New World order

With better Cheddar and great Rhônes of our own, has California supplanted Europe as the world hub of wining and dining?

SN&R Photo Illustration By Michele Brown

Europe grew up on good food. Produce traditionally was harvested and distributed in tightly local circumstances, and specialists and artisans took their respective food-making crafts to high degrees of excellence, delivering the flavor of the rich earth and climate—the terroir—directly from field to plate. Thus did the French and Italians become supposed experts in discerning the finest of tastes and textures, and several Mediterranean nations still accept heavy doses of credit for knowing best how to wine and dine.

But California’s pretty good, too. In fact, our state has some of the best soil and growing climates on Earth—and increasingly more artisan producers of cheese, olive oil, wine and beer to secure us in the upper ranks of culinary perfection. By now it’s a given: With terroir like ours, there’s no reason in the world not to eat local.

Experts say it started in the wine world, in 1976, when an American wine merchant named Steven Spurrier arranged and hosted a wine tasting and contest in Paris as a publicity stunt. Rounding up nine French wine experts, each with a palate as sharp as a razor, Spurrier pitted several California chardonnays and cabernets against a few white Burgundies and red Bordeaux, all in unmarked bottles. At the time, the idea was laughable; everyone knew French wines were the best in the world and California’s just low-grade rotgut.

But somehow, the unthinkable happened. The judges unwittingly rated the Californian wines above the French ones. The world gasped, and the judges got embarrassed and angry; not only had they proven California’s wines superior to France’s by a standard set of criteria, but apparently they couldn’t even tell the difference.

The Golden State’s wine industry and regional pride has flourished ever since. Marco Cappelli, dessert winemaker at Swanson Vineyards in Oakville, likes to tout California’s capacity for producing unique wines. He cites Angelica, a sweet, fortified, purely Californian rosé made from the very rare Mission grape, first brought to the New World by Spanish missionaries in the 1500s. This hardy fruit did well in the state’s dry, hot climate, but it made a relatively poor wine that quickly went sour. If fortified early on with brandy, however, a stable, sweet wine resulted. Named for what was then the quaint seaside village of Los Angeles, Angelica became the altar wine of choice among working missionaries—but disappeared from production as other grape varietals became prominent in the mid-1800s.

Since then, the Mission grape has remained in only a few pockets of land around the world. In Amador County, for example, near Plymouth, the Deaver family owns a vineyard of stubby, 151-year-old Mission “grape trees,” which Swanson’s Cappelli uses to produce 15 barrels of Angelica per year. The next batch, he says, is scheduled for release in 2010, by which point the barrel aging will have infused a tawny, molasses-and-caramel flavor to the rich wine.

“This wine is a part of the state’s history,” Cappelli says. “Most wines aren’t. Angelica has its deepest roots in European history, like any wine, but it’s still strictly a product of California’s terroir.”

Not all local artisans are interested in humiliating the Europeans. Other California winemakers are quick to admit that they emulate Old World practices. The Rhône Rangers is an association of approximately 200 West Coast wineries and winemakers who commit themselves to making wines with only the 22 approved grapes of the Rhône Valley wine region of southern France and in a style resembling Rhône wines.

“As far as … making some huge California fruit bomb, I’m just not interested,” says Rhône Ranger Bill Easton, winemaker at Terre Rouge and Easton Wines in Fiddletown, Amador County. “What I want is to make wines that provide a good balance between the tannins and fruit. The wines of the Rhône Valley do that very well.”

Rhône Ranger Josh Bendick, winemaker at Holly’s Hill Vineyards in Placerville, admits that the California climate and soil can’t produce a wine exactly like a French wine. Yet he notes that many of the experienced tasters who enjoy his annual “Holly’s Hill versus France” event in June, which pits “our” wines against “theirs” in a blind tasting, can’t for the life of them tell French Rhône blends from California’s anyway.

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It’s OK. We’re conquering on many fronts. The wine wars, really, were just the beginning. Just this March, in another blind tasting, Fiscalini’s 18-month Bandage Cheddar won “Best Extra Mature Traditional Cheddar in the World” at the World Cheese Awards in London. It’s the first time ever that the trophy for cheddar has been taken by a foreign entry.

“There’s really no doubt that the quality of farmstead California cheeses is as good as, if not better than, those in Europe,” says Heather Fiscalini, who owns the Modesto farm with her husband John, a third-generation dairy farmer with a long family history in the artisan cheese biz.

Fiscalini Farms produces other European styles of cheese. Hopscotch, a cheddar infused with Devil’s Canyon Scotch Ale, is one, and Lionza, a creamy white, mildly fruity cheese, is modeled after a Swiss family recipe. But Fiscalini’s San Joaquin Gold, a semi-hard cheese of toasted nut and butter and the slightest hint of caramel flavors, is one unique cheese entirely representative of Californian terroir, with no ideas swiped from the Old World.

“It’s not a cheddar,” says Heather. “It’s not a gouda. It’s not a parmesan. It’s its own category, and it speaks strongly for this region as a world-class producer of cheese.”

The Marin French Cheese Company in Petaluma has also helped bring California cheese-making into the international spotlight. As its name suggests, the company emulates French cheese-making styles, and at the World Cheese Awards in 2005, when its Rouge et Noir Triple Crème Brie took the gold, the Marin French Cheese Company beat the French at their own game. Never before had an American cheese surpassed one of France’s.

Meanwhile, foodstuffs don’t get more distinctly Mediterranean than olive oil, but California already produces a half-million gallons of it annually on 5,000 acres, and in two years, an additional 5,000 acres of young trees will mature into production. Next year, in fact, the state’s contribution to the world olive oil market is expected to exceed that of France.

The oil is good, too. In June, 2006 at the Huiles du Monde in Paris, two California extra virgin olive oils—one from California Olive Ranch in Oroville and another from Calolea in Loma Rica—won gold medals, surprising the crowd of tasters and entrants.

“We have the best olive oil in the world, we think, because we have even higher standards than the Europeans,” says Patricia Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council in Berkeley. What that ultimately means for consumers is a product less tainted with impurities than the oils of Spain, Italy and other large producers and exporters. Darragh adds that exported olive oil is particularly liable to be adulterated, mislabeled and fraudulently marketed in some way.

Most European countries utilize just a handful of olive varietals, but California growers have devoted their efforts to more than 100 types of olives. In 1999, Alessio Carli, winemaker and olive oil producer at Hollister’s Pietra Santa Winery, imported 5,000 sapling olive trees from Italy by plane. The trees consist of four rare varietals distinctly representative of Tuscan extra virgin oils, and, in Carli’s opinion, he is today making true Tuscan olive oil in Monterey County.

In response to the rising tide of Californian artisanal excellence, the European Union launched what it calls EAT—the European Authentic Tastes program—in 2004. Aimed at educating American consumers about traditional and authentic products from various E.U. nations, EAT considers products like true Kalamata olives from southern Greece, Parmesan cheese from Parma, Serrano ham from Spain, and over 700 other foods, spices and beers, to be singularly unique. EAT marks such products with a blue-and-gold, sun-shaped seal of approval before they enter stores, both in Europe and overseas.

“The European Union does not claim to have cornered the market on good foods,” concedes Ann Connors, project manager for the American EAT campaign. “We recognize that good food comes from all over, but in Europe they’ve had 2,000 years or more to find out what grows best and to cultivate that.”

EAT vouches for authentic European products as the best choices for consumers seeking age-old, tried-and-true quality, and EAT-certified products are readily available at California retailers. But the many delicacies of our own state make a very strong case for the local-food movement.

“We have world-class food in the Central Valley; there’s really no other place like it,” says Brenda Ostrom, an organic farmer in Mariposa, currently founding a new Yosemite chapter of the Slow Food organization. Ostrom readily encourages Californians to quit fawning over Europe. “California needs to promote its products and get people interested in food again,” she says. “Europeans have a huge love of their foods. It comes from thousands of years of planting, growing and eating. It’s really respectable—but if you want to eat European foods, go there on vacation.”