Mendocino: October 2005 Archives

By Heather Irwin

MENDOCINO: Fall is my favorite time to visit the coast--when you’re forced to bundle up in wooly sweaters, knitted caps and fleece and huddle together for warmth against the cold, salty air. The threat of rain is a welcome excuse to snuggle under the covers for another few hours and wait out what inevitably turns out to be little more than a drizzle. Mustn’t be too hasty about catching a chill out there, I say, throwing another log on the fire and turning back to my book.

So, it’s always a little disappointing when Mendocino gets warm—downright balmy—even into October. When we went for a visit a few weeks ago, we packed sweaters and coats, even as our inland home was roasting into the 80s and 90s, hoping against hope to get a good whiff of fall nearer to the coast. Driving through the cool, evergreen stillness of the redwood groves just outside Philo, it felt like we’d fast forwarded well into November, at least.
Sweaters got stuffed into the trunk, however, as we sipped some of the organic wines of the county at the MacCallum House Bed and Breakfast. Sifting through a collection of organic and biodynamic winemakers including Parducci, Bonterra (an organic line of wines from Fetzer), as well as several of the Fetzer children who’ve now opened their own wineries (Patianna, Jeriko) all from the Hopland area; Graziano and Frey vineyards from the nearby (but still mostly unknown) Redwood Valley and Fife Winery from the Anderson Valley—we were impressed with the overall quality of the wines and commitment to growing grapes without synthetic pesticides and in a way that’s harmonious with sustainability. The secret of organic growing, however, is that many wine growers in Northern California grow organically, or mostly organically (though often they aren’t certified, because it requires several additional steps and costs to the grower)--they just aren’t advertising the fact. In the past, organic winegrowers have faced an uphill battle with legitimacy, with detractors faulting their desire for “organics” over their ability to make good wine. Organic is nice, but so is a good bottle of wine—the trick is accomplishing both.

Afterward, sitting on the wide porch of the MacCallum House and drinking a glass of house red, all thoughts of organics, good wine, bad wine—well, most thoughts in general—melted away into a haze of “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
Cozy sweaters came back out as the cool ocean air found its way toward our seats, the sun no longer bright enough to be much comfort.

The historic bed and breakfast in the heart of Mendocino changed ownership a few years ago, and is now owned by a local threesome—a couple and their high school friend, with both the inn and its landmark restaurant once again owned by one entity, rather than several. It seems to be a change that has agreed with both the town and its visitors—the inn busier than ever, bustling even on a Sunday night.

Sticking a toe out of our fluffy bed the next morning, then promptly pulling it back in, we decided to linger just a little longer at the Inn than we planned. It looked like rain, after all, and we weren’t prepared to take that kind of a chance. At least not until after breakfast.

IF YOU GO: MacCallum House Restaurant will host the annual Wine and Mushroom Festival Dinner Nov. 10, featuring mushroom expert Eric Schramm and winemaker Greg Graziano.

Something to chew on...

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By Heather Irwin

MENDOCINO: Food, and wine for that matter, has become so incredibly political. Damn.

See, I gave up politics long ago, after spending a year on Capitol Hill covering Congress and another year working for a congressman who later ran for President. I was so distraught over what I saw and heard coming from the people we'd voted to represent us that I simply dropped out of the process. I regret to say, I haven't voted or become involved in a single political movement since. It just didn't seem worth it. I felt totally powerless.

But after spending a weekend in Mendocino and an afternoon with the organic winegrowers of the county, I'm finding myself pulled back in--caring deeply about the urgent fight they, and many others are fighting for: the right for all of us to know what's in our food, how it's grown and what potential long-term effects that food has on both the land and our health. It's really relevant stuff, when you take the time to listen.

Most of us are starting to understand the implications of organics. Farm markets are booming, something like $30 billion is spent annually on organic foods, and both consumers and farmers are getting educated about the benefits to our palates and the earth. The growers in Mendocino told anecdote after anecdote about why they're sold on sustainable and organic farming methods--and why consumers are responding. Very much related, however, but less on the minds of consumers is the issue of genetically modified foods.

Two years ago, Mendocino County voters decided to ban genetically engineered crops in the county. Without long-term studies, voters weren't ready to take the chance. It was a fight that still rages on...both there and more recently, here in Sonoma. A ballot goes to voters of Sonoma in just a few weeks, to decide on whether to adopt a similar moratorium on growing genetically modified foods in this county.

And, though the issue of genetic modification is still largely philosophical for the winegrowers--it is important. A genetic modification to vineyard rootstock that could possibly resist pests is, by most accounts, still years away. But as stewards of their land, and with decades of experience as winegrowers, the folks in Mendocino were sounding the alarm of concern anyway. Most had experienced problems in the past with using, as one grower explained it, "education over experience". Generations of farming had taught them, if nothing else, that thinking about the whole process--from seed to table--was important. Everything needed to be taken into account, from how the land was prepared for seed, to how crops are watered, fertilized and harvested. And, in their opinion, using organic, sustainable methods weren't just a good idea, they were, in fact, often more profitable, gave equal (or higher) yields, protected their own families and the workers in the fields and just made them feel better as human beings.

To be fair, however, just "going green" or eschewing all modifications to our food supply isn't the answer. On both sides of the debate about the future of our food are farmers, citizens and politicians who I think honestly care about more than just the bottom line. Both have both valid and invalid concerns. Both are fighting hard for what they believe in. Only one side will win...and whatever is decided will have lasting effects on not only the farmers, but on all of us who consume their products.

I've got my own opinion about what's right. Do you?

Fall is for Apples

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As I harvest the last of my tomatoes--the recent waves of heat forcing a barage of juicy red fruit--I can't help but let my thoughts drift elsewhere. Summer is gone, despite the still-warm days. The summer squash is withering and the leaves are falling, signalling a new harvest of fall fruits and vegetables. With one last nod to the season of sun, I'll make a pot of marina, with a final pepper, my tomatoes and the leafy basil that threatens daily to go to seed.

But it's the first bags of crisp apples perfuming my kitchen that really has my attention. On the counter are Galas, Jonathans, Pink Pearls and Gravensteins that I've already hoarded in bags like a squirrel preparing for winter. Late September and October are the peak of season for apples in Northern California. Though orchards once dominated the landscape throughout Wine Country, they've been pushed to the far corners of the counties by vineyards, tracts of housing and mini-malls. In Anderson Valley, however, where I spent a day last week, apple orchards with heirloom varieties like Black Twig and Pippin continue to thrive.

I've eaten a few, outright, savoring the sweet unadulterated snap and crunch. A few have gone in lunchboxes and the majority have been placed into the refrigerator for later debuts. The remainder get sliced, cored and mixed with sugar, cinnamon, butter and flour for a warm apple of my favorite dishes of the season.

I can hardly make it fast enough. The first bite out of the oven is so hot it blisters. Setting the bubbling, browned pan on the windowsill to cool, the house fills with the scent of leaves, cinammon, butter and...apples. Finally, I think, it is fall.

Apple Crisp

3 1/2 pounds apples, cored, peeled and sliced (tart variety is best)
1 cup brown sugar
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon cinammon
1/2 tsp. ginger

2 sticks unsalted butter (chilled and cut into pieces)
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. lemon zest
1/2 tsp. cardamom (optional)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees and butter a 13x9x2 inch pan. Mix brown sugar, cinnamon and ginger. Add apples and lemon juice. Mix to coat apples. Pour into pan.

In a medium bowl, mix flour, sugar, lemon zest and cardamom. Add chilled butter and use a pastry cutter or hand to incorporate into a coarse meal. It is okay to have a few lumps of butter, but try to get the flour well mixed. Spread evenly over the top of the apples.

Cook for 20 minutes at 450 degrees. Turn down to 350 and cook an additional 30 minutes until brown and bubbly. Let cool at least 10 minutes. Serve with unsweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.