Sunny Sonoma

Sonoma Town Square /Michelle Locke

You know how they talk about Berkeley being a hotbed of protest? They’re lying. It’s pretty much always perishing cold here. When we went through a (mercifully brief) pro-nudity movement a few years ago that was the question all of us locals were asking: How can they stand the cold?So I was particularly happy when business took me to Sonoma this week. This is a small city of about 10,000 people in Sonoma County wine country. The main attraction is the plaza downtown, beautifully landscaped with a pond so serene just looking at it makes your heart rate slow down. (In a good way.) The early 20th-century City Hall is here, as are the Mission San Francisco Solano and an assortment of shops and cafes.

Sonoma County doesn’t get quite the same kind of press as the Napa Valley next door, but it’s definitely worth a visit. One of my favorite wineries is Benziger Family Winery.  For $15, you can take a 45-minute tram tour of the vineyards, farmed biodynamically _ just learning about that is an experience _ and see the fermentation facility, crush pad and barrel caves. Oh, and you get to taste a little wine.

Another good side trip is Jack London State Park, where the author of “Call of the Wild,” etc., lived from 1905 to 1916. There are the ruins of what was to be his dream house, which burned down in 1913, and also a cottage where he lived and wrote. I visited a few years ago and was impressed by his mantra of write 1,000 a words a day, every day. Can’t say I live up to that. Of course, he didn’t have the handicap of being distracted by unbearably cute pictures of cats on the Internet.


Learning to speak vinacular: My buddy Brunello

Writing about wine is a wonderful thing. Great places to visit, smart, engaging people to talk to … and a whole new world of ways to stick your foot right in your mouth.

Let me tell you about my first experience with Brunello di Montalcino.

It was some years ago and I was writing about an international wine competition. The important part for me was that a couple of California wines had scored big. Local angle, check.

But I couldn’t help noticing as I scanned the list that Brunello di Montalcino came up a lot, too. Really an impressive showing in the top 10.

So, when I interviewed one of the contest officials, I had to ask: “Who is this Brunello guy? He really seems to be raking in the prizes.” (I didn’t share, but I had a whole vision in my head of Mr. B. Stocky, muscular, dark brown hair just beginning to go gray and a rich, riotously curly beard.)

There was pause. A sigh. And then the official said gently, “Brunello di Montalcino is a type of wine.

“Ah,” I said, ever one with the quick comeback.

I am sure you would never drop such a clanger, but just in case you need a refresher, Brunello di Montalcino is a red wine produced from grapes grown in vineyards near the town of Montalcino in Tuscany. Brunello means brownish (roughly) in Tuscan dialect and the wine is made from a clone of the sangiovese grape. Not a lot gets made and this is one of those wines prized by collectors; 2004 was a good vintage.

Adding a bit of drama, the region was the source of scandal a few years ago when Italian authorities investigated whether some producers were using grapes other than sangiovese, strictly forbidden under the many regulations governing how brunello is made.

So, that’s your brunello primer for today.

Now, I’m off to find out more about my new wine friend, that Australian minx Margaret River.


Auction Napa Valley


A lot at the Napa Valley wine auction /Michelle Locke

Napa Valley vintners partied like it was 1989 for their annual auction this weekend, and what a swell party it was.  Black tie, evening gowns and a fancy emcee: Out. Flowered dresses, big hats and “Walk Like an Egyptian” rock group the Bangles: In.

The result was $8.5 million raised for local charities, a good showing for any year and downright impressive for the Great Recession. As honorary co-chair Beth Novak Milliken put it, “a spectacular weekend.”This was the 30th anniversary of the auction, which started out with $140,000 raised in 1981. Back then, the valley was so laid-back organizers used bedsheets instead of tablecloths because there wasn’t a local linens supplier with the resources to put on that big a party. Over time, the Napa Valley shifted upscale and in recent years the auction followed suit, switching from relaxed garden party to posh dinner complete with big names like Jay Leno performing host duties.

But this year it was back to basics, with a relaxed dress code and less formal vibe. You knew you were in for a change when you walked into the big tent for the live auction Saturday and saw water pistols on the tables. It was a warm afternoon and the pistols got plenty of use. To the point that Mme. Vinecdote was used as a human shield by one sharpshooting vintner who shall remain nameless.

There was still plenty of glitz during the four-day event, formally known as Auction Napa Valley. Elegant parties were held at wineries on Thursday and Friday night featuring fabulous wines and four-star food. But the star turn of the weekend was the live auction held, as usual, at the exclusive Meadowood Resort in St. Helena.The most suspenseful action of the day came with a lot from Colgin Cellars. A winning bid of $250,000 quickly grew to $1 million after Colgin Cellars kept offering to duplicate the lot for others willing to pony up that much. What did winning bidders get? Eight magnums of Bordeaux blends, dinner for six and a comparative tasting for six.

(It is without a doubt a splendid thing to watch other people spending thousands of dollars for a good cause, never more so than when your own bank account is a shade shy of six figures.)

And, in keeping with today’s frugal aesthetic, there were bargains to be had.Take the $200,000 bid that secured a 6-liter bottle of the highly sought-after Screaming Eagle. (The 6-liter bottle is known as a methusaleh and is the equivalent of eight regular bottles.) In 2000, a 6-liter bottle of Screaming Eagle went for $500,000.A $300,000 discount? I’ll drink to that.



Rosemary roasted potatoes


Sometimes I feel like my backyard wants me to be a much better cook than I am. The orange and lemon trees have been whispering “marmalade,” to me reproachfully for weeks now. And yesterday the rosemary bush got so insistent that I was forced to abandon plans to warm up a pizza for dinner and make roasted rosemary potatoes.

Luckily, this is a super simple dish and has the added benefit of making the whole house smell so good people think you’ve been a lot more diligent than you have.

If only there were something similar for the workplace.  To make, I peel and dice russet potatoes into about 2-inch chunks and put them on a foil-lined baking sheet with several sprigs of rosemary and a handful of unpeeled garlic cloves. A drizzle of olive oil on top and then I mix everything together with my hands. Don’t go overboard with the oil, just enough to make everything slick. It’s also crucial to make sure the potatoes have plenty of breathing room. Spuds go into a hot oven for 30-45 minutes until they’re softened up a bit and then I give them a blast under the broiler. This way you get a contrast of tender hot potato inside, crispy golden crust outside. Salt according to your tastes and you’re done. I generally steal about six right out of the pan “just to make sure they’re done,” searing my mouth and not even caring.

Future marmalade

Alongside the potatoes, I usually serve chicken thighs, cooked thusly: Start skin down with a little water in the pan and a sprinkling of soy sauce for seasoning, flip when they’ve lost their pinkness and after another 10-15 minutes put them under the broiler (they can go in with the potatoes) for a final crisping.


Cooking outside the box



There’s been a lot of chatter lately about avoiding processed food. The issue is time, how much of it we have and how we want to spend it. Some cooking-from-scratch proponents argue that if we’ve got time to watch “Dancing with the Stars,” we’ve got time to stick a chicken in the oven. (And author Michael Ruhlman has an interesting suggestion on what you should do while waiting for it to cook. Be patient, it’s in the penultimate paragraph.)

I see the aversion to home-cooking as being about more than tight schedules. It’s about being down to your very last shred of nerve after a day of dealing with people, and if one more person asks you to do one more thing that nerve is going to snap like a string on Paganini’s violin. Your inner demons are going to be let loose _ and so near the kitchen knives, too. Oddly enough I have found this to be true whether my day involved challenging and productive tasks,  eight hours of misery doing busy work for a pinhead or the joys of diapers, story time and “Mom, I’m booooored.”

Which is where processed foods come in. For many of us _ and of course this is a perception strongly encouraged by advertisers _ opening a few packets or cans or slapping something in the microwave seems doable in a way that pulling out a hunk of meat, chopping an onion, and making your very own sauce does not. As someone who started cooking by following recipes on the backs of Jell-o boxes, I say if that’s the only thing that is going to get you in the kitchen go for it. Anything that you at least stirred, as opposed to brought home in a takeout bag, is a step in the right direction.However, and you knew there was going to be a however, the anti-processed food people do have a point. A lot of the boxed/bought stuff is not really easier than and definitely isn’t as good as homemade. Take noodles and cheese. So simple, and yet for years I bought the bright orange boxed stuff. In fact, I went through a bit of a lean time in college where all I had for a month were 20 boxes I had bought at a 10 for $1 sale. Yes, this was a while back. Shut up. At the beginning I had butter and milk to help things along; by month’s end I was making the stuff with water alone.

The horror.

Now, there are folks who will argue that the only way to go is fresh pasta you made yourself topped with Parmesan you shaved from a block you bought from that special little cheese store you love so well. And I’m sure they’re right. As sure as I am that there is no way in hell I am going to put out that much effort on a weeknight. So I take what British P.M. Tony Blair used to call the Third Way. And it involves keeping a tub of good-quality grated Parmesan in the freezer.

I give you the People Have Worked My Last Nerve Today Emergency Dinner.

Boil water, add noodles (dried, please, but do consider buying interesting shapes to perk things up), drain when noodles are cooked to your liking and then put them back into the pan over a low-medium heat as you quickly add a knob of butter, a little cream and a good shaking of Parmesan, stirring to make sure the noodles don’t stick to the bottom and tasting while you add cheese and cream until you get the flavor and consistency you want. You can skip the cream if you don’t have it. I usually manage to have some because I buy the tiny cartons that will keep for a surprisingly long time unopened. If I have some basil that hasn’t succumbed to death-by-refrigerator as seems to happen all too often, I scissor the (washed) leaves  right over the pan. A handful of frozen peas is another way to go.  But limit yourself to just one addition; you want to convey simple sophistication not nursery supper.

With this I serve a baguette, very likely one that was pulled from the freezer and given a quick blast in the oven, and a quick salad of greens and bottled dressing.

Then I make myself scarce in hopes that Mr. Vinecdote (an excellent and prolific from-scratch cook who has never so much as ripped open a Knorr’s sauce packet) will do the washing up.

Bon appetit!

Thin is in

The new, lighter Champagne bottle /Image US Champagne Bureau


The wine industry is lightening up _ at least when it comes to packaging.

A few wineries have already started using lightweight glass for their bottles _ Fetzer Vineyards in California was a pioneer here _ cutting carbon emissions and saving shipping costs.This is a 180 from the old-school concept of putting wines, especially the boutique-y types in thick, heavy bottles with gigantic punts (the weird indentation at the bottom) to underscore their specialness.

Now, the concept has the endorsement of  the Comité Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne. The bureau has approved a new standard bottle 2 ounces lighter than the regular containers.

According to a press release from the Office of Champagne, USA, using the lighter bottles will reduce the annual CO2 output by 8,000 metric tons, or the equivalent of the annual CO2 emissions of 4,000 cars.

A Champagne bottle has to be tough. The new bottles are designed to withstand the 6Gs worth of force found in most Champagne bottles. This is why you don’t point the cork at your eye, or anyone else’s, when you’re opening a bottle.

Tiny bubbles in somewhat tinier bottles? Sounds good to me.



Goodbye, Fess

Fess Parker, 85, died today.

Parker, of course, is famous to Baby Boomers as TV’s Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. But he was also a force in wine country, founding The Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard in Santa Barbara wine country  some 30 years ago.

I visited the winery in late 2002 while writing a story about celebrity vintners. I really didn’t know what to expect, but what I got was a gracious, silver-haired giant of a man who radiated equal parts charisma, country charm and a sly sense of humor. He was 78 then and full of energy, driving myself and a photographer around the property in a Hummer, occasionally stopping to stride through vineyards, his long legs eating up the yardage. One of our stops was at a local diner where the waitress knew without asking to bring him his usual breakfast,  a substantial plate heavy on the pancakes.

Fess was my favorite kind of interview, the subject who has interesting things to say and isn’t shy about saying them. The deep,  gravelly drawl didn’t hurt, either.  We drove around hills that were just beginning to turn green with winter rains and he talked about everything from his serious pursuit of wine excellence to his days in Hollywood. And he told stories on himself, like the time his wife went to the wine store to fill the cellar in their new Bel Air home and came back with such famous wines as Chateau Lafite from France. His reaction, he said with a twinkle, was a shocked, “How could you spend $6 a bottle for wine?”

Interestingly, the family at first called the winery simply Parker, wanting the wine to speak for itself. But it wasn’t long before Fess convinced them they needed something extra to stand out from the thousands of brands crowding store shelves. “I learned one thing from Walt Disney,” he said, “and that was the value of a trademark. Some people take it the wrong way and say you’re just promoting yourself. But my vision is to have a presence that represents quality.”

After the interview was over, I thanked him, went home and wrote the piece. I didn’t expect to hear from him again but a few days after Thanksgiving a fax came across my office machine _ a handwritten thank you note from Fess. That’s unusual in this business, and very unusual from a celebrity.

So, today lots of people will be remembering Fess Parker in his roles as frontier heroes Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone _ great characters both. But I’ll be thinking of Fess Parker, wine pioneer and gentleman.

Farewell, Fess.