June 30, 2006
Happy Trails

Dinner last night included trail mix. We weren't on our way to Tinker's Knob in the High Sierra, but with the Fourth of July weekend about to commence we wanted to start acclimating ourselves for any hikes we might take, and trail mix is as crucial to a successful outing as sturdy shoes and sunscreen.

I'm sure food scientists have given trail mix plenty of thought when it comes to the best formula to provide hikers with the most helpful blend of nutrients. At least, I trust they have. What's important to me is the taste, as well as the obvious standards a well-conceived trail mix should meet: It's got to be light and it can't need refrigeration, reconstituting or cooking. The package should be easy to open and close, and withstand knocking around in the backpack. And the mix should consist of foods that chipmunks and other wildlife would enjoy without doing them harm, since you're bound to spill some as you shake it into your hand or mouth.

Beyond that, a good trail mix should be colorful and diverse in flavor and texture. It shouldn't be too dry; you don't want to drink all your water washing it down. It helps if it looks wholesome - nuts, seeds, dried fruit. And sweetness is crucial, providing incentive to get to the top of the peak, and reward when you are there. M&M's are always good.

The trail mix we had last night is new to the market - Emerald Tropical Blend Trail Mix, one of three mixes being introduced by Diamond Foods Inc. of Stockton. From its durable and resealable foil packet to the balance and freshness of its contents, this mix is a winner, and we look forward to trying the others in the lineup. (A six-ounce package of Tropical Blend costs about $2.70 and soon should be available at most Safeway, Raley's, Save Mart, Walgreens and Longs stores, if it isn't already.)

We were especially impressed by the whole cashews in the blend. Often, trail mix contains so many broken bits of nuts and other ingredients it looks as if it tumbled out of the pack and rolled down the slope. The dried mango, dried pineapple and ribbons of shaved coconut brought color, fruitiness and moist chewiness to the blend, while glazed walnuts contributed the all-important sweetness. Small clusters of granola were a curiosity, and I could have lived without the banana chips, though they did add contrasting crunch. Nutritionally, the product is sound, with a quarter-cup portion providing 130 calories, 8 percent of the daily value of dietary fiber, 10 percent of the daily value of saturated fat and just 2 percent of the daily value of sodium. There are no trans fats.

We enjoyed it on its own, but if you plan to toss yourself a salad at the end of the trail it also will complement and brighten that.

June 28, 2006
Taka's Sushi closed

If you are one of several people I just saw walking up to Taka's Sushi at 18th and S, my apologies for not posting this sooner, but I also just learned that the popular restaurant has closed after an eight-year run.

"Our landlord has made it so difficult for us that we have decided to move on to another location," says signs posted on the windows.

Contacted by phone, Jason Hom, one of seven family members who have been running Taka's, said issues with their landlord came to a heated end when he refused to let them install air conditioning. "When it's 95 degrees in the restaurant people don't want to eat sushi. It's not comfortable for customers," said Hom.

The family is looking for another location. Sushi chef Naoyuki Shiraishi, who joined Taka's after a stint as opening chef for Tamaya Sushi & Grill, also is looking for work, though he's indicated he'd like to rejoin the Homs if the family finds another place within two or three months, says Hom.

The owner of the building that has housed Taka's couldn't be reached for comment.

June 28, 2006
Beer: The King of Beverages?

Charles Bamforth, chairman of the department of food science and technology at UC Davis, is shaking up fellow food scientists at the annual gathering of the Institute of Food Technologists in Orlando, Fla.

Bamforth is asserting that drinking beer is healthier for the human body than drinking wine, increasing sales of which often is attributed to studies touting its healthful benefits.

But according to Bamforth, who, incidentally, also carries the title of Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science, the B vitamins, folic acid, niacin, antioxidants and soluble fiber in beer make it a more wholesome beverage than wine.

People just don't see beer in as flattering a light as wine, says Bamforth. In visiting breweries about the United States he polled 325 men and women about their perceptions of beer, and found their nutritional understanding of the beverage largely in error. Few believe beer contains antioxidants, just 39 percent think it has vitamins and minerals, and many fear that it includes fat, which it doesn't, said Bamforth in a press release concerning his presentation.

The beer industry, he adds, has been slow to promote the healthful properties of beer because it doesn't want to be seen as pushing alcohol on teenagers.

Bamforth elaborates on the benefits of drinking beer in his book "Beer: Health and Nutrition" (Blackwell Publishing Professional, $145, 184 pages). And more can be learned about him at his Web site.

June 27, 2006
Napa Valley Loses a Pioneer

Pioneering Napa Valley winemaker Al Brounstein has died at 86. In 1967, Brounstein, a native Canadian, bought land on Diamond Mountain just outside of Calistoga and a year later founded Diamond Creek Vineyards, believed to be the first California winery devoted solely to cabernet sauvignon.

He divided his Diamond Mountain property into three distinct vineyards, and released a separate cabernet sauvignon from each - Red Rock Terrace, Gravelly Meadow and Volcanic Hill. He soon added a fourth vineyard, Lake; the 1978 cabernet sauvignon from Lake is believed to be the first California wine to sell for $100 per bottle, laying the foundation for dozens of small-production, high-priced boutique wines that followed.

Brounstein died Monday of complications from Parkinson's disease. A celebration of his life is being planned in late July at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena.

June 27, 2006
Wine Perceptions and Misperceptions

Some 1,500 winemakers, grape growers and other members of the nation's wine trade are congregating in and about the Sacramento Convention Center this week for the 57th annual meeting of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture.

By and large, these are people whose approach to wine may be more cerebral than hedonistic, though during lunch or over dinner they no doubt will be savoring a glass or two of their favorite mealtime beverage. The studies that have drawn them to Sacramento are being presented by university professors and bear such heady titles as "Implementation of Calibrated Near-Infrared Spectroscopy in Precision Viticulture and Selective Harvesting of Winegrapes."

For someone who is very thankful he got out of high school before any kind of exit exam involving the periodic table of elements was conceived, these sessions can be humbling.

Nonetheless, presentations this morning dealing with the perception of aroma and flavor in wine yielded several bits of enlightenment, including:

- You sniff the wine in your glass. The person you're dining with sniffs the same wine in her glass. She detects bell pepper, blackberries and coconut in the wine, but all you find is coconut. You're anosmic. She probably is, too. Most of us are, to one degree or another. Asnomia simply is the inability to smell certain chemicals, and there's about 750 of them in wine. Some we'll never be able to detect. But you can learn to identify many others. It just takes practice. Keep tasting, urged Dr. Terry Acree, a professor of biochemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

- Check the wine primer you have been relying on to learn about wine. If it has a map of the tongue showing that sweetness is detected by tastebuds on the tip, sourness on the sides and so forth, throw it out. The "tongue map" is a myth, said Dr. Jeannine Delwiche, associate professor with the Sensory Science Group at Ohio State University in Columbus. "You can taste everything everywhere on your tongue," she said. Unless, of course, for those tastebuds affected by asnomia.

- You can find a style of glass for virtually any style of wine nowadays, but changes in shape and size don't make a darn bit of difference in the intensity or nature of a wine's smell, suggested Delwiche. She was referring to studies in which subjects were blindfolded and asked to describe the smell of the wine in the glass in front of them. They weren't told that different types of glasses were used each time they were asked about the wine. The switches made no difference in their perceptions of the wine, in contrast to conclusions reached by tasters when they weren't blindfolded. "If you change glasses and don't tell the subjects, that effect disappears," she said. "You don't have to have a special glass (to appreciate wine), but if it makes you feel better, go for it."

June 26, 2006
Chatter on Chatterbox cafe

Spent the weekend in Sutter Creek, the prettiest and most cultured of the old Mother Lode gold camps, except for maybe Nevada City, Sonora or Murphys. It wasn’t appreciably cooler than Sacramento, but it was calmer.

Any stay in Sutter Creek has to include a stop at the Chatterbox Cafe, which goes back to 1946, predating the version long featured on “A Prairie Home Companion.”

So it was that the Chatterbox was my destination at the end of an early-morning stroll, which, incidentally, took me along a portion of the Highway 49 bypass being built just west of the community. Due to be completed this fall – but don’t count on it, from the looks of the work that remains, including an impressive span across the stream Sutter Creek – the bypass almost certainly will mean the town will be even calmer.

At any rate, imagine my disappointment at finding the Chatterbox not only closed but up for sale. Where in the world are the community’s codgers meeting for morning coffee these days?

(Want to get into the restaurant business? The Chatterbox will cost you $60,000, plus another $2,595 per month in rent. While the deal doesn’t include the building that houses the cafe, it does include the restaurant’s recipes, including those for the cinnamon rolls and the “gold-miner hash-brown potatoes,” says Karen Griffin, an agent with Prudential Real Estate in Jackson.)

As I walked away from the Chatterbox in consternation I picked up on some pretty good guitar music and followed it to the Amador Farmers Market, just getting under way in a parking lot along Eureka Street, a few paces east of Main Street.

Brazilian jazz guitarist Felipe Ferraz was the musician welcoming shoppers to the market. Local architect Susan Bragstad was across from Ferraz, offering samples of her latest Amador Olive Oil, while nearby Kate Treat was setting out baskets of olallieberries so perfectly formed they looked like they could have come out of a factory with strict quality-control standards.

Matt Andrae of Andrae’s Bakery & Cheese Shop in nearby Amador City had just set up a marquee under which an assistant was selling his breads, scones, cookies, Basque cakes and apricot gateaus. One of the gateaus, bright and rich, laced with marzipan and dappled with thick slices of apricot, made me forget all about my disappointment at not being able to have a cinnamon roll at the Chatterbox Cafe.

Not far from Andrae’s tent, the market’s director, Michelle Grondin, was helping contestants line up the treats they were entering in the market’s first berry bakeoff. There was a rhubarb, olallieberry and blueberry almond tart, a blueberry coffee cake, a blueberry tea bread, a lime berry tart, and a strawberry rhubarb pie, among others.

The winner was Judi Parkinson’s summer berry pudding with rum whipped cream, which raises the question: Can a pudding that isn’t baked win a bakeoff? In Sutter Creek.

Remember that when next month’s peach bakeoff rolls around. (The Amador Farmers Market continues 8-11 a.m. Saturdays through October.)

June 26, 2006
Tasting reds in the heat

Later that morning, I found myself wondering: Who’s goofier, the Amador Vintners – a trade group promoting the local wine industry– or me? This was the weekend when the group had scheduled “Summer Solstice Wine Daze,” a series of open houses with entertainment and food at nearly 30 wineries.

Amador County’s wine reputation rests on red wines, primarily zinfandel, sangiovese, barbera and syrah. You can enjoy one of those wines during the summer when you’re grilling something like tri-tip or burgers, but do you really want a steady diet of them when the weather forecast calls for temperatures to peak at more than 100 degrees?

Nevertheless, there we were, picking up our glasses at the old schoolhouse in the Shenandoah Valley. It wasn’t yet noon and already the temperature was 93 degrees.

A couple of wineries recognized that this wasn’t the most accommodating of weekends to taste red wines, so they came up with cool options.
The folks at Cooper Wines, for one, not only were pouring their soothingly sweet and floral orange muscat, they were serving cups of it that had been chilled into a refreshing sorbetto.

And at Vino Noceto, tasters gathered under a mammoth oak tree, where the edges of the lower branches were hung with a cooling misting system. There, owners Jim and Suzy Gullet were pouring one of the more fitting wines of the day, their 2005 Rosato di Sanviovese, a dry yet fruity rosé version of their signature varietal.

We’d actually stopped at Vino Noceto figuring they’d be pouring for sure their slightly sweet and spritzy muscat-based Frivolo, a wine that begs to be consumed on 100-degree days because of its gentle fruitiness, invigorating fizz and low alcohol (7.5 percent).

Alas, Frivolo is a big success for the Gullet family, and there isn’t enough muscat being cultivated on surrounding hills to meet demand; their 2005 version, all 300 cases, quickly sold out. Nearby grower Frank Alviso is budding over some other varieties to muscat to help them increase production, but they aren’t yet online.

On the way back to Sutter Creek, however, we found a bottle of Frivolo in a Plymouth market. Later that evening, as the day finally started to cool ever so slightly, we pulled the cork from the bottle out on the lawn and watched the stars gather. Though the day started badly with the discovery that the Chatterbox Cafe was closed, it ended just fine.

June 23, 2006
Biba Sets a New Table

People who eat at the midtown Sacramento restaurant Biba often are priming their palates for a trip to Italy. Between bites, they'll grab proprietor Biba Caggiano and ask her to recommend restaurants in Florence or Venice or Rome or wherever they are heading.

These requests inspired Biba to start planning her next book, a combination cookbook and travelogue. She began work on the project more than five years ago, got sidelined with cancer, and resumed her research when she recovered.

Now the book is about to be published. Artisan will release her "Biba's Italy: Favorite Recipes from the Splendid Cities" ($29.95, 336 pages) in September. It will be her eighth book. (The subtitle is subject to change between now and September; Biba prefers "Recipes from Italy's Splendid Cities.")

"It's a very personal book," says Biba. "It has my voice. The introduction to each chapter is like I am talking to you, saying come with me, check this out."

It won't be a "best of" book, but a compilation of her favorite places in five major cities - Bologna, Florence, Venice, Milan, Rome. Though there are "millions of places in Italy that are splendid," she concentrated on the most popular cities.

Her husband, Dr. Vincent Caggiano, wrote the sections on wines fitting to drink in each of the cities.

She will be busy this late summer and early fall. In addition to a 10-city promotional tour for the book in September she will celebrate the 20th anniversary of her restaurant in August. For that she is to supplement her current menu with the restaurant's very first menu, with dishes at the same prices she charged in 1986. "I will go broke," she says, but laughing as she does.

June 23, 2006
Out of Luck

Bacon works wonders with whatever it is combined, except Belgian waffles, I just discovered at Sacramento’s midtown Lucky Cafe.

Nothing, I’m now convinced, can save a Belgian waffle – not strawberries, not whipped cream, not even bacon.

For years, the Lucky Cafe has had on its breakfast menu one of my culinary vices, though it’s just a misdemeanor, not a felony.

It’s a waffle with bits of bacon in the batter, topped with one egg over easy, a scoop of butter, a sprinkling of black pepper and some maple syrup. It’s a kid’s dish, granted, but sometimes a bit of throwback comfort is needed, and this was one of those times.

At any rate, any waffle that includes bacon, butter, pepper and maple syrup can’t go wrong, or so I thought until I tasted the Lucky Cafe’s version of this simple breakfast tradition.

Once upon a time, the Lucky Cafe made the dish with the customary oldtime waffle, wider and thinner than the Belgian waffle. It was darn near perfect then. That’s what I was expecting.

What I got, however, was a Belgian waffle, which, if nothing else, proves that bigger isn’t necessarily better. The ridges are higher, the wells deeper, which may sound like a brilliant invention. Just picture how much more syrup a Belgian waffle can hold, which must have been the inspiration behind the novelty.

But the overall effect is a waffle heavier and doughier than the sort that happily met the nation’s hunger for waffles for generations. A Belgian waffle doesn’t darken and crisp up like an old-fashioned waffle, so right away you lose the waffle’s customary toastiness.

Then, to make a Belgian waffle even marginally edible you find yourself pouring on the syrup, throwing the whole composition out of balance.

I hadn’t heard that the Lucky Cafe had modernized what had been a fine bacon waffle. When I asked the server when the switch had been made, she said it was at least three years ago.

It may be that long before I return.

June 22, 2006
Barbera Roundtable

Sacramento wine merchant Donal Smith of Corti Brothers could have picked any one of several popular red wines for the class he taught last night at Cafe Milazzo.

Instead, he chose a wine that always seems to be left on the sidelines, never invited to play with the big guys like cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and syrah. That would be barbera.

Smith believes in barbera, and some 50 people were interested enough in the wine to sign up for the session. On a hot midweek night when the topic is as obscure as barbera, that's a good turnout.

He poured side-by-side tastes of barberas from both California and Italy, where the grape has a much longer and more popular history. The comparisons were instructive, generally showing that Italian wines made with barbera tend to be leaner and tighter than their California counterparts, with brighter acidity and a dryer overall impression. The California samples tended to taste riper, fuller, rounder and softer, with much more obvious oak influence. The most impressive thing about the California barberas was that depite their heft they generally were light on their feet.

Where do they belong on the dinner table? Smith was assisted in the session by four California winemakers who probably have more experience with barbera than any other winemakers in the state. Scott Harvey of Scott Harvey Wines suggested that barbera's telltale crisp acidity makes it a strong candidate to pair with fatty beef dishes. Jeff Meyers of Montevina Winery prefers his barbera with all sorts of Italian foods, especially pastas. Justin Boeger of Boeger Winery likes his barbera as an aperitif or with a wide range of unspecified foods, noting that the wine's customarily refreshing acidity makes it a fitting red for the summer table as well as the winter. And Jim Moore of l'Uvaggio di Giacomo recommends that barbera be paired with pastas, especially pasta dishes that include mushrooms or a cream sauce. He's also said he's found barbera an ideal companion with "the Warner Bros. diet - Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny."

June 21, 2006
Session Adjourned

Il Posto in downtown Sacramento has closed, with owner Leonardo Fasulo returning to Davis to concentrate on his original Italian restaurant, Osteria Fasulo.

"I had to cut the losses," said Fasulo in explaining why he gave up his dream to oversee a successful branch of his Davis operation. "I was wasting my time there. Location probably had a lot to do with it. I'm Italian, so I believe that food is enough (for a restaurant to succeed), but unfortunately it's not."

By the restaurant's proximity to the Capitol, and by his principal design element - photos of California's lawmakers - he'd hoped that Il Posto would become a political hangout, but the restaurant never developed that kind of following.

June 21, 2006
The Rap on Cristal

"You can't even drink Crist-OWL/You gotta drink Crist-ALL," proclaimed hip-hop rapper Jay-Z in his hit "Excuse Me Miss" a few years back. No more. Jay-Z may or may not be rewriting his lyrics, but he's definitely banned the French champagne Cristal from his sports lounges, report various news sources.

MUSIC JAY Z.jpgJay-Z's ire was raised by comments by Frederic Rouzaud as reported in the
British magazine The Economist. Rouzaud is managing director of the French champagne house Louis Roederer, which makes Cristal.

Rouzaud's comments suggest he isn't entirely pleased with the popularity of Cristal in the hip-hop community, where the champagne, which customarily sells for $250 to $300 in wine shops, and much more in restaurants, is seen as one of the more refreshing expressions of bling.

When asked whether the association between Cristal and hip-hop could be detrimental, Rouzaud is reported to have replied: "That's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business."

Jay-Z subsequently released a statement calling Rouzaud's remarks "racist" and saying he is replacing Cristal in his group of 40/40 Club lounges with Dom Perignon and Krug.

Now, Rouzaud is sounding conciliatory, saying he didn't mean to suggest that hip-hop's fondness for Cristal is unwelcome. The most comprehensive and up-to-date coverage of the issue was posted earlier today on the Web site

In the meantime, how does "Krug" for "Cristal" sound if Jay-Z were to rewrite this line from his song "Can't Knock the Hustle": "My motto, stack rocks like Colorado/Auto off the champagne, Krug's by the bottle." Just doesn't have the same bling, does it?

June 19, 2006
Forget the Staff of Life?

The Sacramento Bee's nutrition tip of the week in Sunday's Scene section urges readers to skip the bread and butter when they dine out.

"Yes, you're hungry and you need to do something while waiting for your food. But make that 'something' conversation. It's 100 percent calorie-free," scolds the corner nutritionist.

Conversation? What have you been doing in the car on the way over to the restaurant if not talking?

Well, we're just back from Il Fornaio in downtown Sacramento, and for conversation starters nothing quite does it like the basket of bread that greets diners as soon as they are seated. There were four kinds tonight - rosemary, olive, sesame-seed breadsticks and the best ciabatta I've had in a restaurant, full of flavor and character. When bread is as good as it is at Il Fornaio, I can see why a nutritionist would suggest skipping it. You really can put away the calories, especially if you dip chunks of bread into the pool of olive oil and balsamic vinegar that also is quick to welcome guests.

But the bread is the last thing I'd suggest calorie-conscious diners to skip once they are seated in a retaurant. Next to the water and the wine that also opens a balanced dinner, nothing tells you more about the restaurant or sets up the evening than the bread. A few years ago, veteran food writer Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue magazine, quoting a "French savant" whose name he couldn't recall, wrote that it's impossible to understand a meal without considering the bread. "Any restaurant review that fails to evaluate the quality of the bread is either incomplete or completely invalid; I can't decide which," roared Steingarten. "Fantastic bread can overcome an ugly restaurant, with brutish service, recently defrosted desserts, and burned coffee."

I don't know that I would go that far, or agree with his claim that every restaurant review should devote space to the bread. Most of the bread served in restaurants is unremarkable, and just serviceable. Maybe that's the kind of bread the nutritionist had in mind when he or she said skip it. If they'd eaten at Il Fornaio, they'd have to switch their worry to some other part of the meal, like maybe dessert.

June 18, 2006
Should Syrah be California's Official Wine?

Memo to Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco:

Ah, honorable senator, you think maybe there's time to amend that measure you introduced a few months ago to declare zinfandel California's official state wine? I know, I know, you've already amended it so zinfandel would be California's "historic" wine instead of "state" wine.

But politics as usual aside, something happened at the end of the California State Fair wine competition this afternoon that in the sense of fair play I feel needs to be brought to your attention.

If you recall, a year ago I suggested that zinfandel be California's state wine, in part because seven of the 12 wines up for sweepstakes at the State Fair were zinfandels. Those zinfandels came from a wide range of the state's grape-growing regions, an indication of how at home the variety is in California. Never mind that a syrah eventually won the sweepstakes award, a clear case of judges being unable to agree on which of the seven zinfandels was the strongest candidate. If you've ever been a delegate to a presidential nominating convention, you know how it goes.

Against that backdrop, look at what happened today: A syrah won the red-wine sweepstakes at the State Fair. (Before we go on, note this: In the past, the State Fair has chosen just one overall sweepstakes wine. But for the first time this year, it chose a best-of-show white wine, a best-of- show red wine, and a best-of-show dessert wine.)

More to the point, 13 wines were up for consideration as best-of-show red. Eight of those 13 were syrahs. Only two were zinfandels. Even more amazingly, despite ballot after ballot one of those syrahs hung in there to be named best-of-show red; syrah consistency avoided the sort of vote splitting that could have allowed a cabernet sauvignon or petite sirah - or even a zinfandel - to grab the top honor.

On the basis of this strong showing by syrah, you think maybe your bill should be amended so syrah could be designated California's official historic wine?

I don't think so, either. Syrah's showing at the State Fair is impressive, but, frankly, it doesn't have the history going for it in California that zinfandel does. Stick with zinfandel, senator; I'm sure this infatuation with syrah has at least as much to do with fashion as it does with character.

P.S.: While we know what kind of wines won sweepstakes honors at the State Fair, we won't know their identities for weeks; they will be officially revealed at the State Fair's Grape & Gourmet gala at Cal Expo on July 13. I'll be very interested to learn what winery produced the winning syrah, but I'll be even more interested in learning what winery produced the zinfandel that got my repeated votes.

June 16, 2006
Prospecting at Cal Exp

The first day of the three-day California State Fair wine competition is over, and my mouth feels - and looks, I fear - like a raisin. The astringency of 96 young zinfandels will do that to your gums, lips and tongue. (By young, I mean all these zinfandels were from the 2004 harvest; most of them are just being released for public consumption or won't be released for another month or two.)

The State Fair's 72 commercial wine judges sit four or five persons to a panel. The workload for each panel is about evenly distributed. My fellow panelists are Rod Byers, sales director for Nevada City Winery in Nevada City; Carol Shelton, owner and winemaker of Carol Shelton Wines in Santa Rosa; and Rosina Tinari Wilson, senior editor of Wine X Magazine of Santa Rosa.

At big wine competitions, larger classes of wine - say 30 or more wines of a type - customarily are delivered to panels in flights of 10 or 12 each. Sometimes panels award medals flight by flight, sometimes they vote to eliminate or retain each wine, then reconsider the retained wines for medals the next day.

While the State Fair is a large competition - 3,000 or so wines - it is perhaps unique in the country for its use of the "Peterson method" in evaluating wines. Named after its American instigator, longtime California winemaker Richard Peterson, this approach to wine evaluation calls for panels assigned large classes of wine to be served huge flights, generally 30 to 40 wines each.

Judges are to deal with such large groups by first sniffing each wine, and on the basis of smell alone set it aside as a potential gold-medal wine, silver-medal wine, bronze-medal wine, or eliminate it from further consideration altogether. Thus, after going through a large group of wines each judge will have before him or her three or four smaller clusters of wine. Then they start tasting, beginning with the gold-medal candidates. They jot notes, sometimes move wines from group to group as they alter their impressions, and eventually arrive at a confident assignment of awards.

The principle behind the Peterson method is that if judges rely more on nose than palate they won't get as fatigued, and their assessments will be more consistent. I don't know whether this has been validated - Peterson often judges at the State Fair, but not this year - but I do sense that after tasting nearly 100 zinfandels with this approach I'm not as beat as I generally am after judging the same number of wines with the traditional approach. I won't speculate on whether results are more consistent or meaningful, but the proportion of medals awarded does seem to increase when the Peterson method is used.

At any rate, up to this point in the competition judges have been working individually and quietly. Then they gather together and recite their scores to a clerk, who tallies the votes and comes to a consensus medal for each wine, or no award. When judges differ widely on their appraisal of a particular wine, they talk out their differences and generally eventually concur on what sort of medal it is to get, if any.

Our panel tended to differ more than we agreed, but generally not widely, though there were times when one judge would think a particular zinfandel should get a gold and another judge would think it shouldn't get any medal at all.

How to account for such differences? Different sensitivities, for one. Judges have different thresholds for what they consider acceptable levels of ripeness, alcohol, tannin, oak and so forth in a wine. Stylistic preferences also factor into the equation. Some judges may like their zinfandels light and frisky, others dense and brooding. Judging is a matter of giving and taking, learning from each other, and keeping an open mind.

I'll try to keep all that in mind when judging resumes Saturday morning. We have 81 more zinfandels awaiting us, plus six malbecs.

June 16, 2006
Mega Wines

The 2006 edition of the California State Fair won't get under way until mid-August, but the fair's commercial wine competition begins this morning. On the eve of each competition, however, judges gather at Cal Expo for a refresher course in evaluating wine. Generally led by a university enology instructor or winemaker, the sessions are meant to bring judges up to speed on current understanding of such winemaking factors as the common spoilage organism brettanomyces, the influence of various kinds of oak, and so forth.

Last night's lesson, led by Napa Valley and Amador County winemaker Scott Harvey, had to do with Mega Purple and Mega Red, concentrated grape juices so saturated with color that a couple of drops can turn a glass of water into what looks like ink.

The stuff is natural and perfectly acceptable in winemaking, but a lot of winemakers don't like to acknowledge that they use it because it suggests that not all the color in the wine in your glass comes from the variety of grape you think you are drinking.

Harvey, who said he doesn't use Mega Purple and Mega Red in his winemaking, brought eight wine samples, one an undoctored base wine, the others all treated with Mega Purple or Mega Red in various degrees of intensity. They were poured blind in no particular order. Judges tasted through the lineup to try to determine what influence Mega Purple and Mega Red might have on the wines in addition to shading their color.

I found it easy to finger the base wine. The edge of the color was a light reddish/orange, not quite as deep as others. It also tasted more dry. The doses of Mega Purple and Mega Red in the other samples varied slightly in residual sugar, and while the variations were minor a distinct sweetness could be detected in some of the pours. Some judges felt the additives contributed a candied aspect to some samples.

But sweetness in wine can come from sources other than Mega Purple and Mega Red, such as residual sugar in wines not at all influenced by the concentrates.

Harvey's session was illuminating, and when the judging gets under way shortly the use of Mega Purple and Mega Red in wines definitely will be on my mind. Whether the presence of either will make the difference between a gold-medal wine and a bronze-medal wine remains to be seen.

June 15, 2006
'Meathead' Is In Town, Fire Up the Smoker

Just back from lunch with Craig "Meathead" Goldwyn, a Chicago freelance writer and photographer in Sacramento for the weekend to judge at the California State Fair wine competition.

But ribs were at the top of his to-do list upon arriving in town, largely because they are the topic of his next book. He's been traveling about the country for the past year, searching for the best rib joints, and by the talk he'd seen on various online culinary chat sites he figured the hottest place in Sacramento for barbecue would be JR's Texas Bar-B-Que just off 47th Avenue in the south city. (Actually, hot dogs were at the top of his to-do list. They're the subject of the book he plans to write after he wraps up his rib book. Thus, on the way to JR's he stopped at a Wienerschnitzel - "They don't have them in Chicago" - where he didn't care for the chili cheese dog but found the Chicago-style hot dog "pretty good.")

At any rate, he seemed to have a good time at JR's. It's a barny joint with a pool table, plastic forks, Styrofoam cups and a couple of huge TV's with CNN on one screen, soccer on the other. "It's like there's an unwritten code for barbecue joints - don't spend any money on the decor," said Goldwyn.

We sampled about every meat on the menu. Goldwyn seemed to especially like the smokiness given the meats from the mesquite that fuels the smokers, the spirited spice rub on the beef ribs, and some of the brisket, but all the meats, including the pork ribs, tended to be a bit dry to his bite. That's pretty much a standard drawback at rib joints, he's found. Proprietors tend to let the meat sit too long once it's out of the cooker. "It's gutsy of him to serve (these meats) without sauce," said Goldwyn, explaining that a lot of barbecue places coat their brisket, ribs and the like generously with sauce to compensate for the dryness of the meat. (At JR's, various sauces are served on the side, all of which got a thumbs-up from Goldwyn. "They're true Texas style. They're spicy but not sweet.")

After visiting about 100 barbecue restaurants, what's the best he's found so far? "Honest to God, I make them, and I tell people how they can do them on my Web site," says Goldwyn. There's just no substitute to serving ribs right from the cooker, not giving them any time to dry out, he adds.

Let's try again: Where's the best restaurant ribs in the country? "I'll sound like a homey, but it's Honey 1 in Chicago. They're moister, and moisture is important in ribs. Great ribs also have to have a pork flavor, and they do."

In his book, however, he doesn't intend to rank rib joints. He doesn't want to divulge the approach he's taking that he is confident will set his book apart from several others that have been published lately, so let's just say it promises to be imaginative, personal and fresh.

Though he wished the meats at JR's were juicier, he was impressed by the personality, popularity and size of the place. As we left, four Sacramento police officers walked in. "It's a cop hangout. That's the stamp of approval," said Goldwyn.

June 14, 2006
Napa Dossier

With the nerve of legendary British spies, the anonymous agents of the posh travel guide Nota Bene swarmed through the Napa Valley not long ago to assemble a dossier of sensitive tips for anyone planning to visit the valley this summer.

The opening volley is pretty snarky, upbraiding the valley as "not that beautiful physically," "disappointingly lacking in striking architecture" and impossible to visit without a car. "For all the area's biodiversity, all the organic wine and vegetables you'll sample, all the talk of terroir and earth and minerals, and the wholesome eco-sensibility of the people who live and work here, a car is the only way to get about."

With few exceptions, the hotels and the wines get knocked, but the correspondents did enjoy much of the food they tasted. They especially liked The French Laundry (best restaurant for serious dining), Domaine Chandon (best setting), Bouchon (best atmosphere), Tra Vigne (best Italian) and Cyrus (best newcomer, which actually is in Healdsburg in neighboring Sonoma County, which you sense is where the writers really wish they had spent their time).

The best wineries to visit, they found, were Quintessa, Schramsberg and Chappellet, while the best places to stay were two relative newcomers, Milliken Creek Inn and Poetry Inn. They got over their shock at the dismal contents of the minibar in their room at the Carneros Inn to conclude that it has the "best countryside setting" of the resorts they visited. ("Corona and Michelob the only beers! Just who do they think their guests are?" they fume about the Carneros Inn.)

Nota Bene devotes most of each of its 10 issues a year to a prime destination - Singapore, Marrakech, Florence, Dublin and so forth - but a subscription doesn't come cheap at 295 pounds, which translates into $544 American.

June 14, 2006
Among the Chefs

Bill Buford’s first book was “Among the Thugs,” a study of soccer hooligans. It would be timely right now, but he’s moved on to a topic equally as relevant and popular, his passion for cooking and his admiration of chefs at the top of their game, most notably Mario Batali.

Buford already was an accomplished home cook, but he wanted to learn more, so he set out on a long apprenticeship that took him from working at Batali’s restaurant Babbo in New York to a remote butcher shop in Italy.

The lessons he learned, and the talented and energetic cooks he met along the way, are drawn with engaging empathy, candor and humor in his second book, the newly released “Heat” (Knopf, $25.95, 318 pages).

The subtitle is a mouthful – “An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany” – but accurately sums up the sweep of the trip.

Buford, a staff writer for The New Yorker, didn’t observe from the sidelines, but jumped right into the middle of the hot, competitive, often rancorous Babbo kitchen to become not only a more adept cook but a student of food who pursues topics like pasta making and hog butchering to exhaustive but compelling ends.

This isn’t a cookbook. There are no recipes, though his description of preparing linguine with clams at Babbo is both so finely wrought and appetizing that readers are apt to set aside the book and bolt for the market to round up the ingredients.

The book will leave you fretting about Batali (the guy lives huge), even more appreciative of your next fine restaurant meal (the kitchen conditions and conflicts are such that it’s amazing dishes come out as cohesive as they do), and a big fan of Buford’s research, dedication and level-headed yet persistently entertaining writing.

There are lots of surprises in the book. For one, the businessman in Batali abhors wasting food, and several times Buford watched him root through the garbage to retrieve the trimmings of lamb kidneys, garlic, leeks and the like that cooks didn’t think worthy of using, but he does. For another, the Babbo short ribs “braised in Barolo,” a hearty red wine from Piemonte in northern Italy, aren’t braised in Barolo at all, but “a perfectly acceptable, very cheap California merlot,” notes Buford. And after reading his account of the differences in how dishes are prepared in the Babbo kitchen and how they were interpreted for recipes in the Babbo cookbook you’ll never wonder again why the home versions don’t evoke the same sensations as the restaurant versions.

But the most searing and lasting impression of the book is the lengths that cooks at restaurants of the caliber of Babbo will go to to practice and master their craft. They may talk like soccer hooligans, but in the end what they really want to do is nurture and entertain, not intimidate or harm.

June 12, 2006
World Tri-Tip Cup, Round 1

I've come up with a tournamet that could last longer than the World Cup. If I play my cards right, I can stretch it all the way to Labor Day. The champion will be the last wine standing in a series of tastings to find the best one to go with grilled tri-tip, not only my favorite cut of beef to toss onto the Weber on a summer evening but the first choice of many grillers in the area, to judge by tri-tip sales in the region.

We assembled the first group Sunday evening, four local red wines all from the 2004 vintage. The cabernet franc was too light and tight, while the primitivo was pretty good up front but abrupt in the finish. The two strongest candidates were the C.G. Di Arie 2004 Lodi Petite Sirah ($25) and the Charles Spinetta Winery 2004 Amador County Barbera ($18).

In the end, the Spinetta won the first round, in large part for its bright and lush berry flavor, with just the sort of sweet fruitiness to tame the spice and salt of the rich, juicy and smoky beef. Even before the first sip of wine or first bite of meat, you knew you were in for a treat for the barbera's come-hither herbal, floral and earthy smell. It's a lean barbera, but with a touch more sinew than generally found in the varietal. The acidity was refreshing, the oak held reasonably in check. It just wouldn't quit against the density and richness of the tri-tip.

The Di Arie was a close second - just a little more was left in the bottle than in the Spinetta bottle - showing a youthful and sprightly fruitiness unusual for a petite sirah, which often is heavy and brooding. This one, however, while characteristically floral in smell and concentrated in flavor, deftly combined the varietal's firm tannins with snappy acidity to cut right through the meat's muscle and fat.

The tri-tip, incidentally, was seasoned only with generous doses of salt and pepper.

The Di Arie is getting pretty good distribution through the Sacramento market, but the Spinetta is sold almost exclusively at the winery in the Shenandoah Valley. Both wineries also sell wine online through their Web sites.

June 9, 2006
The Branzino Beat

When three isolated yet vaguely related things happen within a short time, it means something. I don't know what, and I'm not even sure why I think that. Must have been something I read somewhere sometime, but I'm convinced a series of three is a sign. If nothing else, it's grounds for a trend story, or at least a blog item.

At any rate, I recently first ran into a reference to the fish branzino while reading Bill Buford's tense, passionate and highly amusing book "Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany." Still with me? It's a culinary coming-of-age story, with branzino showing up during a stint while Buford manned the grill station in Mario Batali's restaurant Babbo in New York. Branzino, he explains paranthetically, is a Mediterranean sea bass, then goes on to tell how tricky it is to grill. He broke many of them. "Twenty-one had been ordered, but thirty-nine had been cooked," he recalls.

A couple of nights later I ran into "oven roasted branzino" on the menu at Mulvaney's Building and Loan, the first time I can recall seeing the fish hereabouts, though I do vaguely remember that Angelo Auriana was serving it a year or so ago at the El Dorado Hills restaurant Masque. And I wouldn't be surprised if Biba Caggiano has served it at her restaurant Biba, given that she includes a couple of branzino recipes in her cookbook "Modern Italian Cooking."

Still, branzino is rare here, or so I thought until we ate at the Sacramento branch of Il Fornaio a few nights after eating at Mulvaney's, and there was branzino again.

At Mulvaney's, the fish, looking like a pretty big trout, was served whole, stuffed with slices of lemon and fennel. At Il Fornaio, it was served as fat filets, first sauteed, then finished in the pizza oven before arriving on a kind of big-grained couscous with braised fennel, topped with cooked tomatoes and green olives. In both instances the meat was white, moist and sweet, and at Mulvaney's the skin was crisped up appealingly.

Branzino, according to the "Dizionario Enogastronomico Italiano," is simply Italian for sea bass, though in Italy it also is known as "spigola." It's common to the Mediterranean, accounting for its popularity in Italy wherever seafood is a staple of the diet. The branzino showing up here likely has been farm raised in pens in the Aegean Sea, however, says Colin Lafrenz of Ports Seafood in San Francisco, which is supplying at least some of the branzino landing on Sacramento restaurant menus.

While branzino has been popular in New York restaurants, it only now is starting to spread along the West Coast because more of it is being farmed, says Lafrenz. Also, West Coast chefs are traveling more to the East and to Europe, and are becoming more aware of the fish, he adds.

It isn't inexpensive - $27 at Mulvaney's, $22 at Il Fornaio - but by its heft and sweetness it's fitting for all sorts of preparations and spirited accompaniments, making for a relatively light yet flavorful meal in the summertime.

June 9, 2006
Blue-Ribbon Contender

I was 20 minutes early for an appointment in Winters, the old but no longer sleepy farm town on the western edge of Yolo County. I must have pressed the accelerator a little harder than usual on the drive over when I remembered that Winters is home to Putah Creek Cafe & Bakery, which I hadn't visited in years. The existence of the cafe also might have explained why so many cyclists were pedalling furiously in the same direction.

I'd already had breakfast, so I only needed a light mid-morning snack, though I'm not sure anything is really light at Putah Creek Cafe. As I looked over the menu my heart began to race when I saw "Hangtown scrambles" among the egg dishes. "Hangtown" on a breakfast menu suggests to me the "Hangtown Fry," the classic scramble of eggs, bacon and oysters that originated during the Gold Rush in Placerville, then known as Hangtown. Alas, there's no Hangtown Fry at Putah Creek Cafe. They seem to have appropriated the name to distinguish their scrambles from their omelets.

While there may be no Hangtown Fry, there's no lack of other options at the cafe. The menu is extensive and varied, with the breakfast choices alone including chicken fried steak, biscuits and gravy, griddle cakes, French toast, waffles, oatmeal, steak and a whole bunch of baked goods, from cinnamon rolls to scones. You can see why it's a popular refueling stop for cyclists.

I settled on a blueberry muffin, and have to say it's the best I've had since the last time my wife prepared a batch of her blueberry muffins, which once upon a time won a blue ribbon at the Amador County Fair. The Putah Creek's version is big, warm, blue, dappled with all kinds of berries and crowned with a sweet and toasty streusel topping ($1.95). I was savoring it so much I ended up five minutes late for my appointment.

The place is at 1 Main St. in downtown Winters, and opens at 6 a.m. daily.

June 8, 2006
Wine and Responsibility

Yes, that's a pretty big wine glass in the logo of this here blog, but until I read the online version of an article in the Daily Mail of London I didn't realize it qualified as a dangerous weapon.

The growing popularity of "supersize" wine glasses, however, is jeopardizing public health because they encourage people to consume more alcohol than they suspect they are drinking, according to the article.

While the article reveals some alarming figures - young women in England today are drinking three times as much alcohol as they were in 1990, up to 35 units a week compared with the recommended limit of 14 - the argument that the size of the glass is responsible is weak. (The article doesn't define a "unit" of alcohol.)

One addiction authority, for example, suggests that such glasses get "filled" with as much as a third of a bottle of wine. If so, the barkeeps in the United Kingdom believe in much more generous pours than is common in the United States, regardless of the size of the glass.

Alcohol addiction is a public-health concern, but as the comments that follow the article indicate the issue is much more complicated than to suggest that the size of the wine glass is the culprit.

June 7, 2006
Sniffing, Sipping And, Yes, Spitting

Regular readers of Dunne on Wine in The Sacramento Bee may recall that I have been on a campaign to persuade the supervisors of winery tasting rooms to encourage their guests to spit more than swallow as they taste their way through a lineup of wines. Bigger, more attractive, more numerous and more accessible buckets are needed in tasting rooms for the benefit of both tasters and their fellow travelers on the generally narrow roads that wind through various wine regions.

The campaign has gotten nowhere, I concede. Nowadays, rather than struggle to find the tasting room's dump bucket and shoulder my way through the crowd along the counter to get to it, I've taken to bringing along my own personal plastic spit cup, the shiny red kind that customarily holds a hefty serving of beer from a keg at a backyard party.

If I had three hands - one for wine glass, one for spit cup, one for pen and notebook - I'd be a happier pilgrim at winery tasting room and wine festival, but for now this clumsy compromise is a workable alternative.

But as I was reminded this past weekend at a community wine tasting in Grass Valley, visitors to winery tasting rooms and similar festivals need to keep a few other things in mind besides spitting. With the Grape Escape coming up Saturday afternoon, when wine enthusiasts will make their way from table to table as some 60 foothill and valley wineries pour tastes in Crocker Park, here's a half-dozen tips concerning wine-tasting tactics and etiquette:

1) Decide going in to concentrate on a particular varietal or style of wine. For example, devote the first hour to focusing on a white like chardonnay or pinot grigio, the second hour on a red such as zinfandel or cabernet sauvignon. If you want to learn of wine and of your own tastes, this kind of strategy is the best way to use your time.

2) When you find a wine you really like, grab a label, business card or winery brochure and jot down a note about it, including vintage. A wine may be so good you'll think you couldn't possibly forget it, but chances are that two hours later you will.

3) Between wines, clear your palate with a drink of water or a bite of cracker, bread or fruit.

4) Don't smoke and don't wear a heavy scent; smoke and perfume or cologne will interfere not only with your own assessment of a wine, but your neighbor's as well.

5) After getting a pour, step to one side of the table or pull back to allow other tasters to get a sample; winemakers may be fascinating, but don't monopolize their time.

6) Attend a wine festival or hop from winery to winery with a friend with whom you can swap candid and helpful opinions about the wines. If it's a real good friend, they may even offer to hold your spit cup while you jot down notes.

June 6, 2006
Foul Ball

They serve a very fine grilled "baseball" sirloin steak at the new Bistro 33 Midtown at 16th and K in Sacramento. Big, too. We couldn't finish the one we ordered the other night, so we asked our server if he would box up the leftover portion so we could take it home. Apologetically, he said he couldn't, though he offered to bring us a box so we could package it ourselves. Fine, that's the common procedure in a lot of restaurants, though they aren't usually the classy sort of place that Bistro 33 Midtown aspires to be. Such restaurants not only carefully pack leftovers, they considerately identify and date the contents and hold the sack at the hostess stand until you are ready to leave.

The waiter may have sensed our surprise, and proceeded to explain that the boxing of leftovers by guests themselves rather than service staff is a new public-health regulation.

This was news to me, so I subsequently called the restaurant's manager, Tara Kinsella, who said a health inspector had directed servers to no longer return to the kitchen with leftovers to be boxed. Servers could provide guests with a box at their table, but guests were to do the packaging themselves. "My understanding is that once the food is on the table the server isn't to touch it," says Kinsella.

She doesn't like the directive. "I'd rather do it (box up leftovers for guests) because it's more polite for guests, but we need to follow the health-code protocol." She wasn't surprised when a health inspector said servers no longer were to put up leftovers. She's from Arizona, where that's the law.

California, however, has no such requirement, says Mel Knight, director of the Environmental Management Department of the County of Sacramento, responsible for overseeing safety issues at restaurants. He's sure none of his inspectors, who are responsible for assuring that restaurateurs abide by public-health standards, told the folks at Bistro 33 Midtown that servers weren't to box leftovers. "There's no statutory reason for it, or public-health reason for it," said Knight. "That shouldn't have come from our department. We don't go around making things up."

June 5, 2006
With Peaches, Why Not Muscat Canelli?

I'm just back from the weekly luncheon meeting of the Rotary Club of Foothill-Highlands at Lions Gate in McClellan Park, whose members had invited me to talk about pairing wine with food. This isn't one of my favorite topics, largely because I believe diner concern about matching just the right wine with just the right dish accounts for much needless anxiety at the dinner table. Sommeliers, chefs and the like who try to be helpful only add to the anxiety by making the subject sound so darn complicated.

But as another measure of just how popular the topic is, within the past 10 days two new books devoted solely to the pairing of wine with food have landed on my desk. They're big books, running to more than 300 pages each. What's more, a publisher about to release two more books on food and wine sent along a promotional wheel you can spin to a type of wine and be assured that the foods listed under it would make for a splendid match. Spin over to barbera, for example, and get ready to slice some salami, make a creamy pasta or fry some chicken. They're sound suggestions, but the wheel is too big for me to carry into restaurants.

I like to think I'm most relevant and helpful in sessions like the Rotary Club luncheon when we get to the question-and-answer period. But the first question threw me, and I don't think I handled it well. What about peaches and pinot grigio, asked one Rotarian. Yeah, that would work, I said, as long as the pinot grigio was fairly ripe and fairly big bodied, with maybe some residual sugar and viscosity, and provided the peach wasn't glorified with a nutty streusel, a bunch of spices or a lot of sugar. While pinot grigio may have notes of peach that would seem to make it fitting to sip with the fruit, the wine generally is likely to be too lean and dry to go with peaches. Nevertheless, I made a note to give the combination a try as fresh peaches arrive this summer.

Had I thought faster, I'd have recommended an alternative wine that is underappreciated these days but could work a lot better with peaches than pinot grigio, and that would be muscat canelli, a fragrant, floral, medium-bodied white wine generally finished with just enough residual sugar to make it refreshing but not cloying.

Muscat canelli should have been on my mind because I'd tasted two fine examples just this past weekend, the tingly Perry Creek Vineyard 2005 El Dorado Muscat Canelli ($10) and the lyrically sweet and gently spicy Latcham Vineyards 2004 El Dorado Muscat Canelli ($12). Another impressive interpretation I recently tasted was the perfumey, peachy and faintly honeyed Ceago Vinegarden 2005 Clear Lake Del Lago Muscat Canelli, an unusually fruity and complex take on the varietal ($22). With or without peaches, the sweetness and relatively low alcohol of muscat canellis make them ideal sippers out on the patio on the kinds of warm evenings we've been having lately.

June 5, 2006
Taste: More Than Beer

We spent much of the weekend in the Sierra foothills, catching up on wineries in Nevada and El Dorado counties. This is largely red-wine country, and reds are what we mostly tasted. And since most of them were young and astringent, our mouths were stained, parched and puckery as we headed home Sunday evening. When your mouth is in such a state, nothing is more refreshing than a cold beer, so we stopped at the Plymouth Hotel in Plymouth.

It was only about 5 p.m., but the place was closing, and the bartender advised us to keep looking. This could have been a historic moment. I've never heard of anyone ever being turned down for a beer at the Plymouth Hotel. We were even more startled, however, when the bartender said he was closing early because the rustic old hotel was to be setting an an art exhibit and reception. I went outside to make sure we actually hadn't made a wrong turn and stopped in Drytown instead.

But Plymouth, long considered the poor and forlorn cousin to Amador County's more gussied up gold camps, must be changing. But we had yet to discover the most dramatic evidence of that evolution. On our way back to the car we spotted an oversized fork of a door handle on the old Sportsman Bar. When we gave it a tentative tug, the door swung open and we found a cheery staff just setting up for the night's trade.

Mark and Tracey Berkner, former owners of the St. George Hotel in Volcano, spent more than a year gutting and rebuilding the old Sportsman Club from foundation to roof, and about a month ago reopened the place as the highly contemporary restaurant Taste.

It's too young to review, but the early assurance we saw in the creativity and consistency of the kitchen crew, and the agreeability, attentiveness and knowledge of the staff left us looking forward to returning for something more than a beer.

Actually, we couldn't pass up a few items on Mark Brekner's bright and frolicsome menu. His version of the creamy and cooly refreshing soup vichyssoise is made with purple sweet potatoes instead of leeks, its lavender hue dappled with dots of green herb oil ($6). Sweetly roasted tomatoes, kalamata olives, feta cheese and a vinaigrette made with pungent oregano from the couple's garden provided a novel and wholesome take on the Green Goddess salad ($7.50). Halibut au poivre with a fresh and fruity tomato fondue and zucchini noodles brought just the right notes of sweetness and spice to the thick, white and moist fish ($20).

We'd been nibbling appetizers at winery open houses all day, but Taste's desserts were just too imaginative to pass up, including three eclairs filled with a tangy curd made with Meyer lemons off Frank Dal Porto's ranch in the nearby Shenandoah Valley, the same ranch that long has provided Alice Waters with lamb served at her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse ($7). Berkner's rewriting of the classic creme brulee involves not a custard but dark, glassy caramelized sugar on banana halves and a thick slice of forthright pineapple, topped with a scoop of mango sorbet ($7). It was colorful and fun, and all that fruit made it seem actually good for you nutritionally.

The quarters are spacious and comfortable, with intricate wood and tile work bringing a classy yet unpretentious destination restaurant to downtown Plymouth. All that wood, however, has competition for the diners' attention in large and dramatic black-and-white photos of the local rural landscape by longtime foothill photographer Larry Angier.

Oh, yeah, the beer also was first rate, a sweet and smoky amber ale new to me, by MacTarnahan's Brewing Co. of Portland, Ore. ($3.50).

Taste, 9402 Main St., Plymouth, opens at 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday; (209) 245-3463.

June 2, 2006
El Dorado Gold

The two massage therapists at yesterday's El Dorado County Fair wine competition were a nice touch, reaffirming that wine judging indeed can be strenuous. Over the years, I've seen the concentration, bending, tilting, sniffing and spitting of diligent and repititious wine evaluation trigger all sorts of physical ailments, from sore necks to inflamed sinuses. Though a few of the 23 judges yesterday left early for reasons unexplained, most were in fine shape after nearly eight hours in the barny Main Building at the Placerville fairgrounds, so the massages that many took advantage of must have done some good.

I wasn't one of them, however. I'm one of the slower judges on the circuit. My fellow panel members, Sonora attorney and former winemaker Richard Matranga, and Lodi grape grower Martin Maxwell, invariably finished each flight well before I did, then convened outside to compare notes or dart over to the therapists for a quick rubdown. I played catch-up all day.

At El Dorado, as at most wine competitions, this is the drill: Judges are divided into a series of panels generally ranging from three to five persons each. Wines are divided into classes, such as "red Rhone blends" or "2003 zinfandels." That's all we'll generally know of them, never their individual identities. Each panel will be assigned several classes, and each of the larger classes will be divided into flights, usually of 10 to 12 wines. Yesterday's judging drew 585 wines, most from the Sierra foothills, though one of the novel oddities of the Placerville competition is that it is open to any winery in the state that produces no more than 20,000 cases a year, a way to help recognize smaller operations.

Our panel judged 84 wines, from viogniers to petite sirahs. Our biggest group consisted of 33 zinfandels. (This helps explain why each judge also was given his or her own brand new toothbrush and tube of toothpaste, in hopes we would rid ourselves of our dark ghoulish grins before guests arrived for the reception and barbecue after the competition.)

Each judge has his own method for evaluating wines. Here's mine: I first check the color and smell of each wine in a flight, jotting notes on brightness, clarity, intensity and so forth. Then I taste each wine, provided the smell is inviting, which it usually is. On this second pass I'll assign a preliminary bronze, silver or gold rating, or maybe a short horizontal line that means "no award." I'll then retaste all silver and gold candidates before assigning a final grade.

In some competitions, panelists then discuss their findings among themselves and arrive at a consensus for each wine. At El Dorado, however, each judge turns in his or her sheet with the individual scores and a computer does all the averaging and tabulating. Judges at El Dorado nonetheless often convene and swap impressions before turning in their scoresheets. This could prompt a retasting of a wine or two and an upgrading or downgrading of a particular entry. For me, such discussions are reason enough to join a competition. Judges vary in their ability to detect various elements that form a well-made wine. Some are more sensitive than others to such factors as sulphur, alcohol or fermentation issues, and the subsequent exchange of views can be educational, particularly when impressions of a particular wine are far apart, which happens with maybe only one or two wines every couple of flights.

The El Dorado competition ends with one of the longer sweepstakes rounds of any judging in the country. It basically takes the entire afternoon. That's because El Dorado puts every gold-medal wine up for sweepstakes consideration, whereas many competitions only nominate best-of-class wines. This year, 57 gold-medal wines vied for the top honor at El Dorado, including 13 zinfandels and 11 syrahs, the two dominant varietals in the foothills.

After voting and voting some more, we got to the final round of the day, featuring the nine wines to accumulate the most points, ranging from a delightful riesling to a luscious muscat canelli. So which wine finally won best-of-show? It was the Macchia Winery 2004 "Bodacious" California Petite Sirah, a rich, round and lush example of the varietal that actually came from our panel. In the sweepstakes round, however, it wasn't my first choice for the top honor. It was a little too warm for my taste, and I later found it contains a hefty 15.5 percent alcohol. I rather liked the surprise sweepstakes candidate, the Obscurity Cellars 2004 Sierra Foothills St. Amant Vineyard Tempranillo, a beefy, balanced and exceptionally complex interpretation of a varietal that seems to be fast gaining an enthusiastic following in California. One other wine had tied for sweepstakes before the final deciding vote, and that was the Jeff Runquest Wines 2004 Paso Robles Syrah, a wine whose bright smell, solid structure and earthy flavors pretty much define what wine geeks mean when they talk of "terroir," or the sum impact of a site's climate, soil and the like on the final product.

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