Wine Country Table | Janet Fletcher
Wine Country Table
By Janet Fletcher
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Janet Fletcher: I'm Janet Fletcher in Napa Valley California, and I'm the author of 'Wine Country Table.'
Suzy Chase: California, a western US state, stretches from the Mexican border along the Pacific for nearly 900 miles. Its terrain includes cliff lined beaches, the Redwood Forest, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Central Valley farmland and the Mohave Desert. Talk a bit about the range of California's bounty.
Janet Fletcher: Oh you know Suzy, I think a lot of people think of California as just warm and sunny all the time, and we have a lot of that. We have a lot of sunshine, but we have an incredible range of climates. Climate zones, and micro climates, within those zones. We have a lot of cool, foggy coastal areas that are great for certain wine grapes and great for certain crops like lettuces and artichokes and brussels sprouts, and broccoli. I feel like there's a sweet spot for every crop you might want to grow somewhere in this state.
Suzy Chase: This book includes 23 stunning farms and wineries. How did these 23 make the cut?
Janet Fletcher: We were looking to showcase a variety of crops and a variety of growing regions, and all of the farms and all of the wineries that are showcased in the book, are leaders in sustainability. Some are organic, not necessarily, but all of them are really known as models of sustainable farming or grape growing, and that's really what we wanted to showcase. That California is not only the U.S.'s number one agricultural state but we're really global leaders in sustainable practices.
Janet Fletcher: Which is not just ... of course sustainability has a lot to do with how you treat the land. Whether you do dor don't use herbicides and pesticides, are you a good environmentalist? But also, are you conscientious about saving other resources like water, like energy. Are you good to your employees? Are you a good member of your community? It's a more holistic approach to farming then, say, biodynamics or organics.
Suzy Chase: In addition to the stories, this book includes 50 recipes that cover all the bases from breakfast to desserts. Talk a little bit about that.
Janet Fletcher: Well, breakfast, one of my favorite recipes in the book is, I call it Golden State Granola. California is known as the Golden State. And the Golden State Granola really showcases one of our major crops, which is almonds.
Janet Fletcher: There's a lot of toasted almonds in it, and toasted oatmeal and coconut and raisins and dates, and just kind of a compilation of a lot of the things that we're known for, here in California. It makes a great topping for yogurt, or a great breakfast, with some milk on top. So, really love that recipe for breakfast.
Janet Fletcher: And smoothies, I'm a big smoothie fan, and I love taking dates or prunes. Prunes, you know, are just dried plums, and putting them in a blender with a frozen banana and some buttermilk, which is very low in fat, and making a delicious breakfast smoothie.
Suzy Chase: Now, would a vintner 60 years ago recognize what's going on today in California?
Janet Fletcher: Interesting question, I think actually a lot of the old timers, or people from a generation or two ago, were really surprised by how grapes are being grown in California today. One thing that comes to mind is that if you drive around the vineyards, vineyards almost anywhere in this state. I'm talking about vineyards for wine, not just table grapes, you're going to see what looks like sometimes kind of messy vineyards. They look like they have weeds in them. In the old days, vineyards were always really carefully tilled, and so the ground was very bare under the grapes. And today, it's not.
Janet Fletcher: And that's because people are growing cover crops to attract beneficial insects and in some cases, to add nutrients to the soil, or maybe, prevent erosion. There are all sorts of reasons to plant cover crops. But, almost every vineyard is doing it today, so vineyards can look kind of messy, because they have these grasses growing up under the vines, or between the rows.
Suzy Chase: You mentioned table grapes. What's the difference between a table grape and a grape for wine?
Janet Fletcher: Well, some table grapes are used in wine making, one of the biggest ones is Thompson's Seedless. That's probably our main table grape. And it's used, it's used in wine, I wouldn't say it's used in high quality wines too much, but it is a grape that you can vinify. You can vinify any grape. You can add yeast, and ferment it and make wine.
Janet Fletcher: But over the centuries, wine makers have learned that certain grapes produce a better flavored wine. Wine grapes tend to have thicker skins, they're not ones you would necessarily enjoy as a table grape, because they have thick skins and they have seeds.
Janet Fletcher: And today of course everybody, for the table, they want a seedless grape with a thin skin. So, there is that difference of eating quality, but, and also, wine grapes, to make wine, they let them get really, really sweet. They get up to about, oh, almost a quarter sugar before they pick them. To make wine. And I think very few table grapes are picked at that high a sugar.
Suzy Chase: Immigration is a hot button issue right now. How essential is the immigrant population with helping California farming production.
Janet Fletcher: Essential is the word. Our immigrant communities are essential. We couldn't, we could not have agriculture in California without the people who work year round, in our vineyards and on our farms. They prune, they cultivate, they harvest. They are the labor force, and most of the native born Americans are not willing to do that work. It's hard, physical work. And so, immigrant communities, in California, agriculture is primarily Hispanic people, mostly from Mexico, who do a lot of the work in our farms. And they are just essential. And I think one aspect of the sustainability programs that most wineries and farms are signing on to is the understanding that working conditions have to be proper, they have to be beyond proper.
Janet Fletcher: I mean, California regulates all of this. Farmers and vintners have to follow certain regulations about employee welfare. But people who are advocates of sustainability sort of go beyond that. I'm thinking of one great, one vintner in California, and I'm sure he's going to kill me when I'm, but he's quite a well known character. Larry Turley, of Turley Wine Cellars, who has pledged to put any one of his, the kids of any one of his employees through a state college. He'll pay their state college tuition, and he has done that for four and he told me that there are 28 more people currently, young people who would qualify, and he stands ready to put them all through state college.
Janet Fletcher: So there's just this understanding that, employees are key assets, and you have to treat them well. It's just the right thing to do.
Suzy Chase: One story that caught my eye was the Resendiz Brothers, in the town of Rainbow, an hour north of San Diego. Can you talk a bit about their story?
Janet Fletcher: Isn't that a great town name, Rainbow? Yeah, and it really doesn't look like Paradise as you're driving up to it, it's a desert landscape. It's very dry and rocky. And very steep hills that are just bare, it looks like nothing would grow there.
Janet Fletcher: But to go to Resendiz Brothers, which is in northern San Diego County, not far from the town of San Diego, you pull off the road and you drive up into the mountains. And there is this farm there, that's a cut flower farm. And we included cut flowers in the book, even though they're not edible, because there's a big sustainability movement in California cut flowers. You know, you can grow apples sustainably, and berries sustainably, but you can also grow cut flowers sustainably, if you choose to. And the Resendiz Brothers do that.
Janet Fletcher: It's an operation that was started by a man named Mel Resendiz, who came to California as an immigrant, as a teenager, with nothing. And he started working on a cut flower farm just to, as a low man on the totem pole, and he learned the business. And he became very accomplished at growing these flowers in the desert.
Janet Fletcher: They are a type of flower called protea, which doesn't take a lot of water, it likes that sun and those difficult conditions. And he started his own business, growing proteas for the florist trade. And he now has a large business, lots of employees, and he ships these flowers all over the world. They are gorgeous, and they grow out of this landscape that just looks like nothing would come out of it. So, he's turning this marginal land into very productive land that's supporting a very good business.
Suzy Chase: He started out at 17, making $20 a day, and now he gets $12 a flower. This is a real great American story.
Janet Fletcher: It really is, I'd forgotten those numbers, but yeah. Some of these flowers are quite valuable, and when I was down there visiting him, he took me, near the end of our visit he took me into his packing shed. And he started kind of ordering his employees around in Spanish, and they were bringing him all sorts of, all these cut flowers to his table in the packing shed. And he starts making this bouquet. And I thought he was making it for some client, that it was going to go off to some bride, somewhere, for some society wedding. It was this gorgeous bouquet, and it was getting bigger and bigger.
Janet Fletcher: And finally, it was about two feet across, and he handed it to me. And I said, "Mel, I can't take that. I'm getting on an airplane in two hours. What am I going to do?" And he said, "You're going to take it on the plane."
Janet Fletcher: So, in fact, I marched onto the plane with that bouquet, they let me on with it. And I fortunately had an empty seat next to me, and so I just put that giant bouquet of proteas in the seat next to me, and I put a seat belt around it. And off we went.
Suzy Chase: That's so funny. I love it.
Janet Fletcher: Yeah, a very generous man. Growing a beautiful, you know, building a great business on this beautiful crop that he found a niche for.
Suzy Chase: You wrote in the book Luther Burbank, the legendary plant breeder, called Sonoma County the chosen spot of all this earth as far as nature is concerned. Talk a little bit about his ground breaking work.
Janet Fletcher: Well, Luther Burbank was, I don't know where he was from. I'm not sure if he was a Californian, but he did most of his work around the town of Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County. And he was a famous plant breeder of the early, I'm going to say, the early 20th Century. And a lot of the fruits, primarily, are what he worked with. And a lot of the fruits that he created through hybridizing are still among our favorites, today. One called the Santa Rosa plum. Santa Rosa plum is one of our table plums, you can find it all over markets. The Santa Rosa plum is a great eating plum, that he developed.
Janet Fletcher: But the one that we dry is called the Improved French plum, and that's a Luther Burbank hybrid. And that's what's grown in all of our prune orchards. Which are, it's just an absolutely delicious piece of fruit, both fresh and dried.
Suzy Chase: In Sonoma County is the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. How did a world famous film director get into the wine business?
Janet Fletcher: Well, Francis Coppola is a wine lover. And, he and his wife bought a beautiful heritage estate in Napa Valley, I'm going to say, maybe 30 years ago. And really transformed that. And then he, I think he just enjoyed the wine business. There's a bit of a performance quality to the wine business as well, in some levels, and I think he just enjoyed being in agriculture. I think his wife, Eleanor Coppola's an amazing gardener, and they went on to buy this property in Sonoma County, another important heritage estate. And that's where they have Francis Ford Coppola Cellars now.
Janet Fletcher: It's a wonderful place to visit, and the thing that he did that was pretty revolutionary for the wine industry, is that he created this winery that is very welcoming to children. I think wineries have sort of shied away from that, for fear of crossing a line, offending people that they're marketing to children. But Coppola just embraced kids, and he created a swimming pool. He used to, he noticed that at his Napa winery that kids were always wanting to go into the fountains, and parents were always admonishing the kids not to go into the fountain. So he said at his Sonoma winery, he was going to have this giant swimming pool that kids could enjoy. So, there's all sorts of fun, family oriented things to do at his winery in Sonoma. Including a beautiful garden, great restaurant and this enormous, oversized swimming pool.
Suzy Chase: Among the fog, what is harvested on the north coast?
Janet Fletcher: The foggy areas on the north coast are really best for certain wine grapes that like cool climates like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir. In the Anderson Valley, which is one of our coolest growing regions along the coast, wineries are just growing varieties that are more typically associated with Alsace, one of France's coolest growing regions. That would be the varieties, like Riesling and Gerwurztraminer, so that's one of the few places in California where those cool climate grapes are still grown, in the Anderson Valley.
Janet Fletcher: But as far as produce, those cool climate areas are really great for all those beautiful baby lettuces that you see in fancy restaurants. There's one grower along the coast, in a little, you can't even call it a town. It's just a little speck of a burg called Bolinas. He grows an amazing array of lettuces, very tender lettuces, and he has really, the farmer who deserves a lot of the credit for introducing the Little Gem variety, he started growing it and taking it to a Farmer's Market in San Francisco.
Janet Fletcher: It's a Romaine type, but very small, very crisp. People fell in love with the Little Gem lettuce that this farmer was growing. And it's now, I mean, it's the trendiest lettuce. It's on every menu, and people have Little Gem Caesar salads, and Little Gem this and that. But he really introduced the Little Gem, I would say, to California agriculture.
Suzy Chase: You wrote, "The early Sierra Foothills grape growers got it right. Zinfandel belongs here." Why is that?
Janet Fletcher: Well, Zinfandel likes mountain vineyards, it does really well on these higher elevation vineyards. It likes some heat. And it doesn't really get a lot of flavor until it gets very ripe. Riper than you would pick, say, a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay. And, it also, you know, it needs good drainage, like most grapes so that's, but it really likes the drainage that you get on a steep hillside.
Janet Fletcher: You know, it got established in some of these older California vineyards, like 19th Century vineyards, in the Sierra Foothills, shortly after the Gold Rush. That's where the Gold Rush happened, and of course a lot of these people who came to California to mine gold, they liked to drink. And they wanted their wines, and so people started planting vineyards there. So some of our oldest vineyards are in that sort of Gold Rush area, in the Sierra Foothills.
Janet Fletcher: And today's wine makers are just overjoyed when they can get a parcel that has some of these older vines on it. Some of them might be 80, you know, 70, 80, 90 year old vines. And they are very prized, because they have shown that they can survive in that climate. You know, it's like survival of the fittest. They're the vines that have done well there, have survived for all these years, and have very deep roots and make beautiful wines. So that's where these old vine Zinfandels that you read about, a lot of them are coming out of that Sierra Foothills area.
Suzy Chase: Speaking of old vines, the Lucas Winery in Lodi is owned by David and his wife Heather Pyle Lucas. So, David purchased the land in 1976 after doing a stint in the Peace Corps and US Foreign Service with expertise in Asian rice cultivation. And he just wanted to own land and grow something. They have old vine, world class Zinfandel, and David has named every grapevine. I love that.
Janet Fletcher: I went into one, into their barrel area, and there was this vine mounted on the wall. A dead vine, with no leaves on it. It's just those gnarly arms. And it was mounted on this wooden board, it makes almost like a cross shape. It looks this religious icon on this barrel wall.
Suzy Chase: I found it funny, because I kept reading it over and over, and I was thinking, "A tractor ran over Cindy?" And then I was like, "Oh, Cindy's a grape vine." It was so funny.
Janet Fletcher: Exactly, yeah, that was, David Lucas gives all his grape vines names, all his old ones. They have names because he just treasures them. He sees them as, you know, almost members of the family. And they are prized, and you can injure one if you have a tractor or a weed eating device that goes, there are these kind of plows. And when they sense the vine trunk they go around it, they retract and they go around it. But if you're not handling it properly, you can do some damage to a vine. And that's what happened to poor Cindy, she got nicked and she didn't survive. So, he mounted her on a wall, like a shrine, and it's quite, it's a beautiful, it looks like a work of art. Very gnarly arms that kind of stretch across the wall of their barrel room. You can't miss Cindy.
Suzy Chase: So, on your personal blog, you wrote, "I live, cook, garden and write on a quiet street in Napa Valley. My house is not large, but my kitchen is. And my sunny garden is bigger yet." That sounds dreamy. Describe how the two years you spent as a cook at Chez Panisse shaped your taste.
Janet Fletcher: I worked at Chez Panisse, it was one of my first jobs out of cooking school and it, I was very impressionable, and it made a big impression. And it has really stayed with me in the years since. That was more 30 years ago, but working with Alice Waters is just, well, it was a dream for a young cook. And she has such a strong point of view, a strong aesthetic, and it really made a mark on me.
Janet Fletcher: A lot of it had to do with supporting small farms, supporting local farms, being an absolute obsessive about quality and working with only the best. You can't make good food without great ingredients, and also, I think as a cook, I learned to keep it simple. That, if you buy great ingredients, that you just don't want to do too much to them, because you don't want to screw them up. Alice really shaped my approach to cooking and certainly that experience of being at Chez Panisse and seeing all that gorgeous produce that would come in the door, made me want to garden. So I've been an avid gardener ever since that time.
Suzy Chase: Your husband has said, "Over the years, Janet's cooking and recipe development has affected how I view wine." Talk a bit about that.
Janet Fletcher: Well, Doug makes wines that are, I hate to use this word because it sounds kind of trite, but they're very food friendly. They are not hugely tannic, they are fruit forward, and the alcohol is restrained. And the tannin is gentle. Doug recently retired, but he's most, but most of his career in the Stags Leap district of Napa Valley, which is renowned for that style of wine, anyway. But the wines are primarily Cabernet, that's what the area is known for, and Cabernets, depending on how you make them and where you grow them, can be very tannic and hard to like when they're young.
Janet Fletcher: Doug's are more feminine, more soft, more ... not soft in terms of low acid, they have good acidity and approachable tannins. So they're very good food wines, we eat a lot of beans and grains and fruits and vegetables in this household, and not a lot of meat, and the wines, his red wines are very complimentary with that kind of produce first way of eating.
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called My Last Meal. What would you have for your last supper?
Janet Fletcher: I, you know, every time I have an avocado, a beautiful, ripe avocado, and spread it on homemade bread or whole grain bread from a good bakery, and I put some coarse salt on top, and a little squeeze of lemon or lime, I think, "This is what I want, for my last meal." It just doesn't get any better than a great California avocado, buttery, nutty, and I, you know, I'm quite happy with something like that. It's, in fact, I have that for lunch a lot. Just a piece of avocado toast.
Janet Fletcher: So it makes me laugh, that avocado toast has become so trendy, because I've been eating that for a long time. Even at Chez Panisse, when I was a cook there, and I had like all this amazing food around me. For my little break time lunch, I would just grab a piece of bread and an avocado. And I would be very happy with that for lunch.
Suzy Chase: You were ahead of your time.
Janet Fletcher: In terms of avocado toast, yes. I've been enjoying it for a long time. And will continue, even when other people move on to other things, I'll be eating my avocado toast.
Suzy Chase: Until it comes back around.
Janet Fletcher: Right. These things are cyclical. No, people will never give up on avocados. It's one of people's favorite fruits, they're so luscious.
Janet Fletcher: And I did get to visit an avocado grower in the book, and profiled him. He's down in the Carpinteria area, near Santa Barbara. Family farm, he farms with his wife, and has two adorable children, or three. And they grow citrus and avocados, and they're very sustainable about it.
Janet Fletcher: In fact, he gets a lot of the mulch that he puts around his trees from a local Starbucks factory where they make Frappuccino, so there are all these coffee grounds that he can get for next to nothing. And he puts those around the base of his tree, to provide nutrients and keep the weeds down. And it, other people do not do that. It's pretty progressive, a pretty new thing to think about mulching your grove.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web, social media and your cheese class?
Janet Fletcher: Well, I hope people will find me on janetfletcher.com, that's my website where I list all my classes. I teach a lot of cheese appreciation classes and cooking classes. I have a blog called Planet Cheese and people can sign up on my website, janetfletcher.com, it's a once a week read, something new that I've learned about cheese and want to share.
Janet Fletcher: So, cheese is a great passion along with my love of writing about farms and farming and great produce. I do love the world of cheese, and I hope people will join me with Planet Cheese. Instagram, @janetfletcherNV, for Napa Valley. And Twitter, @janetfletcherNV.
Suzy Chase: Awesome. Thanks Janet for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Janet Fletcher: It's been my pleasure, Suzy, thank you for having me.
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