Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year Resolutions, Wine Division

As 2010 draws to a close, I have a couple of house-cleaning matters to address before starting the new year on a fresh footing:

For one, precisely one year has passed since I started this wine blog. I called it A Year in Wine because my intent at the outset was to write of a wine a day. The subtitle - 365 days, 365 wines with stories to tell - reinforced that concept. I was confident that through visits to wine regions, judging at wine competitions and tasting at home I would find at least one wine to write about daily. Almost immediately, I realized I’d made a mistake. I recognized that the format was forced, turning a pleasant diversion into drudgery. Tasting notes are the least appealing of chores in writing of wine, though I recognize that readers often look to them to help determine whether a highlighted wine might be one they also would enjoy. But I got into writing of wine about 40 years ago and continue to write of wine in retirement because I enjoy the subject beyond tasting wine. The world of wine is a world that can be approached from many varied angles - the personalities involved, the places where wine grapes are grown, the history, the conflict, the trends, and so forth, all of which I find at least as captivating as the smell, flavor, weight and other attributes of a specific wine. Thus, over this past year I’ve found myself drifting to stories and commentary about wine that go beyond or take the place of musing about the aesthetic attributes of specific wines. In short, I'll continue to call this blog A Year in Wine, but I need to change the subhead. That’s New Year Resolution No. 1.

Scondly, a little more than a year ago the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for the first time in 19 years revised its guidelines concerning endorsements and testimonials. In apparently concluding that bloggers are having a growing influence in how Americans spend their money, federal officials asked marketing companies and bloggers to be more transparent in their dealings with each other.

In short, the revised guidelines urge bloggers to be candid in revealing their relationship to products about which they write favorably. If they are paid by a manufacturer to say favorable things, they should disclose that. That would seem to be common sense, but common sense isn’t as abundant today as it once was.

“The post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement,” said FTC officials at the time. “Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service,” they added.

If bloggers didn’t reveal those kinds of ties, FTC authorities suggested, they’d be subject to fines of up to $11,000 per post. This naturally led to much hang wringing within the blogging community. Bloggers were especially alarmed over how federal authorities would interpret the ambiguous phrases “in-kind payment” and “material connections.”

Bloggers got so agitated about the matter that federal officials subsequently told them to relax. Bloggers weren’t so much their concern, they noted, as companies that seduce them with free products or other incentives, including, presumably, payoffs. One high-ranking federal official said deputized agents weren’t about to storm the homes of “mommy bloggers” who write about a soap some company had sent them for nothing.

True to their word, only once over the past year have FTC authorities flexed their muscles under the terms of the new guidelines, and their frustration was taken out on a brand rather than a blogger, reported the media website Mashable. The FTC went after the women’s retailer Ann Taylor for enticing bloggers to attend a showing of a new line of clothes by offering them potential gift cards valued at between $50 and $500 if they blogged of the event.

In the end, FTC officials took no action against Ann Taylor, perhaps because the company subsequently adopted a “blogger interaction policy” that would preclude such a cozy relationship in the future.

Bloggers themselves have been divided over the matter. Some see themselves as freedom-loving pilgrims on a new and wild frontier, where old standards don’t apply. Others, however, argue that transparency should rule. I’m with the latter group.

Since starting this blog I’ve received a few wine samples from vintners who likely think I might like to taste the wines and perhaps comment on them. I haven’t, but in the new year I may. If and when I do, I’ll simply state how I came by a wine that prompts a posting, and let readers draw their own conclusions.

Each of the weekly wine columns I contribute to The Sacramento Bee ends with this disclaimer: “His wine selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions.” For that column, that practice won’t change. I see the possibility, however, that a sample wine may be so interesting that I’d want to write a column on it. If that were to happen, I’d seek out the wine in the market, buy it, and roll it into a tasting before basing a column on it. That's New Year Resolution No. 2.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Toast The New Year With...Cremant?

While in the wine aisle, shopping for something special to pour at the midnight hour on New Year's Eve, reach for Champagne if you must, but pause and think again. Champagne is the most glorious, historic, romantic and powerful of New Year's Eve beverages, of course, but it's also the most predictable, which, says your inner rebel, definitely isn't where you want to be on such a momentous occasion. Also, in the back of your mind lurks a resolution to be more independent and adventurous in 2011, so why not get a jump on it?

Therefore, scan along the shelves loaded with other bubblies - cava from Spain, prosecco from Italy, sparkling wine from California, Washington, New Mexico and Oregon. Come on, there's got to be something more cutting edge than that, you're apt to be thinking.

And there is. Look for bottles of bubbly that claim to be "Cremant." But wait, aren't cremant sparkling wines not only notable for their luxurious creaminess - thus the name - but their easy sweetness? That's what I thought, until this past fall, during visits to Bordeaux and Burgundy. Under French wine rules, vintners there can't make Champagne. Only vintners in Champagne can make Champagne. Thus, in Bordeaux, Burgundy and other wine regions of France, the winemaker with a yen to make sparkling wine must call his or her bubbly "cremant." One meal after another in Bordeaux and Burgundy began with a cremant, and never was it sweet.

That cremant may be commonly perceived as sweet in the minds of Northern Californians is due largely to the success of Schramsberg Vineyards in Napa Valley, perhaps the earliest winery in the state to show convincingly that bubbly made here can come darn close to emulating the traditions, standards and nature of Champagne. But Schramsberg also makes a "Cremant Demi-Sec," which is a flat-out viscous, soft and sweet dessert sparkler, far removed from the comparatively athletic, complex and dry sparkling wine long called Champagne.

In Bordeaux and Burgundy, on the other hand, "cremant" wines run closer in weight, structure, flavor and animation to what traditionally is Champagne. Becky Sue Epstein, a Boston writer whose book on Champagne and other sparkling wine is to be published in the fall of 2011, explains cremant wines thusly: "Before 1990 crémant (creamily foamy) referred to a wine that was less fizzy, under less pressure than champagne. Crémant is now the term for quality French sparkling wines made outside of Champagne. It is a restricted term, and can only be given to wines from AOCs such as Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant d’Alsace, and Crémant de Loire in the north; Crémant de Jura and Crémant de Bordeaux in the middle of France; Crémant de Limoux in the south and Crémant de Die to the east of the Rhone...Many of these wines are produced with lower pressure than champagne – they are a bit less fizzy – but they are made in the same traditional method and, as in champagne, all the grapes must be hand-harvested."

In short, cremant sparkling wines are a fairly faithful knockoff of Champagne. They may or may not be less vibrant in beads and bubbles than Champagne. While in Bordeaux and Burgundy, I tasted some 20 cremants. Overall, I was surprised by how dry, crisp and refreshing they were. If as a group they were less fizzy than Champagne, I didn't pick up on it; put them in a blind tasting with Champagne and I doubt that many tasters, no matter how seasoned they may be in sparking wine, could detect a broad difference.

Cremants aren't as widely available in the United States as Champagne and sparkling wines from elsewhere. When I go scouting over the next couple of days for sparklers to take to a New Year's Eve party I don't expect to find many cremants. If you were to come along, I'd urge you to help me spot these more impressive interpretations I tasted in Bordeaux and Burgundy:

- Lateyron Cremant de Bordeaux Blancs Brut, wonderfully fruity yet dry, with suggestions of apricots and nuts in smell and flavor and the sort of crisp acidity that begs for an accompanying platter of shellfish.

- Vitteault-Alberti Cremant de Bourgogne Brut Rose, remarkable for its numerous and lively beads, as well as the sort of fresh and forward fruit that assures us that spring isn't far off.

- Caves des Hautes Cotes Cremant de Bourgogne Brut Rose, all fleshy berry and spirited complexity, with a structure and persistence rarely encountered outside Champagne.

- M. Lebeault Cremant de Bourgogne Blanc et Noirs Brut, a riged yet compelling and accessible blend mostly of pinot noir and chardonnay, initially rustic in its robustness but finishing with stately elegance.

- Maison Simonnet-Febvre Cremant de Bourgogne Brut Rose, made solely with pinot noir, which perhaps explains why it is so earthy, complicated and persistent; it's a sparkler that producers in Champagne would rather you not know about.

And now, if you will excuse me, I'm heading out to see if I can find any of these cremants about Sacramento. If I do, I doubt I'll have to spend more than $20 for any of them. And if I don't, there's likely to be some other cremants worth gambling on at about the same attractive price.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Her Garden Beckons

As usual, Neoma Wiggins was at the restaurant Zachary Jacques in the El Dorado County hamlet of Diamond Springs last night. Not so usual, however, she was there as honored guest rather than server, a role she's performed with knowledge, sincerity and charm for nearly 30 years. She began in 1981, and shortly after the start of the new year will call it quits, though she seems to have the vigor and humor to continue another decade or two. That energy henceforth will be focused on her garden.

During her three decades at Zachary Jacques she's seen five different owners, changes in the style of cooking coming from the kitchen, and shifts in the composition of the clientele. While local residents continue to frequent Zachary Jacques regularly, the restaurant also attracts several touring wine enthusiasts drawn to the growing number of wineries in nearby Pleasant Valley, Placerville, Somerset and Fair Play.

That's what we did yesterday, after which we stopped by Zachary Jacques to help acknowledge the long and important contributions that Neoma Wiggins has made to the fun of dining out in the El Dorado hinterland. John and Lynnette Evans, in their sixth year as owners of Zachary Jacques, put out a buffet spread so varied and long it stretched outside, where the ice carving didn't look to be thawing in the cold of the night. In the photo here, that's Neoma Wiggins in the middle, flanked by John and Lynnette Evans on the left, Christian and Jennifer Masse on the right, who owned Zachary Jacques for nearly 17 years before selling it and establishing the popular takeout spot Allez! in neighboring El Dorado.

On our next visit to Zachary Jacques we will miss the amiability and grace of Neoma Wiggins, but based on last night's buffet we have several dishes to look forward to, starting with the grilled duck. Zachary Jacques, incidentally, is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday, breakfast weekends, and is the setting for frequent winemaker events and holiday specials. It's at 1821 Pleasant Valley Road; 530.626.8045.

While at Zachary Jacques, incidentally, we heard that the online reservation service OpenTable included the Elk Grove restaurant Boulevard Bistro in its list of the top 50 restaurants of the United States for 2010. In later checking the list, which is based on more than 7 million reviews by OpenTable diners, we found two other local restaurants - Ambience in Carmichael and The Kitchen in Sacramento. Other Northern California restaurants on the list are The French Laundry in Yountville, and Madrona Manor and Cyrus, both of Healdsburg.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Arco Arena, Where Wine And Wins Are Elusive

Bless the Maloof family, owners of the Sacramento Kings. Frustrated in their efforts - free rides! - to keep their employees from being busted for allegedly driving under the influence, they're making darn sure that their customers don't touch demon alcohol at all. Basically, they've priced alcoholic beverages at Arco Arena virtually out of reach of the ordinary guy. I know this first-hand because I was at Sunday's game between the Sacramento Kings and the Houston Rockets. If you were at home and watching the game on TV you may have seen us. There weren't many other fans for the cameras to scan. Indeed, a couple three rows in front of us set a new record for being completely oblivious to their presence on the jumbo screen overhead. My wife and I each even got a plaque for showing up.

At a professional basketball game, I'm generally not much interested in drinking wine. Beer is my first choice, and I did indulge a Budweiser at $8.75, but it was a generous cup, maybe 24 ounces. At any rate, on my way to the beer stand I did pause at a concourse booth dispensing wine. There, I could have had my choice of a cabernet sauvignon or a chardonnay, both from the 2009 vintage, both priced at $7, and both by Sutter Home. The $7 would have bought me a 187-milliliter plastic bottle. Back in the real world - Safeway, Raley's, Save Mart, etc. - a 750-milliliter bottle of one of these wines would cost around $5 at full markup. In short, had I opted for one of the wines rather than the Bud I would have paid almost 50 percent more for 75 percent less. I never did well in economics classes, but something tells me that exchange just didn't add up; no wonder I never saw another fan all afternoon with a glass of wine in hand.

OK, I'm in a sour mood. I bought the Sunday tickets figuring that if the Kings could beat any team in the NBA it would be the Rockets, especially since the Kings were playing on their home court. I was looking for a little holiday cheer. While the Kings had their moments, they overall were out of sync, flailing about under the basket, failing to finish. They'd get traction now and then, but couldn't keep the momentum going. After we returned home I settled into the game between the Patriots and the Packers. My team didn't win there, either, but I came away feeling that I'd watched two energetic and cohesive squads assembled and guided by managements with well-conceived visions and practical ways to achieve them.

At any rate, as we left Arco Arena and walked through the dark and the cold to our car I thought of another way for the Maloofs to safeguard Kings fans from over-indulging and then driving: Ban vehicles at Arco Arena. This, however, would mean the Maloofs would have to sacrifice another lucrative revenue stream - $10 parking fees (you'd think at that cost they'd put in some drainage and some better lighting, but I digress). It also would compel the Maloofs and city officials to do something they mysteriously and quietly have avoided doing all these years that the Kings have been in town - provide public transportation to and from Arco Arena. (You think maybe because it's called Arco Arena that may have something to do with their inertia?) I'm just saying that if I could hop on a bus or light rail to Arco Arena, I'd likely attend more games, and while there I might even spend $7 for a glass of wine.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Wine And Words, Parallel Universes

No big surprises yet, but I'm just learning how to play the game. As to what to make of the data popping up on my monitor, I won't even try to venture an interpretation. Yesterday, however, I ran across this article in the New York Times, about a massive book-based database assembled by Google.

This treasure chest amounts to something like 500 billion words published in books and periodicals in 10 styles of language between the years 1500 and 2008. You can go to this online tool, punch in up to five words or phrases within a defined period of time, and then see how the use of those words has increased or decreased. I'm just guessing here, but I figure the resulting frequency reflects public interest in reading about whatever thing or concept the word represents. In other words, if the frequency of a word or phrase increases, people are likely to be more interested in that topic, right?

OK, so let's see what happens when I punch in cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, zinfandel and merlot for the years between 1920 and 2008, the most recent year for which data was accumulated. The style of language I'm searching is "American English." Whoa, look at that: The frequency of all four varietals began to climb dramatically in 1978, which, amazingly, is the same year I started to write of wine for The Sacramento Bee, but I'm sure that's only coincidental. At any rate, the rise in the frequency of the terms pretty much parallels the sales of those varietals. That is, "chardonnay" shows the most dramatic increase in its appearance in books and the like published in "American English" over the past three decades, the same era in which it became the country's most popular varietal wine. Merlot pretty much keeps pace with chardonnay, though not as sharply. Cabernet sauvignon is third on the scale, overtaking zinfandel in about 1997. (Isn't that when alcohol levels in zinfandel began to go through the roof?)

Wait, it gets even better. At the bottom of the chart you can click on to one of five time frames (1920-1985, 2002-2007 and the like) to get to specific titles and references in the Google Books database for each of the words or phrases you've searched. Click on 1920-1985 for cabernet sauvignon, for example, and you are taken to hundreds and perhaps thousands of books, magazines and other publications that have had something to say of cabernet sauvignon. Sometimes the mention is brief - like in an ad - and sometimes it will be the entire topic of book or article. Google says you may be able to browse the entire book or article online, but by my early searches that's only rarely the case. Fair enough, given copyright laws. As Google suggests, look upon this database as you would a card catalog, then go to a public library to see if the full document is available. Or, there's always Google eBooks.

Let's try another search: Bordeaux wine, Burgundy wine, California wine. When I run the search under "American English," references to Bordeaux wine and Burgundy wine have been fairly steady and competitive over the past 90 years, though Bordeaux has picked up and held a comfortable lead over Burgundy wine since 1990. Mentions of California wine during the same span have fluctuated wildly, peaking about 1948, then plunging until the mid-1950s before starting a rocky climb back, not hitting the 1948 peak again until about 2005, after which there's been another sharp decline. When the search is repeated under "British English," Bordeaux wine, not surprisingly, given the United Kingdom's long affection for Bordeaux wines, holds a strong lead, while Burgundy wine and California wine are virtually tied in mentions.

OK, one more: Italian wine, Spanish wine, German wine, "American English," 1920-2008: In mentions, Italian wine outpaces both the others, with references climbing steadily and sharply since 1995. Curiously, references to Spanish wine were at their highest in the mid-1930s, then began a slide that bottomed out about 1994, after which they began to rise again. References to German wines hit a high about 2004, but since then have been declining, a surprise given the buzz generated by riesling these days; it's a buzz, but apparently more murmur than shout.

Why so many references to Spanish wines in the 1930s, when they far outpaced mentions of German and Italian wines? A cursory look at the Google database indicates that Americans at that time must have been infatuated with sherry. And then there's this intriguing tidbit from a 1933 edition of Time magazine, published on the eve of Repeal: "The Spanish Wine Institute has spent $700 for a set of U.S. telephone books, planning to mail to each & every one of 19,000,000 subscribers a guady pamphlet lauding the virtues of Spain's fine wines." Gaudy or not, it must have worked, fueling both interest in and sales of Spanish wines.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Advice To Wine Writers: Sip Less, Read More

If these articles, essays and posts I'm reading were wine, none would rate 90 or more points, I'm sorry to say. Because I believe wine writing needs fresh perspective and voices, I look forward each year to judging the works submitted by applicants for fellowships to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, to convene in February at the Napa Valley resort Meadowood.

Each candidate anonymously submits two pieces, which then are reviewed indpendently by three judges. Some of the writing is raw manuscript, some published or posted work. Midway through this year's review, I'm puzzled by a slip in overall quality compared with batchs from earlier years. On my 100-point scale, none has scored higher than 85, and most are in the 70s and 60s.

Too many pieces lack focus and a theme; the reader doesn't know where he is going at the outset and feels lost when he gets to the end. Broad conclusions aren't substantiated with facts. A lot of material sounds familiar, as if lifted from winery press release or website. Personality and color too often are missing. Too many are humorless. Quotes are rare. Mostly, many of the pieces are painfully self-absorbed, as if the writer already has seen it all, experienced it all, knows it all, and doesn't have to learn from anyone who ever walked through the vineyard before he or she got there.

But I'm keeping two things in mind. One, that I'm just midway through the papers and that the second half may show dramatic improvement. And barring that, I'm remembering something that the director of the symposium, Jim Gordon, urged on the judges at the start: "We want to find the writers with the most talent or potential, and help them take their work to a higher level by learning more at the symposium." So I'm looking for potential more than polish, and in that regard have been encouraged by some original ideas, some nicely turned phrases and even the occasional flash of humor.

I just wish more of the candidates would be more grounded in the subject. They don't need to hold a degree in viticulture or enology from UC Davis, but I sense that much of their writing would be more informative and entertaining if they'd been better briefed in the history and traditions of the trade. A small library of wine reference books would be a good place to start. Here's 10 that over the years I've found myself turning to most often as I prepare to interview grower or vintner, or to double-check something a grower or vintner has said (keep in mind that most of my wine writing is on California):

"The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine" by Alexis Bespaloff (William Morrow and Company): Regardless of topic, this is the starting point, providing an introduction reliable, concise and smart to all sorts of wine topics, from grape variety to wine region.

"The Oxford Companion to Wine" by Jancis Robinson (Oxford): If the Schoonmaker doesn't provide me with all I need, the more cerebral and deeper Oxford will.

"A Companion to California Wine" by Charles L. Sullivan (University of California Press): No one provides a more detailed and knowledgeable view of the California wine trade from its distant past right up to today than Charles Sullivan.

"The Wine Atlas of California and the Pacific Northwest" by Bob Thompson (Simon & Schuster): Thompson has written or edited many books on the California wine scene over the decades, including the monumental "Book of California Wine" and "California Wine," an early Sunset publication, but in this atlas he is at once his most detailed and pithy, and the maps are invaluable in providing a quick grasp of local growing conditions.

"Wine Grape Varieties in California" by several contributors, many of them with UC Davis (University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources): In large part a field manual to help growers and vintners decide what they should plant where, this book nevertheless provides the layman with a quick study about the history, appearance, disease problems, winery use and several other aspects for all the major and many of the minor grape varieties cultivated in California.

"The Wine Bible" by Karen MacNeil (Workman): Like a nicely balanced zinfandel, "The Wine Bible" is big, thick and heavy, but also congenial and fresh. MacNeil addresses virtually any wine subject you can think of with wit and smarts.

"Making Sense of California Wine" by Matt Kramer (William Morrow and Company): Kramer long ago got sold on the crucial link between place and wine, and for nearly 400 pages he shows how that association works in California, breaking down the state into its various wine regions and surveying many of its wineries.

"Vines, Grapes and Wines" by Jancis Robinson (Mitchell Beazley): Not an easy book to find - my weathered copy had to be shipped from South Africa - but it's Jancis Robinson at her most authoritative, breezing through the world's principal wine regions, defining the significance of their grape varieties in exquisite detail.

"The Science of Wine" by Jamie Goode (University of California Press): Whenever I'm stumped about a technical issue involving winemaking, something that happens so often I'm surprised the binding still holds this book together, Goode provides a readily accessible explanation.

"Wine" by Maynard A. Amerine and Vernon L. Singleton (University of California Press): First published in 1965, this may be the first wine book I ever read, and I've kept it all these years because it is so level-headed and basic. Even after all this time, it still provides a relevant grounding to understanding the craft of making wine.

One final note: Though most of these books are relatively old, most should be fairly easy to find. However, if you are looking for a new book to give an aspiring wine writer this holiday season - or any wine enthusiast, for that matter - 2010 is the vintage of the century for wine publishing; a remarkable number of original, entertaining and provocative books are available:

"Reading Between the Wines" by Terry Theise (University of California Press): Theise, a wine importer specializing in small estates and unheralded varietals like gruner veltliner, long has been recognized for his brisk and blunt assessments of the wine trade as well as wines. Here, he finally offers his entertaining views in something other than one of his catalogs.

"Matt Kramer on Wine: A Matchless Collection of Columns, Essays, and Observations by America's Most Original and Lucid Wine Writer" (Sterling Epicure): All that, and modest, too? Maybe not. But why should he be, as certainly Kramer is the country's most opinionated wine writer, provoking readers into looking at wine and the wine culture with a fresh perspective every time his column appears in The Wine Spectator, and doing it without awarding points.

"The New Connoiseurs' Guidebook to California Wine and Wineries" by Charles E. Olken and Joseph Furstenthal (University of California Press): You probably can get an app for everything that's in this book, but then your screen would be cluttered with a whole bunch of apps. Why not get all that they offer in one handy manual? And by "all that" we're talking maps, acreage, winemaking styles, critical reviews and more on nearly 500 California wineries and 130 growing areas.

"Opus Vino," edited by Jim Gordon, with contributions from 38 writers (DK): OK, so I was one of the 38 contributors, but I was paid up front, so I see no conflict of interest in now endorsing what is a strikingly handsome addition to any wine library. The scope is global, the format fetching, the content helpful. Most remarkably, for a book that is this encompassing and hefty - 7 pounds - it is right up to date, hitting that rare sweet spot where it not only is relevant now but will continue to be a valuable addition to the wine literature for years to come.

"Gold and Wine: A History of Winemaking in El Dorado County" by Eric J. Costa (El Dorado Winery Association): As he did earlier with "Old Vines: A History of Winegrowing in Amador County," foothill historian Eric Costa has picked a fine-wine region of the Mother Lode and dug deep into its viticultural and enological history to produce a scholarly yet easily readable survey. The handsome book is a rich vein of surprises, not the least of which is the introduction by Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti.

Now, if we can just get those aspiring writers to read a bit more before sitting down to their keyboard.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Napa Valley Loses Its Warmest Voice

Pam Hunter
Earlier today, I learned of the recent death of Pam Hunter, a Napa Valley publicist of extraordinary business acumen, empathy and charm. I'd just joined The Sacramento Bee as a feature writer 32 years ago when one of my early assignments took me to Napa Valley and the Yountville office of Pam Hunter. She'd just founded her agency, and I don't remember if I was working on a story about one of her clients or if she'd been mentioned as someone I should talk with for whatever project I was pursuing, given that she already was well connected in the community. Either was a possibility, and so continued our relationship over the years. She was generous with information, regardless of whether the subject was a client.

In Pam's three decades as a publicist, she and her clients prospered. She moved her office to grander quarters in St. Helena, and opened additional offices in San Francisco and New York. Her portfolio included many of the major players on the American culinary scene over the past 30 years - Michael Chiarello, Florence Fabricant, Bruce Aidells, Martha Stewart, and virtually every winery that has come to define Napa Valley. Nevertheless, she always seemed the same person she was on that day in Yountville when we both were starting to get a grip on the North State wine trade - knowing, graceful, efficent, quick to laugh.

She came from a newspaper background, so she had a pretty good inkling of what reporters might be up to. And she did her homework. She knew writers, their interests, styles and readerships, and tailored her pitches accordingly. She didn't waste your time. If a story she proposed was a longshot, she recognized that and acknowledged it, but nevertheless hoped that some seed in the wealth of information she'd gathered would germinate into a feature, or at least a brief. If it didn't, she appreciated that, too, and would move on to the next project, always remaining as gracious as she was upbeat.

More about Pam's rich, artistic and humane life can be found in this obituary posted on the website of her last business, Studio 707, a more intimate agency she created a few years ago after closing her original firm, Hunter Public Relations and Marketing. When I heard she was ailing earlier this year, I urged her to use her time recuperating to write the complete story of Napa Valley's development as a fine-wine region over the past 30 years. She knew everyone, she knew all their tales, she could provide a true insider's perspective. It would be balanced, smart, warm and, yes, provocative, but she just chuckled, indicating that some stories may be better left untold.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Murphys, Where Tasting Is A Walk In The Park

Wasn't it just a year ago when I last was in Murphys, the wine capital of Calaveras County? Maybe it was two years, at the most. Whatever the gap, much has happened in and about Murphys between visits. A new stretch of Highway 4 that bypasses Angels Camp, for one, speeding up the 100-mile drive from Sacramento by a few minutes.

Secondly, "22 or 23" winery tasting rooms now are clustered in downtown Murphys, nearly double the total a year or two ago. Locals weren't sure of the total, and we were in town just a few hours, not long enough to count them all, but "22 or 23" were consistent estimates.

Wall of Comparative Ovations, Murphys
While Murphys today is perhaps the most dynamic of the old gold camps of the Mother Lode, one attraction that remains fairly constant is the Wall of Comparative Ovations, some 80 ceramic plaques embedded in the stone of a building dating from the 1850s. The creation of E Clampus Vitus, variously described as an "historical drinking society" or a "drinking historical society," the wall commemorates people and institutions that played pivotal roles in creating the West, including John Murphy, who founded Murphys in 1848; Dr. Richard Coke Wood, a Stockton history professor and writer who the state legislature in 1969 proclaimed "Mr. California"; early coastal explorer Sir Francis Drake ("Drake was a Clamper, but not in good standing because of his propensity to be piratical," says his plaque); and Emma Nevada, "nightengale of the Comstock," who sang for Queen Victoria.

Someday, no doubt, the Clampers will add to the wall a plaque to recognize a vintner responsible for helping establish the Sierra foothills as a region for fine wine. Local candidates almost surely will be Barden Stevenot, Chuck Hovey and Gay Chatom, all of whom were early and key players in the development of the wine trade about Murphys.

Rich Gilpin, his two brands, and lavender
Another candidate would have to be Rich Gilpin, who with his wife Siri owns Lavender Ridge Vineyard. Rich Gilpin just finished his 25th harvest as a winemaker. The old rock building that houses the winery's tasting room was our first stop Saturday. The winery itself is on a sunny slope just west of Angels Camp. There, Rich Gilpin grows grapes; Siri Gilpin grows lavender. Together, they market the results of their green thumbs at the Murphys tasting room. The scent of lavender that hangs sweetly in the air will startle and perhaps upset some wine tasters, who are apt to fear that the distinctive smell of the shrub will intrude and distract from their appreciation of the aromas that the wines have to offer.

Maybe the combination is just a test by Rich Gilpin to see if his wines are as strongly aromatic as he would like them to be, able to transcend the bouquet being cast by clusters of drying lavender and the assorted oils and creams derived from them. And sure enough, they do, without exception, helped by the Reidel water glasses into which he and his counter crew pour tastes.

We were in Murphys in large part to look for possible wines for the weekly column I contribute to The Sacramento Bee. At Lavender Ridge, I came away with a month's worth of candidates, with the first most likely to be one of the two wines we bought, either the substantial Lavender Ridge Vineyard 2009 Sierra Foothills Roussanne, its sunny fruit shot through with a current of minerality, or the nimble Lavender Ridge Vineyard 2009 Sierra Foothills Grenache, possessed of the brilliant if light color, strawberry essence and overall grace of a refined pinot noir.

Complicating the prospects, however, is that the Gilpins have introduced another brand and opened a second tasting room. Coppermine is the name, and the tasting room is just off a wide curve of Highway 4 at Vallecto, a few miles outside Murphys. At Lavender Ridge, Gilpin makes only wines with grapes traditionally associated with France's Rhone Valley, like mourvedre, viognier and syrah. For Coppermine, he's making wines only with grapes commonly associated with Bordeaux, like cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

The Sierra foothills generally is seen as having enough heat and sunshine for Rhone Valley grapes to thrive, but too much for Bordeaux varieties. By searching out growers as undaunted as he is by the bad rap on Bordeaux-styled wines in the Gold Country, Gilpin is hopeful that he can at least update if not rewrite history. His first efforts to be released under the Coppermine label are nothing if not assured in their precision and proportion. While not as ripe and muscular as his Lavender Ridge wines, they aren't meant to be, showing the restraint that comes from grapes when they are grown in relatively cool sites, which Gilpin apparently has been able to find in the foothills. All were varietally distinct, especially the angular and lively Coppermine 2008 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Sauvignon, the herbal and arresting Coppermine 2008 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Franc, and the inky yet accessible Coppermine 2008 Sierra Foothills Petit Verdot.

After tasting through the Lavender Ridge and Coppermine wines, we sauntered over to the tasting room of La Folia Winery, opened a month ago by Ryan Teeter, Gilpin's assistant winemaker. Rather than Rhone Valley or Bordeaux, however, Teeter looks to Italy for hs models. His early lineup includes a rich pinot grigio, a fleshy barbera and a vibrant zinfandel, all made with grapes grown in the Sierra foothills.

Another nearby newcomer is Metate Hill Vineyards, where winemaker Michael Stange is looking to the Iberian peninsula for inspiration. Thus, his first rollout includes two blends of garnacha and carinena, one fresh and youthful, the other sweeter and smokier because of its extended time in oak barrels, and a tempranillo of unusually refreshing lift.

We also visited some of the oldtimers in Murphys, notably Twisted Oak, Frog's Tooth and Hatcher. Of all of them, just the Frog's Tooth tasting room was crowded, perhaps because it was the only one with a musician performing out front. That's apt to change, however, as word gets around that Murphys has the most concentrated and most varied array of tasting opportunities of any wine community in Northern California. Given that range, I don't think I'll be putting off for a year - or two - my next visit to the town.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Matt Kramer: Free At Last

Each afternoon, Benson Marketing Group sends me a bunch of links to (hopefully) significant wine stories. The teaser that caught my eye this afternoon read: "Free at Last! Free at Last! (Wine Spectator, by Matt Kramer) - Paid Subscription Required." My first reaction: Finally, I get to read Matt Kramer's pithy observations on wine without paying for them before they are rounded up and published as a book, even though the "paid subscription required" confused me at first.

Nonetheless, I chanced it, and was rewarded at no cost with Kramer's latest essay on the frequently wayward ways of wine culture. In this one, in short, he says that the importance of "marrying" food and wine is vastly overdrawn and perhaps even perverse. I was glad to see it, and agree wholeheartedly. I've never been comfortable with suggesting that a specific wine be served with a particular dish. There are just too many potential variables involved, from the limitless ways in which a dish can be prepared, even a classic and supposedly codified dish, to the endless spectrum of individual tastes.

Then, you might fairly ask, why do I routinely ask winemakers to tell me what their favorite dish is to accompany the wine I'm writing about. Secretly, I'm hoping they will let down their guard, and tell me candidly about how they really enjoy a particular wine. The more interesting responses have ranged from "hot-tub time" and popcorn to burgers "without the rabbit food." By and large, however, when the question is popped I can hear the wheels whirling in their head as they try to remember what they are supposed to say when someone asks what food should be served with their cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel or chardonnay. You can almost hear the pages flipping through the index of some food-and-wine-pairing book as they search for an answer that won't embarass them.

But back to the original question: I ask because I'd like to put the wine in some sort of context, however casual and relaxed. What the winemaker says shouldn't be taken as gospel, but simply as a rough and personal guide to how the wine might best be enjoyed. I hope readers take it in that spirit. With whatever wine they select they should let their own tastes and experiences decide how they enjoy a pairing.

That said, I have a couple of quibbles with Kramer's observations. For one, he blames the French for this obsession with food-and-wine pairing. Historically, he may be correct, but based on anecdotal experience from recent visits to Burgundy and Bordeaux I have to say that the French approach to pairing food and wine today is more relaxed than rigid. They like to explore, and seem more intent on learning what their guests have to say about how well a wine goes with a dish than imposing their own expectactions. I saw absolutely no quibbling about whether this or that wine was a fitting complement for this or that dish. True, in both France and Italy - and the same may be true for Spain, Romania, Argentina, California and elsewhere -  local customs and pride generally determine the matching of food and wine, thus helping explain why we are expected to think that only certain types of wine should be poured with certain types of food. But the global economy is doing away with those sorts of restraints, and a more expansive and embracing awarness of what to eat with what wine looks to be taking hold. In other words, if you are working on a book about pairing food and wine, better hurry up and get it into print before it is even more hopelessly outdated.

Secondly, while Kramer introduces a new maxim to succeed the tired old "white wine with white food, red wine with red food" principle - he suggests that "good wines can work wonderfully with any food that is remotely plausible for the wine" - he then backtracks. He adds: "Obviously you don’t want to serve some massive Napa Valley Cabernet with your Dover sole." Probably not. But what if that Napa cabernet sauvignon weren't massive, at least to the palate of the beholder? What if it were lean, elegant and restrained? And what if the Dover sole were punched up rather than prepared with customary constraint? Why is bacon pushing its way into my imagined dish? And if it were there, might not the pairing work? And wouldn't then we be back to Kramer's first principle, that a good wine just might work wonderfully with an unconventional dish, however remotely plausible?

As Harvey Steiman, who also writes for the Wine Spectator, says in the comments following Kramer's piece: "The moral of the story is not to let some arbitrary rules spoil your fun. If you like a wine, drink it with food you enjoy."

And with that, I think I'll grab a glass of Vin Santo and see how the Sacramento Kings are doing. Talk about conflicted pairings.

Fast Route To The Soul Of Burgundy

Jeanne Marie de Champs and a few of her Burgundy wines
Jeanne Marie de Champs holds the key to the cellar door. It's a small key, but it easily opens the way for wine enthusiasts to discover the perplexing yet enthralling world of Burgundy.

In theory, Burgundian wines should be the easiest on the planet to grasp. By and large, there are just two of them, a white made from the green grape chardonnay and a red made from the black grape pinot noir. Sure, variations in terroir and vintage, as well as the aesthetic goals of individual winemakers, complicate the wines with a rich range of interpretations.

On top of that, there's Burgundy's intricate network of appellations, the fractured ownership of vineyards, and its ancient and elaborate system of nomenclature, all of which give the Burgundian wine label a wealth of information for those who have the time and patience to master it.

For those who don't, there's Jeanne Marie de Champs and her key, a tiny and finely drawn family crest alongside the words "Shipped By: Jeanne Marie de Champs, Beaune," which appear on the back label of each bottle of Burgundian wine she sends to the United States and elsewhere.

In tasting through 30 of her current releases a couple of weeks ago, I came to look upon that simple crest as the guarantee of character and value that the front labels in all their tradition and busyness strive to assure.

As a wine merchant, Jeanne Marie de Champs breaks from the historic Burgundian mold. She isn't a grower, winemaker or negotiant. She's a kind of broker, exporter and distributor, but not in any customary sense. Her quarters aren't in one of Beaune's medieval stone structures or in the dark and musty caves that snake under the city. Instead, she occupies a bright, spacious and abidingly practical and modern warehouse in a small industrial park on the outskirts of Beaune. She's created a singular niche for her business, which she calls Domaines et Saveurs Collection.

Her business plan is as contemporary and direct as her office: She finds wines she likes, buys them and then resells them in her many export markets. She doesn't represent estates so much as she represents her own astute palate, whose tastebuds run to wines profound in their clarity and symmetry. She seeks fruit and elegance, and settles for nothing less than those expressions at their most vocal and harmonious. Other than that, no single thread ties her wines together.

"I look for good farmers, mostly in Burgundy, mostly organic, who use natural yeast to get the terroir, with the wines non-fined and non-filtered," she explains at the outset of the tasting. She buys from some 70 growers, selling about 800,000 bottles yearly in the United States alone.

Without digging into a file cabinet or calling up technical sheets on a computer screen, she easily recalls the detailed pedigree of virtually every wine she opens. "This vineyard is in the middle of nowhere, all the musque clone of chardonnay, with the vines on their own roots, not grafted. This wine would be great with sole or bass," she remarks of the rich yet minerally Domaine Bart 2009 Les Favieres Marsannay. "Acidity was very high in 2008. As baby wines they are good for your cheese," she says of the Chateau de la Maltroye 2008 La Dent de Chien Premier Cru Chassagne-Montrachet. "This grower brings in 50 pickers so he can harvest his grapes in less than two hours and sort the fruit in the vineyard, avoiding oxidation and rot," she remarks over tastes of the jammy and complex Chateau de la Maltroye 2008 Santenay La Comme.

When she isn't pulling a cork or pouring a wine, she's apt to be dashing to a large and exact map of Burgundy on one wall, showing the precise site or sites that yielded the grapes that produced the wine being tasted. She believes in terroir, indicating that a wine first should reflect the nature of the source of the grapes. So eager is she to draw the connection between site and wine that she often includes on the back label of her wines a map to show the precise location of the vineyard that produced the grapes for the wine in the bottle.

She's been in the wine trade since 1983, when she joined her husband in a wine-distribution business he'd started in 1972. In 1993, she went out on her own, creating Domaines et Saveurs Collection. Her daughters were 8 and 6 at the time, and while she could have gone to work for any number of distributors or importers she didn't want to be away from home much. She figured that having her own business would give her the latitude to set her own schedule. "When you work for a big company you are on the street a lot, too much for someone with little kids."

Her own company has become fairly substantial by now, and she's on the road frequently, including trips to the United States. She enjoys dealing with Americans - "Americans want excellence. They are open and looking for new things. That's what I love about America," she says. While in California, she indulges her affection for zinfandel. "Nobody understands why I love zinfandel. It's different. It ages well, and when old can be rich and complex. I just love good wines," she remarks. "Zinfandel has its own personality and structure." She's mystified that not even many Californians are as infatuated with zinfandel.

As we taste through the wines, she offers frank and concise commentary on a range of matters:

- Of the organic farming of wine grapes in Burgundy, she says it is widespread, but not many farmers seek to get their vineyards officially certified as organic. Mildew and rot are major concerns among growers, so they want to be free to use whatever methods are available to deal with it should the need arise, and not all those methods are organically sanctioned.

- Of mixed early reaction to the quality of the 2010 wines in Burgundy, she calls the vintage "very difficult," with poor flowering in the spring and cool and damp weather in the early fall resulting in a small crop whose nature is likely to vary sharply from grower to grower. "You had to be a very good farmer this year," she says.

- Of the emerging wine market in China, and the early preference among Chinese for the wines of  arch-rival Bordeaux over Burgundy, she notes that Bordeaux produces much more inexpensive wine than Burgundy, with low prices rather than stature accounting for the disparity in popularity.

Through the tasting, the individuality of her wines seemed to become more pronounced as another cork was pulled. Each had something to say, and said it with assurance. The lip-smacking Paul Pernot 2008 Premier Cru Clos de la Garenne Puligny-Montrachet was almost feral in its attack, richness, grip and length, coming off much more complex and brazen than how a white wine customarily reveals itself. All on its own, the Domaine Gabriel Billard 2008 Pommard Premier Cru Les Charmots, from vines more than 75 years old, in a vineyard still plowed only with horses to better aerate and enrich the soil, defined the seductive charm of Burgundy, its color light but its smell and flavor deep and dense, ranging from mushrooms and truffles to the sunny fruitiness of wild strawberries at their summer peak. The Domaine Francois Lamarche 2003 Vosnee-Romanee La Croix Rameau was a veritable galaxy yet to be discovered by a long-distance spacecraft, ever expanding in its smell and flavor, from the lightness of delicate wildflowers to the mystery and grandeur of some gothic monument, draped with history and tradition.

More power to anyone who wants to study and learn Burgundy's involved hierarchy and history as outlined on its labels, but for a shortcut to character and value, turn that bottle around and look for the crest of Jeanne Marie de Champs.

Monday, December 6, 2010

In Amador, Striking New Winery Turns Heads

Our destination was the foothill winery C.G. di Arie, where owners Chaim and Elisheva Gur-Arieh were introducing three new dessert wines based on traditional Portuguese grape varieties and traditions. Going and coming, however, we got distracted:

Andis Winery, Shenandoah Valley
- Midway through Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, the soaring new Andis Winery caught our eye. In an enclave where winery architecture usually runs to weathered barns, Tuscan villas and steel sheds, Andis stands out for its sheer mass and thrusting edginess. Despite its size - nearly 17,000 square feet - and its stark modern lines, the building doesn't so much dominate its surroundings as float from the low hill on which it perches, overlooking Shenandoah Road. Gnarled old head-pruned wines roll roll from its base, their black trunks contrasting with the building's blue, silver and misty-dawn color scheme. Built of prefabricated metal with spreading canopy overhangs that accentuate its proud scale, the building was designed by Sage Architecture of Sacramento to be energy efficient, low maintenance and practical in application. Early reviews haven't been kind, likening the structure to "Ford service center," "aircraft hangar" and "car wash," to judge from comments in neighboring tasting rooms. Perhaps that's to be expected in an area where winery design up to now has been modest in both size and attitude. In time, visitors and locals alike just may come to appreciate the environmental awareness and the confidence in the local wine trade that the building represents, as well as its sleek look and airy feeling.

We stepped inside to find a tasting room high and bright, with panoramic views of adjoining vineyards. The owners, Andy and Janis Friedlander (Andis, for short), weren't around, though two other key players were, winemaker Mark McKenna, who has been making wine at nearby Bray Vineyards, and tasting-room manager Ruthie McRonald, formerly of Bogle Vineyards at Clarksburg.

Construction of Andis went fast, starting in May and finishing in time for this year's harvest. But planning had been under way for years, with the first couple of vintages processed by McKenna at Bray. Andis has room to produce 20,000 cases a year, but is starting out with 6,000. They include the usual foothill suspects - zinfandel, petite sirah, barbera - made in a style relatively restrained for the area, with oak, tannin and alcohol all held in check. The most alluring wine in the inaugural lineup is an assertive, meaty and persistent grenache, its ripe fruit handled in such a way to retain a youthful buoyancy.

Andis had been open just a week and a day when we stopped by Saturday. As it gets its feet, the hours for its tasting room may change, explained McRonald, though for right now they are 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Friday through Monday.

- Much to our surprise, one large vineyard that Andis overlooks appears to never have been harvested this fall, as clusters of fat black grapes continue to hang heavy and exposed while leaves fall away and periodic rains arrive. This was one of two substantial vineyards we saw Saturday that hadn't been picked, and at this late date aren't likely to be. What's going on? No vintner or tasting-room personnel we ran into could say. One speculated that the owner of one of the vineyards may be planning a late-harvest wine, but that seemed more hopeful thinking than likely possibility. Others speculated that the growers never got contracts for this year's grapes, or couldn't come up with the financing to hire a harvest crew. At any rate, big vineyards unharvested well into December don't speak well of the Shenandoah Valley wine trade, but maybe they're just coincidental and fleeting blips that say more of individual fortunes or the lagging overall economy than they do of the quality of the area's grapes and wines. At any rate, an unharvested vineyard is distressing, unless, of course, the farmer is hoping to eventually make an ice wine.

- And speaking of ice wines, when we stopped by the nearby Charles Spinetta Winery we tasted the first local wine from this year's harvest. No, it actually isn't an ice wine, but close. Charles Spinetta labels it "Frost Wine." He sets aside a portion of his chenin blanc and lets it ripen as long as he can, right through a couple of nights of light frost, harvesting just before a severe freeze or the first heavy rains of autumn. His aim is to grab the grapes at prime ripeness, when they're loaded with sugar, hoping for a wine sweetly sunny. He doesn't pull it off every year. Indeed, the Charles Spinetta Winery 2010 Amador Chenin Blanc Frost Wine ($15 per 375-milliliter bottle) is the first of this style that he's made in seven years. If rains or a freeze don't get to the grapes before he does, birds are apt to. "The birds just love it," says Spinetta. What's not to like? The wine is all about spring and summer, its smell floral, its soft and sweet flavor suggesting peaches and apricots. With just 7.5 percent alcohol and 20 percent residual sugar, it's easy to sip in place of dessert after a holiday feast. If you stop by the winery, just look for the bottle with the bright Mandarin wood ducks on the label.

- At C.G. di Arie Winery we indulged our sweet tooth even more by tasting through the three new port-style wines, marketed under the label Kelson Creek, which the Gur-Ariehs bought a few years ago, in part to give themselves a more accessible tasting room in the Shenandoah Valley, in part to allow them to continue to designate their dessert wines as "Port." At any rate, while the Kelson Creek 2008 Vintage Port is intense and long ($25 per 375-milliliter bottle) and the Kelson Creek Ruby Port is fresh and spicy, with candied red fruit ($25 per 375-milliliter bottle), my favorite was the complex yet readily accessible Kelson Creek Tawny Port, all holiday spices, caramel and nuts ($30 per 375-milliliter bottle). A glass of that, a good book and a night when a blaze is permitted in the fireplace is all I need for a cold and wet winter night to pass quickly.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Curious About German Riesling? Grab It Now

While I was shopping at Corti Brothers this afternoon, Darrell Corti showed me a report he'd just received concerning this fall's wine-grape harvest in Germany. If you are a longtime fan of riesling, or if you've just jumped aboard the riesling bandwagon that's been gaining traction, the report is distressing. In short, 2010 wasn't a kind growing year for German farmers.

An unsteady spring with uneven flowering was followed by hailstorms in June and July and unusually cold and steady rains in August and September. While some areas were less affected than others, yields overall were down between 30 percent and 40 percent generally, writes Ulrich Langguth of the MO-RHE-NA Wine Export Association, which represents nearly 20 estates in such regions as the Mosel, Rheingau and Pfalz. A cooperative near Heidelberg reported its smallest yield in 30 years. An estate in the Pfalz reported its lowest yield in a quarter of a century.

Langguth's report indicates that kabinett wines customarily sold in supermarkets will be most adversely affected by the shortfall, with prices possibly leaping 60 percent. Estate wines of spatlese, auslese and other categories will see less impact, with prices expected to climb only about 5 percent. While the riesling production tended to display unusually high acidity because of nights that were exceptionally cold, the overall quality of the vintage is expected to be fine, with plentiful fruit, solid structure and appealing mineral tones, suggests Langguth. There's just going to be a lot less riesling, especially at prices that have been attracting consumers curious about the buzz that the varietal is generating. Bottom line: Grab those starter rieslings now.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Yes, Wine Has A Place At The Asian Table

News to me: Bogle Vineyards at Clarksburg in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta makes a sparkling wine. They don't make it ofen (just in odd-numbered years) and they don't make much (around 200 cases), but the latest version, the 2009, is available now, just in time for year-end soirees. What consumers get is a full-bodied yet sharp Blanc de Blanc made entirely from chardonnay grown about Clarksburg. It's vibrant, clean and dry, tilting toward suggestions of apple and pear. It's made largely for members of the winery's wine club, but visitors to Bogle's tasting room can pick up a bottle for $25.

I learned of the Bogle bubbly last night, when it was poured into flutes to welcome guests to a winemaker dinner at the Sacramento restaurant Lemon Grass. As winemaker dinners go, this was unusually relaxed and convivial, even before any of the six wines other than the sparkling wine were poured. Guests generally were seated about half a dozen to each table, and service was family style. The extensive menu was a mix of dishes that ranged from such Lemon Grass staples as green papaya salad with grilled lemongrass prawns (worked with both Bogle's zinfandel and its riesling) to examples of the Asian street food that owner Mai Pham will introduce at her new restaurant, Star Ginger, such as crispy samosa-like dumplings filled with potato and spiced with a chutney of coconut and coriander (again, the riesling was my wine of choice).

Mai Pham, celebrated largely for her Vietnamese and Thai cooking, is branching out at both Lemon Grass and Star Ginger to embrace other styles of Asian cooking. Two of the night's more memorable dishes, in fact, were from cuisines beyond Vietnam and Thailand. One was the sweet Chinese-inspired "laughing buns" of Kurobuta pork with a five-spice hoisin sauce (riesling, sauvignon blanc), the other juicy and robust Korean-inspired barbecued steak with a fiery Gochujang dip and rather mellow kim chi (petite sirah).

Star Ginger, incidentally, is rising in a former Togo's sandwich shop at Alhambra and Folsom boulevards on the western edge of East Sacramento. Mai Pham is intent on opening it in January.