February 28, 2007
Shipshape Sturgeon

As the Sacramento River rises each winter, so does speculation about the landmark floating restaurant the Virgin Sturgeon. This year, speculation, if not the river, is running higher than usual. That's in part because the annual winter sprucing up of the old place is more involved than usual this year, delaying the reopening. Owner Laurie Patching has crews applying paint and installing new linoleum and carpets, among other maintenance chores, but isn't rushing the job. "We're not killing ourselves," she says, adding that she hopes to reopen the place around mid-March.

Also fueling speculation about the restaurant's future is whether Patching is about to sell the place, which she has owned or co-owned since 1976, though it sank two years later and wasn't resurrected until 1984. Since then, it's been an enduring destination on the river. "I'm ready to retire," acknowledges Patching, though she quickly notes that she hasn't sold the place. Still, she's sounding a little wistful as she looks toward the 2007 season. "It's been nothing but fun here."

February 27, 2007
The Shack Blossoms Anew

After a three-month closure for remodeling, the East Sacramento landmark The Shack is back in business. "We still have the outhouse, but it's a little nicer than it was before," says Gary Sleppy, who with his wife Jen has owned the place about two years, gradually transforming the old sandwich shop - it used to be called the Sub Shack - into a more comprehensive neighborhood pub and cafe. Just as the restaurant closed about Thanksgiving, for one, it was generating buzz for its Thursday-night themed wine dinners. They are to resume this Thursday, though Sleppy still doesn't settle on a theme much before the day of the dinner.

Sleppy says he hadn't intended for The Shack to be closed this long, but the sprucing up was more of a chore than he expected. He anticipates another couple of weeks of work before he has the place fully up to speed. "It's less shacky and a little more East Sac, but not so much that I think it will become trendy," says Sleppy.

The Shack, 5201 Folsom Blvd. is open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; (916) 457-5997.

February 27, 2007
Watch Your Step

The hike down the mountain could be more challenging than the hike up. That's my knee-jerk reaction in looking over a press release from Kunde Estate in Sonoma Valley. It announces the winery's annual slate of "Eco Tours," when fourth-generation winemaker Jeff Kunde leads groups through vineyards from the valley floor up to about 1400 feet in the Mayacamas Mountains. As the groups start their way back down they pause at Boot Hill for lunch and a wine tasting overlooking the valley. Boot Hill isn't a pioneer cemetery, but it is the site where the old TV series "Falcon Crest" staged its burials. Lie there on a balmy day after a couple of glasses of wine and you might not feel like getting up, either. At any rate, the approximate four-hour tours this year are May 5, June 2, Aug. 25 and Oct. 20. They cost $75 per person. More information on the treks is at the winery's Web site.

There, information also is available on Kunde's complimentary "Sustainable Winegrowing Hikes," which also involve strolls through vineyards, but no lunch unless you bring your own. Both kinds of hikes are intended to inform wine enthusiasts of how sustainable grape growing is represented in bottles of wine.

February 26, 2007
Rare Wines Roseville Bound

MAJ MARCUS GRAZIANO.JPGSacramento Bee photograph/Michael A. Jones

Napa Valley vintners sold $2.16 million of wine Saturday, and a big chunk of it is going to end up in Roseville.

Marcus Graziano, owner of the wine shop Capitol Cellars Diamond Creek in Roseville, was the second highest bidder at the 11th annual Premiere Napa Valley, where barrels of wines not to be available elsewhere went on the auction block.

Graziano spent a total $250,000 for 15 of the 192 lots sold. Overall, he ended up with 90 cases. He'll have to sell them for an average $231.50 per bottle just to break even. He isn't worried. A year ago he spent $174,000 for 11 lots totaling 55 cases, an average of nearly $264 per bottle, and he's still in business. As of Monday morning, he already had received calls from collectors in Michigan and New Jersey who had heard of his acquisition of labels they cherish. Graziano won't take possession of the wines until this fall.

His purchases included $38,000 for 10 cases of a 2005 cabernet sauvignon by Cliff Lede Vineyards in the Stag's Leap district of the Napa Valley, $28,000 for 10 cases of a 2005 cabernet sauvignon crafted by celebrated viticulturist David Abreu and celebrated winemaker Heidi Barrett for Jones Family Vineyards of Calistoga, and $23,000 for 10 cases of an unusual blend of cabernet sauvignon (80 percent) and zinfandel (20 percent) by Brown Estate in the eastern hills of the Napa Valley.

Over the past 22 years, Graziano has cultivated a community of collectors eager to get their hands on one-of-a-kind wines, and Premiere Napa Valley is one of his principal sources.

Graziano says he also participates aggressively at the auction to help raise the profile of the Sacramento region as a hotbed of wine appreciation. "The Sacramento area has been thought of as a stepchild in the industry, but a renaissance is happening here. The area is growing, and a lot of people are really into wine," Graziano says.

February 26, 2007
Pope-Mobile at KFC?

KFC has come to the party late, but it isn't being shy about announcing its arrival. In adding fish to its national menu for the first time in its 68-year history, just in time to capitalize on Lenten observances, KFC has gone straight to the top for a pitchman - Pope Benedict XVI. In a letter to Vatican City, KFC president Gregg Dedrick is asking the pope for his personal endorsement of the new Fish Snacker "as a way for members of your flock to keep a holy Lenten season," reports USA Today.

While I haven't been authorized by the pope to extend his blessings to this or that fast food, curiosity got the best of me over the weekend and I stopped by a KFC to see what the Fish Snacker had to say. Besides, I'd just finished a package of stories about seafood for this Wednesday's Taste section in The Sacramento Bee and wanted to make sure I hadn't overlooked the fish tale of the year. I hadn't, at least not as far as the Fish Snacker is concerned, though it is an adequate little sandwich, a veritable seafood slider. A breaded and fried filet of Alaskan pollock smeared lightly with tartar sauce and sandwiched in a sesame-seed bun, it was hot and fresh, crispy on the outside, moist and white inside. It's small, but that's why they call it a snack and why they charge just 99 cents each. Service was so slow, however, I thought I was going to have to resort to prayer to get my bag and get out of the place.

When I pulled the sandwich from the bag when I got home I found that the wrapper said "buffalo snacker" as well as "fish snacker." I presume it's an all-purpose wrapper, and that the "buffalo" refers to a version of KFC chicken seasoned with buffalo-wing sauce. On the other hand, the pope could be a big fan of buffalo and KFC is preparing to approach him with a new appeal after Easter.

February 22, 2007
Olives to the Rescue

After judging 258 wines over two days, what stands out most curiously? Aside from the oddball pinot-grigio port, it's got to be the olives. To help judges revive their withering palates, the coordinators of wine competitions send out plate after plate of assorted snacks, which may or may not have any grounding in scientific study when it comes to refreshing tastebuds. I suspect most don't. They might be various kinds of generally innocuous cheese, celery, raw beef, bread and water, sometimes still, sometimes sparkling. The food that is showing up at more and more competitions, however, is the mottled green olives of Graber Olive House in the Southern California community of Ontario.

Currently, at the Grand Harvest Awards wine competition in Santa Rosa, our panel alone must have gone through at least half a dozen 7.5-ounce cans of the olives. According to the list of ingredients, the cans contain just olives, water and salt, but the salt is so subdued all you taste is pure olive - cleanly herbal, largely neutral, downright addictive, even when you know that just three of them total 20 calories. For whatever reason, they seem to do what they are supposed to do at a wine competition, which is restore the palate for another flight.

Longtime wine judge Tim McDonald of Napa Valley, a public-relations consultant to the wine trade, says he suspects that the soft texture and balanced pH of the olives is just what the mouth needs to recalibrate itself.

Graber Olive House has been around since 1894, boasting that what sets its olives apart is that they are "tree ripened," thereby yielding an olive packed with natural olive flavor. "Tree ripened," says the cans. Can "Competition Tested" be far behind?

February 22, 2007
Gary Farrell Starting Over

Gary Farrell, who over the past 25 years has been instrumental in establishing the Russian River Valley's high reputation for pinot noir, is leaving his eponymous winery. The news is generating quite a buzz among judges at the Grand Harvest Awards wine competition under way in Santa Rosa, leading to speculation that other winemakers caught up in corporate consolidation and acquisition in recent years also may be eager to once again set out on their own. For the full story, check it out in yesterday's Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.

February 21, 2007
The Quest for Terroir

Unlike any other wine competition in the country, Grand Harvest Awards takes a deconstructionist approach to wine judging. You sit down before a flight of wines and start to swirl, sniff, sip and spit not only to evaluate the sum of the parts but to figure out what the parts have to say on their own.

Is that citrus smell grapefruit or lemon? Is that earthy flavor mushroom or dust? And if it's one or the other, is it consistent from wine to wine in any given class?

If so, maybe that says something unique of the region where the grapes were grown. It's rather like looking at the nuts and bolts that hold together a BMW rather than just sitting back and enjoying the air conditioning, the sound system and the power that can be engaged so easily.

This is Bill Moffett's idea not only of a good time but of an educational adventure. He conceived of Grand Harvest Awards 17 years ago as a way to use a wine competition not only to recognize outstanding wines but to determine whether wines from a particular area, such as Napa Valley or the Sierra foothills, have some characteristics in common to set them apart from wines of other regions.

That's why I'm in Santa Rosa, helping gather data in his quest. In other words, I'm participating in my first major wine competition of the year. The 2007 edition of Grand Harvest Awards is under way at the Flamingo hotel. It's chilly and dreary outside, but inside each panel is being warmed by some 120 wines a day. Our panel began with a couple of flights of cabernet franc and then swung through classes of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot grigio. We know neither the identity of the producers nor the identity of the regions where the grapes were grown. Our task is to find wines of high quality and to determine whether there are any threads in any one class to say that these wines can come from one particular region and nowhere else. Even after more than 120 wines it's too early to draw any conclusions.

February 20, 2007
Plan for Open That Bottle Night

LS WINE LOCKER 3.JPG Sacramento Bee/ Lezlie Sterling

Open That Bottle Night is coming up Saturday, but we couldn't wait, and over the weekend retrieved from the barn a special wine we'd been saving for just the right occasion. Sunday night with no work Monday other than the rebuilding of a rock wall seemed special enough. The wine was the Beringer 1991 Napa Valley Howell Mountain Bancroft Ranch Merlot, which if you are in the mood for merlot is where you generally want to go.

The wine showed its age, but that wasn't a bad thing, age in this sense being more truffles and tar than fresh plummy fruitiness. The wine still was refreshingly wiry and sharp, and kept our attention for the same sort of reason we found "Pan's Labyrinth" interesting - earthiness, darkness, surprise.

But we almost didn't get there. The soggy cork broke in half just as we started to pull it from the bottle. This isn't uncommon with older wines, and others could face this same problem on Open That Bottle Night. This worked for me: Use a cork puller with a long screw, long enough to pierce gently the remaining cork, seizing it just enough to ease out.

Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, the Wall Street Journal wine columnists who invented Open That Bottle Night to encourage wine enthusiasts to drink up special bottles they just never seem to get around to opening, recommend using one of those two-pronged openers to get a grip on an old cork. That's another possibility, but I've had more luck with more traditional corkscrews.

If neither works and the cork falls apart, with a chunk of it lodged in the neck, don't fret. Take a chopstick or the handle of a thin wooden spoon and tap it into the wine. Use this same utensil to keep the cork from blocking the flow of wine as you pour it into a decanter or another bottle, preferably through a funnel lined with a clean coffee filter. Then enjoy.

Gaiter and Brecher have another timely bit of advice for people planning to join Open That Bottle Night this weekend: About four days before you are to open an older bottle of wine, stand it upright to let the sediment sink to the bottom. That's right about now.

February 15, 2007
Valentine's Day Wildcat


My list of The 10 Best Wines of the Year, So Far is off to a slow start, in part because of a three-week vacation during which I drank shockingly little wine. Last night, however, a strong candidate for the first installment emerged. Inspired by both a woodsy mushroom pasta and Valentine's Day, I picked for dinner a pinot noir, the most romantic of wines not called Champagne.

From its brilliantly flaming color through its lip-smacking finish, the MacRostie Winery and Vineyards 2004 Sonoma Coast Wildcat Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir ($42) is a lusciously definitive take on the varietal. While fairly robust for pinot noir, it seizes with clarity and balance the grape's vibrant cherry/berry flavors and delivers them in a silken package. The oak is astutely restrained, not at all interfering with notes of cinnamon spice, dark chocolate and green tea. It isn't a sipping pinot noir, demanding food, and the depth and smoke of the pasta was a fitting companion.

The cool, breezy and frequently foggy Sonoma Coast appellation is growing fast in esteem for its pinot noirs, and Wildcat Mountain Vineyard looks to be rising in prominence for just about any kind of grape grown there. The MacRostie 2003 Wildcat Mountain Vineyard Syrah ($32) made my top-10 list for last year.

The MacRostie Wildcat pinot noir, alas, isn't yet available in Sacramento, though it can be ordered through the winery's Web site.

February 14, 2007
Wine Getting Checkered Flag

CDC_NASCAR_WINE.JPGJeff Gordon in the winner's circle at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma last summer.
Sacramento Bee/Carl Costas

What beverage is in that Nextel Cup, anyway? Beer? Iced tea? Dr Pepper? Wine generally doesn't come to mind among the possibilities.

But on the eve of Sunday's Daytona 500, the inaugural of NASCAR's season, figures have been released to indicate that racing's fans increasingly are taking to wine.

Last year, the "average NASCAR fan household" spent $81.40 on wine, up from $66.80 the previous year, reports Nielsen FANLinks, a branch of ACNielsen that tracks purchasing among sports fans. That 22 percent increase is a bigger jump than for most sports. Wine purchases by baseball fans, for example, increased just six percent last year, says Dan O’Toole, director of new products for The Nielsen Company.

No group spends more on wine than fans of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) - $124.90 last year. Tennis fans came in second with expenditures totaling $111.90, followed by fans of the Professional Golf Association (PGA) a close third at $109.40. O'Toole attributes the substantial expenditures for wine among golf and tennis fans to their general affluence.

NBA fans are down with NASCAR fans, spending $86.20 on wine last year. Fans of women's professional basketball spent considerably more - $99.10. Baseball fans spent $89, professional-football fans $94.30, and soccer fans $103.10, the latter a 27 percent increase the past year.

While sales of imported wines are increasing among NASCAR fans, domestic wines represent about 70 percent of their purchases. The growing interest in wine among NASCAR fans could be fueled in part by the entry into the wine business by team owners and drivers like Richard Childress and Jeff Gordon, indicate Nielsen officials.

O'Toole sees in the NASCAR numbers an opportunity for wineries to more aggressively market wines to the sport's fans. "So few winery brands reach out to them, but there's a real opportunity for growth there."

February 13, 2007
Jeffersonian Wines

corkscrew.JPGA corkscrew owned by Jefferson

With the long Presidents' Day weekend coming up, let's ask John Hailman what wine he'd bring along if were to join Thomas Jefferson for dinner.

"Probably more than one," says Hailman, who probably knows Jefferson's taste in wine more than anyone. Hailman, a federal prosecutor in Mississippi, was on the phone to chat about his newly published book, "Thomas Jefferson on Wine," the subject of the Dunne on Wine column to be in the Taste section of Wednesday's Sacramento Bee.

In interview and book, Hailman lists all sorts of wines Jefferson liked and probably still would like, given that so many of them continue to be made today, though stylistically they may be somewhat different. At any rate, if you're looking for a fittingly presidential wine to enjoy this weekend, consider:

- A red from Domaine Parent of Pommard, still run by descendants of Etienne Parent, Jefferson's guide through the vineyards and cellars of Burgundy when the future President was the U.S. minister to Paris in the 1780s.

- A Sauterne, perhaps Jefferson's favorite dessert wine. Several estates that Jefferson appreciated still exist, including Chateau Coutet, Chateau Suduiraut, Chateau Filhot and Chateau d'Yquem.

- A Bellet from Nice, which Jefferson in his retirement years called "the finest everyday wine in the world." It's a medium-bodied red with good aroma, says Hailman, who also noted that that's pretty much how Jefferson found it in his time.

- A Champagne, but still, not sparkling, Jefferson's preference. Such versions still are being made and are called Coteaux Champenois. They're kind of like a white burgundy - dry, flinty and flavorful. Hailman's favorites are Moet's Chateau de Saran and Ruinart.

- A Bordeaux, probably from Chateau Rauzan-Segla or Chateau Rauzan-Gassies, descendants of a single estate Jefferson recorded as Chateau Rozan.

- A carmenere, a red wine rising in prominence in Chile. The grape no longer is cultivated extensively in France, though it was during Jefferson's days, says Hailman. "I suspect a really good carmenere would taste more like (the Bordeaux) Jefferson had," Hailman says. As a red wine today, carmenere tends to be soft, fresh and drinkable young. What's more, they tend to be inexpensive.

- A Blanquette de Limoux, a lightly sweet and softly bubbling wine of French origin, one version of which is imported by Toad Hollow Vineyards in Sonoma County and sold under the proprietary name Risque.

February 12, 2007
The Cobbs Get Cocky

This is Buck Cobb, patriarch of a winemaking family in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County. Cobb, a Korean War fighter pilot, began his winery in 1979, naming it for his wife, Karly. Over the years he has balanced a studious exploitation of the valley's signature grape and wine - zinfandel - with a studious exploration of new varieties and wines like sauvignon blanc, mourvedre, roussanne, marsanne and grenache, many of them associated with France's Rhone Valley.

Now he's on an Italian kick, cultivating vineyards and making wines with primitivo, sangiovese and barbera. When we dropped in at Karly Wines yesterday, Buck Cobb dropped a bit of news on us. His Italian venture is providing the foundation for a whole new winery, Bantam Cellars, so close to completition along nearby Shenandoah Valley Road that he's planning to open it next month.

The name Bantam Cellars, says Buck, was inspired by the fondness for chickens shared by the women in the family. He also indicated the Cobbs will take a lighter-hearted approach to their Italian-inspired releases than with their zinfandels and Rhone-style wines. He said something about possibly giving an early blend the proprietary name Coop De Ville.

Before leaving Karly, we tasted our way through his newest zinfandels, which bear their own memorable names. Karly's current zinfandel lineup is as forthright, distinctive and balanced as I can recall - a sweet, dense and ripe 2004 Buck's 10 Point ($20); the 2004 Warrior Fires ($26), a bowl of blackberries seasoned with black pepper; and the spirited, sharp, firm and mouth-filling 2005 Sadie Upton ($29).

Bantam Cellars won't be the only new winery in the valley. Jeff Runquist, who began his winemaking career in Amador County in 1980 before heading off to stints in other regions, is preparing to return to build his own winery and tasting room not far from Bantam Cellars. Runquist is the winemaker for the hot Ripon wnery McManis Family Vineyards, but for years he has had his own eponymous label. He's also retained his Amador County ties, often buying grapes for his wines from Shenandoah Valley growers. That's the practice he plans to continue when he returns. The five acres he's purchased are in walnuts, which he is to keep rather than replace with a vineyard. Plans for the winery currently are being reviewed by county officials, but he hopes to break ground this summer and have the facility operating a year from now.

February 9, 2007
Tex Wasabi's Opens Tonight

If it's 2:15 p.m., and it is by my watch, that means we have two hours and 45 minutes to go before the Sacramento branch of Tex Wasabi's opens along Arden Way. The restaurant, created by Food Network celebrity chef Guy Fieri and his business partner Steve Gruber, is to debut to the public at 5 p.m. today, says manager Eli Bob.

Fieri is to be on the premises tonight, provided there are no delays for his flight from Las Vegas, where he has been filming, says Bob.

The original Tex Wasabi's is in Santa Rosa. Here, as there, the restaurant will capitalize on fictional chef Tex Wasabi "rock 'n roll sushi" and Southern barbecue.

Tex Wasabi's, 2243 Arden Way, is to open for dinner only Saturday starting at 5 p.m. On Sunday, lunch and the restaurant's regular hours will start, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. most days, to midnight weekends.

February 9, 2007
Weekend Reading Material

Kitchen Confidential.JPGLooking for a good read to go with that glass of port during what looks to be a wet weekend? I have some suggestions, but none of them has to do with food, wine or restaurants, the subjects of this blog. (OK, just pick up anything by Daniel Woodrell, and if you run across a hardbound copy of "Woe to Live On" for less than $100 please let me know where I can find it.)

If you insist on sticking to dining themes for your weekend reading, then check out the recommendations of Trevor White, editor of The Dubliner magazine in Ireland and a former food critic who grew up in a restaurant family. His list of food books compiled for Guardian Unlimited has an Irish and English slant, but by including Americans like Jeffrey Steingarten and Anthony Bourdain you can tell he appreciates intelligence and candor in his culinary reading.

February 9, 2007
Storm? Here's a Safe Port

grahams20tawny.jpg And speaking of pairing wine and food...At the invitation of Jonas Mueller, majoring in viticulture and enology at UC Davis, I joined some 20 future viticulturists and winemakers yesterday evening for their weekly themed blind tasting on campus.

When he said this week's theme would be port, I expected them to be paired with chocolate, the tasting coming just before Valentine's Day. And while port and chocolate generally do make a satisfactory pairing, the food to accompany last night's ports was an even better traditional choice - two robust blue cheeses, in this instance Point Reyes and Shropshire. As one of the student organizers explained, the tasting comes at the dinner hour - 5 p.m. - and cheese, as well as the glazed walnuts and almonds also passed around, would make for a better meal than chocolate. See why the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis is so highly regarded?

At any rate, the cheeses and ports generally did work well together, though the creamy and more reserved Point Reyes retreated somewhat when up against a couple of the denser, warmer releases. Most of the ports were the genuine article, from Portugal, and most were bought locally, including the evening's clear favorite, the Graham's 20 Years Old Tawny Port ($50), an exquisitely crafted example of the genre, its inviting aromas evoking images of roasted nuts and flowers, its mouth-filling flavors suggestive of fully ripe berries and plums. Luxurious, sweet, warm and long, it's the kind of port meant to be savored while reading a good book on a rainy winter night.

Students, who finance the tastings themselves, got most of the ports, including the Graham's at Valley Wine Co. in Davis.

February 8, 2007
Wine and Chocolate: Rhapsody or Rift?

Most wines don't go with most chocolates, but as Valentine's Day nears winemakers and chocolatiers love to team up to try to sweet talk wine enthusiasts into thinking such a marriage is made in heaven. (Why, then, do they tend to call these events by such names as "Death by Chocolate?")

Of course, there can be exceptions, they just aren't as numerous as vintners and confectioners want people to think. Now, just in time for Valentine's Day this year, Elin McCoy, a longtime, open-minded wine writer - she's the author of 2005's penetrating biography of uber-critic Robert M. Parker Jr., "The Emperor of Wine" - has done some personal but comprehensive research aimed at finding the best pairings of wine and chocolate.

By my experience, and by the astuteness of her palate, I trust her overall advice and her specific suggestions. Make sure the wine is sweeter than the chocolate, for one. Forget milk chocolate and white chocolate, for another. Ditto for sweet whites like Sauternes and late-harvest rieslings.

She has several specific matches to recommend, including some involving the often overlooked muscats of Australia. If you are one of those romantics who just has to have wine and chocolate on Valentine's Day, check out her complete report at today's Bloomberg News.

February 7, 2007
Three Thieves Score Another Steal

SL THE SHOW WINE.JPGIt's not every day that the release of a California wine gets enthusiastic press coverage in Nashville, Tenn., but it's not every day that Three Thieves releases a wine with eye-catching labels by Nashville's Hatch Show Print. Hatch is a landmark letterpress print shop that since 1879 has been turning out evocative posters for businesses, sports events and, most notably, concerts by performers ranging from Hank Snow to Elvis Presley.

The wine is The Show 2005 California Cabernet Sauvignon ($15), for which Hatch created three similar but distinctive labels, each featuring one of Hatch's signature icons, a cowboy on a bucking bronc. Though the labels are different, the wine is the same in each bottle, a frisky cabernet sauvignon with surprising development and balance for a release so young. Its clean and fresh flavors suggest juicy Bing cherries. It's light- to medium-bodied, with inviting aromatics and a silken texture. While uncomplicated, it has the spine and flesh to stand up to the hearty soups and stews of winter.

Why three different labels? For one, the three St. Helena partners - Charles Bieler, Joel Gott and Roger Scommegna - liked equally the three prototypes Hatch created, so they agreed to use them all. Secondly, the three labels reinforce the three-way partnership, whose other innovative marketing schemes have included bargain wines in screwcap jug bottles and wines in one-liter boxes.

For more about Hatch and Three Thieves, check out this report by Nashville City Paper.

February 6, 2007
A Bell Ringer in Winters

Buckhorn Steak & Roadhouse of Winters, which soon is to open its first Sacramento branch, just won a national award for its savvy marketing of beef. The Buckhorn is being recognized with a Beef Backer Award as the top independent restaurant in the country for promoting beef.

John Pickerel, the Buckhorn's co-owner, indicated to the sponsoring Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board that the honor was the culmination of a program the restaurant started in 2003 to educate servers about the various cuts they serve. The Buckhorn's "cow school," says Pickerel, teaches servers about marbling characteristics, cutting, aging, cooking and other aspects of beef. "The customers truly believe we are steak experts, and leave spreading the word. Our best advertising tool is our knowledge and expertise with beef," Pickerel says.

O'Charley's, based in Nashville, Tenn., got the Beef Backer Award for chain restaurants, while Mortimer's, of Boise, Idaho, got the Beef Backer Award as "innovator of the year" for such dishes as its "beef three ways," for which three types of beef - prime, grassfed and Kobe - are prepared different ways but presented on the same plate.

The awards were presented at a national conclave of cattlemen in Nashville.

February 5, 2007
A Super Weekend, the Game Aside

IMGP0816_edited-1.jpgThese kayakers were spending a dry, sunny and balmy Super Bowl Sunday paddling leisurely up and down the American River just below Folsom Lake. We were on the trail far above, trying to compensate for an unusually caloric weekend even for a restaurant critic:

- To prepare for a review for The Bee's Ticket+ this coming Sunday, we returned to the new Roxy Restaurant & Bar along Fair Oaks Boulevard for breakfast. Dinner will be the focus of our critique, but we were eager to see if Roxy's daring originality extends to its weekend-only breakfasts. It does. How many other restaurants make their own donuts, and these were spectacular - hot, tall and fresh, with a hybrid texture not as cakey as customary cake donuts, and almost as airy as glazed donuts. Roxy's donuts ($3.95 for three, plus donut holes, plus chocolate, orange and caramel dipping sauces) aren't the only hefty and unusual items on the breakfast menu. The buttermilk Cheddar biscuits came with a sweet, spicy and creamy ancho chile pepper sauce enriched with a robust sausage ($8.95), while the chilaquiles with black beans and fried eggs were hearty and smoky with a red chile-pepper sauce ($9.95). On the basis of this meal alone, we should have been in those kayaks.

- During dinner at Booyah Greenback Grille in Citrus Heights, we picked up a flyer touting the restaurant's Valentine's Day prix-fixe dinner. The festive meal, to be available Saturday as well as Feb. 14, costs "$90 per couple" or "$45 per individual." The math is correct, but the image of a diner sitting down to lobster bisque, rack of lamb and a Meyer-lemon mousse all by himself or herself on Valentine's Day just doesn't compute.

- Several Sacramento streets over the years have shown the potential to develop into the region's Restaurant Row - Fair Oaks Boulevard, Broadway, J Street - but when it comes to number and diversity of restaurants, Folsom Boulevard has them all beat, as the Light Rail ride from midtown to Folsom reminded us. Not every station provides easy access to interesting restaurants, but most do - Japanese, Mexican, Korean, Chinese, the Tumbleweed Inn for great burgers, Rudy's Hideaway for lobster, the Old Spaghetti Factory for bargain pastas and so on. The list is long, enticing and reason enough to become acquainted with Light Rail, especially if you are concerned about global warming and would like a second glass of wine with your meal.

February 2, 2007
Tasting Was Blissful Until...

Two days ago, to prepare for a Dunne on Wine column about zinfandel to be in The Bee's Taste section this Wednesday, I picked up four bottles of the varietal at a local supermarket. We rolled them into a blind tasting last night. One of the wines clearly was "corked."

"Corked," in this sense, doesn't mean the bottle was closed with a cork. They all were. Rather, the wine was "corked" in that its cork likely was contaminated with trichloranisole (TCA), a chemical created by a reaction between mold in natural cork and the chlorine-containing chemicals the industry uses to clean corks. TCA is harmless to consumers, but it has a musty fungal smell that can taint to varying degrees any wine that comes in contact with a contaminated cork. The impact on the wine is to deaden its aroma, with the wet-cardboard smell it leaves in its wake ranging from faint to pronounced. In this instance, the musty smell was so intense you didn't have to be particularly sensitive to pick it up. Studies of the problem generally estimate that two to five percent of wine is contaminated with TCA, leading to the increased use of synthetic corks, glass stoppers and screwcaps in the industry.

I hate to have to return a bottle of wine, but the clerks understood the matter entirely, explained that while other brands have been returned due to cork taint this was the first time this particular zinfandel has been found wanting, and readily agreed to exchange the bottle for another, as long as I produced a receipt, which I did. This weekend we'll try the new bottle and report back.

February 1, 2007
Seeking the Pop-ular Vote

KristaCharles.jpgEach year, Design Within Reach, a chain of furniture stores, including a branch in Sacramento, invites aspiring interior designers to create a miniature chair using only the foil, cage and cork from a bottle of Champagne. This is last year's winner from a field of more than 600 entries, the "Patrick Chair," by Krista Charles of Indianapolis.

For the first time this year, Design Within Reach is asking the public to vote for the "most popular" chair in a series of preliminary rounds. The fifth round of candidates just has been posted on the chain's Web site. Go here to see the latest nominees and to cast your vote, but be forewarned that if you do vote you also will be signing up for Design Within Reach's e-mail list, which in addition to sales pitches actually provides stimulating information for anyone at all concerned about design. The final round will be next week.

February 1, 2007
Finally, a Wine Hall of Fame

Wine pioneer Robert Mondavi
Sacramento Bee/Jose Luis Villegas

The Napa Valley branch of the Culinary Institute of America is addressing a long and mysterious oversight, the lack of a California Wine Hall of Fame. It's creating just such a venue, to be the Vintners Hall of Fame on its Greystone campus at St. Helena.

On March 9, it will induct its first "pioneer" - veteran Napa Valley vintner Robert Mondavi. In addition, six "founders" and two "icons" will be inducted at the same time. I'm not clear on the whole concept, especially what distinguishes a "pioneer" from a "founder" from an "icon," but that didn't stop me from just filling out the ballot sent me to help select the "founders" and "icons."

According to information accompanying the ballot, a "founder" is someone whose "early ventures planted the roots of the present-day California wine industry," while an "icon" is someone whose "achievements have contributed to the establishment, nourishment and future of the California wine industry."

This was no easy task, given that the ballot nominated 15 candidates to be considered as founders, seven as icons. All are men, most are dead, and many will be familiar to even casual wine drinkers: Louis M. Martini and Paul Masson, for example, both nominated to be founders. I'm not going to quibble at this time about potential candidates who could have been on the ballot but weren't, other than to remark that I find it mighty odd that neither Ernest nor Julio Gallo were nominated.

At any rate, here's my six choices to be inducted as founders: Capt. Gustave Niebaum, founder of Inglenook Winery at Rutherford in 1879; Jacob Beringer, co-founder of Beringer Winery at St. Helena in 1876; George de Latour, founder of Beaulieu Vineyard at Rutherford in 1899; Charles LeFranc, founder of Almaden Vineyards at San Jose in 1852; Charles Krug, founder of Charles Krug Winery at St. Helena in 1861, the Napa Valley's first commercial winery; and Pierre Pellier, founder of Mirassou Vineyards at San Jose in 1854.

For the icons, my two votes went to Father Junipero Serra, who planted the first Californian vineyard at Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1769, and Maynard Amerine, chairman of the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis from 1957 to 1962, but whose dedication to upgrading California wines through research and teaching extended far beyond that relatively brief tenure.

All the inductees will be revealed March 9.

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