May 30, 2008
For Now, Sweepstakes Wine a Mystery

After three days and some 3,500 wines, judges at the 2008 Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition in Pomona concluded their deliberations today by electing a 2006 zinfandel the show's best wine.

Officials of the judging's sponsors - the Los Angeles County Fair and the supermarket chain Ralphs - won't release the identities of the wines until June 14, but judges began to speculate immediately about where the grapes for the sweepstakes wine might have been grown. Almost certainly California, given that zinfandel is cultivated here more extensively than any place else. Beyond that, a random survey of several judges found no consensus, though Sonoma County generally and either the Russian River Valley or the Dry Creek Valley were mentioned more often as the possible appellation of origin. Paso Robles also looked to be in the running. The winning wine is lithe, jammy and persistent, with a brightness of fruit and a lean structure that seemed to rule out Amador County and Lodi as the likely source of the grapes; in both those appellations, zinfandels customarily are riper and weightier. Curiously, no one mentioned El Dorado County or Napa Valley as the possible source of the zinfandel's grapes, even though zinfandels from both areas often are stylistically similar to the sweepstakes winner.

A total 47 wines were candidates for the sweepstakes. The final two hours of deliberation first involved selecting a best white wine, a best sparkling wine and so forth until 10 wines were left standing, one from each of the major divisions.

I'm looking forward to learning the identities of all 47, but especially the gewurztraminer that was declared the best white wine of the competition. It also was the runnerup to the zinfandel for the sweepstakes title. And then there's a spectacular sangiovese, a close second to the zinfandel when the best red wine was chosen.

A Moscato D'Asti beat out a Champagne, a Brut and a prosecco for best sparkling wine, while a sherry handily beat an angelica and a tawny port for best dessert wine.

May 29, 2008
Buying a Rose? Select Cautiously

After tasting more than 60 roses during today's session of the 2008 Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition, I'm having difficulty seeing why the sales of rose wines are so brisk. I don't have precise market reports at my fingertips, but I've been reading sales surveys and hearing plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that consumer interest in the sort of dry, lean, pink wines often associated with Provence and elsewhere in the South of France is on the rise.

For the most part, however, the roses we tasted just didn't justify the purported excitement. Too many didn't deliver fruit, finesse or finish. They often were pretty, but as a group they tended to be one dimensional and dispirited. Maybe it was the context. Roses are wines to be drunk outside, alongside the pool or under an oak tree on a picnic. We were in an exhibit hall at Fairplex, the grounds of the Los Angeles County Fair. At one point we were so discouraged by the few gold medals we were giving we asked if we could move our table outside in hopes that sunshine and the spring breeze would provide a friendlier environment for assessing roses.

In the end, two sub-categories of rose proved the most encouraging. One was roses blended from grape varieties common to the Rhone Valley of France, such as syrah, grenache and mourvedre. Of the 18 such wines we tasted, five got gold medals, a pretty high percentage for any class in any wine competition. I look forward to learning the identities of those wines. I'm also looking forward to learning the identities of the roses made from the grape sangiovese. Of the six we tasted, two got gold medals, and another two got silver medals, indicating that sangiovese may be more suitable as a rose than as a more traditional table wine. I'm assuming here that the sangiovese roses were mostly from California, where the grape has struggled to find its groove.

We will wrap up the judging tomorrow. The final round will be a tasting of an anticipated 40 to 50 wines nominated for sweepstakes.

May 29, 2008
Chardonnays, Cabernets and Now Roses

Aside from the magnitude of the undertaking - about 3,500 wines, 510 olive oils and 126 spirits - the 2008 Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition got under way yesterday without major incident or development.

Everything is judged blind, and awards won't be revealed until June 14, so there's not much news to report at this time. The four-person panel I'm on judged 105 wines yesterday, including 45 barrel-fermented 2006 chardonnays priced $12 to $23 and 56 2005 cabernet sauvignons priced up to $15.

We agreed on five gold medals for the chardonnays, seven for the cabernets. While the chardonnays were enjoyable largely because winemakers seem to be lightening their use of oak, the cabernets were a much more exciting class, primarily because the wines were more focused. They had more to say, and they said it with surprising clarity at that price. "I'm surprised. They're pretty damn nice," said Jon McPherson at the end of the cabernet judging. He's the chair of our panel, and when he isn't doing that he's winemaker for South Coast Winery in Temecula. "They have depth of character, the oak is integrated, and tannins are in balance. They offer good value," he added.

The other panelists are Patty Held, an owner of Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, Mo., and Coke Roth of Richland, Wash., an attorney developing a vineyard in Washington's Red Mountain district. When we resume in a couple of hours we'll first face 61 roses, to be followed by 35 syrahs. Not a bad way to spend a Thursday

May 27, 2008
Olive Oil: More Binding Than Slippery?

Well, that was interesting. I've just come from the opening reception of the 2008 Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition. As much of a mouthful as that is, it doesn't completely describe the competition that gets under way on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona tomorrow. One of the world's larger olive-oil judgings also will commence at 8:30 a.m. The chairman of the olive-oil judging is Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti. During this evening's reception, he introduced me to Dr. Gino Celletti of Milan, one of the olive-oil judges. Dr. Celletti had arrived in Los Angeles from Beijing, where in another month or so he will open Olive Oil Restaurant Cafe.

An Italian restaurant in the capital of China, home to one of the world's other classic cuisines, raises a question or two. Like, why? Well, explained Dr. Celletti, Beijing also is home to a huge number of millionaires, many of whom seem infatuated with interntional cuisines and have the disposable income to pursue their interest. What's more, they are particularly keen on European foods and wines. And then, of course, there's the upcoming Olympics, which will attract all sorts of Europeans and Americans who likely will welcome an opportunity to eat foods with which they are more familiar than traditional Chinese dishes.

These are all practical business reasons for opening a restaurant in Beijing, but Dr. Celletti, who is involved in the making and marketing of olive oil when he isn't launching restaurants in unlikely locales, has an artistic impulse that he's applying to dishes in the Beijing restaurant. The menu he showed me is as long and detailed as some textbooks at UC Davis, with each of the individual chapters devoted to the olive oils and dishes of individual Italian provinces. From Liguria, for example, the indigenous olive Razzola is used in a pesto tossed with pasta and potatoes. From Emilia Romagna, the olive Brisighella is used with sliced beef served with a cake based on the cheese Parmigiano and a sauce based on the grape sangiovese. And so it goes.

We read and hear a lot these days about economic globalization. Dr. Celletti looks to have taken that concept to heart, and if the Chinese realize as much joy from Italian olive oil and the Italian culinary arts as the rest of the world, well, that would seem to be an encouraging development for a broadened international consciousness.

May 27, 2008
Spataro Stays, For Now

Just before leaving for Pomona and the 2008 Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition this afternoon I had a brief chat with Kurt Spataro, executive chef of Paragary's Restaurant Group. I was trying to confirm speculation that his eponymous downtown restaurant may be about to change hands. When you write of restaurants in today's precarious economic environment that's what you do with a bit of your daily work time - chase down rumors about this acquisition and that closure.

In short, Spataro Restaurant & Bar still is a member of Paragary's Restaurant Group, said Spataro, with no change in ownership anticipated. About three or four months ago, however, representatives of OSI Restaurant Partners in Tampa approached Spataro and business partner Randy Paragary to talk about possibly taking over Spataro for a branch of Roy's, their Hawaiian fusion concept started 20 years ago in Honolulu by Roy Yamaguchi. OSI also owns Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, a branch of which is planned for the old Firestone building being renovated just up L Street from Spataro. Part of the OSI philosophy, said Spataro, is to put a branch of Roy's in the same general vicinity as a Fleming's, thus the company's interest in Spataro. "We listened, but it didn't work out for them," says Spataro. "They cooled on this market."

While no change looks to be imminent for Spataro, Spataro did remind me of a long-enduring principle of the restaurant business: For the right price, just about any place can change hands. "As owners, you listen to anything," says Spataro.

May 27, 2008
An Off Note

We hadn't been to the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee for a couple of years, so we were surprised this weekend to discover what to us were several new venues, such as Pyramid Alehouse and Marilyn's, both on the K Street Mall. They were more intimate than traditional settings like Turntable Junction and the Hyatt Regency ballroom, but in the case of Pyramid Alehouse the jubilee's organizers might want to rethink their strategy.

While the acoustics were fine, Pyramid Alehouse wasn't the best environment to showcase a band like the blues ensemble Marshall Wilkerson and Smoked Sugar. Sightlines were poor, there was no dance floor to speak of, the game but short-handed staff couldn't keep up with fans who wanted to be seated, and restaurant guests who were there to eat and drink rather than to be entertained apparently felt put upon, leading to requests that the music be toned down.

Imagine that, at a jazz jubilee.

Pyramid Alehouse did have one advantage over other settings, however - a wider selection of beers, even if this weekend didn't provide the most beer-friendly weather.

May 26, 2008
Peter Torza Pulls the Plug

After vacillating for weeks over the future of his Gianni's Trattoria in midtown Sacramento, Peter Torza is closing down the business and putting it on the market. Last call is this coming weekend.

"I gave this my all, but it jut didn't work. It hurts," said Torza Monday afternoon after dispatching a media email to announce his decision. "Rewards were many, but at my age this place takes just too much of my time. And time is pretty precious," wrote Torza.

He opened the sleek Gianni's in April of 2007 as a successor to his Black Pearl Oyster Bar in the same quarters. The Black Pearl had become too much of a bar scene for his taste and he hoped Gianni's would strike a better balance between restaurant and lounge, but that equilibrium never materialized. The restaurant was doing fine, but the bar business had fallen off. "You need the two of them."

He also speculated that Gianni's may have been hurt by the larger and splashier G.V. Hurley's restaurant and bar that opened recently next door, and by high gas prices that could be discouraging suburban residents from driving into Sacramento for dinner, especially midweek.

The final straw came this weekend, when business was "horrible," said Torza. "I loved doing it, but I don't want to work this hard this late in my life."

His plans are uncertain, though he indicated he'd be giving more of his time to nearby Harlow's, in which he is a principal. He's also thinking of relocating to Italy for a few months. He's also thinking of being a restaurant consultant, helping design new places but not operating them. "I feel my job is done," said Torza. "At this point, I think I'd enjoy building them more than running them. But I am going to miss the food here. I love that calamari."

May 23, 2008
A Prospector Returns to Foothills

Wine enthusiasts venturing into Amador County's Shenandoah Valley this Memorial Day weekend for a bit of tasting will have a new winery to check out.

Jeff Runquist, who honed his winemaking palate as an intern at the Shenandoah Valley's Montevina Winery while attending UC Davis in 1979, has returned to the appellation to put down permanent roots. Runquist just opened his striking Gold Rush-theme facility along Shenandoah Road, directly across the street from where he lived from 1981 to 1984 while making wine at Montevina.

The place is kind of bare right now, but Runquist, whose "R" wines consistently show up in the gold-medal column of various competitions, expects to have all his equipment and barrels on the premises in time for this year's harvest. He established his brand in 1995 and has been making his wines at McManis Family Vineyards south of Lodi, where he also is the winemaker and where he will continue to make many of his releases.

Why has he been eager to return to Amador County? "This is where I've produced my marque wine, the 'Z' zinfandel. And while I make wines with grapes from around the state, there's not another appellation that I make five wines from," says Runquist. On top of that, he's long enjoyed the valley's congenial atmosphere and support from other vintners.

Jeff Runquist Wines, 10776 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth, is open regularly for tasting 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday, but the tasting room also will be open Monday this weekend; (209) 245-6282.

May 22, 2008
Mondavi Took the Highway, Others Take...

The recent death of Robert Mondavi may or may not revive a tribute proposed more than three years ago by former State Sen. Wesley Chesbro, a Democrat from Arcata. Though Mondavi was in fine form at the time, Chesbro drew up a resolution to name busy Highway 29 through the heart of Napa Valley the "Robert Mondavi Memorial Highway."

Mondavi just had lost his iconic Oakville winery in a $1.36-billion buyout by Costellation Brands Inc. of Fairport, N.Y., and Chesbro may have wanted to be sure that residents and visitors in the valley didn't soon forget Mondavi's pivotal role in establishing the appellation as the nation's most prominent wine district.

Officially, the route would have remained Highway 29, but signs financed by private funds would have been installed on the shoulders to recognize Mondavi.

Early on, it looked as if the proposal would breeze throught he legislature, with both the Napa County Board of Supervisors and the Napa Vintners Association endorsing it. No organized opposition appeared, though some must have been working behind the scenes. The measure quietly drifted off, never to be seen again.

What happened? David Miller, press secretary to State Sen. Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa), chair of the Senate Select Committee on California's Wine Industry, said some opposition did materialize, principally from winemakers who felt that such public recognition would give the "Robert Mondavi" brand of wines a competitive edge in the market. Well, yes, that's conceivable, but such an attitude hardly seems in the spirit of cooperation that Mondavi so vigorously championed on behalf of the entire valley through his life.

Almost certainly, some sort of recognition for Mondavi will be forthcoming, but Wiggins isn't likely to bring up the highway proposal again, suggests Miller. "We're looking at potential things to honor him, but that (the highway naming) would run into the same kind of problems," he said.

May 21, 2008
Battered, But Hanging In

To look at bunches of wine grapes just starting to develop on vines in the Sierra foothills, you might not realize the kind of beating they've been taking. They look perfectly fine. But that, however, depends on where you look.

While the vintage is young, it's shaping up as one of the more unpredictable in years, say growers and winemakers in the Mother Lode. There's been a spring frost, soon followed by an early and sustained spike in temperature, then high winds. All of these weather developments could pose eventual problems for the size and nature of this fall's crop.

Last night at the restaurant Latitudes in Auburn, however, where Placer County vintners gathered for their annual introduction of recent and pending releases, farmers and winemakers weren't whining. While the weather has set them back and left them scratching their heads, they more or less agreed that the year still is too young to begin talking about the quantity and quality of the vintage of 2008.

"They look fabulous," said grower Karen McGillivray of the 11 acres of wine grapes she and her husband William tend at Newcastle. Never mind that last month's sharp frost at the couple's Dono dal Cielo Vineyard reduced the potential crop by around 30 percent, or that the dry spring and the early heat prompted them to start watering vines more than a month earlier than usual. That's farming, and they've been doing it long enough - they planted their first vines in 2002, and this is the first year they're going entirely organic - to learn to roll with the periodic setbacks nature deals them.

Jim Taylor of Mt. Vernon Winery at Auburn said the frost hit his barbera "big time," at least "stunning" if not killing around half the crop. Still, he's optimistic that the year will progress more or less routinely. "It's a little early to figure out, but it probably will be an OK year," said Taylor.

Another Auburn vintner,Teena Wilkins of Vina Castellano, figures she lost between 15 percent and 35 percent of her eight-acre crop to the frost, including 60 percent of her one acre of barbera, the variety that sustained the most damage. Nonetheless, she was upbeat, noting that in the 10 years she's been farming wine grapes this was her first significant loss. "Next year we may have to put in some frost protection."

May 19, 2008
One Tossed, Another Appears

One pizza place closes (see below) and two open, isn't that the way it goes? In this instance, however, one may be enough. On Friday, what may be the region's largest pizza restaurant is to open in Roseville. Basic Urban Kitchen + Bar is the full and proper name, but it's such a pizza joint that that's all there is on the menu, other than a salad. But while the menu is concise, the place will be huge, seating 215 in a 6,000-square-foot former warehouse in Roseville's Old Town.

This will be the second location for Basic Urban Kitchen + Bar. The first, also in a converted warehouse, opened two years ago near San Diego's Petco Park, scoring $1.8 million in sales its first year, $3 million the next, according to a report in San Diego Business Journal.

Jon Magnini came up with the concept, inspired largely by the thin-crust, brick-oven pizzas he savored at Italian bistros as he was growing up in New Haven, Conn.

The concept is to keep everything simple, thus the barebones warehouse settings, the limited menu, and a wine list where every release is priced the same - $7 the glass and $26 the bottle for whites, $8 the glass and $30 the bottle for reds.

Magnini and his partners were drawn to Roseville by the size and naturalness of the building and its location in a redevloping industrial area of the city, says owner/operator Kenny Gowan.

Basic Urban Kitchen + Bar, 112 Pacific St., Roseville, is to be open 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Sundays; (916) 749-4641.

May 19, 2008
Peter Torza Cuts Back

Northern California's increasingly expensive and unsteady economy hasn't led to a shakeout of restaurants, but in another sign that restaurateurs are uneasy Peter Torza has closed his I Dragoni Pizzeria in midtown Sacramento and cut back the days that his adjoining Gianni's Trattoria is open.

I Dragoni, open only two months, just didn't catch on, and to cut losses and to focus on his primary restaurant Torza decided to quickly pull the plug. Over the weekend, he met with employees to discuss options for Gianni's. The group agreed to start closing Tuesdays effective tomorrow to reduce operating costs about 17 percent. While Gianni's has been busy at the end of the week and during weekends, business has slowed appreciably earlier in the week, said Torza. Gianni's already closed Mondays.

Torza also will be trimming some dishes from the Gianni's menu to reduce preparation time and to focus on dishes that already sell well.

"The staff is upbeat and we're trying to come up with better ideas to encourage business," said Torza.

May 16, 2008
Slowing Down in the Delta

Whoa, how about this heat? Come on, Delta breezes. And thinking of the Delta, it will be the setting May 31 for an ambitious day of culinary-related field trips and a concluding dinner to highlight seasonal ingredients of the greater Sacramento area, in this instance Sacramento, Placer, Solano and Yolo counties.

Called "Slow Down on the Delta," the event is being coordinated by the Slow Food convivia of the four counties. Slow Food is an international movement meant to encourage agricultural biodiversity and intimacy between farmers and consumers.

One tour will focus on California Vegetable Specialties in Rio Vista, the only producer of endive in the United States. Another will be a boat tour on the sloughs about Sutter Island to explore the area's early human history, reclamation projects and the like. A third will involve a trek about Tim Neuharth's 300-acre organic pear orchard on Sutter Island. Details on these and other tours, and the dinner, are at the event's Web site.

The chefs to conduct that night's dinner - Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney Building & Loan in Sacramento, Molly Hawks and Michael Fagnoni of Hawks in Granite Bay, Daniel Bell of Chef to Go Catering in Vacaville, and Pru Mendez of Tucos Wine Market and Cafe in Davis - are rounding up local seasonal provisions for the menu, which also is to include regional wines. The dinner will be at Vino Farms, 51375 S. Netherlands Road, Clarksburg. Tickets are $85 per person for the general public, $75 for Slow Food members.

May 15, 2008
Folsom Gets a Wine Bar

Jeff Back, an early player in midtown Sacramento's surge of wine bars as a manager at 58 Degrees & Holding Co., has teamed up with his wife Gail to open what the couple is calling Folsom's "first upscale wine bar," The Back Wine Bar.

Half their inventory of 60 wines, about evenly split between international and domestic brands, is poured by the glass. "These are wines you can't find in supermarkets," said Jeff Back when asked about the stylistic focus of the couple's selections. Their list includes wines from such boutique wineries as Marelle in Sonoma County and Ancien in Napa Valley, as well as familiar brands like Rosenblum, Far Niente and Duckhorn.

Their chef, Matthew Nicolls, oversees a compact small-plate menu that includes Hawaiian ahi poke ($13), a shrimp-and-sole ceviche ($9) and assorted bruschetta ($9).

Jeff Back, a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is a certified wine steward in the Court of Master Sommeliers and also holds a diploma from the International Sommelier Guild.

The Back Wine Bar, in the Raley's at The Parkway shopping center, 25075 Blue Ravine Road (at East Natoma Street), is open 3-10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; (916) 986-9100.

May 14, 2008
Zagat is Sniffing About Sacramento

Aioli Bodega Espanol in midtown Sacramento is "a wonderful place to take a group out." Bistro 33 Midtown is "a great place to troll for the opposite sex or have a high energy night out with friends." Biba is "nearly up to SF standards." These are a few of the early comments being contributed to a survey of Sacramento restaurants by Zagat, publisher of a popular series of guidebooks. Whether this means Sacramento finally will be the subject of one of Zagat's popular burgundy-bound manuals remains to be seen.

Persons who visit the Zagat Web site have until June 15 to add their comments concerning the food, decor, service and cost of several area restaurants. Contributors must register with the site, a process that includes providing your email address and age. In response, they will get a copy of the 2009 edition of "America's Top Restaurants" when it is published.

May 14, 2008
A New Pyramid to Climb

As a nation eager to live better if not forever, Americans are hung up on the pyramid for guidance. First, there was the federal government's Food Guide Pyramid, remodeled three years ago as My Pyramid. Trouble was, those efforts were flawed and misguided for directing Americans to an honestly helpful diet, claim experts of Harvard University's School of Public Health.

As a consequence, they're introducing their version of the pyramid, called the Healthy Eating Pyramid. They've taken matters into their own hands, they say, because the government's versions were based on out-of-date science, didn't keep abreast of scientific discoveries, and were shaped at least in part by "people with business interests in their messages."

We likely will be hearing and reading a lot about the latest pyramid in the days and weeks ahead, but its message boils down to five key points:

- Regular exercise is the foundation, thus the running shoes and barbells along the bottom of the pyramid.

- Forget about tracking portion sizes, servings, grams and the like; the new pyramid is a simpler guide to what people should be eating, without fretting over the details.

- And what we should be eating is plants - vegetables, whole grains, fruits and healthy fats, like olive oil.

- Cut way back on the "American staples," such as red meat, salty snacks, sugary drinks, refined grains and potatoes; if you eat meat, pick poultry and fish.

- Take a multivitamin, and have a drink, but forget alcohol if you wonder whether it could be more potentially harmful than beneficial. "Those who don’t drink shouldn’t feel that they need to start," caution the Harvard authorities.

May 14, 2008
Last Night's Wine...and Burger

Petite sirah long has had its advocates, but its group of followers hasn't been particularly large or vocal. It's been called a "cult wine," though that suggests a following more limited than it actually is. What's more, petite sirah is showing signs of rising in popularity as wine enthusiasts discover how lush with floral aromas and blackberry flavors it can be. More consumers haven't ventured into petite-sirah land for two related factors: Petite sirah's inky color and rigid tannins are so intimidating they can scare off potential customers before they give it a chance.

Under his Quixote label, veteran Napa Valley vintner Carl Doumani makes one of those big, brooding petite syrahs. (Contrary to the approach of most other winemakers working with petite sirah, Doumani prefers the spelling "petite syrah," recognizing that the grape's parents are syrah and peloursin.)

Now, however, Doumani is releasing a more approachable petite sirah, the Pretense 2005 Solano County Petite Syrah ($15). Though its color is dense as night, the wine is immediately accessible. It's dry and medium bodied, with a smell of violets, a flavor that runs to both blackberries and raspberries, a satiny texture, and a finish that includes a snap of spice. The tannins are in full retreat. The alcohol is a modest 13.8 percent. And it comes in a screwcap bottle. The whole package, in fact, leaps off the shelf, thanks to Marin graphic designer Jim Moon's novel wrap-around label that looks like a crinkly brown-paper bag.

"We give you 'Pretense,' with the assurance that now even those of modest means can have 'Pretense' in their cellar and on their dining table," says Doumani in a press release.

Unfortunately, Doumani says Pretense is a one-time-only wine, the consequence of a series of serendipitous happenings that began with the availability of the grapes from Oberti Family Vineyard in Suisun Valley.

In Sacramento, Corti Brothers has received a shipment of the wine, which could be on the floor as soon as today.

We found the wine a perfect accompaniment, incidentally, to the first burgers off the grill this spring. They were sweetened with grilled onions and spiced with a catsup-and-mayo sauce seasoned with horseradish, mustard, wasabi and lime. But the meat alone was the big hit. For the first time, we made the burgers with Five Dot Ranch ground chuck from Taylor's Market ($4.49 per pound). This is good beef, coming from a famly that's been ranching in California since 1852. Today, the Swickard family's holdings stretch from Lassen County to Napa Valley. The mostly Angus cattle they run are raised on open range with sustainable, "holistic" and natural practices. They don't use antibiotics on the herds, and they don't add hormones to their feed.

Five Dot Ranch beef was sold wholesale until the family recently opened its first retail store at Oxbow Public Market in Napa. In addition to Taylor's Market, Five Dot Beef is found at Davis Food Co-Op, Ikeda's in Auburn, and Natural Food Selection and Briar Patch Co-Op in Grass Valley. Local restaurants that use Five Dot Beef include Ford's Real Hamburgers, The Waterboy and The Kitchen in Sacramento, Hawks in Granite Bay.

May 13, 2008
Last Night's Wine

One wine on my list of the 10 Best Wines of the Year - So Far is the youthful and agile Greg Norman California Estates 2005 Lake County Red Hills Zinfandel ($15). Last night we opened another of the golfer's wines, the Greg Norman South Eastern Australia Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir ($20). It won't make the cut, though it is a sound and pleasant bubbly.

A blend of 61 percent pinot noir and 39 percent chardonnay, it's an unusually subdued sparkler for coming from Australia. The fruit is dry and austere, the bubbles fine, the beads languid. It's crisp and refreshing, and low in alcohol (11.5 percent). For its lightness, it's closer to prosecco than Champagne in overall style. While perfectly enjoyable, it had a restraint that didn't let it interfere with our excitement and conversation.

Why would anyone open a bottle of sparkling wine on a Monday night, anyway? Aside from our conviction that sparkling wine is versatile enough to enjoy with a wide range of foods, we did have something to celebrate. We'd just received word that our first grandchild in nearly 16 years and our first grandson was born at 3:18 a.m. May 13 in Bangkok. Here's to you, Rayden Light Kanah-Dunne.

May 12, 2008
A Thirst Quencher for Cyclists

After a two-week closure for remodeling, the Cliff House of Folsom has been reborn as Sudwerk Riverside Restaurant & Brewhouse. No beer will be brewed on the premises. However, the four regular beers and six rotating seasonal beers that have helped make Sudwerk Restaurant and Brewery in Davis so popular will be on tap.

Tim McDonnell, a San Francisco restaurateur who acquired the Davis brewpub in 2006, bought the Cliff House from Paragon Steak House Restaurants of San Diego in February and continued to operate it until closing the business for remodeling about three weeks ago. (Ron Broward continues to own Sudwerk's brewing operations.)

The makeover includes a new menu, but McDonnell is retaining the prime rib and steaks for which the Cliff House was recognized. He's expanded the seafood, burger, pasta and salad selections, and added pizza.

This is the second restyling of the restaurant, which began life as Tosh's in 1977. In 1989 it was made over into the Cliff House of Folsom. The restaurant occupies one of the choicer dining spots in Sacramento County, overlooking Folsom, Lake Natoma and the American River bikeway.

Sudwerk Riverside Restaurant & Brewhouse, 9900 Greenback Lane, Folsom, is open for meals 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and dinner 4-10 p.m. Sundays; (916) 989-9243.

May 12, 2008
Blazing a Trail to 15th and L

If I'd get my hair cut more often I might be more up to speed on Sacramento's culinary scene. When my stylist - go ahead, chuckle - asked what I knew of the new wine bar at Marriott's Residence Inn at Capitol Park at 15th and L I drew a blank. Hadn't heard of it, I had to confess.

Thus, over the weekend we dropped in to see what it was about. Actually, 3 Fires Lounge, which the place is called, isn't a wine bar so much as a casual cafe with a few international wines by the glass and several Belgian beers. While it's casual, it's also comfortable, with plush chairs and tall barstools spaced considerately through the dark and spacious quarters. Grab a table on the 15th Street side and you can watch joggers at Capitol Park, theater goers strolling to the convention center, and limos depositing prom attendees at Mason's across the way. There's also a whole lot of wide-screen plasma TVs. The name comes from the coalition of three Native American tribes that owns a substantial piece of the hotel.

The menu runs to modern bar food - barbecued duck-confit crepes ($13), risotto fritters ($6) and mango cheesecake ($6). The happy-hour menu 4-6 p.m. Monday through Friday includes a cilantro Caesar salad ($5), avocado egg rolls ($5) and a petite buffalo burger ($5).

When my stylist asks about the wine, I now can tell her to try the young and beefy malbec by the Argentine producer Gascon.

May 9, 2008
Worth the Trip

Let's wrap up the week with a lingering note from last weekend's Riverside International Wine Competition. Actually, the note has nothing to do with the competition per se, but with a ritual the night before. That's when the arriving judges are to bring to a welcoming reception and dinner a wine they'd especially like to share.

The wines were spread out on a table on a patio of the Mission Inn. Judges browsed the array, picked what grabbed their curiosity, and had a taste. Sometimes they talked about it, sometimes they looked for a potted plant in which to dump the rest.

I tasted one wine that so knocked me over I quietly grabbed the entire bottle and put it on the table where I'd be sitting when we convened for dinner. The wine was the wonderfully bright and fleshy Kelly Fleming Wines 2004 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It was dark, juicy, sweetly plummy and perfectly balanced, with notes of both Napa Valley herbalness and hillside tar. And it lasted and lasted. It's my strongest candidate yet to be added to the next revision of my 10 Best Wines of the Year - So Far.

At about $85 a bottle, someone was really generous to bring and share the wine. I suspect that person was fellow judge Celia Welch Masyczek, a veteran Napa Valley winemaker now making the wines of Kelly Fleming. She didn't let on that she'd brought the wine, but she snagged a chair at the table where I'd put it.

In Sacramento, the wine is available for $86 at David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods. It's also available by the glass ($27), the bottle ($99) and the magnum ($199) at Paul Martin's American Bistro in Roseville. Why there? Could be because Kelly Fleming is the wife of Paul Martin Fleming, the entrepreneur behind several restaurants, incljuding Paul Martin's.

May 9, 2008
Sweet Spot on L Street

Chocolate, caramel and salt. Put them together and what's not to like? People who are discovering the "salty caramel chocolates" at Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates at 18th and L in midtown Sacramento are learning just how marvelous the combination can be. It's become perhaps the most popular item in her lineup of spring chocolates. To learn how she makes them, and to pick up some tips on how to work with chocolate, sugar, butter and cream, we dropped in to her shop the other day. Meet Ginger Elizabeth Hahn:

May 8, 2008
Picture It: An Award for Rick Mahan

What in the world were Robert and Margrit Mondavi doing in Sacramento last night, other than the obvious, which was savoring dinner at The Waterboy with a couple I didn't recognize? Dinner at The Waterboy is reason enough for a trek from Napa Valley to Sacramento, sure, but I suspect more was on the agenda than a meal with old friends. Probably had something to do with the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science nearing completion at UC Davis, underwritten with a $25 million donation from the legendary Napa Valley vintner.

Then another thought occurred: Could the Mondavis possibly be scouting out Waterboy owner/chef Rick Mahan as a candidate for a Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence? Never mind that the awards haven't been given out for about a decade. Though Mondavi subsequently lost his pivotal Napa Valley winery, the awards conceivably could be revived by the corporate officials who now own the place. Up to now, however, they haven't picked up many of the threads that Mondavi so famously wove into the fabric of the nation's culinary consciousness. But we can hope that they again will be proactive in promoting the smart, artful and, yes, moderate consumption of wine and food, always one of the abiding principles of Mondavi's philosophy. Revival of the awards would be a savvy way to reemphasize that connection between food and wine while also recognizing Mondavi's many contributions to the state's wine industry, and why not start with Rick Mahan?

Quick, who is the only Sacramento chef ever to receive a Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence? Why, Biba Caggiano, who got the tribute in 1996, the same year that five other chefs were recognized, including Cindy Pawlcyn, who at the time had 10 restaurants in San Francisco and Napa Valley, including Mustards Grill and Fog City Diner; Nobuyuki Matsuhisa of Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills; and Norman Van Aken of Norman's in Coral Gables, Fla.

The honor included a 30-square-foot portrait of each chef by Santa Barbara artist Rise Delmar-Ochsner. Caggiano's still looms over the bar of her midtown restaurant Biba. Space for such large art is tight at The Waterboy, but if the awards are resurrected maybe Mahan could hang a portrait at his new place.

May 7, 2008
Next Stop, Zamora

It's springtime, and the Dunnigan Hills in northern Yolo County are alive with the sound equipment, concrete mixers, power saws and the like. Or if not now, Friday, when Sacramentans John and Lane Giguiere break ground for a $2.5-million winery capable of producing 150,000 gallons of wine a year when it is completely built out.

They expect to have the first phase of the facility finished in time for this fall's crush. They've had big plans before and succeeded. The Giguieres, with John's brother, Karl Giguiere, founded R.H. Phillips Winery in 1983, starting with 10 acres in the Dunnigan Hills and building it into one of the nation's larger wineries before they sold it in 2000, when it was producing 800,000 cases annually. By then, their first small vineyard had grown to cover 1,800 acres.

Their new venture is Matchbook Winery, to rise on a 320-acre parcel at the junction of Yolo County roads 92B and 15B three miles west of Zamora. The couple already tends 73 acres of wine grapes on the property.

Matchbook Wines is a winemaking operation the Giguieres created two years ago under the umbrella of their Crew Wine Company, headquartered in Sacramento. They have four brands - Matchbook, Mossback, Sawbuck and Chasing Venus; wines for the first three are made in leased facilities and will be consolidated at the Zamora site, while the wines of Chasing Venus are made in New Zealand.

The Giguieres won't have a tasting room at the new winery until they finish the next phase of construction, to follow in a year or two, says Lane Giguiere.

May 7, 2008
Full Steam Ahead

Word came in too late last night to make today's Bee story about challenges facing restaurateurs in Old Sacramento, but here's another sign of confidence in the city's historic district: Janie Desmond Ison is coming back to Old Sacramento.

In 1994 she opened Steamers at Front and K streets, built it into a popular coffee stop for tourists and locals alike, and then sold the business in 2000. It closed this past Dec. 31, but Ison and her husband Jim, who also own Cafe Vinoteca at Fair Oaks Boulevard and Watt Avenue, which they will continue to run, have been enticed to return to Old Sac and reopen Steamers.

When they revive it, expected between mid- and late-June, Steamers will be more varied and ambitious, though initially open just for breakfast and lunch. The Isons are putting in a full kitchen, they're getting a beer-and-wine license, and they'll be adding dinners on weekend nights during peak times for the district (watch for their striking interpretation of banana-cream pie).

Why the name Steamers? Janie Ison said it originally represented both the steam wand on an espresso machine and the steam trains of Old Sacramento, but after they get the new Steamers up and running they'll also at least occasionally serve steamer clams.

The Isons are so confident in Old Sacramento's dining scene they've signed a 15-year lease for Steamers. "We're very bullish on Old Sacramento," says Jim Ison.

May 6, 2008
In Old Sac, The Grill's Turned Off

After 35 years, a landmark restaurant site in Old Sacramento is dark. The Fat family has closed California Fat's Asian Grill & Steakhouse, which originally opened in 1973 as China Camp.

"It was a combination of things. Number one, the economy. Secondly, there's more competition in Sacramento and the suburbs," says Jerry Fat, chief financial officer for the Fat family's group of restaurants. "California Fat's had been on a marginal basis the past year and a half or so. We're all down as more restaurants come into Sacramento, so it seemed the prudent thing to do."

Old Sacramento is busy weekends and for special events, such as during the Jazz Jubilee over Memorial Day weekend, but on weekdays local residents tend to stay away, adds Fat.

The California Fat's space now is being used for events like receptions and banquets. The family is looking at its options for the building, but it isn't likely to again house a restaurant, indicates Fat.

This hasn't been an especially auspicious year for the Fat family's restaurant interests. The family also owns the building along Alta Arden Expressway that housed Romano's Macaroni Grill, which closed in late March, about the same time the Fats were shutting down California Fat's. On the up side, the lease for the building has another two years to run, and Brinker International, the parent company of Romano's Macaroni Grill, continues to pay rent, says Fat.

May 5, 2008
Clean Taste, Less Filling

I'm all for recycling and reusing, but an incident in New Zealand shows that prudence may need to be raised with our environmental consciousness.

Two women in a restaurant had to be hospitalized after tasting what they thought was mulled wine. Instead, it was a dishwashing liquid with sodium hydrozide. The mixup apparently occurred because an emptied bottle of "Mountain Thunder" mulled wine had been filled with dishwashing liquid. Though a detergent sticker had been slapped onto the wine bottle, enough of the original label still showed to convince a server that the vessel still contained the requested mulled wine.

For more details, check out this article from The New Zealand Herald.

May 5, 2008
Lodi Rules

Sunday's final sweepstakes round at the 2008 Riverside International Wine Competition was long and chaotic, in part because it involved many more wines than I thought it would draw. After Saturday's tasting, when my panel and neighboring panels seemed to be nominating few wines for sweepstakes consideration, I figured Sunday's final round would include only about 40 candidates from the some 2600 entries at the outset of the judging.

We ended up with 64 sweepstakes nominees, however, which speaks well of the overall caliber of the wines in the judging, but raises the question of whether that big a field really allows enough time for the serious deliberation that should be given the wines the panelists concur are the very best in the field. Me thinks a better system needs to be created to trim the number of finalists so judges can more patiently and earnestly weigh and debate the merits of the very best wines.

Ultimately, the 64 wines were whittled to five sweepstakes winners, one each in five categories - sparkling wine, dessert wine, white wine, rose wine and red wine. The red-wine field was unusually diverse and tough, but when the votes were tallied the clear winner was a local wine, the warm, dense and bacony Michael-David Winery 2005 Lodi Earthquake Syrah ($28). It topped a field that included four stylish zinfandels, an unusual number of blends, a vivacious tempranillo, a shout from the past in a juicy alicante bouschet, and, curiously, only one cabernet sauvignon. I'm not sure what the weak showing by cabernet sauvignon says, but the first question that comes to mind is whether this is an aberration or crack in the varietal's standing as California's most highly regarded wine.

May 4, 2008
Overcast, But No Thunder

Today shouldn't be as long or as tough as yesterday at the 2008 Riverside International Wine Competition. Saturday, our four-person panel tasted through 137 entries, ranging from light chardonnays to weighty cherry wines. Today, we're scheduled to taste just 48; zinfandel, syrah and sherry for breakfast, anyone? And after that, we'll have the sweepstakes round, which traditionally involves about 40 wines, though it doesn't look as if we will face that many today. Our panel, for one, didn't nominate a single one of our gold-medal wines for sweepstakes consideration, and from what I've been hearing other panels also have been tight with coming up with candidates. Not sure what it means. A weak field? Stern judges? All that could change this morning, however.

My fellow panelists, incidentally, are Don Galleano, owner/winemaker of the historic Galleano Winery in Mira Loma, Riverside County; Carol Shelton, owner/winemaker of Carol Shelton Wines in Santa Rosa; and Doug Frost, a Kansas City wine and spirits consultant and writer. Galleano has an interesting shorthand comment when he comes across a wine he doesn't like: "Yuba City, I have no reason to go there."

By the way, if you find yourself hungry in downtown Riverside, consider Omakase, the only Japanese restaurant I've been in for some time that doesn't have sushi. What it does have is a boldly modern and creative take on Japanese cookery. A thick cut of seared steelhead trout, served on artichoke risotto, was spicy with arugula and tangy with lemon, while the sweet richness of roasted pork belly was intensified on one hand with a blackberry gastrique and mellowed on the other by potato gnocchi. And don't get me started on the light-hearted joy of the pineapple custard cake. Omakase is at 3720 Mission Inn Ave.

May 3, 2008
Thunder in the Southland

The bright side of a flight delay is that you finally have time to catch up on your reading. Fortunately, I'd tossed into my luggage a couple of new books as I headed for Sacramento International Airport yesterday. One of them is Gary Vaynerchuk's "101 Wines Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight, and Bring Thunder to Your World" (Rodale, $19.95, 236 pages, softcover). By the time I got to Ontario about two hours later than scheduled, I'd covered most of the book and strolled out of the terminal pretty much convinced that "101 Wines" is one of the more entertaining and, as the title suggests, inspiring wine books of recent years.

If the name Gary Vaynerchuk doesn't ring a bell, he's the wild guy responsible for, where he simply sits down with a New York Jets spit bucket, a few glasses of wine, and walks viewers through a tasting. He's loud, confident and almost always entertaining. His descriptions often are hilarious. That spunk is seized adroitly in his book, which basically is a series of descriptions of 101 wines he'd recommend to his best friend.

"I have selected wines that break down barriers, create new styles, and ooze charisma," he says in the introduction. He likes blended wines over varietals, and tends to prefer wines with big, ripe, concentrated flavors. "Fruit bomb" is one of his favorite descriptors. His taste often isn't my taste, but I do like the freshness, bluntness, humor and color of his descriptions.

Unlike a lot of wine books that talk of specific wines, his selections generally are current. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean they will be easy to find. Vaynerchuk lives in New York City, and several of the wines he's chosen, being European, may be easier to find there than on the West Coast. What's more, several of the wines were made in small lots.

Nonetheless, I found the book's enthusiasm so infectious that as soon as I got to my final destination, Riverside, I headed to La Bodega Wine & Spirits, which locals told me is the city's best wine shop. I walked in with my Vaynerchuck book and with the help of a clerk attempted to find among the shelves 10 wines I'd marked as especially provocative. Unfortunately, the shop didn't have a single one. Maybe I'll have better luck back in Sacramento. I'd sure like to get my hands on his No. 90 wine, the Peirano Estate Vineyards 2006 Lodi The Other ($13), a "dark, dark, dark" blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, and his No. 15 wine, the Topanga Vineyards 2006 Clarksburg Grenache Blanc Celadon ($28), which he says would "Buster Douglas" similar Rhone-style California wines priced much higher. (According to his Vaynercabulary, "Buster Douglas" means to unexpectedly destory the competition, and is taken from James "Buster" Douglas, who in 1990 knocked out undefeated world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in Tokyo.)

Why am I in Riverside? Not for the amazing hot-rod show under way just outside the hotel, though I do hope to tour it this afternoon, but for the Riverside International Wine Competition about to get under way. Like Vaynerchuk, I'll be looking for wines to bring some "thunder" to my palate.

May 1, 2008
Sour Grapes

Before long, Californians no longer may have to fret about getting busted if they have a glass of wine with their picnic at a winery. Not that people who do this actually look worried. Deep in state regulations governing the consumption of alcoholic beverages, however, is wording that suggests that wineries aren't to allow visitors to open and consume anywhere on the premises a bottle of wine they've just bought in the tasting room.

Under legislation drawn up by Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) and Senator Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa), the law is being clarified so wine-drinking picnickers need not run the risk of being charged with a misdemeaner. The measure, AB2004, passed out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee yesterday and now heads to the Assembly floor.

To clear up another wine-related matter, Wiggins next week is expected to introduce legislation to allow home winemakers to share with others the wines they make. Many already happily do this, but Wiggins recently learned that the practice technically is illegal.

According to a section of the state business and professions code, homemade wine is to be for the winemaker's own personal consumption. No one else - "not a judge in a competition, not your neighbor, not even your spouse if he/she did not participate in making the wine" - is to drink the wine, says Wiggins in a press release issued today.

As it stands, the law jeopardizes long-running home wine competitions, including the California State Fair's, Wiggins suggests. She says she will introduce her bill with an urgency clause so it would take effect as soon as the legislature passes it and the governor signs it, perhaps in time for this year's State Fair homewinemaking competition.

May 1, 2008
Billy Ngo's on a Roll

The six contenders for the 2008 SushiMasters Finals have been chosen, and the lone Sacramento representative is bound to be one tough opponent. He's Billy Ngo of midtown's Kru Restaurant, who won Best of Show honors in dramatic fashion last year after slicing a finger early in the competition.

The other finalists are Koji Ogawa of Sakura Chaya in Fresno, Tomaharu Nakamura of Sanraku Four Seasons in San Francisco, Akifusa Tonai of Kyo-ya in San Francisco, Takuya Matsuda of Sushi Bar Nippon in San Diego, and Aung Soe of Geisha House in Hollywood. The finalists are chosen through a series of regional competitions about the state.

This year's finals will be earlier than usual, moving up to June 10 at the Sacramento Convention Center. Sponsored by the California Rice Commission, the finals will be open to the public and also will feature sushi and sake tasting. Tickets are $65. For more information, visit the commission's SushiMasters Web site.

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