North America – Taste&Travel Magazine For people who love to Read, love to Eat, and love to Travel Fri, 24 Jan 2020 00:09:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 North America – Taste&Travel Magazine 32 32 Ann Arbor Mon, 30 Dec 2019 18:53:34 +0000 This food lover's city has roots in political activism.

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It’s a crisp spring morning in Dexter, a rural town on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, Michigan, but here in the front parlour of Cornman Farms’ vintage farmhouse, things are getting a little heated. It’s a round table discussion about the local food scene and the f bombs have started flying.

Cornman Farms

I’m sitting with group of people who have a passionate interest in Ann Arbor’s culinary culture and we’ve started talking about big ag.

John Britton is head distiller at Ann Arbor Distillery, a tightly focused, field-to-glass operation that produces handcrafted spirits using only Michigan-grown grain and botanicals. Jason McNeely manages Ollie Food + Spirits, a restaurant in the nearby town of Ypsilanti with a hyperlocal, seasonally driven menu that draws from the same agricultural base. David Klingenberger is chief fermenting officer and co-owner of The Brinery, a farmhouse operation that handcrafts small-batch, naturally fermented pickles from locally grown vegetbles. Kathy Sample is the founder of Argus Farm Stop, a retail outlet in downtown Ann Arbor where farmers can sell their produce seven days a week, year round.

Locally grown produce

The fellow cursing is Keiron Hales, chef/owner of Cornman Farms and our host this morning. He is frustrated because although he cooks from scratch for his family, his 6-year-old son wants to eat sugary cake muffins and other nutritionally poor foods that are served with school lunches. “I told him he can have candy if he learns to make it himself,” says Hale, whose blog includes a recipe for home-made jelly beans, among other wholesome treats.

Sample is mad because regulations made by and for large-scale agricultural operations are making it impossible for small-scale farmers to stay in business. They can’t afford to adhere to building codes that are designed for factory production sites or the stringent health and safety regulations that inhibit farm gate sales. She founded Argos Farm Stop in an effort to connect farmers and their customers and to make good food accessible to the community.

“Pickle Wizard” Klingenberger is a soft-spoken force at the Cornman Farms round table but comes to life when I meet him later at The Brinery, surrounded by bubbling barrels filled with vegetables in various stages of transformation. The former craft brewer and self-described hippy farmer now processes 200,000 pounds of vegetables a year that are grown on local, family-owned farms. To Klingenberger, pickles are not just a highly nutritious food, they are a way of creating a bridge between grower and eater, a vital relationship that is helping to redefine the food culture of the region.

Pickle wizard David Klingenberger


Ann Arbor is a mid-sized city, with a compact historic downtown energized by the presence of the University of Michigan campus and a world renowned medical centre. It has tree-lined streets, a vibrant arts, music and cultural scene, plus a pretty hinterland of wooded hills and rolling farmland, intersected by the Huron River. And notably, Ann Arbor has an energetic culinary community, with a disproportionately large number of independent restaurants and artisan food producers for a city its size.

Ann Arbor’s activist-driven culinary culture owes much to the efforts of two college kids who went to school here in the 1970s. Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw opened the New York-style Zingerman’s Delicatessen in 1982, largely because their adopted Midwestern town was devoid of a decent bagel.

That storefront started a movement that now encompasses twelve local food businesses, plus a training institute and nationwide mail-order business. Zingerman’s Bakehouse began as an offshoot of the deli, providing bagels, and bread for their signature Reuben sandwich. Next came the Zingerman’s Creamery, to keep up with demand for truly fresh cream cheese. Coffee and candy followed, as did a Roadhouse and other restaurants, with each new enterprise co-founded by Zingerman’s but independently run by a passionate individual.

The Zingermans model of expansion and inculcating new businesses, if not unique, is certainly interesting. Every employee who joins the Zingerman’s workforce is offered a “pathway to partnership” that includes training opportunities and assistance in all aspects of running a business. Every new enterprise that comes under the corporate umbrella starts, not with a desire to expand the Zingerman’s portfolio, but with an individual who has the energy and burning desire to make something exceptionally well.

Ari Weinzweig

This unusual business model comes into focus, albeit in a roundabout way — when we learn that Ari Weinzweig is a proponent of anarchism, particularly the type espoused by the late nineteenth century feminist radical Emma Goldman, whom he studied at the University of Michigan in the 1970s.

Anarchism, by strict definition, calls for the abolition of any form of government. But Goldman was not opposed to the concept of a central organizing body per se – she maintained that an organization should not be an hierarchical institution, but a cooperative structure whose sole purpose is to enhance the lives of the people who are part of it.

“This has been a part of our philosophy at Zingerman’s since we opened in 1982 – creating a business committed to helping everyone it touches!” writes Weinzweig, who has penned a number of books on business management. The Zingerman’s community of businesses is intended not as a pyramidal structure that funnels benefit towards the top but — in the spirit of Goldman — a horizontal network of mutually profitable relationships.

The single minded attention to quality — of ingredients and their preparation — is a thread that is now deeply woven into the fabric of the Ann Arbor culinary scene. The farmhouse breakfast that Kieron Hales laid out for us after the round table was a perfect example of how good unfussy food, prepared with fine ingredients and great attention to detail, can be. Slow scrambled eggs, Yorkshire puddings, smoky bacon, clotted cream, fresh raspberries, sausages made the night before, tomatoes slowly roasted over three days, home-made peach jam, and a raised pastry pie filled with mashed potatoes were among the old-fashioned treats lined up on a long counter in his gleaming kitchen. After years of top-level cheffing (he’s cooked for presidents and royalty), Hales is living his dream. Partnership with Zingerman’s enabled him to buy and renovate the historic Cornman farmhouse and build a catering and event business around produce grown on the farm and sourced from like-minded local purveyors.

Breakfast at Cornman Farms

The newest addition to the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses is Miss Kim, a Korean restaurant that is taking the North American experience of that cuisine to the next level. Self-taught chef Ji Hye Kim missed her Korean family’s cooking after moving to New York and started studying her grandmother’s recipes. That interest developed into a deep fascination with Korean culinary history and ultimately, after securing a counter job at Zingerman’s Deli, to the opening of her restaurant. This is no ordinary food – yes there is bibimbap and Korean fried chicken, but also miso-buttered asparagus with an oozy poached egg, enoki mushroom japchae with chewy potato noodles, mushroom-stuffed bao, and the spicy rice flour batons called tteokbokki, each dish extraordinarily well crafted and exploding with colour and flavour.


Kim adheres to the Zingerman’s philosophy that everyone who is part of a business should earn a living wage. No-one employed at Miss Kim needs to work tables for tips or take a second job in order to survive. Kim is proud of the fact that her success is shared with the people who helped her achieve it.

Ji Hye Kim

The spirit of cooperation and partnership that Weinzweig and Saginaw inculcated in their businesses pervades the Ann Arbor food scene. The city is littered with Zingerman’s alumni and others who embody the same entrepreneurial verve and commitment to quality that earned Zingerman’s Deli national acclaim and brought Ann Arbor to the attention of the culinary cognoscenti. Craft breweries, craft cocktail bars (many with live music), artisan food producers, and restaurants helmed by talented, creative chefs abound. The bar has been set high in this food-savvy city, and in order to survive, restaurants have to be good.

And of course no visit to Ann Arbor would be complete without a trip to the place where it all began. Join the line, place your order for the Reuben, find a seat and in a very short time you’ll be enjoying a sarnie (enlivened by David Klingenberger’s sauerkraut) that not only tickled the palate of Barrack Obama and deserves a place in the sandwich hall of fame, but also encapsulates the unique personality of a very tasty Midwestern town.

Honeyed Ham Pancakes

Click here for a list of great places to eat and drink in Ann Arbor.


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Down on Thunder Road Tue, 01 Oct 2019 16:33:57 +0000 A new generation of chefs updating Southern cuisine.

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Moonshine is an integral part of East Tennessee’s history. The storied White Lightning Trail that ran illegal liquor through Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas during Prohibition passes through the region. The infamous section in Jefferson County named Thunder Road claimed the life of a young bootlegger, inspiring a classic Robert Mitchum movie, and then a Springsteen song. But travel the twisting blacktop of Thunder Road today and you’re more likely to find a boutique winery, farmstead dairy, or artisan food producer than an illicit still.

Music cities Memphis and Nashville are the Tennessee headliners, but the eastern part of the state is all about the outdoors, with kayaking, hiking, biking, atv trails, fishing and gorgeous mountain vistas all within striking distance of the regional hub, Knoxville.

Eastern Tennessee overlook

This verdant part of the American south is steeped in history, culture and heritage — the stories carrying an Appalachian community from a coal mining past to an entrepreneurial future. History is preserved in the Victorian village of Rugby, a Utopian experiment by British author Thomas Hughes (whose novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays was a blockbuster in his day). The community, nestled in the green folds of the Cumberland Plateau, was designed to be classless, agrarian and self-supporting. It lasted all too briefly – the sons of the British gentry being more interested in enjoying the bucolic beauty of the Tennessee countryside than the hard labour of farming. My visit to the village – there are 70 meticulously restored buildings to admire – was enlivened by the presence of historian Jordan Hughett, who taught me the correct etymology of y’all (it’s a contraction of ye all, not you all) and shared his mother’s recipe for “frahd pah” (fried pie), a tasty snack that farmers of yore could tuck into the pocket of their overalls.

Historic Rugby

A more sobering window on the past awaits at Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, which, until it closed in 2006, housed some of the south’s most notorious criminals, including Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s assassin, James Earl Ray. The Brushy Mountain incarcerated were a violent lot — during its heyday a murder a week took place within the prison itself.

Tours of the dilapidated gaol, conducted by former guards and inmates, are not for the faint hearted. The miasma of brutality and suffering that still permeates the castellated structure left me in need of a shot of booze from End of the Line Moonshine. The on-site craft distillery is underwriting the transformation of Brushy Mountain from penitentiary to tourist attraction. The metamorphosis is a godsend to the tiny town of Petros, whose economy is dependent on the prison.

End of the Line Moonshine

On to happier pursuits in the sunlit Sweetwater Valley, heart of Loudon County’s dairy industry. At Sweetwater Valley Farm, Mary Lindal Harrison’s parents have gone on vacation and left her in charge of 1500 bovines, plus a cheese factory. And she can handle it all, thanks to eight state-of-the-art robots that tailor the milking experience to each cow’s size and needs. No need to herd the girls to the machines, they wander up whenever they feel like a gentle teat washing and personalized extraction service. “Our cows are giving 12 gallons of milk a day since we introduced the robots — six to seven gallons is the norm,” Mary Lindal explains. “The computers monitor each cow’s temperature, activity level, milk yield and quality, so we can easily tell when a cow is not feeling well, or needs some extra care.” Most of the farm’s milk is marketed under the local Mayfield brand; the remainder is used on the farm to make award-winning cheddar cheese.

Mary Lindal Harrison

A stone’s throw from the Harrison’s farm is Tennessee Valley Winery, one of the oldest operating family-owned wineries in the state. Brother-and-sister winemakers John Smook and Paulette Pietti specialize in the sweet fruit wines beloved in the South but have also won awards for their zinfandel and riesling. Wines made from the native muscadine grape (a thick-skinned, hardy varietal, so loaded with health-giving properties that some people take it medicinally) are an acquired taste — so powerfully grape-y and perfume-y they hit you like a slap in the face. But Pietti’s Private Reserve Semi Sweet Red Muscadine is evidence that in the hands of an expert winemaker this American grape can be turned into a beautifully nuanced and characterful wine.

John Smook and Paulette Pietti

In the foothills of the Smoky Mountains vistas of pastoral contentment and peaceful industry unfold in all directions. Passing through the village of Luttrell (hand-lettered sign: Birthplace of Kenny Chesney) and the historic town of Dandridge, I arrive at the base of English Mountain and the home of Bush’s Baked Beans, a staple in every Southern pantry. The Bush family were pioneers of the canning industry in Tennessee – their 1911 General Store and wooden farmhouse now stand alongside a high-tech processing plant. A country-themed gift store and café, historical displays and a fascinating video that follows the beans’ journey from field to can, complete the visitor experience. A free copy of The East Tennessee Christian Guide to the Smokies is available at the café entrance.

Bush Beans mascot Duke

We are indeed deep within the Bible Belt. In a booth at the Greenback Diner (in the tiny town of the same name) a couple with eyes closed clasp hands and bow heads in a fervent grace before tucking into one of the vintage diner’s legendary cheeseburgers. More sinful is the honey bun, a yeasted pastry cooked on the flattop in lashings of butter and topped with an oversized scoop of ice cream drizzled with chocolate syrup. There’s a small museum next door filled with memorabilia from the diner’s past as The Greenback Drug Co., complete with soda fountain, and original scripts for pills and potions.

Honey Bun

Seven Springs Farm and Winery is located on Thunder Road (Route 61 in Maynardville), not far from the site of the crash that killed moonshiner Tweedle-o-twill. Rick and Donna Riddle purchased the property in 1994 and felled trees to build a timber-frame farm store and winery tasting room. In 2015, the first vintage by their winemaker daughter Nikki won no less than five concordance (unanimous choice of all judges) gold medals and the awards have kept on coming. Meanwhile, her brother Jim raises prime Angus beef and grows organic vegetables.

Seven Springs Farm

Jim and others like him are the core of a burgeoning farm-to-table dining scene that is taking classic southern cuisine in fresh new directions. Fried chicken and catfish, cornbread and hushpuppies, barbecue and sweet tea are the hallmarks of Appalachian cooking, but a new generation of chefs are bringing a modern sensibility to culinary traditions that are deeply rooted in the culture and terrain of East Tennessee.

Chef Anthony Ploof is a Vermont native who moved to Knoxville to open The Drawing Room restaurant in the upscale Tennessean hotel. “I didn’t want to do stereotypical Southern cuisine,” he says. “I wanted to give the ancestral ingredients of Appalachia – game, meats, mountain produce, pickles and preserves — a new spin. But I didn’t realise when I first arrived just how good local food producers are.” Some of the suppliers he mentions — Benton’s Bacon, Savannah Bee Company, Sweetgrass Dairy in Georgia– are names I’ll hear repeatedly from Knoxville chefs during my visit.

Traditional ingredients are inspiring Knoxville chefs

Preston Williams of the hot ticket Rebel Kitchen in downtown Knoxville is striving to achieve a menu that is 100 percent local. When I visited, a big jug of daisies on the kitchen pass kept him company as he worked with relaxed concentration on the dishes that were going out to a full house of tables. My meal, chosen from a short menu of small and larger plates, was uniformly brilliant. Chewy housemade bread (with liquid duck fat for dipping!); a wedge of seared foie gras with grainy mustard, pretty spheres of rhubarb gel and a fresh farm egg; paper-thin slices of smoked duck breast with beets, blackberries and creme fraiche; a tangy buttermilk panna cotta and a super cheese plate from Sweetgrass Dairy.

Rebel Kitchen

Jon Gatlin is another chef putting a distinctive stamp on the Knoxville dining scene. Oliver Royale is a sleek New York-style dining room with a black, grey and gold colour scheme and a menu of globally inspired comfort food based on familiar southern ingredients. Pork Fried Rice was reimagined as sous-vide pork belly with crispy skin atop a bed of quinoa with dabs of hoisin sauce; braised short rib resting on pillowy mash was strewn with arugula flowers. Gatlin’s food was beautiful to behold and even better to eat.

Oliver Royale

Downtown Knoxville is a remarkable story of renaissance and revitalization. Like many historic American downtowns, it suffered the byproducts of economic change and mallification in the eighties, with stores shuttered and an urban core abandoned to the drugged and the destitute.

“Fifteen years ago there were tumbleweeds blowing down the street,” says Brad Hamlett, whose Knoxville Chocolate Co. is located on historic Market Square, now the home of Knoxville’s Farmers’ Market and the vibrant hub of a youthful, energetic city. The downtown core is buzzing with energy and colour, with a thriving arts, music and cultural scene and a plethora of places to eat and drink. It’s a compact, walkable city, with a river running through it and handsome heritage buildings given a new lease of life and purpose.

Heritage buildings add character to downtown Knoxville

In Knoxville’s scenic hinterland, people still know how to live off the land and to produce fine food and drink with what they have at hand. These Southern foodways are not just relics of the past, they are the foundations of a modern culinary movement that seeks to honour the traditions of people and place. There’s a new legacy building on Thunder Road.


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On the Sparkling Wine Trail in Sonoma Sat, 14 Sep 2019 15:05:38 +0000 Seeking the best of the Sonoma bubblies.

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If Champagne, France is the king of bubbly, then California is next in line to the throne, with dazzling sparkling wines being produced throughout the state. It’s no surprise that Napa and Sonoma top the list of heirs apparent, but since Sonoma sits closer to the ocean, it benefits from foggier mornings, cool misty nights and occasional sea breezes — the perfect climate for growing pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, true champagne’s key varietals.

Sonoma has boasted excellent sparkling wine producers for decades, like Iron Horse and Gloria Ferrer, but recently, more and more Sonoma wineries are turning out bubbly on a level with their French relatives. There are fewer restrictions on California sparkling winemakers, giving them more creative freedom, plus they’ve been able to build upon what has worked well for centuries in Champagne and give it their own innovative twist. Most of their sparkling wines are made in the traditional methode Champenoise and are expressive of distinctive vineyard sites and terroir — the perfect effervescent distillation of time and place.

In between wine tasting there’s plenty to do – take a cooking class or food tour, hike at Sugarloaf State Park, visit historic Sonoma Mission, or explore a farmers’ market. The walkable towns of Healdsburg and Sonoma, with their tree-lined squares and tasting rooms, are ideal headquarters.

Here are 12 wineries that have especially delicious bubbly:

Iron Horse Vineyards – The Cold War Peacemaker

Iron Horse’s sparkling wine gained worldwide attention in 1985 when American President Ronald Reagan served it to Mikail Gorbachev at the summits that ended the Cold War — and their fine bubbly has been served at the White House ever since. But the winery’s casual open-air bar and picnic table-graced terraces overlooking rolling hills of vineyards are about as far from white-gloved formality as you can get. If you happen to miss the oyster bar featuring local Tomales Bay bivalves, you can still feel close to the sea thanks to the Ocean Reserve bubbly they make in partnership with National Geographic – for every bottle sold a donation is made to ocean conservation.

Gloria Ferrer Caves and Winery – Spanish Flair Meets Cali style

The Ferrers came from Barcelona to Sonoma in 1987 and built a winery and tasting room inspired by a classic Catalan farmhouse, only bigger. Part of Spain’s Freixenet cava family, today their California sparkling wines have won hundreds of awards. You can book tastings and tours, enjoy their bubbles by the glass, or sign up for fizz and food pairings like Bubbles and Bites and Tapas on the Terrace.

Buena Vista Winery — West Coast Winery Pioneer with a Flashy French Overlay

Founded by the father of the California wine industry in 1857, this winery’s new owner, French wine family icon Jean-Charles Boisset, has done an especially artful job of restoring its original stone buildings. From the outside it’s all California-history gravitas, but if you opt for a sparkling wine tasting, you’ll be a world apart inside their Bubble Lounge, where Liberace glitter and Versailles excess meets a steam-punked Salvadore Dali style. It’s a flashy new-world take on a tasting room but the winery’s outstanding bubbly is all old-world delicious.

Thomas George Estates – Wine Caves and Vehicle Tours

In 2010, atmospheric caves were built into a hillside to function as a barrel aging facility and additional tasting area. Book a sensuous Library Tasting in the cave or an outdoor Bocce Ball and Wine experience or Wine Safari Tour in a vintage jeep where you sip a single estate sparkling blanc de noirs and picnic on a ridge overlooking the vineyards. Best of all, you can stay on property in one of three Craftsman-style rental cottages. The biggest – a three-bedroom – has its own private swimming pool.

Inman Family Wines – The One-Woman Show

Owner/winemaker Kathleen Inman’s single vineyard rosés and sparkling wines keep getting more and more attention for their quality, and her approach to natural winemaking, careful farming and environmentally responsible business practices make her one of the most respected winemakers in Sonoma. Try to reserve the Meet the Maker private tasting with Kathleen as your host for a fascinating inside look at the business.

Benovia Winery – Small Footprint, Big Wine Impact

A treasure of a small winery, Benovia is known for its stellar chardonnay and pinot noirs, but recently its classy sparklers – first a 2012 blanc de blancs and next a 2015 blanc de noirs – have been so well received that sparkling wine is in regular production. As you study your glass of tiny bubbles in the tasting room you’ll look out at the very vineyards where the sparkling wine harvest takes place.

Francis Ford Coppola Winery – Sip, Savor and Swim

This three-ring circus of wine-tasting fun is like a summer camp for wine lovers, with its huge swimming pool, café and restaurant, bocce court and Coppola’s collection of memorabilia from movies like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. We especially loved the Short Story Dispenser, a vending machine that spits out paper tape containing stories in two, three and five-minute lengths. Coppola’s sparkling series is named after his daughter Sofia; book a private tasting so you can request all bubbles.

Viansa Sonoma – Wines and Waterfowl

With a venue devoted to romance and a property devoted to wine grapes and wetlands for waterfowl, the most coveted spots for tasting here are the private outlooks off the expansive tasting room patio. Enjoy stunning 270-degree views as you sip a crisp sparkler, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see some of the more than 500 species of birds that migrate along the adjacent Pacific Flyway. Designing your own picnic is easy, as all kinds of deli goodies are available for purchase.

Amista Vineyards – A Sparkling Spin on Unexpected Grapes

Pushing the envelope of what makes a great sparkling wine is one of Amista’s signatures, and today their sparkling program has three types available to the general public including a sparkling Grenache. When you visit their tasting room you’ll also get to choose a fourth sparkler from one of the wine-club only bubbles, like the sparkling rosé of Syrah.

Paradise Ridge – Burning Man’s Sculpture Garden

2017’s fires left this family-run winery above Santa Rosa without a tasting room, but it’s been rebuilt and is better than ever. Their expansive grounds are home to enormous sculptures – many first seen at Burning Man, like a set of giant letters that spell out LOVE or the Temple of Remembrance, a 25-ton steel structure that provides a space for quiet reflection. Peruse the sculpture map as you sip an Aussie-inspired sparkling Shiraz or a fresh blanc de blancs.

J Vineyards and Winery – Fine Fizz and Fresh Food

Book a food and fizz pairing in the Bubble Room so you can enjoy a few of the 20 different kinds of sparkling wines J produces. The winery’s executive chef and winemaker have combined forces and created a sumptuous five-course meal paired with five perfect sparkling accompaniments.

Meadowcroft Wines – Arty Gardens to Explore

Situated in Cornerstone, a lively marketplace featuring tasting rooms, artisanal foods, shops, and lavish gardens that showcase designs from top landscape architects, this winemaker’s sparkling wine is made in a nontraditional style with injected carbonation. If you take their Perfect Blend winemaking seminar where you taste four barrel samples and blend them to your liking, you’ll start with a glass of bubbly and tour scent gardens to tune up your senses.

Sparkling Pancakes with Strawberry Champagne Syrup

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Greener Grape Growing Tue, 09 Jul 2019 19:55:04 +0000 Studying sustainability in Sonoma wine country.

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I sometimes envy farmers. I appreciate I’d likely make a lousy one, but surely the satisfaction of physical labour, outdoorsy living and tending to things that grow would be real and rewarding? Particularly rewarding when those things could end up in a wine glass.

Jordan Winery

Then I meet Klarissa Kruse. And any fanciful city-girl notion of what that life is like gets firmly shaken out of me by one who knows it well.  I’m in Healdsburg, northern California, to learn about sustainable winemaking, and Kruse is the President of the Sonoma County Winegrowers. About her wine farmers, she tells me: “They say that what they do is called ‘farming’ because the word ‘gambling’ was already taken.”

Kruse herself is a gambler. A grape grower and owner of a small vineyard on Sonoma Mountain, she was one of hundreds who lost their home to the Tubbs Fire infernos of 2017. Those fires were considered the most vicious in California history at the time. That is, until the even deadlier Camp Fire of 2018.

Burning issues of stress caused by climate change, along with urbanization and the declining fertility of farmed land, are hot topics among the Sonoma farmers I met over four days exploring eco-vineyards with my rubber boots on. Though the conversation around sustainable winemaking and grape growing is still very young, in Sonoma it’s closer to an obsession: today more than 80 percent of Sonoma County winegrowers are certified sustainable.

The goal is to grow that number to full participation. “Our being a hundred-percent sustainable means consumers can be confident that when they buy a bottle of wine with ‘Sonoma County Certified’ on the label, the farmer is following a rigorous set of practices that steward the land, that don’t poison the earth, that pay careful mind to water resources, and human resources,” Kruse explains. She admits there’s no elevator speech to what sustainable means. “But our farmers,” she says with pride, “are always looking for ways to be softer on the land, for now and for the benefit of future generations.”

Harvesting at Jordan Winery

Home base for exploring sustainable, organic and biodynamic wineries was Healdsburg. No more than five miles square, the small town has a sizeable presence. It sits at the confluence of four of Sonoma’s great wine appellations — Dry Creek, Russian River, Alexander Valley and Chalk Hill — and boasts two dozen wine tasting rooms scattered around its 19th-century downtown plaza.  With good wine tends to follow good food, and the town’s none too shabby in that department either. In addition to fine restaurants, there are butcher shops (special shout out to the family-owned Journeyman Meat Co.), cheese shops, a grocery store that’s been a grocery store since 1881, bakeries, tea and chocolate shops, coffee roasters, and, on the northern outskirts of town, a newish craft distiller of gins and whiskeys and  craft bitters.

For all its distractions, it’s certainly possible to stay in town and just sample wine. But more fun to visit the wineries, taste the terroir by tromping around it, meet those that mind it, and realize keenly why it’s called wine farming. A sip of good wine in a crystal glass at a fancy restaurant seems quite distinct from the agricultural activity that had to happen to get it there. Thinking about compost, vermiculture (worm farming) and sheep manure, drought, fire and climate change isn’t something I tend to consider when pulling a cork. But the story of Sonoma Sustainable winemaking begins with farming practices. The stories I heard are all about weather and resilience, patience and timing, talent and luck and no small measure of bloody hard work.

My first stop was at the Truett-Hurst Winery in Dry Creek, known for its zinfandels and for its holistic approach to grapes. It’s possibly less known for its wider habitat projects, including one that protects endangered fish species in the Russian River watershed. The farm is audibly buzzing with activity from birds and bees, and from the mounds of rotting compost and bins of writhing night crawlers busy turning organic waste into rich nourishment for the soils. The more traditional farm animals contribute their bit to the efforts as well. In fact, Truett-Hurst seemed to me a good and happy place to be a goat.

Next on the trail was the Wine Creek Ranch of Quivira Vineyards & Winery, where I was handed a zippy glass of their Fig Tree Sauvignon Blanc, before wandering the vineyard, past the beehives, pig pen, mature gardens and pond. If you’re imagining pristinely manicured rows of vines, that’s not a goal here: so long as the plants that grow among the grapes don’t negatively affect them, I learn from the vineyard manager, they stay put, attracting beneficial insects. Using compost bolstered with organic dairy material, and cover crops —peas, favas, clover, barley, wheat and rye — Quivira commits to organic and biodynamic practices in wine farming.

“Grow what belongs here. Be patient” is the mantra at DaVero Farms and Winery, which began with olive farming before embracing biodynamic grape growing. All Italian in focus — sangiovese, primitivo, barbera — planting and harvesting is done according to particular rhythms, and only natural yeasts are used in DaVero wines.  “We focus first on being great farmers,” says DaVero’s Andrew Hock, as we walk the rolling property that supports olive trees, vineyards, fruit and citrus trees, flowers, bees, pigs, chickens and sheep.

At Jordan Vineyards and Winery, nestled in the Alexander Valley, the tromping around was a bigger deal. Indeed, four miles bigger, as I joined a small group hike. It began with coffee and a light breakfast in the courtyard of the impressive Jordan Chateau. Thus fortified, we walked some of the 1200 acres of this stunning property, through woods, over rolling hills with panoramic views, past rows and rows of vines, olive orchards and pastures, around lakes busy with ducks and geese, past the extensive kitchen gardens and apiary. We ended with a well-deserved glass of Jordan Cuvée, a platter of charcuterie and cheese, and some of the house kumquat preserves.

Front Porch Farm

My final stop was at Front Porch Farm, just a few minutes outside town. It’s a pretty piece of the valley, about 100 acres ringed by the Russian River, on which Peter and Mimi Buckley farm olives, stone fruit and Rhone varietal grapes, plus flowers, berries, and heritage vegetables (including the rare Red Flint Floriani corn that yields a polenta of unusual distinction.)

“For us, this farm is about nurturing things” Peter Buckley tells me, while cradling a Koginut squash as though it were an infant. “Everything we grow and do is an exercise in creating beauty.”

There’s no shortage of beauty in and around Healdsburg. More beautiful than other regions? The Western Cape, Tuscany, the Okanagan? I couldn’t say. It’s not a question that matters though. What’s most impressive is the thinking and caring that goes into the protecting and preserving of that beauty.

Jordan Winery’s Olive Oil Cake

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Lingering in Lodi Sun, 14 Apr 2019 19:59:08 +0000 Fogerty had it wrong... Lodi is where you want to be.

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“Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again,” moaned John Fogerty, frontman of country-rock legends Creedance Clearwater Revival, in 1969. Fogerty hadn’t actually been to Lodi but anyone stuck in the Northern California town these days should count their blessings, kick back and enjoy the hiatus with a plate of local food and a fine bottle of wine.

Zinfandel is Lodi’s signature grape
Zinfandel is Lodi’s signature grape

Once known as the watermelon capital of America, Lodi is now best known for zinfandel. It is the USA’s largest grape-growing region, supplying grapes to winemaking regions (including Napa and Sonoma) throughout the country and beyond its borders. And within the Lodi AVA (American Viticultural Area) itself a new breed of winemakers are turning those grapes into some spectacular wines.

Lodi is located in the Mokelumne River Valley, about 35 miles south of Sacramento, on the edge of the great San Joaquin and Sacramento River Delta. Rich soils, winter rainfall and a mild year-round climate tempered by cool breezes from the Delta are conditions particularly suited to growing zinfandel. Immigrant families, including Italian, Portuguese, Dutch and German, have been farming the land here since the mid-1800s and some vines are now more than 100 years old.

In the vineyard at Lucas Winery
In the vineyard at Lucas Winery

You’ll know when you enter San Joaquin County — the land is flat; vineyards and farm fields stretch toward the horizon in every direction. Downtown Lodi, with its distinctive Mission arch, vintage train station and water tower, has a lazy, laid-back charm. Some historic buildings still serve their original function, others re-purposed as boutiques and eclectic stores, restaurants and winery tasting rooms. Brick pathways shaded by leafy sycamores add to the small-town appeal.

Historic downtown Lodi
Historic downtown Lodi

There are close to 100 wineries in and around Lodi. Michael McCay owns one of them. His downtown tasting room, backing onto the railway lines, was once a fruit-packing shed for Dole. Box cars still roll by from time to time, with a blast from the locomotive’s horn that rattles the tasting room walls. McCay grows his own grapes and makes some estate wines but he also has a passion for uncovering old and forgotten vineyards. A twisted and gnarly ancient vine hangs from the ceiling in his tasting room, testament to Lodi’s long history with the grape. McCay’s cinsault wine comes from grapes planted in 1886. The vines that yield his carignane date from 1906.

McCay Cellars tasting room
McCay Cellars tasting room

Steve Felten’s zinfandel vineyards were planted in the 1900s. He’s the fifth generation of a grape-growing family and since 2000, he’s been making those grapes into wine under the label Klinker Brick. His Old Ghost Old Vine Zinfandel, a big, complex wine with rich flavours and a peppery finish, is one of the Lodi AVA’s premier expressions of that grape. “Labour costs will push old vines out,” says Felten, whose sale of bulk wine by the tankful helps to underwrite his less conventional winemaking. That marvellous Old Ghost came from a vineyard that yields just ¼ ton of grapes per acre, when 4 or 5 tons per acre is closer to the standard.

Steve Felten
Steve Felten

It is winemakers like McCay and Felten, uncompromisingly committed to quality and willing to take risks, who make Lodi wines so interesting. Zinfandel is the region’s signature grape but more than 100 other varieties are grown, including Spanish, German, Portuguese and southern Rhône varietals. It’s the variety of grapes that can grow here that makes Lodi interesting to winemakers, and its maverick winemakers who make Lodi a place to watch for wine drinkers.

It’s common to see owl nesting boxes on poles sticking up in the vineyards around Lodi. The “Lodi Rules” govern every aspect of the grape-growing and winemaking industries, from labour practices and water usage to pesticides and biodiversity. It’s a voluntary certification program — audited by a third party organization — that nearly every winery subscribes to. There’s a strong sense of community among Lodi winemakers, the majority of whom are small-scale producers and family-owned businesses.

Organic vines
Organic vines

One of the bigger wineries in Lodi belongs to brothers Michael and David Phillips, who owe their success to a single bottle of wine. Their family has grown row crops – including grapes – since the 1850s. They opened a winery in 1976 but production was modest until the lads made a zinfandel that set their world on fire. Inspired by their Catholic upbringing (and a liberal sampling of the barrel), they named the wine Seven Deadly Zins, and it became the best-selling zinfandel in the USA. The Phillips’ roadside fruit stand is still there (the heirloom tomatoes are outstanding) but it now includes a tasting room, a bakery market and a café, surrounded by landscaped gardens, bocce ball courts, pumpkin patch and a u-pick flower garden.

Pumpkin patch
Pumpkin patch

Two women winemakers are turning heads in Lodi. Self-described corporate wife-turned winemaker, Sue Tipton of Acquiesce Winery decided to make wine after being told her favourite tipple — a Château-Neuf-du-Pape by Château de Beaucastel,– was no longer available. She grows zinfandel grapes for another winery and concentrates her own winemaking efforts only on whites based on hand-picked, estate-grown Rhône varietals. “People said I’d never succeed if I only made white wines,” says Tipton, “But look where we are now. We’ll be sold out of wine by November and will open again in March. It’s been like that every year since we opened in 2012.”  Tasting at Acquiesce includes small bites of food designed to pair with the wines – goat cheese with Meyer lemon and a thyme and violet flower confit paired with a 2017 grenache blanc enhances its lively minerality; a tapa of Manchego cheese, tomato and rosemary  paired with a 2017 roussanne helps to tease out almond and honey notes.

Sue Tipton
Sue Tipton

Heather Pyle-Lucas is the winemaker who helped Sue Tipton achieve her goal. The soft-spoken vintner spent 17 years as Robert Mondavi’s winemaker before moving to Lodi with husband David Lucas and opening The Lucas Winery, named Lodi’s Winery of the Year in 2018. These days Pyle-Lucas is a highly respected consultant oenologist responsible for assisting numerous winery start-ups in Lodi and elsewhere in California. At Lucas Winery she grows only organic grapes and produces unblended varietal wines, primarily zinfandel and chardonnay. She’s a highly technical winemaker and a perfectionist, producing just a small quantity of wine from each harvest. When that is gone, it’s gone.

Heather Pyle-Lucas
Heather Pyle-Lucas

St Jorge is another winery that has benefitted from Pyle-Lucas’ expertise. Portuguese-American Vern Vierra produces red and white wines that reflect his Iberian heritage, including Port and a Madeira-style fortified wine. Vierra’s grandfather came to America from the Azores in 1954 and Vierra grew up drinking wine at the family table. Family-style is how he likes it at his winery and tasting room, where you’ll likely find him pulling corks behind the bar or cooking up a giant paella in the courtyard of his elegant Mediterranean villa.

Table set for a wine dinner at St Jorge Winery
Table set for a wine dinner at St Jorge Winery

On the eastern edge of the Lodi appellation, in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, Markus and Liz Bokisch specialize in growing Spanish grapes. Markus is American but his family hails from Catalonia and his Basque blood runs deep. He and Liz spent time in Spain, learning from Spanish winemakers and sourcing the vines for their winery. They produce tempranillo, albarino and graciano wines, which can be enjoyed from the comfort of an Adirondack chair in their outdoor tasting room with a view over the vineyards and a massive stand of oaks.

Markus and Liz Bokisch
Markus and Liz Bokisch

In low-key Lodi, Oak Farm Vineyards stands out. This high-end property is one–of-a-kind, centered on a majestic Colonial Revival mansion dating from 1876, and an even older barn. Owners Dan and Heather Panella live in the house, while the barn serves as a wedding venue and event space. In 2014 the couple opened a gorgeous Napa-style tasting room overlooking their 60-acre vineyard where they showcase Dan’s wines – three white varieties and eight reds, including a flagship barbera that speaks of Dan’s Italian roots. His family have been a fixture in the Lodi agricultural scene since 1936, when they established a trucking company that shipped Lodi crops to market.

Vintage truck at Oak Farm Vineyards
Vintage truck at Oak Farm Vineyards

Good wine calls for good food and thanks to hoteliers Russ and Kathryn Munsen, Lodi has some of the best. They managed to lure Bradley Ogden, two-times James Beard Award winner and Michelin star chef, to, their lovely country estate hotel Wine & Roses, where he presides over the Towne House Restaurant and Towne Corner Café. Ogden was a pioneer of the New American cuisine, putting emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients and farm-to-table cooking, long before locavorism became hip. He came to Lodi to consult for the Munsens, but surrounded by wonderful ingredients and people who put community before commerce, he fell in love with the place and decided to stay. Herbs, vegetables, fruit and flowers grown in the verdant grounds of Wine & Roses make their way onto Ogden’s menu, along with produce from the Central Valley, California’s premier agricultural region. Matched with Lodi wines, a meal at Towne House Restaurant is a genuine treat.

Chef Bradley Ogden
Chef Bradley Ogden

David Lucas was one of the first winemakers to see the potential of Lodi and lobbied for its designation as an American Viticultural Area (AVA), which was granted in 1986. Back then, the region was known for jug wine and Lucas went door-to-door with samples of the estate-bottles wine he and Heather were making. Wine merchants loved the wine but didn’t want Lodi Appellation on the label. Like John Fogerty they gave Lodi a bad rap. In 2015, Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Lodi “Wine Region of the Year.” Seems the pot of gold Fogerty was lookin’ for was there after all.

Lodi Appelation
Lodi Appelation

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