January 31, 2008
Hottest Winery: Ste. Michelle

The award season is under way, and one of the more eagerly anticipated tributes in the wine trade early each year is Jon Fredrikson's unveiling of his Winery of the Year, which he reveals during the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium now going on in Sacramento.

Fredrikson, a veteran Bay Area wine consultant and analyst, bases his honor on a winery's robust sales the previous year. For 2007, his Winery of the Year is Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Washington state, which during 2007 saw wine sales leap by 25 percent to a record $354 million, says Fredrikson.

Ste. Michelle also made headlines last year when it teamed up with Italy's Marchese Piero Antinori to pay $185 million for Napa Valley's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. Ste. Michelle now owns about 20 brands, including two other California wineries, Conn Creek and Villa Mt. Eden, both also in Napa Valley.

Fredrikson chose Ste. Michelle from a large field of candidates that also had revenues rise substantially last year, including four in the Sacramento region - Michael-David Winery in Lodi, Bogle Vineyards in Clarksburg, Gnarly Head in Manteca and McManis Family Vineyards just south of Lodi.

Fredrikson also indicated that the industry should keep an eye on a player that just entered the field last year, Oak Leaf Vineyards, a brand of The Wine Group in San Francisco. Oak Leaf sold around 500,000 cases in its short time on the market, said Fredrikson. The wines are available at Wal-Mart, where they sell for $1.97 a bottle.

January 29, 2008
Vines are Dormant, Not Growers and Winemakers

Just try to get into a downtown or midtown restaurant this week. With 10,000 grape growers, winemakers and other members of the wine trade in and about the Sacramento Convention Center for the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, the nation's largest gathering of vintners, most restaurants on the grid should be humming. If there's one thing this crowd enjoys as much as making wine it's drinking it, preferably with fine food.

Nonetheless, they got down to business today with workshops on grape diseases, sustainable farming practices, unwanted aromas that can develop during fermentation and the like.

The opening session dealt with how wineries and wine-related businesses, like restaurants, can build their brand to assure a longterm relationship with their customers. There I heard something that made me wish the room was filled with local restaurateurs. Marian Jansen op de Harr, wine buyer for Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, said the chain's highly regarded wine program stipulates that red wines be kept at 60 degrees Fahrenheidt, whites at 45 degrees Fahrenheidt. Nor are bottles of wine to be left standing on the back bar, where they are bound to warm up. Take the hint, local restaurateurs: Store those wines at proper temperatures so they won't be too hot when served, and just maybe your wine sales will pick up.

She had a couple of other insightful remarks. For one, while 70 percent of the wines at Fleming's are American, 30 percent are foreign, and that segment is growing, in large part because Americans are taking an interest in grape varieties not grown extensively here, such as riesling, malbec and albarino. Curiously, the market looks to be cooling for sauvignon blanc, she said. "A year ago I thought sauvignon blanc would take off," she remarked, "but it seems to be going down. I don't know what's going on."

Australian viticulturist Peter Hayes, of the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), based in Paris, sounded more ominous in his speech, saying winemakers generally aren't preparing consumers for changes in wine styles due to climate change. Already, he remarked, German rieslings are showing more alcohol and less of their characteristically steely nature because of how global warming is altering grape-growing and winemaking practices, yet few vintners are taking a proactive role in explaining the changes to consumers, said Hayes. Something for his fellow conventioners to chew over besides the steak they'll have for dinner.

January 28, 2008
Coasting Through Zinfandels

IMGP2570_edited.jpgSaturday's 17th annual Zinfandel Festival drew its usual crowd of thousands to two massive pavilions at San Francisco's Fort Mason. I spent a portion of my day there interviewing winemakers about the topic of old-vine zinfandels for this Wednesday's Dunne on Wine column in The Bee and for a video to be posted on the same day.

Naturally, these mimes representing Paul Dolan Vineyards didn't have a thing to say on the matter.

After the interviews I got down to the day's serious business, tasting some zinfandels. Can't say I found a whole lot to turn my head, but those that did included the bright and brisk Amador Foothill Winery 2004 Esola Vineyards Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel ($17), which showed that the varietal doesn't need a whole lot of color to be characteristically fruity; the aromatic, spicy and long C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery 2005 Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel ($25); the ripe, lush and touch sweet Dogwood Cellars 2005 Mendocino Zinfandel ($28); the firm, robust and pepperty Howell Mountain Vineyards 2005 Bear & Lion Old Vine Napa County Zinfandel ($24); the concentrated and persistent Opolo Vineyards 2005 Paso Robles Reserve Zinfandel ($38); the swaggering Rotta Winery 2004 Paso Robles Giubbini Estate Vineyard Zinfandel ($27); and the spirited yet elegant Rodney Strong Vineyards 2005 Sonoma County Knotty Vines Zinfandel (20).

We spotted longtime zinfandel specialist Kent Rosenblum wandering through the crowd, seeming to look happier than usual. This morning I learned why. He's selling his 30-year-old Alameda winery, Rosenblum, Cellars, to Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines for $105 million, according to Yahoo! Finance. That kind of dough would bring a smile to anyone's face, though Rosenblum, a veterinarian when he isn't making wine, always has been one of the more cheery vintners in the California trade.

January 25, 2008
Zigatos Bounces Back

Steve Zeigler is the latest restaurateur to recognize that location, location, location can be crucial in the dining business. Two years ago he moved his Zigatos Bar & Grille from the suburban Howe 'Bout Arden shopping center to the Canterbury Inn and Conference Center off Highway 160 near the Woodlake neighborhood.

Now he's moved Zigatos again, this time back to the suburbs, to the Clarion Hotel at Fulton Avenue and Auburn Boulevard.

"I was convinced we could make that place work," said Zeigler of the Canterbury Road site. "But I learned Canterbury Road is too far out for people who live downtown and too far in for people who live out."

He also said some anticipated improvements to the Canterbury Road site didn't materialize as he'd hoped, also prompting his decision to move.

He's more optimistic about the Clarion Hotel site, where he also has relocated his Capital City Catering. "We've been welcomed with open arms here," says Zeigler of his new landlord and members of the Arden Arcade business Council. "It's good to feel the love."

Colleague Ramon Coronado had a more comprehensive look at the Zigatos move and the revitalization of the restaurant's new neighborhood in an article in the regional Arden section of yesterday's Bee.

January 25, 2008
Wine Alert!

With no NFL game this weekend, what's a sporting fellow to do for his wagering amusement? If he's a wine enthusiast, he could guide a pal to the new Total Wine & More in Roseville and bet that he or she can't get out of the place without buying at least a half-dozen bottles of wine, beer and spirits.

With little fanfare, the first California branch of Total Wine opened yesterday in Fairway Commons Shopping Center along Five Star Drive just off Stanford Ranch Road. We were on our way to dinner in Rocklin when we decided to swing by to see if we could find out when the place would be ready for customers, only to discover the lights on, the doors sliding open, and a fair number of people pushing carts between boxes and bins.

Total Wine, based out of Potomac, Maryland, bills itself as "America's Wine Superstore," and the 25,000-square-foot facility lives up to that claim with some 8,000 wines, 2,000 spirits and 1,000 beers. I couldn't pass up a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a Gigondas and a couple of rieslings, one a vineyard-designated release from Washington state, the other from New York's Finger Lakes district, customarily virtually impossible to find hereabouts. Interestingly, 47 percent of the chain's sales are imported wines.

"Team members" wear white shirts and ties, and two we saw are newly hired veterans of the Sacramento wine scene - Harry Fisher, former sommelier at the long-gone Horseshoe Bar Grill in Loomis, and Carrie Boyle, formerly of The Wine Merchant in Roseville and Folsom.

Coincidental with the opening of the Roseville store, the chain's 51st, Beverage Dynamics magazine named Total Wine its Retailer of the Year for 2008. The accompanying article notes that Total Wine moves more than 24 million bottles of wine per year through its doors, employs more than 1,500 persons, and encourages its wine clerks to enter the rigorous Master of Wine certification program.

The article also notes that the chain gives away 300,000 copies a year of its nearly 200-page Guide to Wine, a sweeping and smart survey of grape varietals, food and wine pairing, wine regions and related topics. In March, the store also will start a series of wine classes for consumers.

Total Wine is at 5791 Five Star Blvd., Roseville; (916) 791-2488. It's open 9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. As soon as you enter, grab a map of the layout; you'll need it, I'm wagering.

January 22, 2008
Fair Play Getting a Makeover

Michael Conti, descended from a family of longtime grape growers in Italy, subscribes to the wine-country maxim that "it takes a lot of beer to make good wine." Trouble is, the remote Fair Play area in El Dorado County, where Conti and his wife Michelle settled 18 months ago, is short of places for vineyard workers, cellar rats, winemakers and the like to gather for a cold brew.

This spring, Conti plans to correct that by converting the recently closed Fair Play Bistro into a microbrew and small-plate pub. The restaurant is in escrow, along with the neighboring Winery by the Creek, where Conti is negotiating to bring in noted Napa Valley winemaker Phil Baxter as his consultant.

Conti is buying bistro and winery from Charles Mitchell, who almost a year ago sold him his Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards, which eventually is to become known as Conti Estate. Mitchell arrived in the Fair Play area in 1994 after a decade of being a self-described ski bum at Mammoth Lakes. At Fair Play he became recognized for innovative wine marketing and the steady growth of the winery.

Mitchell, who now lives on Bethel Island in the Delta, says he is selling the wineries because he accomplished what he set out to do 14 years ago and because his children aren't interested in pursuring the business. He's selling the bistro, he added, because it was a disappointment. "I wanted to have fine dining in a casual manner with French flair. We had duck confit and foie gras, but who ate the foie gras? I did. Frankly, I thought that people who enjoyed wine would enjoy that cuisine, but they didn’t. I was out of touch with the locals," says Mitchell. He hasn't ruled out returning to the wine trade, and is eyeing a parcel at Steamboat Slough for a possible new venture.

"I have many, many, many fond memories of my time in El Dorado. I met many wonderful people there, and I have so many memories of challenges, successes and events. I'm not the least bit disappointed with El Dorado, but I am disappointed with myself that I didn’t do it right with the restaurant," Mitchell adds.

Conti knows the restaurant business. Two years ago he sold his share of Cheeseburger Restaurants, a seven-unit group with outlets from Hawaii to Florida, and retired to the foothills. "We had $6 million in sales per unit. They were the highest volume cheeseburger-style restaurants in the United States," Conti says. But he got bored, and let the wine business lure him out of retirement, and now he's edging back into the restaurant trade.

January 21, 2008
A Palette for the Palate

IMGP2565_edited.jpgFriday, I got a glimpse of the future, or what I'm starting to hope will be the future. It's blue, for one. More significantly, it puts the emphasis on the person rather than the product in wine appreciation.

We were at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa. A handful of prospective judges for the inaugural Lodi International Wine Competition in March had gathered for the first step toward having their palates calibrated to determine where they might land on a spectrum of sensitivity. The experiment is too involved and too tentative to explain in detail here, but if Tim Hanni's vision of how people taste continues on track, the entire world of wine judging, rating and communication will be shaken and quite possibly radically revised.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, Friday's participants had their tongues painted blue. It was just food coloring, meant to help distinguish tastebuds from the rest of the flesh and stuff that forms our tongues. This was important because our tongues then were photographed to help Hanni and his fellow researchers gauge how many tastebuds we each have. The total will help determine whether we can be categorized as a tolerant, sensitive or hyper-sensitive taster. Despite the unfortunate choice of nomenclature, no one classification is superior to another, but is meant to help determine whether we might be more astute at evaluating one broad field of wine than another. (One of the participants, Lily Peterson, a Copia wine educator, is shown here having her painted tongue photographed by Hanni.)

A word about Hanni: He's a longtime veteran of the California wine scene, one of the nation's first two Masters of Wine, recognized for his incisive palate, his development of the "progressive" wine list used by several restaurants, his development of the condiment Vignon to add to foods to make them more compatible with wine, and his intense research into why people react to wines as they do. (A profile of Hanni, in fact, appeared in this weekend's Wall Street Journal.)

At any rate, Friday's exercise included a few other procedures, such as smelling, tasting and ranking a flight of wines, and an introduction to the "budometer," an online tool to help people define their taste preferences. The "budometer" analyzes the respones to predict the kinds of wines the participant is apt to like. The questions ask about how much salt you like, how you would describe the perfect cup of coffee or tea, the style of beer you favor, and so forth.

My results summed up quite neatly the kinds of wines I see myself preferring, but the list of specific wines recommened by the "budometer" didn't include many with which I'm familiar, and most were outdated, not likely still to be found in stores. There were no pinot noirs, zinfandels or rieslings recommended for me, customarily my favorite varietals, but the tool is just being launched, and its database is to be gradually expanded. The results of the Lodi judging, in fact, will be the first major import of data from a competition. In the meantime, anyone can go to the "budometer" Web site to answer the questions, have their taste preferences analyzed, and be pointed to the kinds of wines likely to please them.

January 17, 2008
Harvest Includes a Sacramentan

"Sacramento wine merchant and forager supreme" Darrell Corti -- that's how officials of the Culinary Institute of America see him -- is one of eight Californians who are to be inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame in March.

CIA representatives announced their second round of selections this morning. Corti, president of the Corti Brothers grocery store along Folsom Boulevard, was one of 30 nominees described as individuals who have made a significant contribution to the California wine industry and who still are alive or who died recently. The four others in that category to be inducted this year are the late Ernest and Julio Gallo of E&J Gallo Winery in Modesto, Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino, and Milijenko "Mike" Grgich of Grgich Hills Winery in Napa Valley.

The three other inductees were voted in as "pioneers" -- people who also have made significant contributions to the trade but who have been dead at least 10 years. They are John Daniel, who restored the historic Napa Valley winery Inglenook after the repeal of Prohibition; Louis P. Martini, the progressive head of Louis M. Martini Winery in Napa Valley during the middle of the past century; and Carl Wente, who founded the Livermore winery Wente Vineyards in 1883.

This is the second year for the Vintners Hall of Fame. Last year's inductees were Napa Valley vintner Robert Mondavi, UC Davis enologist Maynard Amerine, UC Davis grape breeder Harold Olmo, Christian Brothers Winery cellarmaster Brother Timothy, Beaulieu Vineyard founder Georges de Latour, longtime Beaulieu Vineyard winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, vineyard pioneer Agoston Haraszthy, and Napa Valley pioneering vintners Charles Krug and Gustave Niebaum.

Last year, CIA officials kept the nomination process in house. This year's candidates were nominated and elected by wine writers W. Blake Gray, Toni Allegra, John Olney, Sara Schneider, Leslie Sbrocco, Paul Wagner, Alder Yarrow and myself.

The Vintners Hall of Fame induction dinner will be March 7 at the CIA's Greystone campus in St. Helena. Tickets are $250. Proceeds endow scholarships for the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the CIA. For more information, visit the center's Web site, e-mail or call (707) 255-7667.

Darrell Corti is in San Francisco today foraging for Austrian wine and wasn't immediately available for comment.

January 16, 2008
Chocolate With A Tequila Chaser


Midtown Sacramento's thriving culinary scene got two bright additions in recent days - Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates and Azul, a Mexican cafe and tequila bar. Ginger Elizabeth Powers, shown here in her small but busy L Street shop, is cranking out all sorts of exotic chocolates, but tequila enthusiasts will have to wait until Friday before they can belly up to the Azul bar for a margarita. That's when Carlos Ulloa, also seen here, and his brother Jose Ulloa are to get their tequila inventory and their liquor license. In the meantime, however, their kitchen is going full blast.

At Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates, Powers, former dessert chef at Masque Ristorante in El Dorado Hills, is producing chocolate treats that range from the everyday (bittersweet chocolate bar, chocolate-chip cookies, chocolate covered candied almonds) to the esoteric (gianduja cake, cafe cremeaux, Parisian macaroons in flavors like espresso and almond). Sometimes, she combines the familiar with the unfamiliar, as with her hot chocolate, available in four versions, from milk chocolate to "Oaxacan spicy." On any given day, she will have a dozen or so individual chocolates, including such flavors as lychee rose, raspberry, peppermint, creme brulee, toasted coconut, Meyer lemon and peanut butter. And she's already putting up Valentine's Day gift baskets.

At Azul, the brothers Ulloa, born in Jalisco but longtime Sacramento residents, are calling upon traditional family recipes for many of the dishes on their sweeping menu. They're counting on their tortilla soup with pasilla chile peppers, the carne asada with grilled red onions and a chile ancho sauce, the chile relleno, the housemade tamales and a ceviche of red snapper and shrimp to quickly emerge as signature dishes. And just wait, says Carlos Ulloa, until you get a taste of the margarita made with ancho chile powder and blackberry. The brothers will be stocking around 30 tequilas, all based on blue agave.

Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates, 1801 L St., is open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays; (916)706-1738.

Azul, 1050 20th St., is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m.-1:30 a.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 9 a.m.-1:30 a.m. Saturdays, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays (breakfast is to be served 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays and Sundays); (916) 447-4040.

January 14, 2008
Higher Price, More Flavor?

The higher the price of a wine, the better it tastes, right? A lot of people think that, and now a study verifies that if people think an expensive wine tastes better than a cheap wine it will. The operative word here is "think." The study, to be reported in tomorrow's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and reported today by, involved volunteers who overwhelmingly said they enjoyed wines they were told were expensive rather than wines they were told were cheap, even though the prices were fake. "Preference shown by...brain patterns were highest for wines with the most-inflated prices," says the report.

This got me to wondering whether judges at last week's San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition gave proportionally more gold medals to wines that were more than less expensive. Let's run the numbers: Of the 102 cabernet sauvignons to get a medal in the category where their price was up to $14.99, 12 got gold. Of the 100 cabernet sauvignons priced $45 or more, 17 got gold. That's not much of a disparity, indicating that judges weren't much influenced by the price of the category they were evaluating. And, of course, a higher-priced cabernet sauvignon should taste better than a less-expensive version. It also shows that some mighty fine cabernet sauvignon at attractive prices is out there. Two of them are local wines, the Bogle Vineyards 2005 California Cabernet Sauvignon ($11) and the McManis Family Vineyards 2006 California Cabernet Sauvignon ($10). Two Buck Chuck didn't fare badly, either, getting a silver medal for the Charles Shaw Winery 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($2, at Trader Joe's stores).

January 11, 2008
Cloverdale's Best

With 75 wines in front of each of them, Luigi Velo, owner of The Italian Importing Co. in Sacramento, and Ralph Kunkee, professor emeritus of enology at UC Davis, joined other judges of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in Cloverdale earlier today for the event's final task, selecting the sweepstakes wines.

With a record 4,235 wines, the Chronicle competition is the largest judging of American wine in the country, at least until other commercial wine competitions get under way in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston later this year.

At any rate, here are the sweepstakes winners from the Chronicle judging:

Sparkling wine: A tie between the Gloria Ferrer 2000 Carneros Royal Cuvee Brut ($32) and the Mumm Napa non-vintage Napa Valley Blanc de Noirs ($19).

White wine: Merryvale Vineyards 2005 Carneros Chardonnay ($35).

Pink wine: Barnard Griffin 2007 Columbia Valley Rose of Sangiovese ($12).

Red wine: A tie between the Rodney Strong Vineyards 2005 Russian River Valley Jane's Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir ($45) and the Savannah Chanelle Vineyards 2005 Sonoma Coast Armagh Vineyard Pinot Noir ($40).

Dessert or other specialty wine: S3X 2006 Russian River Valley Late Harvest White Riesling ($38).

The 75 wines qualified for the sweepstakes round by being declared the best in their individual classes. The Chronicle crowns more best-of-class wines than most competitions because it groups varietals and styles by price brackets, such as zinfandels up to $14.99, zinfandels $15 to $24.99, and so forth. Of the 75, six were from wineries close to Sacramento. I plan to report on those and on other aspects of the judging in the Dunne on Wine column in The Bee's Taste section this coming Wednesday. Right now, I have to try to scrub all this purple from my teeth.

January 10, 2008
Zinfandel, I Love You, But...

Didn't I say just yesterday that I'm a zinfandel partisan? I did. And I still am, though our panel at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in Cloverdale just finished judging Class 413, zinfandels priced $35 and higher. Zinfandels $35 and higher? My gosh, zinfandel long has been the wine of the people, easily accessible both economically and stylistically. If Berkeley were to declare a wine of the city, it would be zinfandel. So how did we get to this state where you can go to a wine competition and find so many zinfandels so expensive? Greed? Perhaps, but I'd rather think these high prices more likely reflect the prevailing marketing belief that consumers increasingly equate quality with cost. I'm not convinced that if that's the case today it will last long, especially as consumers get burned out by the harsh tannins, burning alcohol and dubious ageability of many of these powerhouse zinfandels. I also worry for the wherewithal of zinfandel producers who still turn out commendably accessible wine at an accessible price. I fret that they will get lost in the dust stirred up by the masses clamboring for excessively expensive zinfandels under the mistaken notion that if they cost more they must be better.

But I digress. Just let me say that the price wouldn't bother me if only the substance were there to justify it. In too many instances, it wasn't. Too many wines were excessively tannic and alcoholic, without inviting and caressing smells and flavors, the grace and charm that long has made zinfandel such an appealing wine. We tasted 52 zinfandels in this category. Out of that group, we gave 17 gold medals. To me, that's an astounding number for the overall quality of the group, but I plead guilty to finding several gold-worthy wines in the lineup, though not all the wines I thought deserved gold got it, and several that did just didn't seduce me. I guess that's why you have five-person panels, each member of which has his or her experience and perspective to draw from.

I'm looking forward to learning the identity of the zinfandel that won best of class from our panel. Right now, we only know it as wine No. 54. It won on a 3-2 vote. The wine that got the two votes was No. 1. As fellow panelist Kent Rosenblum remarked, how many times does the last vote for best of class come down to the first and last wines tasted? Not to say that we wasted our time tasting all those zinfandels in between. We learned, among other things, that too many zinfandels are just too massive. Once again, buyer beware.

January 9, 2008
In the Clover at Cloverdale

chronIMGP2450_edited.jpgSo, I check in to the 25th annual Cloverdale Citrus Fair Wine Competition, now known as the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and find that I'm on a panel assigned chardonnays and zinfandels this first day of the judging. I'm pumped, not only because I'm a zinfandel partisan but because the chardonnay class our panel has been assigned is the category priced $30 and above.

OK, at that level the chardonnay not only should be drinkable but downright forceful and elegant. We weren't disappointed. Of the 64 chardonnays we tasted, 18 got gold medals, one of which ultimately was voted best of class, qualifying for the sweepstakes round Friday. It's a blind tasting, so at this time we have no idea who made the wine. To us, it's just No. 67 in Class 213. Here are my notes on the wine from the first round: "Smoky, ripe, wiry, kind of thin but nonetheless with varietal character." I didn't think it warranted more than a silver medal, but it got a gold.
In the best of class round I said, "Dry, elegant, Chablis-like, fitting for a dinner party where all the guests are open, non-defensive and highly literate; I'm not there, of course, but I can dream." Remember, we were spitting throughout the judging, but still....

For the record, my fellow panelists are Bob Foster, assistant editor of the wine newsletter California Grapevine and recently retired deputy attorney general for the State of California; Kristi Mohar, wine manager for the Pacific Market group of grocery stores in Sonoma County, Kent Rosenblum, owner/winemaker of Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda; and Mark Chandler, executive director of the Lodi/Woodbridge Winegrape Commission.

Tomorrow, we start off with rieslings, followed by more zinfandel. People who live in Cloverdale call it heaven. I'm almost convinced.

January 8, 2008
Napa's Newest Culinary Gem

mikeIMGP2428_edited.jpgEn route to Cloverdale this afternoon for the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, I stopped in Napa Valley for a taste of...tea.

With casual ceremony, David Campbell, shown here, steeped a sample of the Chinese tea "da hong pao" (scarlet robe) in his newly opened shop, TillermanTea, one of the first tenants of Oxbow Public Market, a massive collection of specialty food shops next to Copia: The American Center for Food, Wine & The Arts on the edge of downtown Napa.

Steve Carlin, who for 20 years ran the successful Oakville Grocery group of markets before he put together the popular Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco, is the driving force behind the $11-million Oxbow Public Market. He also was on the premises today, showing off the tenants who have been moving in since the building opened in mid-December.

In addition to TillermanTea, the first Oxbow businesses include Anette's Chocolates (where else you going to find "chardonnay brittle"?); Pica Pica Maize Kitchen, a Venezuelan fast-food concept that includes corn in virtually every dish; Whole Spice, with about 250 herbs and spices imported and often ground by owners Shuli and Ronit Madmone; Five Dot Ranch of Susanville, purveyors of naturally produced beef; photographer Steven Rothfeld's Kitchen Library, devoted in large part to food books (he did the photos for Biba Caggiano's "Biba's Italy," as well as for books by Frances Mayes and Patricia Wells); Heritage, specializing in culinary antiques; Fete (entertaining accessories); The Olive Press (olive oils); Three Twins Ice Cream from San Rafael, where the offbeat flavors include "dad's cardamom" and "lemon cookie;" and Michael Mondavi's Folio Enoteca & Winery, a combination wine shop, cafe and working winery, which at 80 square feet is believed to be the nation's smallest bonded winemaking facility.

And there's more to come, including a massive branch of San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, an offshoot of the Santa Barbara seafood supplier Kanaloa; an expansive version of the modern diner Taylor's Automatic Refresher; the butcher shop Fatted Calf; and a south-valley wing of St. Helena's enduring Model Bakery. Starting this spring, regional farmers will occupy 10 outside bays to sell whatever they've grown.

Wait, there's more: Carlin is talking with the developers of Sacramento's railyard project to put an even larger version of the public market there. Nothing's been committed to paper, but he's one assured guy who has pulled off a long string of successful projects in unlikely settings. "I'm very confident we'll work it out," he says of his prospects for a similar public market in Sacramento.

In the meantime, he has his hands full with finishing Oxbow Public Market, open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily until Feb. 1, when the hours will be 9 a.m.-7 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays. It's at 610 First St., Napa.

January 7, 2008
Baker Powers On

After a four-day drought, fans of the pretzels and breads at Freeport Bakery may be able to resume getting their fix tomorrow. Friday's storm, which left thousands of people in the Sacramento area without power as winds toppled trees across power lines, also interrupted the bakery's regular routine.

As the seriousness of the situation dawned on baker/owner Walter Goetzeler, he retrieved an emergency generator he and his wife Marlene had in storage, hooked it up Friday, fired it up that night and got back to business on a limited routine. "We can't run the dishwasher and brew coffee at the same time," said Marlene Goetzeler Monday afternoon as SMUD crews continued to try to restore energy to the popular bakery. Nonetheless, the Goetzelers and their crew, which relied on flashlights and cell phones to keep customers abreast of the status of their orders, successfully baked and delivered six wedding cakes Saturday.

The store closed Friday, but reopened Saturday and has remained open despite the restricted baking. The Goetzelers hope full service will be restored sometime this evening, with the complete inventory back in production early Tuesday.

In other Freeport Bakery news, the Goetzelers are to break ground this spring on new quarters at 19th and Broadway, but it may be two years before the site is ready for them to relocate.

January 7, 2008
America's Wine Superstore

David Trone expects to sell three million cases of wine this year, many of them in Roseville, where he doesn't even have a store.

That will change in two to three weeks, when he opens the first California branch of Total Wine & More, the largest priviately owned group of wine retailers in the nation. The country's 51st outlet, it will be at 5791 Five Star Drive just north of Highway 65 and west of Stanford Ranch Road in Roseville, as reported here Friday.

Since then, I've talked with Trone, president of Total Wine, who with his brother Robert founded the chain in Delaware in 1991, to get a better handle on what wine enthusiasts in the Sacramento area can expect at the Roseville store.

"We offer the lowest prices in the market. Wines will be priced at Costco levels, which traditionally are the lowest. On top of that, we'll have the best selection, with over 8,000 wines, 2,000 spirits and 1,000 beers. We'll offer a better choice than anyone else in the market. But the real key will be the service. Our men and women on the floor will be in white shirts and ties, and they can talk about the right wine with the right food at the right price," says Trone in explaining the company's business strategy.

He said he and his brother have been scouting California for sites - up to now the group has been concentrated largely along the Eastern seaboard and in the South - and were drawn to Roseville because of its fast growth, high family incomes and the choice location, which he anticipates to be as attractively accessible to residents of Sacramento, Marysville, Elk Grove, Lake Tahoe and Reno as well as the immediate vicinity.

Sometimes pictured as the Wal-Mart of wine merchandising, though more upscale and personable, Total Wine could pose a threat to small independent wine shops springing up in and about Roseville, Rocklin and Lincoln, but Trone doesn't see it that way. "The small stores will continue to do a great job and succeed. They often have locations with an advantage, and if the owners know their patrons and give great service, they will continue to succeed," he says.

Total Wine's stiffest competition likely will come from the six branches of Beverages & More (BevMo) in the area, but Trone is undaunted by the challenge. "BevMo is more a party store than a wine store. That's where you go to get what you need for a party, like gifts, foods and accessories. They don't have our selection, and they have no service to speak of. We have lower prices across the board, and our stores are twice as big as theirs. We're a fine-wine store, not a bare-bones party store like BevMo. We're America's wine superstore, with 8,000 (individual choices) of wine. BevMo has less than 3,000. Our whole ambience is more upscale. Our interior is more like Whole Foods Market."

Residents in and about Roseville soon will find out for themselves.

January 4, 2008
Priming the Palate

Wine merchants have all sorts of ways to find the wines they stock. They tour wine regions, they attend industry tastings, they meet with distributors and winery representatives to taste samples.

Every month or so, Sacramento wine merchant Darrell Corti gathers up all the samples he's been sent, lines them up on a table in the back of his Folsom Boulevard store, and invites his staff and a few fellow wine enthusiasts to taste through the assortment. Big buckets for spitting are scattered on the floor about the table, a forklift is apt to be parked nearby, and every once in awhile a staff member not involved in the tasting will crank up the machine that flattens cardboard boxes. It's a cold space in winter, hot in summer, but the lighting is adequate and the range of wines almost invariably is provocative.

All participants are given a typed list of the night's wines. They pour themselves a taste, spit, maybe doublecheck the bottle for more information, and then jot down some notes. Ultimately, however, it's Corti's decision alone on what he will order.

Last night's tasting included slightly more than 100 wines. I didn't taste all of them, but I did many. I liked several, but especially hope that Corti decides to stock the glorious Terralsole 2001 Brunello di Montalcino, one mouth-filling and persistent sangiovese (if he does, expect to pay between $60 and $70, its price elsewhere); the rich and powerful Patz & Hall 2006 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($42 at the winery); the expressive and multi-layered Hamel Wines 2005 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (price uncertain); the floral and fleshy Boeger Winery 2005 Reserve Petite Sirah, about as pure a statement of the varietal as you likely are to find ($30 at the winery); and the first California wine from the 2007 vintage I've tasted, the sunny and refreshing Vino Noceto 2007 Rosato di Sangiovese (not yet listed on the winery Web site, but usually around $13).

After that, I feel primed to join the first major wine competition of the year, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition at Cloverdale, which gets under way Wednesday.

January 4, 2008
Roseville Won't Want for Wine

Total Wine & More, one of the country's larger and faster growing wine chains, is expanding into California for the first time with a store about to open in Roseville.

When it does, it's likely to be the 800-pound gorilla on the local wine-marketing scene. The new store, to be at 5791 Five Star Drive just north of Highway 65 and west of Stanford Ranch Road in Roseville, will cover 25,000 square feet. The inventory will include more than 8,000 varieties of wine, more than 1,000 beers and more than 2,000 spirits, says company spokesman Jeff Bartlett. The opening is anticipated in two to three weeks.

The Roseville store will be the 51st in the chain. The company originated in 1991 when brothers David and Robert Trone bought two small retail wine stores in Delaware. Total Wine & More, whose headquarters now are in Maryland, has concentrated its growth up to this time along the East Coast and in the South.

Bartlett deferred questions about why the company chose Roseville to president David Trone, who isn't to return to his office until Monday. Stay tuned.

January 4, 2008
Family First, Says Baker

Sometimes, too much success can be, well, too much. That looks to be the case with downtown Sacramento's Real Pie Co. A hit since it opened last February, Real Pie Co. will sell its last "seasonally inspired pastry" on Saturday, Jan. 19, says proprietor Kira O'Donnell.

In what she acknowledges was an "agonizing decision," O'Donnell is closing the shop to devote more time and energy to her family, which includes two youngsters. The success of the shop, she indicates, was drawing too much of her attention to the potential detriment of her family's well being.

"It has been an amazing, exhilarating, fulfilling year, and I have never been happier in my professional life," says O'Donnell. "But my involvement in this project has taken a real toll on my family, and now I have to take responsibility for repairing the damage." Over the past year, the success of the shop allowed her to add seven employees, but the workload, which included finding locally produced fruits and other ingredients to feature in her pies, was too much.

On the up side, she plans to return to commercial pie baking in three years, when her children are older. "I'm keeping all my equipment. I will do it again," she vows. In the meantime, get your Shaker lemon, chocolate pudding and Cazuela pies now.

January 3, 2008
Suzie Burger Kicks Off The New Dining Year

IMGP2401_edited.jpgThe first big raindrops of the first big storm of the season didn't deter dozens of hamburger enthusiasts from lining up this noon for the first big restaurant opening of the year.

Suzie Burger, the latest culinary adventure of brothers Fred and Matt Haines, opened at 11 a.m. today in a former Orbit gas station at 29th and P. Within an hour, virtually all 86 inside seats were occupied.

Benny Ogata, son of the founders of the original Suzie Burger in south Sacramento, now a partner in the new venture, was one of the cooks filling the immediate neighborhood with the scent of sizzling burgers. The Haines brothers, inspired by the Suzie Burger they frequented while growing up in Land Park, have been working on the project for more than a year. As proprietors of 33rd Street Bistro, Riverside Clubhouse and several other restaurants in the Sacramento area, they are better known for more upscale and pricier fare.

Their goal with Suzie Burger, the prototype of an anticipated chain, is to tap into the area's ravenous hunger for hamburgers, but at modest prices. The basic Suzie Burger is $1.95, the basic cheeseburger $2.95. All are served with dill pickle and carrot sticks. In addition, diners have the option of adding grilled onions, pickled jalapenos, sauerkraut, pastrami, chili and a fried egg, ranging from 45 cents to $1.95 each.

The menu also includes hot dogs, chili and five cheesesteak sandwiches, all made with either steak or chicken, except for the vegetarian version. Beverages include "lemon squeeze" and milkshakes. Soft-serve ice cream cones also are available.

The cafe's red-and-white color scheme is brightened with colorful "Suzie" caricatures by Sacramento graphics artist Matt Rallens.

Suzie Burger is to be open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays and Saturdays.

January 2, 2008
Assessing The First Harvest of 2008

I spent part of the holiday weekend reading 64 articles, columns, essays and blog postings from aspiring wine writers across the country. This was all part of the process to see which of them will be granted fellowships to attend the 2008 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley next month.

The exercise wasn't far removed from evaluating wine itself in a similarly structured blind competition. As I went through the writing I found myself asking whether I should judge this writer on the basis of this performance alone or look for its potential as it matures. And how much value should be given the long, weighty and complex writing compared with the light, pleasant and easily accessible?

The material ranged from a scholarly dissertation complete with footnotes and bibliography to casual blog postings. I sat back several times to reflect on what the pieces seemed to say of the future of wine writing, and couldn't come to any confident conclusions. The most encouraging sign that it will improve was the earnest tone, inquisitive attitude and selfless intent to empower readers that characterized much of the writing. On the flip side, flashes of humor were rare, enterprise reporting was scarce, and several pieces had an oddly distant voice, with little intimacy or personality. Refreshingly, however, arrogance and smugness were virtually non-existent. Overall, the outlook for more vibrant and diverse wine writing is encouraging.

For more information on this year's symposium, visit its Web site.

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