Book Review: “New Classic Winemakers of California” by Steve Heimoff

America’s growing fascination with wine has fueled an increasing interest in all sorts of topics that might’ve seemed superfluous only 10 years ago. Just consult a set of wine notes from the average Napa Valley winery, and you’ll discover data relating to everything from barrels to brix, to pH levels, to harvest dates, to clonal selections. In any area of interest, the true enthusiast will always embrace the minute details, whether that topic is wine, baseball statistics, or Star Trek episodes. But I will say one thing about some of these oenological facts and figures: if you’ve taken a genuine interest in the pH level of the wine you’re swirling, then you’re more than just a wine drinker — you’re pretty far gone.

Of course, many people never concern themselves with any of the technical aspects of winemaking. I feel that to some extent, ignorance is bliss, especially when wine can be appreciated without some requisite evaluation. But for those folks who cannot drink wine without dissecting it, without trying to guess the percentage of malolactic fermentation in Chardonnays, or without sniffing for hints of Cabernet Franc in a classic Bordeaux blend, then Steve Heimoff’s “New Classic Winemakers of California” offers some revealing and insightful interviews.

In many ways, “New Classic Winemakers” presents a fairly current state-of-the-union for California’s fine wine industry. Along the way, Heimoff addresses several hot-button topics during his interviews, including wine’s recent rise in alcohol level, a phenomenon that is sometimes justified, but rarely embraced. To his credit, Heimoff also inquires about removing alcohol after-the-fact, which is one the wine industry’s dirty little secrets (google “spinning cone column” to learn what no winemaker would personally care to admit). Of course, Heimoff does not elicit any scandalous confessions in his book, but at least the author has the gumption to address the issue.

Even in the modern age, discussions with winemakers are also bound to contain some heavy doses of philosophy, and Heimoff succeeds in drawing out some cerebral discussions of terroir, which help to strike a balance with the technical digressions. Even so, “New Classic Winemakers” is definitely geared towards a niche audience, and therefore my recommendation is astonishingly simple: If you recognize the names of some of the winemakers in this book, then there’s a good chance that its contents may interest you.

Book Review: “The United States of Arugula” by David Kamp

During my first six weeks of culinary school, I spent many afternoons trolling the campus storeroom, trying to learn the differences between things like ginger and galangal or radicchio and red cabbage. The sheer inventory of the CIA storeroom was impressive: A veritable dungeon, it was stocked with foodstuffs ranging from the exotic to the mundane, all of which would become the raw-food materials for 18 different kitchen-classrooms on campus. As new culinary students, we were expected to visit the storeroom as part of a class called Product Knowledge (the class final itself — a line-up of about two dozen fruits and vegetables — would be culled from the storeroom’s very shelves).

One of the most challenging tasks was to identify the litany of salad greens in the walk-in: mache, shiso, watercress, mizuna, mustard, little gem, frisée, arugula. Depending on how far someone had lived from a decent farmers market, many of these items could have been completely unknown to some students. Fortunately for me, I did have the benefit of growing up in California, so I at least had some basic familiarity with things like arugula and frisée. However, some of the other greens were more esoteric, and they demanded closer attention.

After I finished chef school — just 21 months later — I hastened my retreat to the Napa Valley, where the produce became even more dynamic (light years beyond Hyde Park, in truth). Once back in California, I landed a job at Auberge du Soleil, whose easy-going kitchen manager ordered the very best produce with free-wheeling abandon. It was an eye-opener: Auberge would have every type of heirloom tomato, every type of wild mushroom, every type of whatever-was-seasonal.

In keeping with trends, Auberge naturally embraced microgreens, those barely-sprouted versions of common plants like arugula, spinach or beets (the bull’s blood beets were the best). Amazingly, I had onbly seen microgreens once or twice in chef school, where they were presented mostly as a curiosity (in a small, plastic clamshell container, no less). In contrast, microgreens were one of the de riguer garnishes at Auberge du Soleil, where we carefully snipped them from large nursery flats every afternoon just before service.

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Over the years, it’s occurred to me that in its basic, fully-mature form, arugula has fast become the iceberg lettuce of today: somewhat quaint in its ubiquity, an all-too-common garnish for a grilled chicken-breast sandwich (granted, arugula is far more nutritious than iceberg lettuce, which is nice). Yet, I can clearly remember a time when, not too long ago, arugula had plenty of novelty and cache, even here in California. Servers always used to describe arugula as “peppery” to those who inquired about it — these days, no one even has to ask anymore, do they?

In “The United States of Arugula,” David Kamp happens to use this leafy green as his metaphor, documenting America’s remarkable gastronomic shift over the last 70 years. The book explores our sociology to a large extent, drawing clear connections between our increased industrialization and our tendency to relegate eating as a necessity more than a pleasure. “The United States of Arugula” pinpoints where we had gone wrong and what ultimately inspired our steps in the right direction.

Kamp begins his food history at the very beginning, when pizza and sushi were still relative unknowns, long before they earned “comfort food” status here in America. The book follows the early days on the East Coast, when the “Big Three” of American cuisine — James Beard, Juila Child and Craig Claiborne — became the nation’s taste-makers. Naturally, during the latter half of the book, the focus shifts to the West Coast, with a detailed and frank history of Alice Waters and the many Chez Panisse alumni.

For the food enthusiast, “The United States of Arugula” is resplendent with entertaining footnotes, and Kamp has clearly researched his topic thoroughly. Originally published in 2006, the book touches upon the recent rise of the Food Network, as well as the recent trend towards “franchising” in Las Vegas. In many ways, “The United States of Arugula” is yin to the yang of Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” — while the latter book reveals how food in America has gone awry, the former book illustrates a few of those things that have gone well.

Book Review: “Noble Rot” by William Echikson

The term “noble rot” has long been a secret handshake among wine connoisseurs, an English translation of the French pourriture noble, or what biologists would officially call “botrytis” (and even more officially, Botrytis cinerea). At its essence, “noble rot” is a benevolent fungus, critical to the production of many of the world’s top late-harvest wines. Botrytis appears in the fall — with the onset of humidity in the vineyard — helping to concentrate the sugar levels in the grapes as it facilitates dehydration. For this reason, the words “noble rot” are often synonymous with the Bordeaux region of Sauternes, the legendary home of the world’s most expensive dessert wines.

Given its title, one might assume that “Noble Rot” is limited to the realm of Sauternes, but William Echikson’s book actually provides a survey of the entire Bordeaux region, from the upstart garagistes to the most famous chateaux. Echikson presents a revealing portrait of the region, which has only recently begun to feel the effects of the globalization of wine. These changes have ushered in a new era of modernity in Bordeaux, creating a growing niche for high-priced winemaking consultants, as well as a new market for French cult wines.

With the advent of globalization, “Noble Rot” also examines the recent American influence in Bordeaux, especially that of übercritic Robert Parker, who established his reputation with the legendary 1982 vintage, and who has continued to influence tastes on both sides of the Atlantic. Depending upon whom you ask, Parker is equal parts hero and villain in Bordeaux, although the region itself features plenty of its own home-grown controversy. In some cases, this controversy has garnered a public forum, and “Noble Rot” also details the region’s most infamous family feud, a bitter legal battle that lead to MHLV’s hostile purchase of the legendary Chateau D’Yquem in 1996. Among this recent context of courtrooms and multimillion dollar lawsuits, the term “noble rot” certainly assumes a whole new meaning today.

SFNV Event Recap: “A Tail of 2 Pigs” @ CIA Greystone, April 3rd

In April, Slow Food Napa Valley hosted its first event of 2011, “A Tail of 2 Pigs,” at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone. Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of  “Righteous Porkchop” was the guest speaker at the potluck event. If you missed it, the turn-out was fantastic (thank you for your support). And yes, the food and wine was clearly abundant. Click on any photo for a full-screen view.

Nicolette Hahn Niman (far right) discusses her book, "Righteous Porkchop."

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Yes, please.

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Slow Food Napa Valley board members Michael and Debbie Fradelizio.

Book Review: “Righteous Porkchop” by Nicolette Hahn Niman

Factory farming continues to be the norm for animal production in this country despite its obvious shortfalls. This exists, only because there are not enough people aware of the problem to generate the outrage that will one day be heard. “Righteous Porkchop” is Nicolette Hahn Niman’s memoir about that very topic.

How could I not be intrigued, she is or has been a lawyer, animal rights activist, vegetarian and cattle rancher. In an arena where many well-researched texts list so many facts and statistics, hers is a refreshingly clever and witty love story that also tells a grim tale of animal cruelty above all else.

Beginning with the poultry industry, Niman paints a picture of torturous conditions for animals, externalized costs of environmental abuses, worker conditions in factory farms, and the affects on communities. She then proceeds with similar stories of hog farms, dairy farms, beef cattle ranches, and even fish farms. Her ability to weave personal narrative into an otherwise depressing tale is what makes the book unique.

Through her diligence working with Robert Kennedy at the New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance to her most unlikely romance with rancher Bill Niman, she gains insight into the world of meat production and CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). Armed with this new found knowledge, Niman steers the story toward a personable discussion of what animal husbandry should be. Using several modern examples of farmers bringing animal welfare and sustainability to the forefront of their businesses, she closes with a practical guide to buying meat and animal products.

“Righteous Porkchop” will leave readers empowered to make more sustainable choices, a little pissed off at the current state of our industrial food system, a little leery of our government leaders shaping these policies, and a lot entertained.

Book Review: “The Natural Cuisine of Georges Blanc”

While killing some time between meals the other day, I finally turned up a copy of “The Natural Cuisine of Georges Blanc” at a used bookstore in Berkeley. It was a nice find, and one of the best discoveries that I’ve recently made “in the field” (as opposed to trolling eBay for such an item). Originally published in 1987 — just six years after the eponymous author earned his third Michelin star — “Natural Cuisine” earns its stripes for its lavish photography, with the pictures outnumbering the recipes by almost three to one. Although long out of print, the book remains a prescient example of the cookbook-as-coffee-table-book concept, an approach to food-related publishing that has become increasingly popular over the last 25 years. In the case of Blanc’s “Natural Cuisine,” however, the photography itself is rather straight-forward, although maybe that’s actually for the best: Blanc’s classic geometric designs and vivid color contrasts ensure that his plates will shine on their own artistic merit, no outside assistance necessary. Here’s a taste (photography by Christopher Barker):

Zuchini Flans with Sliced Zucchini and Salmon Cream

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Pineapple with Raspberry and Kiwi Sauces and Pineapple Sorbet

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Sauteed Eggplant and Baked Whiting in a Butter Sauce

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Tomato, Red Pepper and Olive Tart

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Pineapple Fritters with Macerated Kiwi Fruit

Book Review: “To Cork or Not to Cork” by George Taber

In his book “To Cork or Not to Cork,” author George Taber devotes 265 pages to bottle closures, a fact in itself that demonstrates at least one universal truth: that wine aficionados are an odd, yet passionate lot. After all, who else would read an entire book on this particular subject? Even wine guru Karen MacNeil, who contributed the foreward to the text, was at first a bit skeptical, and for very good reason. An entire book dedicated to the cork-versus-screw cap debate? Honestly, I sometimes feel that wine aficionados must be the Trekkies of the culinary world.

Admittedly, I had been looking forward to reading “To Cork or Not to Cork” ever since I learned of its release last year (which says an awful lot about me, I suppose). Taber’s previous work, 2006′s “The Judgment of Paris,” was a terrific book, and I felt that the cork-versus-screw cap debate had rarely ever been addressed in depth and without bias. I approached “To Cork or Not to Cork” with the hope that I would be able to discern, once and for all, which side was correct, and which statistics I should ultimately believe. Of course, nothing that has been debated for this long can ever be that simple.

The debate, being as heated as ever, could easily continue to play out for decades; but even though Taber does not provide his readers with all of the answers, he certainly provides every single bit of evidence along the way. And while casual wine drinkers may not particularly care about the difference between a “technical cork” and an “agglomerated cork” (or, for that matter, an “extruded cork” and a “molded cork”), the first chapter of the book does provide a wonderfully concise overview of traditional cork production and its long-standing connection to fine wine.

I would be delusional, however, if I claimed that the remainder of “To Cork or Not to Cork” is geared towards anyone but the true wine aficionado (in which case, Taber’s book is most definitely required reading). I must admit that this situation is a bit ironic in some ways, since even the most novice wine drinkers can easily appreciate some of the main issues behind the cork-versus-screw cap debate. In particular, one major angle of the controversy — tradition versus innovation — is extremely simple to grasp, regardless of one’s level of wine knowledge.

But even though some of these core cultural issues are certainly approachable, the actual science behind this debate remains far too heady for the casual observer. Who, besides the most devoted wine drinkers, really cares about the villainous chemical compound TCA (otherwise known as “cork taint,” and also at the heart of the controversy)? To take this question even one step further, who besides an experienced wine drinker can readily identify TCA? Quite frankly, “To Cork or Not to Cork” is a book aimed only at those of us who are already too far gone, Spock ears and all.

Slow Food Napa Valley: The 3rd Annual Harvest Dinner @ Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park

The dining room...

The dining room at Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park

I spent Saturday evening at the Third Annual Harvest Dinner at the Bale Grist Mill, hosted in conjunction with Slow Food Napa Valley and the Silverado Brewing Company. The event was held to raise money for the mill, which was originally constructed in 1846, and is the only operating mill of its kind west of the Rocky Mountains. The majority of the feast was provided by Number Fourteen, a delicious American mulefoot hog raised locally by chef Michael Fradelizio of the Silverado BrewCo.

Number Fourteen enjoyed an amazing diet of local fallen fruits, spent grains from the SBC, and all sorts of other organically-sourced tidbits (including a “California” brownie to put him at ease on his last day). Through patience and diligence, Number Fourteen grew to become a prodigiously large swine, yielding enough tasty marbled flesh to feed 165 guests at the Bale Grist Mill Dinner. Of course, Number Fourteen appeared in many forms at the country buffet, ranging from pâté to ribs to pulled leg meat (the menu scan posted below lists the accoutrements).

Mulefoot hogs, claimed by many to be the best tasting pigs in America, are the rarest of American swine breeds. Although eating an animal that is facing extinction may sound counter-intuitive, Number Fourteen was raised specifically for this event, and was part of a porcine lineage dedicated to keeping this particular breed alive (if I remember correctly, Number Fourteen is survived by three family members at Fradelizio’s Beer Belly Farms). With the help of this event, the American mulefoot has an improved chance of survival.

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Naturally, there was plenty of beer and wine at the Bale Mill Harvest Dinner, and my favorite wine of the night was the 2006 On the Edge Charbono, which featured a terrific dark fruit profile with an inherent sweetness. I have mentioned Charbono before, in my tasting notes from Summers Estate, but I didn’t realize that the grape itself has its own Slow Food connections, being listed on Slow Food’s U.S. Ark of Taste (along with the American mulefoot hog, of course). Given its rarity, Charbono is difficult to find, but well worth the search.

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All the pork you can eat, and then some.

All the pork you can eat, and then some

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Detail: The old Bale Grist MIll waterwheel

Detail: The old Bale Grist Mill's 36-foot water wheel

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The Pit: One delicious mule foot pig, deconstructed

Number Fourteen: One delicious American mulefoot pig, deconstructed and smoked

Book Review: “BioDynamic Wine, Demystified” by Nicolas Joly

As the former employee of a BioDynamic winery, I’ve had dozens of opportunities to promote the theories of BioDynamic farming. Unfortunately, the vagaries of BioDynamics are founded upon some very challenging ideas. For this reason, and despite my rhetoric on the subject, I feel that the BioDynamic movement remains largely misunderstood. At worst, BioDynamics is labeled as mere superstition. And while this dismissal is entirely unfair, I will admit that the underlying principles of BioDynamics are indeed strange and esoteric. I will also admit that, honestly, I don’t even understand many of the theories that surround BioDynamics — some appear intuitive, while others seem outlandish.

With its roots in cosmic energies, BioDynamics must seem like a big step backwards to many, a movement away from the hard realities of scientific fact and investigation. Inevitably, any deep discussion of BioDynamics requires an explanation of such things as planetary cycles and constellatory alignments. At this point, once the conversation turns cosmic, most people begin to roll their eyes, which is why I rarely ever delved into the real, core principles of BioDynamic farming. Before long, my dumbed-down explanation of BioDynamics became: “BioDynamic farming is basically über-organic farming.” And that was it.

But even though this statement is both true and easy to grasp, there is clearly much more to BioDynamics than the simple tenets of organic farming. Unfortunately, I’m not going to launch into my own explanation here. After all, in spite my own reading and research, I am still largely baffled by much of the “science” behind BioDynamics. When it comes to this growing agricultural movement — even though I’ve definitely been sipping the Kool-Aid — I still only half get it. As a result, having recently finished “BioDynamic Wine, Demystified” by Nicolas Joly, I cannot say that the book’s title is entirely accurate.

Of course, I never expected “BioDynamic Wine, Demystified” to answer all of my BioDynamic questions. At just 150 pages, this essay could really only scratch the surface, with Joly himself deflecting many of the specific explanations to his bibliographical sources (another reason why I don’t dare offer my own take on the subject). Often, the book must be taken with a significant grain of salt, as many unfounded statements are offered as fact. Ultimately, too many of these statements may coalesce into doubts for the reader, spawning more and more questions along the way.

In all fairness, “BioDynamic Wine, Demystified” does deepen one’s understanding of BioDynamic farming, even though it fails to offer any satisfying explanations. Instead, it offers a philosophy of farming, complete with a heady world view. Nonetheless, practicing BioDynamics does appear to have its merits, especially considering its strict rules against pesticides and other chemicals (BioDynamic farming is far more regulated than any form of organic farming). I have also heard many first-hand accounts about the successful results of BioDynamic farming, so I realize that the empirical evidence does exist. However, the actual science behind BioDynamics remains a large gray area: I certainly acknowledge the theories and the results, but the cause-and-effect connection between the two is still shrouded in archaic farming traditions.

As it is, “BioDynamic Wine, Demystified” will not be the last book that I consult on this particular topic. I am still searching for any book that can align some truly scientific data with this uniquely metaphysical approach to farming. At this point, I suspect that such a text may not even exist. Until then, books such as these can only be as convincing as the actual science behind them.

Book Review: “The Taste of Place” by Amy Trubek

If you were a wine drinker 10 years ago, successfully naming five of the red Bordeaux varietals was enough to establish your wine-drinking credibility. Twenty years ago, this may have qualified you as an expert. Of course, back in the heyday of Hearty Burgundy, times were much simpler. These days, as wine has gained popularity in the United States, the stakes have increased dramatically. To a certain extent, the French word terroir seems to have become the American wine drinker’s buzzword of the moment — perhaps the secret handshake for some — as U.S. consumers attempt to develop and demonstrate their oenological knowledge.

In many instances, mentioning terroir almost smacks of elitism, as if uttering a bit of French might invoke some sort of Old World insight. But as much as I would enjoy taking the term terroir to task, there is no denying that this concept has a profound significance in relation to wine. From the American perspective, the word terroir is usually a convenient, one-word synonym for “soil and climate,” since these two factors seem to exert the greatest influence on a wine’s sense of origin. But while these two attributes are certainly key components of terroir, the actual French meaning of the word transcends these two physical elements. As Amy Trubek points out in her terrific book, “The Taste of Place,” the true nature of terroir is embedded deep within French culture itself.

Trubek begins her book from the French perspective, illustrating the ways that terroir can provide a nostalgic connection to France’s past. In this era of increased industrialization, Trubek argues that nostalgia trades at an all-time premium, and that the French take extreme pride in their culinary traditions. Trubek describes France’s idealized notion of the peasant farmer, an iconic symbol which — in 2008 — mostly exists within the French national conscience. But even though the peasant farmer has already become a quaint anachronism, France continues to embrace its agrarian roots: eating well remains a hallmark of the French identity, and as a result, terroir encompasses culinary traditions as much as it encompasses taste.

Beyond the early chapters, Trubek ultimately shifts her focus to the United States, detailing many aspects of our own culinary history. Although we do not have the time-honored culinary traditions that can match those of our French counterparts, Trubek does argue that the United States is developing its own culinary practices and ideals. “A Taste of Place” explores many facets of the American culinary landscape, including a spotlight on Bonny Doon winemaker Randall Grahm and a history of the farmer’s market in the San Francisco Ferry Plaza. After her foray into California, Trubek continues east throughout her book, highlighting chef Odessa Piper in Wisconsin, and finally ending up with a history of the Vermont Fresh Network.

As an overview, “A Taste of Place” proves extremely insightful. To her credit, Trubek only uses California as her point of introduction, quickly expanding her focus to the national level. Along the way, “A Taste of Place” fleshes out the complete meaning of terroir, placing it within a uniquely American perspective, and uncovering its many cultural implications. In doing so, Trubek explains that the notion of terroir should not simply be limited to its tangible elements, such as weather and terrain. Likewise, the reader also learns that the discussion of terroir should not simply be limited to wine.