September 25, 2012

In Napa, Wine Colors All

So about that trip to Napa. One of the things I found intriguing was how the dominant wine culture of the valley seemed to set the tone in quality and obsessiveness for everyone from chocolate makers to tea purveyors.

Just picked.


From our hosts at the Cakebread Cellars' American Harvest Workshop, we learned a little about the constant experimentation winemakers engage in to keep improving their product. Variables such as root stock; clones; time of harvest; whether the wine is barrel or tank fermented; Brix, or sugar levels of the harvested grape; tank temperature, the choice of native yeast vs. non-native, are all carefully calibrated.

This level of minute tasting and tweaking was evident in chats with representatives of Tcho chocolate. Just as Cakebread Cellar Master Brian Lee told us, "you can't make good wine with bad grapes," Tcho focuses on going to the source of their cacao beans and working with growers to improve plant genetics. They also strive to improve fermentation techniques and have created "flavor labs" that sound, in name at least, like the high-tech Cakebread lab where an infrared wine scanner has made measuring important chemical parameters in everything from freshly picked grape juice to finished wine a speedy 30-second process.

Nice packaging, Tcho!

Tcho further classifies its PureNotes single varietal dark chocolate by tasting descriptors: "fruity," nutty," "citrus," and detects "hints of red berry," mandarin oranges or roasted nuts, pointing out that tasting chocolate is an exercise of both "intellect and emotions." The maker liberally adopts the language of wine, but it's also closely tied to Northern California's other locus of power and influence, Silicon Valley; its founders are the people behind Wired magazine. So it's not surprising the company has devised an iPhone app to remotely control its chocolate lab, crowd-sourced the development of flavors, and connects with growers via the cloud.

Drink the Leaf's Dragon Eyes Blooming tea.

Another wine-influenced purveyor was Drink the Leaf  a Napa tea importing business started by Dan Ritzenthaler, a wine and restaurant industry veteran. At a tasting of Japanese and Chinese teas he gave for our group, I was struck by the uniformly high quality of his selection, how all shared a smoothness and elegance that is by no means commonplace in these teas. The palate of a wine person at work seemed obvious.

Ritzenthaler confirmed that his former focus on wine production and in restaurants prepared him for his adventure in tea. Not only is tasting paramount, but both share "great stories rich with history, farming, harvest, production, blending and the rituals" that accompany imbibing. Just as one would with wine, before launching his business, he says, "I studied well-known tea regions, researched varieties, tea estates blends," approaching it "as if I were producing a great wine." He and his wife continue to study and blind taste all of their selections, and Ritzenthaler notes that writing tea descriptions makes the same demands on the brain and palate as writing about wine. He's also seen the same "ah-ha" moment with tea that people have when first discovering wine. (For him that moment came with a bottle of Chateau Rayas; he still has the empty bottle).

Another example is Napa purveyor, Whole Spice, launched  in 2000 by Shuli and Ronit Madmone, who began by selling fresh-ground spices, herbs and blends at the local farmer's market. An online business followed, custom blends for restaurant and individual clients, an all-organic line. They opened their first retail store in 2009. I loved Cakebread resident chef Thomas Sixsmith's dish of Whole Spice vadouvan-dusted Devil's Gulch rabbit, which showed off the products of two purveyors in one dish and was served to us on the first night of the workshop.

The Madmones say that not only did their Napa location inspire them to create blends that work well with wine (herbes de provence salt, fennel salt and lime salt), they also blend per winery specifications, such as an ancho chili-thyme mix to pair with pinot noir for Bouchaine. Not surprisingly, the Madmones cook with spices often, says Ronit, noting, "We very much enjoy a white wine chardonnay."

Liam Callahan, Bellwether Farms

Winemaking may be a big influence on purveyors, says Liam Callahan of Bellwether Farms in Petaluma, CA, (makers of delicious sheep and cow's milk cheeses) but there are bigger and older forces at work. "There is something unique about the Bay Area and its love affair with great food," Callahan says, and it's one that "predates both Bellwether Farms and the high-end wines of our region." He's referring to the area's "incredible climate for food production," which gave San Franciscans access to the best and freshest ingredients, the raw material needed to develop epicurean tastes and standards.

"Once the winemakers of the region discovered how truly unique our vineyards could become they were able to cater to this local demand," Callahan says, adding that in the past 15 or so years, craft beer makers have tapped into this same market. Plus, he notes, the wine industry has the visibility to help purveyors "spread the word about our products because it commits so many resources to raise awareness of the region as a whole."

Okay, so soil, climate, a long history of great food, a food-loving audience, and an established wine-making industry with clout: It's all there, and it's all exceptional. It's no wonder none of us wanted to leave!