lulu, hillsider companion

lulu, hillsider companion

Sunday, November 23, 2014

we're a different kind of california up here

it occurs to me that there are a lot of folks out there who have no idea that California exists north of sacramento, if they even know that there is a sacramento. most people seem to be under the impression that san francisco is the state capitol, and that if it isn't, then l a certainly must be. all of those assumptions are incorrect.

in fact, California life actually gets better once you put sacramento in the southside of your rear-view mirror (although sac's airport is pretty nice). woodland, which lies just north of the airport on i5, isn't a bad place, although it has become a bedroom community for the capitol city over the past 10 years or so. my wife used to keep her horse there, when we lived in a quiet little condo community just across the American river from sac state university, and she liked to get out to woodland on weekends, even though she kept getting speeding tickets for 35 in a 25 zone and it got to be pretty damn expensive after awhile.

however, as happy as we were, and be that as it may, we discovered life anew eight years ago when we decided to get out of the city and took the great leap northward all the way to the valley's end, toward mounts lassen and shasta; the foothills of the cascades to the north, the sierra Nevada to the east, and the coast range to west. paradise, I came to realize, after wrestling with the lifestyle changes for a few years.

this is a different california. it begins to get that way just about the time you enter glenn county: it becomes rural in all the best senses of the word. olive groves, some ancient and unkempt and others newly-planted and clearly intended to be serious commercial enterprises, line both sides of i5, along with the occasional vineyard, peach orchard, or tomato field. the little towns that you pass through are all farm and ranch centered, and if you pull off to take a closer look, and penetrate deeper than the chevron, texaco, and shell stations lining the freeway, what you find is pretty much like what you would have found 30 or 40 years ago: insular communities of country folk going about their business just like mom and dad did before them, with the same focus on family, church, high school football this time of year, and worrying about the weather.

as you hit the city limits of red bluff, things change again, as you transition from intensive agriculture into what was once mining and timber country (and still is, to a degree), but is now more focused on regional health care  (city of redding) and recreation (all points north to the oregon line). fishing, rafting, climbing, hiking, biking, horseback riding, camping, running, and golf are all important in this part of the state, and a lot of people eke out livings doing things that don't pay much or have a lot of upside so that they can live here and live that lifestyle.

as you might expect, there are thriving wine and craft beer industries scattered across our part of the state. we're lagging behind our more glamorous neighbors in napa, sonoma, Mendocino and even lake counties, but we're working hard to catch up. oddly enough, the world's largest commercial winery was once located in our part of the state: leland stanford's (yep, that leland stanford) winery at vina, the little village off highway 99 between chico and red bluff, was a huge operation, with more than 4,000 acres under vines. after stanford's death the winery was operated for the benefit of the university for a number of years, but ultimately was closed by the school at the onset of prohibition.

however, as often happens, what goes around comes around, and little vina is, today, again home to a very fine winery, that being the cistercian monastery of new clairvaux. we mentioned their albarino in an earlier post, but that's only one of several very good wnes they're presently making. and they're not alone; there are a half dozen more scattered around the area which we'll have more to say about in the future.

and there's beer, too. lots of it. the sierra nevada brewery in chico is well known
throughout the west, with excellent distribution and very competent marketing. mad river brewing company, in blue lake, isn't much known outside the north state yet, but they will be in the not-too-distant future; their beers are outstanding, their steelhead double ipa being one of my all-time favorite brews, and those who know them will go to serious lengths to get them. and, as with the wineries, there are more breweries to talk about, and we will very soon, but not tonight.
so all this is the long way of saying that even though we're not napa, sonoma, the bay area, l a, or any of the beautiful places not mentioned, we're here and we're pretty cool in our own homely way. we've got rivers, mountains, wine, beer, national forests, some pretty decent golf courses (more on those soon), and other stuff, too, and that's a fairly big part of the reason I bother to write this letter two or three times each week. I hope you'll take the time to read it, and maybe even come to visit...
okay, enough for now...good night.       

so, in

Thursday, November 20, 2014

greed and the walk of shame; rain; and a very nice sauvignon blanc

first things first: today's l a times (a really good newspaper that's getting better every day) had an excellent article concerning the shameful fact that there are a number of l a restaurants which are being hauled into court to answer for the nasty transgressions that, when taken together, add up to stealing money from those who need it most and work the hardest to earn it: namely, wage theft.

wage theft is a term that covers a lot of ground. it includes things like paying employees (usually those who are the least able to defend themselves, such as illegals) wages that don't come anywhere close to meeting the legally-mandated minimums; forcing people to work "off-the -clock"; stealing tips; not allowing employees time for rest or bathroom breaks; not giving meal breaks; and a whole host of other nasty habits.

don't misunderstand: these practices are certainly not restricted to l a. in fact, just based on my 30+ years in the hospitality industry, my educated guess is that l a ain't even close to being the city with the worst record in this area. however, being that the times is the paper that's on the trail at this particular moment, their city will have to take the heat.

the bottom line is that the victims are beginning to fight back. several years ago starbucks was hauled into court over the practice of what was politely referred to as "tip-sharing"; apparently, managers were including themselves in the distribution of the proceeds from the tip jars that patrons deposited the monies intended as a reward for good service to be distributed among the floor and counter employees, and the "barristas". this has been determined by the courts to be a "no-no"; only those employees whose primary duties are to directly serve in traditional capacities are considered "servers", and so entitled to the proceeds of funds given by those served as a reward. this does not include managers, cooks, dishwashers, owners, etc. nor should it, since in almost every establishment the servers are the lowest-paid employees in the house, depending on tips and gratuities to supplement the base pay given by the establishment. this practice is further set into stone by the "tip credit" benefit given by the government to the establishment which allows the house to pay the employee a wage that is below the mandated minimum wage based on the theory that they will supplement it through tip income that will raise them to a level above that "minimum wage".

you can see where the problem comes in.

so now, several newer generations of hospitality workers down the road from those who entered the industry immediately after ww2, we have people who are better educated, better read, more socially aware, and more plugged-in who still find themselves laboring in a culture that trails the rest of the business world by 30 or 40 years in many establishments, managed/owned by mentalities that haven't really progressed much beyond the European hotel/restaurant cultures of the '50s, 60s, and 70s. there are still European-trained chefs coming out of their culinary programs who today believe that patting a waitress or hostess on the butt or screaming obscenities at a dishwasher is a right, rather than a problem. the same issues are to be found in some culinarians and managers coming out of the Asian markets. they and the old-timers, however, find themselves confronting that newer generation of second-level workers, and that's where the sparks are beginning to fly. good. it's about time.

again, don't misunderstand: there are many, many fine managers and owners in the industry, who genuinely care about their employees and work diligently to see that they are treated fairly and with respect. however, the bad eggs tend to stink up the kitchen, and they need to be weeded out.

on to a more pleasant topic: it's raining up here in the far north valley, and both Shasta and lassen are shrouded in rolling mist and fog this morning. more rain to come, too, for the next couple of days; maybe as much as another 2 inches on top of the 1/2 inch yesterday and last night. things are looking up!

and another pleasant item to close: had a bottle of boeger's 2013 el dorado sauvignon blanc last night, and it was an outstanding example of what sb is supposed to be. the wine is absolutely varietally correct: it is pure. bright straw color with some greenish highlights, a grassy-citrusy nose that jumps out of the glass, and rich, crisp, grapefruity-green appley flavors on the palate and right through the finish. so good, in fact, that I intend to have another tonight. and only $14.99 at my local corner deli. I recommend you try it for yourself.

okay, that's it for now.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

tell the love tamales, don't you?

"... a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of masa which is steamed or boiled in a corn shuck or leaf wrapper (which one discards before one eats the delicious tamal), and which may be filled with meat, peppers, cheese, vegetables, fruits, etc., as desired."

so saith the dictionary. however, as is often the case, this definition falls short of conveying the true passion that many people, me included, have for this most comforting of comfort foods. some are better than others, or at least suit my taste better, but I don't remember ever having a tamale that wasn't at least good.

and they generally get even better with the addition of a little red (salsa rojo) or green (salsa verde) sauce, or a salsa fresca, usually a pico de gallo. these sauces are native to the same cultures as the tamale, and their biting, aggressive flavors are perfect companions for the steamy, almost creamy character of a delicate masa as it melts in your mouth.

over the years I've had the pleasure of eating many hundreds, probably thousands, of tamales. decades spent in the restaurant/club industry, and therefore thousands upon thousands of hours in working kitchens all across the southwest and west, have given me the opportunity to get to know many cooks, dishwashers, busboys/girls, and waiters of Hispanic backgrounds, and they have often been kind and generous enough to share with me food of their own making, or of a family member, which has been some of the best I have ever eaten. and almost invariably, the one food that they take the greatest pride in is the tamale.

it's not unusual for several generations of a family to gather for the purpose of spending a day (or two or three) hand-crafting many dozens (or hundreds) of tamales for the use of the family and their friends during the holidays, and many women produce more than they need in order to have some to sell, as well. I have worked in several locations where women who were recognized as being exceptional at the art would begin taking orders from co-workers (and, in the case of at least one large private club, from a number of the members, as well) a month or more in advance of the hoped-for delivery date; that would be necessary because of the demand for their tamales, and because they are labor-intensive to produce.

all this is leading up to something, of course, which is to say that I discovered, at this year's redding farmers' market, a treasure: the little stand selling Colima tamales, made a few miles down the road in cottonwood, an interesting town just off I-5, sitting on the sacramento river. these are some of the best I've ever had, anywhere. their homemade salsas, which are offered to those who are buying straight out of the steamer to eat on the spot, are excellent, too, but the tamales are the prize.

all the usual suspects and flavors are there: pork, chicken, etc., but the real jewel, at least to my taste, is the chicken chile verde, a plump and tender bundle of shredded chicken and green pepper (jalapeno, I think) in steaming masa. pair that with their salsa rojo and you're a happy person for hours to come. i'll find out more about this; don't know if they ship frozen or not, but if so some of you might be interested. you should be, anyway. I've bought them frozen several times, and they keep very well. the trick is to thaw them individually at room temp, and only as many as you'll need at any one time, so they don't  have a chance to absorb moisture, which can hurt the quality of the masa and cause them to become a little soggy. more to come on this one.

one more thing to mention tonight: new clairvaux vineyards' albarino. this is as pretty a white wine as I've had at this price point in a while, and the first California albarino I've tasted that tastes like albarino, although, in truth, I've not had that many yet because I love Spanish albarino and don't want to be disappointed in the comparison. however, new clairvaux's is fresh and peachy in the nose, crisply fruity on the palate, with hints of smoke and pears, and just-firm ripe peaches and a hint of vanilla in the finish. very nice indeed with cold boiled shrimp or lobster salad, or as an afternoon sipper. new clairvaux is, for those of you who don't know, the little winery in vina, California, between chico and red bluff, that is now producing some very nice reds, including really good zin and petite sirah, as well as an interesting tempranillo. this is the first of their whites I've tasted, and I'm impressed, especially given that their location, like ours here in redding, is hotter than hell during the growing season, and a little difficult to manage at times. probably the reason they've decided to pursue cultivation of rhone and Spanish varieties. more to come on them.

okay, that's it for tonight. hope you're well.



Wednesday, November 12, 2014

are wine pipelines backing up?

something has caught my eye, and it's causing me to wonder...are wine supply pipelines beginning to back up?

it seems to me that suddenly, or at least recently, I've begun to see wine retailers throwing significant discounts against the wall to see what might stick. and when I say "retailers" I refer to them as a breed, meaning specialist shops, liquor stores, grocers, and even on-premise outlets such as restaurants and wine bars: everyone. is this just coincidence, or does it mean something? beats me...

usually, and I know this from 40 years in the food and beverage industry, when someone begins to discount, especially when he or she discounts sharply, it means that they have a more or less urgent need to move inventory in order to free up cash. that could be for any number of reasons when one or two scattered individual outlets are concerned: maybe he/she is short of cash and needs to pay a tax liability, or make a mortgage payment, settle a divorce, pay a child's tuition, or just buy a new car. on the other hand, when it manifests itself over a broad spectrum of outlets, and fairly suddenly, it frequently signifies a general softening of the market; people have a lot of product that nobody seems willing to buy.

what to do? discount, and try to do it before anyone else notices the phenomenon and undercuts you.

so, if all of a sudden I'm seeing not just one or two folks in my little end of the valley cutting prices, but a bunch of them, and at all levels of the chain, what am I to assume? right. they can't sell wine at standard markup, so they're hitting the panic button.

why is that? not why are they panicking...that's just human nature, self preservation if you will. but why are they being put into a position that requires their panic? the first answer that comes to mind is: market saturation. but why is that? I don't recall seeing any calls to panic during the past several years in the trade publications that I read on a regular basis, no writing that harvests were so over-abundant that the wineries were over-producing to a degree that was far beyond the capacity of the consumer to consume. so that's probably not the problem. so what is it? pricing? well, prices are high, no question of that; however, that in itself argues that the market isn't saturated with overproduction. unless, of course, the market was once again suckered into believing that the bubble would expand forever regardless of any negative market pressures. things like happened just a few years ago like...oh, never mind. you remember, I'm sure. I certainly do; my 401k never completely recovered (thanks, citi), and I am pretty sure that most of you have similar memories.

so what's going on? although, to be completely honest, at this particular time I'm not too unhappy since I've made some exceptional buys over the past week or so, restocking the wine rack just outside my office at home at an average discount of close to 30% off retail. however, my interest is aroused, so i'll do some digging and get back to you in a day or so. what is the wine market up to, and why?

take care.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

farmers' markets: what have we learned?

for one thing, we've learned, over the years, that there's a lot more going on at most of them than you might think. they're generally more than a collection of pick-ups, ex-hippies and organic squash. 

almost every city and town has one, if only seasonally, especially when you get out into the countryside, and folks get very possessive of their favorites, sometimes making a point of going by every week just for the social value. at times they can seem more like county fairs than anything else.

which brings me to the subject of this year's version of the redding market, one of northern california's most interesting, at least lately. i have no idea what the organizational structure might be; since it's located in the little park behind city hall I have to believe that there's some level of local bureaucracy involved, but who or to what degree I don't know. however, whoever might be doing the job is doing okay.

not only do we have llama breeders peddling their knit-wares, but they're cheek-by-jowl with the pie lady (whose little individual-size peach pies were ass-kickers), the Asian-immigrant tomato/squash/cucumber/pepper farmers from chico, the olive farmer/oil producer from happy valley (pretty good table oil, but a tad precious in price), and the tamale ladies from down the street (Colima tamales, which one could happily live on, and which we'll have more to say about later), as well as 40 or 50 other farmer/vendors from shasta, tehama, glenn, and trinity counties, as well as parts unknown. as well as a different set of musicians each week, who settle fairly comfortably beneath the sparse shade, extension cords running this way and that, and making music of varying value.

and that brings me to the point (or one of them) of this post: once in a while you stumble on someone or something that surprises you in a pleasant way, and this summer Colima tamales were that someone/something that I was lucky enough to discover: they are wonderful, and I want to eat them regularly forever. i'll have more to say about this very soon, but all you have to do right now is wish that you were living somewhere you could get them. (if you are, say, in one of the above-mentioned counties, get yourself online and find their website to locate a place to buy them). not only are they delicious (melt-in-your-mouth so) but I'm pretty sure that I look exactly like robert redford for about an hour after I eat one.

and, to close for tonight, I have to say that there have been some pretty decent musicians on hand this year. I tried to get cards and/or names from the folks that caused me to stop and listen but missed some, or lost them after I got them, so don't feel right about naming names, but will try to come back to this after I can get my information straight. apologies where due.

more very soon, tomorrow probably, as I've got more to talk about, but ready for bed. the photo, by the way, is looking out across the far north valley off our deck after the first rain in almost 7 months at a double rainbow: thank you, Lord, life is good.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

starting over

i had 3/4 written a new posting, then decided to start over. I got bored with myself, I think, and re-reading what I had written earlier in the afternoon made me want to hit myself in the face. it just sounded preachy, and felt sort of like chewing on cardboard. anyway, it wasn't anything I wanted to go back to.

so, instead, I'm going to bore you with something different: workingmen's (and workingwomen's) wines. in truth, if you're taking the time to read this you probably aren't bored at all with the subject of good wines at down-to-earth prices. life is hard enough these days without trying to figure out how to pay for a good bottle of zin (my personal favorite, as you may or may not already know) to accompany your cheeseburger and b&m baked beans at dinner, so lighten up superstars in geyserville and calistoga, so the guys in plymouth and girls in vina (and a bunch of other little out-of-the-way rural ava's) can get some room to breathe.

at dinner in trinidad, at the eatery, last week, while waiting for a big plateful of beer-battered fish and chips (fresh cod, and boy was it good), I had a glass (2 actually) of sobon estate's old vine zin, which was fairly rich in slightly tarry blackberryish fruit, nicely balanced, and drinking beautifully. the little dining room was very busy, so I never had the nerve to ask the waitress to go check the vintage for me, but since the little restaurant shows no inclination to offer a captain's list or anything else that suggests they like the idea of tying up cash to age wines, I have to believe it was whatever is currently offered by the wholesaler, probably the 2012. full disclosure here, i was lee sobon's first-ever texas distributor back in the late 70s and early 80s, and have always liked his wines very much, some years being more impresive than others, but always good value to the wine lover. his cougar hill zins, I have to say, i have never failed to enjoy, and from time to time have ranked it in the top 10 red wine buys in the state in a particular vintage, at least in my humble opinion. the sobons aren't the only people making good wine in amador, certainly, but they are perhaps the most consistent, with renwood i suppose. if you love zin and don't know sobon's wines, seek them out; you'll find the effort worthwhile. you can find them at sobon family wines on the net.

sorry. I can't help going off on tangents from time to time; i find it important to pursue thoughts that mean something to me while they're available. my point is this: there are lots of people making good-to-very good wines at reasonable prices in every part of the state (California, that is), so there's no reason for you professionals out there to present crap wine lists to your clientele simply because you're too lazy to do the work and find them. if you are that big a slug, then hire someone else to do it for you, then get the hell out of their way and let them go to work. believe me, you'll reap great financial benefits, and your personal reputation in your local market will begin to show signs of improvement as soon as folks begin to take notice. I will tell you, very frankly, that there are few things in this world that infuriate me as much as a restaurateur who presents a decent menu, well thought out and conscientiously prepared by culinary professionals who care about their craft, who then ruins the experience for the knowledgeable and caring diner (especially me) by accompanying it with a piece-of-shit wine list. and there are a lot of you out there. anyway, I promise that if you just follow this one simple tip, your life will improve in every area, from sex to the respect of your fellow pros.

more on this subject soon. in the meantime, hook'em horns and drink zinfandel where appropriate.

have a good weekend.


Monday, November 3, 2014

semi-retirement is a pain in the butt

one of the many problems that come along with retirement (or, in my case, because i drive even myself crazy when i have nothing to do, "semi"-retirement, which allows me to go find something, anything, to do with myself that will take me away from home) is that you have an awful lot of time to think. for some of us, that's not good, as it tends to bring things to the retiree's attention that will further irritate him. this happens to me frequently.

  the thing that has caught my attention at present, and is irritating me a fair amount, is the unavoidable fact that the american wine industry has begun to take itself way too seriously. true enough, it hasn't yet gone as far out into left field as the french, who began entering the outskirts of the twilight zone in the early '70s (particularly the bordeaux producers), but given the fact that they had a couple of hundred years head start on the road to crazy, we're catching up pretty quickly. let's face the truth: a bottle of wine (even a very good one) shouldn't set the average winelover back to the tune of a car payment. in fairness, it doesn't seem right to lump everyone into the same pile; top-end california (and oregon) pinot producers don't seem to be as taken with themselves as the elite cabernet and merlot producers, but i have to generalize to a certain degree so that we can make a little headway. i also have to admit up front that i write almost strictly about west coast growers and winemakers, since my knowledge is focused where i live and breathe.

so, having said that, i need to clarify a couple of things before moving ahead. first, i need to bring forward the fact that i, in the company of several friends/partners, was one of the original pioneers of the california boutique wine movement (as it was known in the early days of the late '60s and into the '70s) in the state of texas, and did my fair share in establishing a market for the wines of ridge, chateau montelena, sutter home (back when they made real wines under the direction of bob trinchero), dry creek, trentadue, freemark abbey, foppiano, cuvaison, and many others, including some that are now disappeared (see gemello, yverdon, souverain, etc.). therefore, i feel entitled to express an opinion on the current state of affairs.

second, i strongly believe that we need to drag ourselves back to earth before the villagers get fed up and storm the castle. understand me: i love fine wines, and the finer the better. however, I don't like to pay, nor do I really want to see anyone else pay, a stupid price to enjoy them. a great piece of beef costs a certain number: okay, pay it. a great piece of fish costs a certain number: okay, pay it. PAY A FAIR PRICE FOR WHAT YOU RECEIVE, NOT A STUPID PRICE.  cabernet grapes (and chardonnay, and zinfandel, and pinot noir, and touriga nacional, and tempranillo, and a host of others are certainly difficult to grow, and really hard to grow at the very highest level, BUT THEY ARE GRAPES. and winemakers are like chefs: they are, to one degree or another, technicians with a degree of soul, but they are not gods and should not expect mortals to consider them to be such. their work is to be respected, not worshipped. come on!

further, there are a whole bunch of other hard crops to grow at the highest level: tomatoes, apples, berries of various types, etc., but they don't cost as much as a car, ever.

so, to summarize: let's get real. wine is a food. it's that simple. some foods are more enjoyable than others, true enough, but, as in love, there's someone for everyone.

I know you're bored. so am I. so let's move on. i'll come back to this soon enough, because it's like picking a scab or hitting 60 degree wedges at the range at night: I can't leave it alone.

something new tomorrow. see you then.