January 31, 2007
When You Have a Lemon...

If you are a fan of Bravo's "Top Chef 2" reality show, you will want to ignore this link to the Web site Realty TV World. It's reporting that the online site of Food & Wine magazine, one of the show's sponsors, inadvertently posted an article Monday that reveals the winner of the second season of the series, which wasn't to be known before tonight's 10 p.m. finale.

In its defense, Food & Wine says it prepared in advance profiles of both finalists, Ilan Hall and Marcel Vigneron, so it could post one as soon as the final show ends. It even provided links to those stories. If you missed the series but want to catch up on the two who outlasted the other contestants, here's the links to Hall's profile and Vigneron's profile.

January 30, 2007
A Spring Wine in the Middle of Winter

Merry Edwards 2005.JPG
In a normal winter, zinfandel and other warm and comforting reds are the wines to grab on nights frigid and damp. But this is no ordinary winter. January is shaping up as maybe the driest on record hereabouts, if not necessarily the warmest. Yet, yesterday was downright springlike, passably warm and sunglasses bright. Bring on the lighter foods and the chilled white wines.

Dinner last night, consequently, was an abundant salad, with tomatoes even, and pasta with a pesto sauce, the sort of spread we usually have in summer. The white wine was a new release, the Merry Edwards 2005 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($27), also the sort of bottle we have in summer.

Merry Edwards best is known for pinot noir, but in 2001 she added a small run of sauvignon blanc to her portfolio. It's been well received, and she's been increasing production. She made nearly 3,000 cases of the 2005, available only in restaurants, at her winery and on her Web site.

This is an unusual sauvignon blanc, in part because it's made with Musque clones of the variety, recognized for adding more floral overtones and richer texture to the final wine. Edwards also fermented the wine entirely in French oak barrels, only a small portion of which was new oak. Both techniques helped bring a fairly luxurious texture to the wine without leaving it heavy with oak. Indeed, the oak is barely perceptible, allowing the wine's melony, herbal, grapefruit and grassy flavors to shine. It's an elegant, composed, beautifully balanced sauvignon blanc. It isn't at all from the mold that is producing so many lean and metallic examples of the varietal today. There's room for that kind of sauvignon blanc, to be sure, but there's also room for a style of unusual refinement, lushness and maturity, and the Merry Edwards is it.

Edwards recommends the wine be poured with New England clam chowder, hake in parsley sauce, a spicy lobster bisque or Pacific lingcod with a Meyer lemon aioli. Its dry richness and solid structure also made it a swell companion with the pesto. Our only regret is that both the wine and the kind of weather that makes sauvignon blanc so fitting could disappear any day now.

The wine's eye-catching and carefree label, incidentally, is by Berkeley artist David Lance Goines, once of Carmichael. Edwards asked him to add a few more ribbons to his original drawing. Even so, federal regulators who oversee the appropriateness of the country's wine labels must have done a double-take before approving the artistry.

January 29, 2007
Sharon Tyler Herbst

Herbst ST.jpg
Other than the Webster's College Dictionary on my desk, the reference books I most frequently grasp are "Food Lover's Companion" and "Wine Lover's Companion," the former by Sharon Tyler Herbst, the latter by Sharon Tyler Herbst and her husband, Ron Herbst. Over the years, the compact yet comprehensive books consistently have been reliable for settling debates on spelling, definition, history and the like about this or that ingredient or technique in cooking and winemaking.

We've just learned that Sharon Tyler Herbst died Friday at her Bodega Bay home of ovarian cancer. A native of Denver, Colo., she wrote 17 culinary books, a discipline to which she turned after modest success as a mystery writer.

Her career as a food writer and cooking teacher began when she was given a microwave oven, about which she knew nothing. She signed up for a cooking class, realized she knew more than the teacher, and began to conduct classes herself.

Her first cookbook, "Breads," was published in 1983. The compendium for which she is best known, "Food Lover's Companion," first was published in 1990 with definitions of 3,000 terms. Subsequent editions grew to 6,000 entries, with more than a million copies sold. It's the online reference of several Internet culinary Web sites, including, and Her latest book, "Cheese Lover's Companion," to include more than 1,000 cheeses and cheese-related terms, is to be published in June.

A memorial service is to be at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Yacht Club in Bodega Bay. In lieu of flowers, her family requests that contributions be made in her memory to the UCSF Gynecologic Oncology Foundation, in care of Dr. Bethan Powell, 1600 Divisadero St., San Francisco, CA 94115.

January 29, 2007
Super Tasting

Sacramento's sudden proliferation of places for people to sample wine isn't limited to small shops and cafes popping up here and there. Raley's and Bel Air markets also are tapping into the country's growing thirst for wines.

A year ago, Raley's and Bel Air started to add wine-tasting programs to several of its supermarkets. This week, the total grows to seven with the Raley's branches along Douglas Boulevard in Granite Bay and along Blue Ravine Road in Folsom joining the lineup.

Each week, a different winery is invited to pour samples of its releases for a cost of $3 per person, which is refunded for a $3-off coupon toward the purchase of a bottle of wine. Usually, two whites and two reds are poured.

The tastings are 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at the Bel Air along East Bidwell in Folsom, the Raley's along Freeman Lane in Grass Valley and the Bel Air along Arena Boulevard in Natomas, Fridays at the Raley's along Park Drive in El Dorado Hills, the Raley's along Blue Ravine Road in Folsom, the Raley's along Douglas Boulevard in Granite Bay, and the Raley's along Lake Tahoe Boulevard in South Lake Tahoe.

This week, with Sunday's Super Bowl parties in mind, the seven stores also will be pouring tastes of several microbrew beers for an additional $2 per person.

January 28, 2007
If It's January, Get Zinfandel

A few early impressions from Saturday's 16th annual Zinfandel Festival at San Francisco's Fort Mason:

- Zinfandel vines are one of the few things on Earth, and maybe the only thing in California, valued for its old age. Vintners discovered years ago that terms like "old vines" and "ancient vines" help distinguish and sell their zinfandels. A growing number, however, now eschew the term, recognizing that it doesn't mean anything. I asked several winemakers who still boast of the age of their vineyards on their labels just how old their vines are. Responses ranged from 30 years to more than a century. No one, including government regulators, has ventured to establish a definition of "old vines," and maybe that's a good thing, reflecting the independent and carefree spirt that characterizes the zinfandel community.

- Someone was too carefree, however, in writing this year's festival booklet, which lists all 270 or so participating wineries and the two, three or more wines each is to pour. I've never before seen such inconsistency in vintages, prices and wines between what was described in the booklet and what actually was being poured. Before next year's festival, the organizers - the trade group Zinfandel Advocates & Producers - needs to come up with a way to better assure attendees that the information in the booklet reflects what they will find on the tables.

- On the other hand, kudos to ZAP and participating wineries for having on hand plenty of palate-clearing cheese, bread and water right up to the end. At too many tastings the food and often the wine itself runs out early on, much to the consternation of people who have paid big bucks to attend. Much to its credit, ZAP also had available big red plastic beer cups for guests to use as individual spit buckets, not that a lot of attendees were taking advantage of them.

- Many of the 2005 zinfandels introduced at the festival were notably lighter than the 2004s now in the market. Whether this reflects the nature of the vintage or a conscious effort by winemakers to rein in the ripeness, alcohol, tannins and oak of recent years warrants more exploration. Nonetheless, I like this trend, and found a higher proportion of fresh and spirited zinfandels than at any previous festival.

- Several producers were new to me or new to the festival, or both, and of those the ones I will want to keep an eye on for the distinctiveness of their zinfandels are Kokomo, Gamba, Mara and Bugay. Bugay Vineyards, which is in Sonoma County, about 1100 feet up the east slope of the Mayacamas Range, has a Sacramento connection. Proprietor John Bugay is the nephew of Sacramento broadcasting icon Stan Atkinson. Despite that association, Bugay has yet to find a retail outlet in Sacramento for his wines. Maybe when Uncle Stan gets back from one of his cruises he can do something about that; the wines truly show the authority of hillside fruit.

January 26, 2007
Look, Another Wine Bar

In driving down L Street last night, we noticed people in and about - mostly about - The Grand, Reda Bellarbi's new wine bar at 16th Street. Don't know if it was a private party or if the tiny Grand actually has opened, but if it was the former the place at least should be open to the public in the near future (Bellarbi was unavailable for comment).

Wine bars are opening in Sacramento at the rate of one a month. In December, Vino Volo debuted at Sacramento International Airport. This month looks like it it's The Grand's turn. Next month, L, the Wine Lounge and Urban Kitchen, is to premiere at 18th and L.

And in March, I've just learned, Vickie Allen is to expand her Discover California shop to include a wine bar featuring 20 to 30 wines by the glass each day and small plates of food. Fittingly, Discover California's Wine Bar & Tasting Room not only will be the first to go underground in cellar and cave fashion, it will reflect the current shift from beer to wine in the drinking preferences of Americans. The bar will occupy subterranean quarters memorably occupied for many years by Hogshead Brew Pub, directly under Discover California at 114 J St. in Old Sacramento.

Allen, who opened Discover California in 1992, stocking only California specialty foods and wines, has been remodeling the old Hogshead site for the past couple of months. Her sales of wines have increased sharply over the past couple of years, prompting her not only to plan the wine bar but to hire a wine specialist, John "The Wine Guy" Hicklin.

January 25, 2007
A Reality Check for Winemakers

One of the more provocative presentations at this week's Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento was delivered this morning by Leslie Joseph, vice president for consumer research and consumer affairs at Constellation Wines U.S., whose numerous wineries include Robert Mondavi, Ravenswood, Rex Goliath and Simi.

She reported on Constellation's Project Genome, a survey aimed at "understanding the DNA of the premium wine consumer." It involved interviews with 3,500 wine drinkers. For purposes of the study, "premium wine" meant any wine costing $5 or more per standard bottle.

The survey found that just 14 percent of the participants had consumed wine during the previous week, that only 6.6 percent had bought any wine costing more than $15 in the previous three months, and that a mere three percent had more than 18 bottles of wine in their home.

In tabulating the data, Constellation grouped consumers into six key segments - the enthusiast (12 percent of the participants, who are people who love to buy and talk of wine), the image seeker (20 percent, the only group predominantly male, who often buy wine to make a statement), the savvy shopper (15 percent, people who love the thrill of finding bargain wines), the traditionalist (16 percent, generally a 50-year-old woman who long ago found one particular brand or style of wine and sticks to it), the satisfied sipper (14 percent, similar in age, gender and attitude to the traditionalist), and the overwhelmed (23 percent, likely a 44-year-old woman who is baffled by the whole wine thing but willing to keep exploring and to be receptive to advice from friends, wine clerks and the like).

The overarching theme of Joseph's talk was that there isn't just one kind of premium wine consumer in the United States, and that wineries need to keep that diversity in mind as they style wines, plot marketing and set their prices.

In one way or another, several other speakers spoke of the diversity of the American wine market as an opportunity for the industry to sharpen its winemaking and wine-selling skills. This was in refreshing contrast to a theme that was sounded at last year's conference, when some speakers advocated that more wines be designed specifically for certain broad geographic markets. That impulse hasn't gone away, but the tone of this year's gathering ran more to recognizing not only that wine's traditional appeal has been in its variety but that the audience for wine is too fragmented to be satisfied with releases designed to appeal to perceived taste preferences.

January 24, 2007
Top Blog

Of all the food blogs in the world, and there must be thousands of them, the best is based right here in Sacramento, according to the Well Fed Network, a consortium of 15 culinary Web sites that has been coordinating the awards for three years.

Awards are given in 18 categories, from best humorous food blog to best blog by a chef, but the best overall blog this year is Simply Recipes by Sacramentan Elise Bauer.

Complete results are at the Web site of the Well Fed Network.

January 24, 2007
A Bouquet for Kendall-Jackson

A highlight of each year's Unified Wine & Grape Symposium now under way in and about the Sacramento Convention Center is wine consultant Jon Fredrikson's unveiling of his "Winery of the Year."

Basing his decision largely on achievements in marketing and sales, Fredrikson earlier today said his choice for this year's honor is resurgent Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, whose sales in 2006 rose 19 percent to a total 4.1 million cases.

All the more remarkable is that Kendall-Jackson took the risky step this past year of upgrading, repackaging and repositioning its signature wine, its Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay, as a totally estate-grown wine, noted Fredrikson. Despite that, and despite an accompanying slight increase in its retail price, sales of the Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay rose $9 million last year, thereby holding its position as the single most popular wine in U.S. supermarkets, with annual sales double its closest competitor, said Fredrikson.

Several other wineries and brands also were unusually "hot" during 2006, including four in this region: Bogle Vineyards of Clarksburg, Michael David of Lodi, McManis of Ripon, and Gnarly Head, a brand of Delicato Family Vineyards at Manteca that uses strictly Lodi grapes.

Incidentally, if you want to see how strongly passions can run when it comes to Kendall-Jackson's Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay, check out wine columnist Mark Fisher's recent blog on changes to the wine at the Dayton Daily News.

January 24, 2007
Wine Warnings

Is it time to amend the warning label on each bottle of wine sold in the United States? Two developments that surfaced at the current Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in and about the Sacramento Convention Center suggest it is:

- One topic irritating the country's wine-grape growers is the use of the appellation "American" on wines that might include a hefty portion of juice from Australia, France or some other country. Under current law, a wine with an "American" appellation can include up to 25 percent juice from vineyards outside the United States. Opinion at the conference was divided over whether this practice is increasing or remaining steady, but enough farmers are concerned about the issue that the California Association of Winegrape Growers is exploring possible ways to assure that American wines are American, said Rodney Schatz, the trade group's chairman.

For one, the organization may ask federal authorities to amend the regulation that allows foreign juice to be blended into American wines. Another option is to appeal to California legislators to adopt a measure stipulating that any wine bearing the "California" appellation be made entirely with California fruit. Longtime wine-industry consultant Jon Fredrikson said the American appellation was adopted in the 1970s when California wines were being blended with New York wines to help compensate for a shortage of Empire State grape juice. If lawmakers don't come up with a solution along one of the lines suggested by Schatz, maybe they can agree to tweak the existing warning label on bottles of wine to read: "This American wine may not be entirely American."

- And while they're at it, perhaps they can add this line: "Before applying corkscrew to cork, make sure the cork is cork." This thought came to mind after stopping by the booth of Alcoa Vino-Seal, one of scores of exhibitors trying to entice symposium attendees into buying everything from oak barrels to a robotic vine pruner. At Vino-Seal, Justin Davis was talking up a new kind of bottle cork that is made of glass. Rip off the foil on the neck of the bottle and what you find is a short, solid cap of clear glass. Just grab the edge of the cap and pull. No special equipment needed. Davis, Vino-Seal's product manager, is promoting the cap as a convenient and elegant alternative to both traditional cork and screwtops. Corks often are unreliable in guaranteeing the soundness of a wine, while some consumers are hesitant to embrace screwtops because they seem more utilitarian than glamorous. Glass avoids both issues, says Davis. The stoppers are made in Germany, where they were introduced in 2003. Whitehall Lane Winery in the Napa Valley is the first producer in the United States to take advantage of the stoppers, for 8,000 cases of its reserve cabernet sauvignon, Davis says. More California wineries are showing interest in the glass caps, and he's predicting 100,000 cases will be topped with the closures this year. He expects wineries to warn consumers of the surprise awaiting them under the foil with either neck hangers - an approach taken by Whitehall Lane - or a statement on the back label.

January 23, 2007
Don Sebastiani's Crystal Ball

Sonoma vintner Don Sebastiani, who with his two sons has been responsible for several of California's more popular wine brands in recent years - Pepperwood Grove, Smoking Loon, Screw Kappa Napa - talked on and on and on as the keynote speaker at the 33rd annual meeting of the California Association of Winegrape Growers at the Sacramento Grand Sheraton earlier this evening.

He mostly urged the assembled farmers to lobby wineries to place more prominently and specifically on their wine labels the geographic source of the grapes responsible for the wine in the bottle. There are all sorts of economic, political and cultural reasons for growers to receive more credit for their stewardship, so Sebastiani's remarks were warmly received.

For wine enthusiasts beyond the hotel's ballroom, however, Sebastiani's predictions about the next hot varietals were more relevant and intriguing, given how astutely he has been grasping consumer preferences. As he sees those tastes - and his research is largely anecdotal, based on visits to supermarket wine departments and wine shops, where he chats up customers - consumers are showing more interest in wines beyond cabernet sauvignon, white zinfandel, chardonnay and merlot. They're getting more adventurous, and are searching out "something different," said Sebastiani. He specifically mentioned sauvignon blancs from New Zealand, pinot grigio when the price is appealing, malbecs from Argentina, old-vine zinfandel, obscure varieties like carignane and mourvedre, riesling, and viognier and chenin blanc from Clarksburg in the San Joaquin/Sacramento River Delta.

Aside from zinfandel, not a lot of California acreage is devoted to those varieties, indicating that Sebastiani may have been hoping to get members of his audience to start cultivating more of those kinds of grapes.

January 23, 2007
Aggie Wines? Davis Punts

California has two powerhouse universities to train winemakers - California State University, Fresno, and the University of California, Davis.

They're competitive, but apparently they won't compete head to head to see which campus turns out the best winemakers as measured by the number of gold medals their wines win.

Fresno State, see, has a commercial winery whose wines do well on the competition circuit and in the marketplace, at least in the Fresno area.

UC Davis is preparing to build a teaching and research winery, but that facility won't be used to make commercial wines if the view of Andrew Waterhouse prevails. He's the interim chair of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis. In reply to the final question of today's opening general session of the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento, Waterhouse made clear his opposition to commercial wines from a campus winery, a notion that periodically has been floated.

"I'm not sure it would complement our educational mission," Waterhouse told a few hundred conference registrants in a ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Sacramento.

Afterwards, he elaborated on why he feels commercial wines from a campus winery would distract from rather than add to the university's goals of education and research. It would require the hiring of a director to run it, and it would compete with the growing number of privately owned wineries trying to gain a niche in the marketplace, said Waterhouse. While Aggie wines might be a terrific public-relations tool, the department doesn't need that sort of exposure, given its already high profile, he added.

Waterhouse also suggested that commercial wines from a campus winery could end up hurting the program. "If the wines weren't great all the time we'd be dinged for it."

In short, don't look for the Notre Dame of wine education to field a team any time soon.

January 22, 2007

In catching up with my mail, I find that two potentially significant restaurants opened hereabouts during my three weeks out of town:

- Vitoon "Vic" Assavarungnirund, who opened his first Thai restaurant in Sacramento in 1991, Thai Cottage, this past Thursday quietly introduced his latest, Tuk-Tuk, in the Natomas neighborhood. Neither the menu nor the service is complete and polished, cautions Assavarungnirund, but he's confident that enough pieces are in place to run Tuk-Tuk seven days a week. It's at 4630 Natomas Blvd.; the phone number is (916) 575.7957.

- Also on Thursday, Roseville real-esate developer Abe Alizadeh, left, opened his long-anticipated Crush 29, the first of seven restaurants he's planning to introduce to the region. In interior design and culinary style, Crush 29 draws inspiration from the Napa Valley. Booths are made from wine barrels, custom wine lockers are available, and a couple of wine caves have been developed. Irie Gengler, formerly of The Firehouse in Old Sacramento, is the executive chef, overseeing an eclectic New American menu that includes such dishes as a pasta of prawns, red grapes and shiitake mushrooms in a spicy butter sauce, and lamb crusted with pistachios. Sixty wines are available by the glass. Crush 29 also is open daily for lunch and dinner. It's at 1480 Eureka Road, Roseville; the phone number is (916) 773-2929.

January 22, 2007
On Vacation, But Still Eating

After three weeks of vacation at the southern reaches of the Baja Peninsula, it's time to get back to the keyboard, starting with a few culinary notes:

- This is Lorena Hankins, an expatriot American artist living in La Candelaria, a spring-fed oasis in the lower foothills of the Sierra de la Lunga about 20 miles up a sandy road from the wild beach life of Cabo San Lucas. She's been up there about 17 years, living in tiny quarters where she and her husband get electricity just two hours each evening. While the sun is up, she makes exquisite black pottery striking for its sleek lines, sturdy construction and traditional techniques. Here, steam is shooting from her pressure cooker, sitting on a grid of recycled truck springs over the wood-fired blaze of her adobe hornillo. She also illustrated a Mexican cookbook crucial for anyone who wants to take advantage of the terrific fresh produce readily available in the region, including avocados, chayotes, papayas, jicamas, guavas and mangos. It's Lee Moore's "The Todos Santos Cookbook" (Todos Santos Press, $20, 102 pages). I couldn't find it on the usual book Web sites, but it is distributed in the San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas area. Or you could drive all the way up to La Candelaria and buy a copy from Lorena Hankins. A four-wheel-drive is recommended.

- With more cold weather expected in the Sacramento region, more area residents may be heading to Los Cabos for warmth. If so, and if you develop an appetite for chile rellenos, the best were at Rigo's along the east side of Highway 1 on the north side of San Jose del Cabo, though the most unusual were at El Matador in the Chamizal neighborhood of San Jose, being that they included hollandaise.

Taqueria Rossy along the west side of Highway 1 in the middle of San Jose still offers the best value, variety and reliability in tacos, and service is extradordinarily fast and cordial.

Mi Casa in the historic district of Cabo San Lucas continues to expand up the hill behind the restaurant's original dining rooms. It's now big enough to include two mariachi groups and a strolling soloist simultaneously, playing in separate areas large enough so they don't conflict. After 16 years, Maria del Cielo still is making the best corn tortillas in the region near Mi Casa's entrance. And the restaurant overall continues to handle steadily both contemporary seafood dishes and such classic Mexican entrees as "el manchamanteles de Morelia," succulent chicken and pork with a fruity mole warmed with guajillo and ancho chile peppers.

Las Guacamayas Taco Stand in the Chamizal neighborhood of San Jose del Cabo still is so much fun it drew us back twice, though only once for the cow's foot tostada, which requires an appreciation not only for its unusual sweet flavor but its unusually crunchy and gelatinous texture. On the other hand, no one has to have their arm twisted to order once or twice or three times the restaurant's signature tacos of juicy spit-roasted marinated pork and pineapple, the quesadilla of huitlacochi-infested corn and mushrooms, and the sweet "Guacamaya Special" of chicken, nopales and mushrooms scrambled with cheese.

- Prices for Mexican and California wines are discouragingly high in the region, but terrific values can be found among Chilean and Spanish brands.

- If you fly Mexicana from Sacramento to San Jose del Cabo, choose the enchilada over the burrito for your in-flight meal, and on the return trip the pollo over the pasta. No wine was on board, but the cerveza is included with the price of your ticket.

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