August 31, 2007
Cupcakes Coming

The cupcake craze that has surfaced in other cities is about to show up in Sacramento. Teresa Urkofsky, a longtime presence on the local dining scene, has signed a lease to open Babycakes Bakery in east Sacramento. She's planning on a mid-October opening at 3675 J St., a small space that previously housed a Pizza Guys franchise.

Urkofsky, who in recent years has been a chef and instructor at American River College, said she got the itch to return to commercial cooking after visiting cupcake bakeries in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. "This would be so much fun," she recalls thinking.

She will be baking seasonal cupcakes that capitalize on locally grown produce and other high-quality ingredients. Her partners are her husband, Gerald Collins, and one of her former students from American River College, Kristine Bertram.

Cupcakes they've been warming up with include poppyseed with lemon curd, apricot and almond, banana with caramel filling, pineapple upsidedown, lemon meringue, cotton candy, rocky road and chocolate mint.

Is there a story behind the name Babycakes? "When I was 19 or 20 and in San Francisco, I got on a bus and sat by a man who worked at a muffin place called Babycakes because they were just little cakes. I thought that was the most clever thing I'd heard in my life," says Urkofsky, sho also has been a chef at Cafe Bernardo and Tango Bistro & Bar in Sacramento.

August 29, 2007
Action on the Dining Scene

Geez, we haven't had a chance to even read the morning paper for the emails and calls coming in to announce happenings on the local dining scene:

- Monticello Bistro in Winters is relocating, but the move isn't far. As of Sept. 15, the season-oriented restaurant will share quarters with the tapas cafe Ficelle, behind the coffeehouse Steady Eddy's, with which the bistro has been sharing space. The address remains the same, 5 East Main St. Steady Eddy's is planning to expand its program, thus the change, says Rhonda Gruska, who with her husband Tony Gruska operates the bistro when they aren't running their catering company, Tastebuds Catering.

With the move, Monticello Bistro also will change its own program. Instead of dinners Fridays and Saturdays, dinner will be available Saturdays only starting Sept. 15, but the next day the Gruskas also will add a Sunday brunch menu and a prix-fixe French tea menu. The brunch menu is to include such options as smoked salmon with sweet-potato hash ($9), walnut caramel French toast ($8), tofu scramble ($8), and a pork tenderloin sandwich with roasted pepper relish ($8). The French tea menu is to include a market salad, a choice of quiche or tartine, housemade ginger cream scones with artisan preserves, assorted pastries and a selection of teas ($25).

With Tastebuds Catering, the Gruskas have been overseeing several events at R.H. Phillips Winery of Esparto. Upon returning home after one event they came across an abandoned puppy at Zamora. It was wary of the couple but finally got enticed into their arms by a leftover portion of one of the dishes they'd served at the winery. The dog, believed to be a mix of fox terrier, chihuahua and miniature pincher, is now named Xena and resides with the Gruskas. "We wish we were in France so we could bring her to the restaurant," says Rhonda Gruska. Oh, the dish that won over the dog? Short ribs braised in cabernet sauvignon.

- Michelle Lainez is the new executive chef at California Cafe at Arden Fair. She succeeds James Wilfong, who after a two-year run at the restaurant has moved to Santa Cruz, says Mark Moore, the restaurant's manager. Lainez comes to Sacramento from Napa Valley Grille in Westwood. Both California Cafe and Napa Valley Grille are brands of Tavistock Restaurants in Emeryville.

- Chris Webber - remember him? - will be back in Sacramento the next two days for events at his Natomas restaurant, Center Court. Starting at 6 p.m. Thursday he is to join friends at the restaurant to assemble their fantasy football league. At 9 p.m. Friday the former Kings star is to be behind the bar mixing drinks as a benefit for the Sacramento chapter of the Make A Wish Foundation. Center Court is at 3600 N. Freeway Blvd., Sacramento.

August 28, 2007
New Venue for Fall Festival

After years at the Resort at Squaw Creek in Squaw Valley, the Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival is relocating to the new Village at Northstar of Truckee. The change means the event will be held earlier than usual - Sept. 13-16 for this year's 22nd annual running - and will feature more outdoor activities. The program also has been expanded to include more tastings, seminars, special meals and cooking demonstrations.

More children's activities also are scheduled, including a cooking camp to be led by Lara Ritchie of Nothing To It! Culinary School in Reno. Other chefs to join this year's festival are Lars Kronmark of the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America; Ron Siegel, executive chef of The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco; Joseph Keller of Bouchon in Napa Valley and Como's in Las Vegas; and Kotaro "Taro" Arai of the Mikuni family of restaurants in and about Sacramento. (Mikuni is to open a branch at the Village at Northstar this fall, probably in November.)

Returning activities include the "Blazing Pans Mountain Chef Cook-Off," Charbay Vodka's annual release party of new distilled spirits, and the concluding tasting and competition involving the pairing of food and wine by some 20 restaurants and wineries.

For more information on the schedule and tickets, visit the dedicated Web site of the North Lake Tahoe Visitors Bureau, or call toll-free (888) 229-2193.

August 27, 2007
A Mighty Small Request

Naggiar Vineyards.jpg
Winemakers want motorists driving on dirt roads through or along their vineyards to proceed slowly so they don't stir up dust. They have all sorts of ways to express their request. This modified traffic sign on the approach to Naggiar Vineyards in Nevada County, however, is one of the more arresting and effective I've seen.

More often, vintners appeal to drivers by posting signs cautioning that "dust hurts vines." But just how does dust hurt vines?

"It has been our observation that vines nearest to dirt roadways are more susceptible to outbreaks of damaging spider mites," says Dr. James Wolpert, viticulture extension specialist in the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis.

Spider mites feed on grape leaves, and as the population of the pest increases the damage from their feasting weakens the foliage and hampers the production of sugars for the grapes.

"Spider mites like a dry environment, and dust contributes to that," says Dr. Matthew Fidelibus, another viticulture extension specialist with UC Davis. "If the infestation is high, you get defoliation problems and damage to the (leaf) canopy. The leaves will look almost like they've been burned." And a damaged canopy can lead to problems like sunburned and inadequately ripened fruit.

"It is not clear (at least to me)," notes Wolpert, "whether dust somehow encourages spider mites themselves or discourages the beneficial mites and other predators that otherwise keep the spider-mite populations in check. My guess is the latter."

Either way, ease off on the throttle as you head out to tasting rooms during this most popular time of the year to visit wineries.

August 27, 2007
Mustard's Hot, But Elusive


It was too early for lunch, but the tuna salad at Newcastle Produce looked great and sounded even better. It included cucumber, cilantro and a mustard of wasabi and lime, said the deli person. She showed us to the market's mustard shelf so we could get some to make the salad at home later, but the shelf was bare of that particular product.

The wasabi-and-lime mustard is one of 12 specialty mustards made by the specialty-food company Terrapin Ridge in Freeport, Ill. In sales, it's the hottest mustard going right now, says Kelly Monigold, the company's assistant general manager. Other varieties are brown sugar and pecan, sweet beet and horseradish, balsamic and herb, and hickory honey. Several of the mustards also are stocked by Taylors Market, but when I stopped by the Sacramento store the next day it also was out of the wasabi and lime.

I asked Monigold whether there's a shortage of the wasabi and lime. Nope, she said, though she speculated that the distributors for Newcastle Produce and Taylors Market may temporarily have run out.

Terrapin Ridge is a branch of the Furst-McNess Co., which has been making home products since 1908. About a decade ago two great-granddaughters of one of the founders began to create a line of gourmet specialty foods. Marketed under the Terrapin Ridge brand, they include dressings, squeezes and sauces as well as mustards. Their best-selling product is the "spicy chipotle squeeze," followed by the "natural hot wasabi," both garnishing sauces. The wasabi-and-lime mustard is their third most popular product. While several of their products can be found at local stores, the full lineup can be ordered online through the Terrapin Ridge Web site.

August 23, 2007
A Makeover for Wine Garden


Kathy and Larry Holbertson of Sacramento are among the more fortunate visitors to the wine garden at the State Fair. They got a seat, a table, some shade and some solitude as they tasted wine.

Next year, more visitors to the wine garden may share their good fortune. Details have yet to be worked out, but State Fair officials, recognizing the popularity of the wine-tasting pavilion, hope to expand the facility so it can seat around 300 people, about double its current capacity, as well as provide more shade, says Michael Bradley, the fair's chief of exhibits.

The wine garden this year was extended south, but it's still not big enough to handle the crowd. An expansion next year also would include more counter space, which hasn't been extended substantially in recent years, resulting in congestion, long waits for service, and potential customers giving up and walking away with their thirst for wine unslaked.

Bradley says the expansion also probably will include some sort of outdoor kitchen to provide more culinary options for wine-garden visitors, as well as opportunities to taste olive oils, cheeses and the like.

The cost and the means of financing the improvements have yet to be determined, Bradley says. "We hope to take that space and make it more user friendly," he says. "There are a lot of unknowns with that site. We still have to do our homework," he adds, noting that the space occupied by the pavilion once was a lagoon. Not filled with wine, presumably.

August 23, 2007
First, Grab a (Magnifying) Glass

Comments here about high-alcohol wines prompted some readers to complain that they have difficulty finding the alcohol content on bottle labels.

I share their frustration. With some bottles of wine you virtually need a magnifying glass as well as a corkscrew to get a grip on what you're getting into.

You can save yourself the search by realizing that not all bottles of wine list the alcohol content, which, incidentally, is to be on the front label. There are numerous federal rules governing information on wine labels, and one of them says labels need not list the alcohol content if the wine contains between 7 and 14 percent alcohol. In those instances, however, the label is to say "table wine" or "light wine."

Only when a wine's alcohol content exceeds 14 percent does the amount need to be specified on the label. Even then, however, the specific figure need not be accurate. If a wine includes more than 14 percent alcohol, the stated figure can vary by as much as 1 percent either up or down. That is, the alcohol content in a bottle with a label saying the wine contains 16 percent alcohol actually can be as low as 15 percent or as high as 17 percent.

Similarly, the tolerance in wines containing between 7 and 14 percent alcohol can range 1.5 percent in either direction. That is, a wine whose label says the alcohol content is 12 percent actually may contain as much as 13.5 percent alcohol or as little as 10.5 percent alcohol.

A complicating factor in calculating how much alcohol is in a wine is that the tolerances aren't permitted if the actual alcohol content were to put the wine in a different tax classification. The three tax classes for wine are 7 percent to 14 percent, over 14 percent to 21 percent, and over 21 percent to 24 percent. That is, if a label says the wine contains 13.5 percent it actually may contain as little as 12 percent alcohol but it can't contain more than 14 percent.

The federal regulations are much more detailed than that. If the alcohol content is more difficult to find and read than seems reasonable, that's because federal authorities don't want vintners to use alcohol as a marketing tool. The type size specifying alcohol content on containers of wine of 5 liters or less must be at least 1 millimeter, but it can't be more than 3 millimeters. Furthermore, the notice is to contrast with the background - several vintners and their graphic artists aren't abiding with the spirit of this regulation - but it isn't to be set off with a border or is it to be otherwise "accentuated."

To learn more of the nation's wine-label regulations, go here to read the Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM) of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

August 22, 2007
Governor Stumps for State's Wines

Gov. Schwarzenegger, never camera shy, has signed on as pitchman for California's wine and culinary arts. The governor's latest role will team him with several unspecified California wine and culinary celebrities in a TV commercial to launch this winter to promote the state's wines and foods.

I'll be watching closely to make sure zinfandel gets its fair share of exposure. Remember, this is the same governor who last year vetoed a measure to designate zinfandel California's "historic wine."

At any rate, Robert "Bobby" Koch, president and CEO of the trade group Wine Institute, and Caroline Beteta, executive director of the California Travel & Touism Commission, announced the governor's signing during a luncheon Tuesday at the Sacramento branch of P.F. Chang's China Bistro. The luncheon and followup wine tasting was an early kick-off of California Wine Month, which actually is September, as proclaimed by the governor.

Wine Institute is putting more than $1 million into the campaign, prompted in part by surveys showing that wine and culinary activities have become significant motivations for people making travel plans. People keen on visiting wine regions and restaurants while at leisure tend to spend more money and travel more often than other vacationers, said Beteta. The overall thrust of the TV spot will be to share the stories of California's vintners, she added.

Even if the TV campaign doesn't inspire viewers to visit California it likely will benefit the state's wine trade by prompting them "to go down to the store and buy a bottle of California wine," noted Koch.

In the meantime, wine enthusiasts interested in wine events throughout the state generally and during California Wine Month specifically can visit a Wine Institute Web site set up specifically to promote activities.

August 22, 2007
Montevina Looks West

If someone were to ask me which winery has been most instrumental in raising the profile of Amador County as prime zinfandel country, I'd be hard pressed to come up with a definitive answer, but Montevina Winery surely would be a contender. Under both its Montevina and Terra d'Oro labels, the winery has been turning out distinguished zinfandels for more than three decades.

Therefore, Jeff Meyers, Montevina's winemaker the past 26 vintages, stunned me yesterday when at a wine tasting he strolled up to the Sonoma County table, took a taste of Francis Ford Coppola's 2005 Director's Cut Zinfandel, and said he hopes to make a version as good or better this fall - with fruit from the same region as Coppola's, the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County.

An Amador County institution making zinfandel from Sonoma County? Sounds like blasphemy. What's it mean? Not that Montevina is turning its back on the Sierra foothills, Meyers is quick to assure. Vineyards that surround the winery in the Shenandoah Valley will continue to provide the grapes for its several signature zinfandels.

Meyers is so confident that Amador County's and Montevina's reputation for esteemed zinfandel is so firmly established that it's time to start thinking outside the Shenandoah Valley. "We've proven everything we can prove with Amador zinfandel, so let's explore other regions and other styles," said Meyers. "That's not Amador County zinfandel," he says, pointing to the Coppola zinfandel. "It's got a ton of fruit, with softer tannins. It's classic Dry Creek Valley jammy fruit. Amador produces a more aggressive style, with more tannins and more spice."

If Montevina's Dry Creek Valley zinfandel is a success, don't be surprised to see the winery start to produce zinfandels from other appellations recognized for doing well by the varietal. Montevina thus would become the latest winery to follow the successful model of Rosenblum, Ravenswood and Ridge, other highly regarded zinfandel specialists that seek choice vineyards from throughout California for solid and stylistically varied interpretations of the varietal.

Meyers will be getting grapes for his Dry Creek Valley zinfandel from 90-year-old vines at Forchini Vineyard. "I couldn't ask for a better vineyard to start with," said Meyers. The wine is expected to be released under the Terra d'Oro label in two or three years.

August 21, 2007
Landmark Closing, But Don't Panic

Lai Wah, perhaps the only restaurant in Sacramento where you could get soy-sauce squab and steamed salted fish with pork at 2 a.m., is closing Oct. 1.

But fans of the restaurant's extensive and largely Cantonese menu and its "down-to-earth village cooking" need not necessarily panic. After a remodeling, the place is to reopen in November as New Lai Wah under the direction of principals involved in the restaurant New Canton along Broadway, confirms Ken Tsang, the manager at New Canton. (He deferred other questions to Alan Chan, who heads up the group that owns New Canton, among several other Chinese restaurants; Chan wasn't immediately available for comment.)

Gina Gee-Wong, daughter of James and Kim Gee, who with her uncle, Ken Lui, opened Lai Wah 25 years ago, said the family agreed it was time to ease into at least semi-retirement. Neither Gina Gee-Wong nor her two siblings were interested in taking over the restaurant at this time. Lui, the Lai Wah chef, will travel initially and then join the Gees in running Bobo, a take-out Chinese-food business within the Rainbow Foods market along Florin Road.

Years ago, I counted 169 options on the Lai Wah menu. Liu, a Canton native reared in Hong Kong, primarily prepares Cantonese dishes, along with several Szechuan and Shanghai selections. Whether the menu still will be as lengthy and diverse, and whether New Lai Wah keeps its famous late hours, remains to be seen.

"I am so sad to see our restaurant being sold, as I grew up in that place working and meeting many wonderful people and a long list of loyal customers. To us, Lai Wah is like a baby we watched grow up in 25 years," said Gina Gee-Wong. Among the people she met at the restaurant was the man to become her husband. He was there with a friend while she was eating dinner with her parents, recalled Gee-Wong, who now works as a Medi-Cal analyst with the state.

August 21, 2007
Culinary Center's Splashy Debut

Need some fresh ideas for the approaching fall and winter entertaining season? If so, you likely can get some Saturday during the day-long grand opening of the East Bay Culinary Center along north 12th Street.

The cooking demonstrations start at 8 a.m. with Ann Martin Rolke of Sacramento, author of "Hands-Off Cooking: Low-Supervision, High-Flavor Meals for Busy People" and a principal contributor to the local food blog, and continue every hour on the hour until 5 p.m. Other participating cooks include chocolatier Ginger Elizabeth Powers of Masque Ristorante (9 a.m.), chef Tim Jordan of Old Soul Bakery (10 a.m.), and chef Adam Pechal of the pending restaurant Tuli Bistro (1 p.m.).

In the meantime, other demonstrations and samples will be given by chef Andrea Hoffman of the Auburn bakery Blatters by Hoffman, Jim Mills of Produce Express and Suzanne Ashworth of Del Rio Botanicals in West Sacramento, and Raul Soto of the food cart company Super Churro and his new downtown restaurant, The Whole Enchilada, among others.

East Bay Culinary Center is the new demonstration area of the Sacramento branch of East Bay Restaurant Supply Inc. of Oakland, which sells kitchen gear to consumers as well as restaurateurs. Carolyn Kumpe is the center's culinary event coordinator. The store is at 522 N. 12th St., Sacramento.

August 18, 2007
Classic Roadhouse Again Jumping

Friday evening, returning from Redding, we pulled off Interstate 5 just south of Woodland and suddenly found ourselves at the roadhouse of a Louisiana bayou.

Harleys were parked out front. Trailers loaded with tomatoes were lined up in the neighboring field. Cooks were struggling to keep up with orders during the weekly fish fry. And the crowd was mostly drinking beer, except for the guy in the canary-yellow suit, wearing more bling than Public Enemy, who took his icy martini outside. That's where Marshal Wilkerson's blues band Smoked Sugar was performing on a platform, the stagelight overhead dangling from the extended ladder of a 1941 fire truck, one of several vintage rigs scattered about the yard.

The Elkhorn Station Roadside Bar and Grill has been reborn, it's latest incarnation more tidy but no less popular and lively than ever. Business partners John Turner and Jason Fernandez reopened it five months ago following a two-year restoration. The small farmhouse, which has stood on the property since 1908, at one time as a depot for a commuter train that ran between Woodland and Sacramento, had been closed for about four years.

We ordered a couple of beers and dug into a pound and a half of hot and thick-crusted Alaskan pollock, a stack of fries and a plastic-foam cup of fresh and sweet coleslaw ($13). The Friday fish fry at Elkhorn Station is an old tradition. I looked around for one of the roadhouse's old baseball caps - "Elkhorn Station, Home of the Fish Fry" - but this was a relatively young crowd, and Fernandez said later in a phone interview that he and Turner have yet to revive the hat custom. (Of higher priority is digging a new well. In a letter taped to the front window, Yolo County public-health officials say the cafe's water is contaminated and warn against drinking it. As a consequence, Turner and Fernandez serve only bottled water and bagged ice, so refreshing, as a matter of fact, that other restaurants might want to consider doing the same.)

In addition to a daily blue-plate special - short ribs on Tuesdays, cioppino on Wednesdays, chicken on Sundays - Elkhorn Station offers a manageable but far-ranging classic roadhouse menu, provided the roadhouse is in California: Chinese chicken salad ($10), Portuguese beans ($3 the cup, $5 the bowl), hamburger ($9), barbecued pork sandwich ($9), shrimp Louie ($10) and rib-eye steak ($17), to name a few selections.

Elkhorn Station is 10 miles north of West Sacramento along Old River Road. That's the scenic route. You also can get to it by driving north on I-5 past Sacramento International Airport. Just after crossing the Vietnam Veterans Bridge exit to the north, loop around to the south, passing under the span. Elkhorn Station will be on the right within a couple hundred yards. It's open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, with brunch served 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; (916) 371-1389.

August 16, 2007
When California Wines Aren't

Last week in Napa Valley, the buyer for a prominent group of East Coast wine shops was telling me about a dilemma he recently faced. One section of his stores is devoted to California wines. In it, he's routinely been stocking pinot noirs from such recognizable California brands as Pepperwood Grove and Echelon, among others.

Not long ago, however, someone paid more than usual attention to the fine print on the labels and noted that six of these ostensibly Californian pinot noirs bore the designation "vin de pays," French for "country wine." They weren't Californian at all, but had originated in France. In no other appreciable respect did the labels differ from the labels that the wineries use for their California wines.

I hadn't noticed whether the same thing was happening around here, so I stopped into a supermarket with a fairly representative selection of California wines. I went straight to the pinor noir section and began to read labels. Much to my surprise I found six popular California brands whose pinot noir was from somewhere other than California. The pinot noirs of Redwood Creek, Rex Goliath, Echelon and Heron all were "vin de pays" wines from various regions of France. The Pepperwood Grove was from Chile. The Turning Leaf was from Germany.

Sleight of hand? Some could see it that way. In each instance, however, the source of the wine was somewhere on the bottle. What this turn in labeling seems to say is that California wineries simply can't keep pace with the popularity of pinot noir, so they have to look elsewhere for juice.

I haven't tasted any of the imports, so I have no idea what kind of quality they offer. Except for the Heron, which retails for $13, the wines are cheap, ranging from $5.50 to $9.

Back East, the wine buyer solved the riddle by moving the "California" pinot noirs from France into the French section of his stores. The lesson here is for consumers to take advantage of all the detailed information that is on wine labels, and not assume that because the label looks like a traditional California brand that the wine in the bottle is Californian.

August 16, 2007
Monkey Play on K Street Mall

As fall nears, the opening of restaurants accelerates. On the beleagured K Street Mall alone two places opened just this week - Michel Bloch's Crepe Cafe at Ninth and K, which I mentioned in an earlier post here, and Three Monkeys at Seventh and K, which I just heard about.

Three Monkeys is part modern American, part modern Japanese, the former represented by its beer- and martini-heavy saloon and its broiler cooking, the latter by its tempura and sushi plates. The place is big enough to easily accommodate both, spreading over nearly 11,000 square feet and capable of seating about 280, says general manager Carl Steagall, one of four partners in the venture.

The others are the original "three monkeys" - CEO Bob Wilson, president James Chong, and CFO Eric Waddell. The three hatched the plan at Tokyo Dori, Chong's sushi restaurant in Rocklin. (Chong also was the founder of the local chain of I Love Teriyaki restaurants, which he sold.) Steagall, formerly with the Claim Jumper chain of restaurants, later joined the three as a partner in Harvest Ventures Inc., the corporation to develop this and other Three Monkeys.

Three Monkeys, 723 K St., is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays and Saturdays; after the restaurant's grand opening Sept. 7 it also will be open Sundays; (916) 441-4860.

August 13, 2007
When the Whistle Blows, Eat

Every time I hear the whistle of an old steam locomotive in Jamestown - the Tuolumne County hamlet where the railroad is the raison d'etre for the town's existence - I get hungry. I have no idea why, but that's the way it is.

When it happened yesterday - we were visiting my sister and her husband, who live not far off the tracks of Railtown 1897 State Historic Park - they suggested we visit Azzo's Restaurant & Bar on Main Street.

We parked just down the street from the Willow Steakhouse, where three saddled horses were tied to the porch railing, as if this still were 1897. Azzo's occupies another historic building, which if memory serves me correctly once housed The Smoke, perhaps the first Jamestown restaurant to develop an enthusiastic following.

The quarters are divided to a long bar on one side, the dining room on the other, the two separated by a wall that keeps the sounds of one from intruding on the other. The bar is dressed up with ties dangling from coat hooks and with concert posters from the psychedelic era, while the pressed-tin ceiling and one wall of the dining room is brightened with contemporary landscape paintings.

Chef James Ablett's menu also is highly contemporary, its Mediterranean and Californian aesthetic represented by such small plates as steamed clams with chorizo and chickpeas, braised short ribs in harissa, and artichoke fritters with a roasted bell-pepper aioli. Lunch main courses include pizzas, a hefty burger with a spicy siracha aioli, and several salads, including charbroiled skirt steak with marinated mushrooms and asparagus. The dinner menu lists several more substantial entrees, such as scaloppini of duck breast on Parmesan risotto, veal Madeira sauteed with rushrooms on a risotto with garlic and leeks, and salmon glazed with balsamic vinegar, garlic and ginger.

At both lunch and dinner, Azzo's most novel touch is the "pasta bar." Just one pasta is available, housemade fettuccini, but guests have their choice of one of three sauces - roasted tomato, Alfredo or pesto ($13). In addition, several other options are available to add to the toss, such as sun-dried tomatoes, red onion and capers (50 cents each), and grilled chicken, prosciutto, sausage or shrimp ($4 each).

Azzo's, 18228 Main St. Jamestown, is open for dinner 5-9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 4-8 p.m. Sundays; lunch is served 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; (209) 984-1173.

August 10, 2007
Crepes on K

Competition for Sacramento's crepe clientele is to intensify at 7 a.m. Monday. That's when Michel Bloch is to open his Crepe Cafe at Ninth and K. A well-seasoned and well-traveled crepe master, Bloch first went into the business 28 years ago in Sacramento, but he's been absent from the local restaurant scene for about two decades.

Crepe Cafe will occupy quarters that most recently housed a La Bou Cafe. Bloch originally planned to be open for breakfast and lunch only, but now he will extend the cafe's hours into the later evenings during the latter half of the week. "I will be challenging K Street," says Bloch of his decision to stay open later than initially expected.

Crepe Cafe is to be open 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. "Sunday I am on my horse," says Bloch, a competitor in endurance rides.

August 9, 2007
The Gold Standard for Uni

California doesn't have a state budget, but it does have new standards for uni, the buttery, briny, sometimes nutty roe of sea urchin, a staple of Japanese cuisine, especially sushi.

The California Sea Urchin Commission - if you haven't heard of it, that's understandable; it's been around only since the spring of 2004 - has adopted a three-tiered scale to help consumers identify the quality of uni.

They're "California Gold," the best, to describe uni bright gold, yellow or orange, with a fresh salty ocean aroma, a firm buttery texture, and a sweet buttery taste; "Premium California," also gold, yellow or orange, but less brilliant, with a similar smell and texture, and a flavor crisp and nutty; and "Select California," characterized by medium hues of yellow, orange or shading to brown, a salty ocean smell, a texture more soft and creamy, and a "more neutral nutty taste."

"California Gold" and "Premium California" both are fitting for sushi, with "top-dollar" restaurants serving the former, "more modest" cafes the latter, says Vern Goehring, the commission's executive director. "Select California" uni customarily is used in stews and soups; a lot of it is frozen and shipped to Japan for processing into an uni paste, notes Goehring.

Uni processors aren't obligated to abide by the standards. They're strictly voluntary at this time. The terminology and definitions are a first step toward bringing some uniformity to the industry, Goehring says. Up to now, each processor has had his own standards to determine whether the product was "top, medium or low," with nothing to establish consistency through the trade. "This is a first attempt to define (uni) in writing," says Goehring.

The state's uni trade generates $20 million to $25 million in annual revenues, says Goehring. Some 11 million pounds of wild live sea urchin are harvested yearly in coastal waters, from which about 800,000 pounds of uni is recovered. Approximately 60 percent of the crop is exported, though that share is declining as domestic cosumption increases because of the rising popularity of Japanese cuisine in the United States.

August 9, 2007
Knocks on Fleming's Premature

firestoneOverall.JPGAfter Bee colleague Bob Shallit reported this past weekend that an entertainment complex is to take over the historic Art Deco Firestone Building at 16th and L, some people predictably complained because the two restaurants at the site will be outlets of chains.

Despite my own reservations about the proliferation of deep-pocket chains
at the expense of independent, individually owned restaurants, I'm delighted that one of the restaurants to move into the Firestone will be Sacramento's first branch of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, based in Newport Beach.

More than a steak enthusiast, I'm a wine enthusiast, and Fleming's boasts one of the more industrious restaurant wine programs in the country. That program includes 100 wines by the glass at each of its 51 restaurants. To promote not only its wine list but understanding of efforts by viticulturists and winemakers to produce wines representative of place, Fleming's also just has launched VineVoyage, a Web site with a series of videos in which vintners talk about their wines and how they came to be. Just five wineries initially are featured, but eventually the site is to include videos on all the wineries that Fleming's uses for its 100 wines by the glass, according to

VineVoyage also includes a link to the Fleming's Web site, including the chain's wine list, where viewers can get an idea of the treats in store for Sacramento, even though the local branch isn't expected to open before 2009. Maybe by then the list will include more Sacramento-area wineries - and VineVoyage will include some local winemakers ambling through vineyard and winery, talking about how they make their wines.

August 8, 2007
Thirsty Owl Drinks from Governor's Cup

IMGP1663_edited.jpgFor the second straight year, a dry riesling from Finger Lakes won the coveted Governor's Cup as the best wine in the New York Wine & Food Classic, which concluded this afternoon at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & The Arts in Napa.

The winning wine is the Thirsty Owl Wine Co. 2006 Cayuga Lake Dry Riesling ($14). In the final round of balloting, it beat out four other finalists that through a series of elimination votes gradually had been chosen from an original field of 39 best-of-show candidates. The competition began with 790 wines, all from New York.

The other finalists were the Pindar Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Franc (best red wine), the Barrington Cellars 2006 Buzzard's Blush (best blush wine), the Mazza Chautauqua Cellars 2005 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine (best dessert wine), and the Swedish Hill Vineyards Spumante Blush (best sparkling wine).

A year ago, the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards 2005 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling won the Governor's Cup. At that time, the competition was held at one of its usual staging grounds, Canandaigua, N.Y. This year's win by Thirsty Owl should further secure the standing of Finger Lakes as the country's premier appellation for riesling.

The Thirsty Owl riesling isn't likely to be found in California, but it can be ordered direct by visiting the winery's Web site.

August 8, 2007
Stop at WineStation, Fill Up on Knowledge

IMGP1659_edited.jpg Zvi Bern and Debby Wagger of Los Angeles tasting wine at one of the WineStations at Copia.

Wine critics are forever rambling on about malolactic fermentation, carbonic maceration, French vs. American oak, "corked" wines and the like, but how many wine enthusiasts actually can relate to the concepts through aware personal experience?

Only a few, I suspect. Now, however, Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & The Arts in Napa has installed a bank of machines to help enlighten visitors to wine jargon.

Each "WineStation" holds four bottles of wine grouped to make a point. One set, for example, shows how different types of oak affect chardonnay. One of the four wines hasn't been exposed to any oak at all. One has been doctored with oak chips. One has been aged in American oak barrels. And the fourth has been aged in French oak barrels.

Here's the drill: Visitors buy a debit card, insert it into the WineStation and then select a small taste, half glass or full glass of whatever wine they want to sample. After a taste of the unoaked chardonnay, for example, they can taste the chardonnay that has been treated with oak chips, then move on to the wine aged in American oak.

Another WineStation features wines chosen to help visitors identify common faults in wine, such as volatile acidity, brettanomyces and contamination by 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, the compound that indicates a wine is "corked," or smelling like wet cardboard. You may want to only sniff these wines, not taste them.

After a stop at Copia and a visit to the dispensers, visitors will be well armed to continue their tasting trek up valley, or to maybe just read a wine column. Copia, 500 First St., Napa, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Tuesdays. Admission is $5.

August 7, 2007
New York Shines

After eight hours of judging, the first day of tne 2007 New York Wine & Food Classic has concluded at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa. A couple of things set aside this wine competition from others. For one, it involves only New York wines. Secondly, it's in Napa Valley. That may seem bizarre, but it's perfectly logical. If you want to show off your wines, which is a goal of the competition, why not do it in the very heart of the nation's most prominent wine region? After all, there's no other wine competition in Napa Valley, given that local vintners are loathe to have their wines judged blind by a court that involves group consensus rather than personal preference.

But I digress. And I also err, to a degree. All the wines competing for medals are from New York, granted. But they aren't the only wines in the competition. Jim Trezise, the competition's coordinator, also includes in some flights a highly regarded wine from some other region, just to see how New York wines stack up against outsiders.

And how do they? I can speak only for our panel, which today judged 15 flights involving a total 137 wines. They ranged from gewurztraminers to catawbas. Almost all the wines were from New York, but several flights included the kinds of "ringers" that Trezise likes to throw in to see how New York wines measure up to international competition.

New York wines, by our experience, are measuring up quite well, with one notable exception. In our very first flight - sparkling wines - we gave just one gold medal. It went to the ringer, Veuve Clicquot, from Champagne. In vibrancy and crispness, no New York sparkling wine came close. Sorry, but that's the way it was.

In several other flights, however, New York wines did quite well. Among the vidals, for one, we gave just one gold medal, to wine no. 415, the identity of which we won't know until after the competition concludes tomorrow. At the end of each flight, however, we are told whether a ringer was included, and if so, what it was. In this case, the ringer vidal was from Missouri, which generally does quite well by the grape. Today, however, the Missouri vidal in our flight got just a bronze medal.

In another flight - pinot noir - we gave two gold medals out of 10 wines. Both were from New York. The ringer in the flight, we subsequently learned, was from Burgundy. It got only a bronze. Good show, New York.

In our flight of 11 merlots, we gave two gold medals, neither of which went to what turned out to be the ringer, which was from Washington state, where merlot does quite well; it got a bronze medal. Another plus for New York.

So what's it mean? Only on this day in this place that New York wines aren't to be taken lightly. Give them a chance; you might be surprised. Unless, however, we're talking sparkling wines. Looks like some work may be needed there.

In concluding, let me introduce my fellow panelists: Rene Chazottes, sommelier of The Pacific Club at Newport Beach; Michaela Rodeno, CEO of St. Supery Vineyards & Winery in Napa Valley; and Bill Moffett of Watkins Glen, N.Y., publisher emeritus of the magazine Vineyard & Winery Management.

August 7, 2007
Strangers in a Strange Land

Jim Trezise, director of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, gives as concise and cogent a rationale for wine competitions as I've heard: "Professional wine competitions provide an opportunity to assess the levels of quality in a wide range of wines. Because taste is a totally subjective sense, tasting wines is by nature a subjective experience. Having a panel of four different judges - with different tastes, professional backgrounds, and geographical origins - taste the wines 'blind' (without knowing their origin) adds an element of objectivity to the process."

Trezise's comments are in his list of directives to 24 judges who have gathered in Napa for the 2007 New York Wine & Food Classic, a competition that has drawn a record high 790 wines. All are from New York. Why in the world has Trezise gone to all the logistical trouble of packing up several bottles of each entry, along with a crew of 18 staff members and volunteers, and brought them cross country to stage the judging in the nation's highest profile wine region? What's more, this is the second time in five years that he's done it.

As before, Trezise wants to see how New York wines will fare in a far-flung market when they are judged mostly by judges from outside the Empire State (just six of the judges are from New York). By holding the competition in Napa Valley, he also hopes to raise the stature of New York wines through the publicity the judging likely will attract.

Trezise does something else unusual with the competition. He will sprinkle through the classes some 30 "ringer" wines. These will be "high-quality, well-known, higher priced wines" from other states and countries. He does this to see how New York wines are measuring up against benchmark wines from elsewhere.

Californians are the luckiest wine enthusiasts in the nation. We have a vast array of wines in an almost equally vast range of prices right in our backyard. Californians aren't provincial about this treasure - witness the rising popularity here of wines from other countries - but we're largely oblivious to the wines being made in other states, unless we stumble across them while traveling. Most of the New York wines we'll taste today will never get out here, they sell so briskly back home. The availability of direct shipment from winery to consumer, however, has made them more accessible to Californians in recent years.

By judging at past New York wine competitions, I've discovered several wineries from which I haven't hesitated to order wine - Hermann J. Wiemer, Ravines Wine Cellars and Swedish Hill Vineyards, among others. I'm looking forward to more such revelations today.

August 6, 2007
The New Gold Rush

Just how valuable is vineyard land in northern California these days, aside from Napa Valley, where fantastic prices being paid for vineyards gives a skewed vision of the market?

To adjust our perspective, let's do some math based on sales figures announced this morning for two substantial vineyards, one in Yolo County, the other at Lodi.

Vintage Wine Trust Inc., a San Rafael real-estate investment trust focused exclusively on the wine trade, is buying the 422-acre Dunnigan Vineyard southeast of Dunnigan in Yolo County for approximately $4.8 million, and the 283-acre Sparrowk Vineyard east of Lodi for about $4.2 million, trust officials revealed today.

That works out to $11,374 an acre for the Yolo County property, $14,841 for the Lodi site. Is Lodi land that much more highly regarded than Yolo? Not necessarily. Of the 283 acres in the Sparrowk Vineyard, about 260 acres already have been planted, primarily to zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon. Of the 422 acres in the Dunnigan Vineyard, only about 278 acres have been planted, largely to pinot grigio and chardonnay. Vintage Wine Trust officials say they expect to develop as vineyards another 120 acres in the Dunnigan purchase next spring.

The purchases increase substantially Vintage Wine Trust's investment in the Sacramento region as a source of fine wine. This spring, the trust paid Sacramentans John and Lane Giguiere $2.2 million for the couple's 320-acre "Matchbook" property in the Dunnigan Hills of Yolo County, which includes a 73.5-acre vineyard. Vintage also earmarked an additional $3.4 million to develop more vineyards and to build a winery on the site. Under the terms of the sale, the Giguieres, who make wines under the banner of Crew Wine Company, will lease back the holdings for 10 years.

Under a similar arrangement, Sirius Vineyards LLC, which has owned the Sparrowk and Dunnigan vineyards, will lease back the properties through 2009, say Vintage Wine Trust representatives.

August 3, 2007
On Eve of Crush, Winemakers Party

On the eve of the start of the 2007 northern California wine-grape harvest, Jason Fernandez and Joe Genshlea Jr. kicked back in their new Sacramento winery for a grand-opening party last night.

They're still awaiting delivery of some fermentation tanks, but the press is in and stacks of barrels are in place. And their winery - Revolution Wines - may be the only one in the state to feature the electric art of Lynn Malmberg (shameless plug).

Fernandez and Genshlea expect their first grapes - pinot grigio - to start rolling in late this month. When they do, the first crush of grapes at a commercial winery within Sacramento probably since the repeal of Prohibition will be under way.

In the meantime, they're pouring at their tasting counter wines they made elsewhere. The lineup includes a serviceable 2005 Clarksburg pinot grigio ($14), a 2005 Amador County zinfandel so jammy with mixed-berry fruit it also could say Smucker's on the label ($20), and a signature 2005 blend of montepulciano, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon called "Renzo," both juicy and supple ($19).

The winery and tasting room, behind 2114 P St. in midtown, is open 4-7 p.m. Thursdays, noon-9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and noon-5 p.m. Sundays.

August 2, 2007
British Lighten Up

Something's happening in England that American wine merchants might want to keep an eye on, given the United Kingdom's long and successful history in the marketing of wine. According to an article posted online by the Times of London, three supermarket chains are making a conscious effort to stock more lower-alcohol wines.

Their decision is an encouraging sign that consumer interest in more heavily bodied, intensely concentrated and higher alcohol wines may have peaked. While such wines often score high ratings by some influential critics, they aren't necessarily the most pleasant companions at the dinner table, tending to exhaust rather than refresh the palate.

But as the article points out, don't blame the critics alone for encouraging a beefier wine style. Global warming also looks to be playing a role, with some winemakers not yet adjusting their harvest practices to compensate for an uptick in temperatures during the growing season.

At any rate, the British could be about to rediscover the joys of lower-alcohol lambruscos, vinho verdes, rieslings and similar refreshing styles of wine, and if they catch on over there, their availability and respect could improve here.

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