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sonoma county farm scene  SMALL and wine barrel 

The vintage of 2011 was a great one for Sonoma County wines, as the wine industry's top publications and wine competitions honored many of the region's top producers, and the 2009 vintage of Sonoma County wines, most notably Pinot Noir, garnered outstanding coverage.

The 2011 San Francisco Chronicle's Top 100 American Wines report featured 27 Sonoma County wines, significantly more wines than any other region in the report. Sonoma County wineries were prominent among the sparkling wine, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon categories, a testament to the diversity of the region's appellations and climates.

In the Wine Spectator's October 15, 2011 California Pinot Noir issue, the cover story headline proclaims "How Pinot Became Sonoma's Signature", a huge coup acknowledging the evolution taking place as vintners and growers learn more about their sites, clones and nuances in winemaking. Senior editor James Laube's story, entitled "California's Burgundy" chronicles the wine's evolution in Sonoma County from the 1980s to the 2009 vintage and highlights 20 Sonoma County producers and 15 great vineyard sites before extolling the virtues of the critically acclaimed 2009 vintage. "In terms of the number of great wines,'09 is head and shoulders above any other vintage in California Pinot Noir history," Laube writes.

In another exciting acknowledgement of Sonoma County's Pinot Noir quality, 2009 Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir was ranked the number one wine in the Wine Spectator Magazine's Top 100 Wines of 2011, a huge accomplishment considering that over 16,000 wines from all over the world are reviewed each year by the publication. Ten Sonoma County wines were in the Wine Spectator Top 100 for 2011 from regions throughout the county, including Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Alexander Valley, and Knights Valley.

The Wine Enthusiast honored Pinot Noir from Sonoma County in 2011 by naming Joseph SwanVineyard's 2007 Trenton Estate Pinot Noir the number two wine of the year in their annual "Enthusiast 100 Must-Have Wines of the Year". Editors of the publication also lauded Bob Cabral from Williams Selyem, one of Russian River Valley, Sonoma County's pioneering wineries, as Winemaker of the Year in their 2011 Wine Star Awards. Russian River Valley was nominated this year as the top region of the year, as well.

Sonoma County Chardonnay also earned kudos from top wine publications. The October 2011 issueof Wine & Spirits "Best Chardonnays of 2011" featured 2009 Flowers Sonoma Coast Camp Meeting Ridge and 2009 Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay in the top two spots among 579 wines reviewed. Two wines from Iron Horse Vineyards, 2009 Green Valley Native Yeast Chardonnay and 2009 Green Valley Heritage Clone Chardonnay, took two more of the top six slots in the review.

Diane Wilson, of Wilson Winery in Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, won several awards including"Best Wine by a Woman Winemaker" at the 2011 International Women's Wine Competition.

Editor's note: For a free visitors guide or information on hotels, wineries, events, spas, attractions,and dining in Sonoma County, visit www.sonomacounty.com or call (800) 576-6662.


Editor's note: Links to the websites of hundreds of lodging and dining options in Sonoma County can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.


Sugar Pine High Res 2

The historic Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad (YMSPRR) resumed their popular “Moonlight Specials” on May 26, celebrating 40 years of the night time rides.

Located just south of the Highway 41 entrance to Yosemite National Park, the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad offers rides aboard a pair of nearly century old Shay locomotives through the Sierra National Forest. The popular tours run each day in the spring, summer and fall months. The “Moonlight Special” adds another element to the memorable rides.

“In addition to the train rides, guests enjoy a delicious BBQ dinner outdoors in the cool mountain air,” said YMSPRR owner Max Stauffer. “Popular folk band ‘Sugar Pine’ sings during dinner. Then the train heads out on the tour and stops at the picnic area, where everyone gathers around a roaring campfire for songs. It’s a lot of fun for families who enjoy some good, old-fashioned fun,” said Stauffer.

The Moonlight Specials are every Wednesday and Saturday, starting May 26 through Aug. 29 and on Saturdays through the first Saturday of October. Dinner is at 6:30 and the train leaves at 7:30.

This is the 40th year the specials have been offered, marking yet another milestone for the popular attraction. Next year the railroad’s oldest locomotive, Engine 15, turns 100.In addition to the trains, the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad has the Thornberry Museum which highlights what life was like here around the turn of the century, a well-stocked gift store and book store, as well as gold panning, where guests get to keep what gold they find.


YMSPRR-GoldPanningLooking for that nugget.Other special events this year include a “Moonlight Melodrama” where instead of campfire songs, the actors from Golden Chain Theatre will perform a mini melodrama on Jul 15 and Aug. 12 and a special fundraiser to benefit the Children’s Museum of the Sierra on June 24 via the Oakhurst Honorary Mayor Campaign. More information on that can be found at www.Jarrod4Mayor.com.


To book tickets or learn more about the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, visit www.YosemiteSteamTrains.com or find them on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/YMSPRR.



Editor's note: Visitors to the Gold Country and High Sierra regions will find links to the websites of hundreds of area lodging and dining options at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.


by Dan Clarke

Guinness Pint Cascading HiRes SMALL 

What a waste. A loss to humanity, one of us said as we sat at the bar watching all that foam going down the drain.

Of course, it's the nature of things that Guinness Stout must be poured slowly. It throws that wonderful, creamy head and must settle down a bit before the bartender tops it off with a second shot from the tap. Invariably some of the foam is lost as it's swept off the top to accelerate this process. But the foam is still beer, however oxygenated. And it seemed a shame to waste it.

At a neighborhood pub I used to frequent in Sacramento, they served respectable food, but without a proper kitchen their fare tended toward microwaved sausage plates, Cornish pastys and fish and chips brought over from next door. The place was known more for its beer and camaraderie than its cuisine. Surprisingly, the conversation at the bar ran to restaurants and recipes as often as to soccer, politics and more typical issues.

One of the regulars suggested that the foam could settle out and be used in cooking, but not a man—or woman—among us took home any of the dregs to our own kitchen. Over the course of two years occasional noises were heard about using some of that overpour in a cake batter or perhaps adding it to chili—after all, anything and everything can go into chili. Still, these were the musings of people passing time waiting for the next televised ball game or considering the virtues of a longer happy hour.

Once in a great while bar talk is actually translated into action. The “what could we do with all that foam” topc recurred often enough to beget some ideas—not totally recipes yet—that seemed to have some promise. At some point the gauntlet was thrown and a few of the regulars declared a cooking competition could determine whose ideas had merit. To separate the merely opinionated from the doers we required an entry fee. Ten dollars and check with entry, if you please. St. Patrick's Home for Children was deemed a worthy recipient of any moneys raised and we were off. The area Guinness rep was invited to participate and he donated a number of T-shirts and other merchandise to use as prizes. The quid pro quo was that we expand the key ingredients list to include two other products his company distributed; Harp Lager and Bass Ale. Being brewed in Dundalk, County Louth, Harp continued the Irish theme. Bass did not, it being English, but we acquiesced, not wanting to have to give back the T-shirts and other swag. Actually, the addition of the Bass gave us a full spectrum of flavors, from the lighter lager through the ale on the way to the full-flavored stout.

We sought the services of outside authorities. Having neutral, professional jurists would minimize any arguments and acknowledge the talent we thought might come to the fore. Three experts flattered us by accepting seats on the bench: Jean-Luc Chassereau, a genuine French chef; Mike Dunne, food & wine editor of the Sacramento Bee newspaper; and Michael Lewis, retired professor of brewing science from the University of California at Davis.

The competition was to be divided into five categories: appetizers and first courses, main dishes of fish or chicken, main dishes of red meats, vegetarian dishes, and desserts.

Giddy with our own creation, we mailed a few press releases. While still unsure of our own talent, we did feel we might break some new ground by cooking with beer, rather than wine, and thought the world might want to know. Also, more attention meant a better chance for us to do right by the St. Patrick's Home. A newspaper columnist gave us a plug and we were truly committed.

As would-be Gordon Ramseys and Paula Deans began seriously considering how to incorporate beer into a recipe, most thought of very full-flavored dishes. Chili was a recurring theme and some traditional pub foods were suggested, too. Perhaps the initial inspirations were ways to “bury” the beer in a recipe so that its unmistakable flavor (especially in the case of Guinness) wouldn't overpower a dish. The essence of this stout is complex. There is a wonderful creaminess at first, followed by a smoky/toasty flavor.

The day before our contest a late entrant arrives. My old friend, Big Ric Dunseth, drives over from the Napa Valley where he's the reigning barbecue champion. He's also a professional caterer and author of books on wine. We spend hours theorizing about the task at hand. We both feel that using lager or ale is taking the coward's way out and that stout offers an appropriately robust challenge. Ah, the egos of men who cook.

In the morning we set about proving our theories. Ric is preparing a rack of lamb which is to be marinated in cans of Pub Drought Guinness. I'm at work making a chicken in mole—a rich sauce featuring garlic, mushrooms, chili powders and minced pasilla chiles in a reduction of Guinness. Things seem to be coming together and we set off on a tangent.

Is not a draft Guinness with that dark powerful bottom, topped by its lovely, creamy head reminiscent of a root beer float? We pitch into a brain-storming session which yields the idea of sliced bananas and kiwi topped with a syrup made from a reduction of Guinness. We discover that after reducing the stout by about a third, it begins bitter. Uh, oh. What to do? Well, just as some wines go through a “dumb stage” prior to release and eventually come around, so does our Guinness. Curiously, further reductions seem to make it less, not more, bitter. Not wanting to take any chances, we add some powdered baker's chocolate and brown sugar to the syrup and a little orange zest.

Professionals they are, all our judges show up right on time and go over the ground rules. Each dish will be judged within its own category, with an overall winner to be chosen later as best of show. A 100-point scoring system is to be employed, with 20 percent for appearance, 30 percent for creative use of beer and balance (50%) for taste.

Cooking facilities are somewhat limited, but the competitors make the best of it. Most have some some prep work at home and do the finishing touches in the pub's back room. With appropriate ceremony, entrants are individually announced by the pub's owner and walk their offerings forward to the panel of judges. George Thompson comes out first, bearing his cheddar cheese with Bass Ale soup. Steve Tincher follows with calamari stir fried in Guinness. Sandy McCullough has prepared separate dishes of prawns and mussels steamed in Harp Lager and Bass Ale and Bob Martin offers bratwurst and onions boiled in beer. These and other dishes in the appetizer/first course category show that in the hands of good amateur chefs, beer can be a delightful ingredient.

Main dishes of fish and poultry are judged next. I'm proud of my chicken mole—it's rich and complex, the flavors of the Guinness are well-integrated and there seems to be just the right amount of spice and heat. However, I'm denied a blue ribbon by Ann Marie Gonzalez; who has also chosen to tempt the judges with a chicken mole. She's done nearly everything I have, but she's done it just a bit better.

Red meat dishes have attracted most of the entrants. There is formidable competition. Mike Eady has barbecued an excellent flank steak, Betty Madden has roasted a pork tenderloin with vegetables and Ric Dunseth's rack of lamb is beautifully presented and tastes great. Venison stew, pork spareribs and other dishes are also well received, but first place goes to a Yorkshireman, Russ Berriman, who dazzles the judges with a shepherd's pie (á la Bass).

Jim Eady produces a nice pot of beans with bacon and takes a first place in the vegetarian category. We're flexible.

My bananas and kiwi with toasted walnuts and whipped cream over Guinness syrup wins a blue ribbon as the one and only entry in the dessert category. Chef Chassereau smiles and declares it “a good concept.” The concept “damning with faint praise” comes to my mind.

Given the minimal kitchen facilities and waiting time between presentations, the overall food quality was startling. There wasn't a clinker in the bunch and some were truly outstanding. The entrants demonstrated that one rather small pub in California was home to a surprising number of competent cooks and that beers, especially strongly-flavored ones, can both complement good food and be an essential ingredient of a wide variety of dishes.

Those sons and daughters of Erin among us may have hoped for a special nod from the judges, given the mostly Irish theme of the exercise. Grand prize winner by a clear margin, however, was Dennis Fukimoto. His salmon was marinated in Bass Ale, smoked over Guinness-soaked oak chips, and accompanied by a decorative salad with Harp Lager dressing. That the colors of the salmon in a bed of white shaved horseradish with surrounding green lettuces were reminiscent of the Irish flag may not have hurt his chances either.

All involved seemed to have had an enjoyable Saturday afternoon. We turned over $265 to Monsignor Kavanaugh to help his work at the St. Patrick's Home and tended to validate the theory that reclaiming foam had a purpose.

We chefs-for-a-day basked in the afterglow at the pub for weeks. Our swagger increased. We talked of issuing a challenge to any other pub whose chefs wanted to take us on. Before fantasy faded to the inevitable reality, we had even thought of creating a home-and-home cooking series with some pub in Ireland. Now that would have been great fun.


Russ Berriman's Shepherd's Pie



1½ pounds ground (minced) lamb or beef (or mixture of the two)

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped

1-2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 sticks celery, finely chopped

2-3 carrots, peeled and finely chopped or grated

2 teaspoons fresh oregano

2 teaspoons fresh rosemary

1-2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

½ cup peas (optional

1 pint of Guinness

8 oz. Can of peeled, chopped tomatoes

3 pounds potatoes, peeled and cubed

3 tablespoons butter

2-3 tablespoons half and half or whipping cream

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

freshly chopped parsley to garnish




Marinate lamb in Guinness overnight in the refrigerator. Next day remove meat from marinade and place in saucepan (reserve marinade) with onion, celery,m garlic and carrots. Add approximately 4 tablespoons of marinade and cook gently for 10 minutes or so, stirring frequently until meat is well-sealed and almost cooked.

Add tomatoes, oregano, rosemary, seasonings and Worcestershire sauce and simmer for 15-20 minutes (You can add the rest of marinade and use a gravy thickener to make additional thicker sauce. This is optional).

Meanwhile, cook potatoes in boiling salted water until tender (approximately 20 minutes). Mash potatoes until smooth or use a whip. Add butter and fold until potatoes are creamy.

Place potatoes in a pastry bag fitted with a large star nozzle and pipe evenly over meat mixture which is now in an oven dish: or, spread potatoes evenly with a spoon and fork up the potatoes for texture. Cook in oven for 30-40 minutes at 400 degrees until top is golden brown. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

Serves 4-6.


Dan Clarke's Guinness Sundae




4 bananas

6 kiwi fruit, ripe but not too soft

2 cans Guinness “Pub Draft”

juice of 1 orange

2 rounded teaspoons fine orange zest

1-2 heaping tablespoons powdered chocolate (I used Ghirardelli sweet ground chocolate and cocoa)

1 cup maple syrup

1 cup hone

1 tablespoon butter

cinnamon to taste (optional)

whipped cream

8 heaping tablespoons chopped toasted walnuts




Put the Guinness, maple syrup and honey in a saucepan over medium heat and reduce volume by about half.

While liquid is reducing, place walnut pieces (perhaps meat from eight medium-size walnuts) on cookie sheet and toast lightly. Be careful not to over-toast as they burn easily and turn bitter. Chop walnuts to yield medium-to-fine pieces.


Stir orange juice into the liquid and add the orange zest. Add powdered chocolate gradually, tasting several times. Stop short of using both tablespoons if you reach the point where you're happy with the flavor. Add the butter and a little cinnamon (to taste). Continue reducing mixture to desired thickness.


Slice banana into ½-inch thick pieces and, after peeling kiwis, slice them into ¼-inch pieces. Place mixture of equal parts kiwi and banana in small bowl, pour warm Guinness syrup over top and garnish with whipped cream and toasted walnuts.


Serves 4.


Note: As prepared for the competition, both powdered chocolate and brown sugar were used (and in greater quantity), but no honey and no maple syrup. While the liquid reduced to a flavor that was attractive, desired thickness wasn't achieved. A professional chef has suggested this modification. I suggest you have fun and be prepared to taste frequently and adjust accordingly as you proceed.


(Editor's Note: This article also appears in the Beer section of Taste California Travel.)

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