Appetizers
November 21, 2008
Time For A Course Other Than Another Appetizer

According to the calculator with the software that powers this blog, this is the 760th entry I've written since Appetizers began in May 2006. What the calculator doesn't say is that this entry will be my last.

At the outset, I said I wanted Appetizers primarily to be the outlet where I could post observations, news and tips about wine, food and restaurants that might not find as timely a place in one of my dining or wine columns in The Bee. By and large, that's how it worked out.

Less successful was a secondary goal - to encourage readers to ask questions, take issue with opinions expressed here, and otherwise participate in what I'd hoped would be an ongoing dialogue. I suspect the primary reason things didn't work out that way was that I never developed a comfortable blog voice, one that compels and provokes.

But there were other reasons why Appetizers didn't become a kind of online coffee house where anyone could jump in with a question or comment, I sense. For various reasons, readers couldn't even post comments for the first several months it was up and running, and that delayed traction for the anticipated exchanges. I also now realize that blogs need promotion and marketing to develop a following, and that didn't materialize to any great extent.

If I were to stick around, I'd lobby more energetically for that kind of support for all the blogs emanating from 21st and Q. But that isn't why this is my last posting. After I hit the "publish" button I'll pack up the last of my tasting notes, the bumblebee rock paperweight my granddaughter painted for me several years ago, the photo of my wife, and head out the door for the last time. I've accepted The Bee's voluntary buyout, and look forward to eating at The Waterboy, Lemon Grass, Mulvaney's, Biba and other restaurants without fretting about whether the battery in my digital recorder abruptly will die.

I'm going away, but Appetizers isn't. My colleague Chris Macias, who also is assuming much of the food and wine writing at The Bee, will take over Appetizers. He'll bring a fresh and energetic voice to this space, and I look forward to his observations on the local culinary scene. I may even post a comment here now and then. But I'm taking the silhouette with me.


November 18, 2008
Martinis and Smushed Ice Cream and Cake

When reporter Blair Anthony Robertson wrote his introductory autobiography for colleagues as he joined The Bee nine years ago, he began:

"If I were going to the electric chair, my last meal would be a smoked barbecue sandwich from Country's in Opelika, Ala. Dessert would be chocolate cake and ice cream smushed together like I have been doing since I was 4. Then I would have a glass of 2% milk. I hear they put a $50 limit on the meals. If they didn't, I would also have six martinis from Morton's."

Robertson isn't going to the electric chair, but he soon will occupy another hot seat, as The Bee's new restaurant critic.

Cathie Anderson, The Bee's features editor, announced Robertson's appointment following a tryout dinner, sample review and interviews involving in-house candidates who had sought the position.

Robertson, a native of Ottawa, Canada, earned a degree in English at Augusta State College (now University) in Georgia before embarking on a career as a newspaper reporter in 1987.

He's an avid home cook, Frank Sinatra fan, book collector, cyclist and golfer whose preferred writing instrument is a fountain pen he fills from a bottle.

As The Bee's restaurant critic, he succeeds me, who has held the post from 1984 to 1989 and again from 1994 until today. I recently accepted The Bee's voluntary buyout offer and will leave the paper at the end of the week.

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 4, 2008
Morton's To Hop To New Site

Officials of Morton's The Steakhouse, who last summer revealed plans to abandon their branch at Westfield Downtown Plaza, now are announcing that their new nearby Sacramento location will open Nov. 18.

The expanded and more visible restaurant will be in the lobby of the US Bank Building at 621 Capitol Mall. The new site is to include floor-to-ceiling windows, a Bar 12-21, a patio, and lunch weekdays.

Bar 12-21, which takes its name from Dec. 21, 1978, when the first Morton's opened in Chicago, is to feature a "bar bites" menu of such snacks as crab cakes, cheeseburgers and filet-mignon sandwiches.

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 29, 2008
Randy Paragary, History Buff

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 28, 2008
Zagat Sizes Up Sacramento

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 15, 2008
Gold Country Discovery: A New Name

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

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

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

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

October 15, 2008
Final Update

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

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

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

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

October 14, 2008
Michelin Reveals Its Newest Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 3, 2008
Update 3

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

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

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

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

September 29, 2008
Update 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 25, 2008
Shenzhou 7, The Ultimate Lunch Wagon

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

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

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

September 25, 2008
Update 1

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

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

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

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

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


September 24, 2008
Corti Brothers, The Movable Feast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 24, 2008
Onward With Blended Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 18, 2008
A Peek And A Loss

I've heard that Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama has a pretty nifty wine cellar, but his people haven't gotten back to my people (me). His wine collection may be even more impressive than the cellar at the White House, which wouldn't be difficult to surpass, according to Elin McCoy's illuminating chat with Daniel Shanks, who for more than a decade has been overseeing wine service at state dinners. The White House has just 500 to 600 bottles in its cellar, notes Shanks, who provides McCoy with several other enlightening tidbits about how he goes about finding wines to pour at official functions. Her report was posted today at 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 15, 2008
Veteran Restaurant Manager Recuperates

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

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

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

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

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

September 15, 2008
A New Plan For Plan B Cafe

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

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

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

September 15, 2008
The Party Is Over At Masque

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

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

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

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

September 11, 2008
Please, Give Me a Helping Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 9, 2008
Undaunted, Paragary and Mikuni Set Openings

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

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

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

September 8, 2008
Classic Pairings Sweep Competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 2, 2008
Bright 55 Degrees About To Go Dark

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

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

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

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

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


September 2, 2008
Landmark Bakery Faces Closure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 1, 2008
Bone Daddy Smokes 'Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 26, 2008
Save Corti Brothers, Group Says

Last night, a stack of petitions materialized on my desk. They bear headlines like "Save Corti Bros." and "It's Not Christmas Without Corti Brothers." There are 91 pages of them, each bearing anywhere from as few as two signatures to as many as 23. The stack is a prelude to a Sept. 3 rally to marshal community support on behalf of Corti Brothers, the 61-year-old grocery company whose future is up in the air because it is being booted from its headquarters to make way for another market.

The effort is being coordinated by principals of the Sacramento public-affairs consulting firm California Strategies LLC. "This is like the Alhambra Theater and other institutions that have passed in Sacramento. We hate to see that happen here," says Devon Ford of California Strategies, referring to the razing of the city's venerable Alhambra Theater to make way for another grocery store.

California Strategies is heading up the preservation effort on a pro-bono basis, Ford notes. "There's so much community sentiment concerning this that it's easy to wrap a harness around it and let it go on its own power," says Ford.

Several of the Sacramento area's high-profile restaurateurs and chefs, including Biba Caggiano, Randall Selland, Wendi Mentink, Rick Mahan and Kurt Spataro, are to gather in chef jackets at 3 p.m. Sept. 3 at Corti Brothers to pledge their allegiance to the grocery store and to argue that it should be retained just as it is at least through the year-end holidays.

The group also just launched a Web site for people to sign on to the petition and to track developments in the issue.

Some of the petitions ask signers to jot down their favorite item that can be found only at Corti Brothers. They range from "salami" and "vino" to "Arrogant Bastard Ale and pickled anchovies." Separately or together?

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 18, 2008
Fig Ice Cream? Make It Two Scoops

IMGP3494_edited.JPGJust as every Sacramento neighbohood has a Rite Aid Pharmacy, every New York neighborhood has an ice cream shop. There may be a message there, but short of contacting the Centers for Disease Control for demographic data I'm not about to claim that New Yorkers have fewer health issues than Sacramentans. I'm just going to go on eating ice cream as I roam about New York's Hudson River Valley, where I arrived Sunday for this week's 2008 New York Wine & Food Classic, the state's largest wine competition.

Earlier this year, New York legislators passed a law to allow the state's wineries to make wine ice cream. Haven't had any of that yet, but it sounds like it could be a new class for the competition. In the meantime, I'm stopping at old-fashioned ice cream parlors for a cone here and a cup there.

Last night in Hudson, which dates from 1785 and purportedly is the oldest chartered city in the United States, I dropped into one of the settlement's newer businesses, Lick, where partners Christopher Haupert and Michael Harris have been scooping up ice cream since just before Memorial Day. Their brand of choice is the Hudson Valley's highly regarded Jane's Ice Cream. In addition to the standard vanilla bean and milk chocolate, Lick's lineup includes such novelties as minced ginger, grapefruit sorbet and sublime lime. I went for the fig and sweet cream, which couldn't have been more convincingly true, both gritty and creamy, tasting so much like figs I left convinced it had done me a world of physical good.

Shortly before stopping at Lick, I was told by a Hudson resident that the town is "10 blocks long, 10 blocks wide, a Norman Rockwell painting in motion." The scene in front of Lick was that, all right, with residents taking a break from walking their dogs, children playing hopscotch on a grid chalked on the sidewalk, and grandparents relaxing on white benches. It was hot and it was muggy, which gives New Yorkers two reasons for two scoops.

As to the local angle, Haupert's parents were to arrive today from their home in...Auburn.

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 13, 2008
A Vinegar for 'Dinny'

ucdvinegar.JPG

In kitchens about the Sacramento area, the Olive Center at UC Davis is best known for the campus-inspired commercial olive oils it's been releasing over the past couple of years.

Now it's adding the perfect complement to olive oil - vinegar. Made from French Colombard grapes grown on campus, the white-wine vinegar is simply labeled "dinny," in tribute to Dr. A. Dinsmoor "Dinny" Webb. Anyone who ever met the dapper Webb will be struck immediately by the appropriateness of his likeness on the label, from his meticulously groomed mustache to his trademark bow tie. Katie Hetrick, communications director for the building and grounds division on campus, did the portrait.

Why Webb, who retired more than 20 years ago after 40 years as a professor of enology at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology? For one, Webb, who died five years ago, was a highly respected instructor and researcher. For another, he delighted in transforming wine made on campus into vinegar for his colleagues, especially red-wine vinegar from the university's stand of cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley. A "dinny" red-wine vinegar from the same vineyard is to be released in the near future, says Dan Flynn, executive director of the Olive Center.

The vinegars are made by Katz and Company in a 150-year-old stone carriage house in Suison Valley, one of just three facilities in the country to use the "Orleans Method" of vinegar production. This technique requires the vinegar to age for 10 months in small French oak barrels, resulting in a vinegar "bright, smooth and fruity," according to Slow Food USA.

Though the campus bookstore currently is sold out of olive oils, the "dinny" white-wine vinegar is available for $10 per 250-milliliter bottle, either at the store or online.

August 13, 2008
Bigger Bar for Woodland Bistro

Rebecca Reichardt has moved to the back burner her hopes of opening a steakhouse to complement her popular Woodland restaurant Tazzina Bistro.

"I couldn't handle two projects financially," says Reichardt. So instead of the steak place, she's expanding Tazzina Bistro by adding a 600-square-foot lounge. She plans to start construction any day now and have the bar finished for the bistro's fourth anniversary Sept. 27.

In January, Reichardt was one of 10 winners in a national business contest sponsored by American Express. Her proposal for the steakhouse and its potential to morph into a chain won her a $10,000 credit line, $20,000 in improvements, and coaching from established business experts. Still, she figures she'd need $600,000 more to get the concept off the ground. Today's economy isn't conducive to raising that sort of capital, she says, so she's concentrating on improving Tazzina Bistro.

The restaurant's current bar will be retained as a wine bar, while the lounge will focus on "vintage cocktails" and other drinks made with the 15 assorted gins and 28 vodkas she's lined up in anticipation of its completion.

Tazzina Bistro is at 614 Main St., Woodland.

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).

August 5, 2008
Staying, and Opening

A couple of notes from the restaurant front:

- You know these are nervous times for the restaurant trade when a diner e-mails to ask whether the relatively new Greenhouse in Roseville is out of business. His concern was prompted by a sign taped to the door saying the restaurant was "closed for maintenance," a euphemism restaurateurs often use to shut the doors with no real intent to reopen. But not in this instance, says Greenhouse owner Cory Holbrook. A carpet cleaner put up the sign Sunday but forgot to take it down when he left, and there it remained until Monday morning, setting off an alarm for at least one prospective diner. The Greenhouse is Holbrook's locavore- and organic-oriented successor to the Town Lounge, which he originally opened on the site. He says he plans to stick around with Greenhouse, and currently is expanding the restaurant's line of organic beers and ales brewed on the premises.

- Just when I was starting to question whether any new restaurants ever again would debut in Sacramento along comes Ray Smith and Shalawn Smith, who will introduce their Table 260 at 6 p.m. Friday at 826 J St., on the ground floor of a high-rise loft development. It's to be a larger and more upscale version of the original Table 260 in Elk Grove, though the culinary concept, a "fusion of American and soul," will remain the same. In contrast to the Elk Grove site, the downtown Sacramento location will have a full liquor license. The hours also will be extended: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Fridays, 9 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturdays, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays.

July 31, 2008
That Sub Resurfaces

Since the last Tony Baloney sub shack closed nearly two years ago, readers have peppered me for copies of the recipe for the cafe's immensely popular pepper-steak sandwich. Now they can stop. After a 15-month hiatus, Anthony "Tony Baloney" Recchia has reopened his eponymous hangout at 5059 College Oak Drive, with the pepper-steak sub on the menu at $6.55 for the small, $8.75 for the big.

When Recchia closed the cafe in the fall of 2006 he gave several reasons for his decision, ranging from difficulties in finding satisfactory employees to having cashed in an online horse-racing wager that won him $170,000. What's more, he'd developed a commercial line of Tony Baloney salad dressings, which he's continued to produce in the kitchen of the College Oak Drive restaurant.

"I was going broke again," said Recchia of his decision to reopen the restaurant. "I hit some horses, but I lost some, too."

Recchia opened his first Tony Baloney along Del Paso Boulevard in 1963 and grew the business to six outlets at its peak in the 1980s. Recchia, a Massachusetts native, began to make sandwiches for colleagues at Aerojet General in Rancho Cordova when he couldn't find any East Coast-style submarines to his liking here. Pending layoffs at Aerojet then prompted Recchia, an engineer, to go into the restaurant business.

Tony Baloney is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, though he keeps the place open to 7 p.m. Fridays.

July 30, 2008
Last Chance

Fans of Monticello Bistro in Winters have only August in which to savor the restaurant's seasonal Saturday-night dinners. After August, the place is history, reports Rhonda Gruska, who with her husband Tony has operated the bistro the past two years.

But get your chins off the floor, fans. The Gruskas are moving to a new venue that will allow them to extend their hours and expand their concept. They are teaming up with Aziz Fattahi, owner of Village Bakery in Davis to open Village Pizza and Grill in a converted house at 4th and G in downtown Davis.

In Winters, the Gruskas have been sharing space with the tapas cafe Ficelle, which has been operating weekdays. Now, however, Ficelle is to start serving dinners Saturday, which is when Monticello Bistro takes over the quarters.

At Village Pizza and Grill, the Gruskas and Fattahi at least initially will focus on pizzas to range in style from basic interpretations already available at Village Bakery to more contemporary versions that will emphasize the sorts of regional and seasonal ingredients the couple showcases at Monticello Bistro. The August menu at Monticello Bistro includes such dishes as grilled figs with goat cheese and honey, cold cucumber soup with wasabi, caprese salad with grilled bruschetta, a Yolo heirloom-tomato gazpacho, grilled Niman Ranch sirloin steak, and housemade pasta with cherry tomatoes, summer squash and parmesan.

Rhonda Gruska is uncertain when the new place will open. At best, it could debut in early fall, but six months or so also could be needed to get the place ready. "It's all up to the City of Davis," she says, noting that city officials are reviewing plans to remodel the house.

For more information on Monticello Bistro's schedule, call (530) 792-8066.

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 28, 2008
Corti Brothers Losing Longtime Site

The last of Sacramento's landmark Corti Brothers stores is to close this fall, but local gourmets may not long be without the specialty foodstuffs and exclusive wines that have distinguished the family-run grocery since 1947. Darrell Corti, the store's president, is vowing to remain in business at a new but undetermined location

"We haven't sold and we haven't been bought," said Corti a short time ago following early reports that the company had lost the East Sacramaento site it had occupied since 1970. Corti Brothers, founded in 1947 by brothers Frank and Gino Corti along 8th Street between I and J, had once expanded to four locations before cutting back to one large facility at 59th Street and Folsom Boulevard.

Corti said he just had been informed by his landlady that she'd signed a lease for the building with Mike Teel, an heir of the Raley's supermarket chain, who reputedly plans to use the site for a branch of his proposed group of Good Eats Grocery markets. Corti had been renting the building without a lease since 1988.

"We went to negotiate a lease and were informed by her lawyers that a lease (for the building) had been signed by somebody else," said Corti.

The search for a new site for the store will commence Tuesday, said Corti. He hopes to stay in the East Sacramento neighborhood, but will scout other areas for prospective locations. "We have a lot of old customers in that neighborhood," he remarked. Corti Brothers is to be out of its current site by Oct. 15, he noted.

A more comprehensive report on the pending relocation of Corti Brothers is being prepared by colleague Jim Downing for Tuesday's new Sacramento Bee.

July 25, 2008
Keep Your Cin-Cin Up

With my list of prospective restaurants to check out, I began to stroll about downtown Los Gatos last night. At the top, of course, was Manresa, the proud bearer of two Michelin stars, one of only four such recognized restaurants in the Bar Area. I sure would have liked to try that salad of soft-shell crab with "gold dust" peach and basil, or the Monterey Bay abalone with a roast crayfish nage, or the veal breast and sweetbreads with the house boudin noir in an onion stew, but I was underdressed and underfinanced (four courses, $95; tasting menu, $145), so I moved down the list.

Vittoria Ristorante Italiano, however, was "closed for remodel," according to a sign on the door, and Cafe Marcella had closed for good this spring, said the hostess of the restaurant that succeeded it about three months ago, Cin-Cin, which translates as an Italian toast along the lines of "to your health." By this time, I was ready to give up. On top of that, a blackboard special on the back wall caught my eye and prompted me to take a seat. It was a flight of three rieslings, hardly Italian, but not something you run across in a restaurant very often.

While the lineup of rieslings was exceptionally solid, a couple of other pleasant surprises prompts me to move Cin-Cin to the top of my list for my next visit to Los Gatos - the speedy, chipper and smart service and the marvelously conceived and executed food. The menu is New American, with Spanish, Californian, North African and southern American influences as well as Italian. The menu talks seriously about using line-caught seafood, meats free of antibiotics and hormones, and produce from local growers who follow sustainable farming practices.

The food, however, is all fun, much of it listed as "nibbles," "samplers" side dishes and small plates. In short, it's a menu that invites grazing and adventure. Tuna cloaked with a delicate tempura and accompanied by both a Vietnamese mango dipping sauce and feathery and crispy fried baby bok choy ($13), and smoky flatbread topped with Fiscalini cheddar, dried apricots, hazelnuts and arugula ($9) both were vivid in flavor but perfectly compabile with the mostly dry rieslings. Not so much the restaurant's signature sliders, three fat, rich and juicy burgers with grilled sweet onions, a chow-chow of pickled cabbage and cauliflower, and a chipotle chile pepper aioli ($11), but I really didn't expect the wines to stand up to all that power, anyway.

If you're heading to the South Bay this weekend, consider putting Cin-Cin on your own list of prospective restaurants. At 368 Village Lane, Los Gatos, it's open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, dinner Tuesday through Sunday; (408) 354-8006. Here's a link for its Web site.

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 17, 2008
Atlanta's Loss, Sacramento's Gain

Michael Tuohy, an Atlanta restaurateur who grew up in San Francisco, has been hired to be the executive chef of Grange in the boutique hotel The Citizen, slated to open in downtown Sacramento in November.

To take the job, Tuohy is closing the Atlanta restaurant he opened in January 2002, Woodfire Grill. There, his Californian culinary style has emphasized "locally grown organic produce, responsibly raised meats, eco-conscious seafood and artisan-produced ingredients," the same kind of cooking that the operators of The Citizen, Joie de Vivre Hospitality of San Francisco, want to cultivate at Grange.

Though Tuohy has been in Atlanta for 22 years, he says his cooking philosophy developed under the auspices of longtime San Francisco restaurateur Joyce Goldstein, for whom he worked early on first at her highly regarded Square One Restaurant and then at its sister operation, Caffe Quadro.

In Atlanta, Tuohy helped start the Georgia Grown Co-op to provide city restaurants and markets with provisions from a dozen local certified-organic farms.

The latest edition of the Zagat guide to Atlanta restaurants says of Woodfire Grill: "Michael Tuohy 'puts his heart and soul' into the 'exquisitely prepared' and 'impeccably sourced' 'farm-to-table cuisine' that's paired with a 'top-notch wine list,' while the staff 'could not be more helpful or informed.'"

July 17, 2008
This Tamarind Pod Remains Closed

A frustrated Sacramentan has called to suggest that The Bee start to run a list of all the restaurants closing in the area. With the price of car fuel what it is, she's tired of driving up to a Blank Angus here or a Tahoe Joe's there only to find it no longer in business. Such a compilation would be helpful, and maybe our database experts can get on it. In the meantime, I'll do what I can to alert readers of closures as I become aware of them, though restaurateurs are notoriously shy about broadcasting their disappointments.

Just this morning I learned of another restaurant closing, but only because I was walking along J Street and noticed that the windows of the Vietnamese pho cafe Tamarind were covered over and a sign on the door said the place is permanently shut. The man who opened Tamarind two years ago this fall, Perry Yuen, who also owns the Chinese cafe Plum Blossom farther west along J Street, couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

July 15, 2008
The City That Knows Chow

IMGP3342_edited.JPGAs we wind up our visit to New Orleans, I'm wondering how editors for the Zagat guidebooks would distill our impressions of the two most memorable restaurants we visited:

- "Emeril Lagasse's noblest achievement" is the "rustic yet refined" former carriage house and root-beer plant he restyled into NOLA. Along "one of the more civilized streets in the French Quarter," NOLA combines "European flair with Southern hospitality" to an extent rarely found even in this earnestly friendly city. "Team service clicks with the rhythm and charm of a horse-drawn carriage at Jackson Square." "Expensive," but "portions must have been brought in on a Mississippi River barge." Take the "Parisian elevator" to the second floor and prepare to "shout like Mardi Gras revelers," given all the brick and wood. Follow "the smoothest Sazerac in New Orleans" with fried chicken with the "crunchiest buttermilk crust in Louisiana." "The kitchen struggles to accommodate vegetarians," but redeems itself with "cute butterballs," "the finest tomatoes in the South" and service that "doesn't make you feel like you're asking a favor." Shrimps and grits are "heady" with a chile-pepper butter sauce, apple-smoked bacon and tomato glaze, while the marbled pound cake salutes the building's heritage with a "refreshing" root-beer drizzle. NOLA has "a clear idea of what it wants to do and how it wants to do it." No wonder they call New Orleans "the city that knows chow."

- Two years after we visited one of the first restaurants to open in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, Donald Link's "bright and marvelous" Chocon, we checked out his original place, Herbsaint. "Amazingly, the very selective vegetarian member of our party ate the entire bowl of housemade spaghetti with summer tomatoes and spinach," while the rest of us savored "silken and smoky" duck prosciutto, gumbo with shredded pork and andouille sausage that came off as "thick as the humidity," and a poached and fried egg that broke "like sunrise" over more of that housemade spaghetti, this time with guanciale. "Avoid the back dining room," drab but for "the sexy mural" across the back wall. Prepare for service either "emotionally disengaged" or "severely professional" in contrast to quarters "sunny and humming with vitality." Just as the Sazerac here is "gripping," the rib-eye steak is "marvelously juicy and sweet." "Mother never made angel-food cake like this," nor did she top it with poached peaches. "Reservations strongly recommended."

July 13, 2008
'The Bug Easy'

IMGP3329.JPGEnough with Sacramento's notorious dry heat of the past week. Time for some wet heat. In New Orleans this weekend the highs are in the 90s, and with the humidity at 77 percent, that should qualify as wet heat. At least in New Orleans there's no more smoke than usual, and a welcome breeze coming across the Mississippi River.

And whenever you step inside, the air conditioning is cranked down to sweater optional. Mid-summer isn't the high season for New Orleans, but the place nonetheless is fairly busy, and no attraction we've visited has been more crowded than the new Audubon Insectarium, where this photo was taken, showing one of the facility's butterfly exhibits. The Insectarium is the first museum to open in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, and purportedly it's the largest freestanding museum devoted to insects in the United States. The building that houses it, the 1881 U.S. Customs House, is grand enough all on its own to warrant a visit. As far as the Insectarium is concerned, the galleries include one devoted to swamp critters, including American alligators and spotted gars, even though they aren't insects; another just for termites; another showing butterflies emerging from chrysalises; and an enclosed Asian garden with mature butterflies floating about and a pond stocked with the biggest and brightest koi I've seen.

I learned that the California trapdoor spider of my youth is one of the stronger insects on the planet, capable of bracing its door against intruders at up to 38 times its own weight; that the male horsefley can hit speeds of up to nearly 90 miles per hour; and that a Madagascar hissing cockroach feels just like an oily leather cowboy boot.

This being New Orleans, there's the Tiny Termite Cafe and Bug Appetit, the latter a demonstration kitchen where executive chef Kevin Robertson was whipping up salsa thick with mealworms, fried wax worms that tasted just like fried pork skin, and nachos of mealworms that were meaty and sweet. No "chocolate chirp cookies" were available today, but he had plenty of the most popular item on the menu, "crispy Cajun crickets," sauteed in butter and dusted with Cajun seasonings. Robertson tells the hesistant that they taste just like spicy sunflower seeds, but the consensus in our party was that they taste more like fried chicken skin, and that's a good thing.

If you're planning a trip to New Orleans, set aside for a couple of hours at the Insectarium. Check out its Web site.

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 9, 2008
Local Dish Highlighted Nationally

I complain so often of the national food media ignoring the creativity of restaurateurs and chefs in and about Sacramento that it's only fair to draw attention to an exception. That would be the August issue of Food&Wine, which highlights a dish at the Granite Bay restaurant Hawks.

You have to flip through 120 of the magazine's 120 pages to find it, but there it is, a slice of the restaurant's homemade brioche topped with a cloud of lemon cream and scattered with shiny blackberries. Created by Molly Hawks and her husband Michael Fagnoni, co-owners and co-chefs of Hawks, the dessert is featured in the magazine's Last Bite feature. The recipe also is included. It takes three hours to make. If you time your drive astutely, you can get to Hawks in a little less than that.

July 8, 2008
Morton's on the Move

Sacramento's Westfield Downtown Plaza may be about to get a splashy giant LED screen but it looks to be losing one of its brighter lights. Morton's The Steakhouse, a fixture of the mall for 15 years, is on the verge of relocating to the new U.S. Bank Tower at 621 Capitol Mall.

According to a succinct announcement this morning by Roger Drake, chief communications officer for Morton's The Steakhouse in Chicago, the chain's Sacramento branch is leaving Downtown Plaza to help make way for a proposed redevelopment of the mall.

"We have secured an alternate site...at 621 Capitol Mall," Drake said. "A more formal announcement will be made once plans are finalized with respect to the...mall," he added.

As Bee columnist Bob Shallit reported last month, Downtown Plaza is to undergo an ambitious update next year. Plans call for a large guitar outside the mall's Hard Rock Cafe at 7th and K to be relocated, a new indoor/outdoor dining area above the Hard Rock, a Target store, and a 20-foot-tall LED screen around the building housing the Hard Rock.

The U.S. Bank Tower where Morton's is to move also is big on LED displays. The 25-story office building is topped by one, called "Lumetric River," while the structure's atrium includes a second, called "The Rapids."

Officials of Downtown Plaza and David S. Taylor Interests, which developed U.S. Bank Tower, didn't immediately return phone calls for comment.

July 7, 2008
Taste of Europe in Truckee

IMGP3240_edited.JPGBartholomew Gill, of course. I'd drawn a blank Friday night as I struggled to recall the name of one of my favorite writers of Irish crime novels. It only came back to me after we'd returned home and I scanned my collection of mysteries featuring Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr: "The Death of an Irish Tinker," "The Death of an Irish Sea Wolf" and "The Death of a Joyce Scholar," among others, all by the late Bartholomew Gill.

Now I've got to get word to Patrick Timothy Callaghan, the bartender who seemed so interested in Irish novelists. The subject came up as we sat in what has to be the smallest bar in Truckee, Callaghan's, tucked off to one side of the lobby of The Cedar House, a hotel we luckily stumbled across after learning that our reservation at another inn wasn't available after all.

That The Cedar House would have a vacancy on the Fourth of July has to be something of a miracle, but maybe that's because it only seems to cater largely to a winter-sports clientele. (The skis alongside the fireplace just inside the front door was my first clue.)

The Cedar House is a "sport hotel," drawing people just like us, dusty, sweaty and sore from hiking. But it's so classy we felt as if we should have checked into another hotel first just for a shower before walking into The Cedar House. With soaring timbers and steel bracing, The Cedar House is something of a post-modern Sierra lodge, inspired by inns of the European Alps, right down to sod with perennials blooming on the roof.

As attractively as it blends the rusticity of its generous use of wood, steel and concrete with the sophistication of its European furnishings, what's most appealing about the place is the unusual cordiality of its staff, from the clerk who avoided admonishing us for not having reservations and who graciously showed us a selection of rooms to the story spinning of Callaghan.

Though there's no restaurant on site, the owners, Jeff and Patty Baird, spread out a light but varied casual evening assortment of snacks - cheeses, guacamole, fruit, salami - which is but a preview of the generous continental breakfast they provide guests in the morning. Jeff Baird then steps behind the bar to proudly and happily prepare complimentary cappuccinos and lattes as guests debate between the wholesome oatmeal and the seductive pastries. Muffins, bagels, more fruit, smoked salmon and sliced tomatoes topped with wedges of avocado also help round out the selection.

Sacramentans already familiar with The Cedar House - this was our first visit - will be let down to learn that the resident border collie, Jake, died last week. A successor already is on the premises, however, the puppy Baxter. Guests also are welcome to bring their dogs.

For more information visit the hotel's Web site.

July 7, 2008
Our Own Discouraging Snowpack Report

IMGP3229.JPG Fourth of July, 2008

IMGP1450_edited.JPG Fourth of July, 2007

Thumbnail image for IMGP0217_edited.JPG Fourth of July, 2006

Gastronomically, we have nothing significant to report from our almost-annual trek on the Fourth of July to Fourth of July Lake in the Mokelumne Wilderness Area just south of Carson Pass, other than our growing conviction that beef jerky is the best protein to bring along. It's lightweight, it's concentrated and it just tastes so darn good at the end of the five-mile hike to the gem that is Fourth of July Lake. This year's spicy choice was the "steakhouse" variety put out by Pacific Gold, at once sturdy yet fresh and easily chewable.

This isn't Fourth of July Lake, incidentally, but Lake Winnemucca, about halfway on the trail to and from Fourth of July Lake. Two years ago, we crossed snowfield after snowfield on the way in and out. Not so last year, and this year we encountered even less snow, passing over just one very small patch. Whether this is a sign of climate change or just another indication that we are in the midst of a drought, I have no idea, but I'm hoping that next year we come across more snow than we've found these two years.

July 3, 2008
Northstar Getting a Moody's Spinoff

Skiers at the Village at Northstar on the north side of Lake Tahoe this winter may have a tough time getting to the slopes, and snowdepth has nothing to do with that forecast. Rather, the resort's developers keep adding new and tempting places for visitors to linger over drinks and food.

The latest addition to be announced is Baxter's Bistro & Lounge, being developed by Mark Estee and JJ Morgan, owners of perhaps the most popular and highly regarded restaurant in Truckee, Moody's Bistro & Lounge, an occasional hangout for Paul McCartney.

Also scheduled to open at Northstar in December is a branch of Chocolate Bar, a cafe and lounge with two locations in Reno.

Northstar already has nearly a dozen other restaurants and bars, including a branch of the Sacramento-based Mikuni Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar.

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.

July 1, 2008
Japanese Name, American Steakhouse

These may not be the best economic times to open a restaurant, but Bill Taylor is pushing ahead with plans for his steakhouse Hibachi One Three in quarters long occupied by Fuji's at 13th and Broadway. Though he's run into more work than anticipated in remodeling the kitchen of the 6400-square-foot building, Taylor is hoping for a September or October debut.

He's hired his executive chef, Eric Stimson, and the two are working up a menu representative of a "casual neighborhood American steakhouse," says Taylor. Teriyaki steak is expected to be a signature dish, not so much in keeping with the building's previous incarnation as a Japanese restaurant but in tribute to a restaurant Taylor frequented when he was living in Manhattan Beach. That place also was named Hibachi, but without the "One Three," Taylor's sly way to avoid becoming too closely associated with the number 13.

"I think it will be a surprise to people - fresher and more open," says Taylor of his redesign of the place.

When he does open Hibachi One Three he will in one small way compete with himself. The restaurant will have burgers on the lunch menu, even though Taylor owns two Willie's Burgers, one just three blocks from his new place.

July 1, 2008
Frank Talk for the 4th

First, no beer on the rivers on the Fourth of July. Then, no fireworks. Now, reduced-fat hot dogs? That's what awaits guests at this year's Independence Day block parties if the hosts take the advice of the editors of AOL Food. The editors grilled and blind-tasted 50 brands of hot dog, narrowed the field to their favorite 20, and chose Hebrew National Reduced Fat Beef Franks as their No. 1 pick. The regular version of Hebrew National's beef franks didn't even rank in the top 20.

"Despite being a trimmed-fat version of their regular frank, our tasters didn't note a single shortfall," says Diedre Ayers of AOL Food. Tasters praised the reduced-fat frank with such comments as "best flavor yet," "fabuloso," "well balanced" and "full dog flavor." No condiments were added.

Runnerup was Nathan's Kosher Premium Beef Franks ("the ultimate expression of a Coney Island classic"). Ball Park Angus Beef Franks ("a most delectable weenie"), Nathan's Bigger Than the Bun Skinless Beef Franks ("It's so full-up on flavor it don't need no stinkin' epidermis") and Tony Packo's Hickory Smoked Authentic Hungarian Hot Dogs ("Fans of TV's M*A*S*H might remember Tony Packo's as Corporal Klinger's dream destination, and this snappy Toledo staple proves to be still in its prime") rounded out the top five. For a rundown on the results, including photos of the top 20, click here.

Incidentally, Hebrew National Reduced Fat Beef Franks each pack 120 calories, 10 grams of fat and 360 milligrams of sodium. Regular Hebrew National beef franks each weigh in with 150 calories, 14 grams of fat and 370 milligrams of sodium.

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 26, 2008
Cabernet Franc Turns More Heads

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

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

June 25, 2008
Landmark Loomis Restaurant Reopens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 24, 2008
Land Park Lands New Pizza Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 20, 2008
Relax, Italian Wine Fans

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

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

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

June 19, 2008
The Scoop on Wine Ice Cream

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 18, 2008
First Stop: Sacramento

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 18, 2008
Still a Winner

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

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

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

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

June 16, 2008
South Pine Cafe Edges Closer to Sacramento

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

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

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

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

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

June 16, 2008
Yogurtagogo Strikes a Chord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 13, 2008
We Have Winners

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

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

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

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

June 12, 2008
Last Choice at First Choice

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

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

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

June 12, 2008
Lounge on 20 Readies Debut

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

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

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

June 12, 2008
This is Why Gold is So Cherished

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 11, 2008
Looking for Kings at Cal Expo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 10, 2008
David Berkley Stepping Aside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 10, 2008
A Flight of Pho

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

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

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

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

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

June 9, 2008
BLT's Lose Their T

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 9, 2008
Barbera Shines in Amador Competition

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

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

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

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

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

June 6, 2008
Revolution Feeling the Crush

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

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

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

June 6, 2008
Judges, Proceed as Planned

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

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

No one but the winemaker - "not a judge in a competition, not your neighbor, not even your spouse if he/she did not participate in making the wine" - is to drink the wine, said Sen. Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa) as she quickly introduced a bill to rectify the matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

June 4, 2008
Lodi Winery Finds Its El Dorado

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 2, 2008
Sauvignon Blancs Get Upstaged

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

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

May 30, 2008
For Now, Sweepstakes Wine a Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

May 29, 2008
Buying a Rose? Select Cautiously

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

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

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

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


May 29, 2008
Chardonnays, Cabernets and Now Roses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 27, 2008
Spataro Stays, For Now

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

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

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

May 27, 2008
An Off Note

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

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

Imagine that, at a jazz jubilee.

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

May 26, 2008
Peter Torza Pulls the Plug

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 23, 2008
A Prospector Returns to Foothills

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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."

May 19, 2008
One Tossed, Another Appears

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 19, 2008
Peter Torza Cuts Back

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

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

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

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

May 16, 2008
Slowing Down in the Delta

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

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

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

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

May 15, 2008
Folsom Gets a Wine Bar

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

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

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

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

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

May 14, 2008
Zagat is Sniffing About Sacramento

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

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

May 14, 2008
A New Pyramid to Climb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 13, 2008
Last Night's Wine

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

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

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

May 12, 2008
A Thirst Quencher for Cyclists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 9, 2008
Worth the Trip

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

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

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

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

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

May 9, 2008
Sweet Spot on L Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 7, 2008
Next Stop, Zamora

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

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

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

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

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

May 7, 2008
Full Steam Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 5, 2008
Clean Taste, Less Filling

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

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

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

May 5, 2008
Lodi Rules

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

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

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

May 4, 2008
Overcast, But No Thunder

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

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

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

May 3, 2008
Thunder in the Southland

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 1, 2008
Sour Grapes

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

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

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

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

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

May 1, 2008
Billy Ngo's on a Roll

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

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

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

April 30, 2008
Searching for Falafel

A Lincoln reader just back from France says he found the best falafel ever in Paris. Falafel isn't a dish I associate with France, but given the country's shifting demographics it makes perfect sense that an outstanding falafel should be found in the city that still reigns as the capital of fine cuisine.

His appetite whetted, he wants to know where he can find a fine falafel around here. His question reminded me that many years ago the falafel was one of my favorite foods. Basically, a falafel is patties of mashed garbanzo beans mixed with herbs and various Middle Eastern spices, then fried and served with a tahini sauce. The patties, both wholesome and intense, can be served on their own or slipped into pita bread, which is the way I customarily have preferred them. In recent years, that's how we have prepared them at home, and only rarely have I gone out looking for falafel.

With my curiosity newly aroused, however, I've started a search for notable cafe falafels, and need your help. So far, I've sampled the falafel at Maalouf's Taste of Lebanon along Fulton Avenue (big, hot, fresh, rustic and about as salty as they were spicy) and at Cafe Morocco along Alhambra (rich, coarse, grainy, a bit dry). Both were fine, but I suspect better may be out there, and would appreciate some guidance.

Based on those visits, two things about the falafel sandwich seems to have changed over the years. For one, they're much bigger than they used to be. Secondly, the pita hasn't appreciably improved, and in fact seems to have exchanged some of its character and flavor for its more substantial size.

At any rate, if you have a favorite falafel, or have heard of someplace celebrated for the dish, please let me know.

April 30, 2008
Sacramento's Restaurant Inspections Applauded

The County of Sacramento's traffic-signal method of alerting diners about the health status of restaurants is being acknowledged with one of the nation's more prestigious honors in consumerism.

Officials of the county's Environmental Management Department announced this morning that the agency is receiving the 2008 Samuel J. Crumbine Consumer Protection Award for Excellence in Food Protection.

The agency is being singled out specifically for a program it began last year involving green, yellow and red placards at the entrance of restaurants to notify guests how the businesses measured up during their latest public-health inspection. A green sign indicates no major health issues were found, a yellow sign indicates violations were uncovered and corrections are pending, and a red sign indicates that violations were so severe the restaurant is closed. Last summer, public-health authorities reported that about 88 percent of the county's food establishments, which include grocery stores and school cafeterias as well as restaurants, were getting green cards; just one percent were being hit with a red card.

The award's 12 judges, all public-health practitioners, were impressed with how local officials brought the local food industry aboard in introducing the program, food-safety classes they started to help restaurant workers avoid health issues, and the publication of inspection guidelines in several languages, among other provisions of the effort.

"The County of Sacramento has demonstrated leadership, innovation and a commitment to food safety that transcends the boundaries of their county. It is a guiding light for local food-safety programs throughout the nation," said Gary Erbeck of the County of San Diego Department of Environmental Health, chair of the award jury.

Named for one of the country's more celebrated public-health sanitarians, the Crumbine award has been handed out over the past 53 years. It will be presented local officials at the annual Educational Conference of the National Environmental Health Association in June in Tucson.

April 29, 2008
In the Works: An Heir for Pava's

Twenty years ago, a charming little restaurant occupied a converted Victorian at 24th and K streets in midtown Sacramento. It was called Pava's, a name that still resonates with oldtimers not just for its grilled lamb chops, housemade ravioli, fruit cobblers and hearty breakfasts but for its loyal following, which ranged from the powerful to people who still were being called hippies.

When fire destroyed Pava's in 1990 after a 14-year-run, a Bee editorial lamented its loss and fretted that both the initiative and homeyness it represented also would be lost. The editorial was prescient, for the lot that Pava's occupied has stood largely vacant for nearly 18 years.

Now, however, Sacramento developer Thomas Allan Roth and Bay Area restaurateur Matthew Engelhart are drawing up plans for a restaurant to revive the individualistic spirit if not the name and culinary style of Pava's. Both have confirmed that they've signed a letter of intent to bring a branch of Engelhart's Cafe Gratitude to 24th and K.

Engelhart opened his first Cafe Gratitude in San Francisco in 2004 and now is up to four branches in the Bay Area, with a fifth to open this summer in Healdsburg. "It's a school of transformation disguised as a vegan organic restaurant," says Engelhart of the restaurant's concept.

He says he is being drawn to Sacramento in part because of its proximity to Vacaville, where he has bought a farm to help keep his restaurants supplied with the seasonal, sustainable, organically grown ingredients on which his menus are based.

Lots of restaurants these days boast of seasonal, sustainable, organically grown provisions, but Cafe Gratitude takes the commitment a step further by using the ingredients in solely vegan dishes. The Cafe Gratitude menu is a study in positive vibes, with each dish bearing a name meant to be self-affirming: "I Am Present" is an appetizer of buckwheat flatbread with mushroom herb confit and cashew mozzarella, while "I Am Terrific" is the restaurant's version of pad thai - vegetable noodles with kale, cucumber, tomato, sprouts, teriyaki almonds and a Thai almond-butter sauce. Desserts include "I Am Amazing," lemon meringue pie in macadamia-nut crust.

"The restaurant's décor is derived from a board game developed by the owners and built into each table. It encourages diners to express gratitude for one another and for the bounty the universe has bestowed upon anyone likely to walk in the door. After seating us, the hostess looked in our eyes and asked, 'What's great about today?'” wrote Gregory Dicum in the New York Times last fall after visiting the Mission District branch of Cafe Gratitude.

Roth gives three reasons for wanting a Cafe Gratitude on his lot: His own vegan diet, his memory of Pava's as "a wonderful place to go," and Engelhart's style of cooking, which he has found "delicious" and "consistent." "Pava's was busy most of the time, so this seems like it would be a perfect fit," adds Roth.

He owns buildings housing two other restaurants in the neighborhood - Rick's Dessert Diner and True Love Coffee House - as well as a three-story 1926 structure on the northeast corner of 21st and L he is looking to convert into a restaurant. Though prospective operators have toured the building with the thought of putting a "high end" restaurant in the structure, the shaky economy has cooled their enthusiasm. In the meantime, he's moving ahead with hopes of opening a restaurant on the old site of the revered Pava's within a year.

April 28, 2008
Pull Up a Winner

Working with only the wire cage, label, foil and cork from no more than two Champagne bottles, artists created more than 500 miniature chairs for this year's Champagne Chair Contest sponsored by the home-decor chain Design Within Reach.

Now, the 50 winning chairs are on a national tour, which pulls into Sacramento May 6. From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., a reception for the exhibit will be at Design Within Reach's Sacramento studio, 1020 16th St. And, yes, Champagne will be served. Seating, however, could be a challenge.

To see a few of the winning entries, visit the Design Within Reach Web site.

April 28, 2008
Didn't the Nut Tree Start This Way?

Davis Ranch in Sloughhouse isn't expected to start harvesting its sweet corn until mid-June or thereabouts, and when it does there's to be something new at the popular roadside stand along Highway 16 - barbecued beef and pork ribs, tri-tip roasts, chicken and hot dogs.

Tom and Pam Krumbholz, who own Incahoots BBQ Pizza and Grill in Plymouth, will bring their mobile kitchen to Davis Ranch this summer to help round out the produce stand's menu. The unit is expected to be in place on weekends from late June or early July through the harvest, says Pam Krumbholz. In addition to the meats, the Krumbholzs will be experimenting with grilled produce, raising the possibility that hot corn on the cob will be available.

In recent years, Davis Ranch has been expanding its range of produce beyond the corn that first brought celebrity to the spot. In addition to beets, grapes, artichokes and a whole bunch of other fruits and vegetables, the current lineup includes Sloughhouse asparagus. The stand is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, though when the corn starts to come in the schedule will be 6 a.m.-7 p.m. daily, says store manager Jim Ayers.

April 28, 2008
Following the Scent to Amador City

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As I ambled along backroads about Murphys in Calaveras County and Sutter Creek and Amador City in Amador County the past few days, I couldn't recall a splashier show of spring poppies in the foothills. Hardly hill or hollow was without a bright patch of the golden blooms.

The display made me thankful for at least two reasons: One, that the legislature in 1903 had the good sense to name the golden poppy California's state flower. Second, that Gov. Schwarzenegger wasn't in office way back then. I suspect he would have caved in to the lily, lilac and lupine lobbyists and vetoed the measure, just as he buckled to cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay partisans a couple of years ago when legislators voted to declare zinfandel the state's "historic" wine grape.

Yeah, I hold a grudge, but that isn't the culinary point of this item. Andrae's Bakery in Amador City is. No matter how many times we stop at the shop, the Andraes seem to be stocking their already crowded display cases with something new. This time around it was a zesty pistachio and orange brioche. We resisted the oatmeal cookies and Basque cake, but not that or the brownies and the cranberry-and-walnut sourdough bread.

If you stop, be prepared for a long line and claustrophobia. The shop, which also has extensive selections of cheese and housemade sandwiches, is small and almost invariably crowded. But that's going to change. The Andraes are drawing up plans for roomier new quarters in neighboring Sutter Creek. The new bakery could be open as soon as this fall, though they may hold off on the debut until after the busy year-end baking season. Whenever it's open, we'll be back, looking for poppyseed cake.

April 25, 2008
Two Wineries Jump for Joy

The celebrated jumping frogs of Calaveras County won't be jumping for fame until the third weekend of May, but preparations for the annual jubilee were in full swing with the fair's 27th annual wine competition.

The judging drew 274 wines from throughout the Sierra foothills, and when the final votes were tabulated the best-of-show red wine was the mouth-filling, peppery and warm Latcham Vineyards 2005 El Dorado Zinfandel ($20), while the best-of-show white wine was the sweet, floral and viscous Ironstone Vineyards 2007 California Obsession Symphony ($8).

I'll be writing more of the competition for a future Dunne on Wine column in The Bee.

April 24, 2008
The Greenhouse, The Firehouse

A couple of notes about what's new on the Sacramento area restaurant scene:

- Earth Day 2008 has come and gone, but Cory Holbrook and Roderick Williams used the occasion to launch what they intend to be a longterm commitment to "sustainable," "organic" and "green" values. In February, Holbrook closed his restaurant Town Lounge in Roseville, redesigned the quarters, redrew the menu, and on Earth Day reopened it as The Greenhouse. He says 95 percent of the produce is organic, all of the seafood is sustainably caught, and all the meats are free of steroids, antibiotics and added hormones. Ideally, the restaurant would like to be 100 percent organic, but occasionally chef Roderick Williams has to use conventionally grown habanero chile peppers, parsnip greens and the like if organically grown can't be found. Coffees and teas are free trade, takeout containers are biodegradable, and the new carpet is made of recycled soda bottles, say Holbrook and Williams. The New American menu includes starters like Five Dot Ranch beef sliders (two for $8) and a salad of panko-crusted ahi and arugula with a wasabi caramel vinaigrette ($11), and entrees such as a small plate of seared sea scallops with agave-glazed baby turnips ($13) and a large plate of rib-eye steak with a leek, potato and morel-mushroom ragout ($29). The Greenhouse, 1595 Eureka Road, Roseville, is open for dinner Monday through Saturday, with lunch to be added Monday.

- Anthony Laub, most recently executive chef at the Folsom branch of Malabar, has moved to The Firehouse in Old Sacramento as chef de cuisine, where he will be working with executive chef Deneb Williams. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Laub also has put in stints with Horseshoe Bend Country Club and Cherokee Town and Country Club, both in Georgia.

April 24, 2008
Beyond the Shells, Surprises

Results of the 14th Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition won't be compiled and released until Monday - the judging is spread over three days in three cities - but yesterday's round at the restaurant Sutro's of the Cliff House in San Francisco provided a few surprises:

- The Kumamoto oysters - more consistently firm, fresh, sweet and salty than they have been at the competition in recent years - weren't from the Pacific Northwest or even California, but Mexico. They again were provided by the competition's sponsor, Taylor Shellfish Farms of Shelton, Wash., which has expanded its operations to include a new aquafarm on the Pacific Ocean side of Baja California. Kumamotos, explained Jon Rowley, coordinator of the competition, thrive best in relatively warm water, thus the switch. Why Kumamotos for the judging? They're small, thus easy to slurp, chew and follow with a sip of wine to see how the pairing shapes up. I'm not sure if it was their size or their intensely briny flavor, but I had to eat four dozen to do the wines justice.

- Per usual, 20 white wines were in the finals. We didn't know the varietal or the producer of each until after the judging. For the first time in around six years, none of the 20 was either the Geyser Peak sauvignin blanc or the Dry Creek Vineyard chenin blanc, the latter made with grapes from Clarksburg. Both have finished regularly in the top 10 in recent years. Though I haven't tasted the latest vintage of either wine, I've a hunch that their absence from the finals says more of the intensified competition than any slip in their quality. This year's competition drew a record 200 wines. The final 20 are chosen during a marathon series of tastings in Seattle, then sent to panels in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. Rowley takes pains to assure that both the wines and the oysters are served at nearly identical temperatures in each venue.

- Regardless of producer or appellation, you likely will be on fairly secure ground if you order a sauvignon blanc or a pinot grigio/pinot gris when you're about to dive into a platter of raw oysters. Of the 20 finalists, 14 were sauvignon blanc, three were pinot grigio/pinot gris.

- Seven of the finalists are out of the Pacific Northwest, the rest from California, including two local representatives, the Lange Twins 2006 Lodi Sauvignon Blanc ($13) and the Lucchesi Vineyards & Winery 2007 Sierra Foothills Sauvignon Blanc ($16). (Lucchesi is in Grass Valley.)

April 23, 2008
Aw, Shucks, It's All in a Day's Work

I'll soon shove off for San Francisco and the 14th annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, one of the more enlightening and entertaining judgings of the year. And filling. That's because the wines will be judged in a natural context, which is with food, a logistical impossibility for most competitions.

For this judging, however, coordinator Jon Rowley limits the wines to one style - cold, dry, crisp and, by my experience, white - and one kind of food, Kumamoto oysters. You eat an oyster, then taste a wine, looking for what Rowley calls the "bliss factor" - a clean finish and a crisp taste that doesn't get in the way of the flavor of the next oyster.

A record 200 wines were entered in this year's competition, but we'll be tasting just the 20 finalists. Earlier, five judges at Rowley's home base in Seattle spent a week tasting all 200 candidates with oysters, gradually narrowing the field to the final 20.

This week, individual panels in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco will taste the wines with oysters, after which Rowley will tabulate all the scores to determine 10 equal winners of the 2008 "Oyster Award." Fellow panelists in San Francisco are to include KCBS Radio food and wine editor Narsai David, San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonne, Wine Spectator editor-at-large Harvey Steiman, veteran wine writers Bob Thompson of Napa Valley and Millie Howie of Sonoma County, and John Finger, president of Hog Island Oyster Co. of Point Reyes Station.

If Rowley follows his usual pattern, he will kick off the competition by reading the passage that inspired the exercise, a poetic tribute to the savoring of oysters and wine, from Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast."

April 22, 2008
Le Petit Paris Getting a Little Bigger

Tassina Nicole Placencia is in Paris right now, but her husband Ruben still is in Sacramento, working to add a coffee and tea salon to their 19th Street fashion and decor shop Le Petit Paris.

"We're trying to bring back community," he says of the project, which he hopes to have finished in time for crowds at the city's next Second Saturday, May 10. "We want a friendly place where people can sit and chat," he adds. "The coffee will get the chattering going."

At least at first, the salon will serve just cofee, tea and pastries. Eventually, the menu could expand to also include sandwiches and salads.

April 22, 2008
Bubble Time

Thirty Champagnes by the glass? What is Ali Mackani thinking? Big, again. Mackani, who in the fall of 2005 opened the electric Restaurant 55 Degrees along Capitol Mall, is close to launching his next ambitious project, Lounge on 20, where the beverage menu is to include 30 Champagnes by the glass.

Lounge on 20, which Mackani hopes to open in early June, and possibly as soon as late May, will occupy the southeast portion of the MARRS building at 20th and K in midtown Sacramento. MARRS - Midtown Art Retail Restaurant Scene - already is home to the Solomon Dubnick Gallery, restaurants Luigi's Slice and Azul, and shops DV8 and Newsbeat.

Lounge on 20 is to be a hybrid restaurant and wine bar where the focus will be on socialization. "If you know the Redroom Room of the Clift Hotel in San Francisco, that's the kind of interaction we want," says Mackani. The conviviality will be fueled by the Champagnes, an equally extensive list of wines by the glass, creative cocktails, community tables, and a New American menu whereby dishes can be ordered in three sizes - "a taste, a small plate or a shared tray for three or four people," says Mackani. "We want to promote socializing over food and drink."

The place will be big, seating up to 170 inside, another 80 on the deck. Mackani is being assisted in putting together Lounge on 20 by two key principals of Restaurant 55 Degrees, executive chef Luc Dendievel and manager Kassidy Harris. Mackani hopes to finalize the hiring of a chef de cuisine for the new place this week. The opening of Lounge on 20 will mean no change for Restaurant 55 Degrees, he adds.

April 21, 2008
Mr. Citizen, Meet Mr. Hilton

As reported here a week ago, the high-rise boutique-hotel The Citizen going in to the former Cal Western Life building at 10th and J in downtown Sacramento will include a large and stylish restaurant that the hotel's operators, Joie de Vivre Hospitality of San Francisco, hope will appeal to Sacramentans as much as to out-of-town visitors.

And as we also reported, we couldn't say much else about the restaurant because the folks of Joie de Vivre said they wouldn't release the name of the restaurant and its operator until later. What they should have said was that they wouldn't release the name of the restaurant to The Bee until later. They were quick to tell the Sacramento Business Journal that the name would be Grange, meant to suggest rural grange halls and to evoke images of local farmers and ranchers, which Joie de Vivre intends to use for its take on California Cuisine. (The Citizen's restaurant, says Joie de Vivre publicist Dawn Shalhoup, was almost named Tavern, but cooler corporate heads apparently concluded that that spoke more of old cowtown Sacramento than the fashionable new city.)

If anyone at Joie de Vivre was aware that Grange also is the name of the restaurant at the Hilton Hotel in Adelaide, they apparently didn't give it much heed, indicates Shalhoup. In all likelihood, the Australian Grange is named after Penfolds Grange, Australia's most noble and revered wine, not the homey symbol of the American West.

Either way, Joie de Vivre could have a problem on its hands. Given how quick so many corporations are to prevent what they see as trademark infringement, I have to wonder whether the Hilton honchos will simply look the other way while a competing hotel chain appropriates for one of its own restaurants a name they proudly adopted long ago. Nothing like a little citizen vs. citizen litigation to stir up publicity.

April 18, 2008
Expanding, Not Contracting

Monica Deconinck, who with her husband Marc runs the fine French restaurant Le Bilig in Auburn, has weighed in on a Washington Port article for which a link was posted here earlier this week.

The story tells how restaurateurs are coping with rising operating costs just as diners are cutting back on their own expenses during these tremulous economic times. A common maneuver among restaurateurs, the article notes, is to reduce portion sizes.

The Deconincks will have none of that. "We have never measured or weighed ingredients, and although it may be a poor business practice, it is not in our mentality to 'calculate' how much of something will go into a dish to make it financially rewarding. Cooking is and always will be about generosity for us," says Monica Deconinck in an email.

In acknowledging that restaurateurs are facing more challenges in trying to stay afloat financially, the Deconincks are taking approaches other than reducing portion sizes, raising prices and the like. They've expanded their hours, started to open on Tuesdays, introduced a fixed price ($22) dinner Tuesday through Thursday, more aggressively marketed their catering and takeout, and stepped up their slate of cooking classes and entertainment. Monica Deconinck long has taught Saturday morning cooking classes for children, while Marc Deconinck now is teaching "men only" and "bistro classics" cooking classes a few times each month. Their entertainment schedule includes a Spanish flamenco night May 16, with guitar music, student dancers, tapas and wine.

"No change in quality or quantity. We're just working more hours and being more available for our customers. (And never stopping to calculate our hourly wage!)," she concludes.

April 18, 2008
Discoveries on the Wine Trail

Let's end the week with a couple of hopefully helpful notes for fellow wine enthusiasts:

- If you still have a bottle of the Shafer Vineyards 1986 Napa Valley Hillside Select in your cellar, this might be the weekend to pull it out and polish it off. To judge by one we tasted Wednesday night, it's showing well and isn't likely to improve. The fruit is more austere than concentrated, but it has wonderful aromatics and has hung on to its fine form. When the wine was released 20 years ago, critic Robert Parker Jr. predicted that "it should age nicely for up to a decade." It's lasted longer than that, and isn't showing signs of falling apart imminently, but in the future probably won't provide any more impact than it is right now. Decant and serve with lighter cuisine. The tasting included several other Shafer cabernet sauvignons, though no other Hillside Selects. The favorite in the rest of the field looked to be the 2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, largely for its fleshier blackberry and cherry fruit and softer tannins, though a current release, the 2005 Napa Valley Stags Leap District One Point Five, also had its partisans for the youthfulness and juiciness of its fruit, its complexity and its finish, the freshest and longest of the night. Though the alcohol levels of the wines rose over the years, from 13.5 percent for the 1986 Hillside Select to 14.9 for the 2005 One Point Five, Shafer remains a Napa Valley brand that still can be counted on for grasping with balance and style a sense of place and personality, which is the sunshine of Stags Leap and the focus and commitment of the Shafer family.

- I'm about convinced that the "Sideways" effect - a boost in the popularity of pinot noir at the expense of merlot, so lacerated in the movie - actually has been benefical for merlot. The film's dismissal of the varietal, coupled with other subsequent criticism and a slump in the wine's popularity, apparently has rattled vintners into paying more attention to merlot. At least, I've been more impressed by younger merlots I've been tasting this year. The latest evidence arrived last night during a dinner touting the wines of the Napa Valley's Beringer Vineyards at the Sutter Club. Not that Beringer ever has taken merlot lightly. Its Howell Mountain merlot long has been one of the valley's truly iconic wines. It, however, wasn't poured last night. But the Beringer Vineyards 2004 Knight's Valley Alluvium Red was. A blend of 74 percent merlot, 23 percent cabernet sauvignon and dashes of malbec and cabernet franc, the Alluvium was alluring in smell and captivating in flavor - fat with suggestions of plums, sprightly with refreshing acidity, and round and supple in feel. It had the structure and fruit to go with the challenging dish with which it was poured - spears of asparagus wrapped with strips of smoked duck prosciutto - but it also had the assertiveness and depth to stand up to rack of lamb crusted with black sea salt and pepper and accompanied with dried apricots and cherries. Indeed, the Alluvium went better with the lamb, I felt, than the wine chosen specifically to accompany the meat, the Beringer 2004 Napa Valley Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. That's no slam on the bright cabernet, generous with oak, just that the Alluvium was a more compelling companion for the busy huskiness of the lamb. The Alluvium, incidentally, generally is selling for between $18 and $22 in the Sacramento area.

April 17, 2008
Quiet Sutter Creek Even Quieter

Disquieting news out of Sutter Creek today: The convivial and homey Chatterbox Cafe again is quiet. "The cook quit abruptly yesterday, there's no replacement on the horizon, and I have other work commitments. It would be a great little business for an owner operator," said co-owner Joe Rohde in a brief email.

The Chatterbox has gone through rough patches in the past, though for the most part it's been a community landmark for more than 60 years, celebrated for its cinnamon rolls, burgers and pies, among other draws.

This closure also looks like it will be brief. I just got another email from Rohde, who says he's making progress in lining up a replacement cook and could have the place reopened as soon as tomorrow. Nonetheless, he and his partners are ready to give up the cafe's demanding hours and hope they can find an owner/operator to continue the Chatterbox tradition. That willingness and about $85,000 should get the job done. For more information, contact Rohde at jrohde@thinksmartinc.com.

April 16, 2008
Jack vs. The Bull

With The Bee's cafe closed for the day, I headed out to weigh in on the latest raging battle in the burger wars. I only had to go as far as Broadway, home to both a Jack in the Box and a Carl's Jr.

The folks of Carl's Jr. are accusing Jack of ripping off their enduring Western Bacon Cheeseburger by introducing an almost identical BBQ Bacon Sirloin Burger. Naturally, I had to try them both.

Basically, each is a burger sandwiched with orange cheese, bacon strips, onion rings and barbecue sauce. And frankly, my palate had difficulty deciding which is the best. Jack's clearly has the superior patty, a thick cut of rich ground sirloin seasoned with just the right doses of salt and pepper. The onion rings were big, hot and sweet, the bacon thin but almost crisp. The Carl's Jr. by far tasted smokier and saltier, with a sturdier and more flavorful bun. The bacon also was thin, and limp. In both cases, the cheese was forgettable.

I began to ponder other factors to help me decide. The Jack in the Box has more parking. Carl's Jr. has a napkin dispenser on each table. The Jack in the Box burger costs $5.09 before taxes, $5.48 after. The Carl's Jr. costs $2.99 before taxes, $3.22 after.

Nutritionally, they're virtually in a dead heat. The Jack in the Box has 1,120 calories, 24 grams of saturated fat, 190 milligrams of cholesterol, and 2,520 milligrams of sodium. The Carl's Jr. has 1,130 calories, 28 grams of saturated fat, 150 milligrams of cholesterol, and 2,540 milligrams of sodium. No, I didn't run into anyone from the Center for Science in the Public Interest at either venue.

Carl's Jr., however, gets the nod for environmental consciousness. Its Western Bacon Cheeseburger comes wrapped in paper, and that's it. At Jack in the Box, the BBQ Bacon Sirloin Burger not only was wrapped in paper, it was in a box in a bag. (At both places I said I'd be eating on the premises.)

I'm not convinced that these occasional dustups between competing burger chains are anything more than a publicity stunt orchestrated by their advertising agencies, especially during economically shaky times like these. Still, the folks at Carl's Jr. sound not only unflattered by Jack's imitation but downright bitter. "Jack must have decided to turn their new $150-million 'Innovation Center' into an employee lounge," snorts Brad Haley, the executive vice president of marketing for Carl's Jr.

In addition, Carl's Jr. tomorrow will give customers a free Western Bacon Cheeseburger when they purchse any version of the burger, but you will have to get to Eureka, Redding, Chico or Reno to take advantage of the offer in this area; Sacramento branches of Carl's Jr. aren't participating in the promotion.

On a brighter note, Carl's Jr. has pulled from retirement its iconic mechanical-bull TV commercial from 2004, featuring the beat of Foghat's "Slow Ride."

That alone gives Carl's Jr. the edge in the burger sweepstakes this time around, but before I cast my final vote I'd like to hear what others think is the superior burger.

April 15, 2008
Quiet Changes in the Restaurant Business

If you're a restaurateur squeezed between rising food expenses and guests looking to cut costs as fears of recession intensify, what you going to do?

Well, you can rewrite your menu so prices don't stand out so much. Or you could increase the price of a $7.95 dish to $7.99; who's going to notice that? Or you could start to use smaller plates so a smaller serving really doesn't look smaller.

These are a few of the tactics that restaurateurs are learning as they try to survive these challenging economic times. To learn more about penny-pinching changes that could be under way at your favorite bistro, take a look at this David Segal feature from The Washington Post.

April 15, 2008
No Prayer for White House Party

It wouldn't be the choice of wine, would it? Pope Benedict XVI is skipping his scheduled 81st birthday party with President Bush at the White House tomorrow night.

Word of the unexplained change in schedule materialized as principals of Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma County were crowing that their 2005 Dutton Ranch Chardonnay would be poured for the bash in the East Room.

The wine has been described variously as a typical California chardonnay - rich, ripe and oaky. Maybe the pope's palate runs more to white wines lighter and more refreshling, like gruner veltliner, pinot grigio or riesling. Clearly, he isn't a teetotaler, according to a New York Times article early in his papacy. Quoting friends, cardinals, biographers and the like, the article says that while the pope is especially fond of lemonade and orange juice he also savors wines from Italy's Piedmont region and the German beer Franziskaner Weissbier. Quick, alert the White House cellar keeper, maybe this party can be saved, after all.

April 14, 2008
The Citizen Bows In

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Sacramento's first high-rise luxury boutique hotel isn't to open until mid-November, but a couple of rooms already are basically finished, we found on a tour through the structure the other day. From one, you can look down on the Capitol as you shower. From virtually every room, in fact, the view of the Sacramento skyline is spectacular. Almost makes you want to move away so you can return to book a room.

The hotel is The Citizen, taking over the historic 14-story former Cal Western Life building at 10th and J streets. It will have 197 rooms, five penthouses and nearly 15,000 square feet of event space, including a seventh-floor terrace bound to become the hottest party-venue in town, and not just because it's on the southwest side of the 1926 building.

I joined the tour in hopes of finding out about the hotel's restaurant, but didn't learn much more than it will include a two-story glass-enclosed wine vault stocked with 2,000 bottles, a principal dining room with 22-foot-high ceilings, an industrial look but sophisticated feel, an adjoining lounge and mezzanine with a law-library ambience, and a towering "jewel-box" loggia along the 10th Street side of the building.

The principals of Joie de Vivre Hospitality of San Francisco, the hotelier pulling together the project, say they have an operator and a name for the restaurant, but for now they aren't revealing anything more. Joie de Vivre operates some 30 other boutique hotels, most of them with restaurants that are casual in attitude and contemporary in cuisine, including American Restaurant & Bar at Hotel Vitale, Cafe Andree at Hotel Rex, and Saha Restaurant at Hotel Carlton, all in San Francisco. Whatever the restaurant is to be called at The Citizen, it's to open with the hotel this fall.

April 11, 2008
Last Night's Wine

Maybe it's going through a funky stage, I thought. "Is it a merlot?" asked my wife, who prefers to taste wines blind, then speculate on varietal and the like, almost invariably being spot on. We were off to an uncertain start with a wine that shouldn't be at all ambiguous, being a new zinfandel out of Amador County.

What's more, it was made by some of the more inventive characters in the wine trade, the guys of Rebel Wine Co. in Napa Valley, responsible for the Three Thieves and Bandit lines of value varietals. I'm a fan of their generally environmentally sensitive packaging, their bargain-oriented marketing, their unpretentious attitude, and their direct winemaking.

But their latest project, the Wingnut 2005 Amador County Zinfandel ($13), was leaving me baffled. It was coming off as if growers in Amador County had sent their grapes to a finishing school in Napa Valley. There, the usually swashbuckling attitude of Amador County zinfandel got wrung out of the fruit and replaced with a kind of politeness that while appropriate in some circles isn't customarily expected at a table where Amador County zinfandel is poured. With its typical brashness, Amador County zinfandel can be counted on to stimulate the really interesting dinner topics of religion, politics and sex, but this interpretation is too well-mannered for that. It's cleanly made, all right, with modulated fresh fruit flavors and a readily accessible texture, but it isn't going to interrupt any conversations with its authority.

Nonetheless, I look forward to trying another bottle. Maybe with a little time it will bloom with more color and drama. I do like the pricing, and even more I like the back story. The principals of Rebel Wine Co. recruited student designers at the Portfolio Center, a communication-arts school in Atlanta, to create the packaging. The striking label, by Dave Whitling, who won a scholarship for his efforts, captures the "loopy, weird, oddball" way the Rebels see themselves and the attitude they want to represent in a wine called Wingnut. Another Portfolio Center designer, Rachel Strubinger, came up with the notion of stamping the cork in each bottle with a bit of unconventional wisdom. Ours said: "It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things," attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. I like the sentiment, but I think the Rebels may have missed another novel marketing twist by not putting the wine in bottles with wingnut screwcaps.

April 11, 2008
Warming Up to Beer

A reader wants to know why we don't write more about beer in The Bee's Taste section. While I try to think of a response I'll tip him off to some beer news:

- On Monday, Peter Hoey of Sacramento Brewing Company will tap a keg of a truly unusual beer, Saucerfull of Merkins, made by the Paso Robles brewery Firestone Walker. According to Rick Sellers of Pacific Brew News, only 80 kegs of the beer were made. It's a blended winter ale, mostly oatmeal stout with a portion of Belgian-inspired strong dark ale. It's been variously described as "a dark winter stout with light spicy notes, full silky body and bourbon accents" and "dessert in a glass." You can read more about it at Seller's blog. Hoey says the keg will be tapped when the Oasis branch of Sacramento Brewing Company - 7811 Madison Ave. - opens at 11:30 a.m. Monday. Plans to tap a second keg at the brewery's Town and Country Village site are uncertain. The beer will sell for $5 a pint.

- The new "lounge menu" at the restaurant Hawks in Granite Bay - housemade charcuterie with grilled bread ($12), macaroni and Gruyere ($8), onion beignets ($5) and the like - is complimented by an enticing beer menu. In addition to the predictable Bud ($4) and Stella Artois ($5), there's several brews not often seen hereabouts, like the Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar ($14), the Leyerth Urthel Vlaemse Bock from Belgium ($22) and the North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Stourt ($6). Hawks is at 5530 Douglas Blvd., Granite Bay.

April 9, 2008
Rick Mahan Saddles Up

Rick Mahan is about to combine his twin interests in slow food and slow transportation, but to do it his life will pick up speed. Mahan, chef/owner of The Waterboy restaurant in midtown Sacramento, is preparing a second restaurant. He's signed a lease to open One Speed in Folsom Boulevard quarters occupied most recently by Cafe Milazzo, just east of East Lawn Memorial Cemetery.

The name One Speed was inspired by his long affection for old-fashioned Schwinn bicycles. Mahan also is keen on the principles and goals of the Slow Food movement, which favors the preservation of culinary traditions over fast food and fast living.

One Speed, which he hopes to open as soon as July, will be more casual and less expensive than The Waterboy. The menu will emphasize pizzas, pastas and antipasti, with just a few daily entrees. The restaurant will be open only for dinner and for weekend breakfast.

He anticipates no changes for The Waterboy, which will continue to emphasize the foods of northern Italy and southern France in an environment more upscale than what he sees for One Speed.