|Above: John Scharffenberger|
|Made in Napa Valley|
Walk with John Scharffenberger though his Berkeley chocolate factory -- inhaling the toasty rich aroma as you go -- and you'll hear chocolate discussed in language normally reserved for wine. Words like "tannin" and "finish" aren't commonly used to describe chocolate, but Scharffenberger, once a leading maker of California sparkling wine, can't help it.
"Frankly, we were lost until I started looking at chocolate like I did wine," he says. "We started thinking about the difference between hard and soft tannins in chocolate, for example -- the difference between a chocolate that's soft and delicious with little sugar and one that has to be sweet to be good."
Scharffenberger spent 14 years producing some of California's best sparkling wine at Scharffenberger Cellars in Mendocino's Anderson Valley. Now he's banking on America's increasingly sophisticated sweet tooth, producing only bittersweet and semisweet chocolate for connoisseurs who prefer less sugar and a more intense chocolate flavor. It's sold as bars, sauce, cocoa powder and cocoa nibs.
"We make one of the few bittersweet chocolates you can actually eat," Scharffenberger says of his darkest variety, which is reminiscent of espresso and Cabernet. "There's not a big difference in sugar between the bittersweet and the semisweet. It's all in the beans. The semisweet is less intense than the bittersweet. You get a rounder, creamier element and the midpalate is more distinct."
The company, just four years old now, produces about 400,000 pounds of chocolate annually. The turn-of-the-century Berkeley factory is stocked with vintage machinery imported from Europe. Beans are imported from countries such as Venezuela, Madagascar and Trinidad, fermented and then slowly roasted. "Then we add cane sugar and vanilla and that's it," Scharffenberger says.
Sound simple? It's not. Finding the right beans -- the task of founding partner Robert Steinberg -- is most of the battle. And like winemakers picking grapes by flavor, Scharffen Berger's chocolate makers roast each batch to taste. Blending, too, is done with great care, as some chocolate beans are more full-bodied than others, often with strong elements of cherry, tobacco or coffee.
"The craft of making wine trains your palate so accurately. And when you get out into the food world it really makes a difference."
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