October 29, 2008
Randy Paragary, History Buff

Sacramento restaurateur Randy Paragary is something of a history buff. That's evident at his newest restaurant, Cosmo Cafe at 10th and K downtown. He not only has dressed up lounge and dining area with magnificent photos of the city's business core during an earlier heyday, he's hauled out of storage the collection of political memorabilia that once brightened his Capitol Grill at 28th and N, now Ink Eats & Drinks.

And now he's nearly nailed down a deal that would give him and longtime business partner Kurt Spataro half interest in one of Lake Tahoe's more historic and iconic dining and drinking destinations, Chambers' Landing at Tahoma on the lake's west shore. The two plan to team up with old Tahoe hand Rick Brown to lease the seasonal hot spot, which includes a bar on the end of a pier and a restaurant just above the beach. The bar dates from 1857 or 1858 and has seen duty as general store, schoolhouse and post office as well as tavern.

The three plan to lightly remodel both structures over the winter and have them ready for their next incarnation by Memorial Day, when the facility customarily reopens for the summer. Paragary says seating at the bar on the pier will be expanded and its traditional burger menu will be upgraded along the lines of Taylor's Automatic Refresher in Napa Valley and San Francisco.

The menu at the shoreside restaurant, meanwhile, will be rewritten to offer more casual dining than Chambers' Landing has been recognized for in the past. The culinary style will be California Cuisine, says Paragary.

The three are sure to retain, however, the restaurant's signature tropical cocktail, the Chambers' Punch, which Brown is credited with creating in the 1970s.

Graham Rock, who had been running Chambers' Landing for 18 years, says he gave up the facility because of his concern that consumers are cutting back in dining out while they're in the Tahoe Basin, because of homeowner-association restrictions on what he wanted to do with the site, and because he wants to concentrate on his other restaurant, Graham's in Squaw Valley.

October 28, 2008
Zagat Sizes Up Sacramento

For the first time, Sacramento is included in Zagat Survey's guide to "America's Top Restaurants" (Zagat, 348 pages, $15.95). The 2009 edition, just rolling out to book shops, covers 1,516 restaurants in 45 cities. The guide's evaluations are based on the experiences of more than 145,000 volunteer surveyors who eat out more than an average three times a week.

This past spring, Zagat officials invited Sacramentans to send in their comments concerning the food, decor, service and cost of area restaurants. From that database, Zagat's editors chose 20 restaurants as the Sacramento area's best.

They include many of the usual suspects - Biba, Ella, Firehouse, Lemon Grass, Mulvaney's, Paragary's and The Waterboy - but also a few surprises: Boulevard Bistro in Elk Grove, Frank Fat's in downtown Sacramento, Kru in midtown Sacramento, La Bonne Soupe Cafe in downtown Sacramento, Osteria Fasulo in Davis and Tower Cafe along Broadway in Sacramento.

The top five restaurants ranked for their food only are La Bonne Soupe, The Kitchen, The Waterboy, Mulvaney's and Biba.

The five most popular restaurants, which takes into consideration surveyor comments concerning service, decor and cost as well as food, are Mikuni, Biba, The Waterboy, Ella and Mulvaney's.

The survey also found that Sacramentans tip an average 18.6 percent compared to the national average of 19 percent; that two-thirds of Sacramentans are willing to pay more for food that is sustainably raised compared with 59 percent for the U.S. average; and that Sacramentans rank second only to San Franciscans in considering locally grown or locally raised foods "very important" or "somewhat important;" in both cities, 40 percent to 44 percent of the people who responded said such foods are either "very important" or "somewhat important," while on the national average just 26 percent of diners thought such foods were "very important," while 43 percent thought them "somewhat important."

Nationally, 65 percent of those surveyed feel trans fats should be banned in restaurants, compared with 62 percent of Sacramentans who feel the same way.

Both nationally and in Sacramento, diners' favorite cuisine is Italian, followed by "American." Sacramentans are keener on Japanese and Mexican food than the rest of the country, and are in line with national preferences for Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisines, but aren't nearly as enthusiastic for French dishes as the rest of the nation.

The narrative for each restaurant is compiled from comments submitted by surveyors. For example:

Frank Fat's: "The oldest continuously running restaurant in Sacramento, this 'beautiful' 70-year-old is a downtown Chinese 'institution' where 'ghosts of legendary legislators linger' and 'you're likely to bump into state politicians' 'doing their deals' while being 'served whip-crack fast.'"

La Bonne Soupe Cafe: "'Sweet' French chef-owner Daniel Pont serves 'love between two pieces of bread' and what's possibly 'the best onion soup in the universe,' all 'artistically mde' to order."

Mason's: "The 'diverse, hip crowd' is as 'nice to look at' as the 'friendly, prompt' servers, but the real eye candy is in the 'schocking' bathrooms, which you 'must see' to believe ('don't do anything funny' - 'you're being watched!')."

Zocalo: "When the bar crowd arrives, 'you'll need a megaphone to talk to your date.'"

Nicholas Sampogna, a spokesman for Zagat, says the Sacramento section of "America's Top Restaurants" is a prelude to a stand-alone pocket guide for the area to be published after the first of the year. That guide is to include around 120 restaurants.

Sampogna didn't know how many Sacramentans participated in the survey. "America's Top Restaurants" is just starting to arrive at bookstores, but also can be ordered online at

October 15, 2008
Gold Country Discovery: A New Name

Montevina Winery, which when it was founded in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley in 1970 led to the revival of the Sierra foothills as a fine-wine region, is going away, in a manner of speaking.

As of Jan. 1, the winery will be renamed Terra d'Oro, which since 1993 has been the brand Montevina officials have used for their most highly regarded wines. Montevina will remain as a brand, in large part for wines made with grapes grown elsewhere in the state. Terra d'Oro - Italian for "land of gold" - will become the name of the winery and will stay as the brand for wines made principally with foothill fruit, says Jeffrey Meyers, the winery's vice president and general manager.

Montevina, owned by Trinchero Family Estates in Napa Valley, produces around 250,000 cases a year, Meyers says. About 80 percent of that total is marketed under the Montevina label, 20 percent as Terra d'Oro releases.

"Terra d'Oro will focus on Amador and foothill wines, zinfandels especially, our heart and soul," says Meyers. "With Montevina, we want to do a lot of different things." Under the Montevina label, for example, the company just released a cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot, all made with fruit from beyond the foothills. "Terra d'Oro will be the brand for this area."

October 15, 2008
Final Update

A little more than a month ago I asked readers of this blog and The Sacramento Bee to let me know what my next wine or feature should be. I had five candidate stories, ranging from olive oil to absinthe. The topic that readers said they most would like to read about would be the one I'd pursue. Much to my surprise, they said they'd be most interested in a feature about proprietary blended wines - how they differ from varietal wines (the way wine customarily is labeled and marketed in the United States), why vintners make blended wines at all, whether blends are simply leftover varietal wines tossed in to a vat to get rid of them, which blended wines are the best, and so forth.

The resulting package of stories was published in today's Food&Wine section of The Bee. You can find it here.

I appreciate the questions readers asked, and hope they got answered. I enjoyed their comments about blended wines, and took advantage of their tips, especially the one from Neil Edgar, the Elk Grove resident who 20 years ago, when he was living in the East Bay, came up with the term "meritage" for a class of blended wines based on the traditional grape varieties of Bordeaux.

I think this approach to settling on a story has possibilities, but if I were to do it again I'd do it a bit differently. For one, I'd compress the time between deciding on the topic and getting it in the paper. For another, I'd more often post progress reports to the blog to keep readers up to date on developments. Both of these thoughts are prompted by my belief that more frequent interaction between reporter and reader would spur more helpful interaction. Overall, however, I was pleased by the response from readers, and in concluding want to thank those who participated so generously.

October 14, 2008
Michelin Reveals Its Newest Stars

The 2009 edition of the Michelin Guide to San Francisco restaurants and hotels just arrived by FedEx, but if you have the 2008 book you may not need the new one. Though 55 new restaurants have been added to the directory, only five of the total 448 have been raised into the ranks of starred establishments.

Only one of the five, Coi, annointed with two stars, is in San Francisco. All the other new starred restaurants are outside San Francisco. They all got one star: Murray Circle in Sausalito, Plumed Horse in Saratoga, Trevese in Los Gatos, and The Village Pub in Woodside.

The French Laundry in Napa Valley's Yountville remains the only Northern California restaurant to receive Michelin's highest tribute, three stars.

In all, the guide lists 25 restaurants with one star, six with two.

Perhaps mindful of the nation's struggling economy, Michelin officials are playing down the starred restaurants, which also tend to be the more expensive, in favor of their "Bib Gourmand" category, which the company's inspectors have designated as their favorites for good value. This year, 55 qualified for the category on the basis that guests could expect to get two dishes and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less. The 55 include Aperto in San Francisco's Mission District, Betelnut Pejiu Wu in San Francisco's Marina District, Cook St. Helena at St. Helena in Napa Valley, Mirepoix at Windsor in Sonoma County, and South Park Cafe in San Francisco's SoMa District.

The guide, which sells for $16.95, doesn't include Sacramento.

October 14, 2008
Yesterday's Skier Today's Restaurateur

Daron Rahlves, who in 13 years as a member of the U.S. Ski Team became one of the nation's more decorated skiers, is joinng a new team in a business with its own steep and tough terrain - restaurateuring.

Rahlves, who moved with his family to Lake Tahoe more than 20 years ago so he could hone his skiing, is teaming up with Mark Estee and JJ Morgan in their popular and acclaimed Truckee restaurant Moody's Bistro & Lounge.

"I wanted to become connected with something that is well-established," Rahlves says in a press release concerning the new partnership. He is to have a small but unspecified stake in the restaurant.

When he retired from competitive skiing in the spring of 2006, Rahlves, who during his career won seven national titles, including four in super-G, said he wanted to settle in Truckee to start a family with his wife Michelle, race dirt bikes, surf and appear in ski films. He and his wife have two children, and he continues to compete at X-Game and skiercross events.

Estee and Morgan could use the additional help, given their current expansion kick. In early December they are to open Baxter's Bistro & Lounge in The Village at Northstar. Also, Estee on his own recently opened a hamburger joint, Burger Me, next to Moody's.

October 3, 2008
Update 3

Not much ground was covered this past week in gathering information for the blended-wines story, though I did attend a few tastings that gave me a chance to catch up on the current releases of such iconic California proprietary wines as Opus One and Insignia. I also went to the annual regional Fall Trade Show & Tasting of Southern Wine & Spirits at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento, and there focused almost solely on proprietary blended wines. Generations from Charles Krug Winery was impressive, and attractively priced at around $50, which is low by Napa Valley standards for proprietary wines based on cabernet sauvignon. The M. Coz Meritage from Cosentino Winery, Profile by Merryvale Vineyards and Trilogy by Flora Springs Winery also all showed the complexity and persistence that blended wines are intended to yield.

Yesterday, while at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, I spotted another longtime personal favorite among blended proprietary wines, though it isn't from Napa Valley and it isn't expensive. It's Reds by Laurel Glen Vineyards in Sonoma County. Reds, however, is made with Lodi grapes. Patrick Campbell of Laurel Glen introduced Reds in 1995, marketing it from the start as "a wine for the people." He's kept the price at or below $10 ever since, even though the wine is made with fruit from some really old vines, including a stand of carignane that goes back 121 years. (Old-vine zinfandel accounts for the wine's foundation, and there's some petite sirah in there as well.)

To judge by the 2006 Lodi Reds ($10) I picked up yesterday at the Co-op and we had with dinner last night as a prelude to the vice-presidential debate, Campbell is sticking to his goal of producing an everyday wine of intriguing layering and uncommon grace. It's a wine out of the traditional European mold, which is to say it's wiry and dry, with measured sweet fruit, a stream of ticklish spice, a note of dust, and a spine that gives it the fortitude to stand up to a wide range of foods. It put me in mind of a fine Chianti Classico at a sidewalk trattoria in Florence, and all the joyous memories such a scene suggests. We had it with the thin-crust combo pizza from Chicago Fire Pizza, and found the wine didn't back down from the robust sausage while also not overwhelming the sweet green pepper. This is a wine for the "Joe Sixpack" that Gov. Sarah Palin soon was talking about. "Doggone it, that's a wine all the people can endorse," I imagined her saying as I finished my last glass.

Tomorrow, we'll be back on the trail, not the campaign trail, but the trail to find some more proprietary blends, this time during Amador County's "Big Crush" winery weekend. Rain or shine.

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