Appetizers
August 8, 2013
Train guitarist releases pinot noir

Train_Press1.JPGMost people think of "Drops of Jupiter" when they think of Grammy Award-winning band Train. But winos might add a "Red" to that thought, as in "Drops of Jupiter Red" - one of guitarist Jimmy Stafford's wines with the Save Me, San Francisco Wine Company.

Stafford, in a collaboration with winemaker James Foster, has just released the company's fifth varietal "Soul Sister," a pinot noir. The medium ruby wine is sourced in the Central Coast, with "flavors of ripe cherries and strawberries, a hint of vanilla and a smooth finish."

Train has been known to host intimate wine tastings backstage with friends and industry folk. If you think you somehow have an in with Train, see about joining after Saturday's show at Sleep Train Amphitheatre.

The company's wines all run for $12. Order a bottle online here. Or hunt down "Calling All Angels Chardonnay," "Hella Fine Merlot," "California 37 Cabernet Sauvignon" and Petite Syrah-based "Drops of Jupiter Red" at Total Wine & More on Arden Way in Sacramento or one of the Sprouts Farmers Market outposts in Citrus Heights, Roseville and Elk Grove.

PHOTO: TRAIN'S JIMMY STAFFORD STANDS ON THE FAR LEFT, COURTESY OF SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT

June 18, 2013
State Fair winners: Best California wines for $15 or less

CalStateFair.jpgWith the California 2013 State Fair Wine Competition announcing many of its winners last week, it's time to put all that tasting and medal-awarding to good use. You could spend hours searching The Bee's State Fair wine winner data base for the best buys (and we recommend that you do). Or you could let us do some of the work for you. Here are the competition's Double Gold winners for $15 or less:

June 5, 2013
Go ahead and judge: State Fair wine competition underway

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Purple teeth reign inside Building 5 at Cal Expo today, where the 2013 California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition is underway.

Seventy two judges will consider more than 2,600 wine entries, with each judge considering about 80 wines today and Thursday. A panel will also convene Friday to award the sweepstakes winners from 11 California wine regions.

This year's competition features a number of new touches. Former Bee food and wine editor Mike Dunne and former Bee columnist Rick Kushman are serving as co-chief judges. Of the 72 judges, about half are new.

I'm serving on Panel 18, which kicked off this morning by tasting 27 red blends and then considered 21 sauvignon blancs. Only three golds have been awarded thus far on Panel 18, which includes Dave Crippen of Renwood winery.

And now, flights are being set for an afternoon of chardonnay consideration. Starting at 9 a.m. Thursday, we'll be back to dump buckets and wine stained scoring sheets. Stay tuned for more. --Chris Macias

March 22, 2013
Sean Minor Wines nabs two spots in Wine & Spirits poll

MINOR1.jpgSean Minor Wines, which is headquartered in Sacramento's Sierra Oaks neighborhood, received some news that ranks the company among the nation's best. The April issue of Wine & Spirits Magazine features its 24th annual poll of the favorite wines served in restaurants, and Sean Minor Wines received two nods.

In Wine & Spirits' list of "The Restaurant Top 50," Sean Minor Wines ranked No. 30, a listing which placed the company ahead of such stalwarts as Rombauer Vineyards and Robert Mondavi Winery. Cakebread Cellars of Napa earned the top spot in this polling of brands which received the strongest restaurant sales during the final quarter of 2012.

For the listing of most popular pinot noirs, Sean Minor Wines earned a very respectable No. 17 spot.

December 10, 2012
Looking for a job in food and wine? This place is hiring

In this economy, Ficklin-Wilcox.JPGI know there are a lot of talented but unemployed (or under-employed) people in Midtown, so I was happy to run across this "Now Hiring" sign in a storefront window on 20th Street.

The store, Ficklin-Wilcox, has yet to open, but the concept sounds interesting, and the company behind it - the widely respected Ficklin Vineyards -- certainly knows what it's doing. The family-owned business has been going strong since 1946.

I just got off the phone with Liz Wilcox of Ficklin Vineyards in Madera. I called her to ask about the jobs and what kind of people they are looking for. Turns out, you don't have to be a certified sommelier or a bona fide food snob to get hired. The most important thing is you have to be good with people and you must have a sincere appreciation for sales and service.

Ficklin-Wilcox will be a wine tasting room as well as a kitchen store. In the back, there will be a classroom space for seminars, lectures, cooking demonstrations, etc. The store will have a full line of pots and pans, kitchen gadgets, barware and all kinds of other products related to food and wine.

November 5, 2012
Enotria and Carpe Vino make the OpenTable Top 100 wine list

When you want a special bottle of wine with dinner, which restaurants are your go-to's?

OpenTable has some suggestions, sort of. The San Francisco-based online restaurant-reservation company recently released its latest Diners Choice Top 100 Restaurants With the Most Notable Wine Lists.

For context, OpenTable explains: "The awards reflect the opinions of over 5 million reviews submitted by OpenTable diners for more than 15,000 restaurants in all 50 states and the District of Columbia."

Not surprisingly, California has the most, with 17. Those include Enotria in Sacramento; Carpe Vino in Auburn; Press in Saint Helena; Acquerello and BIN 38 in San Francisco; and André's Bouchée Bistro and Wine Bar in Carmel.

For the complete list, go to www.opentable.com/wine.

October 18, 2012
Musings of a winemaker: A visit to Smith-Madrone

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Photos with permission from Smith-Madrone

I had enough readers ask about my recent visit to Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery in the Napa Valley (and the engaging tour and tasting run by Charles F. Smith), that I thought I would include some of the notes I took from that very pleasant Saturday afternoon. If you're interested in visiting, it's always best to make a reservation via the website, http://www.smithmadrone.com/.

If you're going there, the trip includes a 15-minute drive on a narrow, winding road up Spring Mountain. At the top, the views are terrific.

The first wine was Chardonnay. It's worth noting that Smith uses little to no wine jargon in his chats and he made no attempt to tell us what tasting notes to watch for as we sipped. Here's what Smith had to say as he led us out the door to look at the grapes growing closet to the building.

From so-so Pinot to very good Chardonnay:

imgres.jpg"I want to show you where the wine you're tasting comes from. It comes from this block right here. This is Chardonnay that was planted by us as Pinot noir back in 1972. There wasn't any good Pinot noir being made in the United States, and over the 10 years we made the stuff we didn't do too much to change that. In other words, it was an experiment that didn't turn out too well. We only made one good Pinot noir in about 10 years. So it ended up being grafted over to Chardonnay in the late '80s.

October 15, 2012
Autumn in Wine Country: riding, sipping, supping

handlebars.jpgInstead of getting in the car and jumping from winery to winery, Lynn and I decided to tackle the Napa Valley in three installments this past weekend, beginning with a morning bike ride, finishing with some grub, and visiting a winemaker or two in between.

After driving to St. Helena, we parked next to Velo Vino, the tasting room run by the Clif Family Winery -- that's Clif, as in Clif Bar. The tasting room is very cozy, decorated with a bicycle theme. We knew the winery had a brochure listing a variety of bike rides through the area, so it was the perfect place to start. We settled on a ride of about 30 miles, with a moderate amount of climbing. Last visit, we did a longer, hillier route (including some extra miles and a very steep climb after getting lost), but this turned out to the perfect choice for this outing, as we had a reservation at Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery at 1:30.

Lynn bike.jpg

Why ride? For one, you get to see the area in a different way and at a different speed. And when your legs actually have to power you up the hills, you tend to appreciate the terrain a little more. Beyond that, food at the end of a ride always tastes that much better when you've got a pretty decent caloric deficit going. This ride took us along lightly traveled roads this time of year, well away from the tourist gridlock, and we appreciated the smooth asphalt on much of the route. If you're interested in tackling a similar route, stop in at Velo Vino (709 Main St., St. Helena). They also rent bikes and offer custom bike excursions via Calistoga Bikeshop.

October 3, 2012
Fall menu and wine list get a tryout at Fabian's Italian Bistro

Area restaurants are busy compiling and testing their fall menus and wine lists, a good move for us diners. One of our go-to's, Fabian's Italian Bistro, is doing that, too.

As part of it, co-owner Christian Forte (with wife Mercedes) and his crew will pour five tastes from their new vinos, 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6.

The freight is $10 and includes appetizers by chef Tom Patterson - torched Brie with fresh fig mustard; house-cured wild salmon with phyllo, lemon crema and mache lettuce; and marinated baby beets with black sea salt.

July 27, 2012
Miraflores Winery is pairing vino with chef-made lunches

Food and wine pairings always get our attention, such as the program going on at the Miraflores Winery in El Dorado wine country.

Each weekend through Oct. 14 (including this Saturday and Sunday), the winery's "Pairings" program will feature local and Bay Area chefs creating seasonally inspired four-course lunches to be paired with Miraflores' award-winning zinfandel, tempranillo, voiognier, muscat and other varietals and blends. Lunches will be served on the terrace, overlooking acres of vineyards.

The lineup includes Sacramento-area chefs Lance Carlini of Enotria, Gabriel Glasier of Maranello, Christian Masse of Allez, and Karen Holmes of Karen's Bakery Cafe.

Prix fixe lunches are served from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekends; $40 a person, $30 a person for wine-club members. For reservations: (530) 647-8505.

For a complete list of participating chefs and the schedule of lunches, go to www.mirafloreswinery.com.

Miraflores Winery is at 2120 Four Springs Trail in Placerville.

June 15, 2012
Compton's Market launches free wine tastings every Friday

Compton's Market in McKinley Park (East Sacramento) recently expanded its wine selection to include a special area for international wines with numerous appealing choices at various price points. Now, they're going even heavier into wine with featured wine tastings on Friday afternoons from 3-7 p.m.

Compton's is at 4065 McKinley Blvd. It is open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., except Sunday when it closes at 8 p.m.

Owner Sunil Hans told me each tasting will feature three wines and the tastings are complimentary. In order to conduct the tastings, the grocery store had to apply for a special license called Type 86, which allows the store to conduct instructional wine tastings, he said. The license also allows for beer and spirits tastings.

"Our neighborhood clientele have been asking about this for almost a year," Hans said. "We did a little survey and everybody wants it."

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

March 27, 2012
Wine storage facility to open in east Sacramento

In terms of naming, the new wine storage facility called Caverna Fifty-Seven makes perfect sense.

For starters, these lockers are tucked into a building near "antique row" on 57th Street in east Sacramento, and a temperature of 57 to 58 degrees is considered ideal for storing wine.

The final construction touches at Caverna Fifty-Seven are currently under way, and once all of its storage lockers are installed the facility will have space for more than 3,400 cases of wine.

February 27, 2012
Lounge ON20 chef gets invitation to big-time Napa Valley event

The accolades and opportunities continue to pile up for Pajo Bruich, the talented executive chef at Lounge ON20 in midtown.

Hot off a Valentine's dinner that won raves, Bruich has been recruited to show off his modernist cuisine at a special event in Napa Valley this spring.

Bruich is slated to be a featured guest chef at one of the private estate dinners for this year's Napa Valley Wine Auction. It's a who's who of the food and wine folks in the Napa Valley, and it is quite an honor for Bruich to be invited, especially when you scan your eyes down the list of other chefs involved: Thomas Keller, Christopher Kostow, Cindy Pawlcyn and Gary Danko, among others.

November 18, 2011
Wine writer Michele Hebert to speak Nov. 20 (free)

373052_195281050546489_1514919560_n.jpgI always like reading Michele Hebert's wine column in Midtown Monthly. It's informative, loaded with details and includes plenty of nuggets of information about particular wines and styles of wine. Plus, her recommendations are varied, well explained and much appreciated.

Hebert will be sharing some of her thoughts on wine on Sunday (Nov. 20) at 7 p.m., the latest in the Living Library series at Time Tested Books, 1124 21st St., Sacramento. I've enjoyed attending several of the Living Library events, even if the I can't get over the fact that there is no hyphen between "time" and "tested."

In the cozy surroundings of a well-stocked used and rare book store (that may or may not be punctuation-challenged), Hebert will be interviewed by Midtown Monthly's food and restaurant writer, Beck Grunewald, whose pieces in the magazine are also must-read missives for adventurous foodies on tight budgets.

The Living Library is a great thing and this event promises to be a lively-educational-entertaining-hyphen-free-free-for-all.

October 28, 2011
Friends are on their way over, but your wine is warm: Here's a tip

polar bear.jpgI was tempted to say this is a cool new tip, but that would just be corny, although this is about chilling wine in a hurry. I just read it in Cook's Illustrated, which is always tackling geeky things to make our lives in the kitchen a little easier. Here it is:

To chill a bottle of wine, you can just pop it into the freezer, but it will take a while to cool down (in our tests, it took about an hour to bring a bottle of room-temperature wine to 50 degrees, the ideal drinking temperature). We've also recommended submerging the bottle in a salt/ice-water solution, which will chill it in about half that time. (When salt is added to ice water, its freezing point and temperature decrease to well below 32 degrees.)

Now we've discovered an equally effective (and less messy) technique for quick chilling: Simply wrap the bottle in a wet kitchen towel before placing it in the freezer. Since cooling occurs when heat is transferred away from an item, the water in the towel--a much more efficient conductor of heat than air--will quickly freeze, dropping the temperature of the wine to 50 degrees in only 30 minutes. (Note: Once the wine is fully chilled, the towel will be frozen solid. To release it from the bottle, just place it briefly under warm running water.)

October 3, 2011
Some good wine and an inspiring encounter with owls

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There were plenty of activities from which to choose this weekend, from a bike tour sponsored by Slow Food Sacramento to a wine tasting event in Curtis Park and movies in Freemont Park sponsored by Hot Italian.

But I was looking for something a little new and different, so on Saturday afternoon we made the short drive to the little Delta town of Clarksburg, traveled to the outskirts along roads with fields of grapes for as far as the eye could see, then turned into the driveway of Heringer Estates. Yes, we were there to taste wine, but we were also excited about the main event - the release of two owls into the wild.

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The weather was perfect - cool and clear and not a stitch of wind -- when we arrived around 5 p.m. The crowds were just getting there and the event was to be picnic style in the lovely backyard of the Heringer family home. All around us: fields of wine grapes.

We bought two glasses of wine - a chardonnay and a viognier - and began to mingle. Staff members from the Sacramento-based Wildlife Care Association were on hand to talk about the owls, the many other wild animals it helps, and the non-profit group's mission. Along the way, they showed off some very inspiring owls, including a 20-year-old great-horned owl (second photo) living in captivity because of a wing/shoulder injury, a screech owl (top photo) that is blind in one eye and a little burrowing owl with a damaged wing.

July 30, 2011
Going on Placer wine tour? Take a tip from Mike Dunne

Jocelyn Maddux at the Placer County Vintners Association sent a note to remind us about next weekend's Grape Days of Summer that takes wine lovers on a tour of seven different wineries near Auburn, Lincoln and Newcastle.

If you decide to take the tour, we suggest you pay $25 here rather than $35 at one of the wineries. The ticket price gets you tastings at each location, food, music and educational activities, plus a special event wine glass.

The event runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 6-7. The featured wineries are Casque Wines, Wise Villa Winery, Dono dal Cielo Vineyards, Fawnridge Winery, Lone Buffalo Vineyards, Mt. Vernon Winery and Viña Castellano Vineyards.

July 2, 2011
Dunne picks will come in handy for Lake County wine event

Jennifer Hammond at the Lake County economic development program recently sent a note that the seventh-annual Lake County Wine Adventure would be getting under way soon. It's a two-day passport event that runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 30-31.

Buy your tickets to the event early, and you can get them for $35. Buy them on the day of the event at any participating winery, and you'll pay $40. A ticket entitles you to two days of activities, which includes wine tastings and hors d'oeuvres at each winery, a logo wine glass, art exhibits, and entertainment.

You can get more information by calling (800) 595-9463 or (707) 355-2762. You can also visit www.lakecountywineries.org.

Hammond's email reminded me of two features articles that wine critic Mike Dunne wrote for The Bee a little over a year ago, suggesting wineries, inns and activities for Lake County visitors. I decided to again share his lists with you, though I've updated the information where necessary.

IF YOU GO
Ceago Vinegarden: Ceago Vinegarden turns out solid takes on the county's two most fundamental varietals, sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon, while hinting at the future with a citric and spicy syrah rose. 5115 E. Highway 20, Nice; (707) 274-1462; www.ceago.com.

Steele Wines: Jed Steele, the man most often credited with reviving winemaking in Lake County, today oversees the production of about 80,000 cases a year at his Kelseyville facility. While he draws grapes from afar, he remains devoted to Lake County fruit with such releases as the lean and silken Writer's Block grenache and the fleshy yet sharp-edged Shooting Star barbera; 4350 Thomas Drive (at Highway 29), Kelseyville; (707) 279-9475; www.steelewines.com.

Langtry Estate & Vineyards: Ever since British actress Lillie Langtry arrived in Lake County in 1888, wine has been made on her estate, which now spreads over 23,000 acres, though just 400 are planted in wine grapes. Long recognized for its petite sirah, Langtry today is gaining prominence for the structure and elegance of its cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux-inspired blends. 21000 Butts Canyon Road, Middletown; (707) 987-2385; www.langtryestate.com.

Gregory Graham Winery: Gregory Graham has received awards in such prestigious contests as the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and The Dallas Morning News' Wine Competition. 13633 Point Lakeview Road, Lower Lake; (707) 995-3500; www.ggwines.com.

Six Sigma Ranch, Vineyards & Winery: Visitors can relax on the manicured grounds around the old stage stop made over into a cozy tasting room, where the sauvignon blanc is as friendly and alert as Fly, the resident border collie, the tempranillo as soothing and enduring as the surrounding oaks. 13372 Spruce Grove Road, Lower Lake. (707) 994-4068; www.sixsigmaranch.com.

Shannon Ridge Vineyards & Winery: Clay and Margarita Shannon pour releases from their estate vineyards. Their proprietary blend Wrangler Red is immensely popular, and their 2006 reserve cabernet sauvignon was the only example of the varietal to win a gold medal at Lake County's recent first wine competition. 12601 E. Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks; (707) 998-1480.

STAYING PUT
Featherbed Railroad Bed & Breakfast Resort: Rooms range from $150 to $220. www.featherrailroad.com; (707) 274-8378; 2870 Lakeshore Blvd., Nice.

Tallman Hotel: A search on the hotel's website showed no availability for this weekend, but call to find out whether there have been cancellations. More than a boutique hotel that blends respect for history with an appreciation of modern amenities, the Tallman Hotel is Upper Lake's cultural focal point. In addition to 17 rooms, some in the original 1896 structure, some in a cluster of contemporary outbuildings, the grounds include the Blue Wing Saloon & Cafe and a conference center, all of which double as the backdrop for frequent blues performances, winemaker dinners and the like. Next door is Sheldon Steinberg's antique plumbing shop, The Elegant Bowl, where he restored many of the vintage bath fixtures in the hotel. Rooms range from $159 to $249. www.tallmanhotel. com; (707) 275-2244; 9550 Main St., Upper Lake.

The Bungalow: Several quaint bed-and-breakfast inns dot the shoreline around Clear Lake, but the arts-and-crafts-style Bungalow seems to generate the most recommendations from locals. It has just three rooms, but it is roomy and tidy, and boasts a deck overlooking the lake. Rooms range from $140 to $170. www.thebungalow.com; (707) 998-0399; 10195 E. Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks.

CHOWING DOWN
Blue Wing Saloon & Cafe: You'll find a diverse California and Mediterranean menu with such dishes as pan-seared crab cakes, risotto fritters filled with sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese, and baby back ribs gleaming with housemade barbecue sauce in the dining room, as well as on the spacious and well-shaded patio. Every wine on the list, incidentally, was made within 30 miles of the restaurant. 9520 Main St., Upper Lake; (707) 275-2233.

Saw Shop Gallery Bistro: Once a saw shop -- check out the vintage chainsaw atop the bar -- the sunny, homey quarters today house a combination art gallery and bistro. The art ranges from acrylic landscapes on old circular saw blades to refined jewelry, while the New American menu is similarly diverse, including pork pot stickers with Thai chili sauce, steamed mussels fiery with jalapeno peppers, a pan-roasted pork loin chop with local pears and sauteed radicchio, and seared sea scallops with Southern grits and a Tabasco beurre blanc. 3825 Main St., Kelseyville; (707) 278-0129.

DIVERSIONS
Bring your bike: Cycling in Lake County is scenic and relatively easy, with gradual grades and several roads with shoulders. Lake County Pathways has published detailed guides to 11 suggested routes, including one entirely around Clear Lake (68 miles, a gain of about 500 feet; allow six to eight hours, more if you plan to taste wine). Pick up the guides at the Lake County Information Center, 6110 E. Highway 20, Lucerne.

Clear Lake State Park: Campsites, picnic areas, trails and access to the lake for swimming, fishing and boating help explain the popularity of Clear Lake State Park among outdoor enthusiasts. 5300 Soda Bay Road, Kelseyville; (707) 279-4293.

Kayaking: Kayak rentals are popping up all around the lake, and at least one winery (Ceago) and one casino (Konocti Vista Resort) provide tie-up facilities. The group Konocti Regional Trails is working to establish a series of linked hiking trails that it hopes ultimately will encircle the lake, and also has mapped out seven water trails on Clear Lake, downloadable at www.konoctitrails.com.

June 22, 2011
Newcastle Produce hosts fun food, wine event Friday

Here's a fun Friday idea for foodies: head to up Interstate 80 to Newcastle, where Newcastle Produce is offering cooking demonstrations, product samples and discounts.

The store is extending its hours to 8 p.m. every second and fourth Friday of summer to host "Summer Fun Fridays."

This Friday, in-house Chef Chelsea Federwitz will host a free salsa making demonstration and Snow's Citrus Court will hold a food tasting and is offering 15 percent off its products. Customers can also enjoy a wine tasting featuring Bonitata Boutique Wines, according to the store's website.

Participants also will be entered into a drawing for door prizes.

May 6, 2011
Last minute meal ideas to celebrate mom

scones.jpgFor those who don't want to leave the comfort of their home on Mother's Day, here are some ideas and recipes that'll help create the perfect celebration for mom Sunday.

(And for those who do want to venture out, click here to read our Things to Do blog post on Mother's Day events in the region.)

Brunch and Mother's Day seem to be synonymous, but don't torture mom with burned toast that the kids made. Layer yogurt, granola and fresh berries in a see-through cup or bowl to make an instant, beautiful parfait. Serve with pastries, such as this recipe for fruit and chocolate scones. A fresh cup of coffee - served in the lovely china that mom rarely uses - is all you need to complete the meal.

March 10, 2011
Big names attend "Flavor! Napa Valley" luncheon launch

By Blair Anthony Robertson
brobertson@sacbee.com

Napa 014.JPGOfficials announced Thursday the launch of Flavor! Napa Valley, the four-day food and wine festival that will celebrate the region's culinary and winemaking bounty while promoting the area as a major destination to much of the world.

Additionally, proceeds from the event will go toward scholarships for students attending the Culinary Institute of America's nearby Greystone campus.

Judging from who was in attendance, this event has some major star power behind it. Among those attending the announcement and luncheon at the Silverado Resort were Thomas Keller, the chef behind the French Laundry, Per Se, Bouchon and Ad Hoc. Keller, wearing a white chef's coat and shiny black clogs that looked like they haven't been near a prep table any time recently, mingled for a while beforehand, stood and listened during the brief announcement, then slipped out before lunch was served.

February 25, 2011
Racer Scott Pruett hosts special wine dinner

By Debbie Arrington
darrington@sacbee.com

Auburn's Scott Pruett, arguably America's winningest road racer, has had plenty to celebrate, including his record fourth Rolex 24 at Daytona victory last month.

But at 6 p.m. Saturday night, the race-car driver-turned-vintner toasts something totally different: His first winemaker's dinner featuring his homegrown Pruett Vineyards wines.

A few seats remain for this special event at Carpe Vino restaurant in old town Auburn.

"There is absolutely no question that winning nine races in 2010 and my fourth Grand-Am Championship is a career-defining accomplishment," Pruett said. "But bottling the first vintage of Pruett Vineyard as a bonded winery with my wife, Judy, is as personally satisfying as any of my greatest moments in racing."

February 9, 2011
Combine cheese, chocolate, wine for your valentine

By Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

The Valentine's Day-themed cheese and chocolate pairing class at Taylor's Market is booked, but cheesemonger Felicia Johnson provided a few tips for Appetizers readers.

For a post-dinner treat, pair a dark chocolate truffle with bleu cheese and serve with port.

"The sweet with the savory and salty is phenomenal," Johnson said.

Try milk chocolate and a lighter, fluffier cheese like chevre together. And for hazelnut chocolate truffles, try a meatier cheese such as a Taleggio or a Morbier, she suggested.

"Cheese for dessert is something that is definitely overlooked," Johnson said.

For more Valentine's Day meal tips, check out today's story in the Food & Wine section.

Speaking of chocolate pairings, UC Davis is hosting an event Saturday highlighting female winemakers and wine and chocolate pairings. Click here to learn more.

February 8, 2011
Amador winery offering couples romance by the hour

By Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

Looking for a story book way to propose to your beloved or rekindle that spark this Valentine's Day?

Story Winery, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, is offering a private section of their winery to lovebirds hoping to pop the big question this weekend.

The $65 fee includes use of a private table overlooking the picturesque vineyard for one hour, pre-set appetizers, a bottle of Story Raspberry Champagne on ice, two Champagne flutes and a bouquet of flowers to take home.

"There is a fantastic view of the Cosumnes valley and the vineyards, which are just starting to bud a little," said Cinde Dolphin, the winery's marketing representative.

The deal is available from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

A violinist also will be available at no extra charge on Saturday, she said.

Contact the Plymouth winery at storyinfo@zin.com or 209-245-6208 to make a reservation.

Be sure to check out The Bee's Food & Wine section Wednesday for more romantic, Valentine's Day tips and ideas on what to cook and how to set just the right mood.

January 30, 2011
Taylor's hosts wine event for those not into Super Bowl

By Blair Anthony Robertson, Bee Restaurant Critic
brobertson@sacbee.com

In the last 10 days, my e-mail in-box has been bombarded with recipes, products and menus tied to a certain football game. The PR machine is working overtime. The assumption: Absolutely everyone watches the Super Bowl.

Count me out. I gave up on pro football years ago - it may have had something to do with a strike and substitute players and the demise of "Air Coryell" - and rare is the Sunday when I cannot think of something better to do than watch big dudes fall into one another, call a meeting, then do it all over again, complete with code names.

Turns out, I'm not the only one who doesn't have Super Bowl fever. Richard Ebert, the wine buyer for Taylor's Market (2900 Freeport Blvd.) in the Land Park/Curtis Park section of Sacramento, knows there are plenty of folks looking for something to do while most Americans are glued to their flat screens.

Thus, the affable Ebert, who always seems to be in the wine aisle when I'm shopping, is holding a wine tasting on Super Bowl Sunday at Taylor's Kitchen, the restaurant next door.

The focus is on bubbly, suggesting there will be a selection of sparkling wines and champagnes to taste. Those in attendance are free to pick Ebert's brain about the details on what they are tasting, perhaps with an eye toward choosing the right bottle for the right occasion. Ebert, of course, is the man behind "Dick's Picks" at Taylor's, selections of wines he particularly likes.

The tasting event is $10 and there's no need to make a reservation. Just show up, pay and start sipping. It's from 2 to 5 p.m.

I've been to these kinds of events before. Best advice for the best experience: Bring a designated driver who doesn't mind sipping Sierra Mist. Better yet, if you're close enough, leave the car at home and walk to Taylor's.

January 25, 2011
UC Davis celebrates wine, food research and teaching complex

By Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

Hundreds of people are expected to converge Friday at UC Davis to celebrate the school's new 34,000 square foot wine and food complex.

The Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, constructed entirely through private donations, houses the Viticulture, Enology and Food Science and Technology departments, the Robert Mondavi Institute and a state-of-the-art sensory facility.

It's also the first winery, brewery or food-processing facility in the world to earn a LEED platinum certification, the highest environmental rating awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council, states a UC Davis news release.

The facility will become self-sustainable in its energy and water use in the future.

University and public officials, as well as Margrit Mondavi, are expected to attend the ceremony, which will be followed by tours, demonstrations and a reception.

December 20, 2010
The Top 10 list: Most popular Appetizers stories of 2010

AOC_FairFood_042w.JPGBy Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

Upcoming food events, restaurant closings, free food. Those were the subjects of some of the most well-read stories posted on Appetizers this past year.

The Bee's food blog provided a Thanksgiving feast-sized bounty of information in 2010, from recipe contests to wine deals.

Here is a list of the Top 10 most popular Appetizer stories of 2010, complete with links to the full stories (click the "Full story" hyperlink to go to the original post).

We also want to hear from you about what you want to see us cover on Appetizers next year. What kinds of stories do you come to Appetizers for? What are we missing that you want to read more about? Post your thoughts in the comments area below.

Happy reading, and happy eating!

1. Early taste of new State Fair foods. Full story
2. Sacramento Beer Week coming in February. Full story
3. Bistro 33 Midtown closes to become Spin Burger Bar. Full story
4. Free mini sandwich @ Togo's on Jan. 14. Full story
5. Dave & Busters coming to Roseville. Full story
6. Midtown eatery Cornerstone facing closure. Full story
7. Amarin Thai Cuisine shuts down. Full story
8. Grand opening set for Cafeteria 15L. Full story
9. Recall of Parkers Farm products. Full story
10. Sacramento featured tonight on "Man V. Food." Full story

November 22, 2010
Help is here! Bee live chat on holiday survival today

Thanksgiving is just three days away and for many of us, that means plotting, planning and, in some cases, panicking.

Never fear, The Bee's holiday experts are here!

We're hosting a live chat at noon today on all things Thanksgiving, from cooking that holiday meal to dinner conversation ideas.

The Bee's Niesha Lofing, food and family writer and author of Mom.Me, a parenting column, and Debbie Arrington, Home & Garden guru and food writer, will host the chat. Jessica Williams, a chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Sacramento and Jodie Chavious, a pastry chef at Taylor's Restaurant and Market in Sacramento, also will be on hand to answer questions. Sacramento Connect blogger Ann Silberman, who writes "Breast Cancer? But Doctor....I hate pink!" also will be joining the discussion to talk about cancer and the holidays.

Join us and chime in with your pressing Thanksgiving questions at 12 p.m. today: http://www.sacbee.com/live/

August 24, 2010
Sacramento cooking class caters to halibut enthusiasts

By Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

At upwards of $16 per pound, halibut can be more of an investment than dinner.

So when it comes to preparing halibut, knowing what you're doing is key.

Enter local chef Pajo Bruich.

Bruich, of Pajo's Boutique Catering, is hosting a cooking class Aug. 31 dedicated to teaching home cooks about the delicious flatfish.

Participants will learn how to select halibut and other fresh fish, the differences in fish's fat content, flavor and texture, how to cook various fish, how to properly sear and roast halibut, and how to pair local wines with fish, Bruich said in an e-mail.

Brand Little, of Wild Little Fish Company, is sourcing the fish and will be one hand during the class.

Participants also will feast on a halibut dinner (the menu is posted below), paired with local wines following the class.

Cost is $59 per person. Gratuity is not included. Reservations are required and can be made by clicking here. The class is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 31 at Steel Magnolia Kitchen in Sacramento.

Menu

Salad of Heirloom Tomato
Basil panna cotta, lemon verbena gelee, green zebra gazpacho, compressed cucumber, liquid buratta spheres, Lucero olive oil sorbet, marinated heirloom tomatoes, balsamic reduction.

Pan Seared Wild California Halibut
Local sweet corn, potato croquant, applewood bacon, red pepper relish, garlic pudding.

Chocolate and raspberry dark chocolate gateau, raspberry gelee, dark chocolate mousse, white chocolate sorbet.

August 4, 2010
Former TV actor to introduce new wine in Auburn

douglas barr.jpgAuburn is going to get a little touch of Hollywood next week.

Former television actor Douglas Barr, who has since opened a Napa Winery, will be introducing his just-released 2008 Short Ends Cabernet Sauvignon on Aug. 11 at Carpe Vino in Old Town.

Remember Douglas Barr? He played the sidekick to Lee Majors on "The Fall Guy" in the mid-80s (photograph shows, from left, Douglas Barr, Lee Majors and Heather Thomas), and later played Bill Stillfield, husband to Jean Smart's "Charlene" character on "Designing Women."

Barr, 61, opened Hollywood & Vine with co-owner Bruce Orosz in 1998 and enlisted the help of winemaker Celia Welch to oversee production, a news release from Carpe Vino states.

The winery began with its 2480 cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, both limited, premium wines and last year launched the Short Ends Cabernet, the name of which refers to the remnants of unused film in canisters during movie filming.

The 2480 Cab goes for $83 a bottle and since the Short Ends Cab is made from the 2480's barrel ends, it means wine lovers are getting a similar premium wine at $33 per bottle, Carpe Vino oc-owner Drew Moffat stated in the release.

Carpe Vino has 56 cases of Short Ends for sale.

Barr will be pouring Short Ends Cabernet and his 2480 Chardonnay at 6 p.m. Aug. 11 at Carpe Vino. Appetizers also will be served during the event.

Cost is $10 per person. Carpe Vino Wine Club members can attend for free.

Reservations are not required. For more information, call (530) 823-0320.

July 28, 2010
August marks the start of happy hour deals at Ella

ella.jpgBy Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

One good thing resulting from the recession? Fine dining spots offering happy hour deals.

Ella Dining Room & Bar, Randall Selland's elegant restaurant at the heart of K Street, is the latest to jump on the bargain bandwagon. Starting Monday, the hot spot is offering a daily happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. throughout August.

Drink deals include $5 glasses of wine and signature cocktails, such as the elderflower gimlet and Randall's margarita, for $4 to $7.

A new "bar bites" menu also is available. Among the offerings are a BLT Flatbread ($10), crispy confit chicken wings ($9) and house marinated olives ($4).

Josh Nelson, the restaurant's general manager, said the happy hour is hoped to "introduce people to a more casual side of Ella."

"We have been very successful in caring out our vision of the dining room and now want to introduce people to our vision of the bar and lounge," he wrote in an e-mail to The Bee. "The idea is to get people to understand that they can pop into Ella and have a quick bite and a drink in the bar and lounge, as well as have a great dining experience in the dining room."

*Sacramento Bee photo by Jose Luis Villegas

July 19, 2010
Bottle of wine and no corkscrew? No problem

You're having a picnic. The time comes for the wine. You're trying to make a good impression. But when you reach for your corkscrew, you realize you left it at home.

Fear not. Now's the time to go equal parts Macgyver and James Bond. A reader sent me this link to a video to show you how to get out of bind. You don't need to understand French to follow along. Very cool. Leave it to the French to figure out how to do this.

June 28, 2010
Crowd pleasing fare for our virtual wine tasting fete

Participating in the virtual wine tasting Wednesday night with my colleague Chris Macias and wondering what hors d'oeuvres you can quickly put together after work?

Look no further.

Appetizers don't have to fussy and labor intensive to impress your guests. Think simple, both in preparation and execution, and you'll end up with an array of treats sure to please palates and afford you time to enjoy the party.

cheese.JPGOne of the easiest appetizers to execute is the cheese plate. I asked Felicia Johnson, cheesemonger at Taylor's Market, to guide us toward cheeses that would pair well with the wines selected for Wednesday night's virtual tasting.

Follow the link below to get Johnson's picks and other appetizer ideas.

June 8, 2010
Locally grown ingredients, cookbook inspire dinner event

PK_PLACERGROWN 0123.JPGA Loomis restaurant is holding a special dinner event next week to celebrate the recent release of a cookbook by Placer County locals Joanne Neft and Laura Kenny.

Cafe Zorro will be featuring a three-course menu based on recipes included in "Placer County Real Food" (In-Season Publishing, $28, 300 pages), according to an e-mail from the restaurant.

The cookbook will be for sale at the event and a book signing also will be held.

Diners may choose from a first course of either onion soup with creme fraiche and thyme or a pea shoot salad with citrus vinaigrette.

Main course choices are pan-seared halibut cheeks with an herb beurre blanc sauce, red quinoa with mushrooms and sauteed kale with mirin or barbecue leg of lambs, served with roasted sweet onions and fennel, sauteed summer squash and baby bok choy with crispy shallots.

Dessert is angel food cake with blackberry compote.

True to Neft's passion to eat locally-grown food in season, all of the food served, except for halibut, will be sourced locally.

The dinner will be held from 5 to 8:30 p.m. June 15 at Cafe Zorro, 5911 King Rd., Loomis. Cost is $35 per person.

Reservations are required and can be made by e-mailing matt@cafezorro.com.

Click here to read more about Neft, Kenny and their effort to help people connect with local food and farmers.

June 4, 2010
Head to the hills this weekend for Fair Play's wine event

If you're a wine lover looking for a getaway destination this weekend, head to El Dorado County for the Fair Play Winery Association's annual Fair Play Wine Festival.

It's 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets, at $20 apiece ($5 for designated drivers; free for children), are on sale at all 14 participating wineries:

Busby Cellars, 6375 Grizzly Flat Road
Cantiga Wineworks, 5980 Meyers Lane
Colibri Ridge Winery, 6100 Gray Rock Road
dkcellars, 7380 Vineyard View Drive
Fitzpatrick Winery & Lodge, 7740 Fair Play Road
Granite Springs Winery, 5050 Granite Springs Winery Road
Iverson Vineyards & Winery, 8061 Perry Creek Road
Latcham Vineyards, 2860 Omo Ranch Road
Mount Aukum Winery, 6781 Tower Road
Oakstone Winery, 6440 Slug Gulch Road
Perry Creek Winery, 7400 Perry Creek Road
Sierra Oaks Estates, 6713 Mount Aukum Road
Single Leaf Winery & Vineyards, 7480 Fair Play Road
Chateau Routon Winery, 2800 Omo Ranch Road

You'll meet winemakers and winery owners, taste new releases, and sample special wine and food pairings. Each ticketholder receives a souvenir wine glass, and there will be entertainment at every stop.

For more information: www.fairplaywine.com

- Dixie Reid

March 16, 2010
An evening with the sommelier from the French Laundry

For those who want to take their food and wine knowledge to a whole new level, you'll want to circle March 27 on your calendars - and prepare to dole out $170 for an evening that could last five hours or more.

That's the night you'll be able to rub elbows with Anani Lawson, the sommelier at the French Laundry, one of the world's great restaurants. Lawson is doing the event on his own and he is careful to note this is not a French Laundry-sponsored evening. Nevertheless, he's the wine expert at the restaurant and he will be holding court and talking about wines all night while tasting an apparently lavish multi-course dinner.

Lawson told me by phone that this could be the first of many such wine events he will conduct when he's not on duty at Thomas Keller's famous Yountville restaurant.

"I'm still finalizing the selection of wines. The plan is to have a forum where people can be exposed to wines that they don't instinctively think about and wines they see all the time but don't necessarily see the value of them," Lawson said. "Everyone wants to have the trophy wines, but they might not think about the everyday wines."

Affordable? The French Laundry fixed price dinners are $240 per person. So what does the sommelier consider affordable, everyday wine?

He says he is thinking of a pinot noir that retails for $48, for instance, and a Riesling or white Rhone blend that sells for as little as $15. Those wines and many more will be on site for tasting at the clubhouse at the Pavilions, a new residential development behind Loehman's Plaza off Fair Oaks Boulevard.

Part of the evening will involve pairing wines with food, but the rest will be open to participants to chat with Lawson about anything they choose. Thus, registration is limited to 18 people.

Speaking of pairings, the event itself involves an unusual pairing - the highly regarded Lawson with the unheralded and youthful Pajo Bruich, an ambitious cook who runs a part-time gourmet catering operation but is all but unknown even in the local food community.

Turns out, Bruich and Lawson hit it off when Bruich dined at the French Laundry months ago and eventually decided to join forces to showcase food and wine at a high level. Bruich says he plans to present several culinary surprises during the evening, employing a multitude of modern cooking techniques.

"We are planning to go all out. We are trying to bring the element of surprise to the meal," Bruich said.

If Bruich pulls it off, this could be the start of big things for him. His parents run a restaurant repair business in Lincoln and he says his catering business is not yet allowing him to devote his full-time efforts to it.

Lawson says he was impressed when he presided over Bruich's table at the French Laundry.

"Just like most people I meet, we exchanged business cards. I looked at his Web site and said, 'Hey, maybe we can do events together.' I was the sommelier for his dining table. He showcased to me some type of passion as we described the food to him. It lead to me believe he had a unique passion that I had a connection with."

Lawson added, "When I met him, I said, 'Wow, Sacramento. Why not Sacramento?'"

Those interested in a long, intense, inspiring, educational and more than likely delicious evening should act quickly to reserve a spot.

Here is information from Bruich's promotional mailer. The Web site at the end is the place to register for the event:

This is guaranteed to be our best event to date, with the most dramatic food ingredients and preparations experienced yet! Without giving away too much of the surprise, here is a snippet of the menu....
~ Ultra Grade Wagyu "Calotte" or Cap of Rib Eye
~ Royale De Foie Gras
~ Purebred Japanese Kurobuta
~ Brillat Savarin
~ Valrhona Chocolate and much more! It will definitely be an amazing night in food and wine. Anani has access to some of the rarest and hardest to get wines. He promises to deliver on some memorable wines to enhance the food and create a fabulous dinner!
Beth Daane, of Beth Daane Photography will be on site to capture the magic of the evening.
The evening will start with a cocktail and canape reception at 5:30, followed by a formal seating at 6:00pm.
• March 27th, 5:30 pm
• The Club At Pavilions
• 2430 Pavilions Place Lane
• Sacramento, Ca 95825
• $170 per person, inclusive of service
• http://epicureanddiscoveriesinwine.eventbrite.com/



February 18, 2010
Nor Cal chefs, restaurants among James Beard semifinalists

james beard foundation.jpgIt's the first of many highly-anticipated announcements in the food world: the James Beard Foundation has unveiled the semifinalists for its 2010 restaurant and chef awards.

Among the names unveiled today are several San Francisco and Napa area food industry stars, including Boulevard in San Francisco and Chef Timothy Hollingsworth of The French Laundry in Yountville.

Way to go Northern California!

The award semifinalists were culled from more than 21,000 online entries, which were narrowed by a panel of 400 judges comprised of food industry professionals, educators and journalists, according to a foundation news release.

Five finalists in each of the 19 restaurant and chef categories will be announced on March 22. The awards will be presented May 3 in New York City.

Click on the link below to see the list of semifinalists. Northern California contenders have been highlighted.

January 21, 2010
And the winner is ....

They came. They drank. They judged.

And in the end, the winner of the California Office of Traffic Safety's Mocktail Recipe Contest today was Kimberly Beck of Modesto for her "Green Meenie Martini."

"The judges loved both entries, and the voting was close, but in the end the creative ingredients and unique refreshing hot summer taste won them over," Chris Cochran, the department's spokesman, wrote in an e-mail to The Bee.

For more information about the contest see my previous blog post.

January 21, 2010
New link feature pairs nicely with the Appetizers meal

Ladies and gentlemen, Appetizers is about to get even more appealing.

We have added a new feature, an amuse-bouche if you will, that allows food writers here to share interesting content and food stories we find on the Web. The new links will publish under the heading "Recommended Links" on the right side of the page.

From links to quirky food blogs (check out the link at right to a food blog about the pursuit of "waffleizing" meals) to food and wine stories from other newspapers and publications, we aim to bring you what we find fascinating and hope you'll enjoy too.

If you happen across a story or Web site we haven't mentioned and think we should check out, send me an e-mail at nlofing@sacbee.com and you may spy your link included in the mix.

Bon Appetit!

January 19, 2010
Local restaurant offers diners delicious dishes, way to donate

Helping out has never tasted so good.

Taylor's Kitchen is hosting a dinner fundraiser from 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday to benefit Haiti earthquake relief efforts.

The $25 per person meal will feature several courses of Caribbean-inspired food and all proceeds will be donated to a Haitian relief fund, said Danny Johnson, owner of Taylor's Market and the restaurant. Beer and wine will be available at extra cost.

The idea for the fundraiser struck as Johnson and his wife, Kathaleen, were driving to the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco this weekend and listening to radio reports detailing the relief efforts.

"It's an unbelievably tragic story," Danny Johnson said. "That nation's already in a bad enough way."

Taylor's staff are donating their time for the fundraiser and at least one vendor has donated chicken for the event.

Johnson said he's hoping to raise about $5,000 to send to Haiti.

Reservations can be made by calling the restaurant at (916) 443-5154. Walk-ins also are welcome.

Taylor's Kitchen is located at 2924 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento.

January 19, 2010
Are you the King or Queen of Kosher?

The specialty food company Manischewitz is holding its 4th Man-o-Manischewitz cooking contest, with a deadline of January 31. The top recipe will win its creator a $25,000 package of appliances, cash and more.

Five finalists will be flown to New York City for the cook-off judged by celebrity chef Jacques Pepin.

The contest is for creative kosher recipes and this year requires use of the company's newly introduced natural broth. Some cooks favor using kosher products anyway because of the stringent rules for preparing them. The broth is made with chicken and beef.

Contest organizers encourage cooks to check out last year's winner for inspiration. Erin Evenson won the contest with her recipe for Ruby Red Risotto, using the company's unsalted borscht.

For more information, or to enter the contest, follow this link to the Manischewitz Web site.

- Carlos Alcala

January 7, 2010
Food Network contender to judge local cooking competition

The question is simple: whose cuisine will reign supreme?

The task is not: constructing a three-course meal in just 45 minutes using five secret ingredients.

Six chefs will aim to do just that on April 30 as part of the Celebrity Chef Challenge, which will be held from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the California Automobile Museum in downtown Sacramento.

The event pits local chefs in whisk to whisk combat during the live cooking competition and food show.

Four chefs have signed on for battle thus far: Ryan O'Malley, executive chef at Piatti Ristorante; Chef Q, owner of Chef Q For Hire; Kristy DeVaney, caterer and food blogger; and Anthony Dimasuay, executive chef at 3 Fires Lounge at the Residence Inn Marriott Hotel.

Celebrity judges include News 10's Bryan May, Adam Pechal, owner of Tuli Bistro and a past Celebrity Chef Challenge winner, and Chef Dominique Crenn, of Food Network "The Next Iron Chef" fame.

Crenn is executive chef at San Francisco's Luce Restaurant and was named Esquire Magazine's "Chef of the Year 08."

On the second season of "The Next Iron Chef," Crenn, a delightfully spunky French gal whose accent could charm even the coldest soul, was sent packing mid-season when she served up an entree judges said lacked flavor and an undercooked churro.

About 100 food vendors, including local wineries and breweries, are expected to participate in the food show at the Celebrity Chef Challenge.

Guy Farris and Melissa Crowley of Sacramento & Co. will be the masters of ceremonies.

Tickets are $50 in advance and $60 at the door. All proceeds benefit InAlliance, a local nonprofit that provides life skills training and supported employment for people with developmental disabilities, said Jessica Bean, InAlliance's public relations coordinator.

For more event information or to get tickets, go to www.chefevent.com.

November 10, 2009
New food writing anthology a savory treat

food cover.jpgThis is a book worth devouring.

It's "The Best Food Writing 2009" (Da Capo Press, $15.95, 348 pages) and by no means is the title a misnomer.

I was lucky enough to have obtained an advanced copy of the book, which hit store shelves this week, and consumed the delectable collection of prose in about two days, putting it down only for little things like work and care of children (although I did catch myself sneaking hits of it while my kids were watching PBS' "Dragon Tales").

The 10th anniversary edition of the book is edited by Holly Hughes and is an anthology of the best culinary writing found in newspapers, books, magazines, Web sites and newsletters from the past year.

Contributors include the likes of The New York Times' Kim Severson, Julia Moskin and Frank Bruni; Food & Wine's Lettie Teague; Gourmet's Ruth Reichl and Molly Wizenberg of the famed Orangette blog and "A Homemade Life" (Simon & Schuster, $25, 336 pages).

One of my personal favorites included in the book was a piece that Eric LeMay penned for Gastronomica about his love of French cheese and his quest to smuggle cheese back to the states.

Follow the link below to read an excerpt of LeMay's story.

October 9, 2009
East Sac cafe featuring $25 dinner-for-two deal

The question of where to find an inexpensive date-night dinner may just have been answered.

Selland's Market-Cafe is running a dinner special for $25 that features a meal for two and bottle of wine, pitcher of beer or sangria.

The specials are dine-in or carry out, and are creating quite a buzz at the east Sacramento spot, especially on Thursday and Friday nights.

The intent is to offer customers "a good deal in these tough times and to hopefully help show that Selland's can be a good deal for great quality anytime," said Gina Funk Nelson, a spokeswoman for The Selland Group.

This week's dinner for two special is Moroccan chicken tagine with couscous and a bottle of wine selected by Randall Selland, the market's executive chef. Selland and his family also own and operate The Kitchen Restaurant and Ella Dining Room and Bar.

Other dinners have features paella, mahi mahi sandwiches with slaw and Coq au Vin.

The second Wednesday of the month, when there also is a wine tasting at the cafe, the dinner for two special features pizza paired with red wine or a pitcher of beer.

Is it dinnertime yet?

July 1, 2009
Evan's Kitchen determined to do veggie wine dinner

Give Evan Elsberry credit. Not only is he a very good cook, he's a stubborn restaurateur. After promoting a full vegetarian wine dinner in May and then canceling it when interest was low, Evan's Kitchen on 57th Street is trying again

Vegetarian groups were apparently unaware of the big dinner and perhaps Elsberry didn't reach out to the right Web sites and blogs the first go round. Several folks said they would have made reservations had they known.

So now we'll see how many diners are out there willing to pay $60 for what looks to be a wonderful night of food and wine, absent the meat.

Here's the information Elsberry sent me:

First Course: Yellow Gazpacho and Ratatouille

Second Course: Tomato and Melon Salad with Tomato Sorbet and Basil Tempura

Third Course: Layered Grilled Tofu and Marinated Eggplant with Rice Noodles, Sea Beans, Crispy Ginger and Coconut Red Curry Emulsion

Fourth Course: Provencal Vegetables in Jicama ("Cannelloni") with Red Pepper Jus and Artichoke Sauté

Dessert: Almonds and Marjoram Mirliton with Citrus Fruits

Wines for the meal will be selected from among the 562 medal winners at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition held in early June. Chef Evan will marry the wines to complement the varied flavors of the courses and dessert. On July 9, the "Best of Show" wines will be announced at the California Grape and Gourmet food festival to be held at the Sacramento Convention Center where Chef Evan will present one of his specialty appetizers. (www.TheBestCaliforniaWine.com) The "Best of Show" wines will be served at the September State Fair Gold Medal Wine dinner, date and menu to be determined.

$59.95 per person. Reservations Required. Call 916-452-3896.

June 23, 2009
Sneak peak: Local teen takes food, cooking to the extreme

squab2.jpgHave you ever heard of a 14-year-old who eats squab, much less knows how to cook it? My colleague, Carlos Alcala, has found a local teen who lives for cooking and chronicled his adventures for Wednesday's Food & Wine section.

Here's a sneak preview from Carlos to whet your appetite:

Some of us check, double-check and triple check our recipes as we cook. We don't make anything for guests that we haven't tested before. We measure ingredients carefully for every recipe. That's not Jeffrey Caves. The 14-year-old Carmichael cook is fearless in the kitchen. He's not afraid of knives, fire or failure. He knows enough about cooking that he can usually operate by the seat of his pants (or pans) and save any dish gone wrong from becoming a disaster. See what makes this teen kitchen whiz tick in Wednesday's Food & Wine section.

May 18, 2009
Evan's pulls the plug on vegetarian wine dinner

People often complain that the Sacramento restaurant scene plays it a little too safe, that too many menus look and sound too much alike.

So what happens when someone goes out on a limb and does something different, even daring? In the case of Evan's Kitchen, it's met with a thud. Last week, I reported here that the very fine restaurant in East Sacramento was making its monthly wine dinner an entirely vegetarian affair. But not enough people bit, according to an email I received from Evan Elsberry, the owner and chef.

Evan writes: It was a risk and we had only a few reservations, so we are canceling the June 1 Vegetarian Wine dinner. More people like Vegan, but I'm not going to offer that.

Judging from the menu and the price, it was going to be quite an evening. Too bad.


May 14, 2009
Local Italian wine, food festival cancelled

Looks like it's luci spente (lights out) for the Italian Cultural Society's Annual Wine and Food Festival in Carmichael this Sunday.

Presale tickets weren't going as well as anticipated so organizers decided to cancel the event, said Bill Cerruti, the society's executive director.

"We're getting a lot of last minute people and probably could have pulled it off, but we weren't sure," he said.

People who purchased advance tickets will have their money refunded.

The event typically attracts about 100 to 200 people and the society plans to hold the wine and food gathering next year, Cerutti said.

"We had good entertainment lined up," he said. "This has just been an uncertain year."

Italian culture lovers have no fear - the society still plans on holding its Summer Italian Festival August 1 and 2 at the Croation Community Center.

"It's all set to go," Cerutti said.

For ticket information about the summer festival, e-mail the society or call (916) 482-5900.

May 13, 2009
A wine dinner without meat?

I'm putting this in here because wine dinners are a popular feature at restaurants these days. But I haven't heard of a vegetarian wine dinner until now. I received the following notice from Evan' s Kitchen in East Sac. I admire his daring, since going meatless for such a big dinner is a risk.

Here's what Evan's sent me:

Evan's Kitchen Presents: I Can't Believe It's Meatless! Vegetarian Wine Dinner

Monday, June 1, 2009, 6 to 9 p.m.

First Course: Yellow Gazpacho and Ratatouille

Second Course: Tomato and Melon Salad with Tomato Sorbet and Basil Tempura

Third Course: Layered Grilled Tofu and Marinated Eggplant with Rice Noodles, Sea Beans, Crispy Ginger and Coconut Red Curry Emulsion

Fourth Course: Provencal Vegetables in Jicama ("Cannelloni") with Red Pepper Jus and Artichoke Sauté

Dessert: Almonds and Marjoram Mirliton with Citrus Fruits

Chef Evan will marry the wines to complement the varied flavors of the courses and dessert.

$59.95 per person. Reservations Required. Call 916-452-3896. Evan's Kitchen is located at 855 - 57th St, Sacramento CA, 95819, between H and J Sts. in the 57th Street Antique Row.

`

March 19, 2009
Good wine, good time, great cause

If you've been meaning to get out and try one of the many popular after-work wine-tastings in town, here's that extra nudge you may need: you can taste wine, learn a little about the wineries, meet new friends and give back all in one outing.

David Berkley, the popular gourmet grocer and wine shop (just mentioned by Chris Macias below), is turning one of its weeknight wine tastings into a "Sip and Support" fund-raiser for the Sacramento Children's Home on Tuesday, March 31 from 6-8pm at David Berkley's.

Tickets are $25 in advance through March and $30 at the door. To RSVP, call 290-8199 and pay by credit card or check. Cash only will be accepted the day of the event.

"Sip and Support" will include light hors d'oeurves prepared by David Berkley's chef, Hepana Robertson, and a classical guitarist will perform. Participating wineries include Frank Family, Miner, Caymus, Duckhorn, Sojourn Cellars, Far Niente, Nickel & Nickel and Flowers.

According to its Web site, the Sacramento Children's Home serves 1,800 families and 3,500 children annually, providing educational programs and other support to a broad spectrum of at-risk youth. The mission of the Children's Home is "helping build strong families; to opening doors to the future; to maximizing potential; and ending the cycle of child abuse."

David Berkley Fine Foods and Specialty Wines is at 515 Pavilions Lane in the Pavilions shopping center off Fair Oaks Boulevard near Howe Avenue.

January 28, 2009
Romantic dinner for two? Make it to go

While nearly every restaurant is trying to entice you to come out to eat on Valentine's Day, David Berkley, the popular wine boutique and delicatessen at the Pavilions, wants to send you home. It's offering a helping hand to those looking for an excellent dinner without having to arrange a babysitter or pay search for parking.

On Valentine's Day (that would be Feb. 14, a Saturday, for the romantically challenged) D.B. will be selling chef-prepared gourmet dinners for two for $79.99. The food can be ordered ahead and picked up on Friday or Saturday. The dinners include an appetizer, Caesar salad, choice of three entrees (filet mignon, stuffed chicken breast or salmon) two sides, dessert and a bottle of sparkling wine.

On this day, of all days, dinner should lead to something more interesting than scrubbing pots and pans.

December 18, 2008
Blind wine tasting

Chris recently wrote about a blind tasting he attended with fellow Bee scribe Rick Kushman at Rail Bridge Cellars, a winery just north of town. Those kinds of tastings can be a little intimidating and very educational.

Check out this video to see a top-notch sommelier perform a pretty impressive blind tasting in front of bad boy chef Gordon Ramsey:

November 17, 2008
Sacramento Wine Region Strikes Out, Sort Of

No wines from the Sacramento region qualified for the Wine Spectator's list of the top 100 releases for 2008, but a wine with a local connection did finish high in the roundup.

That would be the Mount Eden Vineyards 2004 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($42), ranked 13th on the list. Only one California wine placed higher, the Seghesio Family Winery 2007 Sonoma County Zinfandel ($24), coming in at No. 10.

Neil and Bernice Hagen of Sacramento are the principal owners of Mount Eden Vineyards, long celebrated for chardonnays that are crisper, longer lived and more European in style than their riper, richer and more heavily oaked California counterparts.

Of the 100 wines on the list, 14 are Californian. For a full rundown, go here.

November 12, 2008
Another Makeover For Copia

On the eve of its seventh anniversary, Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa again is reinventing itself, and no longer will be the culinary center envisioned by the late vintner Robert Mondavi.

According to an online report by Paul Franson for the trade magazine Wines & Vines - the full story is here - the name Copia will live on in "satellite campuses with wine bars and stores," but the future of the monumental center itself in downtown Napa is very much up in the air.

Franson reports that Copia CEO Garry McGuire plans to sell the building by the end of the year, then either lease back quarters in the facility or move to someplace smaller.

No events are being scheduled at Copia for after the end of the year, and the Mustard Marketplace scheduled to be at Copia during next spring's annual Mustard Festival has been moved to Robert Mondavi Winery, reports Franson.

With a debt of $78 million, Copia earlier laid off staff and cut back programs after failing to generate anticipated tourist traffic.

November 6, 2008
A Closer Look At Wine Study

Relax, and continue to enjoy an occasional glass of wine, or two, scientists are saying as they take a closer look at the results of a British study that claims potentially hazardous levels of heavy metal ions could be contaminating many commercial table wines (see the earlier posting below).

The Wine Spectator, in a comprehensive follow-up to initial news reports of the research, quotes one authority as saying the study targets the wrong contaminants, and that drinking water often contains more metals than wines. That would be George Soleas, vice president of quality assurance for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which routinely tests the wines it sells in the Canadian province for heavy metals and other contaminants.

"I'm not trying to minimize the fact that contaminants get into wine, but they are targeting the wrong contaminants. Most people will drink two glass of wine a night, but eight glasses of water per day, and if they take a multivitamin tablet they get two milligrams of manganese on top of that, so how is the metal obtained from wine going to kill anyone?,"
says Soleas, who has degrees in clinical biochemistry and enology.

November 5, 2008
A French Retreat

The French won't be making one of their more dramatic incursions into Napa Valley after all. Their deal to buy historic Chateau Montelena Winery at Calistoga has fallen apart. According to the winery's principals, their French suiter, Reybier Investments, which owns the esteemed Bordeaux estate Chateau Cos d'Estournel, "has been unable to meet its obligations under its contract with the Barrett family" of Chateau Montelena.

Jim Barrett, who acquired Chateau Montelena in 1972, is to remain the estate's owner and will not put it up for sale, according to a press release issued by the winery this morning. He wasn't elaborating on what went wrong with the sale, which in July he called "a dream marriage." "This is a perfect fit...We could not have asked for a finer team to carry on this legacy," Barrett said in July.

No price was disclosed, though at the time the British wine journal Decanter speculated that Chateau Montelena was fetching $110 million from Reybier.

Chateau Montelena, founded in 1882, shot to celebrity in the spring of 1976 when its 1973 chardonnay was judged the best take on the varietal in a blind Paris tasting involving comparable French wines and French wine judges.

More recently, it served as the storyline for "Bottle Shock," a movie about the 1976 Paris tasting that was released this past summer.

Despite the collapse of the sale, Barrett said in his statement that the winery's principals are "energized by the enthusiasm and vision expressed by all the parties who bid for ownership of Chateau Montelena."

His son, Bo Barrett, is to continue as a limited partner in the winery, specifically working on undefined "special projects." Greg Ralston is to remain as managing director, while Cameron Parry will continue as winemaker and Dave Vella as vineyard manager.


November 4, 2008
Another Stop For Stoppers

If you drink wine, you likely gather wine corks. When the bottle is empty, you could just throw out the cork. Too many, however, have stories to tell, memories to evoke, a funny drawing, a witty saying or a helpful telephone number. Someday, you're apt to think, you'll find a use for those corks. As a consequence, they gather in bags in the garage, basement or barn. And you still don't have a solution about what to do with them.

Now, the Whole Foods Market chain and ReCork America, a recycling program sponsored by cork producer Amorim, are teaming up to give wine enthusiasts another option to dispose of their stained and torn corks.

The two companies are launching a six-month trial program whereby wine drinkers can dump their old corks into recycling bins in the wine departments of 25 Whole Foods stores in northern California and Reno. The participating markets include the Sacramento store and the Roseville branch, which is to open Wednesday.

Wine corks, noted Roger Archey, program manager for ReCork, can be converted into a wide range of secondary uses, from floor tiles to fishing-rod handles. An estimated 13 billion natural corks are used by the world wine trade annually, Archey says.

November 3, 2008
Heavy Metal: A Sour Note For Wine?

For nearly two decades, American thirst for wine has been driven in part by one study after another to show that a regular glass or two seems to have several far-reaching health benefits.

Now a report out of Britain suggests that that string of positive endorsements could be coming to an end. According to news reports, researchers Declan Naughton and Andrea Petroczi of Kingston University in South West London have found potentially hazardous levels of heavy metal ions in many commercial table wines.

In analyzing wines from 16 countries - but not the United States - they found that metal ions were of high enough concentration to pose potential health risks in wines from 13 of the nations. Only wines from Argentina, Brazil and Italy didn't jeopardize health because of their content of metals, say researchers.

The report, in the online Chemistry Central Journal, suggests that a daily 250-milliliter glass of white or red wine could expose imbibers to a potentially higher risk of chronic inflammatory disease, Parkinson's disease, premarture aging and cancer.

The researchers used as safe a value of 1 in calculating the "target hazard quotients" (THQ) of potentially toxic levels of metal ions in wine, a technique developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Monitoring by the English researchers generally found levels much higher than that, ranging from 50 to 200 for Hungarian wines and up to 300 for Slovakian wines.

Researchers focused specifically on seven metal ions, including vanadium, manganese chromium, copper, nickel and lead.

Naughton and Petroczi call for more research to pinpoint the source of metal ions showing up in the wine - grapes? soils? insecticides? fermentation tanks? - and to determine the upper safe limits for their consumption. They also found THQ levels above 1 in orange juice and stout.

At UC Davis, meanwhile, Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, intermim chair of the department of viticulture and enology, said the faculty is aware of the study and is analyzing what it may mean. "A couple of things seem a bit odd," says Waterhouse. "Their scoring system seems to have each metal equitable in risk. That's surprising. Lead is more dangerous than copper."

He also found some of the study's findings contradictory, questioned whether the consumption pattern on which it was based it realistic, and concluded that his own early analysis of the data didn't find any reason for alarm.

The university, adds Waterhouse, isn't monitoring heavy metal ions in wine, but that soon could change. "Chemists here would like to do a similar survey of California wines to see what is going on, so we'll talk with some industry folks to see if they want to pursue this or not," Waterhouse says.

The British researchers indicated that they aren't so concerned about the issue that they will stop drinking wine, but they are proposing that levels of metal ions be added to wine labels.

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 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.

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 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 Bloomberg.com.

More depressing news has arrived from Decanter.com, 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 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.

August 20, 2008
Vidal Statistic: Rare Wine Fills the Governor's Cup

The lineup for today's sweepstakes round of the 2008 New York Wine & Food Classic pretty much backed up a claim often made by the state's vintners: New York makes more kinds of wine than any other state. Fifty wines were up for the competition's highest honor, the Governor's Cup. Many of them were varietals you don't find made in California: traminette, vignoles, cayuga, vergennes and rkatsiteli, to name a few. Ten rieslings were nominated for the Governor's Cup, the biggest contingent in the final series of votes, but they represented four different styles of wine, from bone dry to an "ice wine" with 18 percent residual sugar, further reflecting the wide range of wines made in New York.

Incidentally, not a single gewurztraminer or pinot noir made it to the sweepstakes round, not because the varieties aren't grown in New York but because judges couldn't find any candidates worthy of nominating, a development puzzling to the competition's organizers. Nor was any zinfandel nominated for sweepstakes, which wasn't surprising at all given that the variety doesn't seem to be grown in the state.

The sweepstakes round involved whittling the field down to a handful of wines - best white wine, best dessert wine and so forth. From those last few nominees, the Governor's Cup winner eventually was singled out. This year's winner is the Swedish Hill Winery 2007 Finger Lakes Vidal Blanc, which sells for $11. Vidal blanc is the name of the grape, a French/American hybrid developed in Bordeaux by crossing the obscure variety ugni blanc with the even more obscure variety seibel 4986. A lot of this sort of breeding goes on in New York as vintners try to come up with vines that both yield the kind of fruity flavors people like in wine and possess the strength to survive in a hostile climate - humid in the summer, freezing in the winter. The winning Swedish Hill vidal blanc is a pretty wine, distinctly floral in smell, fruity in flavor and persistent in finish. It has nearly two percent sugar, but it didn't taste that sweet thanks to the crispness of its nicely balancing acidity. It has fruit qualities that invite comparisons with riesling, but its body felt rounder and fleshier than the rieslings. Just a little more than 100 acres of vidal blanc are grown in New York, so whether it ever will become a major player in the state's continuing viticulture development remains uncertain. In the voting for best white wine, which the Swedish Hill had to win to be up for the Governor's Cup, it just barely edged out the Hosmer Winery 2007 Finger Lakes Cayuga Lake Riesling, which sells for $12. Unfortunately for Californians looking for either a new kind of wine to explore or a riesling that delivers plenty of intense flavor at a bargain price, not much of either the Swedish Hill or the Hosmer is going to make it to the West, if at all. The Finger Lakes this time of year, however, is a great place to visit.

August 19, 2008
Ringing In A Novel Take On Judging Wine

IMGP3559.JPGWinemakers enter wine competitions mostly because they know that gold medals sell wine. Beyond that, they see competitions as a way to measure the quality of their wines against releases of similar pedigree. They use the results to learn of their shortcomings and to make adjustments so their wines will be more competitive in both judgings and the marketplace. Most wine competitions focus on the gold-medal aspects rather than the educational side of judging.

For years, however, the New York Wine & Food Classic, a competition that this year drew a record 790 wines, all from the Empire State, has put as much emphasis on the second motivation as the first. It's done it quietly, and with a deviously simple approach, to wit: Several flights of wine include a "ringer," a wine not from New York but from a region widely recognized as doing well by a particular style or varietal. For example, a class of New York sparkling wines might include a Champagne, or a class of New York sauvignon blanc might include a release of the varietal from New Zealand.

Because the wines are judged blind, judges don't know where they are from. The competition's organizers see this approach as a way to let New York winemakers know how their wines measure up to wines that already have developed a following.

Our panel at the New York Wine & Food Classic today judged several classes that included "ringers" from elsewhere. A flight of riesling, for example, included a wine from Germany, we learned afterwards. Germany generally is seen as the region that does best by riesling. However, we gave the German riesling only a silver, while awarding two New York rieslings gold medals. Hooray for New York, which in recent years has gained much respect for its rieslings.

On the other hand, we also judged a class of chardonnay. None of the New York chardonnays won more than a silver medal. The only gold-medal wine in the class was the Simi Winery 2006 Sonoma County Chardonnay, from California. The message? New York vintners, get to work on improving your chardonnay.

We gave the wines fair deliberation, but I wouldn't make too much of these results. While they're intriguing and perhaps instructive, New York vintners shouldn't relax their vigilance in producing noble rieslings any more than they should lose sleep over the showing of their chardonnay.

The competition, by the way, is being held in one of the nation's more grand and celebrated resorts, Mohonk Mountain House, 1200 feet up the Catskills overlooking Hudson River Valley. It's so huge it forms its own ridge of Victorian turrets along one side of a 17-acre lake. Guests have at their disposal all sorts of opportunities for golfing, hiking, swimming, rock climbing or just lounging in rockers on one of the buildings several verandas. The competition's judges, however, barely have enough time to shower and change before dinner, their schedule of wines being so extensive (133 for our panel the first day). Poor judges.

August 16, 2008
Dog Day Doggerel

A poet I'm not, but inspired by The Bee's State Fair poetry contest, I went to Cal Expo last night in search of my muse (though tempted, I won't stoop to milking the shallow poet's weakness for limp puns by suggesting I was grasping for moo's).

At the Wine Garden, the most relaxing and convivial place on the fairgrounds, inspiration struck:

Red wine too hot
So white we bought
Silver it got
In State Fair lot

Its place was sought
On label spot
And there learned what
Chile had wrought

Because I'm about to leave for New York's Hudson Valley, I won't immediately have a chance to ask State Fair officials what a Chilean wine was doing in the commercial wine competition, which at least in the past has been limited to California wines. I have a hunch, however, about what happened. This Chilean chardonnay is imported by Don Sebastiani & Sons of Sonoma and is bottled under the brand of Pepperewood Grove, a label long associated with California wine. As I've written in the past, the rising popularity of wine in the United States has prompted many American wineries to look abroad for wine to market here. Sometimes the wine they find is marketed under new brand names, but often it's bottled under an existing label long used for domestic releases. That's what Sebastiani & Sons is doing. There's nothing especially duplicitous about the practice, as long as the source of the grapes is spelled out on the label, however small. The first clue we had that last night's chardonnay wasn't from California was the appellation on the label, Valle Central, which could suggest "Central Valley" of California, only Sebastiani & Sons hasn't begun to sell wines with bilingual labels, as far as I know. More to the point, Valle Central is an appellation long associated with Chile, as finer print on the back label verifies.

As a measure of the wine garden's popularity, incidentally, it's again been enlarged, providing much more seating at tables both to the back and front. The biggest change we experienced, however, was the eager persistence of pourers to give visitors small sample tastes of whatever wines intrigued them before they popped for an entire glass. Given the steep prices of many of the wines at the garden, this generous hospitality is especially welcome.

August 7, 2008
A Surprisingly Early Start to Vintage 2008

The wine-grape harvest of 2008 is under way, earlier than usual for still table wines, reports winemaker Mitch Cosentino from Pope Valley on the east side of Napa Valley. While it's not unusual for the picking of grapes for sparkling wine to get under way in early August, a harvest this soon for still wines is unprecedented for Cosentino, who has been pulling grapes from Pope Valley since 1993.

"I was up here last Thursday checking on frost damage, walking the vineyard and tasting fruit from the young vines when I realized it had great intensity and wonderful flavors, so I decided we've got to pick this stuff," said Cosentino this morning as he oversaw the crush at his Pope Valley facility. The juice will go into the 2008 version of his proprietary wine The Novelist, bottled under his brand Cosentino Winery at Yountville. (The 2006 Novelist recently won a gold medal at the California State Fair commercial wine competition.)

"We usually start picking up here at the end of August, so this is three weeks earlier than usual and two weeks earlier than ever," Cosentino said.

This early start to the table-wine harvest is something of a surprise, given that spring was brutally chilly in spots and summer has been relatively benign. A spring frost is expected to reduce the size of Cosentino's harvest of cabernet sauvignon in Pope Valley from its usual 4.5 tons to 1 ton, but the sauvignon blanc looks to have weathered the freeze much better, he says.

In addition to his eponymous winery, Cosentino also markets wine under the brands Crystal Valley Cellars, CE2V (soon to be renamed Secret Clone Estate), Blockheadia Ringnosii, and Legends (a collaboaration with NBA great Larry Bird).

July 29, 2008
Strong Napa Valley Voice is Stilled

Though I met Tom Shelton years ago, I knew him principally through articles and columns he wrote for Spring Valley Times, the house organ of Joseph Phelps Vineyards in Napa Valley. In a place and during an era when representatives of wineries chose their words so carefully that they'd come off tired and bland, Shelton was refreshingly and colorfully blunt. Whether as president of Joseph Phelps Vineyards from 1995 until earlier this year, or as a vocal director of the trade group Napa Valley Vintners, Shelton left no doubt where he stood on wine issues, and for that alone his forthright character will be missed. Tom Shelton died of brain cancer over the weekend at 55. James Laube and MaryAnn Worobiec have more about Tom Shelton at the Web site of Wine Spectator.

July 24, 2008
The Scoop on Coops

IMGP3373.JPGMarty Mathis was pretty excited about showing off his seven acres of cabernet sauvignon when I visited him yesterday at his and his mother's winery, Kathryn Kennedy, on the lower reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains at Saratoga. But he kicked up the volume a couple of notches when the subject turned to his "chicken tractor," a large wheeled contraption he built to house his four chickens as he moves them through the vineyard to help keep down the weeds, fertilize vines and control insects. It's a portable coop, without a floor, but a compartment for roosting and buckets for depositing eggs.

Mathis acknowledges that his excitement over building a chicken tractor sort of got out of hand, and he ended up with the veritable Airstream of chicken tractors. The materials he used were so fine and the size so substantial that he figures every egg he's getting from his brood costs him $10. Nonetheless, he doesn't rue the investment. He figures those eggs, combined with produce from his garden, provide him with one home-grown meal a day.

Apparently a movement is afoot to convince city folk to build chicken tractors as part of the locavore philosophy. You can find a whole gallery of chicken tractors here.

July 22, 2008
Bottle Shock, The Sequel

Michel Reybier, owner of the Bordeaux estate Chateau Cos d'Estournel, has confirmed that he is negotiating with the Jim Barrett family to buy Napa Valley's Chateau Montelena. In a press release issued a short time ago, Reybier indicated the sale is near and pends only regulatory approval. No price was disclosed, nor did Reybier say what regulatory issues are involved in the transaction. One possible hitch could be that regulations in the United States prohibit wine producers from having a vested interest in distributing wines, including wholesalers, restaurants and retailers, and Reybier's properties include a resort in Geneva with three restaurants.

Jim Barrett, who acquired Chateau Montelena in 1972, is quoted in the release as saying: "This is a perfect fit - a dream marriage. We could not have asked for a finer team to carry on this legacy."

His son, Bo Barrett, who has made the wines at Chateau Montelena since 1982, "will continue to provide the essential knowledge and experience gained from 35 years of living and working on the estate," but the press release isn't clear on who will be in charge of winemaking once the sale concludes. "Michel Reybier understands that it takes time and continuity to learn the true qualities of each place. He understands the importance of continuity, commitment and experience in making world-class wine," said Bo Barrett in the press release.

July 22, 2008
Bottle Shock

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," the French seem to be saying with word this morning that the renowned Bordeaux chateau Cos d'Estournel is buying one of Napa Valley's more historic estates, Chateau Montelena.

Though Chateau Montelena has been around since 1882, it shot to celebrity in the spring of 1976 when its 1973 chardonnay was judged the best take on the varietal in a blind Paris tasting involving comparable French wines and French wine judges.

Speculation about the potential sale of Chateau Montelena surfaced last month when the magazine Wine Spectator reported that the father-and-son team of Jim and Bo Barrett had put the property on the market for a minimum $100 million, though the Barretts wouldn't confirm the rumors.

Today, the British wine magazine Decanter reported that Cos d'Estournel is purchasing Chateau Montelena, quoting Michel Reybier, the owner of the Bordeaux estate, as its source. No sales price was disclosed, though Decanter speculated that $110 million was being paid for the Napa Valley property.

Jeff Adams, media representative for Chateau Montelena, said a formal announcement concerning the status of Chateau Montelena would be made later today.

If the sale of Chateau Montelena is completed, it will come almost exactly one year after the Warren Winiarski family sold its Napa Valley estate Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, which had won the cabernet-sauvignon portion of the 1976 Paris tasting. Stag's Leap sold to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Washington state and Marchese Piero Antinori of Italy for $185 million.

On Aug. 6, a movie, "Bottle Shock," a romanticized and truncated version of the Paris tasting that focuses almost exclusively on Chateau Montelena, is to debut in American cinemas.


July 11, 2008
Bigger Role for Sacramentans in Santa Cruz Mountains

A Sacramento couple instrumental in developing Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains have purchased a second winery in the appellation.

Neil and Bernice Hagen, who own Thunderbird Forest Products of Sacramento and the local branch of Poggenpohl Kitchens, have purchased neighboring Cinnabar Vineyards & Winery above Saratoga for an undisclosed price.

Cinnabar, founded in 1983 by the late Stanford research engineer Tom Mudd, has been producing about 20,000 cases annually in recent years. "Basically, I've doubled my production capacity," said Jeffrey Patterson, Mount Eden's longtime winemaker. At Mount Eden, he's been making around 15,000 cases a year.

Both estates primarily produce chardonnay and pinot noir, with some cabernet sauvignon. Cinnabar is to be renamed Domaine Eden. Most of its 30-acre vineyard is being replanted, with more pinot noir being put in and cabernet sauvignon being reduced, said Patterson.

Neil Hagen, whose mills produce molding in South America, New Zealand, Mexico and the southern United States, joined four partners in 1961 to buy Mount Eden Vineyards from legendary winemaker Martin Ray. Today, the Hagens control about 60 percent of the company, with Jeffrey Patterson and his wife Ellie owning around 30 percent. A half-dozen shareholders own the rest.

Mount Eden Vineyards also is about to join seven other wineries in a cooperative tasting room and wine bar called Press Club in San Francisco. Expected to open in two to three weeks, Press Club is at 20 Yerba Buena Lane between Market and Mission streets, near the new Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco. The other wineries include Chateau Montelena, Miner Family, Saintsbury, Pahlmeyer and Landmark.

July 11, 2008
Wine Spots in My Notebook

Random notes from yesterday evening's Grape & Gourmet gala at Cal Expo, the annual bash where California State Fair officials reveal the major winners of the fair's commercial wine competition:

- Despite my aversion to crowds, this event is growing on me. Maybe they didn't sell as many tickets as they have in the past, or maybe they've expanded the space, but the tasting didn't seem as congested as it has been in earlier years. Also, more tasters have caught on to tasting etiquette, particularly the point about getting your taste and then getting out of the way so others can get their pour. Good showing, gang! On the other hand, too many winery representatives still think such tastings are their opportunity to kibitz among themselves, oblivious to why they are there, which is to make that all-important personal connection with a curious public. Next year, do your socializing among yourselves before or after, and during the event focus on the paying public.

- OK, the best-of-show red wine of this year's State Fair judging was the Castle Rock 2006 Mendocino County Pinot Noir ($12). I was more impressed with it during the State Fair judging than I was last night, but at a time when the popularity of pinot noir is prompting many producers to charge more for examples of the varietal than is warranted by their quality, the Castle Rock still is a remarkably good buy. It's true to the varietal, it's balanced, and it's sweetly fruity, with an emphasis on the sweetness. It's perfectly pleasant, and worth every cent.

- The most memorable wine I tasted all evening was the Calcareous Vineyards 2005 York Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($34) from Paso Robles, judged the best cabernet sauvignon in the competition. It's a wonderfully elegant example of the varietal. In contrast to so many cabernet sauvignons these days, it was fresh and lithe, with a clean cherry fruitiness, a touch of spice, a sinewy build, and a lingering minerality. It's made for the dinner table, not the competition circuit, and I'm encouraged that a cabernet of such refinement was recognized and acknowledged by the judges. What were they thinking? Refreshment and character, I suspect.

- A close second was the Jekel Vineyards 2007 Monterey County Riesling ($12), which tied for best riesling in the state at the competition. Despite one percent residual sugar, it tasted unusually dry for a California riesling, and certainly dryer than earlier vintages. It's shot through with apricots, peaches and an intriguing stoniness. The wine it tied with is the Loredona 2007 Monterey County Riesling ($12), which went on to be elected the fair's best-of-show white wine. If Loredona was represented at last night's tasting, I didn't spot its booth. In wine shops and grocery stores, the Jekel also should be easier to find; nearly 36,000 gallons of the Jekel were made compared with 12,000 gallons of the Loredona.

- The biggest surprise was a silver-medal wine, the Jeff Runquist 2006 Lodi Silvaspoons Vineyard Touriga ($22), a red table wine whose light color and lean structure were deceiving. It had wonderfully vibrant fruit, possessed of both juiciness and a tantalizingly subtle complexity. Touriga is a Portugese variety, traditionally used for Port, but here yielding a delightfully angular and zesty table wine that easily could play the role often taken by pinot noir. The release of the wine is pending, and when it is it likely will be available only at Jeff Runquist's winery in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, given that he made only 118 cases.

- Wines weren't the only product recognized last night. The State Fair also has a commercial handcrafted beer competition, for which the best-of-show brew was the Drake's Brewing Co. Drake's Blonde Kolsch out of San Leandro. Wow, what a terrific beer - balanced, refreshing and mellow without being reserved. I liked its fastidious interweaving of freshness, nuttiness and maltiness, which actually tasted more of malt than sugar. The person doing the pouring wasn't sure where it would be available hereabouts, but suggested I look for it at Nugget Markets and BevMo.

- Other high honors bestowed last night were best-of-show dessert wine, the Navarro Vineyards 2007 Anderson Valley Mendocino County Late Harvest White Riesling ($39); best sparkling wine, the Mumm Napa Napa Valley Blanc de Noirs ($19); best value, the Castle Rock pinot noir that also won best-of-show red wine; and the Golden State Winery of the Year award, which went to South Coast Winery of Temecula for best overall performance in the competition, which it won by winning one double-gold medal, five gold medals, 13 silver medals and 12 best-of-class honors.

- State Fair officials also honored three veteran California winemakers with lifetime achievement awards: Mary Ann Graff, the first woman to graduate in the viticulture and enology program at UC Davis, now owner of the wine lab Vinquiry in Healdsburg; Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills Winery, who has been making wine in Napa Valley for 50 years; and Warren Winiarski of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley, which he and his family sold last year after establishing the brand as one of the world's more esteemed producers of cabernet sauvignon.

- A searchable database of the State Fair's award-winning wines is available at this page of The Bee's wine Web site, www.sacwineregion.com.

July 2, 2008
Hot Wine Tips

Our Wednesday-morning reading brings us a couple of helpful tips for wine enthusiasts:

- When visiting wineries to taste and buy wines during summer heat spells, bring along an ice chest with frozen gel packs to keep the bottles at a cool temperature that will help preserve the wine's freshness and character during the jaunt, advises the July newsletter of Domaine de la Terre Rouge and Easton Wines in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley. That advice has been around for years, but the newsletter provides a newer tip: Wrap the gel packs with towels to keep moisture from damaging wine labels.

- Don't have a pen and notebook to record the name, vintage, varietal and so forth of a bottle of wine you just had at a dinner out? Don't fret. Just whip out your camera phone, snap a photo of the label and email it with your tasting notes to CorkSavvy.com, where the data can be stored in your own electronic cellar. "The Web site knowingly recognizes email addresses and automatically submits photos in users' virtual wine diaries," notes an announcement of the new application in today's MarketWatch.

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 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 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
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 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 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.

May 30, 2008
For Now, Sweepstakes Wine a Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

May 29, 2008
Buying a Rose? Select Cautiously

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

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

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

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


May 29, 2008
Chardonnays, Cabernets and Now Roses

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

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

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

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

May 23, 2008
A Prospector Returns to Foothills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 21, 2008
Battered, But Hanging In

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 7, 2008
Passport to Spring

IMGP2817.JPGWhat with the grass getting taller, barns jutting up like Sierra peaks, and vines budding with new life, spring in the Sierra foothills provided the perfect backdrop for this weekend's 17th annual Passport Weekend sponsored by the El Dorado Winery Association.

I'll be reporting on some new wineries in the area in a forthcoming Dunne on Wine column in The Bee, but first a couple of quick impressions:

- The food was never better, with the most impressive fare of the day dished out at Busby Cellars along Grizzly Flat Road of Somerset, home to this grand old barn. Off the Vine Catering Co. of Cameron Park was dishing out smoked pork with a sauce of ancho chile peppers on blue-corn tortillas, red lentils with andouille sausage, and the big surprise, fried white beans scented with sage and spicy with chile powder and garlic. It was tough deciding which Busby wine was the best match, with the sweetly fruity 2005 tempranillo, the firm and spicy 2005 zinfandel, and the peppery and juicy 2005 petite sirah all possessing the build and depth to pair with the hearty foods.

- The two most impressive wines of the day fell at opposite ends of the style spectrum. On the light end was the Iverson Vineyards & Winery 2007 Sierra Foothills Grenache Rose ($18), austere in structure but all refreshing strawberries and pomegranates in smell and flavor. On the robust end was the Holly's Hill Vineyards 2005 El Dorado Patriarche ($30), a jammy, earthy, and complex blend of black Rhone Valley varieties.

- Holly's Hill Vineyards and Colibri Ridge Winery & Vineyard share the award for extra-step hospitality, the former for its complimentary espresso stand, the latter for Garrison Yeandle, who not only attentively directed traffic in the parking lot but quickly opened car doors for visitors and volunteered to take group photos under the oaks. We started the day at Colibri Ridge and ended it at Holly's Hill, and those considerate touches were perfect bookends.

April 4, 2008
Shakeup in Wine Tasting

Light wines before heavy, white wines before red has been a prevailing principle of wine appreciation for decades. Almost without exception, that's the order in which wines are poured when you visit a winery tasting room.

But no longer, at least not at Madrona Vineyards on Apple Hill in El Dorado County. For two months now, the Bush family that owns the winery has been pouring red wines before white. The switch, says Paul Bush, may be contrary to tradition but is based on scientific reasoning.

White wines typically are higher in acidity and pH levels than red, especially when grown at higher and subsequently cooler elevations; Madrona's vineyards, at 3,000 feet, are among the higher in the state. Red wines grown at such altitudes customarily have fairly substantial tannins.

When whites from such a microclimate are tasted first, they show well, but their residual impact on the palate help accentuate the tannins of the red wines that follow, says Bush. When the order of tasting is reversed, red wines will taste more balanced, while the reviving fruitiness and acidity of white wines will be put to a better test for showing off the cleansing ability of the wine. This red-before-white tasting approach, incidentally, is what Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti has been using for years during tastings at his store, Corti Brothers.

Visitors to Madrona's tasting room have been surprised by the reversed order, but game to give it a try, indicates Bush. If you are planning to visit some El Dorado County wineries this weekend you might just want to put Madrona on your itinerary to see how you find the order.

February 11, 2008
Golden Weather, Wines Not So Much

IMGP2614_edited.jpgIf you thought the weather in Sacramento this weekend was pleasant, you should have been in Dallas, where temperatures rose into the 70s under skies blue and still. Unfortunately, I only got to enjoy spring's early tease as I walked between the Magnolia Hotel and the Dallas Convention Center, where along with about 60 other wine judges I was sequestered in a ballroom staring at a large white screen where our scores were projected for debate and tabulation.

This was the setting for the 24th annual Dallas Morning News Wine Competition, which drew nearly 3,500 wines, a record high. Our panel was assigned about 240 wines, including large classes of cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux blends, pinot grigio and zinfandel.

We won't get our coded results for a week or two, so I have no idea of the identity of the wines that we gave gold medals. I do know that there weren't many of them. The most surprising class was the pinot grigios, which as a group showed more refreshing and alluring fruit than I've generally associated with the varietal.

A few days ago, a reader emailed me to ask what I thought of zinfandels from the 2006 vintage that I tasted at the recent Zinfandel Festival in San Francisco. I haven't answered because I didn't taste many zinfandels of any vintage that day. At Dallas, however, the 37 zinfandels our panel tasted were almost solely from the 2006 harvest. We weren't awed by the category, and ended up giving just three gold medals. It was an unusually uneven group, with a bright and clean zinfandel often followed by a string of muddled and clumsy releases. An unusually high number had funky smells and flavors. Based on this experience, I suggest zinfandel partisans approach the 2006s cautiously. Taste before you buy; short of that, look for wines that rank high either at several competitions or are scored high by several critics whose view you tend to share.

February 7, 2008
Paul Newman Finishes Setting the Table

Newmans Own Wine Group - HIGH RES.JPGNearly 40 years after it was released, could the Paul Newman and Robert Redford vehicle "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" still resonate with an American audience?

The folks at Rebel Wine Co. in Napa Valley are counting on it. "Newman's Own," a brand long associated with salad dressings, pasta sauces and popcorn, now is a wine that in its packaging and marketing hopes to capitalize on the enduring appeal of the movie. There are two wines, actually, a cabernet sauvignon and a chardonnay, both bearing California appellations, and both with the sketched likeness of Paul Newman on the label, designed to resemble a strip of celluloid.

Unlike the principals in the popular "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," a likeable and amusing sendup of oldtime Westerns, these aren't wines you need to chase down and wrestle to the ground to get a grip on what they have to say. They're smack in your face, with hefty builds and lush ripe fruit. There's no hole in the wall here. Both seem to have a trace of residual sugar, qualifying them as candidates for a People's Choice award if not an Oscar.

The chardonnay is true to type, its ripe fruit running to pineapple and apple, with unusual complexity for an example of the varietal more at home as an aperitif than a companion at the dinner table.

The cabernet sauvignon is dense in color and thick through the middle, its herbal and cherry fruitiness shot through with suggestions of port. It's a stew wine, or better yet a wine to pair with saltena, the beefy, fruity and spicy Bolivian version of an empanada.

Both wines are from the 2006 vintage and each carries a suggested retail price of $16. As with Newman's other culinary products, all profits from sale of the wines are donated to educational and charitable programs.

Rebel Wine Co. is a collaboration of the St. Helena wineries Three Thieves and Trinchero Family Estates, which also releases the Bandit line of wines. Newman's Own wines just are starting to be distributed, with the first wave available at Nugget Markets along Florin Road, in West Sacramento and at El Dorado Hills.

February 6, 2008
Valentine's Day Affection

Patty Bogle, doyenne of the Delta wine trade, has been hospitalized in Houston since November to fight acute myeloid leukemia, but her family, friends and neighbors in and about Clarksburg are arranging an unusual Valentine's Day tribute for her.

They are teaming up with BloodSource for a blood drive from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. next Thursday - Valentine's Day - in the gym at Delta High School in Clarksburg. Sign-ups also will be taken for the national bone-marrow registry. Those unable to get to the gym at that time can schedule a donation elsewhere through the organization's Web site. Her donor-club number is P572.

Since being hospitalized at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Patty Bogle has been receiving blood transfusions and platelets about four times a week. She's gone through two rounds of chemotherapy and is expected to be hospitalized another four months, said her daughter, Jody Bogle VanDePol. "We’re very hopeful her body will respond to these drugs and we’ll have her home," said VanDePol. Once the cancer is in remission, she will be up for a stem-cell transplant, she added.

Her mother's most difficult adjustment has been not being able to be around her three grandchildren, who must stay away because of her suppressed immune system. Other family members and friends, however, have been making frequent trips to Houston.

Bogles have been farming the Delta for more than a century, but only in 1968 did they start to cultivate wine grapes. Today, the family tends 1,200 acres of wine grapes about Clarksburg. In 1978, they established Bogle Vineyards, which with annual production at nearly a million cases is ranked the nation's 18th largest winery by Wine Business Monthly. Patty Bogle has overseen the winery since 1989, assuming even more responsibility for the family's farming operations since the death of her husband Chris Bogle in 1997.

She's also a prominent player in the state's wine community, particularly with respect to the understanding and appreciation of petite sirah, the winery's flagship varietal and one of the more historical varieties to be grown in California.

February 4, 2008
Speaking of Endorsements...

Grape growers and winemakers who gathered in Sacramento last week kicked off one day of speeches and workshops with an appreciative chuckle. Their amusement was triggered by the debut of a 30-second commercial that is to start appearing today on cable TV networks. The spot touts California as the ideal destination for visitors who like wine tasting and eating out to play a significant role in their travels.

Toward that end, the commercial calls upon several culinary and winemaking celebrities - restaurateur Pat Kuleto, chef Guy Fieri, winemakers Kathy Joseph, Jill Davis and Paul Draper, among others - to make a series of rapid-fire plugs about the joys to be found in California wines and foods.

Developed by the California Wine Institute and the California Travel and Tourism Commission, the spot isn't likely to be seen much in California itself because Californians already are familiar with the wines and foods the state has to offer, reason the sponsors. However, MeringCarson, the promotional agency responsible for pulling together the marketing campaign, has made this clip available for local residents to see what amused last week's conventioners.
For the kicker, however, stay tuned until the very end of the spot, when Maria Shriver and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger make a cameo appearance that has nothing to do with Barack Obama and John McCain.

The commercial, incidentally, is just one segment of a broader effort to promote California's wine and food culture. Another is "The Land of Wine and Food" Web site, where additional videos, an interactive guide to California wine regions and the like is available.

February 4, 2008
Change of Plans

Charles B. Mitchell isn't giving up on the wine and food potential of southwestern El Dorado County after all. Two weeks ago I reported here that Mitchell, who'd been instrumental in developing the stature of the Fair Play appellation, was selling the second of his two wineries in the area, Winery by the Creek, and its neighboring restaurant, Fair Play Bistro, to Michael Conti.

Both Mitchell and Conti agreed that the deal was as good as done. Conti already had purchased Mitchell's original winery, now known as Conti Estate/Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards. That will remain in Conti's hands, but Mitchell will continue to hang on to Winery by the Creek and Fair Play Bistro, currently closed.

Mitchell says Conti apparently had second thoughts about investing more enthusiastically in the area and told him he no longer was interested in buying the second winery and the bistro. Conti says he withdrew his offers for the properties for "personal reasons" and declined further comment.

Mitchell isn't interested in resuming a hands-on role at the two sites. He says he's seeking a manager to run Winery by the Creek and an operator to reopen the bistro, which he hopes to see again running this spring.

In the meantime, he's planning a blowout of his wine inventory at both the restaurant and the winery over President's Day weekend, Feb. 16-18. He has some 200 cases of wine at the restaurant that he will sell for a flat $7.50 per bottle from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. He'll also be serving food. At the winery just across the creek from the restaurant he'll also be selling his stock for $7.50 a bottle during the same hours.

People who frequented Fair Play Bistro will recall that its wine list included some Chateau Lafite. Mitchell, however, is keeping that for himself.

January 31, 2008
Hottest Winery: Ste. Michelle

The award season is under way, and one of the more eagerly anticipated tributes in the wine trade early each year is Jon Fredrikson's unveiling of his Winery of the Year, which he reveals during the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium now going on in Sacramento.

Fredrikson, a veteran Bay Area wine consultant and analyst, bases his honor on a winery's robust sales the previous year. For 2007, his Winery of the Year is Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Washington state, which during 2007 saw wine sales leap by 25 percent to a record $354 million, says Fredrikson.

Ste. Michelle also made headlines last year when it teamed up with Italy's Marchese Piero Antinori to pay $185 million for Napa Valley's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. Ste. Michelle now owns about 20 brands, including two other California wineries, Conn Creek and Villa Mt. Eden, both also in Napa Valley.

Fredrikson chose Ste. Michelle from a large field of candidates that also had revenues rise substantially last year, including four in the Sacramento region - Michael-David Winery in Lodi, Bogle Vineyards in Clarksburg, Gnarly Head in Manteca and McManis Family Vineyards just south of Lodi.

Fredrikson also indicated that the industry should keep an eye on a player that just entered the field last year, Oak Leaf Vineyards, a brand of The Wine Group in San Francisco. Oak Leaf sold around 500,000 cases in its short time on the market, said Fredrikson. The wines are available at Wal-Mart, where they sell for $1.97 a bottle.

January 29, 2008
Vines are Dormant, Not Growers and Winemakers

Just try to get into a downtown or midtown restaurant this week. With 10,000 grape growers, winemakers and other members of the wine trade in and about the Sacramento Convention Center for the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, the nation's largest gathering of vintners, most restaurants on the grid should be humming. If there's one thing this crowd enjoys as much as making wine it's drinking it, preferably with fine food.

Nonetheless, they got down to business today with workshops on grape diseases, sustainable farming practices, unwanted aromas that can develop during fermentation and the like.

The opening session dealt with how wineries and wine-related businesses, like restaurants, can build their brand to assure a longterm relationship with their customers. There I heard something that made me wish the room was filled with local restaurateurs. Marian Jansen op de Harr, wine buyer for Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, said the chain's highly regarded wine program stipulates that red wines be kept at 60 degrees Fahrenheidt, whites at 45 degrees Fahrenheidt. Nor are bottles of wine to be left standing on the back bar, where they are bound to warm up. Take the hint, local restaurateurs: Store those wines at proper temperatures so they won't be too hot when served, and just maybe your wine sales will pick up.

She had a couple of other insightful remarks. For one, while 70 percent of the wines at Fleming's are American, 30 percent are foreign, and that segment is growing, in large part because Americans are taking an interest in grape varieties not grown extensively here, such as riesling, malbec and albarino. Curiously, the market looks to be cooling for sauvignon blanc, she said. "A year ago I thought sauvignon blanc would take off," she remarked, "but it seems to be going down. I don't know what's going on."

Australian viticulturist Peter Hayes, of the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), based in Paris, sounded more ominous in his speech, saying winemakers generally aren't preparing consumers for changes in wine styles due to climate change. Already, he remarked, German rieslings are showing more alcohol and less of their characteristically steely nature because of how global warming is altering grape-growing and winemaking practices, yet few vintners are taking a proactive role in explaining the changes to consumers, said Hayes. Something for his fellow conventioners to chew over besides the steak they'll have for dinner.

January 28, 2008
Coasting Through Zinfandels

IMGP2570_edited.jpgSaturday's 17th annual Zinfandel Festival drew its usual crowd of thousands to two massive pavilions at San Francisco's Fort Mason. I spent a portion of my day there interviewing winemakers about the topic of old-vine zinfandels for this Wednesday's Dunne on Wine column in The Bee and for a video to be posted on sacbee.com the same day.

Naturally, these mimes representing Paul Dolan Vineyards didn't have a thing to say on the matter.

After the interviews I got down to the day's serious business, tasting some zinfandels. Can't say I found a whole lot to turn my head, but those that did included the bright and brisk Amador Foothill Winery 2004 Esola Vineyards Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel ($17), which showed that the varietal doesn't need a whole lot of color to be characteristically fruity; the aromatic, spicy and long C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery 2005 Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel ($25); the ripe, lush and touch sweet Dogwood Cellars 2005 Mendocino Zinfandel ($28); the firm, robust and pepperty Howell Mountain Vineyards 2005 Bear & Lion Old Vine Napa County Zinfandel ($24); the concentrated and persistent Opolo Vineyards 2005 Paso Robles Reserve Zinfandel ($38); the swaggering Rotta Winery 2004 Paso Robles Giubbini Estate Vineyard Zinfandel ($27); and the spirited yet elegant Rodney Strong Vineyards 2005 Sonoma County Knotty Vines Zinfandel (20).

We spotted longtime zinfandel specialist Kent Rosenblum wandering through the crowd, seeming to look happier than usual. This morning I learned why. He's selling his 30-year-old Alameda winery, Rosenblum, Cellars, to Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines for $105 million, according to Yahoo! Finance. That kind of dough would bring a smile to anyone's face, though Rosenblum, a veterinarian when he isn't making wine, always has been one of the more cheery vintners in the California trade.

January 25, 2008
Wine Alert!

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With no NFL game this weekend, what's a sporting fellow to do for his wagering amusement? If he's a wine enthusiast, he could guide a pal to the new Total Wine & More in Roseville and bet that he or she can't get out of the place without buying at least a half-dozen bottles of wine, beer and spirits.

With little fanfare, the first California branch of Total Wine opened yesterday in Fairway Commons Shopping Center along Five Star Drive just off Stanford Ranch Road. We were on our way to dinner in Rocklin when we decided to swing by to see if we could find out when the place would be ready for customers, only to discover the lights on, the doors sliding open, and a fair number of people pushing carts between boxes and bins.

Total Wine, based out of Potomac, Maryland, bills itself as "America's Wine Superstore," and the 25,000-square-foot facility lives up to that claim with some 8,000 wines, 2,000 spirits and 1,000 beers. I couldn't pass up a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a Gigondas and a couple of rieslings, one a vineyard-designated release from Washington state, the other from New York's Finger Lakes district, customarily virtually impossible to find hereabouts. Interestingly, 47 percent of the chain's sales are imported wines.

"Team members" wear white shirts and ties, and two we saw are newly hired veterans of the Sacramento wine scene - Harry Fisher, former sommelier at the long-gone Horseshoe Bar Grill in Loomis, and Carrie Boyle, formerly of The Wine Merchant in Roseville and Folsom.

Coincidental with the opening of the Roseville store, the chain's 51st, Beverage Dynamics magazine named Total Wine its Retailer of the Year for 2008. The accompanying article notes that Total Wine moves more than 24 million bottles of wine per year through its doors, employs more than 1,500 persons, and encourages its wine clerks to enter the rigorous Master of Wine certification program.

The article also notes that the chain gives away 300,000 copies a year of its nearly 200-page Guide to Wine, a sweeping and smart survey of grape varietals, food and wine pairing, wine regions and related topics. In March, the store also will start a series of wine classes for consumers.

Total Wine is at 5791 Five Star Blvd., Roseville; (916) 791-2488. It's open 9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. As soon as you enter, grab a map of the layout; you'll need it, I'm wagering.

January 22, 2008
Fair Play Getting a Makeover

Michael Conti, descended from a family of longtime grape growers in Italy, subscribes to the wine-country maxim that "it takes a lot of beer to make good wine." Trouble is, the remote Fair Play area in El Dorado County, where Conti and his wife Michelle settled 18 months ago, is short of places for vineyard workers, cellar rats, winemakers and the like to gather for a cold brew.

This spring, Conti plans to correct that by converting the recently closed Fair Play Bistro into a microbrew and small-plate pub. The restaurant is in escrow, along with the neighboring Winery by the Creek, where Conti is negotiating to bring in noted Napa Valley winemaker Phil Baxter as his consultant.

Conti is buying bistro and winery from Charles Mitchell, who almost a year ago sold him his Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards, which eventually is to become known as Conti Estate. Mitchell arrived in the Fair Play area in 1994 after a decade of being a self-described ski bum at Mammoth Lakes. At Fair Play he became recognized for innovative wine marketing and the steady growth of the winery.

Mitchell, who now lives on Bethel Island in the Delta, says he is selling the wineries because he accomplished what he set out to do 14 years ago and because his children aren't interested in pursuring the business. He's selling the bistro, he added, because it was a disappointment. "I wanted to have fine dining in a casual manner with French flair. We had duck confit and foie gras, but who ate the foie gras? I did. Frankly, I thought that people who enjoyed wine would enjoy that cuisine, but they didn’t. I was out of touch with the locals," says Mitchell. He hasn't ruled out returning to the wine trade, and is eyeing a parcel at Steamboat Slough for a possible new venture.

"I have many, many, many fond memories of my time in El Dorado. I met many wonderful people there, and I have so many memories of challenges, successes and events. I'm not the least bit disappointed with El Dorado, but I am disappointed with myself that I didn’t do it right with the restaurant," Mitchell adds.

Conti knows the restaurant business. Two years ago he sold his share of Cheeseburger Restaurants, a seven-unit group with outlets from Hawaii to Florida, and retired to the foothills. "We had $6 million in sales per unit. They were the highest volume cheeseburger-style restaurants in the United States," Conti says. But he got bored, and let the wine business lure him out of retirement, and now he's edging back into the restaurant trade.

January 21, 2008
A Palette for the Palate

IMGP2565_edited.jpgFriday, I got a glimpse of the future, or what I'm starting to hope will be the future. It's blue, for one. More significantly, it puts the emphasis on the person rather than the product in wine appreciation.

We were at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa. A handful of prospective judges for the inaugural Lodi International Wine Competition in March had gathered for the first step toward having their palates calibrated to determine where they might land on a spectrum of sensitivity. The experiment is too involved and too tentative to explain in detail here, but if Tim Hanni's vision of how people taste continues on track, the entire world of wine judging, rating and communication will be shaken and quite possibly radically revised.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, Friday's participants had their tongues painted blue. It was just food coloring, meant to help distinguish tastebuds from the rest of the flesh and stuff that forms our tongues. This was important because our tongues then were photographed to help Hanni and his fellow researchers gauge how many tastebuds we each have. The total will help determine whether we can be categorized as a tolerant, sensitive or hyper-sensitive taster. Despite the unfortunate choice of nomenclature, no one classification is superior to another, but is meant to help determine whether we might be more astute at evaluating one broad field of wine than another. (One of the participants, Lily Peterson, a Copia wine educator, is shown here having her painted tongue photographed by Hanni.)

A word about Hanni: He's a longtime veteran of the California wine scene, one of the nation's first two Masters of Wine, recognized for his incisive palate, his development of the "progressive" wine list used by several restaurants, his development of the condiment Vignon to add to foods to make them more compatible with wine, and his intense research into why people react to wines as they do. (A profile of Hanni, in fact, appeared in this weekend's Wall Street Journal.)

At any rate, Friday's exercise included a few other procedures, such as smelling, tasting and ranking a flight of wines, and an introduction to the "budometer," an online tool to help people define their taste preferences. The "budometer" analyzes the respones to predict the kinds of wines the participant is apt to like. The questions ask about how much salt you like, how you would describe the perfect cup of coffee or tea, the style of beer you favor, and so forth.

My results summed up quite neatly the kinds of wines I see myself preferring, but the list of specific wines recommened by the "budometer" didn't include many with which I'm familiar, and most were outdated, not likely still to be found in stores. There were no pinot noirs, zinfandels or rieslings recommended for me, customarily my favorite varietals, but the tool is just being launched, and its database is to be gradually expanded. The results of the Lodi judging, in fact, will be the first major import of data from a competition. In the meantime, anyone can go to the "budometer" Web site to answer the questions, have their taste preferences analyzed, and be pointed to the kinds of wines likely to please them.

January 17, 2008
Harvest Includes a Sacramentan

"Sacramento wine merchant and forager supreme" Darrell Corti -- that's how officials of the Culinary Institute of America see him -- is one of eight Californians who are to be inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame in March.

CIA representatives announced their second round of selections this morning. Corti, president of the Corti Brothers grocery store along Folsom Boulevard, was one of 30 nominees described as individuals who have made a significant contribution to the California wine industry and who still are alive or who died recently. The four others in that category to be inducted this year are the late Ernest and Julio Gallo of E&J Gallo Winery in Modesto, Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino, and Milijenko "Mike" Grgich of Grgich Hills Winery in Napa Valley.

The three other inductees were voted in as "pioneers" -- people who also have made significant contributions to the trade but who have been dead at least 10 years. They are John Daniel, who restored the historic Napa Valley winery Inglenook after the repeal of Prohibition; Louis P. Martini, the progressive head of Louis M. Martini Winery in Napa Valley during the middle of the past century; and Carl Wente, who founded the Livermore winery Wente Vineyards in 1883.

This is the second year for the Vintners Hall of Fame. Last year's inductees were Napa Valley vintner Robert Mondavi, UC Davis enologist Maynard Amerine, UC Davis grape breeder Harold Olmo, Christian Brothers Winery cellarmaster Brother Timothy, Beaulieu Vineyard founder Georges de Latour, longtime Beaulieu Vineyard winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, vineyard pioneer Agoston Haraszthy, and Napa Valley pioneering vintners Charles Krug and Gustave Niebaum.

Last year, CIA officials kept the nomination process in house. This year's candidates were nominated and elected by wine writers W. Blake Gray, Toni Allegra, John Olney, Sara Schneider, Leslie Sbrocco, Paul Wagner, Alder Yarrow and myself.

The Vintners Hall of Fame induction dinner will be March 7 at the CIA's Greystone campus in St. Helena. Tickets are $250. Proceeds endow scholarships for the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the CIA. For more information, visit the center's Web site, e-mail events@balzac.com or call (707) 255-7667.

Darrell Corti is in San Francisco today foraging for Austrian wine and wasn't immediately available for comment.

February 15, 2007
Valentine's Day Wildcat

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My list of The 10 Best Wines of the Year, So Far is off to a slow start, in part because of a three-week vacation during which I drank shockingly little wine. Last night, however, a strong candidate for the first installment emerged. Inspired by both a woodsy mushroom pasta and Valentine's Day, I picked for dinner a pinot noir, the most romantic of wines not called Champagne.

From its brilliantly flaming color through its lip-smacking finish, the MacRostie Winery and Vineyards 2004 Sonoma Coast Wildcat Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir ($42) is a lusciously definitive take on the varietal. While fairly robust for pinot noir, it seizes with clarity and balance the grape's vibrant cherry/berry flavors and delivers them in a silken package. The oak is astutely restrained, not at all interfering with notes of cinnamon spice, dark chocolate and green tea. It isn't a sipping pinot noir, demanding food, and the depth and smoke of the pasta was a fitting companion.

The cool, breezy and frequently foggy Sonoma Coast appellation is growing fast in esteem for its pinot noirs, and Wildcat Mountain Vineyard looks to be rising in prominence for just about any kind of grape grown there. The MacRostie 2003 Wildcat Mountain Vineyard Syrah ($32) made my top-10 list for last year.

The MacRostie Wildcat pinot noir, alas, isn't yet available in Sacramento, though it can be ordered through the winery's Web site.



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