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Land of Plenty

California wine country is also fertile ground for fancy food -- much of which can be mail-ordered for the holidays

Posted: December 13, 2001

  Above: Maureen Connie (left) and Laura McGrath produce cheese at Marin County's Cowgirl Creamery.  
 
  How to Get It  
 
Wine and Food Toys
  Artisan Profiles:  
 
  Made in Napa Valley  
 
  Vella Cheese  
 
  Scharffen Berger Chocolate  
 

America's breadbasket may be the Midwest, but California wine country is fast becoming the nation's gourmet pantry, stocking home and restaurant kitchens with the staples of the good life, from mustard and olive oil to artisanal cheeses and foie gras. Some of these products, such as Consorzio oils and dressings, Laura Chenel goat cheese and Kozlowski Farms jams, are easily found in supermarkets around the country, but there is also a new generation of exciting smaller producers arriving on the scene. And while their wares might not be sold at your local grocery, most can be mail-ordered.

Good cheese is especially plentiful. This is not surprising given Northern California's history -- at one time, this region hosted many more dairies than vineyards. While many of today's best artisanal producers are relative newcomers, a few have been at it for decades. Vella Cheese Company has been making delicious wheels and wedges of jack and cheddar since 1931, including Ig Vella's celebrated dry-aged Monterey Jack and the new Mezzo Secco. The Marin French Cheese Company, which is actually in Sonoma County, has been in business even longer; they've produced Rouge et Noir brie since 1900. In Santa Rosa, Joe Matos has been producing his cheddary, nutty, raw-milk St. George cheese since 1979. Matos follows a recipe he brought from his homeland, the island of São Jorge in the Portuguese Azores. The popular Zuni Café, in San Francisco, makes a fabulous grilled cheese sandwich with his cheese.

Olive oil, too, goes way back in Northern California. The Spanish missionaries who gave California its first grapevines also planted its first olive trees. It wasn't until recently, however, that California olive oil began attracting serious attention from the gourmet world. In 1990, Ridgely Evers imported cuttings from near Lucca in Italy and planted them on his ranch in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley; his peppery, intensely flavored DaVero Olive Oil now rivals Tuscany's best. St. Pierre oils, processed in Sonoma County's Rohnert Park, have been earning critical acclaim in recent years. The St. Pierre "Tuscan style" is actually an Italian-American hybrid, with the upfront herbal and soft peppery quality of a Tuscan oil, as well as the fresh buttery texture and flavor that's more typical of California. Olive Olive Oil, in Marin County, best known for its exotic flavored olive oils (blood orange and red grapefruit, among others), also makes a wonderfully bright and forward extra-virgin olive oil (and a brilliant Zinfandel vinegar).

Then there's meat. Niman Ranch, prized by chefs throughout the nation for its premium, organic free-range meats -- pork, ham, bacon and sausage, tender lamb and beautifully marbled beef -- is hidden in the bucolic hills of Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Sonoma County Poultry is more of a local star, producer of the Liberty duck served at The French Laundry, Chez Panisse and Spago. "It's going to cost you a little bit more," admits owner Jim Reichardt, who sells limited amounts retail. "But the customer can tell the difference."

Packaged gourmet foods from wine country are especially hot these days. Napa Valley, in particular, is a name that sells. But it takes more than the name to sustain success. Made in Napa Valley is one producer that has a lot of original goods to offer -- 40 products in all, from tapenades to pasta sauces. Another company to watch is tiny Napa Valley Pantry, maker of a small line of upscale baking mixes and dessert toppings.

For dessert, there are wine-country biscotti made by the eight-year-old Splendido Biscotti of Sonoma County. The biscuits are a bit sweeter than Italian imports, and not as hard, since "Americans aren't dippers," says co-owner Debbie Dyar. Scharffen Berger chocolate qualifies as "made in wine country," sort of -- it comes out of a turn-of-the-century brick warehouse in Berkeley.

And of course there's fruit -- fruit other than grapes, that is: apples, peaches, pears, plums and figs. Sonoma County was once among the apple capitals of the country, but many of the orchards were torn out to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Twin Hill Ranch, in Sebastopol, is one of the few family-owned orchards remaining. The Hurst family has been farming apples since 1942 and they ship 10 different varieties. They specialize in the region's most famous apple, the obscure but richly flavored Gravenstein.

This list could go on. There are also dozens of purveyors of fresh vegetables, lettuce greens, handmade breads, berries, nuts and more. "From a chef's perspective," Ogden says, "this is really the best place to cook."


For the complete article, please see the Dec. 15, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 83. (
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How to Get It

Cheese

Cowgirl Creamery
(415) 663-9335, www.cowgirlcreamery.com. The Creamery is also home to Tomales Bay Foods (www.tomalesbay foods.com), which carries most of the cheeses mentioned in this article, many in attractive holiday gift packs.

Marin French Cheese Company
(800) 292-6001, www.marinfrenchcheese.com

Marin French Cheese Company
(800) 292-6001, www.marinfrenchcheese.com

Matos Cheese Factory
(707) 584-5283

Redwood Hill Farm
(707) 823-8250, www.redwoodhill.com

Vella Cheese Company
(800) 848-0505, www.vellacheese.com

 

Olive Oil

DaVero Olive Oil
(707) 431-8000, www.davero.com

Nick Sciabica & Sons
(800) 551-9612, www.sciabica.com

O Olive Oil
(888) 827-7148, www.ooliveoil.com

St. Pierre Olive Oil
(707) 585-9955, www.stpierreproducts.com

 

Meat and Poultry

Niman Ranch
(510) 808-0340, www.nimanranch.com

Sonoma County Poultry
(800) 953-8257, www.libertyducks.com

Sonoma Foie Gras
(800) 427-4559, www.sonomafoiegras.com

 

Packaged Foods

Lulu
(888) 693-5800, www.restaurantlulu.com/gourmet.html

Made in Napa Valley
(707) 253-7655, www.madeinnapavalley.com

Napa Style
(866) 776-6272, www.napastyle.com

Napa Valley Pantry
(866) 256-3070, www.napavalleyfoods.com/napvalpan.html

 

Fruit and Sweets

Scharffen Berger Chocolates
(510) 981-4066, www.scharffenberger.com

Splendido Biscotti
(707) 778-6399

Twin Hill Ranch
(707) 823-2815, www.twinhillranch.com

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