Appetizers
July 31, 2007
Gold Along Silverado Trail

I don't think I'm overstating this when I say I was greeted by the most stunning news of the year for the California wine trade when I turned on the computer this morning and up popped an email announcing the sale of Napa Valley's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.

The buyers are Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Washington state and Marchese Piero Antinori of Italy.

The $185-million sale includes the iconic Stag's Leap Wine Cellars brand, the winery along Silverado Trail, and the winery's S.L.V. and Fay vineyards, which total 115 acres.

Warren Winiarski and his family, who began to plant vineyards in Napa Valley in 1970 and built the winery in 1972, will retain their 80-acre Arcadia vineyard to provide grapes for the winery's estate chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Under the terms of the sale, Winiarski will remain an adviser at the winery for three years.

"I feel good," said Winiarski of the sale this morning. "It's a wonderful joint venture that Antinori and Ste. Michelle put together. They are dedicated to the same goals - quality and expressing the beauty of the land."

Winiarski was a lecturer in political science at the University of Chicago when he got bit by the wine bug in the 1960s. In 1964 he packed up his family and moved to Napa Valley to begin an entirely new career, starting as an apprentice with Souverain Cellars on Howell Mountain.

One of Napa Valley's more cerebral and inspiring vintners, Winiarski in 1973 made the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon that three years later won a blind tasting in Paris that involved highly regarded French wine experts and such Grand Cru Bordeaux as Moutin Rothschild and Haut Brion. The upset stunned the wine world and accelerated California's esteem as fine grape-growing territory. Over the past 32 years that tasting has grown in such stature that it prompted publication of a book ("Judgment of Paris") and is the subject of two movies just moving into production.

Warren Winiarski and his wife Barbara have three children, but none was as interested as their parents in remaining in the trade. "We started this (winery) to do things as a family. That was our reason for leaving academe. We had this fundamental desire to work this out as a family, and we did, we had that. But peoples' lives become shaped a little bit differently. It wasn't the same kind of goal for the next generation. They love it, but it wasn't the same single-minded thing for them," said Warren Winiarski.

Both Warren and Barbara Winiarski said they are delighted that Chateau Ste. Michelle and Piero Antinori will continue the family's Napa Valley legacy. Antinori, whose family has been making wine in and about Florence for 600 years, already is familiar with the Stag's Leap District as a founding principal of nearby Atlas Peak Winery.

In addition to tending the Arcadia vineyard, remaining an advisor at the winery and traveling more with his wife, Winiarski will continue to lecture and teach, which he never has given up despite the time he devoted to running vineyards and winery. He recently returned from the Santa Fe campus of St. John's College, where he led a one-week session on Shakespeare. The experience, he mused, may help prompt him to sit down and write his take on contemporary Napa Valley wine history.

July 30, 2007
California Gets Checkered Flag

One final posting from the Indy International Wine Competition, which wrapped up over the weekend in Indianapolis: California wines ended up doing really well, even though entries from this far west tended to be releases by large corporate wineries rather than boutiques. But no one ever said that quality wine only comes from smaller wineries. Well, they have, but such a comment just doesn't make sense.

At any rate, the sweepstakes winner was a California wine, the supple Louis M. Martini Winery 2004 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, firmly structured and layered with flavors of cassis and olives. It generally sells for around $25 a bottle. If you've lost count of who owns what winery following the recent era of acquisition and consolidation in the California wine trade, E.&J. Gallo Winery of Modesto bought Martini in 2002.

In apparent celebration of its sweepstakes win in Indianapolis, Gallo officials announced this afternoon that it just bought William Hill Estate from Beam Wine Estates Inc. The purchase gives Gallo another high-profile presence in the Napa Valley. William Hill Estate includes a winery along the Silverado Trail on the east side of the valley and a 145-acre vineyard. Gallo looks to be on something of an expansion kick in Napa. It also recently bought 182 acres of vineyards in Chiles Valley in the Vaca Mountains just to the east of the valley floor.

Gallo's deal with Beam also includes Beam's Canyon Road label, which has been identified most closely with Sonoma County varietals. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.

At any rate, I'll be reporting in more depth about the Indianapolis competition in the Dunne on Wine column to appear in The Bee's Taste section on Aug. 8.

July 30, 2007
Mouse Roars, Rat Retreats

What wine goes with "Ratatouille"? None, according to a weekend edition of the Los Angeles Times, which I'm just catching up with after several days in Indiana. According to the report, officials of Walt Disney Co. and Costco Wholesale Corp. have scuttled plans to release a "Ratatouille" wine that would feature on the label the film's star, Remy, a rat that aspires to be a Parisian chef.

They took the action after authorities of the California trade-group Wine Institute pointed out that the use of a cartoon character on a label appeared to violate the group's code of advertising standards. The code, in effect since 1949, frowns on using cartoon characters and other promotional methods that could be seen as encouraging underage drinking.

That the "Ratatouille" wine was to be a 2004 chardonnay from France's Burgundy region rather than a California wine was "immaterial" to the Wine Institute's position, said organization spokeswoman Nancy Light.

July 30, 2007
Report Card on Report Cards

To judge by all the Sacramento County restaurants that have posted bright green food-safety signs near their front door, diners may be wondering if any ever get less desirous yellow or red ratings.

Yes, indeed, but fewer than county public-health authorities anticipated when they launched the color-coded program in January, they said in a press release issued this morning.

Going in, they predicted that one of every five food facilities would get a yellow placard upon their first inspection. A yellow sign is to be posted when major food-safety violations are found. Any uncovered violations are to be corrected immediately, and the restaurant can remain open pending a subsequent re-inspection to assure continued compliance with safety standards.

After six months of the new program, however, just 12 percent of food facilities, which include grocery stores, school cafeterias, bakeries and the like as well as restaurants, were issued yellow cards. Officials of the county's Environmental Management Department credit the favorable showing to the cooperation of food retailers and to the department's educational food-safety programs, which have included 135 classes aimed at helping operators learn what they need to do to get a green placard.

Since January, 5,276 food facilities have been inspected and issued cards by the county's 28 health inspectors. About 88 percent got green signs and slighter less than 1 percent got red cards. A red card means food-safety violations that pose an immediate health hazard were found and that the place must be closed until they are corrected and the premises has been reinspected. The average closure has been less than three days, say county health officials.

Whether the program is affecting the incidence of food-borne illnesses is difficult to gauge. In the first six months of 2007, county public-health authorities received 135 complaints of food-borne illnesses, compared with 121 during the first six months of 2006. Complaints can stem from several causes, only one of which is restaurants, notes Dr. Glennah Trochet, the county's public-health officer.

July 30, 2007
A Not Quite Balanced Dinner

After a flight from Sacramento to Minneapolis the other day, I blogged here favorably about the box of snacks Northwest Airlines has available for passengers for $5. On the return flight Saturday evening, however, Northwest didn't have any of the boxes. "They ran out in Minneapolis," explained a flight attendant. That's all she knew of the situation. I wanted her to say my praise for the snacks was more far-reaching than even I suspected. I suspect that the truth of the matter was that Northwest officials concluded the plane couldn't accommodate the weight of the box lunches because so many passengers were carrying aboard copies of the hefty new "Harry Potter" book. At least they didn't lighten up on the fuel.

Nor did Northwest empty its ice chest of the August Schell FireBrick Amber Lager ($5 the can). I like it when airlines have the foresight and pride to stock local products, especially when they are as finely made as this malty, lightly bitter brew. According to the can, Schells have been brewing beer in New Ulm, Minn., for five generations. They've been at it since 1860, making Schell the second oldest family-owned brewery in the nation. No room on the can to say who has been at it longer, apparently. I wasn't reading "Harry Potter," but the FireBrick went fittingly as I finished Ken Bruen's quick and funny "Vixen."

July 27, 2007
Hoosier Hospitality is Sweet

The second full day of judging at the Indy International Wine Competition just ended. Our panel tasted 132 wines today, starting with pinot grigio and ending with ports.

A couple of broad snap judgments about the wines, the competition and Indiana:

- People east of the Rockies like their wines sweet. This could be true of people west of the Rockies, too, but the Midwesterners and Easterners are more open about expressing their taste preferences. If they weren't, winemakers catering primarily to them wouldn't be making so many sweet wines, right? We tasted so many I'm fretting a bit about diabetic shock. But what they've shown is that even if a wine is sweet it can be distinctive, refreshing and complex. I tasted some traminettes, rkatsitelis and geisenheims today that I'm sure could become wildly popular in California, if only Californians would acknowledge their sweet tooth, and if only the wines weren't made in such small quantities that they don't get beyond New Jersey or Pennsylvania or New York or wherever they originate back here. (We only know the wines by numbers; their identities won't be revealed until after the sweepstakes voting Saturday.)

- Hoosiers sure are friendly, and they have a proud sense of humor. When our panel has a question about a wine, we wave a yellow flag. When we need attention immediately, we wave a red flag. When we're finished with a flight, we wave the checkered flag. Oh, and the attendants who set out our wines, clean up after us and so forth are known as the "Pit Cru." Clever.

- The judging is taking place on the grounds of the Indiana State Fair, which starts its 11-day run in early August. Think of Cal Expo as a Motel 6, then think of the Indiana fair grounds as a Ritz Carlton. The settings are that different. The monstrous exhibition halls here reflect the history and role that agriculture continues to play in Indiana. Agriculture is big in California, too, but we Californians just don't celebrate it as enthusiasticlaly. The biggest building I've seen is aptly named the Coliseum. They're all made of yellow or red brick; the true "Brickyard" here is the fairgrounds, not the better-known speedway also in Indianapolis. When the wine judges move out of the Blue Ribbon Pavilion, the sheep will move in. I'm tempted to hang around to see the show. Or I was until I asked a local if the Indiana State Fair includes a wine garden to recognize the growing role of wine as a significant Hoosier agricultural commodity (the state now has 35 wineries and 400 acres of grapes). Nope, the local explained, no alcoholic beverages are served on the fairgrounds during the fair. Since I can't picture having a corndog without a beer I haven't postponed Saturday's flight back to Sacramento.

July 26, 2007
Wines Get the Checkered Flag

Say "Indiana" and all sorts of wonderful things flash into mind - corn on the cob, auto races, basketball, David Letterman, Larry Bird, Jerry Reynolds, Kurt Vonnegut. Wine just never has made it onto the list. But wine, not this weekend's Brickyard 400, is why I'm in Indianapolis.

Believe it or not, the largest commercial wine judging in the United States last year was the Indy International Wine Competition right here in Indianapolis. It drew nearly 4,000 wines from throughout the world. How could such a thing happen? People long affiliated with the 16-year-old judging - this is my first year to sit on a panel here - credit Dr. Richard Vine, recently retired professor of enology in the food sciences department at Purdue University, which with the Indiana State Fair coordinates the competition.

Vine, honorary chair of this year's competition, plays down his pivotal role in building the judging. He says wineries long ago began to sign on because they welcomed the exposure that the competition gave them throughout the Midwest and East and because they've liked how he mixed up his panels. He must be the most diligent and persuasive wine-competition organizer in the country to get so many women to join the judging. Every panel here has at least one woman, most have two, and a couple have three. There are five persons to each panel.

Here, meet my judging mates: George Taber of Block Island, Rhode Island, author of "The Judgment of Paris" and the forthcoming "To Cork or Not To Cork," a study of corks and screwcaps as closures on wine; Todd Steiner of Wooster, Ohio, enology outreach specialist of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, a branch of Ohio State University; Meredith Easley, a principal in her family's Easley Winery in Indianapolis; and Colleen May of Napa, CEO of Intervine Inc., which finds wines and then sells them to airlines and cruise lines. (A footnote to yesterday's posting about the cabernet sauvignon I enjoyed aboard the Northwest flight from Sacramento to Minneapolis: Her company is the one to find the wine and sell it to the airline. Small world.)

At any rate, despite our assorted backgrounds and orientation, we were a pretty cohesive group. When I judge wine in California I'm on pretty secure turf, dealing with familiar varietals like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and zinfandel. While most of the wines here are Californian, our panel seems to have been assigned classes made up of wines largely from the Midwest and East. At 9 a.m. Indianapolis time - 6 a.m. California time - we were judging wines like vidal, seyval, cayuga and chardonel. Later came madeleine angevine and auxerrois. You just don't see those kinds of wines in California. Nonetheless, we gave several gold medals. California may be the locomotive driving the nation's wine awareness, but a whole other wine country looks to be stirring east of the Rockies.

July 25, 2007
Box Lunch at 30,000 Feet

By now, you'd think all complaints of airline food would have been exhausted. Everyone knows how dismal it is, especially on domestic flights in the United States. But apparently not, as New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni discovered recently when he blogged about his unhappy dining on a flight to Moscow.

When I last checked into reader reaction to his post, 89 comments from readers had been attached. The vast majority had their own complaints. A few even recalled the good ol' days when noble racks of glistening meat were carved in the aisle of an airplane. Imagine.

I read the comments to glean recommendations on what food to pack for my Wednesday flight from Sacramento to Indianapolis via Minneapolis. Many of the reader suggestions appealed to me - prosciutto and sweet butter on a baguette, a dozen jumbo shrimp in a baggie with a packet of cocktail sauce, "a generous hunk of old white Cheddar cheese" - but time ran out on me as I packed. Besides, my enthusiasm to carry aboard my own lunch was tempered by conflicting opinions about just what food can and cannot be sanctioned by the stern agents of the Transportation Security Administration.

As a consequence, I was at the mercy of Northwest Airlines, whose dining program on domestic flights basically amounts to a box lunch you buy on board for $5. The term "box lunch" is used loosely here. My vision of a box lunch includes fresh food, prepared affectionately by a sweetheart.

The Northwest version looked promising. The box was labeled "Dusseldorf," evoking romantic visions of thick slices of Westphalian ham, the aroma of sauerbraten, blood sausages and spatzle. No such luck. The contents were assorted processed and packaged foods - Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, wheat wafers, "process cheese food" in two flavors, "Gouda-type" and "white Cheddar," among others. Maybe the vending machine that dispensed all these packages was made in Dusseldorf.

I couldn't find in Northwest's inflight magazine any reference to wine among the beverages, but an attendant said they had a cabernet and a chardonnay. A small screwcap bottle of the cabernet sauvignon cost an additional $5. It was a non-vintage cabernet sauvignon from Chile, released by Silva Family Wines under the label Dona Dominga. What a surprise. It was pretty darn good - fruity, smooth, spicy and with surprising length. What's more, it had the structure and flavor to stand up to the wholesome "Sonoma Valley Trail Mix" (by Harvest Moon Farms in Iowa, actually), the sweet and salty "hickory smoked beef summer sausage" by O'Brien's in Nebraska, and even the "process cheese foods." (I knew enough to hold onto the box's Oreo cookies to have with coffee later in the flight.)

OK, so it wasn't a gourmet meal. But it was varied, it offered value, and none of the packages was difficult to open. As I finished it, I concluded that travelers complain too much of airline food. Feeding us isn't the business of the airlines. On a longer flight I would have wished for more, but this was less than four hours, and while the snacks weren't fresh they were substantive and diverse. I agree with one of Bruni's commentators: "If there was a choice I would rather they (airlines) put the available money into getting me to my destination safely and on time than serving me a great meal."

During the layover in Minneapolis, Wolf Blitzer could be seen on a TV monitor apparently reporting on new concerns about terrorists potentially using explosives packaged as food in a new strategy to bring down airplanes. The sound was turned down too low to hear clearly what he was saying. But there was a picture of cheese. I suppose I now can forget about bringing aboard a hunk of Midwestern white Cheddar for chewing on during the flight home.

July 25, 2007
Looking for Chambourcin?

A reader's email reminds me that I failed to mention in a post here Monday where persons can buy the Alba Vineyard 2005 New Jersey Chambourcin ($16), winner of the red-wine sweepstakes award at this past weekend's Long Beach Grand Cru.

According to the winery's Web site, the wine is distributed only in New Jersey, but it also can be shipped direct to consumers in California. Visit the Web site or call (908) 995-7800.

The emailer said when she studied winemaking in Australia her adviser was urging vintners to cultivate chambourcin for its disease resistance, fondness of heat and tolerance of humidity.

"One of the more interesting bottles (of chambourcin) I've tried was made by one of my favorite Australian wineries, d'Arenberg (McLaren Vale), well known for their Dead Arm Shiraz," she wrote. She hasn't seen any in Sacramento, but urges readers who are especially interested in Australian and New Zealand wines to swing by the Jug Shop next time they are in San Francisco.

I also forgot to mention Monday that award-winning wines of the Long Beach Grand Cru, along with foods from Long Beach restaurants, can be tasted Aug. 18 during the competition's culinary festival at Rainbow Lagoon Park in downtown Long Beach. Tickets are $160 per person. The tasting, as the competition, is a benefit for the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach. To learn more of the tasting, visit the Long Beach Grand Cru's Web site.

July 25, 2007
Perk Up with JavaPop

I'm about to fly to Indianapolis. I may be able to do it without a plane. In addition to my usual morning tea, I opened a bottle of JavaPop Espresso Coffee Soda, a new product out of Vermont. If you've been wishing your coffee came lightly effervescent and with a good chill to it, this is the product for you. It looks and smells like coffee, and the flavor does suggest a jolt of espresso.

Representatives of JavaPop Inc. are using all the environmental, economic and nutritional buzz words to market the soft drink. It's certified organic, certified fair trade and "all natural." Even the retro bottles it comes in are made of "recycled and repurposed glass." The back label on the bottle says the beverage includes "no artificial flavors, high fructose corn syrup or ingredients you can't pronounce." The color is bolstered with "organic caramel" and the sweetness with "organic cane juice." It weighs in at 75 calories per 8-ounce serving.

In addition to espresso, JavaPop comes in hazelnut, vanilla, caramel and mocha flavors. It sells for $1.69 per 12-ounce bottle at Whole Foods Markets.

July 24, 2007
From Howell Mountain, A Howl of Protest

In an email dispatched this afternoon to wine writers, seasoned Napa Valley winemaker Randy Dunn appeals to consumers to do what they can to pull in the reins on galloping alcohol levels in wines.

And what consumers can do, says Dunn, is simply ask the sommelier for a wine with less than 14 percent alcohol when they dine out. The wines they will be shown, predicts Dunn, will be fun to drink but their appearance on the table will be sobering to the California wine trade. "The sommelier usually comes back with a French or New Zealand wine," says Dunn. "They definitely come out with something that isn't Californian," adds Dunn, who has been doing this exercise for about four years. Too many American table wines, he suggests, are being made with an alcohol content of 15 percent or 16 percent rather than the customary 13.5 percent to 14 percent.

High-alcohol table wines, he says, are "hot and very difficult to enjoy with a meal." He adds: "I don't believe the average person is so insensitive to flavors and aromas that they must have a 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay or pinot noir to get the aromas and flavors."

The run up in alcohol levels generally is attributed to winemakers who believe they can squeeze more intense flavors from their grapes if they leave the fruit on the vine to develop exceptionally high concentrations of sugar. With higher sugar, however, also comes more alcohol. "These new wines are made to taste and spit - not to drink," Dunn says.

He also frets that the mass and heat of high-alcohol wines suppresses the expressions of individualistic terroirs, their place of origin. "Gone are the individualities of specific regions, replaced by sameness - high alcohol, raisiny, pruney, flabby wines," Dunn says.

He also calls upon wine writers to include in their tasting notes the alcohol content of each wine they review. Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, who recently stirred up debate when he said he no longer generally would stock table wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol, is to start including the alcohol level of each wine he mentions in his newsletter.

Dunn has been making expressive cabernet sauvignon on Howell Mountain since establishing his winery in 1979. The wines generally have ranged from 13.2 percent to 13.8 percent alcohol. He recently bottled his 2004 cabernet sauvignon, the first to exceed 14 percent, and it registered just 14.09 percent alcohol. "It was a mistake. I thought the blend would come in less than that," he said in a phone interview.

July 23, 2007
New Jersey's Ship Comes In

Yesterday's sweepstakes round at the Long Beach Grand Cru provided fresh evidence of just how diverse, mature and competitive the wine scene is. This is an international competition that drew 1,960 wines. After two days of judging, the field was whittled down to 50 sweepstakes candidates, each a best of class. The Grand Cru picks five sweepstakes winners - a sparkling wine, a rose, a white, a red and a dessert.

The most competitive field was among the reds. There were 24 of them, including a malbec from Argentina, a cabernet sauvignon from New Mexico, a petite verdot from Illinois, and a zinfandel from Siskiyou County in California. The winner by a fairly wide margin was the Alba Vineyard 2005 New Jersey Chambourcin ($16). What? Where? You read that correctly. An obscure varietal grown in New Jersey was declared the best red wine in the competition. The win speaks not only to the quality of the wine but to the open-mindedness of the judges, eager to embrace the novel as long as it is well made.

Chambourcin gets just one brief paragraph in Jancis Robinson's "The Oxford Companion to Wine." It's a French hybrid grape that has been commercially available only since 1963. Plantings are very limited, and it is grown largely in France, Australia and along the Atlantic seaboard of the United States. It's also showing some promise in Vietnam. Robinson says the grape yields "better-quality wine than most hybrids, being deep coloured and full of relatively aromatic flavour." The Alba chambourcin, which earlier this year won the Governor's Cup at the New Jersey Wine Competition, is a light- to medium-bodied red with fresh fruit flavors running to strawberries and cherries. I liked its fleeting notes of spices and herbs and its silken texture, but it wasn't one of the sweepstakes candidates to get my vote. (At Grand Cru, judges can vote for as many sweepstakes candidates in each group as they would like, though the more they vote the more their votes are diluted. As earlier in the competition, we knew only the varietal or style of wine and its vintage, not where it is from or who made it.)

My red sweepstakes votes went to the rich, minty, plush and persistent Hood Wines 2005 Tasmania Pinot Noir ($23), the vital Martin & Weyrich Winery 2002 Paso Robles "Il Vecchio" Nebbiolo ($22), the juicy and peppery Hahn Estates Winery 2005 Central Coast Syrah ($14), and the muscular and elegant Rosenblum Cellars 2005 San Francisco Bay Mourvedre ($18).

The other sweepstakes winners were the Kathy Lynskey Wines 2006 Marlborough Gewurztraminer ($24), best white; the Navarro Vineyards 2006 Anderson Valley Cluster Late Harvest White Riesling ($60), best dessert; the Domaine Carneros 2003 Carneros Brut ($25), best sparkling wine; and the Miramonte Winery 2006 Temecula Valley Reserve Grenache Rose ($15), best rose.

Local wines that won gold medals were the C.G. di Arie Vineyard & Winery 2005 Shenandoah Valley Primitivo ($20), the Earthquake 2004 Lodi Petite Sirah ($28), the Granite Springs Winery 2004 Fair Play Petite Sirah ($20), the Housley's Century Oak Winery 2005 Lodi Founder's Rose ($6), the Montevina Winery non-vintage Amador County Zinfandel Port, also a sweepstakes candidate ($18), the Renwood Winery 2004 Amador County Grandpere Zinfandel, also a sweepstakes nominee ($40), the Renwood Winery 2004 Amador County Jack Rabbit Flat Zinfandel ($30), the Sierra Vista Vineyards and Winery 2005 El Dorado County Roussanne ($21), and the The Crusader 2005 Amador County Syrah ($20). The Siskiyou County wine in the sweepstakes showdown was the Shasta View Vineyards 2003 Siskiyou County Estate Zinfandel ($24).

July 20, 2007
As Heat Rises, So Do Glasses of Riesling

With summer temperatures on another run up, it's time for wine enthusiasts to again consider riesling, the fruitiest and most refreshing varietal of the season. Just last night we twisted the screwcap on a brand new release and enjoyed it immensely for the richness and purity of its honeyed, peachy and floral smells and flavors.

The wine is the Pacific Rim Sweet Riesling ($11), a new release from Randall Grahm, the iconoclastic Santa Cruz vintner who is building a winery in eastern Washington state to specialize largely in rieslings.

Grahm has been making a dry riesling under his Pacific Rim brand since 1992, but the sweet riesling is a his new baby. Ordinarily, I prefer my rieslings dry, but the sweet version was appealing for the density of its fruit and the cleanliness of its finish; while it wasn't exactly snappy, it wasn't sticky, either, and overall left the palate refreshed and longing for another sip. The residual sugar is 7 percent, the alcohol a modest 8.5 percent, just a little more than a lot of fashionable beers.

Other than the screwcap, there are a couple of other unusual aspects to the sweet riesling. For one, the label has no vintage, though it's from the 2006 harvest. The lack of a vintage on the bottle is a carryover from Grahm's practice with the dry riesling, which because of wine-trade regulations can't carry a date because it's customarily a blend of Washington and German fruit. Starting with this fall's harvest, the sweet riesling will bear a vintage because it is being made strictly with Columbia Valley grapes, says winemaker Nicolas Quille. The sweet riesling also doesn't have an appellation, which wineries can't use when the grapes that go into a wine are grown in one state (Washington, in this case) but the wine is bottled in another (California, in this case). With construction of the winery in Washington, however, future releases will bear a Washington appellation.

Quille recommends that the sweet riesling be taken with spicier Asian and Latin American dishes, but it also is pleasant all on its own, especially on a warm summer evening on the patio.

July 19, 2007
What's for Lunch on Half Dome?

When The Bee dispatched a photographer to document the rigors of climbing Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, they sent a former Marine, Carl Costas, whose trek yesterday appears on page one of today's edition. This gives me hope as some colleagues and I plan our own September assault on Half Dome. My father was a Marine, so I figure a few gung-ho genes will help me on the hike.

But I'm not relying on those alone, so last night I attended a talk about getting to the top of Half Dome. Rick Deutsch of San Jose, who has made the trip 20 times and written a guidebook about the pleasure and pain, "One Best Hike: Yosemite's Half Dome" (Wilderness Press, $12.95, 128 pages), led the discussion at the Sacramento branch of REI. About 100 other people were there, a record high for one of his talks, and evidence that Half Dome is a more popular challenge than ever, despite recent news reports of its risks.

For 90 minues he outlined sound advice - start training two months out, wear boots, take poles - but what I really wanted to know was what to eat and drink. Water and Gatorade are his recommended beverages, and energy bars, trail mix and beef jerky are his suggested snacks. Boring. Even he acknowledged that most energy bars taste like sawdust. Once I reach a destination, I like nothing more than John Bledsoe's pork hot dogs, but I'm not sure they should be the first choice after hiking eight miles to the top of Half Dome. I'm open to suggestions from more seasoned hikers. Failing that, I'll probably mix up some trail mix - you can never have too many M&M's, especially the peanut kind - and slip some fruit into the pack, unless the bears get it the night before.

The best idea Deutsch had was a game that he and fellow hikers play on their outings: They keep track of how often each of them stumbles on the trail, and the person who accumulates the most "trips" buys the drinks at the end of the day, back on the valley floor. Deutsch, incidentally, maintains a Web site devoted to tackling Half Dome. You might want to skip over the part about accidents, but his blog is pithy as well as helpful.

July 18, 2007
Say, 'Cheese'

IMGP1600_edited.jpg"I hope that cute cheese guy is here" isn't the sort of comment you ordinarily overhear as you join the crowd entering Arco Arena. "Cute power forward" maybe, but not "cute cheese guy."

Food, however, was the focus at Arco Arena today. Tony's Fine Foods, the 73-year-old West Sacramento distributorship, was having its annual Food Show to introduce buyers for supermarket chains, independent grocery stores, specialty markets and the like to its inventory of goods, and Arco Arena is about the only venue around big enough to accommodate the crowd.

More than 1,000 buyers from California, Hawaii, Oregon and Nevada circulated among the 317 vendors who had set up booths to show off 5,165 of their products, spread not only on the basketball court but throughout the concession concourse. This year's show drew 40 more vendors than last year's.

At least 20 of them were cheese vendors. Whether any of them were cute, I'm not sure, but cheese definitely was generating buzz. "There's real interest in high-end specialty cheeses," said Steve Dietz, director of marketing for Tony's Fine Foods. "They've been popular in the Bay Area for a while, but now they're spreding into the valley."

One cheese drawing attention was a valley product, the organic cream cheese made by Sierra Nevada Cheese Co. of Willows. Packaged logs of the sweet and smooth cheese were set up in front of a golden statue of a bear, which the company just received on behalf of the product, declared best of show in the commercial cheese competition of the 2007 California State Fair.

Other cheeses sure to help stir up conversation at dinner parties this holiday season include a thick, sweet and creamy soft-ripened sheep's-milk cheese called Miticana de Oveja from Spain; a feta marinated with canola oil, garlic, thyme, basil, oregano, paprika and chile-pepper flakes from Red Rock Specialty Cheese in Utah; and "Roaring Forties Blue," an intense blue-veined cheese from King Island Dairy on King Island, which is between Tasmania and the coast of Australia.

But the most unusual cheese was an aged cheddar infused not only with habanero, cayenne and jalapeno chile peppers but Buffalo-wing hot sauce from the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y., where chicken wings originated, boasted Joe DiMattina, sales manager for Yancey's Fancy of Corfu, N.Y., which makes the cheese. I had to laugh at the promotional material he was handing out for the cheese. It recommends that the Buffalo-wing cheddar be paired with a glass of cabernet franc or riesling. This cheese, however, is far too fiery to be paired with any wine. Please, make it a black-and-tan or a stout, which the literature also more sensibly suggested.

Though Tony's show isn't open to the public, the company enthusiastically makes it entertaining for buyers. This year's show had a Hollywood theme, complete with a Joan Rivers impersonator to greet buyers on the red carpet leading into the arena, and paparazzi running around shooting candid photos of attendees. They were last seen dashing down the cheese aisles.

July 17, 2007
Sacramento, California's Hottest Wine Region

Front_label2.jpg"I fully expect to be up and running by the 20th of August," says Jon Affonso, Sacramento's latest urban winemaker. Affonso, a Sacramento native bitten by the wine bug when he was an exchange student in France, is gearing up to establish his Rail Bridge Cellars in a former auto-body shop across north 16th Street from Capitol Casino. He's using Sacramento's I Street bridge as the winery's iconic image.

Affonso announced his plans on the heels of the opening of Sacramento's first commercial winery since Prohibition, Revolution Wines at 2116 P St., which debuted this weekend. Affonso has yet to get some required permits and bonds, but is so confident they will be forthcoming he has started to install winemaking equipment at 400 N. 16th St. He plans to sell his wines primarily through restaurants, wine shops and a wine club, and won't have a tasting room at the site.

A graduate of Sac State with a degree in geology and of Fresno State with a master's in enology, Affonso has been a research scientist, assistant winemaker and enologist with several wineries, most recently Renwood Winery in Amador County. His first wines under his own label will be a 2006 sauvignon blanc from the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County and a 2004 Bordeaux red blend from the Oak Knoll District in Napa Valley. The sauvignon blanc is to be released next month, the red in October. He made the wines at facilities in Sonoma County and Napa Valley.

Affonso says his interest in going into the beverage industry also was fostered by his father's business, Terranova Roasting Coffee Co., also in Sacramento.

July 16, 2007
Michel Bloch Back in the Saddle

What goes around...and nothing goes around quite like a crepe. Michel Bloch began to make crepes in Sacramento 28 years ago, in a trailer parked along P Street between 19th and 20th. After an absence of more than two decades, he's coming back to town.

Bloch was the subject of one of my earlier food columns for The Bee. You can see a copy of it blown up on a window of a former La Bou Cafe at 9th and K downtown. The sketch of me that ran with my columns at that time also is there. Remarkably, I haven’t changed.

Neither has Bloch. He’s still making crepes. And according to his plans, the site at 9th and K won’t be vacant for long. Late this month, or more likely in August, he is to open a crepe cafe on the premises. It will be considerably bigger than his first place, which had room for only three gas-fired creperies, a refrigerator, a telephone and Bloch and another cook. There was no counter, no stools, no tables, no booths, just two benches on a thin strip of grass on the other side of the sidewalk fronting the trailer. But it was popular, with customers lining up daily to order crepes.

Bloch's Ze Crepe trailer didn't stand still for long along P Street, and he resumed hauling it to county fairs, music festivals and the like. In the early 1980s he operated a crepe restaurant in Town & Country Village at Fulton and Marconi. For about a decade now he's owned a crepe cafe on the campus of UC Davis. He also runs the Crepe Institute, through which he trains prospective crepe entrepreneurs in the precise use of creperie and raclette.

He says he's eager to expand his crepe making because crepes again are hot and he's feeling slighted that he isn't in the middle of the action. "My ego's hurt; no one is talking about me anymore," says Bloch.

The new place will be open for breakfast and lunch only to give Bloch time to devote to his other passion, horses. He lives in Cool, El Dorado County, where he has five horses, including Monsieur Joseph, his most frequent companion in long-distance races of the American Endurance Ride Conference. They've finished as high as second in the Tevis Cup, the 100-mile ride in the Sierra.

July 13, 2007
Firestone Rolls North

IMGP1558_edited.jpgWhatever happened to Andrew "The Bachelor" Firestone? Well, I just ran into him at his family's new winery in Paso Robles, where the star of one of the earlier and more popular reality TV shows is the general manager.

Though the Firestones are closely associated with the development of the Santa Ynez Valley wine scene in Santa Barbara County, they've been buying grapes in San Luis Obispo County since 2001 and decided they wanted to establish more of a local presence, says Andrew Firestone. Besides, they already had a highly successful brewery in Paso Robles.

All the wines being poured at the Paso Robles facility have been made with Santa Barbara County fruit except for Firestone's first release with a Paso Robles appellation, a bright 2003 cabernet sauvignon that shows the black-cherry side of the varietal with a youthful richness and solid structure ($18).

The winery, at Highway 46 and Airport Road, is just on the edge of downtown Paso Robles. Though Firestone has planted a 4.5-acre vineyard about the structure, urban development is within a stone's throw of the project. "I bet this is the only winery in the country between an RV park and a water park," says Firestone, gesturing to recreational vehicles on one side of his vineyard and a new assortment of water slides just across Airport Road from the winery.

We didn't discuss his romantic life, but it sure seemed that the Firestone tasting room had a disproportionate number of women visitors. And he is one gregarious host, treating stranger and regular alike with beaming enthusiasm.

July 12, 2007
Crash Course in Wine and Art

IMGP1527_edited.jpgI'm starting to believe something I'd heard and read of the Paso Robles wine country, that it's one region where you still are likely to find the owner or winemaker or both at wineries you visit. After two days about Paso Robles, I'm finding that's true a bit more than half the time.

This, for example, is Gary Carmody Conway, and these are two of his paintings, which with other canvases hang in the combination tasting room and gallery of his and his wife's Carmody McKnight Estate Wines at the far western reaches of San Luis Obispo County.

It's a heck of a drive to get there, but the reward is a spectacular picnic site, a bevy of individualistic wines, and the good chance that the energetic Conway will be around to discuss passionately the area's soils and climate. An actor and screenwriter as well as painter - he starred in the TV series "Land of the Giants" - Conway landed near Paso Robles a bit too literally about 40 years ago when he was scouting for a rural retreat that would provide an escape from his hectic life in Los Angeles.

He and his pilot real-estate agent were scouting the region for potential property when their helicopter...well, let him tell it: "It was a moment of ecstasy. We came over this ridge late on a bright, crisp day. The light totally put me into a euphoria of some kind, and then we hit the wire."

The chopper collided with a power line and plunged to the ground, destroyed, but both men walked away, and the first person they walked into was the farmer who owned the ranch. Conway assured him that his search for property was over and that he was buying the farmer's spread.

Conway and his wife - Marian McKnight, Miss America 1957 - have been developing and savoring the site since, converting a feld of barley into wine grapes in the 1980s, establishing their winery, initially named Silver Canyon, about 1990. Pack a picnic lunch, grab a table under a massive oak beside the ponds just outside the tasting room/gallery, and be prepared to spend the rest of the afternoon mesmerized by the silence, breezes and light.

July 11, 2007
Sadie Rules

IMGP1502_edited.jpgYou know you're in the country when you meet someone like Sadie. She's a snazzily attired mannequin that oversees Sallie Molina's roadside produce stand along one of the many rural lanes that spiderweb out from Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County, where I'm trying to stay warm despite the region's reputation for torrid summers. (This morning's San Luis Obispo Tribune says today's high could range anywhere from 67 degrees to 87 degrees, to give you some idea of how mysterious the current weather is here.)

At any rate, Sadie, The Garden Lady, is the only "person" overseeing the produce stand. There was no sign of Sallie Molina or any other human. I'm getting used to this. Molina's stand, with others I've seen hereabouts, operate on the honor system. Pick whatever tomatoes, zucchini, onions, basil and so forth you want, weigh them, then put cash, check or IOU in the pouch about Sadie's waist. "If you don't have the exact change leave us a note and we'll catch ya' next time," says a note on a table at the stand. Paso Robles has the usual big-box stores, supermarkets and other city amenities, but in several respects it's still country, as honor-system roadside produce stands attest, and that's something worth appreciating.

July 10, 2007
The Gold Standard

IMGP1489_edited.jpgGary Eberle, shown here with the bronze boar that welcomes guests to his Eberle Winery in Paso Robles - the name "Eberle" translates to "small boar" - is always good for an insightful interview, so naturally he was the first winemaker I called upon when I arrived in San Luis Obispo County today to gather information for a feature on the region's wine trade.

While much of our chat dealt with history, trends, issues and the like involving the Paso Robles wine scene, I had to ask him about something unrelated that's been on my mind lately: Why does he continue to enter his wines in competitions? Since founding his winery in 1983, Eberle has become perhaps the most identifiable figure and winery representing Paso Robles. Any additional publicity for the caliber of his wines would seem unnecessary. Yet, Eberle sends wines to nine competitions each year. Why?

"I want to sell wine in our tasting room," he says. "We have found that scores (in wine publications) influence buyers in the trade (distributors, retailers and the like), but not consumers. The average consumer doesn't get those publications. They don't know what the scores mean. But they do know what a gold medal means. So whenever we get a gold medal we hang it on a bottle in the tasting room. Those gold medals make me more money than a score of 95 points from a wine publication."

He's done the math, and it breaks down like this: Because the wine he sells at his tasting room generally is priced the same as it would be in a shop, he gets to keep the markup that otherwise would go to distributors, retailers and so forth. He calculates that he would have to sell 6.3 bottles of a given wine to wholesalers to realize the same revenue he gets from selling just one bottle of the wine at the tasting room.

"Gold medals make it easier to sell wine at the tasting room," says Eberle. Thus, he keeps entering competitions, and, incidentally, increasing production. Eberle Winery now is making 30,000 cases a year.

July 9, 2007
Finally, 524 Set to Reopen

Nearly four years after it was extensively damaged by fire, the iconic Alkali Flat cafe 524 Restaurant is to reopen one week from today. "It will have a whole new atmosphere," vows Jose Gomez of the Mexican restaurant, which during its heyday was celebrated for drawing a broad and colorful clientele.

Gomez now owns the restaurant with his mother, Ana Maria Gomez, who is to be a manager and a server, and his father, Jose "Pepe" Gomez, who joined his brother, the late Miguel Gomez, in operating the restaurant in 1977. Miguel Gomez had opened 524 in 1969.

Jesus Torres, who had cooked at 524 for around 18 years, will be back in the restaurant's kitchen, said Jose Gomez. The cafe's original recipes for such dishes as enchiladas, canitas and tacos will be revived.

524 Restaurant No. 2 along Northgate Boulevard in South Natomas is a separate business owned by Dora Gomez, widow of Miguel Gomez.

524 Restaurant, 524 12th St., is to be open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; the phone number is to be (916) 441-3600.

July 9, 2007
Step Up to Level Up

The culinary arts meet the visual arts this Second Saturday when Suleka Sun-Lindley introduces Level Up Food & Lounge during the city's monthly art walk. A second-floor extension of her family's Thai Basil restaurant at 25th and J, Level Up will specialize in cocktails inspired by Southeast Asian herbs and fruits and small plates of the region's street foods.

While the menu downstairs will remain unchanged, the selection upstairs will include such libations as a "lychee mojito" and such dishes as fried chicken nuggets with roasted chilies and basil, Indian-style curry puffs, and duck salad rolls.

After Saturday's debut, the lounge is to open on a regular basis the following week, possibly Tuesday, maybe Thursday. Tentative hours will be 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Thursday through Sunday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. for brunch Friday through Sunday. The phone number is to be (916) 448-8768.

July 8, 2007
Palettes and Palates, an Update

IMGP1467_edited.jpg

This is Sonoma artist Jennifer LaPierre, practicing her art not in Sonoma but in another wine region, Amador County's Shenandoah Valley. Over the weekend she was one of three artists making over the former Kelson Creek Vineyads winery along Shenandoah School Road into a branch of C. G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery of neighboring El Dorado County. Led by Oakland artist Betty Jo Costanzo, LaPierre and fellow Sonoma artist Charlotte Meyn dressed up one winery building with C.G. Di Arie's emblematic twin lions and brightened the tasting room with a mural inspired by the setting's koi-stocked pond.

During a quick spin through the Shenandoah Valley we found that C.G. Di Arie isn't the only winery in the area on an expansion kick. The Buck Cobb family, which owns Karly Winery, has opened an entirely new facility called Bantam Cellars along Shenandoah Road, in tribute to the family's fondness for raising chickens. Visitors not only can choose from a wide assortment of wines, but fresh ranch eggs were selling for $3 a dozen when we stopped by.

We didn't taste the eggs, but we sure liked several of the wines, including the jammy Bantam Cellars 2005 Chanteclair ($15), a zinfandel styled to be a "festive summer blend," according to the back label; the firm but accessible Bantam Cellars 2005 Coop D'Ville ($17), a heady but not overly warm blend of zinfandel, sangiovese, primitivo and barbera; and the Garth Cobb 2005 Barbera ($24), more robust than many barberas coming out of the area but with the kind of bright fruit that again shows why this underappreciated varietal has so much potential in the Sierra foothills.

In driving into the valley we found that the winery Young's Vineyard actually was open for visitors, which is rare, given that its wines sell out so fast. We braked abruptly and pulled in. While we enjoyed the balance and grace of everything we tasted, the standout was a surprise, the Young's Vineyard 2005 Sangiovese ($26). Sangiovese is a California varietal that more often than not lets me down. I rely on Young's neighbor Vino Noceto to show how sangiovese should perform in California, and just about every other release of the varietal comes up short. The Young's sangiovese, however, had everything I'd want in the varietal - fresh fruit, confident grip, a long finish, and a touch of nuttiness.

We also stopped by nearby Wilderotter Vineyard, where two of the three most impressive wines were the long, spicy and complex Wilderotter Vineyard 2004 Amador County Zinfandel ($24) and the vivacious Wilderotter Vineyard 2006 Sierra Foothills Sauvignon Blanc ($14). But the wine that left us kicking ourselves for not buying half a case was the bright Wilderotter Vineyard 2006 Sierra Foothills Grenache Rose ($15). Roses are gaining in popularity and esteem, but few show why with such exhuberance as this one. It's just packed with fresh strawberry fruit and refreshing acidity. It's a summer wine that has the composure and depth to last right through the Thanksgiving feast.

Incidentally, if you are planning an outing to the Shenandoah Valley, consider stopping at Pokerville Market in Plymouth either as you enter the valley or leave. It has a tremendous selection of foothill wines, and the prices are comparable with what you would spend at the wineries. What's more, we've found that while a nearby winery might be sold out of a particular wine, it still sometimes can be found at Pokerville Market.

July 6, 2007
Palettes and Palates

Chaim and Elisheva Gur-Arieh, who for the past six years have been making wine at their C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery near Mt. Aukum in El Dorado County, have bought Kelson Creek Vineyards - originally Sonora Winery & Port Works - in Amador County's Shenandoah Winery and are making it over in their own artistic style.

Their "grand opening" of the new facility won't be until the weekend of July 21-22, but this weekend they are having a "soft opening," the highlight of which, aside from their wines, will be the presence of two Bay Area artists to dress up the winery.

Elisheva Gur-Arieh, herself an artist, has commissioned artists Betty Jo Costanzo and Jennifer LaPierre to collaborate on a series of naturalistic murals on buildings at the site. They are expected to work on the murals in the morning, knocking off as the temperature intensifies. The tasting room will be open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. both days.

The new branch of C.G. Di Arie is at 19919 Shenandoah School Road just east of Plymouth.

July 5, 2007
A Green Rice Revival

If you don't already have one, you just might inherit one some day - a box filled with recipe cards. The cards may be wrinkled, smudged and barely legible, but you can sense the family history and affection behind each one. Someone should set up a Web site where those old recipes and the stories that go with them can be shared.

Someone has. She's Jane O'Riordan of Fiddletown, who with her husband Bill Easton owns the winery Domaine de la Terre Rouge in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley. She's a chef, caterer and cookbook author, and now a Web site entrepreneur. She's just launched Green Rice, a site where people with collections of old recipe cards can post them along with family photos and the stories behind each dish.

Why Green Rice? "The Green Rice recipe card came from my grandmother, Miriam Pinger, passed down to me from my mother, Barbara Doyle. Green Rice was something I remember both of them making for family gatherings in the 60’s," she explains on the site.

Don't fret that some of the cards may be so stained and the handwriting so obscure that you won't be able to use the recipes. Jane also puts them up in a readable format that easily can be printed. She also outlines on the site how contributors should go about submitting recipes, photos and stories about the people behind them.

July 5, 2007
No Snow, No Hotdogs

IMGP0217_edited.jpg July 4, 2006

IMGP1450_edited.jpg July 4, 2007

Our almost-annual Fourth of July trek into Fourth of July Lake in the Mokelumne Wilderness just south of Carson Pass was startling in the contrast it provided of the Sierra snowpack of the past two winters. A year ago on our customary route we crossed snowfield after snowfield, such as here, just above Lake Winnemucca. In fact, the attendant at the reception cabin at Carson Pass advised us not to attempt the hike without poles or crampons, which we didn't have. We made it nonetheless. Yesterday, no attendant issued any such warning, and none was needed; not a single patch of snow was encountered on the trail. The lack of snow made the hike easier, but the five miles from Casron Pass to Fourth of July Lake still took about three hours.

Then we had to walk back out, this year without the support of the fuel we enjoyed a year ago, "natural pork hotdogs" from Bledsoe Natural Pork of Woodland. Seems the Sierra snowpack isn't alone in being off lately. Bledsoe Natural Pork's inventory of hotdogs also has been down, explained John Bledsoe when I stopped by his table at Sunday's farmers market under the Capital City Freeway at 8th and W streets in Sacramento, expecting to stock up on franks to enjoy lakeside. He just hasn't been able to keep up with demand. He expected, however, to have a whole new batch ready any day now, perhaps by this Sunday's farmers market. If I grab some it doesn't mean I have to walk all the way back into Fourth of July Lake to enjoy them, does it?

July 3, 2007
What's With Syrah? Part 2

After a day judging 80 syrahs from the 2004 vintage at the California State Fair commercial wine competition a couple of weeks ago, I said here I could see why the varietal isn't generating much enthusiasm among consumers. With too few exceptions, they were one dimensional, shallow and short, with little varietal character.

Bill Easton of Fiddletown, president and winemaker of his family winery Domaine de la Terre Rouge in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, makes a wide range of wines inspired by France's Rhone Valley, including syrah. One of his syrah vineyards, planted in 1982, may be the oldest stand of the varietal in the foothills. At any rate, he's sent an email in response to the posting. Here are his comments, plus my response:

Bill: The best syrahs made in California are not in the (State Fair) tasting.
Me: That may or may not be, but 80 syrahs from a single vintage and from several growing regions provide a broad scan of just how the varietal is doing here, and the conclusion isn't encouraging.

Bill: Most of the syrah in California was planted less than 10 years ago. The vines need at least 10 years to develop personality and character.
Me: He would know. A disproportionate number of the 2004 syrahs could have been from young vineyards that have yet to hit their stride. The next day, our panel judged nearly as many syrahs from the 2005 vintage. As a group, they were much brighter and more layered, and said "syrah" with more clarity than the 2004. Was the difference one more year of growth?

Bill: Many of the vines were planted in the wrong place for the wrong reason, i.e., to make money and to ride the next wine fad (remember chardonnay in the 1970s and 1980s).
Me: Indeed. But why stop with the 1980s? Chardonnay still is so popular that a lot of it tastes like it comes from ground that might better be suited for apples or pears.

Bill: Many winemakers don't know how to make syrah. There are no international reference points.
Me: Granted, syrah is a relatively new variety to California, which has different growing conditions than France's Rhone Valley, where it flourishes. Though the wines of the Rhone will be different than what California likely ultimately will produce, they nonetheless show that syrah can yield wines of complexity and depth, but I'm not sure that refresher courses at UC Davis will be necessary to get there.

Bill: With a few exceptions, most California wine sucks these days - just fruit and oak, high alcohol, oversaturated. They're chasing (wine critic Robert) Parker's scores. There's no sense of place to the wine.
Me: California vintners need to be concerned that this complaint is on the rise, and that the state's heavy-handed wines could be playing a role in the increasing sale of imported wines in the United States, many of which are lighter and more graceful than what is being made here.

Bill: Much of the public thinks syrah tastes like under $10 Australian wine. Much of the public thinks all wine should taste like under $10 wine and that $50 wine should taste like under $10 wine with more wood.
Me: Very good, though I think the range of syrah from Australia, both by style and by price, is too diverse for such generalization, though a couple of less costly brands have been responsible for inspiring consumer interest in the varietal.

July 2, 2007
Remy Creates a Stir

For 13 years, Marc and Monica Deconinck have been serving ratatouille "off and on" at their French restaurant in Auburn, Le Bilig. By their own admission, it hasn't been an especially popular dish. That began to change Friday night, when a party of six arrived at Le Bilig after seeing the hot new Disney animated film "Ratatouille," about the spunky rat Remy who aspires to be a Parisian chef.

Friday night, the Deconincks were serving ratatouille as a stuffing with the herb-roasted chicken and as a nest for the sea scallops. When the party of six spotted ratatouille on the menu they went goofy over it, and before long the entire dining room was swapping stories about the film, about France, about gastronomy and so forth, says Monica Deconinck. "I am just happy that I may not have to explain what ratatouille is 50 times a week anymore," she says.

For the record, ratatouille is a wholesome vegetable dish in which eggplant, onions, zucchini, tomatoes and peppers first are sauteed individually in olive oil and then simmered with herbs. "Ratatouille was a staple with Marc's grandma, as I am sure it is with many French grandmeres," says Monica Deconinck. "They use the word 'rata' to mean a casserole they make with leftovers. 'Touille' comes from the verb 'touiller,' which means 'to stir,' hence the dish - 'to stir leftovers.'"

For my part, I didn't run up to Auburn to sample the ratatouille at Le Bilig after seeing "Ratatouille," but I found the movie so inspiring and so much fun that during my tour of yesterday's farmers market in Sacramento I rounded up all the requisite ingredients except thyme and salt and then made a lively version that went well with last night's halibut.

Like the movie, the ratatouille was labor intensive, requiring a lot of chopping and then the sauteeing of each component, but like the movie it celebrated a cohesive community while letting each individual element stand out on its own. Though I've generally considered ratatouille more fitting for fall or winter than summer, perhaps because of the time it demands at counter and range, I've revised that thought, given that all the vegetables and herbs it requires are at or nearing their peak right now.

The Deconincks also will take advantage of the summer bounty to continue to feature ratatouille through the season, including an occasional ratatouille tarte or pissaladiere, a ratatouille turnover, and a ratatouille gratin. Le Bilig, incidentally, also is gearing up for its annual Bastille Day party July 14, with a menu that is to include sauteed frog legs, duck-confit croissant, apple-stuffed pork loin, and chocolate mousse. And, naturally, ratatouille.



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