Mobile Food Trucks Provide Lessons in Online MarketingPosted on November 27, 2012
In Sacramento, as in other cities like San Francisco and New York, mobile food trucks are experiencing a kind of renaissance. ("Sweeping the food world from coast to coast," says one article, which notes that there are more than 9,500 food trucks in Los Angeles alone.)
Here in Sacramento, a few of these “mobile kitchens” have banded together to create an organization called Sacramento Mobile Food, or SactoMoFo, which lobbies on their behalf and helps promote the mobile truck vendors in the group. (SacFoodMob is another organization in the area with similar goals.)
SactoMoFo promotes mobile food in the Sacramento region.
SactoMoFo and the small business owners that belong to this group are savvy marketers and heavy users of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, to get the word out to their fans and announce daily locations for the various food trucks.
Mobile food trucks like Drewski's rely on social media.
SactoMoFo also organizes events that feature many of the vendors, such as the Truck & Mortar Throwdown. These events can generate a great deal of traffic for the mobile food trucks on the day of the event, but they’re also valuable for the buzz they create within the food community.
Truck and Mortar Throwdown is a collaboration between mobile food trucks and the broader food and wine community
Evidence of the success of Sacramento’s mobile food trucks – and their shrewd marketing efforts – is the fact that some of these vendors are expanding by opening brick-and-mortar establishments. The very successful Krush Burger is planning to open a restaurant in December 2012, and Wicked Wich recently opened Broderick Restaurant & Bar in West Sacramento. At least a couple of food trucks operate restaurants inside other establishments such as Drewski’s Hot Rod Kitchen within Republic Bar & Grill.
Clearly, the mobile food truck has proven a good model for how to start and grow a business. The marketing approach, with its heavy reliance on social media, may be new, but the business model is based on a tried-and-true formula: start small, develop a good product that customers are hungry for, build a loyal fan base, and then expand.
Those of us who are starting or running small businesses (whether in food and wine or not) can learn a lot from their success.
PS. Mobile food trucks aren't the only ones who appreciate the value of social media. Many large, successful wineries get the value of social media too.
2009 Trefethen Harmony: A Fitting Name for a Beautiful ChardonnayPosted on November 26, 2012
"Harmony" is Trefethen's reserve chardonnay, and the 2009 vintage is a stunning example of how good California chardonnay can be.
If you're like me, you don't drink a lot of this varietal. There are so many interesting white wines on the market these days, now that the dominance of California chardonnay seems to have subsided somewhat. From crisp whites like Clarksburg chenin blanc to floral whites like roussanne and viognier, grown increasingly in regions like the Sierra foothills, California white wines offer consumers a much broader range of flavors today.
Moreover, the buttery, toasty style of California chardonnay became a tiresome cliché, something to be avoided – not only because it was overdone, but because too often it wasn't done well. Too much new oak combined with overripe, low-acid fruit, accentuated by malolactic fermentation resulted in wines that quickly tired the palate. For these reasons I have mostly avoided chardonnay recently.
But every once in a while you encounter one that surprises you, renews your interest, gives you hope. For me, Trefethen 2009 Harmony Chardonnay is one of those wines, a chardonnay that is stunning not for its intensity but for its balance and, yes, its harmony. This is a beautifully integrated and polished wine that deftly brings together the elements of fruit, oak, acid, texture, and finish. Gorgeous and elegant in its presentation, like a Vivaldi string quartet. A wine that can be appreciated on its own but by no means sates the palate or makes food pairing impossible.
The only down side is the price. This wine is available on Trefethen's website for $50. That's not crazy expensive, but the price means that for most of us the 2009 Trefethen Harmony Chardonnay is a wine for a special occasion. If you do indulge however, do so soon. This is not a wine to hold for many months or years. It's beautiful right now and should be tasted at its peak.
* Note: Photo borrowed from the Trefethen website.
Wayfare Tavern: For the Hearty TravelerPosted on November 15, 2012
Tyler Florence's San Francisco restaurant, Wayfare Tavern, is not for the faint of heart.
If your doctor has recently increased your cholesterol medication; if he has extolled the virtues of raw corn bran and advised you to seek out sprouted wheat; if he's prescribed more real exercise and less armchair quarterbacking – this restaurant may not be for you.
Wayfare Tavern* is a bold restaurant with big flavors, good-sized portions, and enough butter to permanently clog a vegan's arteries. Restaurant owner Tyler Florence is better known for his presence on Food Network. He's also published multiple cook books and he owns a small luxury kitchen supply store, the Tyler Florence Shop, in Mill Valley, Calif. He opened Wayfare Tavern in June of 2010 in the space previously occupied by long-time restaurant, Rubicon.
According to the website, Wayfare Tavern features "authentic American dishes inspired by local cuisine at the turn of the 20th century." I couldn't attest to that, not having been around in the early 1900s, but to my thinking the architecture and design suggest that time period more than the food does. With its dark, carved wood and stuffed animals mounted on the walls, the space might easily conjure up the atmosphere of San Francisco in the gold-rush boom. By contrast, I thought the food was decidedly more contemporary (if not exactly modernist).
Julie and I walked to the restaurant from Sir Francis Drake, our hotel on Union Square. Walking seemed like the appropriate mode of transportation to a place called Wayfare Tavern. (We were, after all, wayfarers.) We arrived early and were seated immediately, despite the restaurant being quite busy. Our small table at the back had a nice view out into the restaurant for watching people and activity in the kitchen. The service, if not memorable, was fine. Our waitress seemed a bit nervous, but she was perfectly competent. The place was lively and noisy, but not overly so. Where we sat, we could comfortably carry on a conversation.
The food was mostly good – at times great, at other times okay. Rather than bread, patrons are served popovers straight from the oven. And yes, they were crazy good. Of course I slathered mine with butter, because I rather like gilded lilies.
We both had caesar salad, which I thought was an interesting but ultimately unsuccessful spin on the formula. It was essentially a deconstructed salad, each element separated out, as if for the diner to reconstruct. Each plate contained intact hearts of romain, whole roasted cloves of garlic, whole white anchovies, a small pile of herbs, and a light dressing. Again, interesting. But kind of odd.
Julie had petrale sole in a chowder broth with clams, bacon and butter, and it was tasty and quite rich. I had grilled rib eye, dry aged, and it was spectacular. The flavor of the steak and its tenderness were as good as any I've ever had. The sauce and vegetables that accompanied it were rich (remember that I mentioned something about butter?) and delicious. That plate was ridiculously good.
For dessert we split a chocolate cream pie. Neither of us was hungry at that point – and yet, we had to try it. Chocolate cream pie is one of my favorites, and the restaurant is known for it. This one? It was okay. I used to make chocolate cream pie when I was a pastry chef for Paragary's in Sacramento, so I may be hard to please.
Overall, I thought it was a solid effort. Not stellar, but solid. The price, including tip, tax, and wine, came to $220 for two of us.
In other words, it was not inexpensive. And for just a bit more, Julie and I had dinner a few weeks back at Redd in Yountville, which was unbelievably good. Fantastically good in every way. Redd is an A or A+. I'd give Wayfare Tavern a B, verging on B+. I would be tempted to say it was better than that, but when you drop two bills for a meal you want the experience to be extraordinary, which it wasn't.
* Note: Photo borrowed from the Wayfare Tavern website.
Home Winemaking: A Story Told (Mostly) in PicturesPosted on October 30, 2012
In September of this year (2012), Julianne Nola and I embarked on a little adventure: making zinfandel wine. This is that story, told primarily in photos.
2012 zinfandel grapes, nearly ready to harvest. These aren't from the same vineyard where our grapes came from, but they're similar of course. By comparison to cabernet sauvignon, for example, zinfandel grapes are large. They're also inconsistent in size and ripening. Notice that some of the berries near the top of the cluster are starting to "raisin."
Home winemaking supplies. We purchased most of these supplies from Napa Fermentation Supplies, a wonderful resource for both home winemakers and pros.
Each of these macro bins holds a half ton of grapes. The grapes were split among a dozen or so people, each person getting enough to make 5 or 10 gallons of wine.
The grapes came from the vineyards of Amador Cellars in the Sierra foothills. They were picked on September 29, 2012. Notice the raisining that has affected some of the grapes. This is not a bad thing; it's typical of zinfandel grapes. But it does affect the wine by raising the brix (sugar level) and ultimately the alcohol level.
Neal Shleffar, a member of Sacramento Home Winemakers, unloads grapes from the macro bin into a small bucket where they're weighed before going into the destemmer/crusher. (Neal is currently in the initial stages of creating his own label.)
The destemmer/crusher, bright and shiny, ready for action. The crush happened on September 29, 2012 at the home of Henry Wilkinson, another SHW member, who graciously offered his driveway as a "crush pad."
Sanitation, we learned, is very important in winemaking. Everything was cleaned with a mixture of SO2 and water. Bleach, by the way, is a big no-no, not to be used anywhere near winemaking equipment. Even chlorinated water is to be avoided.
And so it begins.
Winemaking is kind of a messy, sticky process, as it turns out.
Roughly 13 gallons (125 lbs.) of grape must, direct from the destemmer/crusher. The must is a combination of grape pulp, skins, seeds, stems, an occasional leaf, and juice. It's quite sweet, like concord grape juice.
Bill Staehlin, current vice president of SHW, demonstrating the process of measuring brix in the must. (What is brix?). After pressing, the brix measured 24.5 degrees. However, as the raisins absorbed water and released their sugars, the brix climbed to 28.5 degrees. At that point, we added water to bring the brix back down to 26 degrees.
The Hyde-Nola winery. Or, as the partner in this winery (my girlfriend) says, the Nola-Hyde winery. At this point the grapes, skins, etc., are macerating. It's a cold soak intended to extract color and flavor from the skins for a couple days prior to fermentation. In the must are 3 frozen bottles of water that cooled the must and kept it from getting above 80 degrees.
After a two days of maceration, we "pitched" the yeast and fermentation began.
Using frozen water bottles when necessary, we kept the temperature of the fermenting must to around 65 degrees. (The red object is a floating thermometer.) We wanted a long, cool fermentation.
Every day we checked the brix with our hydrometer. As this photo shows, the brix at this point (8 days after pitching the yeast) was just under 10 degrees.
We tasted our wine at every opportunity. It's been fascinating seeing it evolve and change from sweet grape juice to actual, almost drinkable wine.
On Tuesday, October 26 at 6 a.m., 19 days after crush, we pressed our wine. The wine hadn't quite finished primary fermentation. We measured the brix at 1.5 degrees.
The "cake" is what's left after you press the must. It's composed of a grape skins, stems, and a lot of seeds. A surprising amount. We didn't press very hard. The free-run juice is supposed to be the best. We did taste the free-run juice side by side with some pressed juice, and we did indeed feel that the free-run had a deeper flavor.
After the pressing, the wine immediately went into a five-gallon carboy and a one-gallon jar (which I believe originally held some delicious Carlo Rossi Burgundy).
One day after pressing, we inoculated the wine with Viniflora CH16, a bacteria that converts malic acid into lactic acid. The wine then went into a dark cool closet to sit for 14 days while the bacteria did its thing. The conversion of malic acid into lactic acid (aka malolactic fermentation) gives the wine body, texture, and complexity.
This was our not-so-elegant racking operation. Racking is a process of separating the wine from its lees, the layer of sediment that settles out of the wine as it sits. This was our first racking, and I wouldn't say it was exactly flawless. It won't be our last either, so hopefully we'll get better at it. We're planning to rack again in another 6 to 8 weeks.
The story is not over, of course. The wine is not bad, but it's very young. Also, it could really benefit from the addition of some oak. More about that later.
This process started a month ago, and now the wine needs to age and develop over the next 18 months. Stay tuned.
PS. For a different (but similar) take on the home-winemaking process, see "The Big Squeeze" on Gin's Kitchen blog.
Heibel Ranch Vineyards: Years in the MakingPosted on October 5, 2012
Trent Ghiringhelli has a plan.
As the winemaker at Heibel Ranch Vineyards (and one of the owners, along with his mother, stepfather, and wife), Trent has already invested nearly a third of his life in this family business – clearing land, planting vineyards, picking the first crop, bottling that first vintage. Always with a vision of the future. Thinking long-term. Operating on a 25-year plan.
Trent Ghiringhelli isn’t what you’d call impulsive. "In this business, you need to have a vision," he says. "And you need to stick to your guns."
A New Winery with a 60-Year History
Heibel Ranch Vineyards is part of land that was originally owned by Trent’s grandfather, George Bennet Heibel. In 1945, Heibel purchased the historic Aetna Springs Resort in beautiful Pope Valley. Once a popular destination for politicians and celebrities from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Aetna Springs Resort is not as well-known as it once one. Today it sits peacefully in this quiet valley tucked into the mountains that separate Napa Valley from Sacramento Valley.
George Heibel owned Aetna Springs Resort until 1973. He sold most of the property then, but kept 600 acres, which were divided among his children when he died in 1979. George’s daughter Helen Nelson (Trent’s mother) was given 186 acres on the north-east side of Howell Mountain.
In 1999, Trent, Helen, and Bruce Nelson (Trent’s stepfather) began working on a plan to convert some of the ranch to vineyards. Starting modestly, they cleared a small parcel of land and, in 2003, planted two acres of vines. Half they planted to cabernet sauvignon, with the remainder planted to petite sirah and zinfandel. The first harvest was 2006, and with it Heibel Ranch Vineyards achieved its first major milestone. In 2013 Heibel Ranch Vineyards will release its fifth vintage of wines from estate-grown grapes.
From a business perspective, developing vineyards is a long, slow process, an investment that won’t see a return for many years. But Trent is in no hurry. These things take time. Trent wants Heibel Ranch Vineyards to mature slowly, like great wine, expressing a sense of place and time. A sense of history and purpose.
For Trent and Helen especially, this is more than just a business. It’s a heritage. Their dedication to this land, their desire to farm it and produce world-class wine, is also about preserving a sense of history, family, and place. And that may partly explains why Trent thinks not in terms of months or years, but decades and generations. He told me he’d like to see this business thrive, and in so doing honor the memory of his grandfather while creating a legacy for his kids and grandkids.
Touring the Property
By now, the zinfandel, cabernet, and petite sirah grapes have all been picked, but when I toured Heibel Ranch Vineyards in mid-September with Trent and two new customers of his, the grapes hung heavy on the vines, not quite ready. Trent graciously offered the morning to us – a ride through the vineyards in his vintage army jeep with his yellow lab Chachi running alongside.
We passed under oak and old madrone trees with their curling bark, past scrub brush and manzanita with its dense, hard red wood. This land, Trent told us, was perfect. “When you see madrone and manzanita growing side by side, you know you’ve found the sweet spot for vineyards,” he said. "That’s an indication of world-class soil."
The vineyards are spring-fed and drip irrigated – very carefully. Like most vineyard managers, Trent keeps a close eye to ensure that the vines are sufficiently stressed to produce great quality fruit. This region of Northern California is hot and dry, and Pope Valley even more so. Like most of California, the area can receive almost no rain from May through November. The vines likely wouldn’t survive without any water, but too much irrigation can yield fruit that is plump and wine that is soft and indistinct.
Water isn’t the only issue that Trent has to manage. Sitting on the backside of Howell Mountain, the vineyards are also home to deer, birds, squirrels, and other critters that inhabit the surrounding woods. Noticing that Trent doesn’t use netting to protect the ripening grapes, I asked him about the friends he shares this land with. Wasn’t he worried about them eating into his profits, as it were?
"We have to give the wildlife its due," he says, "and after all, it’s a small cost." But again, in this family business profit isn’t the sole motivation. "It’s about responsible land use," Trent says. This is land that once belonged to Trent’s grandfather, and that now belongs to Trent’s mother. They want this land to remain in their family, to pass down to the next generation. So protecting it is as important as using it. Which helps explain why Trent considers himself a "steward" of the land.
Tasting Heibel Ranch Vineyard Wines
Our tour of the property and vineyards ended at the old Aetna Springs Resort, which is now owned by a company that is planning to restore its former glory. We sat outside in the breezeway of the oldest building, next to the office where Trent’s grandfather worked some 50 or 60 years earlier. It was an appropriate place to enjoy some beautiful wines, born from vines grown on land his grandfather once owned. “I didn’t really know him,” Trent told us (his grandfather died when Trent was a young child), “so this place is my connection to him.”
We tasted several of Trent’s wine that morning, and they were all well made and delicious. These two were outstanding:
2009 Lappa’s Napa Valley Red. This wine is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petite sirah, and zinfandel. Except for the cab franc, the fruit is estate grown. The wine is gorgeous and fruit forward, with a lush and elegant texture, balanced oak, and soft tannins. It’s an approachable wine that’s ready to drink now (why wait?). Only 266 cases produced. Available to purchase here.
2009 GBH Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. 100% estate grown. This is a dense, complex wine with layers of evolving flavors: eucalyptus, black cherry, cigar, tobacco. It’s youthful and could really benefit from some time in the bottle, but what a beautiful wine it is already.
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International Grenache Day: September 21, 2012Posted on September 21, 2012
Today is International Grenache Day. (I always wonder who decides things like that.) When I was in my mid-twenties and discovering wine, I thought of grenache like "burgundy," a light, sweet, and fruity wine. I'm not sure where that perception came from. Certainly it's true that grenache doesn't typically make wine as deep and tannic as cabernet sauvignon. It cannot abide as much oak as cabernet. But in the right hands and grown in the right region, grenache can make an impressive wine with great structure and the ability to age for decades.
Grenache is the leading red grape of the southern Rhône valley, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It's also growing in popularity in California, especially in the Sierra foothills and the region around San Luis Obispo. Here, as in the Rhône, it's often blended with syrah and mourvèdre in what's called a GSM wine. According to The Wine Bible, there's good reason to blend: "In the southern Rhône's hot, dry climate, such classic grapes as syrah can lose their focus and intensity. Other, less noble grapes may adapt well to the heat, but they rarely possess enough character on their own to make a satisfactory wine. Blending is a way of creating a whole wine that is more than the sum of its parts." The same hot, dry climate is present in much of California, of course.
All this is a preamble to a reminder about grenache tastings today organized by the Rhone Rangers. I'm going to Caverna 57 in Sacramento to taste grenache from the Sierra foothills, including Holly's Hill Vineyards, Sierra Vista Vineyards and Winery, Crystal Basin Cellars Winery, and others. More information about this event here: International Grenache Day.
To learn more about grenache tastings in other areas around California, see the Rhone Rangers website.
Winemaking: Part Science, Part Magic, 100% ExcitingPosted on September 10, 2012
It’s harvest time!
For everyone in the wine business, this is the critical moment. Fall marks the end of one very important phase and the beginning of another, as wine moves from vineyard to cellar. It's the busiest and most exciting time of the year.
The vines have given everything they have to give. And now it’s time for the winemakers – and Saccharomyces Cerevisiae – to work their magic, mysteriously transforming these round globes of sweet grape juice into something even more splendid and beautiful.
For those of us who have only been on the receiving end in the business of wine, what happens at harvest and afterward is largely a mystery. We know that grapes ripen; they're picked, crushed, and fermented; and the product is aged, bottled, and shipped at some future point when it's deemed ready for consumption. But what actually happens during that whole process?
This year, for the first time, I'm about to find out – and I hope to share my experience with you.
Home Winemaking 101: Learning from Sacramento Home Winemakers
As part of my journey to launch my new business, I’ve been immersing myself in the food-and-wine scene in Sacramento and Northern California, including learning as much as I can about local restaurants, wineries, and related organizations, such as Slow Food Sacramento.
One of the organizations I discovered is the Sacramento Home Winemakers Club (SHW), which has been around for several decades and is a tremendous resource for those who want to make quality wine at home. It’s also one of the most respected home winemaking clubs anywhere.
I stumbled upon SHW through a Slow Food Sacramento newsletter in early August, and for me it was quite a serendipitous discovery. A brief mention in the newsletter about learning to make zinfandel, followed by an email exchange with the SHW membership coordinator, and I was on my way. Six weeks later, the group I joined is about to go through its first harvest and crush. I couldn’t be more excited.
The zinfandel grapes for this crush come from Amador Cellars near Plymouth, Calif., in Shenandoah Valley, the heart of Amador wine country. The group as a whole is purchasing one ton of grapes, and each novice winemaker will buy about 125 pounds, enough to make five gallons of wine (a little over 2 cases). Home winemaking veterans from SHW will guide us novices through every step of the process, from measuring the pH and brix of the newly crushed grapes to inoculating with yeast, punching down the must, racking, and aging.
Equipment and Costs for Home Winemaking
Between my first email to the membership coordinator until the day of the crush, I’ve been on a journey to absorb as much as possible about winemaking. One of my first steps was a trip to Napa Fermentation Supplies to procure all the necessary equipment and supplies. (NFS is a great resource for both home and professional winemakers.) The list of supplies includes yeast, yeast nutrients, malolactic culture, M/L nutrients, SO2, tartaric acid, floating thermometer, hydrometer, fermenting bucket, fermentation air lock, 5-gal carboy, racking equipment, funnel, brushes, and more. What I haven’t bought yet are bottles and corks, but those won’t be needed for another 18 months.
Altogether I’ve spent about $200. The grapes will cost another $100. Add in 750 ml bottles and other equipment and supplies I could end up needing, and the final cost should be approximately $15 per bottle for this initial batch. It’s not inexpensive, but if I make wine again next year I’ll have most of the equipment I’ll need, and my primary cost will be the grapes and bottles. That should bring the cost down to about $5 to $7 per bottle.
Over the next few months, I will document this process with detailed notes and update this blog with my experiences and lessons learned. I hope you’ll find this little journey of mine interesting enough to inspire you to give winemaking a try next year.