Toast: Price of grapes: A mile makes all the difference


The Lanza Family of Suisun Valley This article first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter in my column, "Toast" on August 28, 20122. Thanks to Richard Bammer, my trusty copy editor for catching my misspelling of terroir- duh!

Taking the "back way" to Napa, through Wooden Valley is a beautiful drive. The road winds along with views of vineyards and, in the highlands, mossy trees that shade your eyes. The border between Solano and Napa counties is invisible, except that the pavement changes slightly as one county's roadway meets the other. What is also invisible on that beautiful drive, but all too apparent in the black and red of a balance sheet, is that the grapes on the Napa side command triple the price of Solano grapes.

Can Napa grapes be that different from Solano's? Is it marketing or is it "terroir"? Terroir is a concept borrowed from the French that refers to everything in the environment of a vineyard that stamps a wine with a unique sense of place. The chemistry of the soil, the slope of the ridge, the climate and weather, all contribute to the terroir of a vineyard.

 Just a mile or so down the road from the Napa County line, Wooden Valley Winery co-owner Ron Lanza laughed when asked about the huge price difference between Napa grapes and his family's Suisun Valley grapes.

"Yes, it's a little frustrating," Lanza admitted. "But, hey, more power to them!"

In fact, the proximity of their vineyards to Napa is one of the selling points for the family's wine and grape operations, a business shared by four brothers and their families that was begun by their grandfather, Mario Lanza. Only about 10 percent of Lanza grapes end up in their Wooden Valley Winery wine. Of the remaining 90 percent, about half to go to other California wineries and the other half are shipped east to small wineries and amateur winemakers.

The route east was a savior to many California wineries during Prohibition, when they switched from making wine to shipping grapes to home winemakers.

Even when drinking alcohol was outlawed from 1920-1933, American households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine a year. Do the math -- that's enough for two people to share more than half a gallon a day! The home wine- making tradition continues, but with an emphasis on fine wine rather than the jugs of the past.

"They want to make wine like their grandpa did, only better," said Lanza.

Unlike grapes destined for California winery consumption, which are dropped at harvest time in ordinary containers and transferred to large industrial-sized trucks, the boxes destined for the trip east are artfully arranged in 36-pound boxes with the Lanza Vineyards logo. The careful presentation and branding has paid off.

When Ron went back east to meet some of the amateur winemakers who use his grapes, he was greeted warmly -- and with lots of wine.

"I arrived first thing in the morning, and they are all pouring me wine made from our grapes," Lanza said.

Ron's father, "Chick," grew the business by delivering wine in barrels and jugs to homes like a milkman, along a route throughout the Bay Area.

The route has extended, and now it's not just wine but grapes that are delivered, but the Lanza tradition of wine for families continues. 


The Smartest Guy In the World

This is an article from the August 15, 2012 Daily Republic.

When I was growing up, I thought my father was the smartest person in the world.

He could riff on the missions of Father Serra, relate the gossipy backstory of Lyndon Johnson and lay out the physics of a submarine’s torpedo. I remember most of these lectures, and lectures they were, from our family vacations, six of us in the station wagon, tent-camping across the U.S. But the little-known-fact soliloquies could occur almost any time, on the way home from church, during a commercial on TV and, worst-case scenario, when he was helping me with my homework.

It wasn’t until my late teens that I discovered the source of his genius, and it happened when I started to read the same magazines he did.

He would start one of his famous lectures, say, for example, about Native American canoe design or Chinese restaurants in New York City, and I would think, “Wait a minute, this sounds awfully familiar.” I realized then that my father was merely parroting an article from one of the weekly magazines he, and now I, devoured. His talent, I came to appreciate, was for total recall and an air of absolute certainty, but the source of his “genius” was now mine too.

If you are reading this, chances are you developed an appetite for reading and learning, even if it wasn’t in the shadow of Lecture Dad. But what if you couldn’t read? What if all you could learn was from watching and listening?

Reading, even as we move from paper to “the cloud” is still the fastest track for learning. Even as more of our time is spent gaming, texting, watching movies and participating in on-demand everything, we still need to read. In fact, reading is imperative.

Educators, business leaders and social service professionals are all concerned about reading in Solano County. Consider these statistics:

  • 40,000 Solano residents are considered low-literate adults.
  • More than one-third of U.S. children enter kindergarten without the basic language skills they’ll need to learn to read (i.e. knowing the words on a page move from left to right, or recognizing the letters of the alphabet).

Not surprisingly, these statistics are related. Adults with low literacy cannot share books and reading with their children, which leads to lagging language skills and slower literacy development. The consequences of a slow start in reading become monumental as they accumulate exponentially over time. Three-quarters of students who are poor readers in third grade will remain poor readers in high school. And the cycle continues.

Solano County Library can help. Library branches hold thousands of children’s books, offer dozens of weekly storytimes, and provide homework help — in person and online. With a free library card, parents who want a better life for their children, a reading life, can give that to them. And they do, we see it every day.

Library literacy tutors volunteer their time to help motivated adults break the cycle of illiteracy. Their goals are achievable: read a bank statement, a prescription bottle, a children’s book to their kids. Currently the Library’s literacy program has 191 volunteers, 111 of whom are tutors who work with small groups or one-on-one with learners.

However, there is still a waiting list of almost a hundred adults waiting to learn to read better. If you are over 18 and can make a six-month commitment to teach someone to read, to change a life through reading, you are needed. Orientations and trainings begin in September. To get started call 784-1526 or visit, under “Programs” and click on “Literacy.” I thought my dad was the smartest guy in the world, the children of literacy students should think that about their parents too.

Ann Miller is the community relations coordinator for Solano County Library. She recommends “Mennonite in the Little Black Dress” by Rhoda Janzen, a laugh-out-loud, cringingly honest memoir about growing up smart, simple and a little screwed up.


Toast: The Patrón of Winterhawk

This was first published in the June 19, 2012 edition of the Vacaville Reporter, in my column "Toast."

They call him Patrón. "That’s Spanish for Boss Man," explains Martha Gustafsson, the winemaker at Winterhawk Winery. If Patrón conjures up a mustachioed Mexican, think again, this Boss Man is a blue- eyed Swede from Michigan.

The Patrón of Winterhawk Winery is Don Johnson, who found his way to growing grapes in Suisun Valley by way of the army and a career in accounting. He grew up on a dairy farm where he milked cows by
hand, three times a day. Every day. No vacations. “I swore I’d never get into farming again. But it’s night and day between a small family dairy farm in Michigan and growing grapes in California.”

Johnson still works every day but on weekends he’s joined by a community he has built around the Winterhawk Winery trifecta: wine, pizza and live music, all for $7.

The deal is this. For seven bucks you can taste all the Winterhawk wines on the menu, there are eleven of them, then you are poured a glass. Once you decide on your favorite you are poured a glass. Only a wine geek could find time to taste them all because the music is irresistible. It makes a turn on the dance floor, in the shade of the winery shed, almost mandatory. When you catch your breath you can
fortify yourself with a piece of pizza.

The pizza comes from an oven Johnson ordered when he was touring Italy. When it arrived he was shocked by how big it was. "I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I don’t have that many friends," he joked. Well, now he does.

Winterhawk Winery hosts hundreds of people each weekend, many of whom are regulars, without any marketing outside a Facebook page and an email list of 3000. Last year he expanded his regular Saturday get-togethers to include Community Service Sundays, when 20% of the proceeds go to a different non-profit each week. Johnson is happy to wave off questions about wine to Gustafsson, but when talk turns to music, his eyes light up. It’s obvious that entertaining in the middle of his vineyard is what sends him.

The music may be what makes his blue eyes shine, but Johnson is no slouch about his wine. He’s proud of Gustafsson’s U.C. Davis credentials. On the day I visited she was working with cellar master Steve Eaton to ensure that their Pinot Gris was stable under cold conditions. The frosty tank was about the last thing I expected to see on a 95 degree day. Chilling the wine to 27 degrees forces tiny crystals out of the wine before it is filtered and bottled. Gustafsson’s explanations are littered with chemical jargon but it’s the flavors that brought her to winemaking, "What it comes down to is flavor. I think you have to really like the wine you’re making." She enjoys the challenge of eleven different wines. "Each vintage is a story. The weather that year, the rainfall, new farming techniques. Don gives us a lot of autonomy."

All the wines are under $20, three to try:

Refreshing as a sea breeze on a hot day, the 2011 Albarino was bright and crisp with a touch of minerality.

The 2010 Winterhawk Red packed such an aromatic wallop that I could smell it a couple feet away as the glass sat on a table beside me. The raspberry flavors gave way to hints of cocoa, pepper and black cherry on the finish. This would taste great with some Brie and French bread or a grilled cheese sandwich.

Eaton made the late harvest Sauvingon Blanc from grapes picked about a month after the regular harvest. I usually associate “late harvest” with desert but you could drink this with a meal. The apple and lime notes are delicious, if a wine can taste like a margarita, this is it.

Fitting, I suppose, for wine that comes from a man they call Patrón.



"Lipstick on my bellybutton and music in the air..."

...thaat's Paris, son," Paul wrote his twin Charlie.Valentine reproduced in My Life In France

That's a quote from Julia Child's memoir, My Life in France.  I'm only  a few pages into it but I've already decided it is the perfect summer read. As if you needed inspiration for lesiurely meals with vin ordinaire. 

In 1948 Julia and her husband Paul had a meal of rognons sautes au beurre (braised kidneys) with watercress and fried potatoes, sole meuniere with a carafe of vin compris and a "perfectly soft slice of Brie" for about $3.15.

Vin compris means "wine included." Ya gotta love a culture where wine is so expected it is included in the price of the meal. Earlier Paul explains to Julia that in France, "good cooking was regarded as a combination of national sport and high art, and wine was always served with lunch and dinner. "The trick is moderation."

Moderation indeed. The couple sent out Valentines Day cards because "we could never get ourselves organized in time to send out Christmas cards." Ah, Julia I love you. A new tradition for me is born.

As for lipsticked bellybuttons and music in the air? No doubt the trick is moderation as well.





Toast: At Berryessa Gap They Call It Durif (from Vacaville Reporter)

This is a column I wrote for the Reporter that was published on May 22, 2012. most recommended list on Reporter website

Mike Anderson is one of the partners of Berryessa Gap Vineyards, a business that grew out of a rootstock nursery begun by his uncle Ernie Peninou and Dan Martinez, whose children are also partners in the winery business.  Their vineyards are planted on hills that were once dotted with the Suffolk sheep of the Cobel family, early ranches in Yolo County. Land like this, unsuitable for most crops and relegated to sheepthat could navigate the rocky hillsides, became good for wine grapes, once drip irrigation could be managed.


It was easy to miss the winery, situated as it is in the middle of working ranches and looking out on the break in the mountains for which it is named, Berryessa Gap. If it weren't for the patio and the explosion of flowers, you might take it for a fruit-packing plant, which is exactly what it used to be. This area, west of Winters on Highway 128, is a refreshing change from the monoculture of other wine regions. When I turned onto a side road to double back, I found not just grape vines, but oranges, nuts and grapes, all growing within a few feet of each other.

The link to the past is not lost on Berryessa Gap winemaker Mike Anderson,. "I have a respect for the history of California, and look toward that for inspiration," he says. Inspiration is one thing, science another. Anderson, a viticulture researcher at UC Davis, knows the difference. "We try to learn from the people before us but that doesn't mean we're going to stop learning," he says. "If science tells me something different than tradition, then we'll move it forward."

What makes this winery distinctive is a wine labeled Durif, something rarely seen these days in California wine. For most wine geeks, Durif is synonymous with petite sirah, but Anderson demurs.

In the old days, growers weren't so fussy about the genealogy of their wines. Before Americans became infatuated with varietals, those named for grapes, such as chardonnay, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon, wines were often made from field blends. Vineyards were filled with a mix of grapes that were harvested, crushed and fermented together. Until the advent of DNA testing, it was uncertain what exactly was in the old vineyards called petite sirah.

"In order to have a petite sirah vineyard you need to have other stuff such as zinfandel and syrah," explained Anderson. "And by the way, a lot of people don't agree with me," he added with a smile.

To illustrate his point, Anderson makes a 100 percent Durif wine and a field-blended petite sirah. In my side-by-side tasting, both were rounder, more supple versions of the bold and rustic flavors associated with these wines. The petite sirah delivered a slightly more pronounced and peppery kick, no doubt courtesy of diversity of the varieties in that vineyard.

I love these inky tannic reds but, if you prefer, there are other wines to try, including malbec, barbera, temperanillo, syrah, zinfandel and verdelho. The Horseshoe Chardonnay was memorable for its bright, sweet apple and tropical flavors, a nice summer alternative to oaked and buttery chards. With more than nine wines, not a loser or weakling among them, Berryessa Gap Vineyards is a great value; most prices are under $20. If you want the full experience, including a hilltop view of the Berryessa Gap, check out their Springtime in the Vineyard party on Saturday.



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