Appetizers
June 27, 2008
Usually, Smoke in Wine is from Oak Barrels

Jim Caudill isn't on the front line with crews fighting fires in Mendocino County, but as media representative for the Brown-Forman family of wineries he is on the front line of answering reporter and consumer questions about how the North State's wildfires could affect vineyards and the wines that will be made from them.

Thus, he's taken the initiative to canvas neighboring growers and winemakers about how they think fires, smoke and ash will affect this year's crop. In a press release a short time ago, Caudill says those he's talked with don't see smoke and ash clinging to the grapes to such an extent that it will leave the resulting wines with any sort of bacony, smoky or charred smell and flavor.

"The most interesting comment I heard was this: The ash and soot in the air will inevitably land on the grapes, and winemakers, at least, might like to turn on the frost protection overhead sprinklers, or fill up the spray wagons with water to mist and clean the grapes before harvesting them and bringing them into the winery for processing," writes Caudill.

Growers and vintners in the North Coast, however, face potential water shortages because of a near drought and because they turned on the sprinklers this spring to offset damage from a severe frost.

To the parched conditions and that frost, the fires are only the latest twist of fate to make the 2008 vintage quite possibly the most curious of the century. Or, as Caudill puts it: "After the coldest frost we've had in nearly 30 years, a near drought, and now this, you'll appreciate that many here on the North Coast are awaiting only the arrival of locusts."

June 26, 2008
Cabernet Franc Turns More Heads

The cabernet-franc bandwagon is picking up momentum in the Sierra foothills, to judge by an extensive tasting of the region's wines by the staff of the Web site AppellationAmerica.com. While the tasters handed out the most gold medals to zinfandel, their report raves at length about the region's cabernet francs, calling wines made from the Bordeaux black grape "one of the most exciting varietal winners" in the area.

Wednesday, I reported on the success that cabernet franc is having at the Placer County residential community Clos du Lac, and earlier this month I posted here a rundown of foothill cabernet francs doing well this year on the wine-competition circuit.

June 25, 2008
Landmark Loomis Restaurant Reopens

After four months of preparation, the old Horseshoe Bar Grill in Loomis is ready to assume its role as the New Horseshoe Bar Grill. That will be Friday, when it is to open to the public at 5 p.m.

The debut will mark the return to the front lines of hospitality of celebrated Sacramento restaurateur Eppie Johnson, who is teaming up with his nephew, Richard A. Bruce, most recently a restaurateur in Las Vegas, to take over the Loomis site.

They've brought aboard as executive chef Robert Facciani, whose upscale New American menu is based on seasonal, sustainable and organically produced ingredients. His opening dinner menu includes such starters as grilled Castroville artichoke with a lemon/pepper aioli ($6.95) and grilled asparagus with sauteed "tear drop" tomatoes, balsamic glaze and truffle oil ($6.95), while entrees include venison osso buco ($37.95), a Louisiana shrimp saute with andouille sausage over creamy grits ($23.95), and pan-seared Alaskan halibut cheeks with puttanesca sauce and squid-ink fettuccini in a butter basil sauce ($24.95).

New Horseshoe Bar Grill, 3645 Taylor Road (at Horseshoe Bar Road), Loomis, initially will be open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays, 2 p.m.-midnight Saturdays, 2-8 p.m. Sundays; (916) 652-4100. A Sunday brunch is to be added in about a month.

Mon thru Wed 11-9, Thurs 11-10, Fri 11-midnight, Sat 2-midnight, Sunday 2-8
Brunch won't start for about a month

June 24, 2008
Using the Land, Then Paying for It

I don't like being badgered by supermarket clerks who ask if I want to donate $1 or so to this or that earnest cause, usually something to do with cancer research, so why didn't I mind when the bill at a restaurant the other evening included an optional $1 surcharge to help preserve wildland?

I suppose I gladly went along with the pitch because it was privately rather than publicly delivered. Also, we'd just hiked along one of the watersheds that would benefit, however slightly, from our small donation, and fond memories of the inspiring scenery during that trek left us in an appreciative mood.

Not all diners welcome the charge, however, concedes Buzz Crouch, manager and co-owner of New Moon Cafe in Nevada City, which is where we'd stopped for dinner on the way back to Sacramento. "That's why we provide a pen, so they can scratch it out," says Crouch. A few do, but other guests put the pen to another use, such as adding a zero to the $1 to increase both the amount of their bill and the amount of their donation.

"At the risk of being presumptuous, we added $1 to your bill to protect the spacious lands and emerald rivers in the northern Sierra foothills. If you object, we'll cheerfully deduct the amount. Simply cross it out," says a note with the bill.

New Moon Cafe began to add the levy about eight months ago, Crouch says, and so far has been turning over between $100 and $150 a week to the three conservation groups that evenly share the proceeds. The program is called "Bucks for Healthy Rivers and Trails," and the funds go toward restoring habitat, expanding trails, reducing sediment and the like of the Yuba River, Deer Creek, and Wolf Creek watersheds, says a statement on the Web site of one of the beneficiary organizations, the South Yuba River Citizens League. So far, the program has raised $5,720, says Dan Murnane, watershed education specialist for the South Yuba River Citizens League.

I wondered whether New Moon Cafe and other participating restaurants considered any alternative way to encourage diners to donate without upsetting them, such as saying that $1 of whatever tip they leave their server would go to the cause. Nope, says Crouch, he didn't, before reminding me that the tip option couldn't seriously be considered because it's illegal for a restaurateur to in any way tamper with a server's tips. That said, we look forward to our next meal at New Moon Cafe, and to using the pen only to sign the credit-card receipt, with the donation.

June 24, 2008
Land Park Lands New Pizza Place

After more than a decade of cooking at restaurants in Minnesota and North Carolina, Robert "Bobby" Masullo, a 1988 graduate of McClatchy High School, has returned to Sacramento to open his own place, Masullo.

There, he's specializing in individual-sized Neapolitan-style pizzas fired in an Italian oven burning oak and olive wood. His opening menu is concise, but the selection of pizzas will be updated to stay current with seasonal ingredients. The first choices include a traditional margherita of tomato, mozzarella and basil ($9), a "brigitta" of potato, fontina, oregano and Niman Ranch bacon ($12), and a "mustapha" of mozzarella, granna, prosciutto and arugula ($10).

Other than the imported pizza oven, the restaurant's most unusual architectural feature is the tables and counter made from a single walnut tree that stood at 10th and Richards on the north edge of downtown.

Masullo, a 1992 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y., visited Naples four times to study the city's famed way with pizza. "Fresh, regional flavor is an inborn quality there. People take a pride in their local cuisine," says Masullo in describing the sort of culinary awareness he intends to cultivate at his restaurant. As to the pizzas specifically, he says he will be baking them in the Neapolitan style - "at a much higher temperature than the average American pie is baked at."

Full disclosure: Masullo is the son of Bob and Eileen Masullo of Sacramento; Bob Masullo is a retired colleague from The Bee.

Masullo, 2711 Riverside Blvd., serves dinner only, 5-9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; (916) 443-8929. The restaurant opened a week ago without its beer-and-wine license, which Masullo hopes to get sometime this week.

June 20, 2008
Relax, Italian Wine Fans

Come Monday, the spigot that allows the esteemed wine Brunello di Montalcino to flow from Italy to the United States will be back on, officials of the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau decreed today. It's been off the past few months as federal authorities impounded shipments of the wine after Italian officials accused some producers of using unauthorized varieties of grape in Brunello di Montalcino. Under Italian law, only the black grape sangiovese is to go into Brunello di Montalcino.

Now, U.S. officials have determined that Brunello di Montalcino can be released from the custody of customs agents and resume its journey to American wine shops and restaurants - provided that importers secure a declaration from Italian authorities that the wine is acceptable for sale in Italy and that the wine's vintage date and brand name meet the requirements of the Brunello di Montalcino Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG).

Though Italian winemaking standards are more rigorous than American, U.S. law stipulates that it is illegal to market mislabeled wine here, and any wine labeled Brunello di Montalcino would be misleadingly labeled if the wine didn't adhere to Italian laws. For a more extensive report on the Brunello di Montalcino scandal, see Eric Asimov's wine column in Wednesday's New York Times.

June 19, 2008
The Scoop on Wine Ice Cream

Word out of New York this week is that Empire State lawmakers have approved legislation to exempt from the state's liquor-control laws ice cream made with wine. According to comments by New York legislators and winemakers, the demand for wine ice cream is rising. If so, it must be only in New York.

While ice cream made with wine isn't unheard of in California, it's more obscure novelty than trend here. Dr. Bob Small, a recently retired professor of wine and business in the school of hospitality management at California Polytechnic State University, Pomona, knows both ice cream and wine. For one, he's proprietor of the Dr. Bob's line of hand-crafted gourmet ice creams of Upland. He's also the longtime director of the Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition in Pomona. A few years ago, he teamed up with Don Galleano, proprietor of the historic Galleano Winery at Mira Loma in the Cucamonga Valley, to make an ice cream based on the old California style of wine called angelica.

Small also has made ice cream with a gewurztraminer ice wine from Canada, an ice cream with prune armagnac, and a sorbet with Champagne. He's also been experimenting with batches of tequila ice cream. Nevertheless, he doesn't see such ice creams going mainstream. He does them for special events and a handful of specialty stores and restaurants. He's learned that the best wine-inspired ice creams come from highly sweet and concentrated dessert wines, which are among the more expensive wines, thus boosting substantially the price of ice creams made from them.

He doesn't know of any California winery or ice-cream company making wine ice cream commercially, nor does the trade group Wine Institute. State alcohol-beverage-control and food-and-agriculture officials have yet to respond to my inquiries.

Small sounds more interested in completing a wine book he's writing than pursuing wine ice cream as anything more than a sideline. He's wary of producing a product that seems like it could invite censure because of ice cream's traditional association with children.

New York authorities also anticipated that reaction. According to news reports, wine ice cream isn't to contain more than 5 percent alcohol by volume, it isn't to be sold to anyone younger than 21, and labels and menus are to include warning statements.

June 18, 2008
First Stop: Sacramento

IMGP3091_edited.JPGFor nearly two hours this morning, Darrell Corti, president of the Universita Di Corti, otherwise known as the storeroom at the rear of his Folsom Boulevard grocery store, Corti Brothers, lectured 14 gastronomy students from Italy on the history and culture of food in California.

I've no idea what he said. The lecture was entirely in Italian, except for the occasional "Conestoga wagons," "San Francisco," "mission fig" and "avocado."

Afterwards, however, I chatted with several of the students, all in their second year at the University of Gastronomic Sciences at Pollenzo in the northern Italian region of Piedmont.

They said they were surprised by California's diversity, from the range of fruits and vegetables grown here to the breadth of the state's microclimates. They were impressed by the scale of the California State Water Project.

Anna-Lena Banzhaf, a chef from Stuttgart, Germany, said she was stunned that except for one variety of wild plum no one is making commercial use of any indigenous fruits that were exploited along the West Coast before the arrival of European colonists.

Lucia Lantero, a chef at two- and three-star Michelin restaurants in Spain and France, said she drew from Corti's lecture a better understanding of why Mexican cuisine is so prominent in California. As she strolled about Corti Brothers both before and after the lecture she was awed by the stretch of international foods on the store's shelves. "In Italy, Spain, Paris, you don't find so many products," she said, carrying two she just had to have, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes and a bag of wasabi-flavored roasted peas from Japan. "I haven't seen these since I first had them at a restaurant in Shanghai. I never found them again, until today; I went crazy."

Corti Brothers was the group's first stop after arriving yesterday in San Francisco from Milan. This afternoon they were to visit the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis before returning to San Francisco. Over the next 10 days they are to visit Napa Valley, Sonoma County, take a baking class at a pastry shop in Larkspur, dine at the acclaimed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, visit a brewery in Santa Cruz, tour Full Belly Farm at Capay Valley in Yolo County, and eat a lunch based on locally grown radicchio in Salinas Valley, among other stops.

The University of Gastronomic Sciences, just four years old, is a spinoff of the Slow Food movement, devoted to the international understanding of food production and biodiversity. Students customarily already are well seasoned in the culinary arts, but through further study in such broad topics as cultural anthropology, economics, nutriiton and the like hope to broaden their understanding of and influence in how people eat.

June 18, 2008
Still a Winner

As reported in The Bee last week, for the first time in the five-year history of the Martha Stewart magazine Everyday Food something other than food is on the cover. Namely, people. Specifically, Martha Stewart herself and celebrity restaurateur Emeril Lagasse, who joins the publication with a regular column, Kick It Up.

Everyday Food has become my favorite culinary magazine for daily cooking, thanks largely to its pithy advice and concise, realistic, seasonal recipes. In recent days, from the June issue alone - Stewart and Lagasse are on the cover of the July/August issue - I've prepared tuna steaks with a salsa of grape tomatoes and red onion, spaghetti with pancetta, green beans and basil, pan-seared steak with spinach, grapes and almonds, a seared-chicken salad with cherries and goat-cheese dressing, and cheddar-stuffed hamburgers. The speed with which each could be prepared made them perfect for after a day at work. Except for the robust burgers, all were appropriately light and refreshing for the hot evenings lately.

Thus, I was a bit concerned that Lagasse's involvement in the magazine could change its practicality and helpful tone. Despite Lagasse's flamboyant personality, however, editor Sandy Gluck is sticking to the magazine's successful formula of providing recipes that are timely and respectful of today's pressures on time and finances. I not only look forward to Lagasse's recipes for grilled ribs and Caribbean chicken, but several of the July/August issue's other dishes, including broiled apricots with ginger whipped cream (though peaches may have to be substituted), gemelli with yellow squash, peas and basil, and the tomato, corn and avocado salad.

Most refreshing of all, I haven't spotted a single "Bam!" in the text.

June 16, 2008
South Pine Cafe Edges Closer to Sacramento

IMGP3075_edited.JPG
Aside from the occasional baseball game or concert, I avoid crowds. Thus, I generally don't eat out on New Year's Eve, Mother's Day, Easter and the like. Yesterday was an exception. I've been hearing good things about South Pine Cafe in Nevada City, so a Father's Day excursion seemed in order. But then I remembered how much I'd paid to fuel up the car the day before. And then I remembered hearing that a branch of South Pine Cafe had opened recently in Auburn, not quite so far removed from Sacramento.

What we found was a bright cafe that might have been as busy even if it weren't Father's Day. The place was jammed with old bikers, young families, and the large Marc and Monica Deconinck party. (They own Le Bilig French Restaurant in Auburn, and it's almost always a good sign to find restaurateurs patronizing a neighbor.)

The South Pine Cafe's extensive menu takes advantage of a modern and global consciousness to bring new color and vigor to traditional breakfast and lunch dishes. Lobster and a hollandaise with jalapeno chile peppers muscle into the eggs Benedict, the chicken in a burrito is seasoned with a Thai peanut sauce, and chipotle chile peppers, grilled onions and bacon beef up the "smoldering pine burger."

But while there's a New Age vibe to South Pine Cafe - a tofu scramble is spiced with jerk sauce, a vegetarian burger is made with pecans and brown rice - there's also a streak of traditionalism, as represented by such dishes as old timey biscuits and gravy, buttermilk pancakes, and huevos rancheros.

Father's Day is no day to review a restaurant, other than to say we found the mimosa tangy and refreshing, the Southwestern corn cakes sweet and snappy, and we look forward to another visit. If we're lucky, maybe a Sacramento branch will open one of these days. In the meantime, the Nevada City original is at 110 South Pine St., a Grass Valley branch is at 102 Richardson St., and the Auburn outlet, which opened in May, is at 660 Auburn-Folsom Road. All are open 8 a.m.-3 p.m. daily.

June 16, 2008
Yogurtagogo Strikes a Chord

Thumbnail image for IMGP3062_edited.JPGFor Sacramento's newest frozen-yogurt shop, Eric Heffel's timing couldn't have been better. It was hot Saturday night. Thousands of people were in midtown for the monthly Second Saturday art walk. And one of the stops for the new Second Saturday shuttle was right in front of his door at 19th and L.

Thus, the crowd inside Yogurtagogo was thick, happy and hungry, to judge by the number of people filling tubs of raspberry pomegranate, peanut butter, chocolate and mango tart frozen yogurt at 43 cents per ounce. Heffel had opened the shop at about 7 p.m. and within two hours it clearly had been discovered.

Heffel, of El Dorado Hills, who has been working in heath-care information technology, will be serving six flavors a day, including one non-dairy flavor for lactose-intolerant customers (pineapple Saturday night). The shop is the first of what Heffel hopes will evolve into a chain.

Yogurtagogo, 19th and L, is to be open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily, perhaps later weekends, said Heffel; (916) 346-4649.

June 15, 2008
Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel Tops Los Angeles Field

Judges who predicted that the Dry Creek Valley in northern Sonoma County was the source of the grapes that went into the zinfandel that won the sweepstakes at the 2008 Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition were on the money.

When the competition concluded May 30 the judges knew only that they'd elected a 2006 zinfandel as the best of the 3,500 wines they'd spent three days evaluating. Late last night, however, at a gala on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona, competition officials revealed that the winning wine was the Armida Winery 2006 Dry Creek Valley Maple Vineyards Zinfandel. (The price wasn't available immediately, though the 2005 version sold for $36.) The runnerup, the best white wine of the judging, was the Penguin Bay Winery 2007 Finger Lakes Gewurztraminer.

Seven wines with ties to the Sacramento area won best-of-class honors, including two by Bogle Vineyards of Clarksburg, the 2007 California Chenin Blanc and the 2006 California Sauvignon Blanc. The others were the Chasing Venus 2007 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, a New Zealand wine made by Crew Wine Co. of Sacramento; the Jessie's Grove Winery 2005 Lodi Old Vine Westwind Zinfandel; the Crystal Valley Cellars 2006 Lodi Tannat; the McManis Family Vineyards 2006 California Zinfandel; the C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery 2005 Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel; and the Michael-David Winery 2005 Lodi Lust Zinfandel.

For the Sacramento region, the most striking results of the competition may not be wine, at all, but olive oil. More than 500 olive oils from around the world were being judged by separate panels at the same time the wines and spirits were being evaluated. When the results of the olive-oil competition were announced last night, the top three American entries all were made with olives grown in the Sacramento Valley: The Olive Press Butte County Sevillano (best extra-virgin olive oil, domestic, delicate); Apollo Olive Oil Sacramento Valley Yuba County Mistral Organic (best extra-virgin olive oil, domestic, medium); and Calolea Early Harvest Yuba County Mission (best extra-virgin olive oil, domestic, robust). Italian and Spanish olives oils won the top honors in the international division. Olivas de Oro's rosemary flavored olive oil from the Central Coast won the top award as best flavored olive oil.

For complete results of the wine, spirits and olive-oil judging, visit the competition's Web site.

June 13, 2008
We Have Winners

After five hours of tasting and voting, and then tasting and voting again, and again, and again, judges at the 2008 California State Fair commercial wine competition finally chose a best-of-show white and a best-of-show red at 1:55 p.m. today.

I wish I could reveal the two top wines, but I don't know their identity. They aren't to be unveiled until the evening of July 10, when the fair holds its annual Grape & Gourmet gala at Cal Expo.

This much I know: The best-of-show white is a riesling, the best-of-show red is a pinot noir. Both are terrific representatives of their respective varietals, the riesling fresh, fruity, and persistent, the pinot noir striking a rare balance between youthful fruitiness and mature complexity.

Each was chosen from a field of 12 candidates, which earlier had been elected the best wines of the regions into which the competition divides the state (Sierra foothills, Lodi, South Central Coast and so forth). The group of 12 candidates for best-of-show white was interesting in that three of the candidates were sparkling wines, two were viogniers and two were riesling, all varietals or styles for which California isn't especially noted; only one was a chardonnay. The 12 reds were almost as provocative, with only one candidate being a zinfandel, one being a sangiovese rose, and two being unusual blends; three, however, were cabernet sauvignon, helping restore a semblance of balance to the wine world.

June 12, 2008
Last Choice at First Choice

Friday the 13th will live up to its notorious bum-luck reputation for fans of the Chinese cooking at the midtown Sacramento restaurant First Choice, 1313 21st St. Owner Kevin Zhang is closing the place tomorrow after a 15-year run.

The closure is to be short lived, however. The new owners, whose names Zhang didn't have at his fingertips when we chatted this afternoon, are to do some light remodeling in anticipation of a June 19 reopening, he said. He isn't sure what name the restaurant will use or what its concept will be, though he expected it to remain in the city's family of Asian restaurants.

Zhang says he's selling because he's tired of working seven-day weeks and because he wants to return to school, possibly to study acupuncture. First, however, could be a trip to China.

June 12, 2008
Lounge on 20 Readies Debut

IMGP3018_edited.JPGOne of the more congested intersections during Sacramento's monthly Second Saturday art walk is likely to be even more crowded this Saturday evening. That's when Ali Mackani, owner of Restaurant 55 Degrees on Capitol Mall, expects to start introducing Sacramentans to his new project, Lounge on 20, at 20th and K in midtown.

While the wine bar and restaurant occupies spacious quarters on the southeast corner of the MARRS building (Midtown Art Retail Restaurant Scene), it won't be fully operational for another week or so, says Mackani. The menu still is being refined, but guests should be able to get a pretty fair idea of the design of the space and the restaurant's choice of wines by the glass, its cocktail selection, and its Champagnes and other sparkling wines. (Mackani and his wine director, Kassidy Harris, plan to have 30 available by the glass.)

One of their principal goals is to create a space that will become as well known for its convivialty as its food and beverages. That should be no problem Saturday night.

June 12, 2008
This is Why Gold is So Cherished

For our panel, the second day of the 2008 California State Fair commercial wine competition was a lot like the first day: We tasted almost nothing but zinfandel, and again found them difficult and uneven. We ended up handing out a few gold medals, but I wish we'd found more that we could agree were worthy of merit. After most judges posed for a group photo, we convened at 8:56 a.m. Here's how it went for our panel from that point on:

9:15 a.m.: We got our first big batch of zinfandels, 22 of them, all from 2006, the same vintage we judged the day before.

10:03 a.m.: We complete our joint deliberation of the first flight. We all seemed surprised to find that we'd agreed to give two of the 22 wines double-gold medals. A double-gold medal is awarded when all the judges of a panel concur that the wine warrants gold. Yesterday, we didn't give a single double-gold medal.

10:12 a.m.: We begin our second flight, 21 zinfandels. We aren't far into the wines when head judge G.M. "Pooch" Pucilowski interrupts all tasting to remind judges to specify the problem whenever a panel finds a wine thought to be so seriously flawed that a another round of pours should be requested from a new bottle. Such a problem almost always stems from a faulty cork, one contaminated with a chemical compound called TCA. One of two such "corked" wines from the previous day, says Pucilowski, came from a boxed wine, while another came from a bottle with a screwcap. Though his comment suggests that a corked wine can't come from a vessel without a cork, that's not so. A winery's timbers and barrels also can get contaminated with TCA, which then transfers to its wines, regardless of whether it is in a box, a bottle with a screwcap, or some other kind of container.

10:25 a.m.: Judges have been given an experimental solution for rinsing and reviving their palates between wines. Pucilowski isn't sure of the contents, but it tastes salty and citric. A similar solution was used this spring at the Lodi International Wine Competition, where I found it quite effective in washing away tannin and restoring some sort of equilibrium to my tastebuds. At Cal Expo, however, the solution seems watered down, not up to the job. I push it aside and return to nibbling on the unofficial olive of many wine competitions, a big, fleshy, sharp and sweet green variety put up by Graeber's. It's New World vs. Old World, and for the duration of the day I'm back to the Old World.

10:50 a.m.: Of the 21 zinfandels in our second flight, we give just one gold medal.

11:05 a.m. We start to taste our third flight, 21 zinfandels from 2005. One tastes exactly like the baby bok choy I grilled the other night; too bad there's no class for baby bok choy, grilled division. My notes from another asks: Will somebody please change this baby's diaper?

11:40 a.m.: We finish our deliberations of this class, giving just one gold medal

1:30 p.m.: After lunch, we taste and discuss another flight of 2005 zinfandels. This time, we don't award a single gold.

1:40 p.m. One distinguishing characteristic of the State Fair commercial wine competition is that it chooses a best overall chardonnay, zinfandel, pinot noir and so forth. This afternoon, those deliberations got under way. Our panel helped choose the best sauvignon blanc and the best riesling. Three sauvignon blancs were up for the honor, two rieslings. In both instances, every wine was worthy of being the best, I felt. It came down to deciding which style each judge individually preferred. Among the sauvignon blancs, for example, No. 7031 was made in the zesty, spirited style of New Zealand, No. 7038 was exquisitely balanced, and No. 7039 was unusually complex and elegant for the varietal. No. 7039 got my vote. We won't know the identities of the wines for another couple of weeks.

3:40 p.m.: After a lot of hanging around to see if we will be needed for any further deliberations - time for an oatmeal cookie and a cup of coffee - we're dismissed. We resume tomorrow morning, and by early afternoon should finish electing all the competition's top wines.

June 11, 2008
Looking for Kings at Cal Expo

G.M. "Pooch" Pucilowski, who has been running the annual California State Fair commercial wine competition for more than 20 years, summoned his 68 judges to take their places at 8:48 a.m. today for the 2008 edition of the event, which continues through Friday at Cal Expo. Here's my first-day report as one of four judges on panel No. 9:

8:59 a.m.: The first carts of wine roll in. Almost all the wines are white or pink. This is the custom, lighter wines coming before heavier at the start of a competition. Not ours. All our wines are red, dark red. I check our tasting schedule. We're judging nothing but zinfandel, all from the 2006 vintage, 80 of them. The first flight consists of 27 wines.

9:17 a.m.: All 27 zinfandels are grouped before me. I stand and start to sniff each one. This is known as the "Peterson Method" of wine evaluation, named after veteran California winemaker Richard Peterson, also a judge at Cal Expo. This approach involves smelling and arranging the wines by their potential for a gold, silver or bronze medal. Only after we first smell the wines are we to start tasting.

9:25 a.m.: I taste my first wine, No. 2477, one of five potential gold medals I've set aside. It tastes of raspberries, but the flavor isn't as impressive as the smell. I move it to the silver group.

9:31 a.m.: The first glass of the competition gets dropped and broken. I didn't do it.

10:02 a.m.: I finish the first flight. I'm let down. Of the 27 wines, I have just five candidates for gold medals. I try to remember what kind of year 2006 was to have left so many zinfandels tasting so vegetal. Fellow panelist Richard Matranga, an attorney/vintner from Sonora, revisits the breakfast buffet, returning with a cinnamon roll. "After that flight I needed a reward of some kind," he says. This could be a long day.

10:10 a.m.: All four judges of our panel have finished going through the wines and convene for a joint deliberation. The other panelists are Mike Kerrigan of Sutter Creek, a cellar rat for Story Vineyards in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, and Claudius Fehr, a wine educator from Toronto.

10:35 a.m.: We finish our discussion, agreeing on what sort of medal each wine should get, or whether it should get any medal at all. Rarely have I sat on a panel whose members were so little in accord. Of the 27 wines, just three get gold medals, and none was unanimous or easy to agree upon.

10:46 a.m.: We begin to evaluate our second flight of 27 zinfandels. Why do so many smell of burned rubber and charred wood, I find myself asking myself.

10:50 a.m.: We get word that our third flight already has been poured, and that we will be expected to judge them before lunch.

11:08 a.m.: Richard Matranga, the fastest member of our panel, revisits the breakfast buffet, returning with a wedge of Brie. "The key is that it be some kind of reward," he says, brushing aside the small plate of roast beef, celery, olives and bread that each judge is given to help refresh his palate.

11:20 a.m.: We finish our second round of discussion. Some of it centers on whether wine No. 2681 has too many or just enough bacon bits. Of this flight, just one wine gets gold.

11:50 a.m.: We start to evaluate our third flight, this time 26 zinfandels. I'm still struggling to remember why the 2006 vintage yielded so many disappointing zinfandels. The vibrant raspberry and blackberry fruit expected of the varietal just isn't there in a surprisingly high percentage of the wines.

12:38 p.m.: We end our deliberation of the third flight by giving just one gold medal. The wines are basically solid, we concur, but largely unexciting. We break for lunch.

1:15 p.m.: We return from lunch expecting to be dimissed for the day, but find 19 more red wines arranged at each of our spots. Without explanation, we've been assigned another class, perhaps to reward us for being so efficient, perhaps to punish us for not giving more gold medals. All we're told is that these are "sweet red wines, all types, .61 residual sugar and above." With no benchmark other than that, I try to picture the context in which each would be most appropriate as I make my way through the lineup. Thoughts that come to mind as I swirl, sniff, sip and spit: Mardi Gras party where the masks are really elaborate. Cribbage match. "Macbeth" recital. Pillow fight.

2:25 p.m.: We finish for the day without giving any wine in the final group a gold medal. Me thinks we may have been a bit harsh. Granted, many were peculiar, but a few were solid enough to add to the pleasure of beach party or backyard barbecue soiree. So it goes.

We resume at 8:30 a.m. Thursday. Let's look at what's ahead of us: 90 zinfandels. Where's my toothbrush?

June 11, 2008
Sushi Title Rolls from Sacramento to San Francisco

We missed last night's 2008 SushiMasters competition at the Sacramento Convention Center - and you thought all those people around 13th, L, K and J were attending "Phantom of the Opera" - but we were able to catch up with the pageantry, tradition and artistry of the discipline this morning through Bee photographer Andy Alfaro's video of the event.

Best of Show honors went to Tomaharu Nakamura of Sanraku Four Seasons in San Francisco, who beat out five other sushi chefs for the trophy, including Sacramento's Billy Ngo of the midtown restaurant Kru, the defending champ.

June 10, 2008
David Berkley Stepping Aside

After a nearly 24-year run, David and Diania Berkley are selling their David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods at the Pavilions shopping complex in Sacramento.

Though Berkley confirmed by email that he and his wife are "stepping aside from the day to day operations" of the small and perpetually crowded shop, he wasn't immediately available to discuss details of the transaction.

R&M Gourmet Foods LLC, a joint venture involving Ray Matteson, a longtime customer of the store, and Greg Rhategan, a specialty food and wine purveyor from the East Coast, are taking over. They will retain the store's name and concept, said Berkley.

Over the years, the store became celebrated for its selection of choice international wines, its lineup of chocolates, condiments and other specialty foods, its collection of cheeses and other deli items, and its modern menu of globally inspired dishes. Long before today's commercial emphasis on locally grown seasonal produce, Berkley was rounding up cherries, peaches, asparagus and the like from growers close to Sacramento.

Berkley had been a wine merchant with Corti Brothers for about 12 years when he left in late 1984 with plans to open his own shop the next spring at the Pavilions, then under construction along Fair Oaks Boulevard east of Howe Avenue.

During the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan, Berkley became the unpaid and unofficial but active wine adviser to the White House, delighting in selecting California wines with themes appropriate to honor the guest of honor at state dinners, such as as Prince Charles of England and French President Francois Mitterrand.

In thanking customers for their patronage, Berkley said: We have cultivated special relationships with our customers who have joined us along with our staff in an epicurean journey...It is our wish that the community will continue to enjoy our tradition of elevating a shopping trip to a memorable experience."

June 10, 2008
A Flight of Pho

In case of turbulence, I'm not sure I'd want a bowl of the hot Vietnamese noodle soup pho in my lap while flying out of Sacramento International Airport, but a week from today travelers are to have that option.

That's when Mai Pham is scheduled to open a branch of her Lemon Grass Asian Grill & Noodle Bar in Terminal A. Easier to handle than the pho will be several other items on the takeout menu, including shrimp salad rolls, Thai beef salad, grilled Bangkok chicken, and jungle curry with tofu and vegetables.

The airport cafe marks the first time that Pham has agreed to a licensing partnership with a national company (HMSHost), and she sees the move as a possible step toward introducing the Lemon Grass concept to a much broader audience.

Pham, who has owned the Vietnamese and Thai restaurant Lemon Grass along Munroe Street for nearly 20 years, introduced Lemon Grass Asian Grill & Noodle Bar along Howe Avenue in 2006 as an outlet for more casual dishes representing Southeast Asian street food and market kitchens. Pho is her signature dish, but the Terminal A menu, an abbreviated version of her other menus, also includes the spicy Thai noodle soup kao soi, grilled lemon grass chicken and assorted curries and salads.

In addition, the menu includes breakfast paninis, oatmeal and pastries from La Bou Bakery and Cafe, the chain of croissant shops in which Pham also is a principal.

June 9, 2008
BLT's Lose Their T

Tomatoes are being sliced from the menus of Sacramento-area restaurants as restaurateurs and chefs respond to an outbreak of salmonellosis linked to the most popular fruit of summer.

So far, however, chain operators with fixed year-round menus are being the most proactive in eliminating tomatoes.

Independently owned restaurants with seasonal and regional menus haven't yet started to use locally grown varieties and are waiting to follow the recommendations of public-health authorities, who already have advised that California-grown cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached, and home-raised tomatoes are safe to eat.

"It's a little early for the big fresh summer tomatoes," says Biba Caggiano, owner of the midtown Sacramento restaurant Biba. "We're using cherry and grape tomatoes from GreenLeaf Produce in San Francisco, and they're FDA approved."

At Bidwell Street Bistro in Folsom, chef Wendi Mentink is taking the same stance. While her new spring menu is heavy with asparagus, tomatoes aren't prominently featured, and won't be until local heirloom varieties start to become available in another two weeks or so.

At Luigi's Pizza Parlor along Stockton Boulevard in Sacramento, owner Frank Brida says he's so confused about the tomato issue that he's stopped topping his pizzas with the fruit until he gets some clarification from local public-health authorities. "The health department should put out a directive," Brida says.

(Alicia Enriquez, program manager in the environmental health division of the County of Sacramento Environmental Management Department, says local authorities are looking into that, but in the meantime are urging restaurateurs, shopkeepers and others concerned about the matter to follow FDA guidelines, which advise against eating raw red plum, raw red Roma, or raw round red tomatoes.)

As a precaution, chains such as Noah's Bagels and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers have pulled tomatoes from their sandwiches and salads in recent days.

"We just want to be on the safe side, providing the freshest and healthiest products we can," says Peter Jakel, communications manager for the Einstein Noah Restaurant Group in Lakewood, Colo., which has some 600 bagel outlets in North America.

Kevin Caulfield, director of communications for Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc. of Greenwood Village, Colo., says the chain discarded and withdrew tomatoes from its 400 outlets, including four in the Sacramento area, last Wednesday.

"We hope it will be of short duration, but it will last until we hear from an authoritative source, such as the FDA, that the tomato supply is safe," says Caulfield.

Workers at Produce Express in Sacramento, which supplies many restaurants, markets, delis and the like with vegetables and fruit, fielded between 300 and 400 calls Monday from customers concerned about the safety of tomatoes they'd bought, says sales manager Jim Mills.

"They're asking if they should continue to use them. We're leaving it up to them. We don't know enough. This is a warning, not a recall," Mills says. "Officials are saying there are bad tomatoes out there, but they can't find them, they don't know where they are from. A little information is dangerous."

In short, Produce Express is advising customers to follow the FDA guidelines. Also, as of Wednesday all tomatoes to be distributed by Produce Express will have been grown in California, Mills says.

So far, about two dozen customers have accepted an offer by Produce Express to exchange tomatoes or to receive credit for their purchases in recent days, Mills notes.

June 9, 2008
A Few from the West Make Good in the East

A few California restaurateurs and chefs won honors during this weekend's James Beard Awards in New York. Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco share the award for outstanding pastry chef; the Napa Valley restaurant Terra of St. Helena got the award for outstanding service; Craig Stoll of the San Francisco restaurant Delfina was named outstanding chef for the Pacific region; San Francisco cookbook author Paul Wolfert had her book "Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco" inducted into the Cookbook Hall of Fame; and San Francisco brewer Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing was given the organization's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Per usual, however, East Coast culinarians tended to dominate the awards, with Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali of Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca in New York being named outstanding restaurateurs, and Gramercy Tavern of New York designated the outstanding restaurant. Grant Achatz of the restaurant Alinea in Chicago was named outstanding chef.

June 9, 2008
Barbera Shines in Amador Competition

Angie Tarbat's fast-pitch softball team was playing well but nonetheless struggling in a Modesto tournament Saturday. Her family's barbera, however, was cruising to an easy win in the Amador County Fair commercial wine competition at Plymouth.

The sweepstakes wine is the big and balanced Boitano Family Wines 2006 Sierra Foothills Shenandoah Valley Barbera ($24), just released. To get to the sweepstakes, the wine first had to be declared best of class, then top the most competitive round of the day, the voting for best red, which involved 18 wines, ranging from a sangiovese and a syrah to a meritage and a merlot. Then it went up against a sauvignon blanc, a port and a rose in the final showdown.

Bob and Erlene Boitano established Boitano Family Wines in 1999 at Mokelumne Hill, Calaveras County, starting with a sangiovese vineyard. They introduced the brand in 2001. The wines are made at Lockeford. The grapes for the sweepstakes barbera were grown at Dick Cooper's ranch in the Shenandoah Valley.

At last year's Amador County Fair, the Boitano Family Wines 2005 Shenandoah Valley Barbera also put in a strong performance, being named the best Amador County wine based on a traditional Italian grape variety. The 2005 barbera still is available at some Raley's supermarkets in the Sacramento area, but the 2006 has yet to reach the local market. The Boitanos bottled 350 cases of the wine, and have more in barrel.

Angie Tarbat's 12-and-under softball team, incidentally, finished third in the Modesto tournament.

June 6, 2008
Revolution Feeling the Crush

In less than a year, Revolution Wines, believed to be the first commercial winery to put down roots within the city limits of Sacramento since the repeal of Prohibition, is outgrowing its P Street quarters and may move before this fall's crush.

The plan, however, is for Revolution to remain within the city as an urban winery, says partner and winemaker Jason Fernandez. He has his eye on another downtown/midtown site and is close to negotiating a deal, but no lease has been signed.

Revolution is looking to relocate almost solely because it needs more room, says Fernandez. He crushed 70 tons of grapes last fall, enough for about 4,200 cases of wine, and frets that he won't have room enough for the coming vintage without getting himself squeezed between barrels and tanks. If he gets the site he wants, he'll have enough space to crush up to 200 tons of grapes, though he doesn't expect to do near that much fruit this year. The new quarters also would provide the winery with more visibility. The current space backs up onto an alley behind other businesses, with access from the front puzzling to some first-time visitors.

June 6, 2008
Judges, Proceed as Planned

Just in time for tomorrow's Amador County Fair homemade wine competition in Plymouth, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger today signed legislation to assure that the judging can proceed without a cloud overhead.

Such competitions have been going on for years, but earlier this spring an official of the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control said a provision of the state's business and professions code made it illegal for home winemakers to share their wines with others, even including judges at county fairs.

No one but the winemaker - "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, said Sen. Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa) as she quickly introduced a bill to rectify the matter.

"Even though the provision banning home winemaker competitions had not been widely enforced in practice, the growing legions of home winemakers did not deserve to have an arcane section of state law hanging over them," Wiggins said Friday after the governor signed her bill as an "urgency measure," meaning it takes effect immediately.

More than 50 fairs hold homemade wine competitions, said Stephen Chambers, executive director of the Western Fairs Association.

June 6, 2008
Cabernet Franc the Next Star in the Foothills?

Vintners in Nevada County often talk up cabernet franc as the grape and the wine that ultimately will set them apart from their brethern in the Sierra foothills. Rarely, however, do other grape growers and winemakers in the Mother Lode sing the praises of cabernet franc, a black grape commonly used to add complexity to cabernet sauvignon and merlot in Bordeaux and California, but developing a following in California as a varietal.

At yesterday's annual Foothill Grape Day at Sogno Winery of Shingle Springs, however, speaker Bill Easton of Terre Rouge/Easton Wines in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley said he sees a promising future for cabernet franc in the region, even though he doesn't grow any and only occasionally makes wine from the grape.

Easton noted that the Sierra foothills appellation not only is large but is characterized by an array of elevations, exposures and micro-climates that still have to be explored for their grape-growing potential. What's more, cabernet franc looks to be a versatile grape that can adapt well to a wide range of growing conditions, though he thinks its best potential is in cooler reaches of the foothills, 2000 feet and higher. Already, says Easton, he's tasted some "incredibly great" cabernet francs from the region.

Coincidental with Easton's remarks, I'd been reviewing the showing of foothill wines in several competitions over the past year, and have been struck by how often cabernet franc has performed well. Here's gold-medal foothill cabernet francs from six competitions I've tracked so far:

Conti Estate/Charles B. Mitchell Vineyard & Winery 2005 El Dorado Reserve Cabernet Franc ($25), which got a gold medal at the Calaveras County Fair and a gold medal and best of class at the El Dorado County Fair.

Crystal Basin Cellars 2006 El Dorado County Reserve Cabernet Franc ($25), gold at El Dorado, expected to be released in about two months.

Latcham Vineyards 2005 Fair Play Special RSV Cabernet Franc ($20), a unanimous gold-medal wine and winner of a chairman's award at the Riverside International Wine Competition.

Mt. Vernon Winery 2004 Placer County Cabernet Franc ($24), gold at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Nevada City Winery 2005 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Franc ($24), gold at the Chronicle.

Pilot Peak Winery 2006 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Franc ($25), gold at El Dorado.

Murphy Vineyards 2005 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Franc ($16.50), gold at the Chronicle.

Two other gold-medal winners from the Sacramento region, though not from the foothills, are the Cinnabar Vineyards 2004 Lodi Cabernet Franc ($35), best of class at the Chronicle, and the Jeff Runquist Wines 2006 Clarksburg Salmon Vineyard Cabernet Franc ($18), gold at the Chronicle.

In looking back over this list, one concern comes to mind. Vintners of the more expensive wines may want to review their pricing strategy. Cabernet franc is a relatively new grape and wine in the local area. Consumers aren't likely to spend big bucks for a varietal with which they aren't familiar. I've seen this kind of high pricing with sangiovese, viognier and syrah, all of which have struggled to develop a following. High prices could be one reason for their difficulties. If cabernet franc has a chance to establish itself as a distinguished member of the region's wine lineup, it would be more encouraging to see more releases made more accessible with lower prices.


June 5, 2008
Chardonnay Over the Top, Or Is It?

I know alcohol levels in table wines have been rising, but a chardonnay with 18 percent alcohol? Sure enough, that's what the label said on a bottle of chardonnay we tasted a few days ago. The wine was big, all right, with a brassy yellow color, ripe fruit, fat body and a touch of sweetness, but it didn't taste all that warm.

Did it really contain 18 percent alcohol? Nope, says Hank Battjes, owner of Gold Hill Vineyard at Coloma in El Dorado County. His chardonnays are actually closer to 13 and 13.5 percent alcohol, says Battjes. So why the discrepancy? It was a printing error, says Battjes, who let the matter ride because of the cost in time and money to reprint the labels.

The error is on both Gold Hill's 2007 El Dorado Chardonnay and the 2006 Reserve Chardonnay.

"I've given up on that label outfit," says Battjes.

June 4, 2008
Lodi Winery Finds Its El Dorado

Macchia Wines of Lodi doesn't make bashful wines. Almost without exception, they're big and concentrated. By their names alone, Macchia Wines don't so must stand on the shelf as swagger: Bodacious, Outrageous, Infamous and so forth. They clearly impressed judges at Friday's El Dorado County Fair Commercial Wine Competition.

Macchia came away from the judging with two double-gold medals, three gold medals, and the sweepstakes honor, the latter for the Macchia Wines 2006 Amador County Cooper Ranch Infamous Barbera ($22), which also was one of the two wines to get a double gold, awarded only when all the judges on a panel concur that a wine warrants a gold medal. The other double-gold wine was the Macchia Wines 2006 Lodi Noma Ranch Outrageous Zinfandel ($18).

Macchia's other wines to win gold were the 2006 Lodi Mischievious Zinfandel ($18), the 2006 Amador County Bodacious Petite Sirah ($24) and the 2006 Lodi Rebellious Petite Sirah ($24).

Macchia's strong performance, perhaps unprecedented in the competition, also included four silver medals and three bronzes.

A few other wineries also turned in impressive showings - C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery (two double-golds, a best of class, a gold, five silvers and a bronze), Jeff Runquist Wines (a double-gold, three golds, five silvers and a bronze), Mount Aukum Winery (four golds, a best of class, six silvers and five bronzes), and Toogood Estate Winery (a double gold, two golds, best organically made wine, six silvers and seven bronzes).

Results are to be posted tonight on the fair's Web site.

June 2, 2008
Sauvignon Blancs Get Upstaged

Today's lunch-hour wine tasting was all about sauvignon blanc, in particular the wide range of styles in which it can be made. They came from California, South Africa, New Zealand, Chile and France, and they ranged in price from $18.50 to $70. Most were dry, but a couple were unusually sweet for the varietal. All nine were enlightening, each representing with balance and polish the varied sources of their grapes and the varied aspirations of their winemakers. The thread that tied them together was their crisp acidity, their refreshing fruitiness and their potential compatability with food. They showed with backbone and zest precisely why sauvignon blanc is so friendly at today's dinner table, which, I presume, is one point the sponsors of the tasting, officials of St. Supery Vineyards & Winery in Napa Valley, wanted to make.

Afterwards, however, a totally unrelated wine was poured, which proved so spectacular it gave me another candidate for my next update of The 10 Best Wines of the Year, So Far. It's the St. Supery 2004 Napa Valley Elu, a fleshy and mouth-filling red based largely on cabernet sauvignon but also including a substantial portion of merlot and smaller contributions of petit verdot, cabernet franc and malbec. At $65 a bottle, it's dear, but it delivers enchanting aromatics, generous oak and a lush and spicy fruitiness that ranges from juicy blackberries to sunny cherries. We're more into sauvignon-blanc weather right now, but this is one wine to keep in mind for the year-end holidays, especially when you are looking for a gift for the cabernet enthusiast on your shopping list.



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