September 29, 2008
Update 2

This notion of blogging about a story as it is reported and written has had one especially surprising result. The story is about blended wines, more specifically American-made proprietary blended wines, the availability of which looks to be on the rise. I knew going in I couldn't write about these wines without mentioning "meritage" wines. These are wines blended with two or more of the varieties of grapes grown historically in Bordeaux.

At any rate, the international Meritage Association is based in California, where it was founded 20 years ago, and since has grown to more than 200 member wineries. If you visit the association's Web site, you learn that the term "meritage" was the winning entry in a national contest. According to the association, "meritage" is a blend itself, a portmanteau word that combines "merit" (for quality) and "heritage" (for the Bordeaux tradition of blending wines).

That isn't how Neil Edgar remembers it, however, and as the person who came up with the winning entry, he should know. When the contest was held, Edgar was living in the East Bay and working as an assistant manager for the Alpha Beta chain of grocery stores. He now lives in Elk Grove, works as a consultant to waste-management and recycling companies, and got in touch when he saw our recent items here about blended wines.

A longtime wine enthusiast, Edgar says that in responding to the contest he got out his dictionary, several wine books and began to play with different possible names for the prospective association. Eventually, he pared down his two favorite candidates - "American montage" - into "meritage." He's more amused than irked by the association's spin on the term's history, and isn't at all peeved that the group also says it's to be pronounced "mer-eh-tij" instead of the "mer-eh-tazh" he envisioned. "I got over it, it's been 20 years," Edgar says.

His prize for coming up with the winning entry was to be two bottles of each "meritage" wine made by member wineries for 10 years. He figures he got about a fourth of the total due him, but he isn't complaining. He got plenty of "meritage" wines, enjoyed many of them, and gave others to family members, colleagues, friends and charities.

"I haven't gotten any in six months or so, but I don't know what I'd do with it all anyway. It's more than I can drink," Edgar says. He's still a "meritage" fan, but also is keen on zinfandel, sangiovese, shiraz, pinot noir, gewurztraminer and riesling. "Unfortunately, I didn't name any of them."

September 25, 2008
Shenzhou 7, The Ultimate Lunch Wagon

For lunch today, I stopped at Ocean King along Stockton Boulevard. The barbecued pork and chicken were just OK, certainly not as captivating as the Chinese newscast that played out across the large high-definition screen at the front of the restaurant throughout the meal. It was devoted almost entirely to today's launch of Shenzhou 7, a three-man spacecraft now hurtling about the globe.

China's third manned space mission, Shenzhou 7 is to include the nation's first spacewalk. Headlines of other news creeped across the bottom of the screen, alternating with even more information about Shenzhou 7 - it carries three astronauts, the spacewalk will last 30 minutes, the mission is to go on for three days, 30 emergency plans have been developed should the crew run into trouble.

But the one factoid I couldn't quite get over simply said that "80 food varieties" were aboard Shenzhou 7. The tidbit leaves observers wandering how big each portion is, how they will be shared, and, naturally, what they are. But no matter how you dice it, that seems like a heck of a lot of food for three men over three days. No wonder China is considered the crucible of one of the world's more revered cuisines, if not the most revered.

September 25, 2008
Update 1

The first component upon which to develop a story about blended wines is to determine whether they indeed are increasing in number and popularity. So far, hard evidence hasn't materialized. At my request, The Nielsen Company is looking into its tracking of the sale of wines to see what it might have about the availability and performance of blended wines, but officials didn't sound too encouraging that their research goes that deep and specific. Other customary sources also don't have solid evidence concerning the sales of blended wines. Anecdotally, however, they all agree that they are seeing more blended proprietary wines on the market, evidence that winemakers see an opportunity worth capitalizing on.

One source is Paul Wagner, president of Balzac Communications & Marketing in Napa Valley. Though he doesn't have any figures concerning the sales of blended wines, he concurs that they do seem to be more common in the marketplace. Here's his explanation for the apparent increase: "Part of the trend is directly predicted by marketing theory. When the market is saturated, everyone is looking for an advantage - wine they can sell that nobody else can make. And with literally hundreds of cabernets and chardonnays on the shelf, a lot of wineries are making a proprietary blend that can't be copied: a wine the consumer has to buy from them, because she can't get it from anyone else."

Among other things, the Wine Market Council studies the attitudes and preferences of wine drinkers, but it doesn't break down its data into blended wines, says the group's president, John Gillespie. He concurs that more blended wines are on the market, and notes that the range is wide, from the first growths of Bordeaux to simple and cheap everyday wines, but he just hasn't seen any quantitative material to back up this hunch.

Next, I hope to check in with the Meritage Association, founded 20 years ago to promote wines that involve a blend of grapes grown traditionally in Bordeaux.

A footnote: One of the luxuries of working in the features department at The Bee is that I usually have some time to research a story. There are exceptions, but for the most part features writers don't have the daily deadline pressures of reporters in the newsroom on the second floor. What's more, I customarily juggle a few stories and columns at a time; right now, I'm working five I hope to finish over the next week. One of them isn't this story on blended wines, though I need to wrap it up within two weeks. This is just my way of asking your patience. In the meantime, any other thoughts or questions you have concerning blended wines would be welcome.

September 24, 2008
Corti Brothers, The Movable Feast

Sacramento culinarians can stop fretting about whether they will be able to buy their Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas panettone and even Easter ham at Corti Brothers, East Sacramento's longtime one-stop gourmet market.

For their Fourth of July hot dogs, however, they may or may not be able to get their picnic provisions at 59th Street and Folsom Boulevard.

In a bittersweet fall sequel to a drama that played out through the summer concerning the future of Corti Brothers, four major actors in the play confirmed today that Corti Brothers will remain where it's been since 1970, but not beyond next May 31.

A four-paragraph "publicity statement" by Sacramento attorney John M. Poswall, representing owners Darrell Corti and Allan Darrah of Corti Brothers, says little more than that an agreement has been reached for "an orderly move to a new location."

"It is expected Corti Brothers will occupy the current site through May 31, 2009, while they locate a new site in the area," says the statement.

Corti says he has no idea where the new store will be, but that he has retained a leasing agent to scout the community for potential settings.

Beyond that, he and other principals to the issue were largely mum, though in the prepared statement Corti pointedly praised his landlord, Nancy Cleavinger, for her "long-term support of our family-owned business."

Corti also thanked Michael Teel and his family for their "understanding" during the controversy and wished them "every success in the unique food concept they will bring to Sacramento."

The future of Corti Brothers became uncertain in July when Corti announced that the store would close this fall because Teel had leased the quarters for a branch of his proposed group of gourmet grocery stores, Good Eats.

But earlier this month, on the eve of a rally to protest the takeover, Teel said he was abandoning plans to occupy the premises.

The future of Corti Brothers remained uncertain, however, because Teel had signed a lease for the building and needed to renegotiate the deal before he could walk away from it.

"Yesterday, I signed documents to release me from my lease obligatons. I'm totally out of that project," said Teel today.

That doesn't mean, however, that another lease for a Good Eats at the Corti Brothers couldn't be drawn up, and Teel sounded amenable to that possibility.

When asked whether he might be interested in the Corti Brothers site after May 31, Teel said, "Yeah, if it's free and clear, vacant, and there's no deal with anyone else."

(Teel also said that the first Good Eats, which he originally had hoped to open this holiday season in Folsom Boulevard quarters formerly occupied by the restaurant Andiamo, won't be ready before April. The Andiamo site, said Teel, is intended to be primarily the kitchen to prepare foods to be stocked by the Good Eats stores, but without other sites ready to accept the dishes he isn't in a hurry to open the place. He also said he has a second Good Eats location "in the pipeline" but declined to be more specific other than to say it would be in midtown.)

Sacramento attorney William Roscoe, representing Nancy Cleavinger, who owns the building occupied by Corti Brothers, declined to comment on the Poswall document or to speculate on the future of the property. "I can't give you any further answers," said Roscoe. "Peace for the moment has been achieved. I'm not going to make any comment on what happens May 31."

September 24, 2008
Onward With Blended Wines

Well, I'm surprised. Two weeks ago on this blog and a week ago in the Dunne on Wine column in The Sacramento Bee I asked readers to tell me which of five story topics would interest them the most. I'd then pick the subject that elicited the most responses and write here about the process of pulling the feature together. The potential stories concerned crowd-control issues at winery tasting rooms, an apparent rise in the number of American-made blended proprietary wines, the holding of a home olive-oil tasting, the resurgence of the liquor absinthe, and the status of the dessert wine port.

First, let me thank all those people who responded to my request. More readers expressed themselves than I anticipated, both by posting comments on the blog and in e-mail messages and phone calls. If I were a betting man, I would have gambled that the dubious behavior of some people at winery tasting rooms would have generated the most interest. It didn't. It actually got the fewest number of votes, which explains why I'm not often seen at a blackjack table.

The subject that readers said they are most interested in reading about is blended wines. Why am I surprised? It just doesn't seem as inherently colorful, unusual and personal as other topics. It's a subject that intrigues me, sure, but I just didn't expect so many others to be excited about blended wines. Incidentally, very few replies looked to be from sources with a vested interest in the subject.

So how do I start to write of blended wines? First, I'm using the remarks of readers to provide some direction. Among other things, they want to know just what goes into blended wines; several readers are suspicious, asking whether blended wines simply are made with leftover batches of wine for which the winemaker has no other use. I suspect so, but we'll see. People want to know what are the really good blended wines, which is a question I especially look forward to answering because it means I get to taste several of them.

I put the topic of blended wines on the list of potential stories in the first place because I sensed that more are showing up in the marketplace. If so, I find this curious because winemakers, wine merchants, sommeliers and the like have complained for years that they are tough sells. Throughout the country's modern winemaking era, American wines have been packaged and sold as varietals more than blends, and that's what much of the wine-buying public has come to expect and ask for - chardonnay, zinfandel, pinot noir and the like, not blends with fanciful names.

First, however, I need to learn whether more blends actually are being made, and, if so, why. That means checking in with the usual subjects - firms that track sales, such as The Nielsen Company; marketing consultants like Napa Valley's Paul Wagner; and wineries that recently have released new blended wines, such as Trinchero Family Estates of St. Helena, currently introducing a blend simply called Red. Phone calls have been made, e-mails dispatched. Now I'm waiting for replies. Here's one, from John Gillespie, president of the Wine Market Council, who in response to an e-mail query says to give him a call. Excuse me as I do.

September 18, 2008
A Peek And A Loss

I've heard that Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama has a pretty nifty wine cellar, but his people haven't gotten back to my people (me). His wine collection may be even more impressive than the cellar at the White House, which wouldn't be difficult to surpass, according to Elin McCoy's illuminating chat with Daniel Shanks, who for more than a decade has been overseeing wine service at state dinners. The White House has just 500 to 600 bottles in its cellar, notes Shanks, who provides McCoy with several other enlightening tidbits about how he goes about finding wines to pour at official functions. Her report was posted today at

More depressing news has arrived from, which is reporting the death of the world's most outspoken, colorful and influential proponent of sauvignon blanc, France's Didier Dagueneau. He was killed yesterday while pursuing one of his other passions, flying. Among other things, he was celebrated for producing perhaps the planet's most complex and resonating sauvignon blancs.

September 15, 2008
Veteran Restaurant Manager Recuperates

Scott Smith, who in October is to mark his 21st anniversary as the general manager of the midtown Sacramento restaurant Biba, expects to return to work Thursday after being battered and robbed when he finished a late-night shift last week.

Smith says he was nearing his car in a parking garage at 29th Street and Capitol Avenue at about 12:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 7, when he was attacked by a man who beat him to the ground and retrieved his wallet before fleeing.

Smith drove himself to the emergency room at nearby Sutter General Hospital, and has since been recuperating at home from injuries that included a concussion, fractures to orbital bones, a lacerated lip, a chipped tooth, and abrasions and bruises. He had 13 stitches under one eye, five under the other. He may yet face surgery for damage inflicted about his eyes. His wallet contained "maybe $40," says Smith. "I'm usually cautious, but I walked out by myself that night," he notes.

No arrrest in connection with the assault has been made, say Sacramento police, who describe Smith's assailant as an African-American male, 18 to 26 years old, weighing 190 to 210 pounds, standing 5-10, and wearing a light-colored t-shirt.

Since the attack, Biba employees have been urged to park at a new garage at 28th and N streets, but a chef who heeded the advice had his car broken into a few days later, says Smith.

September 15, 2008
A New Plan For Plan B Cafe

After you break a leg and get laid up for three months, what are you going to do? If you're longtime Sacramento chef Mark Helms, who for the past three years has been executive chef at Tapa the World along J Street in midtown, you use your down time to plan your own restaurant.

And come late October or early November, with his right leg virtually healed, he'll open it. It will be called Ravenous Cafe, and it will occupy quarters currently occupied by Plan B Cafe at River Lake Village in the city's Pocket neighborhood. "I've had nothing but time on my hands," says Helms. His plans for Ravenous call for the space to continue to be a neighborhood restaurant with a New American menu - "what I like to eat myself," says Helms.

So where does that leave Lionel Lucas, who opened Plan B Cafe in April of 2007? He's delighted, given that the restaurant has been popular since it opened and he's been eager to move into larger quarters. He'll get that early next year at Arden Town Center, Fair Oaks and Watt. He's closing Plan B Cafe Oct. 18 to let Helms move in and to prepare to relocate the business. "It will be twice the size, with a patio four times the size," says Lucas of the new site. He hopes to open there in January or February. Given the larger size and what he expects to be an upgrade in ambience, he's dropping "cafe" from the name.

September 15, 2008
The Party Is Over At Masque

Masque Ristorante, the posh regional-Italian restaurant that opened at La Borgata shopping complex at El Dorado Hills in the spring of 2004, has closed. Friday was its last day, says publicist Nancy Mallory.

From the outset, Masque was expected to challenge midtown Sacramento's Biba as the premier Italian restaurant in the region, and during its first two years was both immensely popular and critically acclaimed. Restaurant writer John Mariani of Esquire magazine named Masque one of his 21 best new restaurants in the country for 2004.

But early in 2006 executive chef Angelo Auriana, who after 18 years had quit the highly acclaimed Italian restaurant Valentino in Santa Monica to move to El Dorado Hills, left Masque, and it struggled to regain its early esteem.

Developer Roger Hume, a principal partner in Masque, was not immediately available to comment, and Mallory said she wasn't authorized to speak to the reasons for the restaurant's closure. "I hate to be useless, but I'm useless," said Mallory.

September 11, 2008
Please, Give Me a Helping Hand

As newspaper managers try to staunch the draining of readers and revenue, one suggestion being debated within the industry concerns a restyling of the traditional gatekeeper role of the media. That is, editors have been gatekeepers, determining what news gets into the papers, the form it takes, where it's placed, and so forth.

Howard Weaver, vice president of news at The McClatchy Company, which owns The Bee, blogged not long ago that the gatekeeper role of editors has been diminished by the accessibility and speed of so much news and commentary elsewhere. Rather than rue this change, Weaver suggested that editors look at it as a chance to better connect with readers by engaging in more conversation with them - "learning what they think, sharing what they know and ultimately creating information that will be far more valuable and satisfying for them."

Weaver suggested that an editor list possible story assignments and ask readers to help decide which get covered first. He also proposed that a reporter blog about the reporting and writing of a story, "detailing what questions they need answered, taking advice and later telling readers in real-time about their progress (or obstacles) in learning answers."

Sounds fun to me. I have five story ideas I'd like to pursue. Before I get to work on any of them, however, I'd like readers to let me know which of the five mosts interests them. Feel free to tweak the story ideas here, and to suggest other topics. I'll go with the story that seems to have the most built-in interest, based on reader reaction. Then I'll blog about each step, from writing the "budget line" that goes onto an in-house list of potential or developing stories through the final editing and publication. That said, here are the five potential stories, in no particular order of my personal preference:

Blended wines have been the bane of wine merchants and sommeliers for decades. Though they're traditional in many of the world's wine regions, they've been relatively obscure in the United States, where wine marketing for decades has been based on the name of the grape contributing the most character to the bottle. Now there are signs that that's changing. More blended domestic wines are appearing in the American market, often with fanciful proprietary names like "The Prisoner" or the simple "Red." Blended wines still are a difficult sell, say merchants and sommeliers, but an increasingly adventurous American palate is showing signs of more willingly embracing them.

Winery tasting rooms, which not so long ago were quiet way stations where wine enthusiasts could sample wines, ask questions and learn to define their palates, seem to have become the modern equivalent of old roadhouses favored by biker gangs. Partying groups arrive by limo or bus, virtually take over the joint, and disrupt the leisurely and somber appreciation of wine. Is this a real or imagined issue? If there's some substance to it, how are wineries reacting? Is this why we see signs at more wineries saying that limos and buses aren't welcome?

Absinthe, an exotic and controversial liquor once banned in the United States, looks to be making a comeback, with at least one California distiller now producing it. It's an essential component of the sazerac, reputedly the country's original cocktail, and the official cocktail of New Orleans. The article would look into what absinthe is all about, how it got banned, and what might be different about it now to make it acceptable.

As winter nears, we take a look at port, both from Portugal and from the United States, where production is on the rise. We examine its history, talk with key producers here and abroad, find several in the local market to recommend, and outline how the beverage best is enjoyed.

More than 500 olive oils from around the world competed for honors at the Los Angeles County Fair in June. The three American olive oils to win the highest awards all were from orchards in the Sacramento Valley. As the year-end entertaining season nears, we tell readers how to stage a home olive-oil tasting.

Please vote and add your comments here, or e-mail me at, and thanks for helping out.

September 9, 2008
Undaunted, Paragary and Mikuni Set Openings

Despite the soft economy, restaurants continue to open, though not at the pace of a few years ago. Nonetheless, before the end of the month two prominent Sacramento restaurant groups are to open new restaurants, though one won't be as easy to get to as the other:

- Cosmo Cafe, the latest concept to spring from the Paragary Restaurant Group, is to open to the public Sept. 30 in a former Woolworth's at 10th and K. The complex, called The Cosmopolitan, also is to house a cabaret run by California Musical Theatre, and the Social Nightclub. Inspired by traditional New York delis, Cosmo Cafe will feature lunch, dinner, takeout, cabaret and late-night service and menus. The opening dinner menu is to include such "small plates" as marinated hamachi with apple, ginger and radish ($12), duck-leg confit with endive, walnuts and raisins ($13), and house-cured salmon pastrami with rye toasts and deviled egg ($10), while entrees are to include a bread pudding of mushrooms and butternut squash ($16), corned beef and savoy cabbage with fingerling potatoes and a mustard sauce ($17), and a "Cosmo burger" with caramelized onions ($12). Scott Rose, a former Paragary chef who lately has been executive chef at Paul Martin's American Bistro in Roseville, returns to Sacramento to run the Cosmo kitchen.

- Just before Cosmo Cafe is to debut, Mikuni Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar is to open its seventh location, and its first outside California. This Mikuni will be part of the Park Meadows "retail resort" in Lone Tree on the southern outskirts of Denver. The "grand opening" is Sept. 27, though the restaurant could be operating earlier, says Derrick Fong, Mikuni's CEO. Other branches of Mikuni in the works are Davis next spring and Las Vegas in the fall of 2009. Company officials also are scouting Portland, Ore., for a prospective site.

September 8, 2008
Classic Pairings Sweep Competition

Three classic pairings of food and wine showed why they are classics at yesterday's Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival, three days of cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, food seminars and even a pizza spinning contest, with almost all the events at the Village at Northstar outside Truckee.

As a prelude to Sunday afternoon's concluding public tasting of wine and food, six judges gathered several hours earlier to taste their way through 26 courses, each of which involved a dish by a regional restaurant coupled with a wine by a participating winery. The intent of the judges - Las Vegas restaurateur and chef Joseph Keller, Napa Valley master of wine Robert Bath, Culinary Institute of America instructor Lars Kronmark, San Francisco cookbook author Laura Werlin, longtime competition chairman Bill Ryan and myself - was to find the combination that most clearly enhanced both food and wine.

We started at 9:30 a.m. with deep-fried lobster corndogs with a sweet and soft riesling, an OK marriage, and finished about four hours later with a rich appetizer of blue cheese and pear preserve on a crispy gingersnap tile coupled with a dry medium-bodied red wine that showed some pairings just aren't meant to be, the fruit and cheese just too powerful for the modest wine.

By the time our votes were tallied, the winning combination involved seared scallops stuffed with crab pesto on a risotto cake in a beurre blanc aromtic with sage and zesty with lemon, coupled with a ripe and oaky chardoanny with enough spunky acidity to refresh the palate after a couple of bites of the concentrated scallop. The dish had been made by Sunnyside Resort of Tahoe City. The wine was the Rombauer Vineyards 2007 Carneros Chardonnay.

Full Belly Deli of Truckee and Dogwood Estate Winery in Humboldt County teamed up to win second place in the pairing contest with a substantial dish of sliced tri-tip steak wrapped around gorgonzola, caramelized onions and an ancho chile pepper sauce that was coupled brillitantly with a ripe, dense and sweet zinfandel.

Third place went to West Shore Cafe of Homewood and Anomaly Vineyards of Napa Valley for combining a spicy Moroccan-inspired lamb tagine with a supple and elegant 2005 cabernet sauvignon whose lush berry fruit was shot through with suggestions of herbs.

September 2, 2008
Bright 55 Degrees About To Go Dark

Restaurant 55 Degrees, Ali Mackani's sleek and shiny effort to help transform Capitol Mall into Sacramento's Champs-Elysees, will close Friday after a nearly three-year run. Like a competitor in the Tour de France whose bike suffers a blowout on the last leg, Mackani is exhausted and frustrated by stalled efforts to enhance the broad and potentially vibrant boulevard leading up to the Capitol.

"I thought other projects would come, especially residential condos, but it didn't happen," said Mackani, referring specifically to a proposed nearby high-rise condominum project that faltered. "After that, and the downturn in the economy, I couldn't see investing any more into a project without a return any time soon. Luc is one of the best chefs in Sacramento, but the best food and the best service don't necessarily mean financial rewards. Enough is enough. It's unfortunate. It's not the scenario I wanted on this project, but it's the hand I've been dealt."

"Luc" is his executive chef from the start, Luc Dendievel, who he said plans to leave the Sacramento area. "This town is going to lose one of the best chefs it's seen. He's in a class by himself, but he will move out," said Mackani.

Mackani now will concentrate on another midtown restaurant, Lounge on 20, which he recently opened at 20th and K.

About 30 people have been working at Restaurant 55 Degrees, which will remain open for lunch only through Friday.

September 2, 2008
Landmark Bakery Faces Closure

Some 200 restaurateurs in the Sacramento area are scrambling to come up with a new source of bread now that word is circulating that a landmark Sacramento bakery, Muzio Baking Co., plans to turn off its ovens and close its doors a week from today.

"I'm sad, our employees are sad, our customers are sad," says Mervin Fahn, who joined the bakery in 1955 and subsequently became the owner. "It's the times. The restaurant business is soft right now."

Muzio is a union shop, and Fahn says he offered employees unspecified cutbacks to try to keep the business going but that they turned down his proposal. "Without concessions, we have to shut down."

The company employes 14 with an annual payroll of approximately $1 million, said Fahn. Because Muzio provides union wages and benefits, it can't compete effectively with non-union bakeries when costs for fuel, supplies and so forth are rising, said Mervin Fahn's son, David Fahn, also a principal in the business. "We aren't able to raise our prices to cover our additional expenses against competitors who don't have the same overhead," added David Fahn.

Muzio was founded in Stockton in 1882. Quiric "Joe" Fochetti opened the Sacramento branch in 1929. The Stockton bakery subsequently closed, but the Sacramento plant has been operating 79 years. It's at 108 34th St. in north Oak Park, west of the UC Davis Medical Center.

One of the bakery's first and more enduring customers, said David Fahn, has been the grocery store Corti Brothers, which faces its own uncertain future after the owners of the business were informed by their landlady that she is to lease the structure to another group.

Muzio sells its sweet and sourdough breads exclusively to restaurants. David Fahn says the bakery goes through some 20,000 pounds of flour a week.

Representatives of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 85 in Sacramento weren't immediately available to comment.

September 2, 2008
As Smoke Clears, My Notes Become Readable

IMGP3792_edited.JPGRandom notes from this weekend's 20th annual Best in the West Rib Cook-Off at John Ascuaga's Nugget Casino Hotel in Sparks, Nev.:

- Before the cook-off, judges aren't to eat any ribs, despite all the inviting aromas in the smoke churning over the cooking stalls of the competing 24 teams occupying Victorian Square behind the hotel. Thus, our best friend - as well as the best friend of any vegetarians in the crowd - is Josh Polon, a Reno caterer, shown here beside one of his cookers. Instead of ribs, the constantly turning trays of his oven are loaded solely with ears of corn. This was Polon's sixth year to corner the corn concession at the cook-off. Before it was over, he expected to sell 44,000 ears of corn at $3 a pop. To prepare the corn, he and his crew pull the fresh ears from their crates, line them up in their husks on the racks of the roaster and cook them for 20 minutes at 500 degrees. All the corn is a sweet white strain from Biglieri Farms of Clements in the San Joaquin Valley. After the ears are roasted, they're shucked, desilked, dipped in a canister of melted margarine, and wrapped in foil to be sold. Customers have the option of dousing them will all sorts of condiments, from Tabasco sauce to lemon-seasoned pepper, but one of the more popular choices, curiously, is mayonnaise. But not for this judge.

- Supermarket shelves don't lack for jars of barbecue sauce, but when one of the country's more enduring brands, Woody's, disappeared about three years ago, Richard Janos of Roseville was especially upset. An uncle had introducted him to Woody's Cook-in Sauce in the 1980s, and since then it's been an essential component of the rib-eye steaks Janos likes to prepare. When he went online to see if he could find any remaining jars, he discovered some selling for up to $25 each on eBay. At that price, he figured a lot more people must be as keen on the sauce as he was. "I believed in the sauce, I saw its following on the blogosphere, and I saw what it was selling for on eBay," says Janos in explaining why he subsequently intensified his search for the product. His hunt led him to Reily Foods Co. in New Orleans, which had run into distribution problems with the sauce in part because of the turmoil following Hurricane Katrina. One thing led to another, and a year ago, Janos acquired the rights to the Woody's sauces, which also include a Sweet 'n Sour version. Woody Morse came up with the original Cook-in Sauce around 1946, says Janos, who now lives in Reno, where he's relocated Woody's, though he continues to work as a test manager for Hewlett-Packard in Roseville. He was one of several vendors at the Cook-Off enticing the crowd with samples of the sauces. In addition to the two original Woody's sauces, Janos plans to expand the product line, starting with a sauce fiery with either habanero or chipotle chile peppers, which he hopes to introduce next spring. As to the two traditional sauces, he says he's using the original recipes. "I haven't changed a darn thing," says Janos. The sauces now once again are widely available in the Sacramento area, where Janos has family members helping him revive the business. Look for the sauces at Safeway, Raley's, SaveMart, Nugget and Butcher Boy markets, says Janos.

- Dale Heiskell and his brother Lee, who own Texas Brothers' Bar-B-Q in Dalhart, Texas, form one of just five teams to compete in Sparks each of the 20 years the cook-off has been held. They haven't won since 1993, however. Why the long drought? "We compete in jut one cook-off a year, this one. Maybe we don't practice as much as these other guys," says Dale Heiskell. "This is the Masters Golf Tournament of Ribs," adds Heiskell. He also notes that while Texas Brothers hasn't won first place in 15 years, it also has finished second, third, fourth and fifth over the past two decades. "That's a straight flush." Not bad at all in a gambling town.

September 1, 2008
Bone Daddy Smokes 'Em

IMGP3806_edited.JPGFamous Dave's BBQ of Minnetonka, Minnesota, sold plenty of ribs at this weekend's 20th-annual Best in the West Rib Cook-Off at the Nugget Casino Hotel in Sparks, Nev., as seen here by the stacks of seasoned racks about to go into the team's cooker, but for the first time in three years the championship trophy went to someone else.

That would be Bone Daddy's BBQ of Midland, Michigan, which hadn't won the 24-team showdown since 1999, though it placed fifth in 2006 and third in 2003. "I can't believe it. I'm shaking," said Bill "Bone Daddy" Wall, who with his wife Kim has been competing at the Sparks cook-off since 1991. "I've never been more tired in all my years of doing this. There's not another event like this, this big, in the country. I have to give all the credit to my crew. I'm gonna go buy them all a cocktail."

The judging was done blind Sunday, with the results announced Monday afternoon as the 2008 event neared the end of its run. As it happened, Bone Daddy's dark, sweet and juicy ribs racked up the most points on my scoresheet.

This year's cook-off, spread over six days, drew an estimated 500,000 rib lovers, said Michael Traum, publicity director for the sponsoring Nugget.

In other events, two-time champion Joey Chestnut defended his world rib-eating title by consuming 9.8 pounds of rib meat in 12 minutes. Also, in the first-ever "Running of the Pigs," a porker named Mabel topped a field of 20 pigs in a 100-yard dash, while in the same sprint the pig named McCain edged the pig named Obama "by a snout," said Traum.

First-place prize money for Bone Daddy's was $7,500. In the sauce competition, The BBQ Company of Phoenix, Arizona, took first place with a blend notable for its unusual complexity and distinctive note of what seemed to be coffee.

Famous Dave's, meanwhile, placed fourth, worth $1,000 in prize money, but owner Mike Bowar wasn't complaining, saying, "We've never seen more people at our stand."

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