Today we unveil a preview of the new website for 26 Brix. We expect the new site, which will be built with responsive web design, to be live in the next couple of weeks. There’s much work to be done between now and then, but we’re getting close. Here’s a preview*:

New Website Design for 26 Brix

* Please note that the copy in this design is "for placement only."

In the new website, we wanted to create a model for our clients in both design and technology. Our design aesthetic is driven by a modern sensibility, emphasizing simplicity, richness of color and texture, and strong use of photography. Wherever possible, we are striving to minimize the amount of copy and to use visual cues such as icons and graphics to support a visual user experience.

From a technology perspective, we started with mobile. Research indicates that people are increasingly viewing websites on smartphones and tablets and using traditional desktop browsers less and less. For the mobile experience, there are generally two routes:

1. A single responsive web design that accommodates all devices (from smartphones to desktops)

2. A separate, unique mobile site ( that is redirected from the traditional website ( when a user is on a smartphone or tablet

We opted for responsive web design, as we think it creates a better user experience in most situations. And we believe that for most small businesses it’s a more cost-effective approach.

On a smartphone then, the 26 Brix website will look like this:

New Mobile Version of 26 Brix Website

Wharton Wines: Emphasis on Family

Posted on August 27, 2012

What goes into a bottle of wine? What’s behind the label? Where does your favorite wine come from?

To be clear, I’m not asking about the location of the vineyard or tasting room. I’m not asking about the varietal, whether the winemaker used French or American oak, or how long the wine was aged. I’m talking here about people. I’m talking about the person whose name is on the label. For some consumers, that means something.

For others (and perhaps for most), price and quality are what matter. Many consumers are not particularly interested in who makes the wine they buy – whether it comes from a big producer for whom wine is strictly a profit-driven business, or a small winery for whom wine is some mixture of livelihood and labor of love.

Perhaps like me, though, you are interested in supporting and getting to know small, family-owned businesses. If so, let me introduce you to Geoff and Rhonda Wharton of Wharton Wines in Napa Valley.

Geoff and Rhonda Wharton

Small and Family-Owned: Unique in Napa Valley

Wharton Wines is the very definition of a small family business, and in that respect they’re not like the typical Napa Valley winery. Take a drive up highway 29 from Carneros to Calistoga and you can’t help but admire the stately wineries that line the road, with their beautiful vineyards and elegant tasting rooms. As Geoff pointed out when he, Rhonda, and I spoke recently, for many of these wineries money is no object. There is no shortage of corporate investment in this area, and many wineries are in fact part of large conglomerates like Constellation Brands that own dozens of wineries (and other businesses).

Not so with Wharton Wines. Unlike the great Napa estates, these are truly vins de garage, as they say in Bordeaux. “The fact that we’re a small winery and family-owned is something that people care about,” Geoff says. In an industry where each winery must compete with thousands of other labels, being small and family-owned is a point of differentiation – and pride – for Geoff Wharton. His customers like the idea that they know the winemaker himself, that they know where the wine comes from.

And when Geoff says “small,” he really means tiny. In 2008, the Whartons made 115 cases of wine. This year they expect to make about 200. Each year they hope to increase capacity slowly and steadily, with the long-term goal of reaching 2,000 cases. (By way of comparison, consider Robert Mondavi Wines; just up the road from the Whartons’ home, Mondavi produces several hundred thousand cases per year.)

By remaining small, the Whartons can focus on quality and value. “Our goal is to make great wine at a reasonable price,” Geoff says. The retail price of both the 2008 and the 2009 Wharton Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon was just $30, a modest price for wines of this quality. These are beautiful wines that are comparable to Napa or Sonoma cabs at twice the price. My tasting notes from the 2008 cabernet describe it this way: “Good structure with sturdy tannins and oak balanced by bright fruit and classic cabernet flavors of eucalyptus and mint.”

Unfortunately both 2008 and 2009 are also sold out. The 2010 will be bottled in mid-September and available for purchase shortly there after.

For Wharton Wines, Giving is Growing

2010 Wharton Napa Valley ChardonnayOne quality of family businesses that appeal to me is that they often make decisions that are not motivated by profit or “shareholder value.” In 2010, for example, the Whartons produced a few dozen cases of chardonnay, and did so for reasons other than financial. I wrote about this wine in an earlier blog post, noting flavors of lime, butterscotch, pear, and wet stones. However, I also noted that perhaps the wine’s most important quality was something you couldn’t taste, see, or smell.

Rhonda Wharton tells the story: “Geoff and I were out walking one day, and he said he’d like to make a chardonnay to honor his father, who had been diagnosed a couple years back with lung cancer. Chardonnay was his dad’s favorite wine.” The Whartons donated the net proceeds from the sale of their 2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay to the Lung Cancer Foundation of America in Al Wharton’s name. “Unfortunately his father wasn’t able to taste the wine, but we were able to share that vision with him before he died. I’m very proud of Geoff for doing that,” Rhonda says, noting Geoff’s strong sense of family and civic responsibility.

Geoff Wharton and his father Al

Geoff Wharton and his father Al

Another way the Whartons give back to the community is by pouring their wines at charity events. Supporting causes like cancer research through wine tastings allows the Whartons to do good with their business while also building awareness for their wine. In fact, it was at just such an event earlier this year that I met Geoff and Rhonda and discovered their wine.

Because Wharton Wines is such a small producer whose wines sell out quickly, it’s not possible for them to have a tasting room. “A ton of people want to visit us after tasting our wine,” Geoff says, recognizing that not having a tasting room is a limitation. As a result, they must find more creative ways to market their product and develop a customer base. Participating in charity wine tastings has been an effective approach for them, a win/win that’s good for the business and good for the heart.

“We create great relationships through the tastings we participate in,” Geoff says, and the people they meet often become regular customers. It’s definitely a slow process. But for many small businesses like Wharton Wines, that’s how you grow, one customer at a time. At the end of the day, it really is about the relationship, isn’t it?

To learn more about Wharton Wines, visit their website.

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What’s Your Story? We’d Like to Share it.

Do you run a small business in food and wine – or know someone who does? At 26 Brix, we’re always on the lookout for good stories to tell in our blog. We like to promote people and businesses who are doing original, creative work, who have a great story to tell. Through our website and social media (especially Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook), we’re building an audience of people who also appreciate food and wine and like to support local businesses.

Can we help you tell your story? We don’t charge for this work; it’s our way of supporting and participating in the restaurant and winery community. Please contact us if you’re interested in having a story written about your business.

Filed under Wineries | Leave a Comment

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When it gives you olives, make extra virgin oil.

Frate Sole Extra Virgin Olive OilJim and Andrea Mayer, who started the Frate Sole Olive Oil Company, have taken that lesson to heart – and built a growing business in the process. Frate Sole is a small-production, high-quality extra virgin olive oil produced in Yolo County on the Mayers’ 20-acre farm outside Woodland, Calif. I met Jim and Andrea in late July, sampled their oil, and spent part of a warm Sunday afternoon talking to them about how they got started in the olive oil business.

As it turns out, producing olive oil was not necessarily their plan. But when you’re given lemons…

The Mayers had lived in Sacramento since the mid-1980s, and began looking for land in Yolo County in the early 1990s. They value environmental stewardship and were especially interested in land restoration. Their goal was not merely to own land, but to find a space where they could have a positive impact.

The parcel they acquired offered an opportunity for the Mayers to put their values into practice. Although it was in the heart of Central Valley farmland and was surrounded by other farms, this particular 20-acre parcel had been fallow for many years. Too small for crops like tomatoes or alfalfa, with relatively poor soil and drainage, the land was not appealing to a large commercial farmer. And it was in desperate need of TLC. It was a perfect spot for a small family like the Mayers to begin their farming business.

Although they did not have prior farming experience, the Mayers found themselves in a good environment for learning. Yolo County has long been a significant agricultural region, especially for growing canning tomatoes. (Often on summer mornings, the smell of tomatoes from the local processing plant in Woodland is thick in the air.) The county is also home to the University of California Davis, a major research center for agriculture and food sciences. And the area supports an enthusiastic organic farming community and lively farmer’s markets, including the well-known Davis Farmers Market. As a result, the county nurtures an environment where small farmers can grow, experiment, learn, and, with hard work and persistence, succeed.

Having acquired their land, the Mayers had to decide what to grow. They needed a crop that could thrive there while offering commercial potential. After considering various options, they invested in olives. They knew olive trees would do well in poor soil. Olive trees also do well in very dry climates, an important consideration since it rarely rains in California’s Central Valley between May and November and the Mayers wanted to avoid heavy irrigation. Along with land restoration, environmental concerns such as water conservation are important to the Mayers.

Olives, which have been known to grow and produce for a thousand years, also offered the Mayers an opportunity to create something that would live well beyond them. As they say on their website, their goal is to create a sustainable enterprise “that will be worked and enjoyed by our children’s children.”

In keeping with that philosophy, the Mayers are careful stewards of the land. They avoid artificial chemicals or fertilizers. They’ve planted cover crops to naturally increase the fertility of the soil. They’ve graded the orchard to restore seasonal wetlands, provide a natural habitat, and replenish the aquifer. And they’ve planted native oaks and grasses to encourage wildlife like hawks, rabbits, and snakes. The Mayers have never had illusions that growing 20 acres of olives would make them wealthy, but they did want to build a business that would endure.

It all sounded great in theory. There was just one problem: the Mayers knew virtually nothing about growing and processing olives.

Needless to say, they had a lot to learn. Extensive research led them eventually to focus on Tuscan-style olives and olive oil. The market for California-produced, high-quality extra virgin olive oil is growing, but it’s still small, with relatively few competitors. This gave the Mayers an opportunity to develop a product in a market that was not already saturated. They selected Tuscan olive varieties – Frantoio, Leccinio, and Pendolino – to create a style of olive oil they felt would appeal to consumers.

Varieties of olives at the Frate Sole orchard

The Mayers grow a variety of olives for their Tuscan-style, extra virgin olive oil

They started planting trees in 1999, and by 2003 Frate Sole was born. Inspired by a thirteenth-century hymn written by St. Francis of Assisi, Frate Sole (or “Brother Sun” in Italian) expresses the relationship between farmer and nature. As they say on their website, their venture is a partnership, which includes not only Brother Sun, but also Sister Rain and Mother Earth.

The olives are usually harvested in November, sometimes as late as December, and then processed by Butte View Olive Company in Palermo, Calif, about 90 minutes north of Sacramento. Jim mentioned the importance, especially for small olive farmers like the Mayers, of having a good relationship with the company that processes the olives. Olives begin to break down quickly, and for best quality it’s critical to begin the processing within 24 hours of harvest. That often requires flexibility on the part of the processor and a willingness to adjust schedules as needed. As with wine, high-quality olive oil begins in the orchard, but it also requires attention to detail at ever step, from picking to bottling. In this respect, Butte View is an important partner in helping Frate Sole to produce the best possible extra virgin olive oil.

Tasting Frate Sole Olive Oil

But what about the oil?

The first thing you notice with this olive oil is the color. It’s not the dark green you often see in extra virgin oils. (Unfortunately, that green color you find in olive oil is not always “true.” As Tom Mueller discusses in his comprehensive book, Extra Virginity, it’s not uncommon for the flavor and color of olive oil to be manipulated. And many “extra virgin olive oils” are anything but.)

Jim explained that the color of the oil, like its flavor, depends a great deal on when the olives are picked. Less ripe olives will have a darker color and spicier flavor. As the olives ripen, the flavors become softer, more buttery. Their goal with Frate Sole is to produce an oil that is a blend of early and ripe olives with complex flavors. The Mayers pick their olives by hand and wait until they’ve achieved the right level of ripeness.

I found their oil to lean more to the buttery end of the spectrum, but with a sturdy backbone of that spicy, peppery quality that you find in the best Tuscan olive oils. It’s a good oil for dipping bread into or serving with bruschetta and prosciutto.

Clearly I’m not the only one who appreciates the quality of this oil. Frate Sole has an ardent following among consumers and restaurants. Robert Masullo, who owns the wonderful Masullo Pizza in Sacramento, is such a loyal fan that Frate Sole is the only olive oil he uses – and he uses it on everything. (In fact, having dinner at Masullo one night is how I discovered Frate Sole.) The Press Bistro, also in Sacramento, is another good customer.

Frate Sole also has racked up an impressive number of gold medals at the Yolo County Fair, their local venue, and the highly competitive and international Los Angeles County competition. This year’s oil won gold medals in both events.

To learn more about Frate Sole or order a bottle or two (one for yourself, one as a gift!), visit them online at

Frate Sole Extra Virgin Olive Oil

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What’s Your Story? We’d Like to Share it.

Do you run a small business in food and wine – or know someone who does? At 26 Brix, we’re always on the lookout for good stories to tell in our blog. We like to promote people and businesses who are doing original, creative work, who have a great story to tell. Through our website and social media (especially Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook), we’re building an audience of people who also appreciate food and wine and like to support local businesses.

Can we help you tell your story? We don’t charge for this work; it’s our way of supporting and participating in the restaurant and winery community. Please contact us if you’re interested in having a story written about your business.

When you think world-class pizza, Sacramento may not be the first city that comes to mind. If you consider yourself a conoscitore di pizza (or connoisseur), you'll probably think first of Naples, where pizza was invented. You might also think of New York City. But Sacramento?

And yet, according to at least one expert on the topic (who has the bona fides to back it up), Masullo Pizza is one of the best pizzerias in the entire country.

And why not Sacramento? It has a great Italian community, nobly represented by the world-famous Corti Brothers grocery store and its resident food and wine expert, Darrell Corti. The area surrounding Corti Bros. is a wonderful old Italian neighborhood, with humble but well-maintained bungalow homes and beautifully manicured lawns – one of my favorite neighborhoods in Sacramento.

Robert Masullo, owner of Masullo Pizza

Robert Masullo was raised in Sacramento but his travels have taken him far and wide. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he's made numerous trips to Naples to research pizza, according to Slow Food Sacramento. He opened Masullo Pizza in 2008, importing a wood-burning brick oven from Italy to make true Neapolitan-style pizza.

I stopped by the restaurant on July 23, 2012 and had a pizza with prosciutto and arugula (see below). It was fantastic. The place was busy. The wood-burning oven smelled great. The staff was friendly. Overall, it's  a nicely crafted, unpretentious little restaurant, which recently received a glowing review from Sac Bee food critic, Blair Anthony Robertson. (In a separate article, BAR writes about the naturally leavened starter in Masullo's pizza dough, which contributes flavor and helps create a chewy texture and rustic crust.)

If you haven't been there yet, and you love great pizza, make the trip to Masullo Pizza at 2711 Riverside Blvd. You'll be glad you did.

Masullo Pizza with prosciutto and arugula

Two final points...

1. All of the other places that Chris Bianco lists as his favorite pizzerias are on the east coast or the west coast. Interestingly, although he himself is from New York, his own restaurant, Pizzeria Bianco, is in Phoenix. If you love great pizza and you live in the midwest, I guess you're out of luck.

2. It was at Masullo that I discovered Frate Sole olive oil, high-quality extra virgin olive oil made in the Tuscan style by Jim and Andrea Mayers on their 20-acre farm near Woodland, Calif.

*  *  *  *  *

What’s Your Story? We’d Like to Share it.

Do you run a small business in food and wine – or know someone who does? At 26 Brix, we’re always on the lookout for good stories to tell in our blog. We like to promote people and businesses who are doing original, creative work, who have a great story to tell. Through our website and social media (especially Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook), we’re building an audience of people who also appreciate food and wine and like to support local businesses.

Can we help you tell your story? We don’t charge for this work; it’s our way of supporting and participating in the restaurant and winery community. Please contact us if you’re interested in having a story written about your business.

Big Wineries Believe in Social Media

Posted on July 16, 2012

The adoption of social media in the wine industry provides a counter-intuitive insight. It is often said that social media helps "level the playing field," that it helps small businesses compete with larger companies.

And yet it seems to me that in the wine industry it is the bigger, more successful wineries that have more fully embraced social media as a way to engage consumers. By contrast, so many small wineries are struggling to figure it out and take advantage of the opportunity that social media offers.

Two charts in a webinar presented by Silicon Valley Bank and titled State of the Wine Industry 2012 – 2013 bear this out.

As the first chart indicates, the larger the winery, the more positive its perception of social media.

General Perception of Social Media Among Wineries

The second chart, unrelated to the first, notes that financial strength is correlated to size. Larger wineries (especially those producing more than 100,000 cases per year) are doing better financially than smaller wineries. That's probably not a surprise to anyone in the wine industry.

Financial Condition of Wineries, by Case Size

What's interesting to me is that these large, successful wineries, which tend to be quite savvy in marketing (they have to be to be successful), are also very positive about and active on social media. Obviously social media didn't make them successful, but the fact that they believe in it should be a lesson for smaller wineries looking to grow.

That's a rhetorical question, of course. Americans have been drinking wine since well before there was an America to drink wine in.

Wine Market CouncilIt's equally true that wine appreciation in America is not a new phenomenon, although it seems to have grown significantly in the last few decades, especially among the middle class. It's definitely true that Americans now spend more on wine. And according to the Wine Market Council, the US wine market has continued to grow in spite of the economic downturn that began in 2008.

However, "American wine drinkers [still] consume much less wine than many other countries on a per capita basis," according to this recently published report by the Wine Market Council. Will millennials (roughly defined as the generation of people born in the early 1980s or later, also known as Gen Y) make the US a nation of wine consumers on par with Italy or France? Here's what the Wine Market Council concludes:

Recent consumption gains for table wine have been driven by many factors over the last few years including the adoption of wine in early adulthood by the large millennial generation, the availability of quality wine at all price levels, and the acceptance of moderate wine consumption as compatible with a healthy lifestyle.

To be fair, wine appreciation in America has waxed and waned over the decades. The current growth cycle in wine consumption in this country began in 1994. With a growing appreciation of wine by coming-of-age millenials, that cycle may continue well into the future.

Postscript. Steve Heimhoff posted a blog titled Can expensive California wines sell themselves to a new generation of wine lovers?, which questions whether Millennials will continue to support the same successful, high-end wineries that earlier generations have. What must pricey wineries do to find a market with that audience? Some, like Pahlmeyer, are betting on social media.

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Americans Spend More on Wine Now

Posted on July 6, 2012

Good news for wineries.

NPR's Planet Money reports that the relative amount of money Americans spend on alcohol hasn't changed much over the past 30 years. However, "Of the money we spend drinking at home, more goes to wine and less goes to hard alcohol. The percentage of our booze dollar that goes to beer hasn't changed much."

Money spent on alcohol at stores in the US

Despite that report, it does seem to me that consumption of hard alcohol has been on the rise lately. Certainly there's a lot of buzz these days around signature cocktails. Mad Men  probably helps stoke the popularity.

Regardless, wine purchases have increased significantly, according to the report. For those in the restaurant and wine trade, that's welcome news.