Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September is Wine Month

Not only is September harvest season in the wine country but it's also officially California Wine Month (as proclaimed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger). It's the seventh year for the wine month promotion, which showcases the state's mind-boggling array of wine regions.

The California Wine Institute, a trade organization of the state's winemakers, is behind the event. It created a lovely, useful web site with lots of great information on the state's wine areas and wineries.

At a promotional event last night, I spoke with Jim Ryan of Concannon in the Livermore Valley, one of California's less well-known wine areas. Ryan said the valley -- where grapes were first planted in 1854, long before Napa -- is getting better known, in part thanks to the economy that's keeping people closer to home and looking for bargains. Places like Livermore are where the wine values are to be found. "We've got great values and it's location, location, location." It's a relatively fast drive from many places in the Bay Area: without much traffic it takes only 45 minutes from San Francisco. And, tasting rooms don't cost as much as at the state's more famous competing wine zones: typical Livermore valley wineries charge $5 for sampling seven wines. At Concannon, you even get to keep the glass.

Evan Goldstein, master sommelier, gave a talk on the importance of California wines. "We take it for granted at times," he said. California is critical in the U.S. wine industry, with nine out of 10 bottles produced In the U.S. from the state. Forty-eight out of California's 50 counties grow grapes. Goldstein said wine lovers are getting more adventurous about visiting more of the state's wine regions and trying different types of wines, beyond standard merlot, cabernet, sauvignon blanc. "We've got more than 100 types of grapes grown commercially in California and lots of different appellations." That's lots of opportunities to explore.
(Photos: at top left, Domaine Chandon. At right, a vineyard in spring, outside Healdsburg).

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Al Fresco Dining Weather (Finally) Arrives

The coldest summer in memory didn't put a damper on one of the best new events in San Francisco: Off the Grid. It's part of the food cart/truck movement that offers relatively inexpensive street food in a sort of roving festival of brightly-colored vehicles. Think really cool taco trucks. On Friday evenings, Off the Grid hits the Fort Mason parking lot 5-9 p.m.

It's kind of a funny scene: A couple dozen of the trucks circle like wagon trains. In the middle there's a bar, some tables and folding chairs, although not nearly enough. Even though it's held in a bayside spot where fog and wind whip through, the event draws hundreds of people. One recent blustery, cold evening that called for wool hats and fleece jackets 4,000 crammed into the truck circle over a four-hour period. Lines were long but everyone seemed to be having a good time.

And, Friday nights' Off the Grid should become even more pleasant during warmer September and October evenings.
Some of the most popular food trucks are Chairman Bao, which specializes in steamed and baked buns, Hapa Ramen, dishing up noodle soup using local and organic ingredients, Calidogs, offering unusual varieties of spiced hot dogs, and the Creme Brulee Cart, serving up little cups of this warm, custardy dessert, comforting on a chilly night. Off the Grid is arranging other food cart events and some of the food cart operators are active on Twitter: if you become hooked on a certain dish (and it sounds like lots of San Franciscans have), you can hunt down the cart and follow it around town.
For more civilized al fresco dining (table service and no lines!) I spent a lovely morning having brunch with friends on the small and charming patio at the rear of the Blue Jay Cafe on Divisadero, which serves wonderful fried chicken and waffles. I've always loved the atmosphere at this American-style diner with its big horseshoe-shaped counter, but hadn't stepped out back. There are only three or four tables, but it's warm and cozy, with tall brick walls and big red umbrellas providing shade. The food is reasonably priced ($7.25 for the chicken and waffles) and there's a lot of down home southern flavor, with biscuits and corn muffins always on the menu.