March 28, 2008
Shady Lady Turns Heads


A certain shady lady helped liven up the old Gold Rush settlement of Plymouth last evening. It was the Windwalker Vineyard & Winery 2005 Speed Vineyard Primitivo Shady Lady, the only entry to win a double-gold medal in the zinfandel and primitivo classes at the first Fiddletown Heritage Day Wine Competition. (A double-gold medal is bestowed on a wine when all judges on a panel - in this instance five persons - concur that an entry deserves gold.)

This was something of a surprise, given that the small and sparsely developed Fiddletown American Viticultural Area is known primarily for its zesty zinfandels, of which seven were entered in the judging. One did get a gold, the dense but sprightly Martella Vineyards 2005 Fiddletown Zinfandel, but as a group the zinfandels weren't as strawberry-tinged and light of foot as usually seen out of the appellation. Zinfandel and primitivo, incidentally, are two names for the same variety, according to DNA analysis, but most competitions continue to group them into separate classes.

The competition drew a total 22 wines, from sauvignon blanc to petite sirah. The Fiddletown Preservation Society sanctioned the judging to help promote both the fourth annual Heritage Day on April 5 and the area's wines. Most of the wines in the competition will be available for tasting at Heritage Day, also to include western music, cowboy poetry and talks about Fiddletown's history. Intent of the gathering is to raise funds to continue the restoration and preservation of the remaining buildings of Fiddletown's Chinatown.

I'll be writing more of the Fiddletown competition for an upcoming Dunne on Wine column in The Bee's Taste section, but in the meantime Windwalker's Shady Lady, which sells for $30, can be found only at the winery, which is along Perry Creek Road in the Fair Play district of southwestern El Dorado County.

March 27, 2008
Palms for Palms

Swap Sacramento for Maui? Who would make such a move? Philip Wang is. The executive chef at Mason's since the restaurant opened in the fall of 2005, Wang is leaving for Maui, where he's teaming up with celebrated chef/restaurateur Peter Merriman to open Merriman's Maui at Kapalua.

"I loved working for the brothers," said Wang of his time at Mason's, owned by siblings Mason, Curtis and Alan Wong, "but I have this opportunity to do my own thing." He also will join Merriman in building another new restaurant on Kaua'i, not scheduled to open until about a year from now.

At Mason's, meanwhile, John Gurnee, who has been Wang's sous chef since the restaurant opened, is the new executive chef. A Sacramento native - Jesuit High School, class of 1995 - Gurnee got his formal cooking training at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and worked for Paragary's Restaurant Group before joining Mason's. He's bringing aboard another Paragary's veteran, Rob Lind, as his sous chef.

Gurnee says he will retain Wang's contemporary style of California and New American cooking, but he is working on retooling menus in a move to lower prices. "We will continue the same great food with the same pristine ingredients, but we'll also try to reduce prices to attract a wider audience with the economy the way it is right now," says Gurnee.

March 27, 2008
Party's Over at Macaroni Grill

The Sacramento branch of Romano's Macaroni Grill has closed, and officials of Brinker International in Dallas, which owns the chain, are mum on the matter other than to indicate that the restaurant wasn't performing up to expectations.

Coincidentally, however, officials of Technomic Inc. in Chicago, which tracks and consults for the foodservice trade, have released the results of a consumer survey that could provide insight into Macaroni Grill's troubles.

Several casual-dining restaurant chains are facing "subtle and complex challenges that extend beyond the current economic climate," the survey found.

For one, chain restaurants look to be victims of their own success, having grown so fast in response to a perceived eagerness among Americans to eat out more and more often. "Many chains have overbuilt units, with expansion rates averaging five percent over the past four years even as sales growth was slowing," says Technomic president Ron Paul in interpreting the results of the survey.

"On top of that, many consumers tell us that traditional casual dining chains lack differentiation, that 'they all look alike,'" adds Paul.

On the other hand, more than a third of the consumers participating in the survey said they are turning to independent and fast-foot restaurants as a substitute for the casual chain restaurants they previously patronized.

Though other Romano's Macaroni Grills about the country also have closed, Maureen Locus, a spokeswoman for Brinker International, said the Folsom and Roseville branches of the restaurant are to remain open, at least for the near future. The Sacramento unit has been at 2001 Alta Arden Expressway.

March 26, 2008
Northern Italy in Southern El Dorado

Can an acupuncturist who has studied and practiced Asian medicine for a quarter of a century - aside from six years living off the land in the Alaskan wilderness - find happiness and success as restaurateur and chef in a remote corner of El Dorado County?

We'll find out starting April 18, which is when Dr. Giovanni Gaudio and his wife, Sheri Brown-Gaudio, take over the dormant Fair Play Bistro in Fair Play and reopen it as Bocconato Trattoria, specializing in the regional cuisines of northern Italy.

In recent years, the couple, who live in Mount Aukum, also part of the Fair Play region, have been teaching food and wine classes, leading culinary tours to Italy and consulting for restaurants under their company Gaudio Culinary.

In addition to his medical practice, Giovanni Gaudio, a second-generation Californian who grew up in East Sacramento's Italian neighborhood, has long studied the anthropology and practice of Italian cooking, including taking classes at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. At Bocconato Trattoria - "bocconato" translates as "mouthful" - he will prepare dishes representative of Tuscany, Piemonte, Liguria, Veneto and other regions of northern Italy.

The extensive tentative opening menu includes such dishes as roasted duck breast and pancetta on rosemary skewers, turkey meatballs with a citrus ginger sauce, a timbale of Dungeness crab and avocado finished with housemade chili and wasabi oils, the classic bistecca Fiorentina, Venetian pork ribs with a spicy peanut sauce, and a whole boned chicken stuffed with sausage and glazed with apricot.

Sheri Brown-Gaudio, an educational psychologist and freelance writer, also is to be actively involved in the restaurant, which will be stylistically casual. Bocconato Trattoria, at Fair Play Road and Perry Creek Road, will be open 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday through Sunday, and 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Mondays; (530) 620-2493 or

March 24, 2008
Yesterday, Nails; Today, Wine


Grape vines are budding in the Delta, and so are opportunities to discover the region's wines. Clarksburg's landmark Husick Hardware & General Store, which stood idle for 18 years, is open again, but this time to cater to visitors meandering through the area in search of the appellation's growing number of wineries and wines.

Several of those wineries, however, are small and remote family operations without tasting rooms. That's where Husick Hardware comes into play. Business partners Dennis Sheya and Skip Seebeck have restored the massive structure, which dates from the late 1880s, and reopened it as a wine collective. Right now, it's open for wine sales only, with the releases of 10 Delta wineries stocked in bins. In two months or so they hope to have the licenses needed to also run it as a centralized tasting room. Not all the Delta's wines will be poured simultaneously, but the two expect to offer visitors themed flights.

By then, the store also is expected to be operating as a deli and coffee bar. The two want to be able to provide visitors with a glass of wine to go with a sandwich, but the menu will be limited to avoid conflicting with another Clarksburg landmark, Dinky Diner, which has opened for the season along the Sacramento River just a few paces north of Husick Hardware, which for now is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

March 24, 2008
One-Block Restaurant Row


With two new additions, the block of J Street between 27th and 28th in midtown Sacramento has been given over almost entirely to restaurants.

One newcomer is Peter Torza's I Dragoni Pizzeria, basically a bright expansion of his adjoining Gianni's Trattoria. I Dragoni is more casual, concentrating on pizzas, salads, sandwiches and coffee drinks, initially for a lunch and late-night clientele. The opening menu includes meatball, caprese, muffuletta, turkey and egg sandwiches, as well as pepperoni, mushroom and seafood pizzas. Torza chose the name I Dragoni because his initial design plan called for twin wood-burning pizza ovens that were to look like fire-breathing dragons. That plan, however, didn't pencil out financially. He's now planning to install a wood-burning oven in Gianni's to provide pizzas for both restaurants. I Dragoni, 2724 J St., is open initially for Italian-style breakfasts 8 a.m.-2 p.m. daily, lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. daily, and pizzas 10 p.m.-3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The phone is (916) 443-4000.

On the other side of Gianni's Trattoria, the American-theme restaurant G.V. Hurley's will have a "controlled opening" starting Thursday. Reservations will be required through the weekend as the staff adapts to the new facility, though it may be able to accommodate some walk-ins, says general manager Erick Johnson. The restaurant's opening menu runs to traditional and contemporary American cooking with a Southern accent. Shrimp will be served with grits and tasso ham, barbecued pulled pork will be accompanied with cornbread, spring rolls will be filled with smoked brisket, and the fried chicken will be grouped with roasted sweet potatoes and red-eyed gravy. Despite the throwback aspects of several dishes, executive chef David Hill's menu also has an environmental and health consciousness. He's using only natural meats and sustainably caught fish, and no ingredients with trans fats. Starting next Monday, G.V. Hurley's is to be open 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. It's at 2718 J St.

March 20, 2008
Last Night's Wines

Most every night when we eat at home, we open a bottle of wine, sometimes two. I take notes on these wines, and rank them on a four-star scale. Those that get three stars or more, I write about. Most, however, get two stars or fewer, then they get forgotten.

But last night's wines were surprising exceptions. I gave each three and a half stars. It was almost as if the luck of the Irish were catching up with me two days after St. Patrick's Day.

The white was the Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery 2006 Russian River Valley Fiorella Chardonnay ($36). This is one aromatic and flavorful medium-bodied chardonnay. Smell and flavor ran to pears, lemons and a jolt of nutmeg, the latter probably from the mix of new and older French oak barrels in which the wine was aged. I'm not a big fan of chardonnay, but this one got my attention for its seamless blend of tradition, elegance and a California brazenness that was astutely toned down for a change. In a word, refreshing. It also was rare in having the fruit, structure and acidity to actually go with asparagus soup, a notoriously difficult wine match. The winery suggests it be poured as an aperitif or with mild cheeses, light pastas and light seafood dishes.

The red was the Greg Norman Estates 2005 Lake County Red Hills Zinfandel ($15). Fresh, lithe and youthful, this is one enthusiastic and immediately likeable zinfandel. The fruit is all fresh raspberries and blackberries, dusted generously with freshly ground black pepper. It's dry and medium-bodied, and its 15 percent alcohol isn't at all harsh. It has the backbone and fruit to stand up to kung pao chicken, which is what we had with it, and the winery recommends it be poured at brunch with spinach, mushroom and white Cheddar omelets, savory cranberry scones, and wedges of fresh melon wrapped with prosciutto.

March 20, 2008
Linking Logs

This blog this week got some new bells and whistles, but the two I especially want to point out are the lists of links just to the right. One takes readers to wine sites, the other to dining sites. Blogs commonly have these sorts of lists, but too many are too long, and don't highlight the most interesting and helpful sites. I've tried to sidestep that issue by choosing those Web sites and blogs that I read most often and find the most provocative. Why should someone in Sacramento be interested in what Andy Perdue in Washington state (The Wine Knows) or Mark Fisher in Ohio (Uncorked) have to say of wine? Well, they don't write only of wines to be found in their backyards, but often take on issues of broader interest, and in ways not only enlightening but entertaining.

Also note that in the Dining list is a link to the page where readers can find out how a restaurant shapes up following inspection by the public-health officials of the County of Sacramento's Environmental Management Department.

March 20, 2008
March Madness: Heads Up

March Madness just is getting under way, and already California is down to one contender. Hold on, this version of March Madness isn't about hoops, but hops. In a bit of inspired fun and interactive journalism, Washington Post beer columnist Greg Kitsock is overseeing Beer Madness, a bracketed tournament that started out with 32 competing beers, including three from California. After the first round, only one California brew remains in contention, Stone Pale Ale by Stone Brewing Co. of Escondido. The other two Californians, Trader Joe's Bohemian Lager and Anchor Liberty Ale, were eliminated early on, the Anchor by Stone.

The beers are organized in four brackets - dark, ales, lagers and "specialty and fruit." Kitsock has assembled a panel of judges to help him taste the beers to decide which move on and which get eliminated. Readers can weigh in with their own votes. Interestingly, in the head-to-head matchup of Anchor Liberty Ale and Stone Pale Ale, readers voted for the Anchor by a margin of 60.1 percent to 39.9 percent. Also in the popular voting, Trader Joe's Bohemian Lager lost to Raven Special Lager by a narrow margin of 51 percent to 49 percent. Raven is brewed by Baltimore-Washington Beer Works of Baltimore.

If the field looks heavily seeded with Eastern brands, well, the selection no doubt reflects the beers available in and about Washington, D.C. The Sweet 16 are to be whittled down to the Elite Eight this weekend. Go, Stoners.

March 19, 2008
Concessionaires Ready Their Pitch

Here's another reason I'm not a professional baseball scout: A year ago, when the Sacramento River Cats introduced their starting lineup of that season's concession foods, I picked the tall and muscular "Sicilian po' boy sandwich" to be Rookie of the Year.

I looked forward to becoming reacquainted with the big guy today when the River Cats unveiled this year's lineup of concession foods. Alas, it wasn't around. Though promising at the outset of play last year, the po' boy quickly faded, disappointed concessionaires and fans alike, and soon got shipped out, says Grant Miliate, executive chef for Raley Field's food and beverage operator, Centerplate. "The sales weren't there, so we dropped it." A cold and cruel game, baseball.

But spring draws near, and hope once again springs about the diamond. This year's food lineup at Raley Field is loaded with a whole bunch of other promising rookies. The "baseball burger" ($7.75), half a pound of ground chuck with grilled red onions and a red-pepper relish, looks like it could be around awhile, even if it is shaped as an oval. The "garlic steak sandwich" ($8), marinated with Italian herbs, served in a grilled bun saturated with butter, and finished with grilled red onions and arugula, looks like it has the power to last into extra innings. But despite my sorry forecast from a year ago, I'm putting my money on the hot pastrami sandwich ($7.75) as this season's Rookie of the Year. Despite the pastrami sandwich's noble lineage, I've never been much of a fan. Too much bulk, too little finesse, too often. But the one being introduced at Raley Field has more going for it than most - lean yet tender pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and thousand-island dressing, all layered with considerate balance between slices of fetching marble rye bread.

I'm sticking with the hot pastrami sandwich even though it wasn't generating as much buzz at today's lunch as the most highly priced rookie on the scene, a sweet and creamy crab sandwich that will sell for $12. A mix of Dungeness and rock crab, blended with mayonnaise and seasonings and served between slices of buttered and toasted garlic sourdough, the sandwich was inspired by a similar treat at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Though it costs $15 there, it nonetheless looked popular enough to draw a crowd here, especially at $3 less, figures Miliate.

Two themes characterize the dietary changes that baseball fans will find at River Cats games this year. One is the expanded beef offerings, as represented by the hot pastrami sandwich, the garlic steak sandwich and the baseball burger, among other choices.

The other is the park's new slate of "eco-friendly" menu items - dishes made at least in part with locally produced and either organic or naturally raised ingredients. One is a chicken-breast sandwich made with hormone-free meat from Fulton Valley Farms in Sonoma County ($7.50). Natural-raised chicken also goes into the new "Buffalo chicken salad" ($7.50), which gives diners two jolts of spiciness, one in the wing sauce on the chicken, the other the chipotle-chile-pepper dressing on the side. There's also a portobello-mushroom sandwich ($7.50), and a hamburger made with antibiotic- and hormone-free beef from Niman Ranch of Oakland ($7.50).

Raley Field's hot-dog lineup consists entirely of seasoned veterans, though a sausage infused with jalapeno chile peppers is expected to be ready to play by late spring. The park's weekly $1-hot-dog night, however, is moving from Thursdays to Fridays at the urging of parents who want to take advantage of the promotion on an evening not followed by a school day.

The River Cats will start rolling out the new concession lineup when they play a pre-season scrimmage with the Stockton Ports on April 2. The season gets under way in earnest at Raley Field when the River Cats play host to the Las Vegas 51s on April 11.

March 17, 2008
Reining in the Rhone Rangers

A few first impressions from yesterday's 11th annual Rhone Rangers Wine Tasting in San Francisco:

- A year ago, I came away from the tasting convinced that blends rather than varietals show best the efforts of American winemakers to use grapes long associated with France's Rhone Valley. While I tasted a few standout syrahs, grenaches, carignanes and the like yesterday, blends that used three or more Rhone varieties were the most consistently impressive wines. This is the way the grapes customarily are used in the Rhone Valley, by the way, with some wines consisting of up to 13 different grape varieties. American vintners prefer to market their wines more simply, by a single varietal name, but there looks to be something about Rhone grape varieties where when mixed together they produce much more intriguing wines, whether in France or the United States.

- That said, I also came away from the tasting with a new appreciation for syrah as a varietal, but with a caveat: You increase your odds of finding a memorable syrah if you stick to producers who have been working with the grape the longest and who seem to spend as much time in the vineyard coddling the fruit as they do in the cellar refining it into wine. Based on yesterday's tasting, those brands include Domaine de la Terre Rouge, Lagier Meredith Vineyard, Copain Wine Cellars, Holly's Hill Vineyards, Edmunds St. John, Domaine Serene, Peay Vineyards, Morgan Winery, Io Wines.

- Despite my belief that the future of Rhone Valley grapes in the United States will rest largely on blends, I also was pleasantly surprised by the rising number and the quality of varietal wines made with varieties other than syrah, most notably viognier, mourvedre and grenache.

- Though I don't have numbers to back up this hunch, I suspect directors of the Rhone Rangers were disappointed by yesterday's turnout. It was considerably lighter than what I've seen in the same venue lately for tastings by Zinfandel Advocates & Producers and by the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The ease of getting up to the tasting tables because of the seemingly light turnout simply could have reflected poor marketing of the tasting, but sponsors also may be asking themselves a more worrisome question: Might consumers just not be much interested in the category? And if that's the case, why not? Another hunch: With few exceptions, producers of Rhone Valley wines have no hesitancy about charging surprisingly high prices for wines that many American consumers still are learning to understand. If that barrier were lowered, consumers stand to discover a class of wine that looks to be gaining strength with each year's tasting.

March 13, 2008
Copia: Chapter Three

Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts is being rattled by another shift in focus and a reshuffling of key personnel.

Friday, Copia directors are to announce formally that the center's president for the past three years, Arthur Jacobus, is leaving, along with the chief of marketing and development for the past four years, Larry Tsai.

"His leadership has been great," says Garry McGuire Jr. of Jacobus. McGuire is Copia's newly named president and CEO. He praised Jacobus for his organizational skills, his ability to raise funds and his efforts to clarify Copia's mission.

"But any organization needs different leadership at different times," notes McGuire, adding that Copia is about to launch an ambitious new effort to become a more proactive presence on the country's food and wine scene.

Negotiations are under way with unspecified potential corporate sponsors to reinvent Copia so visitors can expect a more interactive experience when they visit the center, and the complex also will be developing a greater online presence, possibly involving e-commerce, says McGuire.

McGuire's background is largely in high-tech marketing in Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Europe. He recently sold his European marketing company, Gyro International, and stepped down as CEO of Icon Internet Ventures in San Francisco and Paris, which helps luxury brands increase their online presence. (He remains Icon's chairman.)

In its six-year history, Copia has struggled to develop both a cohesive image and an enthusiastic following. Conceived largely by Napa Valley vintner Robert Mondavi as a vibrant fulcrum to heighten the understanding, appreciation and indulgence of the American culinary arts, it never fulfilled that lofty aspiration.

About 18 months ago it terminated about a third of its staff, slashed its budget by $3 million and sold five of its acres on the edge of downtown Napa. At that time, Jacobus indicated the center henceforth would focus less on food and culture and more on wine.

That's the mission Copia will retain and enhance, says McGuire. Copia still remains $70 million in debt, but it realized a slight profit last year and no additional employe terminations are anticipated, says McGuire. "We're in a real healthy position financially."

Copia officials also are negotiating with a developer to build a boutique hotel that would connect directly to the center and to construct on the site a "lifestyle" shopping center featuring high-end branded merchandise, says McGuire.

Copia officials also announced that they have hired high-profile wine guru Andrea Immer to be the center's first "dean of wine studies." Since the inception of Copia, Peter Marks has been its "senior vice president of wine." Marks is leaving to become "vice president of education" for Constellation Brands Inc., which owns Robert Mondavi Winery, among other producers.

March 12, 2008
Wine Competitions, The Next Stage

The guinea pigs had their tongues painted blue, the better to differentiate between their bumpy tastebuds and all the ridges, crevices and other stuff that makes up the organ that helps determine how we perceive this or that flavor.

Then the tongues were photographed, after which one of the coordinators did a quick and approximate count to see if the holder of the tongue likely is a "hypersensitive, sensitive or tolerant" taster.

This was all part of a grand experiment to determine whether a wine competition could be improved so the medals it awards would make more sense to consumers. The guinea pigs were wine judges at the first Lodi International Wine Awards, conducted yesterday at Hutchins Street Square performing arts center in Lodi.

The judging involved several other innovations. In contrast to the practice at most wine competitions in this country, judges didn't confer on the wines to reach any kind of consensus; their rankings were compiled individually and fed into computers for the final determination of awards. In most instances, they judged whole classes at a time, up to 40 wines, rather than flights of 10, as is the standard approach. They were given and urged to use a specially concocted solution to rinse their palates rather than nibble on the usual bread and beef. They were told not to take notes in hopes that this break from tradition would reduce mental fatigue.

"This is unlike any judging you've ever judged," G.M. "Pooch" Pucilowski, the competition's director, told the 30 judges at the outset. They agreed, with several indicating that they liked the novel approach, in large part because it speeded up the process and seemed to succeed at keeping them focused and alert.

How they - as well as consumers - react to the results remains to be seen; they're still being compiled today. In next Wednesday's Taste section in The Bee, I plan to report more on the competition, the physiology of tasting, and other aspects of wine appreciation.

March 8, 2008
On His Night, He's Atypically Quiet

Toasted at the outset as "a man for all seasons," Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti showed he also could be a man of surprisingly few words as he capped his hour in the Napa Valley spotlight last night.

As the evening's first inductee in this year's class of wine-industry luminaries to be enshrined in the Vintners Hall of Fame, Corti walked to the dais, said he was told he wouldn't have to say anything and wouldn't, gave a hearty "thank you very much" and returned to his table.

Just before that, Corti listened to Dr. Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America, praise him for his contributions to the deveopment of the California wine trade since joining his family's Corti Brothers grocery store in Sacramento in 1964.

"Darrell Corti has been a catalyst in the re-evaluation and renaissance of zinfandel, a leader in advocating wider use of Italian varieties of grapes in California, and has been integral to the rediscovery of the Sierra foothills as a fine wine growing region," said Ryan.

"Corti is an internationally sought after member of wine and olive oil tasting panels and has mentored a generation of seminal food and wine professionals with his impeccable taste and articulate discourse," he added.

Ryan also called Corti "often controversial," but not on this night.

Some 180 persons, more than 50 of them from Sacramento, attended the ceremonies at the CIA's Greystone campus in St. Helena.

Aside from the Sacramentans, several prominent players on the state's culinary scene interrupted Corti throughout the dinner to congratulate him and reminisce, including Bay Area radio personality Narsai David, Los Angeles wine merchant Steve Wallace (born on the same day as Corti, April 3, 1942), and Paul Draper, longtime winemaker at Ridge Vineyards of Cupertino.

Draper also was one of the night's inductees, along with the late John Daniel Jr., a progressive Napa Valley winemaker for three decades immediately after the repeal of Prohibition; the late brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo, whose E.&J. Gallo Winery of Modesto is one of the world's larger wine producers; Miljenko "Mike" Grgich, a Napa Valley winemaker for 50 years; the late Louis P. Martini, a Napa Valley winemaker saluted for his several innovative contributions to the industry; and the late Carl Heinrich Wente, a pioneering vintner in the Livermore Valley.

While the usually loquacious Corti had little to say Friday night, he showed his characteristic graciousness in bringing to the dinner several magnums of a pinot noir made at his direction as a tribute to his late sister Illa.

March 7, 2008
Breakfast Links

Random thoughts on a few provocative reads that have come my way this week:

- It looks as if is going to make one of life's more enduring pleasures a little easier to realize. That would be a glass of Port on the table under the reading light while you're captivated by a finely honed novel. In addition to selling books, just may be gearing up to go into wine retailing, according to this report from the online version of The Financial Times.

- Italy is the fourth leading country in the consumption of Champagne. Italy has lost 2 percent of its vineyards over the past six years, enough to cover the region of Umbria. These are just two facts gleaned from VinoWire, an online news wire devoted solely to the world of Italian wine. It's just been launched by Italian wine critic Franco Ziliani and American blogger Jeremy Parzen. With Italian wines more popular than ever in the United States, their timing is perfect for enthusiasts who want to know more of the wine scene throughout Italy.

- Looking for some inspiration for some weekend cooking? Check out the new blog by columnist Mark Bittman of the New York Times, whose recipes in his many cookbooks and articles almost invariably are stimulating, reliable and timely. At Mark Bittman on Food he's posting a new recipe a day, along with reports on eating out in Liguria, preparing octopus, debating food issues and the like.

March 5, 2008
Familiarity Rules

Sacramentans prefer restaurants that serve American food, steaks and Italian dishes, to judge by one narrow gauge of local dining tastes. Each week, the online restaurant-reservation service Open Table lists the top 10 local restaurants where diners are booking tables. In the Sacramento area, 53 restaurants use the system, most of them white-tablecloth destinations.

During the past week, diners who used Open Table clearly preferred to eat at Ruth's Chris Steak House. The two local branches, one in Sacramento, the other in Roseville, finished first and second in the top 10. In order of ranking, they were followed by McCormick & Schmick's, Ella Dining Room and Bar, Esquire Grill, Morton's The Steakhouse, the Sacramento branch of Il Fornaio, Paul Martin's American Bistro in Roseville, Spataro's Restaurant and Bar and Mason's Restaurant.

As a measure of popularity, the list should be taken lightly. For one, it doesn't say how many diners actually made and honored reservations at the listed restaurants. And the sampling is small. While the 53 participating restaurants include several of the area's more critically acclaimed dinner houses, such as Mulvaney's Building & Loan and The Waterboy, it doesn't include many others, like Lemon Grass and Biba, which could have equal or higher reservation counts not measured by Open Table. But the list does seem to say that when Sacramentans eat out at higher-end restaurants they do like both traditional and contemporary American food, beef and Italian, at least they did this past week.

March 5, 2008
Growing Up with the Vines

While tooling about the Shenandoah Valley in Amador County this past weekend, a local vintner suggested I give Iscander "Isy" Borjon a call. He's starting a winery, but with an unusual aspect, said the source.

When I called Borjon he gave me this rundown: His father Jesse arrived in Shenandoah Valley in 1991 from his native Guanajuato, Mexico, and began to recruit and send to the valley's vineyards and wineries the workers who do much of the industry's grunt work: pruning vines in and fog and chill of winter, running bottling lines, planting vineyards and the like.

Two years ago, Jesse Borjon retired, and turned over his prospering labor-contract business to his son Iscander, who not only plans to keep it going but to fulfill his father's dream of someday also having his own Shenandoah Valley vineyard and winery.

They're starting to take shape along Shenandoah Road near Bell Road. The younger Borjon hopes to have the winery finished in time for this fall's harvest. In the meantime, wines under the label of Borjon Winery are being made at nearby Charles Spinetta Winery. None is ready for release, but when Borjon Winery opens for business this fall a thousand or so cases of such varietal wines as zinfandel, sangiovese and barbera are to be in the tasting room. The younger Borjon is helping make the wine, but at least for the time being he's leaving much of that responsibility to consulting winemakers, several of them clients he and and his father have had in the valley over the past 17 years. Besides, he has his hands full right now managing eight crews working in the valley.

"This has always been my father's dream, to have the winery, but now he doesn't want that headache," says his son, already aware that winemaking isn't all just pretty rolling hills of vines and the promising pop of a cork pulled from a bottle. I guess it could be said he's showing a wisdom beyond his years. He graduated from Amador High School in Sutter Creek with the class of 2004, and at 21 just might be the youngest vintner in the state, if not the country.

March 4, 2008
Just in Time for the Recession

March only has started, but the editors of Food&Wine magazine already are crowing about their list of the best American wines for $15 or less, to be published in the magazine's April issue. Ray Isle, the magazine's “Tasting Room” editor, tried more than 300 candidates to come up with 67 to recommend.

They include several local releases, including the Windmill 2006 Lodi Chardonnay ($12), the Dry Creek Vineyard 2006 Clarksburg Dry Chenin Blanc ($12), the 4 Bears 2003 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon by Sacramento wine negotiant Sean Minor ($15), the Lange Twins 2005 California Merlot from Lodi ($13), the Montevina 2004 Amador County Syrah ($10), the Bogle 2005 California Petite Sirah from Clarksburg ($11), the Vinum Cellars 2005 PETS Petite Sirah from Clarksburg ($14), and the Domaine de la Terre Rouge 2004 Tête-à-Tête Rhone blend from the Sierra foothills ($15).

Note that the only petite sirahs on the list both were from the Delta, which should be cause for pride in Clarksburg, but also note that not a single zinfandel from the Sierra foothills qualified for the roundup, which should be cause for concoern among vintners in the Gold Country, long seen as the Mother Lode of high-value, high-character zinfandel in the North State.

March 4, 2008
Head of the Class

IMGP2683_edited.jpgWhile driving about Amador County's Shenandoah Vineyards this past weekend I kept getting distracted by the area's older vineyards, now dark and bare as they stretched in neat rows up and down hills. Looking not unlike ballet dancers frozen in time, these are some of those bleak, scaly and gnarled old vines. In this case, they're Terri Harvey's hillside plot along Steiner Road, and they date from 1869.

They're head-pruned vines, meaning the trunk of the vine is trained to develop a big head, with canes growing loose and free through harvest, after which they are trimmed back, just as if they were getting an overdue haircut during winter dormancy. Then the cycle starts all over.

At any rate, not long ago I interviewed Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti about a range of grape-growing and winemaking topics in the nearby viticultural areas of the Sierra foothills, the Delta and Lodi. Inevitably, the subject of high-alcohol wines came up, a topic of continuing debate in California's wine trade, especially since Corti last summer said he'd no longer routinely stock table wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol. Several high-alcohol wines, zinfandels especially, come from the Sierra foothills. At one point duiring our conversation, Corti wondered if the higher alcohol levels from super-ripe fruit could be tempered if growers only would return to the old practice of head training their vines rather than continue to adopt modern trellis systems that often expose clusters of grapes to more sunshine as they are strung high on various wire systems.

I'm no farmer, so I have no idea of the merits of his suggestion, but what struck me in the Shenandoah Valley was how many vineyards actually still rely on the old-fashioned method of head pruning vines. It would be interesting now to round up samples of zinfandel from head-pruned vines and samples from more conventional trellis systems to see how their alcohol levels and aesthetic attributes compare and differ.

My interview with Corti, incidentally, is the topic of tomorrow's Dunne on Wine column in The Bee's Taste section. It was occasioned by Corti's induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame, to take place Friday night at the Napa Valley branch of the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena. Corti, the first non-academic and first non-vintner to be inducted, therefore will have another forum for sounding off on his frequently provocative views on the state of California winemaking, maybe even high-alcohol wines and head-trained vines.

March 3, 2008
Burrata Steps Up to the Plate

Over the weekend, we dropped into Gianni's Trattoria along J Street in midtown Sacramento, solely to try an unusual cheese that's been generating buzz among food enthusiasts on both coasts for the past couple of years. Only rarely is it found in restaurants around here, however, though I've heard that Rick Mahan of The Waterboy and Kurt Spataro of Spataro also at least occasionally serve it.

It's burrata, pronounced boor-AH-tah, and it's a cow's-milk cheese most closely identified with Italy's Apulia and Basilicata regions. It's a fresh cheese best eaten the day it is made, or within a day or two. Thus, versions from Italy aren't likely to show up here often, if at all.

Two California cheesemakers, however, have burrata in their lineups, Gioia Cheese Co. in South El Monte and Cantare Foods in San Diego. Peter Torza of Gianni's gets his burrata from Gioia. He has it shipped overnight and serves it as a $9 appetizer only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The cheese arrives at table as a single slab that is long and a very bright white. It looks soft and it is, but with some substance to it. The flavor is delicately sweet and creamy to the extent that it rightfully can be called sensuous. At Gianni's, it's dressed up traditionally, with a sprinkling of a fine olive oil, leaves of basil and freshly ground black pepper. The Cantare Web site suggests: "Serve it sliced with ripe tomatoes, coarse sea salt, and basil for a classic antipasto, or melt it onto crostini and watch the cream bubble into rich little pools. Wonderful with smoked salmon and avocado or with prosciutto and fresh fig. Try tossing burrata into pasta, such as drained penne or spaghetti. For a truly rich caprese salad, encircle fresh burrata with slices of ripe red tomatoes and torn basil leaves, and drizzle with olive oil."

For the accompanying wine, Cantare recommends Montepulciano, or a light red wine such as Beaujolais Nouveau or pinot noir, or white wines such as chardonnay, pinot grigio, semillon, or sauvignon blanc, locorotondo, verdicchio, or a "riesling Italico from Oltrepò Pavese." We tried it with the Cuvaison chardonnay and a sanviovese-based Antinori blend from Tuscany. While both had their merits, I felt the fruit, spine and dryness of the Tuscan red was a better match for the cheese.

Burrata consists basically of leftover remnants of mozzarella combined with cream sealed in a bag of pulled curd. The exterior is somewhat elastic, the interior soft and creamy, even buttery. It's a fine cheese, but a whole lot of equally captivating cheeses are available in restaurants and grocery stores these days, and my overall impression of burrata is in line with what the owner of a cheese shop in Alexandria, Va., told Jane Black of the Washington Post last fall: "It's good and everything, but I'm not clear about why people are so insane over it...Part is probably the super-soft creaminess. Part is the romance: It comes from Italy and has this secret inner core. Or maybe it's the name: burrrrr-ah-ta."

The most comprehensive article I've read about burrata was Ross Parsons' feature in the Los Angeles Times about two years ago.

March 3, 2008
A Little Too Hot

A reader from back east planning to visit Sacramento soon sent me an email a few days ago to ask if I'd recommend the hottest restaurant in town. In reply, I told him that would be Ella Dining Room & Bar, the Selland family's bright and cosmopolitan spread on the K Street Mall.

Now I'm hoping he isn't planning to get here before Thursday evening. That's when Ella tentatively is scheduled to reopen after a week's closure because of an electrical fire. The blaze, confined to a cabinet that stores a battery of large batteries to keep emergency exit lights going in case of a power outage, didn't do any serious structural damage, but it sure stunk up the place. Everything from large flowing draperies to every louver in the restaurant's extensive shutter motif has had to be cleaned to get rid of the stink, says manager Josh Nelson. He puts the cleanup costs alone at around $50,000. He doesn't even want to calculate the cost of lost business.

He praised firefighters for responding so quickly and for confining the fire solely to the battery cabinet. When a fire years ago damaged the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, owner Alice Waters expressed her gratitude to responding firefighters by asking them to a free dinner. Looks like some local firefighters also could be in for a splendid meal.

March 3, 2008
Vermentino Post Script

Shame on me, I overlooked Bantam Cellars when writing last week's Dunne on Wine column about the white wine vermentino. My excuse: Well, the winery, which is in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, is aptly named. At least I didn't run over any of the bantams scurrying about the grounds and the parking lot when we pulled into the place over the weekend. We were there to check out a report that Garth and Jonna Cobb also are gambling that vermentino could play a growing role in the region's limited lineup of refreshingly fruity and crisp white wines.

What we found was the Bantam Cellars 2007 Bella Grace Vineyard Vermentino ($16), the family's first release of the wine as a varietal. It's a terrific wine, a bit fleshier and richer than other interpretations of vermentino I've tasted, though it retains the grape's inviting aromatics and refreshing acidity even when grown in a warm area like Shenandoah Valley. That, and the wine's peachy fruitiness, should help it stand up to even the North State's spring asparagus that will arrive any day now. In fact, Jonna Cobb plans to pour the vermentino with a pasta primavera based on spring asparagus at her next wine dinner March 28. For more information, check out her lively blog.

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