sandwich or even a beignet. Bartenders at the cocktail stands happily would mix us a Bloody Mary - another staple of the Jubilee - but if you asked about a Sazerac or French 75 you got a blank stare. We knew going in that the Hurricane is just too complicated to pull off in such casual settings, so we didn't even ask. Besides, this year it just might have been in bad taste to bring it up at all.

For the most part, gastronomy at the Jubilee is represented by such familiar foods a barbecued beef sandwiches, corn on the cob, garlic fries, pretzels and hot dogs, none of which is very representative of New Orleans. Next time the Jubilee's organizers choose a city or theme to recognize, may their good intentions include the food and beverage.

Most folks, however, attend the Jubilee for the music, and in that respect the entertainment is accomplished, spirited and varied, with groups like the Ophir Prison Kazoo Marching Band and Temperance Society, the King Cotton Jazz Band, Igor's Jazz Cowboys and D'Baba Project in especially fine form.

May 26, 2006
10 Best Wines of the Year, So Far

At the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition in San Francisco not long ago I had a chance to ask veteran Napa Valley wine writer Bob Thompson if I could appropriate for this here blog one of his fun approaches to winedom.

Back in the days when Bob was doing a regular wine column, he’d periodically update a feature called The 10 Best Wines of the Year, So Far.

I liked it then, and I like the idea now, and Bob said have at it. He also suggested I look back over my tasting notes since the start of the century and consider a feature to be called The 10 Best Wines of the Millenium, So Far.

I like that, too, and at the end of the year just may do it, but in the meantime, here’s my 10 Best Wines of the Year, So Far:

C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery 2003 Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel ($25): Zinfandels out of the Sierra foothills typically are intensely ripe, chewy and warm, and while this interpretation doesn’t back down from that kind of muscularity it is packaged with unusual balance and even elegance for the region.

Clos du Val 2000 Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($95): Just tasted this wine Monday evening, when California wineries that participated in a celebrated showdown with French wines in Paris 30 years ago were formally recognized by legislators at a reception at the Capitol. In the 1976 tasting, the Clos du Val 1972 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon finished eighth in the 10-wine field. Leap to the winery’s 2000 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a classic Napa Valley take on the varietal – extravagant with sweet cherry fruit, eucalyptus, cocoa, cedar and mint, with tannins that while obvious nonetheless don't erect a barrier to enjoying the wine today, though it should age handsomely for many years to come.

Louis M. Martini 2002 Sonoma Valley Monte Rosso Vineyard Gnarly Vines Zinfandel ($40): A porty, oaky and sweet-fruit smell at the outset suggests that this is going to be one weighty zinfandel, but on the palate it’s surprisingly lean and lithe, quivering like the string of a bow that just has released an arrow. Here’s a zinfandel that keeps inviting you back for its concentrated raspberry fruit and dash of pepper. It isn’t distributed much beyond the winery’s tasting room in the Napa Valley.

Merry Edwards 2003 Sonoma Coast Meredith Estate Pinot Noir ($48): I had a hunch this wine would be special, so I opened it for dinner on Valentine’s Day, and it delivered with an amplitude rare for California, even though the state is producing more and more pinot noirs of complexity and resonance. This one had a kind of papal richness about it – authority, tradition, grandeur – starting with alluring berry, cherry and deli-case aromas, swaggering with assurance in its bloodline, finishing with flavors that seemed as if they would last all year, and so far they have, at least in memory.

Mumm Napa 2001 Blanc de Blancs ($25): Sparkling wines rarely win the sweepstakes award at a major wine judging. They may be perfectly fine wines, but they tend to be too light against what generally is pretty heavy competition. At the final round of the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in San Bernardino this spring, however, the Mumm Napa 2001 Blanc de Blancs, which has the classic dry fruitiness and trademark toastiness of Champagne, won the top honor. An unusual blend of two-thirds chardonnay and one-third pinot gris, the wine offers a stony foundation topped with feathery bubbles, crisp acidity and refreshing fruit.

Peter Lehmann 2003 Barossa Valley Semillon ($11): Easily the best buy of the year, so far, this semillon pulls you in with its complicated smells of shrubbery and figs, and then won’t let you go because of its round yet tangy fruit flavors that evoke images of a nicely done still life involving a basket of lemons and a jar of honey.

Philip Shaw Wines No. 89 2004 Orange Shiraz Viognier ($45): Legendary Australian winemaker Philip Shaw finally is starting to show up in the American market with his own label. His lineup includes this exceptionally rich, juicy and complex interpretation of Australia’s flagship varietal. Only one percent of the wine is viognier, added to help tone down shiraz’s striking white-pepper spiciness when the grape is grown in a cool area like Orange.

Rancho Zabaco 2003 Sonoma Valley Monte Rosso Vineyard Toreador Zinfandel ($50): OK, so it has a whopping 15.9 percent alcohol, but it also has the fruit, oak and body to balance it all out, showing that even high-alcohol table wines can be elegant. It’s a monster, all right, but lovable for its ripe and spicy raspberry and blackberry flavors, punctuated with licorice and rhubarb. Just 174 cases were made.

Robert Pecota Winery 2005 Napa Valley L’Artiste Sauvignon Blanc ($15): I taste a lot of sauvignon blanc, and am especially keen on examples of the varietal from New Zealand. This sauvignon blanc, however, shows that California can produce a style that doesn’t just mimic the grapefruit and lime zestiness of the New Zealanders. The Pecota is equally as aromatic, vivacious and refreshing, but it has more structure and sinew, and a fruitiness that says peaches more than citrus.

Spring Mountain Vineyard 2002 Napa Valley Estate Caberent Sauvignon ($50): Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is muscular; that’s a given. Rarely is that power presented as gracefully as it is here, however. Think the weather is too warm for a hefty red? Not when it is as lithe and lively as this one, with its lip-smacking flavor of ripe and dewy Bing cherries and blackberries, with hints of chocolate and eucalyptus.

May 24, 2006
The Latest Round

Thirty years later and California still rules.

On the 30th anniversary of a blind tasting in Paris when nine French judges found California wines more to their liking than French, a similar showdown reinforced those first impressions.

Indeed, California red wines were even more dominant yesterday than they were three decades ago, seeming to end at least for the moment widespread speculation that California wines can’t age as well as French.

In Paris, three of the top five red wines were French. At yesterday’s simultaneous blind tastings in London and Napa, all five top red wines were Californian.

Yesterday’s winning wine was the Ridge Vineyards 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon, which finished fifth in Paris three decades ago.

The winning wine in Paris, the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, finished second yesterday.

Panelists in both Napa and London agreed that the Ridge was the day’s best wine, while the American judges ranked the Stag’s Leap second and the British panelists put it third, just behind the Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1970, which the Americans placed sixth.

The Paris tasting, widely credited for establishing California’s credentials on the world wine scene, also included 10 white wines, but that confrontation wasn’t repeated yesterday because whites customarily don’t age as gracefully as reds.

Instead, the competition’s sponsors, which in Napa was Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & The Arts, set up separate flights of contemporary wines from both countries made with chardonnay.

That is, the French whites were tasted together, the California whites similarly, without a face-to-face confrontation. The tasting was set up this way, said Peter Marks, the wine director for Copia, to emphasize the celebratory nature of the anniversary rather than the competitive side.

“We wanted to do justice to each area; it wasn’t meant for them to compete with each other. It would be like comparing apples and oranges, their styles are so unique right now,” said Marks.

In the French round, panelists in both Napa and London gave the highest marks to the Domaine Leflaive 2002 Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Pucelles.

In the California round, the panelists from both continents gave the highest marks to the Talley Vineyards 2002 Rosemary’s Vineyard Chardonnay.

Results from a similar round involving young red wines were not immediately available.

May 24, 2006
When Darrell Comes Marching Home

In a column in today's Sacramento Bee about the origin and meaning of the term "stone wine" from the Civil War era, I mentioned that it may have been a reference to Stone's Original Green Ginger Wine, created by London grocer Joseph Stone in 1740.

I also mentioned that Stone's Original Green Ginger Wine no longer is sold in the United States, if it ever was. This word came down from a representative of Constellation Brands in New York, which owns Stone's.

Subsequent word has come down from Darrell Corti, president of Corti Brothers grocery store in Sacramento. He stocks the stuff, he was quick to note, which came as news not only to me but to the folks at Constellation Brands, who have resumed looking into the matter.

In the meantime, Stone's Original Green Ginger Wine can be found at Corti Brothers for $12 per 750-milliliter bottle. Regardless of whether it inspired the term "stone wine" in some stanzas of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," it could be just the sort of refreshing beverage that would be welcome this Memorial Day weekend.

May 24, 2006
Cooking School of Savor and Art

The last pleasure of long-distance flight these days is the chance to read in relative solitude. And when the book is as enthralling as Jorge Amado's "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" (Avon paperback, $7.99, 622 pages), solitude pretty much is ensured. Not even a wailing baby in the seat behind is likely to distract you from Amado's humane and hilarious yarn of a Brazilian cooking-school owner who is widowed early on and eventually remarries a distinguished pharmacist who is the exact opposite of her first roguish husband.

Here's how the book opens: "Not because it is a confused day of grief, sadness, and weeping is this any excuse for a wake not to be held with due ceremony. If the mistress of the house, sobbing and fainting, beside herself, or dead in the coffin, cannot assume the duties herself, then some relative or friend should take charge of the rite, for one is not going to turn out into the dawn, at times in the winter cold, the devoted friends who have spent the night with the deceased, without eating or drinking."

While Dona Flor is the proprietor of a cooking school - the Cooking School of Savor and Art - and while the book reflects Amado's lusty appreciation of all aspects of Brazilian culture, with frequent references to such dishes as feijoada (black beans cooked with pork sausage, dried beef and peppers) and vatapa (chicken stewed in coconut milk with sliced shrimp, onion, red pepper and olive oil), this isn't a food book, but an impassioned, engaging and humorous story that may seem pedestrian on the surface but continually entertains and provokes. Rare is the paragraph that doesn't elicit at least a quiet chuckle. Hope I didn't disturb any fellow passengers on that flight to Denver this past weekend.

May 23, 2006
California's turning point

Wednesday is the 30th anniversary of what’s become known on the international wine stage as “The Judgment of Paris.”

On May 24, 1976, a panel of nine esteemed French wine judges tasted four white Burgundies against six California chardonnays, and four Grand Crus from Bordeaux against six California cabernet sauvignons to determine the best in the flights.

The tasting was blind, and much to the subsequent chagrin of the French they chose California wines as the best in each division, vaulting California wine into prominence alongside the finest wines in the world.

“It was a kick in the butt for the California wine industry, bringing confidence to the Californians,” says Christian Vanneque, who at 25 was the youngest of the French judges. “The French lost, California was here to stay. More than a statement was made.”

I chatted Monday evening with Vanneque in the Eureka Room of the state Capitol, temporarily converted into a wine cellar so legislators could recognize formally the 11 California wineries to participate in the 1976 tasting. (One, Veedercrest Vineyards of Carneros, no longer is in business.)

With each major milestone, the Paris tasting seems to grow in stature and mythology. At the time of the tasting, for one, Vanneque was head sommelier at the celebrated Parisian restaurant La Tour d’Argent. His boss was so miffed by the results of the tasting that Vanneque reputedly was fired. Never happened, says Vanneque today, though he was admonished that he never again should join such a competition. “And I didn’t get a raise for several months.”

Also on hand Monday was George M. Taber, author of last year’s “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine” (Scribner, $26, 326 pages).

In 1976, Taber was a correspondent for Time magazine, and the only journalist to cover the tasting. Rumors over the years, such that the French were tricked into participating in the tasting and that the outcome led to a fistfight among the judges, is what prompted him to write the book. He wanted to set the record straight on what increasingly has evolved into a truly historic event in California’s wine history.

“It was all very dignified. No one that day in that room appreciated that something historic had happened. Only 10 years later did it dawn on me that this was a turning point in the history of California wine,” says Taber.

Just one of the 20 wines poured May 24, 1976, still was being poured Monday night, the Ridge Vineyards 1971 California Cabernet Sauvignon. It was an artifact of the wine that finished fifth in the 1976 tasting of the reds, well past its prime but still showing solid structure and subtle but intriguing complexity.
A look at the fine print on the label showed that it had just 12.2 percent alcohol, modest by today’s standards.

Why, I asked another guest Monday evening, Warren Winiarski, whose Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon won the tasting, are alcohol levels in California wines so comparatively high these days?

“I think it’s ego driven. If a lot is good, more is better, goes the thinking. We can get all the ripeness we want, but should we? I don’t think so. Beauty and fatigue don’t go together. If you get tired of a wine, something’s wrong,” says Winiarski, addressing a common complaint that today’s high-alcohol wines tend to exhaust rather than refresh the palate. He couldn’t recall for sure the alcohol of his winning ‘73 cabernet, but he was confident it was under 13 percent.

May 22, 2006
Golden memories

Just in from Golden, Colo., where the highlight of the weekend was the romance, beauty and drama of the wedding of my nephew Kurt and his bride Beth. (Some of the drama was whether thunderstorms would continue to circle around the historic Boettcher Mansion 7,500 feet up the eastern slope of the Rockies or whether a bolt just might strike one of the old stone building's lightning rods as the couple recited their vows; none did, but the prospect may have speeded up the outdoor rites.)

I learned a few things while in Golden:

1) I'd taken a couple of bottles of fine California wine to share at the rehearsal dinner Saturday night. Colorado law, however, forbids diners from bringing their own wine to restaurants. "You can use them as lovely centerpieces," said the restaurant hostess, nicely softening her stern admonishment as she handed us the margarita menu.

2) Of course I knew Golden was home to Coors brewery, though I was a bit unhinged by the muddiness of Clear Creek flowing furiously toward the hulking plant in the middle of town. Just up the street from the brewery was the Buffalo Rose, a somewhat famed watering hole especially popular with bikers (Colorado has no helmet law, incidentally, and bar patrons still can smoke, though the latter looks as if it is about to be banned). At any rate, we joined the bikers on the tavern's warm, sunny and occasionally rain-moistened deck to enjoy the reggae band and the view of the brewery. Unfortunately, we couldn't order a Coors; inexplicably, the keg was dry. Against the odds, I asked for a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. To its credit, however, Golden isn't a company town, and that frosty bottle of Sierra Nevada sure cured my homesickness.

3) When we checked in to our hotel, the parents of the bride considerately had left welcome bags of local treats - a couple of bottles of Colorado spring water, a bag of Buffalo Bill's tortilla chips made in Denver, a jar of Amy Lasley's Rocky Mountain salsa made in Fort Collins, a sack of Colorado Colors trail mix made in Parker and the like.

As we nibbled away while watching another thunderstorm march across the hills we got to wondering what we'd put is a similar bag to welcome strangers to Sacramento. There'd have to be almonds, of course, and a box of "Sacramento Cookies," a bottle of Sacramento Valley olive oil with a loaf of locally baked ciabatta for tearing and dipping, and an Amador County zinfandel - with a screwcap instead of corkscrew to avoid complications at the airport as they leave town.

Any other suggestions?

May 19, 2006
Rib-eye riddle

Restaurateurs and chefs walk a dicey line between artistic expression and consumer satisfaction, as Larry Liberty of Carmichael found at the steakhouse Bandera the other evening.

He ordered the rib-eye steak, which comes with sliced vine-ripened tomatoes finished with Danish blue cheese, a garlicky vinaigrette and fresh basil.

Liberty, however, asked the server to substitute mashed potatoes for the tomatoes. The server apologetically explained that the restaurant couldn’t do that.

This discussion led to another discussion with an assistant manager, and eventually ended up in the hands of general manager Damon Burney.

Long before this point, I suspect, most restaurants would have conceded the issue to Liberty and made the substitution without resorting to an artistic snit.

Bandera, however, is very proud of its combination of rib-eye and tomatoes, and adamantly refused to remove them from Liberty’s plate.

“That’s one of the very few dishes where we won’t substitute,” says Burney. “Taking those tomatoes off the plate would be like taking an incredible ingredient out of a dish. That steak with those tomatoes is an amazing pairing. We feel that strong about it.”

The restaurant, however, will serve mashed potatoes as well as the tomatoes with the steak, which is what it did with Liberty, albeit on another plate, without charge.

“I have told about 1,000 people this story. I tell you so you can experience it yourself and tell me and your readers whether you agree or not,” wrote Liberty in an email.

For what it’s worth, I think the story had a reasonable and happy ending for all concerned. The restaurant stuck to its standards, the customer got the dish his way, more or less. Frankly, I admire chefs who make the effort to express their creativity, and when they feel they’ve come up with a dynamite dish I’d rather try to appreciate their vision than impose my own tastes on the matter. That’s perhaps the primary incentive to eat out.

By the way, Liberty found the rib-eye “fantastic.”

May 19, 2006
Winging it

Without missing a step, Adam LaZarre has moved gracefully from one stage to another, to judge by results coming out of the Los Angeles County Fair Wines of the World Competition, which wrapped up today in Pomona. Wine-writing buddy Andy Perdue, a judge at the event, reported in his blog a short time ago that the Cycles Gladiator 2004 Central Coast Syrah was named the competition's sweepstakes winner. I'd just tasted the wine, which while young seizes the varietal's distinctive mix of smoked meat, blueberries and pepper in a nicely balanced and vigorous package.

But as much as I like the wine, I'm equally pleased for this recognition for LaZarre, my winemaker of the year for 2004. At that time, he was making wines marketed under the brand HRM Rex Goliath, whose memorable label featured a purported 47-pound rooster who was a star attraction in the Texas Circus at the turn of the century. LaZarre helped build the HRM Rex Goliath label into a major success story, and after production exceeded 300,000 cases a year his employer, Hahn Estates of Soledad in Monterey County, sold the label to Constellation Brands.

But then Hahn Estates created an entirely new brand with similar aspirations, Cycles Gladiator, just now entering the market. LaZarre's new baby features label art even more fetching than the rooster - French painter G. Massias's 1895 art poster for the bicycle company Cycles Gladiator, showing a wild-haired nude trying to get a handle on a mythological winged bike. According to Hahn Estates, the image is meant to represent the "stylish grace, beauty, and unfettered freedom of our hillside vineyards." Those are some vineyards, and LaZarre is some winemaker.

Andy's report included a couple of other juicy tidbits. For one, at about 13.5 percent alcohol the Cycles Gladiator syrah is the first red wine under 14 percent alcohol to win the sweepstakes in several years, according to Dr. Bob Small, the competition's chairman. Secondly, in a preliminary round to pick the competition's best red wine the syrah edged by just one vote - 40-39 - a local wine, the Michael-David Winery 2004 Lodi Earthquake Petite Sirah.

May 18, 2006
Think pink

The really warm evenings lately have had us eating just one kind of food - salad - and tasting one kind of wine - pink.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, salads and wines can go together quite well, especially if the dressing isn't too vinegary or too lemony. As for a warm-weather wine regardless of entree, a light, bright, fruity and well-chilled rose accommodates meal and palate more refreshingly than any other style, except for maybe gewurztraminer or riesling.

What's more, roses are showing signs of new respect and popularity, with more labels arriving on store shelves and restaurant wine lists. We opened three recent releases last night, and they showed just how varied roses can be, even when their bright hues all more or less run to cranberry red tinged with purple and orange.

The Red Bicyclette 2005 French Rose ($11) was the lightest of the three, but it's solidly structured, with just a touch of residual sugar and a pleasantly complex fruitiness running to fresh strawberries and a trace of chalk. A blend of syrah (60 percent), grenache (36 percent) and cinsault (4 percent), it should be easy to find, given that 27,000 cases were produced.

The Folie a Deux 2005 Menage a Trois California Rose ($10) also should be relatively easy to find, with 10,000 cases produced. A blend of merlot, syrah and gewurztraminer, it was the most aromatic, plumpest and sweetest of the three, with enough weight and backbone to stand up to even grilled ribs, provided their sauce isn't too thick and cloying.

The most unusual and intriguing of the three - and also likely the most difficult to find, with just 390 cases made - was the Ceago Vinegarden 2005 Del Lago Clear Lake Syrah Rose ($18). It shows just how refined and multi-faceted a rose can be when the fruit (90 percent syrah, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon) is handled with precision and imagination (15 percent of the wine was aged briefly in oak barrels). The result is a medium-bodied dry rose with suggestions of strawberries and oranges in the flavor and a whiff of smoke in the smell. There's also a kind of rare earthiness to this rose that makes it seem more European than Californian, and which I like to think is a byproduct of the biodynamic techniques that winemaker Jim Fetzer uses in farming his vineyards.

If hamburgers are about to come off the grill, this rose has the framework to stand up to them, but if you're sticking with salad it will be equally as fitting.

May 17, 2006
Credit where credit is due

Linda Graham of Galt was disturbed by an incident at Mandango's Bar & Grill in Elk Grove: "When we ordered our meal, the waitress said she needed to hold our credit card. We weren't paying that way; we planned to pay cash. She nevertheless insisted it was their policy. We asked her what would happen if we didn't have a credit card. She said the manager would come speak to us. We were uneasy, but gave it to her. She put it in her pocket and gave it back at the end of the meal. Have you ever heard of this policy? What is the purpose of it? To avoid 'dine and dash'? We'll never go back there if that remains their policy. And, darn it, the food was real good."

My take: Yes, that's the policy at Mandango's. It's a fairly common practice at bars but not so much at restaurants. Mandango's, however, is as much sports bar as restaurant. Scott Ashley, who owns Mandango's, says he's had the same policy at the Sacramento branch for 11 years and the Roseville branch for 5, and while customers are accustomed to it at those sites they have been resistent to the concept at the Elk Grove facility, which opened last fall. The restaurants draw large crowds, especially on game days, with guests often moving about freely, from tables to bar and back again. It's difficult, says Ashley, for servers to keep track of them and to determine who has paid for what. Sometimes, guests will leave without paying their tab, perhaps innocently thinking someone they'd been with was footing the bill. Then the server is saddled with paying the bill out of his or her pocket. Ashley's solution is to have guests surrender their credit card at the outset, but he recognizes that in an era when people are concerned about identity theft this is likely to make them apprehensive. Ashley said his servers generally are able to work out an agreeable arrangement with hesitant guests, often by running their credit or debit card through their computer system for pre-authorization, immediately after which the card is returned to the patron.

May 17, 2006
Summer reading

As food editor at The Bee, I get an average two to four books a day – cookbooks, wine books, food anthologies and the like. A few get added to our library at The Bee. Some get reviewed in Wednesday’s Taste section. Most get donated to libraries and benefit auctions.

Right now, 30 new books are stacked on and about my desk as I ponder what to do with them. They include a cookbook by Meredith Brokaw, wife of retired NBC-TV newsman Tom Brokaw, about how they eat and entertain at their Montana ranch (“Big Sky Cooking,” Artisan, $35, 224 pages). I don’t know if we’ll review that one, though I do look forward to testing the recipe for “Tom’s sunset margaritas.”

Big Oyster.JPGMark Kurlansky, who has a knack for making fascinating copy out of ordinary culinary topics – his earlier works include “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World” and “Salt: A World History” – is back with “The Big Oyster” (Ballantine, $23.95, 307 pages), an historical survey of the development of New York City as seen through its oyster culture.

I really don’t understand much of the art of Ralph Steadman, but I do appreciate how the wine labels he does for Bonny Doon Vineyards leap out grotesquely from store shelves. Steadman is a wine enthusiast, and he’s now out with his second book on his travels through the world’s wine regions, “Untrodden Grapes” (Harcourt, $35, 246 pages), in which he alternates his wild art with essays on the wines, customs and people he meets on his treks.

And speaking of Ralph Steadman, the label he did for Bonny Doon’s Cardinal Zin zinfandel is one of more than 100 strangely diverting labels that collector Peter May has assembled in the oddest wine book of the year, so far. His “Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World” (Quirk, $16.95, 256 pages) not only is a gallery of provocative wine labels but the stories behind them, along with tasting notes on the wines within the bottle. The Marilyn Merlot of the title refers to a series of California wines, while Naked Grape is a range of French wines. More controversial labels include an Italian wine with a portrait of Benito “Il Duce” Mussolini; wines called Rude Boy and Rude Girl, whose labels are printed with temperature sensitive ink that fades away at certain temperatures, stripping him of his shorts, she of her dress; and an Australian semillon whose bare-breasted Queen of Clubs couldn’t be exported to the United States until artist Anelia Pavlova tastefully covered the subject’s chest.

The Smithsonian Institution has sent along uncorrected proofs for a book almost certain to become a best seller during the year-end holidays – “How to Feed an Army: Recipes and Lore from the Front Lines” by J.G. Lewin and P.J. Huff (Smithsonian, $15.95, 192 pages). Recipes from the Revolutionary War (hoe cakes) to Operation Iraqi Freedom (“zesty rotini pasta salad...a nice picnic or barbecue dish”) are among the more than 100 dishes in the book. There’s slow-roasted rabbit from the War of 1812, pineapple chicken from the Vietnam War, and chop suey hash from World War I. Most recipes are presented in two formats – one “for an army of 100” and one “for an army of 10.” The book is to be published in August.

Food books can be artistic, sentimental, inspiring and helpful, but rarely are they funny, unless they’re written by Robb Walsh or Calvin Trillin. Wendy McClure, however, is more humorist than cook, and as she helped her parents clean out their basement a few years ago she came across a plastic file box filled with Weight Watchers recipe cards from the 1970s. She recognized them right away as the raw ingredients for an outrageously funny food book. And now it’s been published, “The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s” (Riverhead Books, $12.95, 121 pages). You can’t cook from this book but you sure can laugh. All she’s done is reproduce the front of each card, then jotted alongside her witty take. Here’s the card for Swiss stew, a casserole of indeterminate red meat and green peas, and McClure’s aside: “Um, Heidi? I have some bad news. It’s about your goats.” Here’s the card for “perfect pizza lunch,” and McClure’s quip: “It’s provolone on tomato puree on white bread, which makes it neither ‘perfect’ nor ‘pizza.’ And I bet you could lose the ‘lunch’ part, too. Literally.”

May 16, 2006
Oakville: An update

Once a year I get a chance to taste the wines perhaps most responsible for the Napa Valley's celebrity on the international wine scene. This year, that was yesterday, when the Taste of Oakville convened at the Robert Mondavi Winery.

Among the Napa Valley's several sub-appellations, Oakville boasts the largest concentration of labels responsible for the valley's cult-wine culture. These are the wines - cabernet sauvignon, most prominently - that command hundreds if not thousands of dollars on wine lists at many of the country's more prestigious restaurants. They include releases like Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Harlan Estate and Opus One, and many restaurateurs and retailers converge on the tasting to appraise current or pending releases.

But as in the past, I came away from the tasting asking myself what all the excitement is about. To be sure, there were wines of concentration, complexity and power, but in many instances it will take years if not decades for those characteristics to emerge and for the wines to be pleasantly drinkable, and even then, I fear, the reward may not justify the investment of either time or money.

I am continually stumped by the acclaim surrounding Screaming Eagle. Here's a winery that makes only about 500 cases of wine a year, and recently sold for between $30 million and $70 million according to speculation rampant through the valley (to be sure, whatever the price was it also included 55 acres of vines).

Screaming Eagle customarily sells for $300 a bottle upon release, and the last time I covered the Napa Valley Wine Auction, six years ago, a six-liter bottle of the winery's 1992 cabernet sauvignon sold for $500,000 to Lake Tahoe resident Chase Bailey, who reportedly has since moved to Paris. (A six-liter bottle, also called an imperial, holds the equivalent of eight regular-size bottles of wine.)

The 2003 Screaming Eagle at yesterday's tasting, which isn't to be released until October at a price yet to be determined, was a letdown - tight, hard and austere, with no complexity, an abrupt finish and a chalkiness that smoothered its fruit. Maybe the bottle was in shock and the wine eventually will come around, but it reinforced my earlier impressions that the character expected in a wine that has received so much acclaim simply wasn't there.

My favorite wine of the day also was rigid and short, but it had a tightly coiled fruitiness and earthy complexity that felt like it could at any time spring forth with exuberance and power, but don't count on it for about 10 years or so, said Naoko Dalla Valle, whose Dalla Valle Vineyards made the 2002 cabernet sauvignon, which sells for $100. It takes that long for all her wines to really start to strut their stuff, and she expressed regret that she hadn't brought along a 10-year-old vintage to make her point.

A few producers new to me were impressive for the generosity of the fruit in their wines and their overall balance and length, including the 2003 cabernet sauvignon of Stanton Vineyards, whose beckoning attributes included layers of chocolate and tobacco on a blackberry foundation ($65); the juicy 2003 cabernet sauvignon of Showket Vineyards, one of the few wines of the day ready to drink now, but also with the structure to age ($75); the refreshingly minty 2001 cabernet sauvignon of Paradigm, a stand-out among the wines for its insistent persistence ($53); and the fresh, spicy, muscular and voluminous 2003 cabernet sauvignon of Emilio's Terrace, the easiest wine to drink all day, though it isn't to be released until September (expect to pay around $50).

Most of the more gratifying wines, largely for their accessibility, elegance and depth, were from producers who have been working with Oakville fruit the longest, and seem to have adapted adroitly to vagaries of the yearly harvests: The 2003 Hoopes Ranch cabernet sauvignon of Cosentino Winery, a veritable glass of chocolate-dipped cherries ($65/$75); the popularly constructed (read plenty of oak) 2003 cabernet sauvignon of PlumpJack Winery, also ebullient with blackberry, cherry and mint flavors ($68); the 2002 Oakville cabernet sauvignon of Robert Mondavi Winery, an adventurous archaeological dig into the appellation, revealing strata of bright red fruit, chocolate, licorice and cedar on a supple frame ($50/$55); the 2001 cabernet sauvignon of Harlan Estate, at once chewy and silken, strapping without stepping on toes ($245); and the 2003 Oakville cabernet sauvignon of Venge Vineyards, whose abundant oak complemented rather than obscured the richness of its fruit and the alluring mineral component at its core ($100).

These are expensive wines, but high in demand. Much of their appeal may have more to do with the auction circuit than the dinner table. But a caution: If you think you might want to invest in them with the thought of actually drinking them 5 to 15 years down the road, consider sharing the cost of a bottle with a few other wine enthusiasts, then share the wine over dinner to see if you'd like to buy more.

May 15, 2006
The wine for rabbit

No one said, "Good, kitty." But no one stopped tasting, either.

We'd been driving along Ridge Road east of Sutter Creek late Saturday morning when we saw a sign for a winery we'd never heard of, Avio Vineyards.

We pulled in, sauntered into the tasting room and were enjoying the view of Butte Mountain looming over the Mokelumne River Canyon when a show-off cat named Squirt leaped through an open window to deposit at the feet of three fellow tasters from Modesto a very dead rabbit. Squirt is very good at helping control gophers and rabbits in the vineyard spilling down the hillside just outside the tasting room, explained the winery's owners, Stefano and Lisa Watson, though they really didn't need to.

Squirt also is one of 49 animals on the couple's 77-acre spread. Most have been rescued, and they range from dogs and cats to llamas and lambs, one of which Lisa Watson cradles in her arms in the tasting room just before she retrieved rabbit and cat.

The Watsons, who had been living in Atlanta, where he was in high-tech sales, bought the ranch two years ago and opened their winery late last summer, naming it after the northern Italian town where she grew up.

Stefano had been a home winemaker for 24 years. When he decided to try his hand at it commercially he scouted land from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to the Shenandoah Valley of California, settling on the Ridge Road site because it was affordable and because the setting reminds the couple of Italy.

They make a representative Amador County zinfandel and a stylish cabernet sauvignon, but their bread-and-butter wine is the Avio Vineyards 2003 Amador County Barbed Wire Red ($11), an easy-drinking and spirited blend of sangiovese (70 percent) and zinfandel (30 percent). It's a spaghetti wine, best drunk from traditionally squat little trattoria glasses, suggests Stefano Watson, who also wryly recommends it with rabbit. I was surprised to read on the label that the wine contains 15.5 percent alcohol; it doesn't seem at all hot. The wine was given its name for the propensity of several of the couple's vines to favor a nearby barbed-wire fence over the wires of their trellis.

The couple farms 30 acres of vines, 10 each of sangiovese and zinfandel, the rest a bunch of other varieties. They sell much of their zinfandel to Rombauer Vineyards in the Napa Valley. They're converting a former carriage house on the property into a one-couple bed-and-breakfast inn they hope to open in June. Leave the door open on a warm summer night and who knows what kind of surprise Squirt might have waiting for you.

Avio Vineyards, 14520 Ridge Road, Sutter Creek, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday; (209) 267-1515. At this early stage in the winery's development the wines aren't being distributed much beyond Amador County.

May 14, 2006
Surprises from Bordeaux

I've a hunch my view of Bordeaux is shared by several other American wine enthusiasts: The wines of Bordeaux may be the greatest made, but they're complicated and expensive, inaccessible when young, nerve-wracking as they age because you never really know when they will be at their prime.

Thus, I jumped at the chance Friday to mingle with 14 winemakers from Bordeaux and to taste as many of the 100 wines they'd brought with them as I'd like (I called it a day after 44). Mostly, I wanted to see if there was any substance to the claims they were making before they landed in San Francisco. They'd been saying that Bordeaux has a story to tell beyond the 60 or so estates classified in 1855 as the region's top chateaux - Lafite-Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Latour and the like, the brands that command the dearest prices and generate the most headlines.

Those classified growths, however, account for only around five percent of Bordeaux's output, and beyond them is a vast sea of wine the French are desperate to sell as the rest of the winemaking world expands.

There were wines at Friday's tasting that came in screwcap bottles. There were wines whose labels included the names of the variety or varieties of the grapes in the bottle. Both of these developments are new for Bordeaux, suggesting its producers aren't as hidebound as they often seem.

The winemakers tended to be younger than older, and they were exploratory and hip. They'd spent the day before in the Napa Valley (coming away stung by the prices of the wines). Some were going to that night's Giants/Dodgers game, and a couple hoped to squeeze in a concert the next day before flying home. Estelle Roumage, who after five generations is the first woman winemaker at her family's Chateau Lestrille Capmartin, was to spend the weekend in Auburn visiting California relatives.

They even liked the food. "The food is more international here. In France we have French food and that's all," said Sylvie Courselle, third-generation winemaker at her family's Chateau Thieuley. "My father and grandfather didn't travel at all," she said of the winemakers she's succeeded.

But it's a new world for the French. They recognize they no longer can rely on tradition and prestige to sell their wines. "Basically, everybody," said Thibault Despagne of Chateau Tour de Mirambeau when asked who these Bordeaux producers see as their competition. "We're under challenge."

Down the road, I'll do a column that will take a look at this group of Bordeaux wines, but the bottom line at the end of the tasting was that the region does indeed offer wine enthusiasts a class of wines more affordable and more approachable than what Americans might customarily imagine when they hear that magic word "Bordeaux." As a group, the wines tend to be leaner and dryer than California wines, but with surprising aromatics up front and surprising length in the finish. The down side is that because California wines are so understandably dominant in the Sacramento market they won't be easy to find. Nonetheless, the next time you see a Bordeaux wine on shelf or wine list don't dismiss it out of hand; tap the expertise of merchant or steward to see if the style of the producer and the nature of the vintage might accommodate the food you expect to serve with it. And then expect to be pleasantly surprised.

May 11, 2006
Bordeaux bound...sort of

Soon after this gets posted Friday morning I'll be on my way to San Francisco, not with Giants/Dodgers tickets in my wallet but hope in my heart. I'm feeling sorry for the French, and I'd like to help them out. Their grape growers and winemakers are reeling. Not only are international sales of their wines down, the French themselves are drinking less of their own wine. Vineyards are being plowed under and wine is being distilled into industrial alcohol. The French are so desperate to rescue their wine trade they're adopting American winemaking methods, like using wood chips to flavor wine rather than age it in more traditional - and expensive - barrels.

But gamely, the French are trying to rally. A bunch of them from Bordeaux are to be in San Francisco today, pouring tastes of 100 wines they think Americans will find flavorful and "affordable," the latter a whole new concept for Bordeaux wine marketers, who up to now have delighted in boasting that their wines are the dearest on the planet. They define "affordable," incidentally, as wines in the $8 to $25 range, taking in the most highly competitive price niches in the trade these days.

Well, I'll see what kind of flavor and value these wines offer, then report back Monday.

May 11, 2006
Pops in the park

The strawberry shortcake, hot dogs and cherries all were tempting, but with the temperature at 90 degrees the treat that really caught my eye and grabbed my palate at last night’s farmers market in Davis was the “gourmet popsicles.”

H.T. Jaymes Luu may have the smallest space at the market – basically an ice-cream vendor's bicycle cart – but her pops just might be the brightest and most novel food in the park.

Her fruity and icy selection changes for each Wednesday and Saturday market, running to such flavors as the creamy strawberry and coconut, the spirited kiwi and mango and the popular green tea and honey, which yesterday evening had sold out long before we found a parking place (Wednesdays and Saturdays is when Davisites forget they’re supposed to uphold the city’s image as the cycling capital of the West).

So far, she’s created about 30 flavors. Others include strawberry banana basil, honeydew cucumber, guava watermelon, cantaloupe chai, beet tangerine and citrus hibiscus.

In addition to the green tea and honey, other especially popular pops are the kaffir limeade with avocado, cantaloupe chive and plum passionfruit. The most unusual could be the “mint Arnold Palmer,” a blend of homemade lemonade, home-brewed tea and crushed fresh mint, inspired by a beverage popularized by the golfing great in Palm Springs.

“The flavors change all the time. They’re different each week,” says Luu.
Most have their fans, but a couple have bombed, like the “drunken cherry chocolate” and the corn and coconut.

A graduate in business from the University of Florida, Luu devises her own creations or follows up on the suggestions of customers. She uses all natural ingredients, often working with overripe produce she gathers from farmers at the market.

Soon after graduation she discovered the business world wasn't her thing, so she returned to her hometown of Orlando to work in restaurants before heading west to enroll in culinary classes from Sonoma to Rocklin. "I've always loved ice cream, and knew I wanted my own food booth," she says.

At first she experimented with Italian ices, then got fascinated with popsicles. She founded the business last spring, originally as Pink Rhino, but she’s recently changed the name to Aisu Pop (“aisu” is Japanese for “ice”).

She makes the popsicles at Tucos Wine Market & Cafe in Davis, where she also prepares desserts, though none of them is frozen. She sells about 150 of the pops at each of the twice-weekly markets. They cost $2 each.

May 10, 2006
Zin Win...Not

A watered down version of a bill originally meant to designate zinfandel California's official state wine made it out of a Senate committee this morning, but where it goes from here and what it means is unclear.

For sure, it lacks its original standing, which would have put zinfandel right up there with the dog-face butterfly, golden poppy, golden trout, gray whale, bear flag and about 20 other symbols that amount to a shorthand version of California's natural and cultural history.

In recent weeks, however, Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, amended her original measure to substitute "the historic wine of California" for "the official state wine of California," clearly a weaker and less significant and divisive designation, though a nice gesture.

The change was made, said Migden's legislative aide, John Vigna, because of "concerns about designating a commercial product an official anything."

Eh? As I suggested in an earlier column, if legislators were to buy into this argument they might as well move out of their redwood houses (state tree), stop attending performances at the Pasadena Playhouse (state theater), quit eating quail (state bird) and remove their gold wedding bands and toss them my way (state mineral).

So, Sen. Migden caved, though it's not clear right now who got to her, but I suspect the cabernet-sauvignon lobby out of the Napa Valley, the state's best organized and best heeled community of vintners, exerted some pressure.

To his credit, Sen. Wesley Chesbro, D-Arcata, whose district includes much of the north state's wine areas, abstained from Wednesday's vote before the Senate's government organization committee. "He likes zinfandel as much as an any varietal, but as chair of the select committee on California’s wine industry he felt that there was no way he should show special consideration for any one variety," said his spokeswoman, Darby Kernan.

Fair enough, and words we'll remember if anyone urges him to support a bill to designate cabernet sauvignon as California's official state wine.

May 10, 2006
Hollow Protest

In a rant at Slate, columnist Mike Steinberger reminds me of the guy in school who won’t acknowledge that the prettiest girl on campus is even cute. She’s too shallow and too skinny, he gripes, trying to hide his real fear – that he’s mad about her but has to hold his passion in check because she isn’t from the nobility in which he is expected to marry.

He’s writing of sauvignon blanc, dismissing the grape as a “dud, producing chirpy little wines wholly devoid of complexity and depth.”

Some of what he says has merit. Sauvignon blanc isn’t likely to be the most glamorous and entangling companion on the table, but it’s risen sharply in esteem and authority over the past couple of decades under the tutelage of vintners who patiently have coaxed out its inner beauty and spirit.

One measure of how much more alluring sauvignon blanc is today than it was 20 years ago is that at that time I wrote a column similar in tone to Steinberger’s, dissing sauvignon blanc as confusing and insipid.

I doubt I went about it with the kind of jocularity and fire Steinberger uses in dismissing sauvignon blanc: “Spare me that old chestnut about versatility: It is hardly surprising, given their acute lack of personality, that these smily face wines can accommodate themselves to just about any dish. Water can, too,” he vents. That’s good, really good.

But I think he protests a bit too much, a sure sign he’s being tempted by the flirtatious little tart that is sauvignon blanc, often so athletic, assertive and racy that Steinberger only can blush and sweat when he meets one that truly has something to say, and isn’t shy about speaking up. Who can’t like a wine whose descriptors often run to freshly mown hay, rapier acidity, gooseberry, gunflint, grapefruit, cat pee, spice and lime?

No character? No verve? No brio? That’s not the kind of sauvignon blanc I’ve been drinking in recent years. I’m tempted to round up a bunch of them and ship off a case to Steinberger, who I suspect hasn’t set aside his fondness for powerful and pricey chardonnays long enough to really explore sauvignon blanc.

There are scores of producers doing exciting things with sauvignon blanc these days, including Robert Pecota, Geyser Peak, St. Supery, Kenwood, Kunde and Bogle, all from California, as well as New Zealanders like Lawson’s Dry Hills, Kim Crawford, Kathy Lynskey, Lake Chalice, Saint Clair, Stoneleigh and Nobilo, among others. And don’t overlook sauvignon blancs from other New World wine regions, such as Chile’s Veramonte.

At the Riverside International Wine Competition a few weeks ago, our panel tasted 24 sauvignon blancs from the 2004 vintage and gave four of them gold medals: Concannon Vineyard 2004 Central Coast Selected Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($10), Concannon Vineyard 2004 Monterey County Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ($18), Rancho Zabaco 2004 California Dancing Bull Sauvignon Blanc ($10) and Miramonte Winery 2004 Temecula Private Reserve Sauvingon Blanc ($22). They were varied, vibrant, refreshing and, yes, perfectly at home at the summer table.

Maybe next year the competition’s organizers will invite Steinberger to judge, seating him, of course, on the sauvignon blanc panel. He could come away a changed man, finally professing publicly his love for sauvignon blanc.

May 9, 2006
Butchered dinner

If there were a prize for the first question sent to this here blog, Marky Gard of Folsom would win it:

What is your opinion about restaurants that use a linen tablecloth and then cover it with butcher paper? I personally feel if they want to use a linen cloth to
look a little higher scale, then why cover it with the butcher paper?

At a dinner Saturday night, I had to put up with the edge of the
paper catching the sleeve of my blouse every time I wanted to lift my
wine glass as well as my fork. I asked the waiter why they use the paper
and he said it was so the tablecloth wouldn't get dirty!! Then why use
the tablecloth? I finally asked him to remove the paper it was so


You've touched on one of my pet peeves about dining out. Sheets of paper on a tablecloth are both nuisance and hazard as sleeves snag the edge and raise the paper, threatening to topple if not actually knock over wine glasses, candle, vase or the like. Conflicted restaurateurs are the culprits; they want to give the impression of an upscale restaurant without following through with the sort of investment an upscale restaurant demands, including fresh linens for each new party.

Nonetheless, while the paper sheets are nettlesome they aren't so common or bothersome that they constitute a major dining issue. They do, after all, give diners a convenient pad on which to write their own restaurant review, perhaps starting with: "Get rid of these sheets!"

May 8, 2006
Leap of faith

My destination was Frogtown on the southern outskirts of Angels Camp, but I got to the old Mother Lode gold camp 45 minutes before the start of the Sierra Foothill Wine Competition, so I killed time with a stroll about the city.

Apparently I hadn't done this for at least six years, which is when the city began to create its equivalent of Hollywood's Walk of Fame. I paused every couple of steps along Highway 49 through Angels Camp's business district to take note of another large brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk. Each recognizes a winner of the community's Jumping Frog Jubilee, which goes back to 1928. (This year’s fair starts May 17, with the frog-jumping finals Sunday, May 21.)

The first winner, “Pride of San Joaquin,” leaped 3’9.” The next year, “Hooligan” set a new “world record” with a jump of 4’0.” But over the decades, the record has grown by leaps and bounds, and now stands at 21’5-3/4,” set by “Rosie the Ribiter” in 1986.

What have those frogs been eating, or is something darker at work here, like performance-enhancing drugs? While jubilee officials don’t test the amphibious athletes for steroids and the like, they’re confident nothing as nefarious as that is going on.

The frogs generally are caught in the wild just before the contest, says Sandra Date, vice president of Angels Camp Boosters, the service group that has been overseeing the contest since its inception. “Most of these frogs aren’t raised in captivity. The less you handle them the better they jump.”

And she has a reasonable explanation why today’s winning frogs leap so much farther than early competitors. Nowadays, their leap is measured after three jumps; early on, just one leap was measured.

Incidentally, the frogs, winners and losers alike, customarily are returned to the wild after the jubilee, so don’t drive up to Angels Camp if you have a hunger for deep-fried frogs legs.

May 8, 2006
Sierra Foothill winners

Just spent much of a day in Angels Camp as one of about two dozen judges for the Calaveras County Fair’s 26th annual Sierra Foothill Wine Competition.

After about five hours of deliberation, some 240 wines and a couple of runoffs in the sweepstakes rounds, we agreed on three best-of-show winners that despite split votes seemed to be embraced uniformly by all panelists when it was over.

This was rare for a wine competition. Almost always after the final votes are cast some judges are quibbling or even challenging the selection of one best-of-show winner or another.

Why such harmony in Angels Camp? Could have been the lush green hills rising dramatically and invitingly outside the cafeteria where the judging took place. Could have been the balmy and sunny weather, lifting everyone’s spirits. Could have been that this judging simply drew an unusually strong field. Or it could have been that because the field was so small judges had more time than usual to deliberate, and made choices more carefully than they can in larger competitions.

At any rate, flight after flight that came to our table was surprisingly strong, a reflection, perhaps, of the experience and intelligence that grape growers and winemakers in the Mother Lode are accumulating with each vintage.

Here’s our best-of-show winners:

White: Lavender Ridge Vineyard 2004 Sierra Foothills Roussanne ($22), a rich and complex yet leanly refreshing take on a French variety whose limited cultivation in California is bound to grow if other winemakers can craft examples as balanced and forthright as this. It edged by one vote, incidentally, the Stevenot Winery 2005 California Silvaspoon Vineyards Verdelho ($18), another rare California variety that when handled astutely, as it was here, produces a thin-boned but frisky wine with overtones of spiced apple, a splendid addition to the spring picnic basket.

Red: Who says fine wine doesn’t belong in a screwcap bottle? Not Amador County’s Sobon family, whose ripe, spicy and berry, berry intense Sobon Estate 2004 Fiddletown Zinfandel ($20) took this honor, edging the fat, sweetly fruity, mouth-filling Lava Cap Winery 2003 El Dorado Granite Hill Vineyard Petite Sirah ($30).

Dessert: For a sunny, sweet and lushly floral introduction to spring that doesn’t come with itchy eyes and a sneezy nose pick up a bottle of the Stevenot Winery 2005 Calaveras Estate Muscat Canelli ($18 per 375-milliliter bottle), just the sort of peachy treat you want on the dinner table until the summer peaches themselves start to arrive, and maybe even then as well.

May 8, 2006
Getting Acquainted

Flipped open the folder labeled “Old Dogs/New Tricks” the other day and found this: Blog.

Well, why not?

I’ll be addressing here what for me is relatively familiar territory - restaurants, wine and food. Within those areas, it will be relatively free-form. I intend to blog frequently, with allowances for weekends, vacations, the inevitable slow news day and relapses of spring fever.

Though I make a point of eating at least three meals a day, which would seem to provide me with plenty of material, my diet, frankly, isn’t all that captivating. Breakfast often runs to yogurt and granola, with a side of fruit. Lunch is similarly light, or at least that's the intent. Dinner is the wild card. I may be testing a recipe at home - one of the pecularities of my cooking is that I very rarely repeat a dish - or eating something quick and simple to help compensate for my several dinners out each week in my role as The Bee's restaurant critic.

One goal of this blog is to encourage you to alert me to a restaurant, winery, wine or food with a story to tell. I’m hoping you will send suggestions about all these topics.

To judge by the phone calls and e-mails I already get, I’m confident you also will ask questions concerning dining issues, restaurants, wine and the like. I will attempt to answer them, giving priority to those answers that seem of value to a broad audience. A caveat: I may not be very quick to respond to some questions. I’m still writing for The Bee’s print edition, and those deadlines will continue to be my first concern. And a reminder: The Bee has updated its archive of restaurant reviews at so they will be more accessible and helpful, and I urge you to look there before asking me for a restaurant recommendation.

My main intent here is to send forth observations and tips that might not find as timely a place in one of my dining or wine columns in The Bee. My hope is that the local online audience will turn here regularly for a tidbit about a dining custom, restaurant, wine or some other aspect of the culinary world that catches my fancy.

It’s important to note that the content of blogs differs from the content of the traditional newspaper. Pieces here will be more opinionated, personal and casual. But many of the same standards will continue to apply, especially with respect to accuracy and fairness. That said, let’s get on with it.

May 7, 2006
UC Davis Food Olympics

And they say young people can’t cook. But Sunday, I came across about 40 who not only can but can with imagination, spontaneity, gusto and speed.

Of course, it helps that they are grad students in food science and technology at UC Davis, and that as motivation they were competing for gift certificates to Starbucks and IKEA.

The event was the fifth annual Food Olympics in and about Cruess Hall. The students helped form eight teams of four to eight members each.

Actually, one team, Cook the Books, was made up solely of faculty and staff of the food science and technology department. Given its, well, culinary experience, it seemed to be the favored team to take home the perpetual trophy, the Silver Spoon, a perspective endorsed by Karen Gurley, the department manager. "We’re going to kick the students’ butts," she crowed at the outset of one of four events in which the teams competed, Culinary Combat, inspired by and similar in format to the "Iron Chef" television series.

Shortly before they were to start cooking at a series of small stations and ranges in a lab in the hall, the teams were given boxes of 28 "super-secret" ingredients, ranging from dried shiitake mushrooms and bratwurst to a single bottle of beer and six slices of white bread. The oddest were green food coloring and a jar of vegetable baby food.

I was one of three judges who would taste and score the 31 dishes the teams created. I can’t speak for the others, both of the Culinary Institute of America at St. Helena in the Napa Valley - Chris Loss, who teaches food safety and nutrition, and Stephen Durfee, a baking and pastry instructor - but I’ve had my fill of vanilla yogurt, cream cheese, mango and feta for the rest of the year. They also were among the 28 secret ingredients, all of which each team was required to use in the three to five dishes they would prepare.

Cooking competitions are fun to judge, but they aren’t without risk. I was reminded of this twice Sunday. First, when we were handed "indemnity agreements" soon after we walked in, swearing that we wouldn’t sue the university’s regents in the event of psychological trauma, catastrophic injuries, scratches, bruises, sprains and "embarrassment." Then, when we found that students often hadn’t removed the bones from the trout. Nonetheless, we seem to have survived without a scratch, though competing students may feel we should be embarrassed by our voting.

In staggered starts, each team had 90 minutes to prepare their meals. I’m not an intuitive cook, and admire anyone who can look into a basically bare cupboard and refrigerator and nonetheless assemble a dinner flavorful, colorful and wholesome.

The students weren’t working with a bare pantry, just a weirdly stocked one, and yet they turned out one artful and balanced composition after another in just an hour and a half. The team Saucee came up with an inspired take on fish and chips - seared trout finished with a brown butter sauce, accompanied with thin slices of fried root vegetables - and got extra points for deftly hiding the baby food under a stuffed tomato.

The Fairfield Foodies, a team made up of students and alumni who work at the Budweiser brewery in Fairfield, was the only team to think of using its beer to entice the judges with a cup off to the side, sparking it up with a dash of lemon, but it was still a Bud Light and might have hurt rather than helped their chances.

My single favorite dish was a big, bright crepe stuffed with balsamic seasoned trout, shiitake mushrooms and basil, topped with a salsa of mango and tomatoes, by What’s That Team’s Name?

We Want to Beat Michelle’s Team came up with a wonderfully zesty and layered Thai soup in a bread bowl, while Wineaux deep-fried its trout whole, twisted it into a swimming pose for a striking presentation, and served it with a lively ginger, basil and lime cream sauce.

Wineaux, indeed, ended up the day’s big winner, taking first place not only in the cooking segment but racking up the most points overall. Other events included a College Bowl-like quiz show, an engineering segment in which teams had to rig up contraptions to keep eggs from breaking when they’re dropped from a ladder about 12 feet tall, and a golf tournament with produce substituted for balls.

Cook the Books won the golf tournament, but didn’t finish in the top three overall.

May 7, 2006
A New Tortilla in Town

You’d think all the spring showers we’ve had would be enough to get me in the mood for the sunshine and warmth of Baja, but no, I had to have some carnitas tacos to fully get me in the right frame of mind.

Rounding up ingredients at Corti Brothers, I spotted an unfamiliar brand of corn tortillas, Abuelita’s, which, according to the packaging, translates as “Grandma's.”

The tortillas looked fresh and homey, and they were – as well as sturdy, toasty and a touch sweet. Turns out they’re a local product, recently introduced by Madrid Santa Fe Trading, a company near Sacramento Executive Airport.
Madrid has been making specialty Mexican foods for about 30 years, the past decade specializing in flavored gourmet tortillas, from the sweet to the spicy.
Anthony Madrid says he was inspired to try his hand at a better tortilla when the tortillas he and his family were using at a party kept breaking (they were a competitor’s, he notes).

Thus Abuelita’s, a corn tortilla so revolutionary that Madrid has a patent pending for the product. His secret to getting it to hold together? A little wheat gluten in the recipe, he acknowledges. “That's what makes them flexible and strong.”

A package of 10 sells for about $2, and they can be found at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Davis Natural Foods and Taylors Market as well as Corti Brothers. Nugget markets also are expected to start carrying them any day now, says Madrid.

May 7, 2006
Kosher wines

My intentions were good, and I thought they’d be easy to fulfill. I’d offered to bring wine to the Passover seder. Like every other food writer, I’ve reported on the surge in popularity of kosher food in recent years. Thus, I’d assumed it would be relatively easy to find wines sanctioned as kosher for Passover.

I found one at Beverages & More, but it wasn’t a varietal or brand I had in mind. I went to three more outlets before finding a single other kosher wine. Everywhere, clerks more or less said that while kosher wines sell well at Passover, they don’t the rest of the year, so why bother to stock them.

Ernie Weir is making terrific kosher wines at Hagafen Cellars, his winery in the Napa Valley. I was looking specifically for his latest rieslings. This past harvest, he made two styles from different appellations, and this spring they’re snatching up awards all across the competition circuit, including a gold medal in a judging in the Finger Lakes area of New York, home to the nation’s best riesling.
But I had no luck finding either one.

The shortage of kosher wines got me to thinking that maybe the market for kosher products has cooled, but Rabbi Menachem Genack, chief executive officer of OU Kosher, the certifying branch of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, says it is continuing to grow. He and other officials with the union said sales of kosher wines are flourishing in markets with large Jewish populations, such as New Jersey, New York, Chicago and Florida. The Sacramento market, they suggest, just may be too small to sustain much interest in kosher wines.

Napa winemaker Weir has another thought: Often, kosher wines are segregated into their own little section of the wine shop. Customers see it and perhaps conclude that these are traditionally thick and sweet kosher wines like Manischewitz.

Kosher wines today, however, are more likely to be dry, and as varietally intense and balanced as any other fine table wine. Weir would like to see them stocked right alongside all other wines.

“We’d like to have equal footing, not put in an area of the store that in some way communicates that they are negatively different,” says Weir. “Merchants who (integrate kosher wines with other choices) give everyone a chance to bump into them, and they are able to sell them all year round.”

Here’s another possible reason why kosher wines aren’t so easy to find: Some Jews don’t adhere to strict kosher rules. The Hagafen Cellars cabernet sauvignon I finally found for the Seder was a distinctive and elegant representative of the varietal, pairing quite nicely with the flambeed duck in cherry sauce and the brisket.

But it had some pretty impressive company, two other stylish Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons. Neither was kosher.

May 7, 2006
Bad Taste in My Mouth

Why does the box of Wheaties I've pulled from the cupboard lately have a picture of Kirk Gibson on the front and a romantic testimonial to his heroics in the 1988 World Series on the back?

This is a new box of Wheaties, with a “better if used by” date of May 14, 2006. Kirk Gibson is so yesterday. Aren’t there any contemporary baseball stars that General Mills can sign up for the Wheaties box?

For me and other Oakland A’s fans, this is like reliving a nightmare. Gibson’s two-out, two-strike, bottom-of-the-ninth homerun won the first game of the series for the Dodgers over the A’s.

We remember that moment. We were in a restaurant in Rancho Murieta, relishing the A’s lead, and were so bummed out by Gibson’s homer that I don’t think I ever could bring myself to review the place. Given my sour disposition as an A’s fan, it wouldn’t have been fair.

At any rate, Gibson’s stellar career is being revived by Wheaties in large part because the company just didn’t redesign its boxes much from 1958 into the 1980s, and several legendary athletes from that era never got their proper recognition, explains Greg Zimprich, director of brand public relations for General Mills.

Certainly, there’s enough contemporary outstanding athletes to choose from, but General Mills never reveals in advance who it is about to feature or even is considering for the boxes.

A “small group” of company insiders keeps in touch with pro sports organizations to track athletes having breakout performances. The latest star to be featured is Steve Nash of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.

So, Greg, when can we expect to see Barry Bonds on a box of Wheaties?

“We never discuss our future strategies, but we have no plans to do anything,” says Zimprich. “He was on a box a number of years ago, before the current issues came to light.”

Sounds like: Not soon, if ever.

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