October 31, 2006
Get Out the Vote for Spaghetti Carbonara

Humorist Calvin Trillin has been campaigning for years to persuade Americans to replace turkey with spaghetti carbonara as the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table. To judge by the covers of the November issue of various food magazines, virtually all of which show off a turkey, and none a platter of spaghetti carbonara, his sensible suggestion has a way to go.

Nonetheless, spaghetti carbonara is a terrific fall dish, being both robust and comforting but not as rich as commonly perceived. We reminded ourselves of that last night as we prepared both a big bowl of spaghetti carbonara and the first fire of the season. Our inspiration wasn't so much Trillin's persuasiveness as the peppered bacon we'd picked up during a shopping spree over the weekend at Swingle Meat Co. of Jackson. Also motivating us was the recipe for "spaghetti alla carbonara" I'd just run across in a dandy new book, "Life Is Meals: A Food Lover's Book of Days" (Knopf, $27.50, 462 pages). Briefly, writers James and Kay Salter provide some sort of culinary anecdote, factoid, essay or joke for each day of the year. Their recipe for spaghetti alla carbonara, or "charcoal worker's spaghetti," appears early on, for Jan. 29. Why they didn't hold it back until the fourth Thursday of November goes unexplained.

I'll be writing more of this entertaining book, but for right now I'd just like to share their recipe for spaghetti alla carbonara, which they credit to their friend Franca Tasso. We found it quick to make and so spirited in flavor that seconds were irresistible:

3 large, fresh eggs
½ cup or more grated fresh Parmesan cheese
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
6 slices thick bacon or pancetta
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound dried spaghetti

In a good-sized salad bowl, combine eggs, cheese, salt, and pepper to form a mixture heavier than cream but lighter than pancake batter. Cut bacon or pancetta into small pieces and fry slowly in olive oil. Meanwhile, cook pasta in three or four quarts of boiling salted water. When pasta is al dente, drain and quickly add to the bowl with the cheese and egg mixture and toss. Add the hot bacon and olive oil in which it was cooked, and stir to cook the eggs. Serves four.

October 30, 2006
Corvina Lands on Local Plates

At lunch at one restuarant, then dinner at another on the same day this weekend, I had dishes featuring a fish with which I was largely unfamiliar, corvina.

This sort of coincidence warranted some exploration.

The lunch menu at Mason’s in midtown Sacramento described the contents of its tacos as “spiced fresh fish” on corn tortillas with mango pico de gallo and crispy plaintain chips ($13). The waiter said the fish was corvina.

The daily fresh sheet at La Provence Restaurant & Terrace in Roseville that night listed “La Corvina Mexicain,” described as “pan seared Gulf of Mexico seabass” ($28).

Naturally, I had to try both in hopes of getting a handle on what the fish had to offer.

In short, the flesh of both servings of corvina was white and moist, breaking apart in fairly thick slices. It was firm, with a somewhat sweet flavor.

In both instances, the corvina has been treated nobly.

At Mason’s, the strips of grilled fish were sandwiched in the tacos with shredded cabbage and an aioli spiced with the Thai hot sauce sriracha. The mango pico de gallo was fitting and refreshing, the plaintain chips pretty, crisp and sweet.

At La Provence, the corvina provided the foundation for one of the more revolutionary and rewarding entrees I’ve had all year. The thick-cut pan-seared corvina rode atop assorted roasted root vegetables – turnips, carrots, cipollini onions – and was topped with ribbons of finely shaved fennel and Fuji apple. The sweetness of the vegetables, of the fennel and the apple, and of a cluster of roasted garlic cloves off to the side all echoed the sweetness of the fish, also punctuated with a cider sauce possibly accented with the sweet tang of verjus. It was one of those rare dishes you really can’t stop eating until every last element is gone.

As the La Provence fresh sheet noted, corvina is caught in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s also caught off the coast of southern California and about the Baja peninsula.

While the flavor and texture of its flesh suggests bass, corvina actually is a member of the croaker family, which also includes the California white seabass, whiting, redfish and drum. Other names bandied about for corvina are corbina, sea trout and weakfish, the latter virtually abandoned because of its lack of marketing appeal.

Corvina is starting to show up on more restaurant menus because of sharply rising prices and a drop in availability for true members of the bass family, says Tim Ports of Ports Seafood in San Francisco. Not many grocery stores stock it, however.

October 27, 2006
Prix Fixe: On the Rise

Colleen Rush, a Chicago magazine writer, just has published a helpful manual to give people more confidence when they eat out, "The Mere Mortal's Guide to Fine Dining" (Broadway Books, $12.95, 205 pages).

Because of an increase in the number of local restaurants offering several courses for a fixed price, variously called chef’s tasting menu, table d’hôte or prix fixe, I first wanted to see what advice she gives diners considering this option. Most of it is sound, but she urges patrons not to order a prix-fixe dinner unless everyone in the party also plans to request the same meal. "Restaurants require the entire party to join in to keep the timing of the courses in sync," she writes. Maybe in Chicago, but not here, unless you are eating at The Supper Club or The Kitchen, where their format is based on serving the same set meal to everyone.

I checked with three other restaurants now offering prix-fixe menus, and each said they'd prepare the dinner for just one person in a party. If you are interested in further exploring this increasingly popular option, here are the three:

The Firehouse, 1112 Second St., Old Sacramento; (916) 442-4772: Four courses, with choices in each course except dessert, which is a chocolate zabaglione torte, $65. With a three-ounce pour of wine with each course, $95.

Mason's, 1116 15th St., Sacramento; (916) 492-1960: Executive chef Philip Wang just is introducing three types of fixed-price menu. Already available is a five-course meal with each course set by the kitchen, $60; a wine option with the meal costs an additional $25. Next week he is to introduce a fixed three-course "pre-theater prix fixe" menu for $25 per person, with no wine option other than the usual list. Also on tap is the "chef's grand tasting" whereby a customer tells the kitchen "just cook for me," setting the number of courses he'd like, whether vegetarianism or dietary restrictions should be considered, and so forth; the price will depend on such factors as the number of courses and the ingredients that chef and customer agree on.

Masque Ristorante, 3909 Park Drive, El Dorado Hills; (916) 933-8555: Five courses, all at the discretion of the chef and pastry chef, $49. With a three-ounce pour of wine with each course, $80.

The advantage of such a menu is that it eliminates or reduces the debate about what to order while providing a representative sampling of the chef’s style.
Keep in mind that portions with a prix-fixe menu generally are smaller than if the same dish were ordered a la carte.

October 26, 2006
Wise Words from a Wine Guy

Michael Twelftree is an Australian vintner whose Two Hands Wines, mostly shirazes, routinely score 90 or more points in reviews by notable critics like Robert M. Parker Jr., Stephen Tanzer and Harvey Steiman. Twelftree takes advantage of them quietly in his promotional materials and on his Web site, but in person he doesn't crow about them and actually seems embarassed about the scoring approach to wine appreciation.

I learned this yesterday evening while meeting with Twelftree during his first visit to Sacramento. He recalled attending a wine tasting in the Napa Valley where he was struck by winemakers who in pouring their wines first would boast of the number of points it had received from this or that critic. If you've ever attended a tasting presided over by winemakers, you're familiar with the drill, and can be impressed or amused.

Twelftree was insulted. "That's the first and only thing you can sell your wine on?" he recalls thinking. "It's insulting. I'll make up my own mind."

When wine enthusiasts approach him at his winery or at a tasting, he wants to talk about the wines more intimately, explaining their background and the like, but mostly he just wants people to taste them and decide on their own whether they like them. Wine is a journey of discovery, both the thrill of discovering a wine you get and the joy of discovering something about your own palate, Twelftree believes. "I want people to discover wine for themselves. That's the best fun, to discover a wine for yourself. You never will be a great taster if you live and die by reviews. They drive sales, but they're just snapshots of a wine on one day. Get on that journey of self discovery," he urges.

In a future column in The Sacramento Bee I'll have more to say of Twelftree and his wines, but I found his remarks about wine criticism so refreshing and provocative I wanted to share them right away.

October 26, 2006
Teacher and Student Hit It Off

Biba Caggiano was a relaxed and amusing instructor, Martha Stewart a quick study when the Sacramento restaurateur taught the media mogul how to make tortelloni on this morning's "The Martha Stewart Show." Caggiano's customary gracefulness in the kitchen came close to faltering only when Stewart began to hand her a rather imposing file-like tool to grate nutmeg for the ricotta and Swiss chard filling of the tortelloni. "My goodness, I'll let you do it," said Caggiano in letting Stewart hang on to the grater.

Caggiano, dressed for the season in a pumpkin-colored sweater, followed segments on making pumpkin scarecrows and black-cat masks for Halloween. Among other things, viewers learned that Stewart is mighty tall alongside Caggiano, who reminded her hostess that she's 5-1. The two clearly enjoyed each other, with Stewart providing perhaps the biggest surprise as she adapted quickly to the tricky task of folding tortelloni, which after they were cooked and dressed with a gorgonzola sauce she pronounced "beautiful" and "tasty."

Caggiano appeared on the show in connection with her latest cookbook, "Biba's Italy: Favorite Recipes from the Splendid Cities," where the tortelloni recipe appears as well as here, Stewart's Web site. You can also watch the episode on the Web site beginning Friday evening.

October 25, 2006
It's the Martha and Biba Show

Sacramento's doyenne of Italian cookery, Biba Caggiano, is to appear Thursday on The Martha Stewart Show, which airs here at 9 a.m. on Channel 13 (KOVR-TV). No word on what the segment is to include, but Caggiano has been touring the country to promote her latest book, "Biba's Italy: Favorite Recipes from the Splendid Cities," a cookbook and travel guide inspired by Rome, Florence, Bologna, Milan and Venice.

October 25, 2006
Moving from Wholesale to Retail

Michael Sampino, who has been running his wholesale produce business Fabbriela out of the back of quarters at 1607 F St. in Sacramento, has opened the front of the building as Sampino's Towne Foods, a full-service deli. Sampino, who also owns the wholesale seafood business La Spiagia, is being assisted in his newest venture by his father, Bill, a longtime veteran of the deli departments at Corti Brothers and David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods. Indeed, the Sampinos are stocking their deli cases with housemade items that would be right at home at Corti Brothers or David Berkley - Italian sausages, salmon rolls, lasagna.

After just three days, however, their biggest hit is the "Sampinini" ($5.99), a panino sandwich of various Italian cured meats with melted cheeses and housemade mayonnaise and balsamic vinaigrette. Of the 261 sandwiches they sold yesterday, 73 were the Sampinini, says Michael Sampino.

The store, former longtime home to Frank's Quality Meats, also stocks porcini mushrooms that Michael Sampino harvests and dries himself, specialty foods like Turkish apricots, breads by Grateful Bread, fresh produce, olive oils, seafood, pastas, beef and so forth.

Missing from the inventory, however, is wine, an oversight Michael Sampino says he will correct as soon as he gets the proper license. He's already preparing a closed area of the quarters to be the wine cellar.

Sampino's Towne Foods, 1607 F St. (at 16th), is open 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

October 24, 2006
Monkeying with Barrels

Here's something to chew on next time you taste a chardonnay whose oak flavor triggers visions of stacked barrels disappearing in stately regiments into the dark bowels of a winery's cave: There's a strong chance that wine never was in a barrel, or if it was the oak you're tasting came more from blocks or chips of oak floating in the wine, not the cask itself, which might be so old and used it doesn't have any more flavor to give up.

This week's issue of Wine Business Insider gives an early look at the findings of an annual survey to measure the growing use of oak chips by California winemakers, and the results have to be depressing to anyone who thinks one of the joys of wine is its link to historic and traditional production techniques. The survey, whose results will be explored more extensively in the December issue of Wine Business Monthly, found that 77 percent of small wineries, 85 percent of mid-size wineries and all large wineries use oak chips, blocks, planks, sawdust and the like to give consumers the impression that wines have been aged in barrels and barrels alone. It's perfectly legal, but it is deceptive, and some winemakers concede that the flavors that these substitutes provide just aren't the same as if the wine actually were affected by barrels alone.

The preview by Wine Business Insider, incidentally, was prompted by a report out of France that the French are to continue to ban wood chips and the like from their "appellation controlee" wines on the grounds that their use masks the terrior, or sense of place, they expect a wine to represent. The French pronouncement was in response to the European Union's loosening of winemaking standards to allow the use of oak chips under some conditions. This was done so European vintners could better compete with New World winemakers primarily in Australia and California. Italian winemakers are as irked as the French about the change, and could adopt regulations as restrictive as the French. The Italians already have come up with the perfect term for such doctored and misleading wines; they call them "Pinocchio wines."

October 23, 2006
Two New Spots, Two Updates

Though we didn't stray far from home this weekend, we did manage to get to Elk Grove and to midtown Sacramento, where, among other things, we found...

...That Bob Jennings, former longtime wine buyer for the Raley's chain of supermarkets, and his wife, Sondra, were opening their own wine shop, Jennings' Wine Cellar, believed to be the first retail wine outlet in Elk Grove. The shop is spacious and bright, but the air got a bit above ideal cellar temperature Friday evening as a large crowd turned out for the grand opening. We saw a lot of familiar reliable labels - Saintsbury, Stag's Leap, Schug, Sobon and Bogle, among others - as well as some that don't show up in a whole lot of wine shops, like Chateau Montelena and Sbragia. We left with a bottle of what long ago was one of our favorite everyday wines, though we'd lost touch with it in recent years, the Laurel Glen Vineyard Reds. While Laurel Glen owner Patrick Campbell specializes in intense and pricey cabernet sauvignons on Sonoma Mountain, Reds was his answer for an affordable wine that would appeal to the masses and be the life of the party. His first releases were closed with a cork with a picture of Lenin and other notable Communists printed on the side. The cork, however, has gone the way of most Communists, and he now finishes his bottles of Reds with more worker-friendly screwcaps, symbolic in their own right. Jenning's Wine Cellar stands out prominently in a shopping complex at 8351 Elk Grove Blvd., just a couple of blocks west off Highway 99; (916) 684-6115.

...Peter Torza at the bar of his Black Pearl Oyster Bar along upper J Street, digging into a pizza, apparently test driving what will be the featured food of his next restaurant, Gianni's Trattoria. Torza had planned to close Black Pearl earlier this month to make it over into the trattoria, but clearly it remains open, and will continue to operate as the oyster bar through the end of the year, Torza now has decided. The transition to new place is to start in January.

...That the Twisted 88's Dueling Piano Bar & Pizzeria along J Street near 16th has opened quietly. Well, not so quietly, given the rollicking talents of Jon Rave Gilbert, John Crampton and Rags Tuttle, who took turns keeping 75 or so onlookers amused with their non-stop singing and piano playing. Pizza was being tested there, too, with slices being given out to customers while the owners determine which styles are likely to be most popular. Dueling Piano Bar is at 1616 J St., and is to open at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with the entertainment to start at 9 p.m. and continue to 1:30 a.m. More information: (916) 441-1638.

...That the Laurel Glen Vineyard 2004 Lodi Red Wine ($9.50), mentioned above, holds up the winery's reputation for high-value everyday blends, as we discovered over dinner last night. This one is a mix of old-vine zinfandel, carignane and petite sirah, the historic workhorses of central California's vineyards. In the density of its color, Reds is as intimidating as those old Commies, but on the palate it's smooth and friendly, with cheery berry flavors, a lean structure and refreshing acidity. It's 14.5 percent alcohol is a bit warm, but overall the wine is supple, balanced and accessible. The owners of the proposed Gianni's Trattoria and the Twisted 88's just may want to include with their pizza tasting some of the Reds. We had it with duck and pasta with marinara, but its build and fruit would seem to be ideal for pizza as well.

October 20, 2006
Charlie Rominger

The grand opening of Rominger West Winery in Davis will proceed as scheduled one week from tomorrow, and a day after a memorial service for founding partner Charles Albert Rominger.

A fifth-generation Yolo County farmer, Rominger died of cancer Sunday in a Davis hospital. The winery, which he established with friend Mark West in 2004, moved into its new quarters in August and was the subject of a recent column in The Sacramento Bee.

Born on May 28, 1954, Rominger was a 1972 graduate of Winters High School and a 1978 graduate of UC Davis, where he earned degrees in agricultural enginerring and agricultural science and management.

He immediately took charge of the family's 2,000-acre wheat operation. In recent years he and his brothers Rick and Bruce farmed 3,500 acres of assorted crops.

Over the years he received many honors for his work on sustainable agricultural practices, farmland preservation and wildlife habitat restoration. "Protecting the land was his life's work," said his wife, Cairn.

Charlie Rominger also was given the California Attorney General's Certificate of Valor Award for saving an unconscious child drowning in an irrigation canal in 1984.

In addition to his wife and brothers, he is survived by his daughter Cienna and his son Aldo, named after famed conservationist Aldo Leopold; his parents, Richard and Evelyne Rominger, of Winters; and his sister, Ruth Rominger of Morro Bay.

The memorial service will be at 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27, at St. Anthony's Parish Center, 511 Main St., Winters. In lieu of flowers, his family has asked that donations be made to either the Charlie Rominger Farmland Preservation Fund at the Yolo Land Trust, P.O. Box 1196, Woodland 95776, or the Winters Friends of the Library, 201 First St., Winters 95694.

October 20, 2006
A Beautiful Wine...Not

Among his other talents, Russell Crowe has a mighty keen sense of smell. From two feet off he can tell whether a wine is "corked," meaning its aroma has been killed by a cork tainted with potent, unwelcome chemical compounds, reports the Web site All Headline News. "It is an Australian wine that I have had a lot of experience with so when it was opened and brought to the table I could smell from two foot away that it had been corked, it had gone off," Crowe is quoted as telling BANG Showbiz.

The wine was one of the world's more highly regarded, a $4,400 bottle of the 1964 Penfolds Grange that Crowe had ordered at the London restaurant Mirabelle. The upshot of the report was that Crowe's waiter didn't agree with Crowe's assessment of the wine and initially balked at replacing it. Eventually, however, the restaurant fetched another bottle, which Crowe sanctioned and enjoyed.

Around five percent of wine is believed marred by poor corks, accounting in part for the rising popularity of wines with screwcaps.

October 19, 2006
Sushi Sleigh Ready to Fly

Here it is not even Halloween, and already people are making plans to tour local neighborhoods recognized for their lavish displays of year-end holiday lights. Those people are in charge of the sushi bus, an enterprising offspring of the Mikuni group of Japanese restaurants and sushi bars.

Here's how it's to work: Up to 12 people charter the bus, file on at the chain's Fair Oaks restaurant, and for the next three or four hours "ooh" and "ahh" over the animated Santas, Eiffel Tower trees and other industrious yule exhibits they will see as the bus makes its rounds.

Between stops, a sushi chef prepares and serves assorted sushi rolls, including, presumably the signature "Santa Claus," a veritable toy bag of fried soft-shell crab and spicy tuna. A four-hour tour Friday and Saturday nights costs $1,150, a three-hour tour other evenings $995. The cost includes tour, sushi, soft drinks, gratuity and tax. Alcoholic beverages are sold separately, and a $25 "gas surcharge" is levied on each group. Reservations are required at least two weeks in advance, and bookings are being taken: (916) 236-5775.

October 18, 2006
Some Substance to this Sizzle

So just what wine will you get if you go to the Palms in Las Vegas and fork over $6,000 for the burger and bottle of Bordeaux that the Maloof brothers are promoting on behalf of Carl's Jr. in a controversial TV commercial? The 1982 Chateau Petrus, vintage after vintage Bordeaux's most expensive wine. Recent vintages have been selling for between $700 and $900 per bottle. Noted wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. has called the '82 Petrus "one of the greatest wines I have ever tasted." Note, however, that that was six years ago, and who knows how well the wine has aged.

Stephen Tanzer, another respected critic, tried two bottles of the wine four years ago and found both samples "not up to the reputation of this vintage. "Hugely tannic, even a bit dry, on the end," said Tanzer. Nonetheless, both writers gave the wine high scores, 98 out of 100 from Parker, 93 from Tanzer.

Frankly, the bottle that viewers get a glimpse of in the commercial doesn't look like it bears the distinctive label that long has adorned bottles of Petrus, but Christopher Walters, spokesman for the Palms, says that's the wine customers get. Since the commercials began to air Monday the hotel casino has sold one of the combos, Walters said.

But there's no need for the curious to go all the way to Las Vegas to enjoy the wine with a burger. It's on the wine list at The Kitchen in Sacramento for $3,600. And they'll even throw in the burger at no extra cost, though it won't be from Carl's Jr.

The Kitchen's Josh Nelson, incidentally, brings up an intriguing factoid about the '82 Petrus. "It's believed to be the most counterfeited wine in the world, with more on the market than was produced," said Nelson.

Chateau Petrus, incidentally, is owned by Christian Moueix, who also owns the Napa Valley winery Dominus Estate. This raises another question for the Maloofs: What's wrong with a California wine with a Carl's Jr. burger?

October 18, 2006
Top This

In a celebratory mood last night, I pulled from the refrigerator a bottle of sparkling wine, set it on the kitchen counter and...did a double take. Only at that moment did I recognize that the customary cork mushrooming from the neck of a bottle of sparkling wine was missing. No cork, no wire cage, no thick and glistening foil wrap, just the sort of simple metal cap you find on soft-drink bottles. What was going on here? Did they ship the wine before finishing the packaging?

Those were my first thoughts. Then I began to wonder how the heck I was to open it. It just didn't seem right to dig into a drawer and fish out an old-fashioned church key to pry off the cap. Sparkling wine, after all, calls for a dignified ceremony.

Then I remembered the little booklet draped on the neck of the bottle and which I had tossed aside. Taking another look I learned that the producer of the wine, Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley, had replaced the traditional cork on its most prestigious sparkling wines with what it calls a "Crown Cap." The move is intended to eliminate any prospect of the feared "cork taint" that quietly kills so many bottles of wine.

Then I turned the page to learn that this enlightened move doesn't come without a price. "Used by winemakers worldwide for over 50 years, Crown Caps require a unique opening tool," advised the booklet. This would be the "disgorging key," which to judge by the photo with the explanation looks kind of like a disposable razor. Just hook the "blade" under the edge of the crown and press the handle. Presumably, the cap will ease right off.

I don't have a "disgorging key," however, and the booklet didn't tell me how I was supposed to get one. But fixed to the side of the kitchen counter was a classic Coco-Cola bottle opener. Gingerly, and quite unceremoniously, I propped the Crown Cap under the opener and pressed down gently. The cap slipped off gracefully, with no "pop" and no wine foaming from the top. No drama, either.

I filled two flutes and we began to enjoy a sparkling wine of fairly astonishing richness. It was the Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut ($29), a golden, fine-beaded blend of chardonnay (75 percent) and pinot noir, nearly two-thirds of the fruit from Napa County, the rest from Sonoma County. It spent five years on the lees, the dregs from winemaking, like dead yeast cells, which enhance a wine's complexity. That prolonged exposure is evident in the Etoile Brut in its robust yet creamy texture and layered flavors of nuts, honey and stone fruits.

When it comes to the Etoile Brut, Domaine Chandon's winemakers are directed to disregard the usual standards of making sparkling wine. They're to pay no heed to traditional considerations of appellation, vintage and blend, only to find the finest fruit they can and transform it into the finest sparkling wine they can envision. That unconventional approach carries over to the packaging, right down to that disarming cap. My Coca-Cola opener worked just fine, but with the holidays nearing, and the prospect of enjoying another bottle or two of the Etoile Brut, I'm going to be looking around for a "disgorging key."

October 17, 2006
Cornucopia Needs Refilling

Visitors to the Napa Valley who like to include in their itinerary a stop at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts are apt to be rattled by news that the complex is struggling financially and has started to reinvent itself. The center still is open, but it's laying off a third of its staff, selling some of its land, and converting exhibit galleries into conference rooms, a grim turnaround for anyone who has enjoyed the intelligence and imagination of the center's culinary art shows and programs.

The center's new direction will focus on wine and food education, with classes in both expected to be featured more prominently. Granted, visitors to the valley are there primarily to savor the region's wine and food, but whether enough of them will be eager to explore the subjects in "conference rooms" rather than tasting rooms and restaurants will be the center's next big challenge. A comprehensive report on Copia's woes can be found in today's Napa Valley Register.

October 17, 2006
New Wine Scoring System on the Horizon?

Robert M. Parker Jr.'s 100-point system to summarize a wine's attributes may not be the only scoring method consumers consider as they ponder what wine to buy. An article in today's New York Times suggests that wines someday also could be scored according to the impact their production has on the environment. That is, a cabernet sauvignon may be annointed with 93 points because it is more energy efficient than another example of the varietal whose production methods were found to be wasteful, thus racking up just 74 points. The Times doesn't go quite that far in its report, but in an era of increasing concern about global warming and other negative environmental consequences because of the way business is done, why not?

At any rate, the Times feature was based on a year-long University of Palermo study of the environmental cost to produce a single wine at Milazzo winery in Sicily. The research concluded that each bottle of the wine created more than a pound of waste and put 16 grams of sulfur dioxide into the air. The total 100,000-bottle run of the wine generated "22,000 pounds of plastic waste, 11,000 pounds of paper and oceans of wastewater."

The findings led Milazzo to change several of its winemaking practices.

October 16, 2006
Wine Spectator Offers a Peek

The country's most comprehensive and influential wine publication, The Wine Spectator, is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its spirited Web site by granting free access to anyone who wants to check it out. Ordinarily, it's available to paid subscribers only. One of the first things visitors to the Web site see is a clock counting down to the mid-November unveiling of the magazine's roundup of the best 100 wines of the year, its most eagerly anticipated and heatedly debated annual issue. Free access to the Web site starts today and ends Oct. 31.

October 16, 2006
Three Reasons for Riesling

Usually when sweatshirt weather rolls around I pretty much stick to red wine. White wines are fine when you're lounging around in a T-shirt, but cooler temperatures call for adjustments, and that means a sweatshirt to protect you against the chill and red wine to warm you up inside.

Nevertheless, there I was Sunday evening, in a sweatshirt, sitting down to a blind flight of six chilled rieslings, the most refreshing of white wines associated with the warmer temperatures of summer.

But riesling's popularity is soaring. Wine Business Insider reported this past week that sales of riesling in the United States over the past three years have grown 72 percent. Only pinot grigio and pinot noir are showing stronger growth. Their success has been well documented, but riesling's new popularity is still largely under the radar.

West Coast vintners, however, have taken notice, and aren't letting the state's dearth of riesling vineyards deter them from introducing new bottlings of the varietal. At least six vintners have turned to riesling's historic homeland - Germany - to acquire riesling to be bottled under their own labels and sold in the United States. They include Bonny Doon Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County, and Ironstone Vineayrds in Calaveras County.

Thus my Sunday tasting. I tasted through the wines, all recently released but not all from Germany, and found three I especially liked. They represented three distinct styles.

The driest and most austere was the Claiborne & Churchill 2005 Central Coast Dry Riesling ($18). Made in the stern traditional Alsatian style, it's an acquired taste for people reared on the lush fruit of California wines. The open-minded and patient, however, will be rewarded with honeyed and floral smells and a flavor suggestive of delicate melon. It's a wine best poured with food, such as roast chicken and shellfish, rather than taken as an aperitif.

The most refreshing of the off-dry style of the varietal was the Jekel Vineyards 2005 Monterey Riesling ($12). With an aroma of dried apricot, peaches and honey, it seemed at first just simple and sweet, but as it warmed slightly more spice and an intriguing mineral element crept it to make it the most complex riesling in the tasting.

One of the sweeter wines in the roundup, the Fetzer Vineyards Valley Oaks California Riesling ($6), was my overall favorite, not so much for the sweetness as its lean structure, razory acidity and overall balance. There's plenty of fruit in there as well, mostly apricots and peaches, but with additional suggestions of jasmine, spice and smoke, the latter a mystery, given that the wine was fermented in stainless steel with no oak aging whatever. Despite its slight build, it went swimmingly with a spunky pesto. The winery also recommends it with holiday foods like roast turkey and spicy Thai dishes. Given the growing popularity of riesling generally, and the awards that Fetzer has been getting for recent vintages of this wine, don't expect that bargain price to last for long.

October 13, 2006
"Five-Buck Fred" Falters

RB Fred Franzia.JPG
Wine enthusiasts who plan to search for bargains this weekend might want to include in their itinerary a stop at one of the local branches of the Trader Joe's chain of grocery stores. Fred Franzia, responsible for bringing a whole new group of customers to Trader Joe's with his line of $2 wines under the Charles Shaw label - aka "Two Buck Chuck" - is back with a group of releases under his new Napa River brand.

They're a bit pricier than the Charles Shaw wines - $4.99 - but they're cheaper than most wines with "Napa Valley" or "Napa County" on the label, meaning they are made mostly or solely with grapes grown in that prestigious appellation.

Three vintage-dated varietals are available, with the merlot looking to be the most impressive buy, according to the tasting panel of Wines & Vines magazine. The panel blind tasted the Napa River wines against more expensive Napa Valley varietals as well as comparably priced Gallo wines with a "California" appellation. Each flight consisted of just four wines, with the Napa River merlot finishing second in its group, the cabernet sauvignon third and the chardonnay last. Complete results are here.

October 12, 2006
A Referendum on Wine

Californians, we often are reminded by non-Californians, are spoiled. They may have in mind our climate or our scenery, but they also could be talking of our easy access to wine, and not just because of the proximity of fine-wine regions to so many cities. Wine can be bought in California just about anywhere people gather except movie complexes and high-school football games.

Not so in a lot of other states, including Massachusetts, often pictured as one of the more liberal members of the union. In California, we're able to buy wine at most any grocery store, a logical recognition of wine's traditional role at the dinner table. Not so in Massachusetts, where the sale of wine is largely restricted to liquor stores.

When Massachusetts voters go to the polls next month, however, they will be asked to pass judgment on "Ballot Question One," a proposal to create a new class of liquor license that would permit the sale of wine at grocery stores.

Proponents say the measure will give consumers more convenience and choice. Opponents argue that easier access to wine would increase alcohol consumption, underage drinking, drunk driving and binge drinking.

To Californians, this initiative might seem a minor issue, but in Massachusetts it could be the hottest topic on the ballot, pitting two major industries against each other. On one hand, there are grocery stores who would like to expand their sales opportunities. On the other, there are liquor stores who control most alcohol sales and fear the competition.

As a measure of just how intensely the issue is being debated, the Boston Globe reported yesterday that spending by proponents and opponents could shatter the $9 million record for ballot questions in Massachusetts. So far, $7.6 million has been spent. The $9 million record was set in 1988. The initiative then was a bit more profound than whether wine should be sold in grocery stores. The question before voters was whether Massachusetts should close its nuclear power plants. No was the answer.

October 11, 2006
Masque Unveils Lunch

For the first time since it opened in the spring of 2004, Masque Ristorante at El Dorado Hills is serving lunch. True, the casual Cantinetta at Masque, part of the same operation, has been serving lunch since early on. There, however, the fare has been running to paninis, frittatas, pizzas, salads and similar light dishes.

The lunch menu in the restaurant proper is a slightly abridged version of the dinner menu. In the fall, that means such dishes as ravioli filled with squash and finished with a walnut sauce, risotto with autumn mushrooms, and braised lamb shank. Masque Ristorante is open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The format and hours for the Cantinetta at Masque are unaffected by the addition.

October 11, 2006
A Boost for Curry

The tested group was very small, the results very tentative, but scientists at UCLA are hopeful that a chemical in curry and tumeric may help our immune systems rid the brain of amyloid beta, implicated in forming the plaques found in patients with Alzheimer's disease.

The chemical is curcumin, previously recognized for its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. Results of the study suggest that curcumin helps macrophages - the immune system's "Pac Men...gobbling up waste products" - clear away amyloid beta.

These early findings were published in the current issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, and an abstract was released by UCLA.

Last month, in another study, scientists said they found something in red wine that may help prevent Alzheimer's disease, at least in rats. In light of these latest findings, the question before the house now is: Which red wine should a person select when eating curry? I'm betting a Dolcetto would do just fine, or maybe a Lambrusco or Beaujolais Nouvuea - something fresh, young, fruity and zesty.

October 10, 2006
Tri-Tip World Cup: The Final Round

Tomorrow, I get my cholesterol checked. But I'm not waiting for the results to suspend for the year my search for the best wine to accompany the State Cut of Beef, which, of course, is tri-tip. The grilling season in California never really ends, but, frankly, I've had my fill of tri-tip for awhile.

This journey began in June, when I threw a lightly seasoned tri-tip on the grill and opened a mixed assortment of the kinds of red wine I thought would go best with the slightly sweet, slightly salty, slightly spicy tri-tip.

Since then, I've overseen six subsequent rounds. The themes have ranged from such California stalwarts as cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel to promising newcomers like tempranillo and malbec.

For Sunday evening's last tasting I rounded up some pinot noirs, customarily the most versatile red wine at the dinner table. I still believe that, though pinot noir wouldn't be my first choice to pair with tri-tip, which calls for a wine with a bit more spine and fruit. The exception would be the pinot noir that on Sunday had the most pronounced aromatics, the solidest structure and the most complexity and persistence. That was the Goldeneye Winery 2003 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ($52), a pinot not only alluring in its smells of blueberries, cherries and mint but elegant as well as firm and deep. It's truly a noble pinot noir, showing that Mendocino County just might be California's best-kept secret when it comes to sturdy yet refined examples of the varietal.

So if not the Goldeneye pinot noir, what would be my first choice with tri-tip? Certainly a couple of zinfandels linger impressively in my memory, most notably the solidly built, freshly fruity and pleasantly spiced Artezin 2004 Zinfandel ($15). A couple of juicy and firm cabernet sauvignons went very well with the juiciness and sweetness of grilled tri-tip, but at $65 and $90 they are too pricey to consider seriously pairing with such a casual cut of beef, I now recognize. Two tempranillos combined clean fruit and agile tannins to compliment tri-tip, and they're priced for a parking-lot tailgate soiree, the earthy as well as richly fruity Scribner Bend Vineyards 2004 Clarksburg Black Hat Tempranillo ($15), and the ripe yet vivacious Conde de Valdemar 2002 Rioja Crianza Tempranillo ($12).

In the end, though, I have to go back to the very first match in June for the two wines most at home with tri-tip, and those would be the youthful and sprightly C.G. Di Arie 2004 Lodi Petite Sirah ($25) and the bright and lush Charles Spinetta Winery 2004 Amador County Barbera ($18).

The petite sirah is a much firmer wine, though the barbera compensates for its slighter frame with a refreshing acidity that cuts into muscle and fat of the beef with the authority of one of those big ol' Buck knives that steakhouses like to throw on the table. What do these two wines have in common to make them such starring mates with tri-tip? They're firm without being hard, and fruity without being jammy, with oak kept respectively in the background. They're bright and accessible. This whole matter of attempting to match food and wine is such an inexact science that it's best not to think of it as scientific at all. Someone else will find an entirely different kind of wine best suited to their palate when it is paired with tri-tip. If there's one thing we no doubt can agree on, the search sure is long as that cholesterol is held in check.

October 9, 2006
A Weekend of Good Eating

Aside from the tri-tip I grilled last night, the weekend provided a couple of other culinary highlights:

1) The chile rellenos at Mas Mexican Restaurant in Roseville. An item I generally avoid because of its frequently thick, heavy and oily batter, I nonetheless gave the Mas version a try solely for its menu description, which talked of the traditional chile poblano being filled with chopped beef, carrots, potato and two styles of Mexican cheese. No mention of the usual flour-and-egg batter that coats the chile just before it is fried. No sign of it, either, when the dish arrived. What we got was one large and glorious dark-green poblano chile pepper oozing with cheeses, meat and diced carrots and potatoes. The spicing was as hot and bright as the fireworks show during halftime at Woodcreek High School's homecoming football game we took in after dinner. The chile rellenos was half an entree under the "traditional favorites" section of Mas Mexican Restaurant's extensive and diverse menu. We paired it with the housemade tamale, also a decent interpretation, the cornmeal wrapping light and fresh, the pork filling chunky and tender, its pasilla sauce vibrant and sharp. And get this, the entire plate, which included a veritable puree of pinto beans and red rice, came to just $9.99. Mas is the successor to the Roseville branch of Cafe Bernardo. At 1563 Eureka Road, in a shopping plaza that also includes Town Lounge and Mikuni, it's a collaborative venture involving two high-profile talents of the Sacramento area's dining scene, Randy Paragary of the Paragary Restaurant Group and Ernesto Jimenez of the Ernesto's, Zocalo and Tortugas family of restaurants. The layout is basically the same as it was when Cafe Bernardo occupied the quarters, but colorful Mexican ceramics and big pots of healthy plants, as well as a spacious patio with artful fountain, give it the feel of a festive open-air restaurant in Guadalajara.

2) The whole Maine lobster at Fair Play Bistro in Fair Play, El Dorado County. OK, that's one heck of a long drive for lobster, about 50 miles from Sacramento, especially considering that lobster is one of the riskiest dishes to order anywhere anytime, given that it rarely lives up to its hype. But if you happen to be in the Fair Play area, perhaps after a day of tasting wine, or visiting the bake shops of Apple Hill, and have a mean hunger for lobster, the pound-and-a-quarter specimen that lands on your plate is going to be more satisfying than disappointing. While some of the meat was tough, most was fresh, sweet and tender, and it was backed up by corn on the cob (slightly overdone), splended boiled red potatoes, a fresh and refreshing coleslaw, and melted butter. All this for $19.95 a person. The promotion continues every Saturday through October. One precaution: Not only make reservations, but specify that you are coming for the lobster. We had, but at the relatively early hour of 5:25 p.m. our server looked panicky, made a big deal of not knowing whether enough lobsters were on hand, and had to check with the kitchen before assuring us that one was left. "Some didn't make it," she said, noting that they were alive when they left Maine. Also be aware that these lobsters are served whole, still in the shell, so be prepared to put on the big bib they provide and to start cracking and digging. In the end, it was fun, tasty and a bargain. More information: (530) 620-2492.

October 6, 2006
Le Bilig Staying Put...For Now

Sacramento-area residents whose year-end holiday festivities include dinner at Le Bilig French Cafe in Auburn can relax. Contrary to rumors, the restaurant's owners, Marc and Monica Deconinck, aren't going anywhere. True, they were in Bordeaux this summer scouting for property for a potential bed-and-breakfast inn. "That didn't work out," says Marc Deconinck.

On top of that, the Deconincks pretty much have their hands full here right now. They're looking at getting involved in the commercial production of olive oil. Monica Deconinck, who has taught cooking classes for children at the restaurant, is working on a cookbook for youngsters. They're expecting their sixth child in February. And then there's the year-end holiday season, traditionally a busy time at the restaurant. "It's not feasible right now," said Marc Deconinck of a possible move to France.

They are, however, thinking of relocating Le Bilig somewhere in the Sacramento region, and have looked at potential sites in Auburn, Loomis, Roseville and Grass Valley. The restaurant's existing quarters are quaint (they share the building with a bail bondsman) but small (they can seat just 34). "It's definitely in the back of our mind to relocate sometime," said Marc Deconinck. "It would be nice to find a vacant little old stone building in a nice location."

For at least this holiday season, however, they are staying put.

October 5, 2006
Guess Where Chris Webber Will Eat

In the fall, some people like to meander through mazes cut into stands of corn. A trip no less mysterious is to drive about Natomas. Even without putting a tire onto the labyrinth otherwise known as the parking lot at Arco Arena, the drive is circuitous and frustrating, though I suppose some might find it fun.

I returned to the neighborhood yesterday evening in search of the restaurant for which former Kings power forward Chris Webber broke ground way back in January. I found a whole bunch of buildings nearing completion, several of which looked as if they could house Center Court with C-Webb, Webber's restaurant, but fencing and a perplexing array of street numbers on and about North Freeway Boulevard - now there's an imaginatively named street - kept me from zeroing in on which one is to house the place.

I'll just have to take Erin Smith's word that it will be at 3600 N. Freeway Blvd., and that it will open in mid-November. She's the executive assistant to Jeff Dudum, CEO of Dudum Sports & Entertainment, the Walnut Creek company with which Webber has teamed up to open the restaurant.

"We're hoping he'll be in attendance for the grand opening," says Smith. The Philadelphia 76ers, for whom Webber now plays, won't visit Arco Arena to challenge the Kings until late December, though they will be in the West for games with the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers in mid-November, making a stopover in Sacramento for a ribbon cutting at the restaurant relatively easy for Webber. Restaurants, however, rarely open on their projected timetable.

The menu for Center Court with C-Webb still is being developed, though it's expected to be similar to the "family friendly" menu for McCovey's Restaurant in Walnut Creek, says Smith. McCovey's, also developed by Dudum, and named for Willie McCovey, former star with the San Francisco Giants among other teams, features a contemporary American menu with several Mediterranean, Asian and Latin touches. Entrees, for example, range from meatloaf to fish tacos, grilled honey-glazed pork chops to fried chicken. Center Court with C-Webb, however, also will have several dishes of the kinds of food Webber grew up eating and continues to enjoy, says Smith, though those still are being drawn up.

October 4, 2006
Skis, Snowboards and Sushi

Sacramento snow-sport enthusiasts with a hunger for Mikuni's brand of adventurous sushi won't have to drive all the way home to get it after a day on the northern slopes at Lake Tahoe.

Possibly as soon as this winter, a branch of Mikuni is to open in the expanding village of Northstar-at-Tahoe. "Mikuni at Northstar" is to be a joint venture between the group's founding Arai family of Sacramento and Ray Villaman, owner of Fireside Pizza Co. at Squaw Valley.

Villaman, who also is developing an "upscale Italian bistro" at Northstar, will be Mikuni's on-site operations manager, while the Arais will come up with the sorts of sushi they figure will fly at a High Sierra resort. "He is to watch over the business, while we will provide the expertise for the sushi," said Derrick Fong, CEO of the Mikuni group.

Villaman said he hopes to open his Italian restaurant at Northstar in January, with the Mikuni to debut before the end of the skiing season.

Fong also reports that Mikuni is looking "very seriously" at Las Vegas and Reno for possible expansion, and that design plans for an El Dorado Hills store are being reviewed by El Dorado County officials. That restaurant likely won't open until early 2008, said Fong.

October 4, 2006
Ernesto's Staying Put

One of Sacramento's better situated and more historic restaurant sites has been dark since the end of May, with no prospects for a new tenant soon. For 45 years, the sprawling brick building along Folsom Boulevard near Alhambra Boulevard had housed the Rosemount Grill, and since 1990 Andiamo.

When Andiamo owner Barbara Mikacich decided to ease back on her work schedule this past spring - she's still active in her family's other Alhambra Boulevard restaurant, the Limelight - she leased the old Rosemount facility to Ernesto Jimenez so he could relocate his immensely popular Ernesto's Mexican restaurant from 16th and S.

Those plans now are dead, however. Jimenez says he wasn't able to line up the estimated $4 million he needed to buy and remodel the Folsom Boulevard facility. "It's really sad," remarked Jimenez, noting he had high hopes for the move and already had spent a bundle on architectural plans. Small Business Administration funds he needed to underwrite the project, however, just weren't materializing. "I can't say enough about how patient and nice the Mikacich family has been with us."

Barbara Mikacich says she is entertaining other offers for the site, none of which is close enough to finalization to make any sort of announcement. "Anything can happen, but we know for sure it isn’t going to be Ernesto’s," she remarked.

Ernesto's, meanwhile, will stay put, says Jimenez, who also owns the Mexican restaurants Zocalo and Tortugas in Sacramento and is a partner in the recently opened Mas in Roseville.

October 3, 2006
Deuce Gets an Ace

This past spring, I reported in The Sacramento Bee about the reactivation of the Wine Patrol, a group of California wine-industry wags who on and off over the past 20 years have been trying to deflate the pomposity that often inhibits the pure pleasure of wine.

Led by veteran Sonoma County winemaker Lance Cutler, the group in March launched a campaign to persuade restaurateurs to adopt more consumer-friendly wine programs. Toward that end, Cutler announced that he and his deputies would bestow a WinePAL certificate on any restaurant meeting the group's standards.

Among other things, those standards specify that the wine list have at least one wine under $30 in each category, that at least 10 percent of the entire list be under $30, that corkage be $10 or less per bottle, and that the name of the person responsible for the wine list be on the list.

It's taken the Wine Patrol six months, but it's finally found a restaurant that measures up to the standards. The first WinePAL certificate has been awarded Peter and Kristen Stewart, owners of Deuce Restaurant in Sonoma.

At Deuce, wherein chef Arnold Pulido turns out contemporary American food with Italian and French accents, the cellar is stocked with 170 different wines, nearly 40 percent of which are under $30. In announcing the award, Cutler gave two examples of the kinds of first-rate affordable wines that he and his group would like to see more often in restaurants - the David Noyes 2004 North Coast Tocai Friulano ($23) and the Jade Mountain 2003 Old Vine Mourvedre ($26).

"There are some wonderful restaurants that seek out thrilling wines and use reasonable mark-ups to provide value and quality for their customers. Deuce is one of them," said Cutler as he hit the trail to find others.

October 2, 2006
The French Laundry: Three Stars

The eagerly anticipated Michelin Guide's first appraisal of restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California wine regions won't be released until Wednesday, but the key findings are in.

Only one of the 356 restaurants visited by Michelin's anonymous inspectors is getting the most coveted three stars. That's The French Laundry in Yountville in the Napa Valley. Three stars means "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey."

Four restaurants are getting two stars - Michael Mina and Aqua in San Francisco, Manresa in Los Gatos, and Cyrus in Healdsburg. Two stars means "excellent cooking, worth a detour."

The 23 restaurants to get one star include Fleur de Lys, Acquerello, Gary Danko, Boulevard and Masa's in San Francisco, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Bistro Jeanty and Bouchon in Yountville, La Toque in Rutherford, Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, and Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant in Forestville. One star means "a very good restaurant in its category." Interestingly, of the 23 just 12 are in San Francisco.

Stars are awarded only for the quality of the cuisine, specifically the quality of the products used, the mastering of flavors and cooking, the "personality" of the cuisine, the value for money, and consistency.

October 1, 2006
Local Wines Score Big

Breakfast began with a crispy rice cake topped with sweet pork and a rich eel sauce, followed by cannelloni filled with Dungeness crab, which came just before the butter-poached, lemon-scented Malpque oysters finished with Sevruga caviar.

And by the way, each course was accompanied by a glass of wine. What was going on, some sort of mad buffet brunch? In a way, it was, but it was billed as the culinary competition of the North Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival.

For about four hours, seven judges were sequestered in a conference room of the Resort at Squaw Creek to see which of 30 teams, each consisting of a restaurant and a winery, could come up with the most impressive pairing of food and wine.

In the end, Coyote Moon Bar & Grill, the restaurant of Coyote Moon Golf Course at Truckee, won the pairing with one of the simpler dishes of the day, a strip of smoked-duck prosciutto wrapped around a Mission fig with a small bouquet of arugula and a slice of pecorino cheese. It was simple but it also was rich, and it needed a fairly assertive wine, which turned out to be the Morgan Winery 2004 Santa Lucia Double L Pinot Noir ($55), which was peppery and smoky in its own right.

Judges also chose a best red wine and a best white wine in the tasting. The red results provided a shot of confidence and esteem for a couple of wineries in the Sierra foothills. The gold medal for best red went to the Mt. Vernon Winery 2003 Placer County Cabernet Franc ($23), while the bronze medal went to the Lucchesi Winery 2003 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Sauvignon ($26). The silver medal for second place was awarded the Handley Winery 2004 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ($28).

The wine judged best white in the competition also was out of Sacramento's back yard, the Van Ruiten Family Winery 2004 Lodi Pinot Gris ($12).

Competition in both divisions was keen, with the other wines including such highly regarded releases as a ZD chardonnay, a Frank Family cabernet sauvignon, a Duckhorn merlot and a Taz pinot noir.

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