August 31, 2006
A Labor of Dove

I'm not much of a cocktail drinker. An exception is Labor Day weekend, for reasons I don't fully understand, though I suspect it has something to do with bidding farewell to summer and hello to fall with a classy toast. Another is when I'm in Mexico. There, and here on Labor Day weekend, I'll generally go for a paloma. Like the margarita, it's based on tequila. But unlike the margarita, you can taste the tequila in a paloma Thus, it's the cocktail of choice in Mexico, especially in tequila's home region, Jalisco.

Though tequila has been rising in variety and esteem hereabouts in recent years, the paloma still is difficult to find in local restaurants and bars. An exception is at Centro Cocina Mexicana in midtown Sacramento, where the paloma can be found lurking among the restaurant's extensive margarita menu. It's a pretty decent interpretation, especially if you like the sour bite of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. Grapefruit is another key ingredient of the paloma, but usually it's in the soft drink added to the tequila. (The menu at Centro says its paloma is made with 7Up, but the bartender who mixed ours said he used Sprite, closer to the lemon/lime side of the citrus scale than the grapefruit.)

I recently decided to settle once and for all what kind of soda is best for the paloma. In Mexico, the mixes of choice look to be either Fresca or Squirt. For this experiment, I used the same basic paloma recipe, provided by the Herradura Tequila people: Fill a tall tumbler with ice, add 2 ounces of silver tequila (also called blanco), put in a pinch of salt, squeeze in an ounce of lime juice, toss in a wedge of lime, and fill the glass with around 6 ounces of grapefruit juice or citrus soda. The Herradura folks acknowledge that the cocktail in Mexico generally is made with Fresca, but they claim it is better with Squirt. (So does Lance Cutler of Sonoma, author of "The Tequila Lover's Guide to Mexico and Mezcal.")

I used four kinds of soft drink - Fresca, Squirt, Sprite and Ting. I rated the results on a scale of 1 to 10. The palomas made with Squirt and Ting got my highest ranking, 8 points, primarily because you still could taste and even smell the tequila in each. Both also met the first test of a well-made paloma - it has to be refreshing, with a balance of sweetness and tartness. I also liked the paloma made with Fresca (7 points); it reminded me more of the palomas I've sipped in Mexico than either the Squirt or the Ting, but the soda also seemed to cover the tequila a bit more. The tequila came through in the paloma made with Sprite all right, but the soda tasted flat, without the brightness of citrus.

These palomas were made without salt on the rim. Opinion is divided over whether a paloma should have the salt on the rim, and I'd leave it to personal preference. In Mexico, regardless of whether the rim has salt, the drink almost invariably is served with a straw in the tumbler.

"Paloma" is Spanish for "dove," and the cocktail does have the greenish-gray hue of a mourning dove. But "paloma" also is the name of a corrosive kind of infestation that attacks the bluish-green, swordlike leaves of the agave plant, the prickly succulent from which tequila is distilled, and that also may account for the cocktail's name. That's the nature of the paloma, subject to all sorts of interpretation, but regardless of whether your choice is Squirt, Fresca, Ting, grapefruit juice or some other addition with snap, it's a cocktail worth considering as summer ends and fall begins.

August 30, 2006
Name Game

As reported in the Appetizers column in the Taste section of today's Sacramento Bee, Taka Watanabe is going home again, returning to the 18th and S restaurant where eight years ago he opened Taka's Sushi. The new restaurant, however, won't be called Taka's Sushi Midtown, the name Watanabe and his wife, Susan, had been mulling over as the most likely choice. They aren't sure now what they will call it. (Taka's Sushi Midtown would have differentiated the restaurant from the couple's Taka's Sushi in Fair Oaks.)

They are dropping Taka's Sushi Midtown from further consideration after striking an agreement with Watanabe's former business partner, Benny Hom, said Susan Watanabe. Watanabe sold his interest in the 18th and S restaurant three years ago, but Hom continued to call it Taka's.

Hom closed Taka's a few months ago and is preparing to take over quarters currently occupied by Zen Toro Japanese Bistro and Sushi Bar at 15th and I. His brother, Jason Hom, has said the family was expecting to call the new place either Taka's Sushi or Taka's Japanese Cuisine, even though Watanabe isn't affiliated with the restaurant. Under the terms of the new agreement between Watanabe and Hom, however, the Homs also won't be using the name Taka's, said Susan Watanabe. "It just seemed the right thing to do," she remarked. "This will be fair to everyone."

No member of the Hom family could be reached for their take on the matter.

August 30, 2006
First Friday, Last Market

People who have come to enjoy the Friday night farmers market in Grass Valley - and generally there are 7,000 to 10,000 of them - will discover that this Friday's gathering will be the last of them, both for the season and forever, reports manager Ray Diggins.

Next year, the seasonal market moves to Thursday evenings, and the season will be longer, starting the week of Memorial Day instead of early July, which has been the custom. It will continue to run to around Labor Day.

"The event has grown so much we can hardly walk around anymore," says Diggins in explaining the changes. Since the market started 11 years ago, Grass Valley generally and the Friday night gathering specifically have grown tremendously, and something needed to be done to relieve the pressure on downtown traffic congestion and parking. In addition to the farmers market, downtown merchants have stayed open later, concerts have been held, and specialty-food and crafts vendors have joined growers in building the Friday night audience.

Next year, concerts will join the farmers market on Thursday nights, but Fridays still are expected to be popular thanks to other promotions, a film series and a performing-arts center downtown, says Diggins.

This Friday's farewell farmers market will be 6-9 p.m. at the usual spot, Main and Mill streets. The band Clan Dyken is to headline the party.

August 28, 2006
Governor Stomps Grape Measure

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger bit the bullet late this afternoon, and found that zinfandel doesn't go with lead. He vetoed a measure to designate zinfandel California's "historic wine." The bill, introduced by Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, easily had passed both houses of the state Legislature.

Nonetheless, the governor said in his veto message that it would be a "shame" to recognize only one of California's many varietals as the state's historic wine.

"To name only one of the many varietals produced in California as the historic wine fails to recognize the many world-class varietals produced in the state," said the governor.

"Californians should be proud of all our 'California Grown' agricultural products because they are the fruit of the toil of the finest ranchers, growers, scientists and entrepreneurs in the world. Singling one out in special recognition would be inappropriate," added Schwarzenegger, echoing a theme of the Family Winemakers of California, the only wine-trade group to oppose the measure.

El Dorado County winemaker Justin Boeger, president of Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP), said that while he was disappointed by the governor's veto he felt that the discussion generated by the bill not only brought attention to zinfandel's role in helping develop California's wine industry but also helped cultivate interest in other varietals generally.

Sen. Migden, meanwhile, is pondering her options on behalf of zinfandel, which range from introducing another version of the measure to promoting an informal referendum whereby consumers could cast votes for what they think should be California's historic or state wine, perhaps at the wine pavilion at Cal Expo during next year's State Fair, said a spokeswoman in her office.

August 28, 2006
Healdsburg: Pizza Central

As a community's dining scene improves, not all improvements are limited to white-tablecloth restaurants with esoteric and pricey dishes. This became clear during a long weekend in the northern Sonoma County community of Healdsburg, where a trickle-down principle of gastronomic upscaling looks to be at work, affecting pedestrian fare like hamburgers, pizzas and ribs. While we had plenty of opportunity to eat foie gras prepared in several artful ways, the culinary memory most vivid after we returned home was of the pizzas we ate. I'm not sure if it's the fog that lays over the community early most mornings, or the produce gardens and bakeries that flourish in the area, or the presence of a master oven builder, but pizzas in Healdsburg were consistently impressive for both the toasty, smoky and sturdy nature of their crusts and the freshness, brightness and creativity of their toppings.

Pizza for breakfast usually means something cold and coagulated left over from the night before, but not at Downtown Bakery & Creamery on the east side of the plaza in the middle of Healdsburg. Long celebrated for its breads and pastries, Downtown Bakery added breakfast in January, including a pizza topped with white corn, leeks, sausage, cherry tomatoes and a sunny-side-up egg right in the middle ($8.25). The snap of the corn, the sweetness of the tomatoes and the richness of the sausage, all on a crust dark and puffy, was enough to get even two people primed for a day of cycling, strolling or just driving leisurely from winery to winery in the surrounding countryside.

Nevertheless, while in the countryside we couldn't pass up the "pizza Sofia" ($13.50) during a luncheon pause at the Moving On Cafe, the temporary name for the bistro at Francis Ford Coppola's as yet unnamed new winery at Geyserville; it's the former Chateau Souverain, undergoing extensive remodeling, though the cafe and the tasting bar remain open. Pizzas form the most extensive section of the compact menu, including the "Sofia," named after Coppola's screenwriting and filmmaking daughter. I have no idea what her temperament is like, but the pizza is a gutsy, vivacious and forthright blend of peppery arugula, satiny and rich prosciutto, and robust shaved parmigiano. The crust was wonderfully dark and crackly. It had so much life to it that a glass of the jammy Director's Reserve 2003 Zinfandel ($12) wasn't at all too big.

At lunch the next day we confirmed that this string of fine pizzas was no fluke when we stopped at Bovolo on the south side of the Healdsburg plaza. We knew that Bovolo is a spinoff of Zazu, a snazzy roadhouse west of Santa Rosa owned by the husband-and-wife team of John Stewart and Duskie Estes. We also knew that Stewart, a protege of New York celebrity chef Mario Batali, cures his own meats and makes his own sausages and salumi. Thus, we had to order the "salsiccia" ($12.50), a pizza featuring his "black pig Italian sausage," which was moist, spicy and potent, but I wish there would have been a few more slices of it. No quibbles about the roasted sweet red peppers, the fruity tomato sauce, the melted cheese and the hot, bubbly and flavorful crust that also constituted the pizza, however.

If I were heading back over to Healdsburg this Labor Day weekend I'd definitely put pizza high on the menu.

August 25, 2006
Francis Ford Coppola Moves On

Act two of Francis Ford Coppola's latest production is under way. Act one - Moving In - commenced earlier this year when he took possession of the landmark Chateau Souverain winery just west of Highway 101 at Geyserville in northern Sonoma County. Act two - Moving On - involves restyling the facility to accommodate Coppola's winemaking and hospitality goals. Act three - Moving Ahead - will be the final remodeling stage. By this time next year, the project is expected to be complete. And maybe by then the large and striking chalet-style facility will have an identity. For now it's The Winery With No Name. Coppola has wrapped the sign over the gate at the entrance with a banner saying "Francis Ford Coppola, Moving On."

In the meantime, the place is open. People are lining up at the tasting counter to sample Coppola wines, made either here or at his Napa Valley winery. The gift shop is stocked with his pastas and pasta sauces, t-shirts and aprons, his favorite style of notebooks, pencils and pencil sharpeners, and his literary magazine Zoetrope All-Story.

Also open 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily is the Moving On Cafe, which features a salad bar, a sandwich of the day, and a concise menu of small plates like smoked salmon, marinated olives, artisan cheeses and salumi, along with assorted pizzas. To judge by the "Sofia" we had for lunch - finely sliced prosciutto, a garden of arugula and shavings of parmigiano ($13.50) - the pizzas are superb, in part for their hot, dark and crackly crusts.

On the way out we no longer could resist Coppola's savvy merchandising, and picked up a copy of the CD "Senza Mamma: The Songs of Francesco Pennino," who was Coppola's composer grandfather. According to the liner notes, the songs "vividly depict the life and spirit of the early Italian immigrants to America - full of heartfelt longing for home and family left behind, of love lost and found, and of the desire to create a better life in the new world." F. Rocco Ruggiereo does the singing, and from what I've heard so far the mournful music is more of love lost than found.

August 24, 2006
Tomatoes, Grapes at Their Prime

I'm out of the office but on my best behavior, sort of. By Sonoma County standards I had chances to commit two felonies today but capitulated to just one. While driving north on Westside Road in the Russian River Valley we came upon a small tent with a sign that said "Tomato Heaven." In the tent was about a dozen boxes, each filled with a different kind of heirloom tomato. There were dark red ones, light red ones, variegated red ones. Nobody was around but a couple of farm laborers at the far end of the rows of tomatoes that flanked the tent. "Just weigh and pay!" said another sign on the table. Take your pick, fill a bag, weigh it and deposit "cash, check or IOU" in a strongbox also on the table. Well, we did, as did several other motorists pulling off the road. Sort of restored your faith in Californian mankind. The tomatoes were sweet, too, especially the small red ones. One of the pickers gave us the phone number for the owner, Tamara Scalera, but we failed to connect.

We moseyed on to Healdsburg, then doubled back on Eastside Road on the other side of the river. This brought us to Foppiano Vineyards, which in addition to winery and tasting room offers visitors a self-guided walking tour through the vineyards. I'm sorry, but the bunches of petite sirah, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon looked so juicy I couldn't help myself, and pinched a couple. I'm no grape grower or winemaker, but I think the Foppianos may want to get a harvest crew out there pretty soon. The petite sirah was especially even colored and sweet. And it looks like 2006 could be a very good year.

August 23, 2006
Taka's Here, Taka's There

Pay attention, this is complicated, and is told best straight and chronologically: Taka Watanabe's profile as an artful Sacramento sushi chef took off in the spring of 1998, when he opened Taka's Sushi at 18th and S. Three years later he and his wife Susan opened a second branch of Taka's in Fair Oaks, and a little more than two years after that they sold their interest in the 18th and S site to Benny Hom. OK, at this point there's two restaurants known popularly as Taka's, one in midtown Sacramento, one in Fair Oaks. Watanabe was at the one in Fair Oaks, and no longer was affiliated with the one in midtown.

A couple of months ago the Taka's at 18th and S closed, and Benny Hom began to look for a new site. According to his brother and business partner, Jason Hom, he's found it, quarters at 15th and I now occupied by Zen Toro, which is to close soon.

Late yesterday, Watanabe announced that he'd just signed a lease to return to the vacant restaurant site at 18th and S, with the reopening anticipated perhaps in December but more likely in January. The Watanabes tentatively plan to call it Taka's Sushi Midtown.

So what will the Homs be calling their new place at 15th and I, which they hope to introduce in about a month? Taka's Sushi or Taka's Japanese Cuisine, says Jason Hom, though he also mentioned that the final decision depends on some unfinished and unspecified "paperwork." That paperwork just might involve clarification of who actually owns the rights to the name Taka's Sushi, or any variation thereof.

The Watanabes also are pondering the issue, but in the meantime have their hands full with other matters. For one, they remain partners in another Japanese sushi restaurant, Kru, along J Street in midtown Sacramento. Taka Watanabe also is preparing to represent Sacramento's sushi community in the second annual California State Sushi Competition, to be Sept. 18 at Memorial Auditorium, just across 15th Street from what may or may not be Taka's.

August 22, 2006
World Tri-Tip Cup, Round 6

The latest round in our quest to find the best wine to pour with tri-tip, the rich and tender cut of beef that Californians love to grill in the summertime, was the most difficult. I'm not sure why. It could have been just too much of a good thing. The wines for this round were made with tempranillo, a black grape grown most extensively in Spain, where it provides the foundation for many of the highly regarded wines of the Rioja and Ribera del Duero appellations. We had just one Spanish tempranillo in our flight; the rest were from California, where the grape is just starting to be more widely cultivated.

Across the board, the wines were interesting and refreshing. They weren't blockbusters, their extraction, structure and weight running more to elegance than power. They were bright but not especially deep in color. While their flavors weren't heavily concentrated, they were seductively persevering, and their refreshingly crisp acidity made them splendid companions at the table.

They also were chameleons, shifting in tone more than any other kind of wine we've tasted in this series. I don't know why this was, but it prolonged our decision and prompted us to question what the pairing of food and wine is supposed to be about: As bites and sips are alternated are food and wine to blend into a kind of seamless unity wherein each loses its individual identity to become something more profound? Or are their individual identities not only to be retained but somehow enhanced by the matchup, each complementing without overshadowing the other?

Eventually, I'm sure, we would have come up with an answer, but first we had to get back to our original assignment. Besides, we were running out of beef. Ultimately, two of the candidates were our favorites. One was the Scribner Bend Vineyards 2004 Clarksburg Black Hat Tempranillo ($15), an earthy as well as richly fruity take on the varietal. It's a sturdy but juicy wine, with tannins that yielded gracefully to the richness of the beef. It also had intriguing floral and pie-spice notes. The other favorite was the Conde de Valdemar 2002 Rioja Crianza Tempranillo ($12), which combined a meaty texture, candied fruitiness and ripe, vivacious flavors into a wine that retained its identity while dovetailing neatly with the sweetness and spice of the meat. Both wines were found at the West Sacramento branch of Nugget Market.

August 21, 2006
Lodi's State Fair

Another weekend, another lost opportunity to visit the California State Fair. Instead, we ended up in Lodi, where, now that I think of it, a stop at the roadside produce stand of Phillips Farms amounted to a kind of mini-version of the State Fair. There were more types of melons than we'll likely find at Cal Expo when we finally get there. There were chickens and rabbits to see. There were ducks on a pond. There was a working windmill, all kinds of seasonal pies, and a huge flower garden where visitors can pick blooms and fill a basket; just try that at Cal Expo.

And just like at the State Fair, there was a chance to taste award-winning wines, given that Phillips Farms also is home to Michael David Vineyards, one of Lodi's faster growing wineries. Members of the Phillips family have been farming at Lodi since shortly after the Civil War, their agricultural practices changing with the times, from alfalfa and canning tomatoes in the past to heirloom tomatoes and lavender today.

Brothers Michael and David Phillips established the winery in 1984, initially calling it Phillips Vineyards, changing the name to Michael David Vineyards in 2001. Since then, it's become a nationally recognized brand, notable for its robust red wines, value pricing and savvy marketing, which includes such memorable proprietary labels as Incognito, 7 Heavenly Chards and 6th Sense Syrah.

Their biggest success, however, is a hearty Lodi zinfandel called 7 Deadly Zins. Their first release of the wine four years ago amounted to just 1,000 cases. This year they expect to make more than 100,000 cases of the wine, which will account for about a third of their total production.

Not only is the name catchy, the wine is a broadly juicy interpretation of zinfandel, fleshy with ripe berry fruit and easy to drink despite its firm tannins. We tasted both the 2004, currently in release, and the 2005, due to start arriving on the market later this fall. The 2004 is a traditionally muscular and mature take on zinfandel, with overtones of chocolate and port. The 2005 is a fresher, leaner, spicier interpretation of Lodi zinfandel. It's also big - both have around 15 percent alcohol - but it tastes livelier and has a longer finish. If the brothers Phillips thought 7 Deadly Zins already was popular, just wait until the 2005 goes into circulation. The wine customarily sells for around $17.

Michael David Vineyards is apt to turn heads for another reason this fall. The brothers' confidence in Lodi grapes is about to be tested in the release of a couple of super-premium wines. One is a 2004 zinfandel to be called Lust. While assertive, it shows an elegance heretofore not associated with the winery. Big and juicy, with rounded tannins, exquisite balance and a gravelly underpinning to its berry fruitiness, the wine is expected to sell for between $45 and $60, making it one of the more expensive wines ever to come out of Lodi.

The brothers also are about to take a riskier gamble with cabernet sauvignon, a varietal whose reputation in Lodi isn't as established as zinfandel. The high-end 2004 cabernet sauvignon they are about to release will be called Rapture. It's an aromatic and luscious wine whose complex flavors mostly evoke visions of chocolate-dipped cherries. It also is expected to sell in the $45 to $60 range.

For the brothers, at least, those two wines must be the equivalent of the thrill rides on the State Fair midway.

August 18, 2006
Gaesorn Resurrected

Yesterday, Italian. Today, Thai. That's the recent history of 1015 Ninth St. in downtown Sacramento. The long and narrow quarters, most recently occupied by the Italian restaurant Il Posto, is the new home of the reborn Thai restaurant Gaesorn.

Gaesorn originally opened in early 2003 at 1020 12th St., but when that building began to be extensively renovated owners Sommanadtida "Sarah" Pongpeerayos, left, and Jerry Umnartyutithum took their popular interpretation of Thai cooking out to Fulton Avenue, where they opened Mona's Restaurant.

This week they quietly reopened Gaesorn at the Il Posto site, vacant since early this summer. They aren't quite set up to serve the entire menu, but expect to be sometime this coming week. Lunch is being served Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday.

They will continue to operate Mona's.

August 18, 2006
"Mr. Australia Wine"

The death of Len Evans (see post below) isn't the only topic members of the world wine community are talking about, but his passing certainly has grabbed their attention and prompted an outpouring of tributes.

Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti didn't learn of Evans's death until last night, but in a phone conversation this morning he talked admiringly of a man who not only made exceptional wines and wrote honestly of the Australian wine trade but was a marvelously skilled golfer, a generous and entertaining host, and a passionate artist who built his own kiln to fire the decorative ceramic tiles for his home - Loggerheads - in Australia's Hunter Valley.

Mike Rubin, a Healdsburg publicist who has worked closely with the Australian wine trade for years, recalled that Evans was known as a legendary spitter who could drill an arc of wine flawlessly into a spittoon 10 feet away. He was even better than that, said Corti, who had known Evans since 1975 and had last seen him about two years ago, when he stayed at Loggerheads. "He could spit wonderfully. From 20 feet away he could hit a spittoon, and it would be one stream. That was really remarkable," said Corti.

"He was 'Mr. Australia Wine,'" added Corti. "He was a great taster, and a great promoter of wine, Australian in particular, for which Australia owes him the greatest debt they never could repay."

His most significant legacy, said Corti, probably was a one-week tutorial in wine appreciation that he set up at Loggerheads to introduce younger wine enthusiasts to the whole world of wine. Candidates would compete to be selected, and the dozen or so of those who were chosen then got an intense education from a master of the subject, a schooling that included plenty of access to his private wine cellar, a massive converted water cistern.

Evans's last winery was Tower Estate, where he made wines from the best vineyards he could find in regions celebrated for particular varieties, such as semillon from the Hunter Valley, shiraz from the Barossa Valley and riesling from the Clare Valley. Corti Brothers in Sacramento is the only merchant in California to get those wines. This is the appropriate weekend for one final appropriate toast to Len Evans.

August 17, 2006
Len Evans, Pioneering Australian Vinter

Len Evans, a giant of the Australian wine industry over the past half century, has died of a heart attack at 75, reports The Sydney Morning Herald.

He was the country's first regular wine columnist, starting in 1962, and went on to become a judge and director of several prestigious wine competitions; chairman of Rothbury Wines from its start in 1969 until he left in 1996, steering its growth from 10,000 cases per year to 650,000 cases; and author of the first major encylopedia of Australian wine, published in 1973. He also was chairman of the Australian wineries Petaluma, Evans Family Wines and Tower Estate.

Aside from his commercial involvement in the trade, Evans was a philanthrophist, helping raise millions of dollars for various charities through his orchestration of benefit wine auctions.

His many awards include the Chevalier de l'Ordre Merite Agricole from the French government, the first life membership in the Society of Wine Educators, and "Man of the Year" by Decanter Magazine in 1997.

August 16, 2006
Riesling Rules

Gov. George Pataki was a no-show this afternoon when officials of the New York Wine & Food Classic announced the winner of the Governor's Cup, the wine competition's highest honor. (Someone suggested the Yankees had an afternoon game, and Pataki, a prospective presidential candidate two years hence, may have preferred to appear in a bigger crowd.)

Kevin Rivoli, a photographer for the New York Times was at the competition, however. He got some terrific shots of the wine columnist for The Sacramento Bee, kind of like the logo atop this blog, but in full color and fine detail. What reputable person wouldn't welcome having his photo in the New York Times? But when he asked for the spelling of my name I had to explain why I'm so shy.

More to the point: The winner of the Governor's Cup was a mightily deserving candidate, the Hermann J. Wiemer 2005 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling, a classically lean yet vivacious take on the varietal.

Something else of note happened during the award announcements. Mark Chandler, executive director of the Lodi Woodbridge Winegrape Commission, revealed that the group would be giving its annual industry integrity award this fall to Jim Trezise, executive director of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, sponsors of the judging.

August 16, 2006
Gateway to New York Agriculture

For the second straight year, the New York Wine & Food Classic is being held at the Inn on the Lake in the town of Canandaigua at the northern tip of Canandaigua Lake, one of a handful of long and narrow lakes that form the aptly named Finger Lakes.

Last night, judges from the competition toured the lake by paddleboat. Local winery chefs served chicken quesadillas and crab cakes while area residents treated us to tales of the estates on the shore. The square-foot price of those handsome homes is second only to the mansions of Lake Tahoe, they claim, though no one seemed to have precise figures. Nonetheless, I'm almost positive that was F. Scott Fitzgerald waving to us from the greensward of one spread.

At any rate, last year New York Gov. George Pataki arrived on the last day of the judging to present the competition's highest honor, the Governor's Cup. The day was beastly hot and humid, but he stuck around to help break ground on a neighboring patch of vacant land for the proposed New York Wine & Culinary Center.

If he returns today to again hand over the Governor's Cup he can walk from the inn to the new center, open just since June and already drawing more crowds than projected. Comparisons with Copia: The Amercan Center for Wine, Food and The Arts in Napa Valley are inevitable, but the New York structure is smaller and more intimate, and its mission isn't as grand. It has some art - Andy Warhol's iconic series of paintings of Campbell soup cans brighten walls of the demonstration classroom, equipped with $200,000 in donated Viking appliances - but the center's intent is to introduce, explore and celebrate New York's agricultural bounty.

There's a wine-tasting room with leather couches and a huge rock fireplace. Here, tasters can enjoy the building's sturdy wood craftsmanship between sips of chardonnay or boca noir.

Upstairs, inside or out, they can assemble lunch from a light menu based on New York products - artisan cheeses, charcuterie, mushrooms, tomatoes, greens, eggs and so forth.

There's also a sprawling hands-on instructional kitchen, an exhibit room to showcase the state's agriculture and a gift shop. A garden of New York shrubs, vines, trees and the like separates the building from the parking lot, forcing visitors to see up close that food comes from the land.

Since financing of such attractions is on the minds of many Sacramentans these days, the $7.5 million cost of the center was financed by a combination of public and private sources. The state put up $1.5 million, with the rest coming from such corporations as Constellation Brands, the world's largest congregation of wineries, whose roots are deep in this area (it used to be called Canandaigua), and Wegmans, a chain of grocery stores so snazzy that they are tourist stops in their own right. Don't, however, stop at one if all that is on your shopping list is wine. You can't buy wine at grocery stores in New York, an arrangement that seems just fine by New Yorkers. At least, if the governor does show today I don't expect him to announce any kind of initiative to change how wine is marketed in the state.

Well, got to run and pack...and check the weather report to see what awaits me back in Sacramento tonight.

August 15, 2006
Sweet Job: Judging Wines in New York

I've a boat to catch soon, if I hope to eat dinner, which will be served aboard some sort of paddlewheel craft on Canaidaigua Lake, so this will be brief. The panel I'm on at the 2006 New York Wine & Food Classic just finished tasting 11 flights of wine totaling 113 wines. They ranged from sparkling wines in the first flight to meads in the final flight. Mead, that's a wine made with honey, but it also might include raspberries, cranberries, pears and other fruits, as these did. We also tasted cabernet sauvignons, cabernet francs, pinot noirs, chardonnays and rieslings, among others. They're all made in New York. That gives you some indication of how diversified the wine trade is here. And I haven't even mentioned varieties of grapes and styles of wine rarely seen in California, like labrusca, catawba, concord and seyval; some are native American grapes, some are hybrids developed in France or the United States, but they just don't get west of, well, Missouri.

A high proportion of the wines we tasted were sweet. This is something of a revelation. Americans love to say they disdain sweet wines; they love to say they drink "dry" wines - wines without residual sugar. But certainly someone must be buying all these sweet wines or winemakers wouldn't continue to make them. Most of the sparkling wines we tasted were sweet, many of the rieslings were sweet, almost all the roses were sweet, and certainly all the meads were sweet. Is it an Eastern thing, or might Californians be just as drawn to these wines if they had an easy opportunity to buy them?

This may be the most cohesive panel I've ever been on. Wine after wine we tended to agree on whether it should get gold, silver, bronze or no medal. Oh, we had our differences, and some spirited debates, but in the end we tended to agree more than disagree. I'm sitting with Jerry Pellegrino, executive chef and owner of the restaurant Corks in Baltimore; Lorraine Hems, an instructor of wine appreciation at the Rochester Institute of Technology in nearby Rochester; and Linda Bramble, who as an instructor in wine appreciation at Brock University's Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute in Ontario - the Ontario in Canada, not California - developed a course for professional sommeliers.

We'll resume in the morning, where our principal task will be to narrow the field of gold-medal wines to one candidate worthy of the Governor's Cup, the competition's highest honor. New York Gov. George Pataki is to be here to present that trophy. That's the kind of emphasis and hope New Yorkers are putting in their wine trade, regardless of whether the wines are dry or sweet.

August 15, 2006
No New York Wine, But Plenty of Food

IMGP0255.jpg If not for Jerry Pellegrino and Christian DeLutis, last night's dinner could have been chaotic, if not disastrous. Judges in Canandaigua for the 2006 New York Wine & Food Classic had been asked to prepare dinner for the staff of the sponsoring New York Wine & Grape Foundation. The judge in the black shirt in this photo is Dr. Bob Small, professor of hotel and restaurant management at Cal Poly Pomona; that's Pellegrino in the background.

Pellegrino and DeLutis were the pros in the kitchen. Pellegrino also is one of the judges, but more to the point last night he also is executive chef of the restaurant Corks in Baltimore; DeLutis is the restaurant's chef de cuisine. They'd arrived in Canandaigua in New York's Finger Lakes region a couple of days early to scout markets for ingredients for the dinner, which was to be based almost solely on New York produced provisions. (Unlike California's wine regions, New York's viticultural areas haven't yet started to cultivate olive trees for olive oil, so that was imported.)

Pellegrino and DeLutis filled their basket with a wealth of New York ingredients, including heirloom tomatoes, striped bass, goat cheese, foie gras, nectarines, pork bellies, blueberries, apricots, peaches, melons, beets and, of course, sweet corn. Then they wrote the menu, which they said they did only yesterday over their morning coffee.

Then they assembled the judges and began directing them to cut carrots and assemble the small rounds into a goat-cheese terrine wrapped with swiss chard, shred and shape potatoes into "Irish cobbler potato cakes," lacquer the thick cuts of pork belly with a blueberry and garlic "paint," and finish a parfait of apricots, peaches and cantaloupe ice cream with a honey "Jell-O," among numerous other chores, all carried off under their sensitive and helpful tutelage.

The resulting six-course dinner was a smashing success, starting with "BLT in a glass," basically sliced heirloom tomatoes with olive oil, basil aioli and a "chip" of prosciutto in a wine glass, to the refreshing parfait. There were no New York wines poured with the meal, however. On the eve of the competition, judges aren't to taste New York wines, which is what they will be evaluating the next day. Judges didn't go thirsty, however. There were Australian, Californian, Chilean and New Zealand wines poured, none of which will be in the competition.

We'll soon be tasting plenty of New York wines. Before the competition is over Wednesday, each panel will taste around 120 wines, given that a record 703 have been entered this year. First, however, I have to run and get some breakfast, even though I don't understand how I can be hungry after last night's bounty.

August 14, 2006
Penn Yan, Another St. Helena in the Making

In driving about the Finger Lakes region of west-central New York today, I began to indulge a fantasy that my bosses had dispatched me here to find the ideal location for a company bureau, and then stick around to staff it.

Feeding this fantasy is an affection for the area that grows with each visit, though from what local residents tell me I might want to staff that office only during the summer and fall. Winters are brutal, they say, or boast. I'm not sure how a seasonal bureau would go in the daily newspaper business, but the industry is changing so much I'm sure a happy accommodation can be worked out. Our minds are more open than usual these days.

At any rate, the area is gorgeous, even far back from the lakes, where stands or corn and fields of soybeans occupy much of the land. The area just sings with enduring values, tradition and history. Ancient cemeteries look like veritable forests of granite obelisks. Big handsome homes that could date from the Civil War, maybe earlier, stand far back from the roads, lawns as lush and large as fairways sweeping up to the porch; sales of rider mowers must be higher here than in any other region in the country. Roads are lined with surprisingly little clutter; if you see a sign coming up you know it advertises something important, usually "sweet corn." Roadside produce stands generally operate on the honor system; no one is around, so motorists pick up their sunflowers and zucchini, presumably pay into a tin or box, then mosey on. The sense of history is so palpable you find yourself hitting the seek button on the car radio expecting to find a station playing solely music composed for the harpsichord.

Memo to bosses: My search for a bureau office was successful. It's in Penn Yan, at the northern end of wishbone-shaped Keuka Lake. While McClatchy Penn Yan Bureau may not exactly trip off the tongue, it does sound exotic, and it is historic. Penn Yan was settled in the late 1790s, taking its name from the former Pennsylvanians and Yankees from New England who settled the area. The village is rich with huge and historic buildings. David Maslyn, who is fixing up the 1871 Prosser house along Main Street, said he'd rent the whole place for $2,500 a month and probably sell it for between $225,000 and $250,000. Get this: It's a two-story red-brick Italianate with 4700 square feet. A big parking apron is in back, along with a substantial carriage house. The bureau could be on the ground floor, with living quarters above.

Downtown Penn Yan may look a little shabby right now - the community is still recovering from the loss of furniture, clothing and bassinet factories that have closed - but with wineries flourishing in the area, as well as summer cottages rising about the lake, it has all the signs of becoming another St. Helena.

OK, so where's the food angle? Here it is: One industry still thriving in Penn Yan is Birkett Mills, which has been turning out buckwheat and wheat since 1797. Bolted to one side of the mill is the original griddle that on Sept. 27, 1987, was used to cook the world's biggest pancake. Like the pancake, it's 28 feet and 1 inch across. No sign, however, of the pitcher that held the maple syrup.

Speaking of food, I've got to run. Jim Trezise, executive director of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, which sponsors the New York Wine & Food Classic, a wine competition that starts Tuesday, is always tweaking the gathering to give it novelty. This year, he's asked judges to prepare dinner for the crew that will be opening and pouring the 600 or so wines to be judged. Where's my apron?

August 13, 2006
Lodi, Meet Lodi

Spent the day tasting wine in and about Lodi. Big deal. When you live in Northern California and are interested in wine you sooner or later will get to Lodi. The Lodi I toured, however, wasn't in the San Joaquin Valley of California, but the Finger Lakes region of New York. Yes, there are small towns named Lodi in both viticultural areas. What's more, there's a Lucas Winery in the California Lodi and a Lucas Winery in the Finger Lakes Lodi. Except for name, they aren't related. And I have no idea of any connection between the Lodi here and the Lodi back home.

IMGP0248.jpgI'm here as one of 24 judges for the 2006 New York Wine & Food Classic, which is expected to draw more than 600 wines, all from New York. Another judge is Mark Chandler, executive director of the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission, which is in the California Lodi. Maybe he'll be able to explain the link between the two Lodis, if there is one.

This is beautiful farm country - this is Thirsty Owl Wine Company on Cayuga Lake - with a deep history and an intriguing culture. One timely example of the latter is that principal roads in the region had more traffic than usual this weekend because of the big annual NASCAR race at Watkins Glen, which is at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, one of the Finger Lakes. Yet, on the way to the races motorists might well have come upon one of the slow-moving horse-drawn buggies driven by members of the local Mennonite and Amish communities.

I tasted some terrific wines today, especially at Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars on the east side of Seneca Lake and Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard on the west side. It's frustrating to say much of these wines, however, because they so rarely get to California. You practically have to come here to get arguably the country's best rieslings, as well as fine cabernet francs, exquisite sparkling wines and promising pinot noirs. The Internet, however, is making them more accessible to a broader audience, and I'll be writing more about that down the road. In short, the online ordering of wine direct from wineries is still evolving and still somewhat murky. At one winery today the staff said they could ship whatever I wanted to buy direct to my Sacramento home. At another winery just half a mile down the road the staff said they could send wine only to California restaurants, grocery stores or "any business that is licensed to sell wine," not to individual residents. Tomorrow, I'll see how a few more wineries are handling the matter.

August 12, 2006
Second Sa-Tea-Day

Remember when Second Saturday - Sacramento's monthly art stroll - was a good way to get free wine? At least it was until police cracked down on the giveaway. You still can find free wine at Second Saturday, but some places, under the pressure of city officials, now charge for it, though the levy rarely is high.

At any rate, change is in the air, at least at Le Petit Paris, the classy French boutique along 19th Street. Of all places open this evening and attempting to draw the ambling curious, you'd think a shop specializing in the French arts of all sorts, from aromatic soaps to snazzy threads, would be pouring a decent French wine.

Instead, owner Tassina Placencia was showing off her latest discovery from Paris - tea. Like French art films, these teas are an acquired taste. Not content to simply package black or green tea, the tea house O Doro blends leaves with all sorts of other things, like flowers, fruits and nuts. Here, she suggests, have a cup of this Sans Complexe, a delicately fragrant blend of black tea with zucchini, tomato, citrus peel and peony petals, among other ingredients. The flavor was delicate, with faint suggestions of each of its curious contents. We followed it with an iced tea, Place Saint Marc, an aromatic, viscous and sweet blend of sunflower petals, strawberries and vanilla. It smelled kind of like cedar, and tasted distinctly of vanilla.

Like I say, they are an acquired taste, and I'm suspending judgment on whether I would pop for one of the pretty but pricey tins - $29 for 3.5 or 4.4 ounces.

Placencia says she's the first person to import the teas into the United States, even though O Dor has been blending teas since 1842. They're all natural and all organic, she notes. She says she was drawn to the product by its uniqueness and packaging. Those bright pastel tins are cute and eye catching, and they could be put to all sorts of other uses when the tea is gone.

August 12, 2006
Warming Up For The State Fair

State Fair or Costco? That's the decision we had to make today. We concluded it just wasn't hot enough to get us in the mood for the livestock exhibits, art show and corndogs at Cal Expo.

Besides, Hairnet Row at Costco is just the place to get warmed up for the concessions on the fairgrounds, but with a twist - the tastes at Costco are free. So we breezed right by the flatscreen TVs and paper shredders to get into the food aisles, where the nice ladies in white shirts, red aprons, hairnets and gloves successfully tempted with all sorts of goodies.

A person can get a pretty decent lunch at Costco while shopping, if you don't mind having dessert first and appetizer last. I wasn't crazy about the heavy and creamy chocolate tiramisu even if it did cost just $14.99 for a block that weighed nearly five pounds. But the pork tamales by Isabella's Kitchen of Salinas were hot and substantial (10 for $13.99), the Cibo Naturals chipotle, cheese and lime dip was wonderfully fiery ($6.99 for a 24-ounce tub), and the hot Italian sausage by Dibrova Foods of Lodi was amazingly rich and sweet, with a finish so long and spicy I wish they were handing out samples of water, but they weren't (a three-pound package for $8.99).

Aunt Jemima was introducing something new to me, a griddle-cake sandwich, a kind of knockoff of the Egg McMuffin at McDonald's, but the sausage, cheese and egg are, of course, sandwiched with pancakes rather than muffin (12 for $10.69). While each 4.4-ounce sandwich is a little tricky to eat, it does provide enough energy (360 calories) to convince you that you really should start to clear brush when you get home. On the other hand, the cholesterol, nearly half the recommended daily value, scares you into thinking you should just take a nap. It's one sweet sandwich, by the way, and all the promised flavors are there, along with a whole lot of maple syrup.

Our last stop called for something wholesome, a small paper cup of almonds from Spain ($8.89 for a pound). They were mild and slightly salty. As I stood in the checkout line, finishing the almonds, I tried to figure out what the almond server meant as she sang out to shoppers, "Save a seed, eat a nut." I couldn't, gave up and went back to ask her. "It doesn't mean anything," she said. "I'm just having fun. And, see, it brought you back."

On the way back to the car we passed a line longer than I'm sure the line would be for the Ferris wheel at the State Fair. Someone said all those people were waiting to buy slices of pizza, hot dogs and sundaes at Costco's walk-up diner. I couldn't believe it.

August 11, 2006
Look At What's Showing Up In The Tea Pot

Dinner at The Kitchen last night was as entertaining and enriching as ever, about which I will elaborate in a future dining column in The Bee's Sunday Ticket. But since we last visited The Kitchen, something new has been added to the program, and it brought dinner to such a delightful and novel conclusion that I want to mention it right away.

It was white-gloved tea service, but with a couple of twists. For one, the teas were brewed not from traditional leaves but with fresh herbs, spices and fruits like kaffir lime leaves, orange zest, star anise, rosemary, sage and thyme. Secondly, guests were invited into the cooking area to select the ingredients they wanted to blend into their own custom tea.

The Kitchen's owners, Randall Selland and Nancy Zimmer, appropriated the idea from one of Alain Ducasse's restaurants in Paris, where they were introduced to the custom and found it exhilarating. Herb teas are nothing new, but the herbs used to make them generally are dry, and when they're fresh the tea takes on a whole new refreshing dimension.

While tea purists might be alarmed by the notion of steeping anything in hot water other than traditional leaves - and I've considered myself one of them - I have to admit that the blend of lemongrass, lavender and mint that I experimented with was the perfectly light and brisk way to finish a rich meal. I'm not about to give up my fondness for lapsang souchong, but I think I've found an interesting use for all that rosemary and mint in the backyard.

August 10, 2006
Next Stop: Governor's Desk

Zinfandel is a step closer to being designated California's "historic wine." The Assembly voted 45-20 today to send to Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegger a measure to recognize zinfandel as the wine that has contributed most historically to the development of the state's wine trade.

Gov. Schwarzennegger hasn't taken a position on the matter, but is expected to act on the measure within the next two weeks, said a spokesman from the governor's office.

Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), the bill's author, remarked upon passage of the proposal, "Now we know there's at least one thing that Democrats and Republicans can come together over - wine. What could be more Californian than that?"

The measure has stirred spirited debate within the state's wine community. Some vintners have argued that other varieties, such as mission and petite sirah, also have played significant roles in California's emergence as a world wine power and deserve similar recognition. The Family Winemakers of California, a trade group, opposed the measure on the grounds that its passage would give zinfandel an unfair advantage over other varietals in the marketplace.

On the other hand, Sen. Migden has noted that unlike other wine-grape varieties zinfandel is grown more extensively in California than in any other wine region in the world; that in contrast to other varieties zinfandel has adapted well to most of the state's viticultural areas; and that zinfandel accounts for many of the older vineyards in the state, several more than a century old.

Here's a thought: If the governor signs the bill, shouldn't he do so with a pen dipped in zinfandel? Clearly, the wine is making an impression.

August 10, 2006
Biba's Birthday Party Extended

Biba Caggiano's 20th anniversary tasting menu has proved so popular at her midtown Sacramento restaurant Biba that she's extending it through Thursday, Aug. 17. It originally was to end this Saturday.

The tasting menu lists 10 dishes popular during the restaurant's first three years, at their original prices but slightly smaller portions. The lineup includes grilled shrimp and scallops marinated in oil, lemon, garlic and parsley ($6.25), housemade fettuccine with smoked salmon, cream and chives ($9.50), and a salad of capon breast in a sweet-and-sour dressing ($9.50).

The restaurant's regular summer menu also is available, and will continue well beyond next Thursday.

August 10, 2006
Chardonnay Rules, White Zinfandel Endures

The Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay is the most popular wine in the nation's restaurants, according to Ronn Wiegand's latest annual roundup in his trade journal Restaurant Wine, published in Napa.

That's no surprise, given the proportion of restaurants that put the Kendall-Jackson at or near the top of their wine list. Besides, it delivers clearcut flavor, generally at a reasonable price, at least by restaurant standards.

The most striking discovery in Wiegand's list of the top 10 restaurant wines is that white zinfandel accounts for three of the 10: The Beringer Vineyards white zinfandel, second only to the Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, the Sutter Home white zinfandel in fourth place, and the Franzia Winetaps white zinfandel in seventh place. Chardonnay is the most popular wine in American restaurants, accounting for little more than a third of all sales, but white zinfandel, the wine that rarely gets any respect from the wine press, can't be far behind.

What's it mean? For one, it's evidence that while Americans say they prefer their table wines dry they actually want them with at least a little refreshing sweetness, the style in which white zinfandel customarily is made. (This also could explain the enduring popularity of chardonnay, many examples of which also are made somewhat sweet, though they almost invariably are marketed as dry.)

White zinfandel also could owe its under-the-radar popularity to being such a friendly wine - soft, simple, unchallenging. It's a good buy, and it's pretty. At heart, it's a rose, and roses are coming back into vogue.

Thirty years ago, the emergence of white zinfandel pretty much saved California zinfandel, especially cherished old plantings of the grape, when the traditional red interpretation of the variety fell out of favor. Winemakers needed something to do with all that fruit, something that would sell, and a pale version of zinfandel was the answer. Now red zinfandel is back in fashion, but white zinfandel refuses to go away, and that's a good thing for anyone looking for a pleasant quaff on a hot summer day.

Wiegand also lists the 60 top wine brands in United States restaurants. The one to catch my eye is Salmon Creek, at number 14. Salmon Creek is a brand of Classic Wines of California, a division of Bronco Wine Co., the same winery responsible for the Charles "Two Buck Chuck" Shaw line of wines at Trader Joe's markets.

I was surprised to see Salmon Creek place so high, though I know it is one popular brand. I know this because I get more phone calls and emails from readers who want to know where they can buy the wine. They get in touch after ordering a glass or a bottle in a restaurant and discovering that they love the stuff. But here's the thing: Salmon Creek is a wine that Bronco sells only to restaurants. Other wineries do this with other brands, but none creates the buzz that Salmon Creek does. (Restaurateurs like this exclusivity in part because guests can't complain about the price, whatever it is, because diners can't compare what they are paying in the restaurant with what the wine would sell for at a grocery store.) The solution: If you want to drink Salmon Creek at home, frequent a restaurant often enough to become a valued regular, then the owner might sell you a couple of bottles to take with you.

August 9, 2006
Deal Nears for Perry Creek

Sacramentans Michele Wilms and Dieter Jurgens wanted a little hobby vineyard in the Sierra foothills. So five years ago they began to plant vines at Fair Play in southwestern El Dorado County. Raising and selling grapes was fine, but they ran some numbers and sensed they could make a bunch more money if they squeezed the grapes and bottled the wine themselves. They began to think of adding a winery to their site, now up to 38 acres of such grape varieties as zinfandel, petite sirah, viognier and syrah. Construction of a winery shouldn't have been much of a problem, given that Jurgens owns General Truss Co. Inc. along Power Inn Road.

Then they learned that Michael Chazen had put his nearby Perry Creek Vineyards, which he'd established in 1989, on the market. They made an offer, the deal has been in escrow for months, and if the county's supervisors approve a boundary adjustment in a couple of weeks Wilms and Jurgens will be crushing their grapes at Perry Creek this harvest.

Chazen had three parcels up for sale, originally listing the property for about $8 million, but Wilms and Jurgens are buying only the parcel with the winery and 12 acres of grapes. The other two vineyard parcels remain on the market. Terms of the sale weren't disclosed.

They've hired a consulting winemaker, Garrett Buckland, but they also plan to retain longtime Perry Creek winemaker Nancy Steel. Their general manager will be Stefan Tscheppe, a member of a six-generation winemaking family in Austria. They will keep the Perry Creek name, but plan to use the winery's popular Zin Man zinfandel as a separate brand.

Their goal, says Wilms, is to upgrade Perry Creek wines by sourcing better grapes that will produce "higher end wines."

In recent years Perry Creek has been bottling around 10,000 cases of wine annually, a total expected to jump to about 16,000 cases this fall, says Steel.

August 9, 2006
Historic Moment for Zinfandel

ACW LUCAS WINERY 4.JPG Senate Bill 1253 isn't the most important measure to come before the California legislature this session, but it's the most fun. This is Sen. Carole Migden's measure to name zinfandel the state's "historic wine." The bill already has passed the Senate and is awaiting action by the Assembly, which could come as soon as Thursday.

Last night, Migden, a San Francisco Democrat, held a reception in the Capitol's sixth-floor cafeteria to keep momentum for the measure going. A whole bunch of California's zinfandel producers were there, pouring tastes for legislators and legislative staff members who dropped by. Winemakers actually seemed to outnumber lawmakers, perhaps a sign that SB1253 is so innocuous and non-controversial that the Assembly will approve it with little dissent. (The Senate vote was 21-13, while the Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization relayed it to the full Assembly on a 14-0 vote.)

Migden talked briefly about the measure, noting that her reasons for introducing the bill included zinfandel's long and prominent role in helping establish California's wine trade, the grape's knack for adapting to virtually every viticultural region in the state, and that the fruit yields a "darn good bottle" for $20. (I'll quibble with that last comment; I think you can find a darn good bottle of zinfandel for as little as $10.)

Some people who think more highly of cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah object to the bill, she acknowledged, but the point of her effort isn't just to recognize zinfandel's place in state history but to draw attention to California's entire wine trade "in a fun and lively way."

While even she acknowledged that the bill isn't the weightiest issue under the Capitol dome, she remarked wryly that during her 12 years in the legislature only once has a reporter from The New York Times called her, and that was to ask about the zinfandel bill.

Any predictions on how the governor will react to the measure if it is approved by the Assembly? She's pretty confident he will go for it, pointing out that the reception attracted Republican as well as Democratic zinfandel enthusiasts.

August 8, 2006
Don't Fear Those Wine Stones

No culture has more creative and fitting descriptors for wine than the German, at least as long as someone is around to translate. One example: Notice how wine behaves on the inside of a glass as you drink from it? Droplets form and slide down the walls in various thicknesses, lengths and shapes. Most of the wine world calls them "tears" or "legs." Germans, however, liken them aptly to "church windows" for the tall, narrow and arched frame of a shape they frequently take. Doesn't that speak more to the grandeur and nobility of wine than "tears" and "legs"?

I was reminded of the Germans and their "church windows" lately as I did a little research after finding tartrates in another bottle of wine, the second such incident within a week.

Tartrates, which can look like shards of white glass, or flakes of snow, or crystalline clumps of salt as they cling to the bottom of a cork or float languidly about the bottom of a bottle of wine, are apt to alarm wine drinkers. This is much less likely to happen today than in the past. Modern winemaking techniques like refrigeration and filtering pretty much eliminate the prospect of these tartrates from most wines, so they aren't seen as much today as they used to be.

Why I've seen them in two different wines within a week is a mystery, but I have a hunch some wnemakers could be reverting to a few older winemaking methods or shortcuts out of concern that high technology could be stripping wines of character as well as the occasional shower of tartrates. They may be willing to take the risk of tartrates to offer consumers a better wine.

And the risk is solely to the winemakers. Americans like their white wines pristine, without any cloudiness and certainly not with some substance floating in the bottle that looks like broken glass. The risk, then, is in the mareting of the wine, not its nature or quality. Tartrates generally settle to the bottom of bottle or glass, or they could be left behind by decanting the wine as soon as it is opened.

Even if they were ingested by consumers, they'd do no harm. They're fragile, they're a natural byproduct of winemaking and they're more a visual nuisance - or a sign of Old World wine craftsmanship - than any indication that something is wrong with the wine. Both wines we sampled with the tartrates, in fact, were exquisite.

Tartrates, also called potassium bitartrate or potassium salts, are simply an offshoot of tartaric acid, the principal acid in grapes and wine. Because tartaric acid is only partially soluble in alcoholic solutions, some deposits may form. Chilling and filtering of the wine customarily gets rid of them, but some winemakers could be cutting back on those techniques to better retain other attributes. (How harmless are tartrates? They're actually beneficial. Deposits that form on wine casks are scraped off, preserved and purified as cream of tartar, a common ingredient in baking.)

Wines from cooler grape-growing areas tend to have more tartrates than wines from warm regions, which helps explain why they don't show up often in California wines. In contrast, Germany is a cool grape-growing area, and tartrates in German wines are more common. There, the German penchant for fitting and even poetic wine descriptions again comes into play. They call tartrates "weinstin," or "wine stones." What a great term, not only for describing how they look but for reinforcing the link between the wine in the glass and the grapes in often stony vineyards.

August 7, 2006
World Tri-Tip Cup, Round 5

Folsom reader Andrew Conway says he's enjoying our World Tri-Tip Cup. This is our summer-long attempt to come up with the best wine to accompany tri-tip, quite possibly the cut of beef Californians most like to grill.

But Conway has a zany suggestion: Why not round up some white and rose wines to see how they would work with tri-tip? His proposal jarred me out of an assumption I've been making despite my frequent advice to consumers to drink pretty much whatever they want to drink with whatever food they enjoy. My assumption in these World Tri-Tip Rounds has been based on the oldtime advice to drink red wines with red meats like beef and elk, white wines with white meats like halibut and chicken. It's generally sound advice, but oversimplified and dated, failing to adequately consider how the meat, regardless of hue, is prepared, which can affect rather sharply the interplay of food and wine. Grilled chicken with a thick and sweet barbecue sauce, for one, isn't likely to go well with a modest pinot grigio, but a smooth cabernet franc or zinfandel could be just dandy.

So I liked Conway's wake-up call, and last night threw another tri-tip on the grill, this one seasoned with a Southwestern marinade a little bit spicy and a little bit sweet.

The wines were a varied selection of whites and roses. On their own, each was pleasant, especially the stylish and refreshingly fruity Simi Winery 2005 Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc ($14) a kind of hybrid interpretation of the varietal, combining a squeeze of grapefruit typical of New Zealand's take on sauvignon blanc with California's more herbal tones. It's a nicely balanced wine, with a touch of figginess from a small portion of semillon blended into the wine.

But with tri-tip? Neither it nor the other whites, which included a husky chardonnay and a floral blend of chardonnay, chenin blanc and muscat, enhanced the tri-tip, and tended to be overwhelmed by the complexity and weight of the beef, though the Simi sauvignon blanc had the most spunk with the meat. If I were to serve tri-tip to guests who included people who only drink white wines, the Simi or a similarly firm sauvignon blanc is the white varietal I'd put on the table.

The wine that went best with the beef was the Lynmar 2005 Russian River Valley Vin Gris Rose of Pinot Noir ($24). It's may be pink, but there's nothing reticent about the wine. It would be a better match for grilled salmon or chicken, but it nevertheless had the dryness, structure, spiciness, bright fruit and gripping acidity to hold its own with the tri-tip. It's a versatile wine, with the sort of fresh fruit to appeal to white-wine drinkers, the richness to appease red-wine drinkers, and the overall composure, complexity and length to be served without apology with tri-tip.

Thanks, Andrew Conway, for the suggestion.

August 4, 2006
Sushi Rolls Across the Causeway

Come September, Sacramento residents will have to do what Davis residents did for years when it came to eating the sushi and other fine Japanese food turned out by Masa Nishiyama - cross the causeway.

At the end of August, Nishiyama is to close his Sacramento restaurant, Zen Toro Japanese Bistro & Sushi Bar at 15th and I, to concentrate on the Davis branch he opened in January.

"I love Davis so much, and handling two restaurants is pretty tough for me to do; I'm getting older," says Nishiyama, who opened his original Zen Toro in 2001. It's become recognized not only for its sushi, but for the Japanese and Hawaiian breakfasts he serves Saturday mornings.

Nishiyama says he was surprised by the enthusiastic reception Zen Toro has received in Davis, indicating that the restaurant's brisk business, which hasn't dropped off much even during the summer break in university classes, helped him decide to close the Sacramento site.

He also no longer will man a sushi stand at Arco Arena when the Kings resume play this fall.

The Davis branch of Zen Toro is at 132 E St.

August 4, 2006
New Look at Wine with Salmon

Planning to enjoy some wine this weekend? If so, consider a toast to Northern California's salmon. The two - wine and salmon - look to be linked in a way far removed from the usual pairing of one with the other at the table.

Salmon that migrate up the North State's rivers are contributing to the health of vineyards by boosting the nitrogen content of vines, suggests a study by Joseph Merz, a Lodi fisheries biologist, and Peter Moyle, a professor of fish biology at UC Davis.

Here's what they found: After salmon spawn at the end of their run, they die. Scavengers, such as turkey vultures, river otters, coyotes, raccoons and rats, snag and devour the dead salmon. As carcass or waste, the remains of the salmon often are left in vineyards and other fields along North State rivers.

These remains contain nitrogen that enrich the soil. "Around 20 percent of the nitrogen in the vegetation along a river is from a marine source, most likely salmon," Merz says.

Merz and Moyle studied the nitrogen content of vegetation along the Mokelumne and Calaveras rivers, finding more nitrogen from a marine source along the Mokelumne than the Calaveras, probably because the salmon run in the Calaveras isn't as consistent as it is in the Mokelumne, Merz says.

While in the Pacific Ocean, chinook salmon absorb nitrogen, along with phosphorus, carbon and other nutrients. This marine nitrogen is somewhat heavier than other nitrogen. This is how the biologists could track it from fish to field. Farmers tending the vineyards where the two took samples of grape leaves hadn't been using nitrogen fertilizer from a marine source, Merz says.

One practical aspect of the study, funded by the East Bay Municipal Utility District, is that farmers along rivers with robust salmon runs theoretically could reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer they use.

More to the point, says Merz, the study shows the interconnectedness of the environment in general and the value of the North State's salmon run in particular.

"Salmon are providing essential nutrients for grape growing and wine production. It's an ecological service for free," Merz says. "We often hear that if we protect the salmon, something else will be hurt, but when we have healthy rivers and salmon, it isn't just the fishermen who benefit; farmers benefit, the quality of life benefts."

Whether salmon and their nitrogen affect the nature and quality of the resulting wine is unknown. While Merz acknowledges that some aspects of the two-year study were based on assumptions, the results have been published as "Salmon, Wildlife, and Wine: Marine-Derived Nutrients in Human-Dominated Ecosystems of Central California" in the journal Ecological Applications.

This weekend's toast need not be as long as that title. Just take a sip and thank the salmon that may have played a role in its development. The turkey vulture, river otter, raccoon or rat, too.

August 3, 2006
Harvest Days

No matter how high fuel prices go, Northern California wine enthusiasts doubtless still will visit one grape-growing region or another during harvest. Wine enthusiasts just love to see those gondolas of grapes make their way from vineyard to winery, though the romance of the moment tends to lose its edge if they get stuck behind one of those lumbering rigs for long.

Nevertheless, when should bibbers plan this year's harvest trek? Remember, the winter that seemed as if it never would end delayed the start of grape growing by up to a month in some areas. The recent heat wave would have seemed to more than compensate for that slow start, but when the temperature shoots up like that grape vines stop producing, and development of the fruit falters.

I've spent part of today talking to several winemakers about a totally unrelated matter, but did ask them to predict when harvest is likely to get under way. By now, harvest customarily is starting at least tentatively in some areas, but not this year. Winemakers concurred that vines generally are running two to three weeks behind schedule, and that the picking of early-ripening white-wine varieties won't commence in earnest until near the end of the month. "We're normally picking chardonnay the first or second week of August, but this year we're definitely looking at the end of August," says David Lucas of Lucas Winery at Lodi.

The harvesting of later-maturing red-wine varieties should be clicking along in mid-September, though Bill Easton of Domaine de la Terre Rouge in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley doesn't expect to start picking zinfandel and syrah until near the end of September. "The crop size seems a little larger this year, so that could delay harvest as well because the vines are carrying a heavier load," says Easton.

A late start to the harvest doesn't necessarily mean the picking will extend deeper than usual into the fall, however. While that could happen, Tony Spinetta of Charles Spinetta Winery in the Shenandoah Valley has seen harvests start late and finish early, with grapes tending to ripen in quick succession, regardless of variety, making for an intense crush. He's got a feeling that this is going to be one of those years.

So when should wine enthusiasts plan to visit a local grape-growing area this year? Looks like most anytime in September should be splendid, along with the first week or two of October.

August 2, 2006
Time Out for Joey B's

Say goodbye to Joey B's, the luxury box of Sacramento's sports bars. Oh, wait, it only may be taking a long 7th-inning stretch.

Frank Rompal Jr., who has been operating Joey B's since it opened a little more than two years ago, is giving up the place to run another business at the U.S. Army's Fort Irwin near Barstow.

Under regulations of the Business Enterprises Program, a branch of the state Department of Rehabilitation, which oversees food-service operations in state facilities, vendors can operate only one permanent site at a time, explains Marta Bortner, an information officer with the department.

Rompal chose to run the Fort Irwin facility and said he would close Joey B's in about two weeks. He wasn't available for comment, but Julie Reynolds, the manager at Joey B's, said she expects the restaurant's last day to be Aug. 11.

In the meantime, officials of the Business Enterprises Program, whose goal is to provide the blind with remunerative employment by operating cafeterias, vending machines, coffee kiosks and the like in state buildings, are seeking bids from prospective vendors.

Joey B's is on the ground floor of the state Department of Health Services at 17th Street and Capitol Avenue.

State authorities hope to have a new vendor lined up and the restaurant reopened by around Oct. 1, says Bortner. Whether it will be called Joey B's or something else, and whether the format will remain the same remains to be seen.

August 2, 2006
A Celebration Worth Continuing

On the fourth night that the midtown Sacramento restaurant Biba was open, we dropped in for dinner. We had risotto with an array of bright seasonal vegetables, tortelloni in a silken and buttery tomato sauce, grilled sturgeon with a sauce of sorrel and red peppers, and a grilled veal chop scented with leaves of fresh sage and sweetened with red and green peppers.

That was 20 years ago this month. The subsequent report we filed was upbeat, noting that the menu was absolutely free of the sorts of cliches common to Italian restaurants of that era, that dishes were honest, wholesome and harmonious, that the setting was sophisticated, romantic and sleek, that the service was professional, and that owner Biba Caggiano circulated about the room, greeting guests, answering questions and beaming confidently, looking not at all fretful over whether Sacramento would embrace her revolutionary and passionate approach to regional Italian cooking.

Last night, both Biba the restaurant and Biba the restaurateur were humming as if absolutely nothing had changed over the past two decades, aside from some changes in personnel and art. Caggiano again was approaching each table, joking with some guests, explaining candidly to others why she does things the way she does them, thereby creating a landmark restaurant recognized well beyond Sacramento for its highly personable, passionate and proud interpretation of the noble Italian culinary arts.

Last night we had two dishes we had that first week 20 years ago, a sunny salad of green and yellow tomatoes with red onion and fresh basil, and a dessert of half a baked fresh peach with an Amaretto zabaglione. They, along with several other courses from the restaurant's first two years - juicy breaded lamb chops with sweet-and-sour onions, a rich toss of penne with prosciutto, shallots, tomatoes and peas, and cold veal sliced as thin as paper, topped with a marvelous sauce of mayonnaise, capers and tuna - were from a special 20th-anniversary supplemental menu that Biba is making available at dinner until Aug. 12.

The special menu's prices are the same as they were originally, like $6 for the veal, $13.75 for the lamb chops, and $3.50 each for the tomato salad and the baked peach. It's a tasting menu, meaning the portions are smaller than they were originally, but no one should leave hungry. By tasting-menu standards, they were generous, the selection was varied and fitting for the season, and anyone who takes advantage of the promotion should walk out a fan of Biba, if they weren't already.

We left the restaurant wishing that Biba permanently would add a similar multi-course, fixed-price tasting menu to her admittedly already extensive and evocative list of dishes. Restaurant diners these days seem to be becoming more interested in more variety and less interested in the large portions that characterize so much dining out in the United States, as well as prices that continue to rise. Savvy restaurateurs are responding to these concerns with prix-fixe menus. No one ever has suggested that Biba Caggiano isn't a savvy restaurateur. Twenty years of local culinary history confirm that, so such a tactic may not be needed in her case. But last night's dinner sure was fun, and I heard several comments just as excited about the approach from neighboring diners, so maybe we will see a repeat before another 20 years elapses.

August 1, 2006
Those High-Rise Residents Have To Shop Somewhere

I've been wondering what's to become of the four Albertson's markets closing in the Sacramento area, especially the one in midtown, where we live. Wouldn't it be nice, I sometimes muse, if a Whole Foods Market were to move into that space.

Thus, I perked up earlier today while reading an Associated Press article about the latest quarterly revenue report for Whole Foods Market. Overall, the report was pretty rosy, but an oblique reference deep in the story is what really caught my attention.

"Company officials said they have 86 stores under development and will offer bids this week for an unspecified number of Albertson's locations being closed by Cerberus Capital Management LP, the private-equity group that bought the grocery chain's stores in several states, including California and Texas," says the AP article.

Hmmm, Cerberus is the investment firm dumping the four Albertson's in the Sacramento area. Might Whole Foods Market get them and convert one or more into new branches? Representatives of Whole Foods aren't saying anything other than to note that any news of new stores only is announced when the company files its quarterly reports. So it looks as if we have to wait at least three more months to learn whether a Whole Foods Market might be coming to midtown, though if such a project were to materialize I suspect word would leak well before then.

Nonetheless, if one or more of the old Albertson's stores were to morph into Whole Foods Market it isn't likely to happen soon. Earlier, Whole Foods revealed plans for a branch in Roseville, but that store isn't expected to open until late next year, and it's the only additional outlet the company is planning for the Sacramento area right now, said a Whole Foods spokeswoman.

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