Wine Country Table: a book review with excerpts


Connecting the Dots

a book review and excerpts


Wine Country Table: With Recipes that Celebrate California’s Sustainable Harvest
By Janet Fletcher
Photographs by Robert Holmes and Sara Remington
in collaboration with Wine Institute
Rizzoli Publications, Inc., 2019

Expecting out-of-state visitors this summer or looking to spark your own California wanderlust? Here’s a book for your coffee table as well as your kitchen, one that both inspires and informs. Pull up a chair (or put on your apron) for a magnificent journey into California’s agricultural richness and the epicurean culture it has spawned.

In her new book, Wine Country Table, award-winning Bay Area food and wine writer Janet Fletcher looks at our state—pretty much every arable part of it, north to south, and from the Pacific Coast into the Sierra Foothills—as Wine Country. Think Italy or France: places where enjoyment of local wine twines into the food culture and where unique regional food traditions spring from thoughtful land stewardship and reverence for craftsmanship. Since the 1970s, when California was first revealed to the world as capable of producing wines on par with those of France and Italy, California vintners have been cultivating an equally tempting image of Wine Country and its intermingled pleasures.

Here in a land newer to wine culture, producers enjoy more freedom to innovate, and that extends into rethinking ways to honor and protect our precious ecosystems with forward-thinking practices. Throughout the book, Fletcher celebrates the leadership role California growers have played in finding effective ways to lighten winemaking’s environmental footprint.

“A vintner from fifty years ago would be astonished by viticulture and winemaking today: the thick stands of cover crops in place of the weed-free vineyards of the past; the solar panels and wind turbines that power wineries and irrigation; and the pervasive recycling mind-set,” Fletcher writes.

As dwellers on a fragile planet, we can offer our thanks to Fletcher for weaving the discussion of sustainability into a subject matter that normally begins and ends at the pursuit of pleasure. But also, this is a book that acknowledges winegrowing as it exists within a context of food growing here in an agricultural state that produces abundance the world depends on. In that vein, the book celebrates not only the grape harvest, but also the wider bounty laid out on Wine Country tables. Be prepared to meet growers of California’s best cared-for tree crops and row crops (as well as flowers) as you ramble through this huge, diverse, and productive landscape. The stories, gorgeous images, and 50 easy-to-follow recipes are sure to inspire you to set your own sustainable California Wine Country table.


—Cheryl Angelina Koehler

Concannon family portrait, including John (standing), father Jim, and niece Shannon Lessard.  Photo by 
 Robert Holmes
Concannon family portrait, including John (standing), father Jim, and niece Shannon Lessard. Photo by Robert Holmes



Excerpt from Wine Country Table: With Recipes that Celebrate California’s Sustainable Harvest
By Janet Fletcher


We were always taught that it is an honor to have our wine on someone’s table,” says John Concannon, a fourth-generation vintner whose family has been supplying the tables of wine lovers for more than a century. John’s entrepreneurial great-grandfather, James Concannon, helped introduce wine grapes to California’s Livermore Valley in the 1880s, and his heirs have made wine there ever since. Even during Prohibition, Concannon Vineyard kept the harvests going, producing sacramental wine for the Catholic Church. The church figures in the birth of Concannon Vineyards as well. James, an Irish immigrant, initially landed in Boston knowing just enough English to understand the “Irish Need Not Apply” signs. In San Francisco’s heavily Irish Mission District, he found a more hospitable home and went to work as a traveling salesman, covering his western territory on horseback.

WINDSWEPT VALLEY: Joseph Alemany, the first archbishop of San Francisco, encouraged Concannon to buy land in Livermore Valley and produce wine for the rapidly expanding church. Geological maps indicated that the valley had an unusual east-west orientation, inviting cool breezes from the Pacific Ocean through what is now known as the Altamont Pass. Wine grapes would love that.

Today, more than four thousand wind turbines line the Altamont Pass, their arms slowly swirling like synchronized swimmers, converting that airflow into energy. And the archbishop’s instincts were right. The marine influence produces large diurnal swings, with the valley’s warm-to-hot days pushing the grapes to ripeness and its reliably chilly nights preserving acidity.

Just as important for wine quality, the estate’s soil is rocky and fast draining, so roots dive deep. Winemaker James Foster has seen vines with roots that extend 30 feet. Such vines are survivors, able to scavenge for water and nutrients in dry years.

Recognizing similarities between the soils in Livermore Valley and Bordeaux, James Concannon traveled to the famous French wine region to get cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon. Alas, phylloxera, a root-eating aphid, devastated his vineyard and many others in the 1880s, so Concannon returned to Bordeaux in 1893. The vintner could not have foreseen that the Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings he brought back from Château Margaux would have a lasting impact on the California wine industry.

By the mid-1960s, many North Coast vineyards were suffering from viruses, but Concannon’s vines appeared healthy. Researchers from UC Davis visited the property in 1965, selected the heartiest-looking Cabernet Sauvignon vine and took three cuttings from it. To make sure the cuttings were virus-free, they subjected each one to heat treatment but for different amounts of time.

After propagation, these virus-free vines were released in the early 1970s as Concannon Clones 7, 8, and 11. “Growers felt confident with these cuttings,” recalls John Concannon, and they planted them widely. Today, California has 90,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and an estimated 80 percent is from Concannon clones. Warren Winiarski, who started Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, remembers Jim Concannon, John’s father, bringing him newspaper-wrapped cuttings of Concannon Clone 7. This prized clone became the foundation of the acclaimed Stag’s Leap Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon.

HONORING AN HISTORIC VINE: As Concannon plans for the future, with “green” investments like a sophisticated water-treatment plant that will enable process water reuse, the winery takes pains to preserve its illustrious past. Just steps from its historic tasting room is the half-acre Mother Vine Vineyard, home to the head-pruned vine that yielded those three now-famous clones. Concannon’s Mother Vine Cabernet Sauvignon comes from this pocket-size vineyard, each vine descended from that hardy parent.

Among the noteworthy old bottles on display at Concannon, their labels yellowed and their fill height reduced by time, is a 1961 Concannon Vineyard Petite Sirah. Jim Concannon, a pioneer like his grandfather, was the first to bottle this sturdy, inky variety on its own. “Petite Sirah was the secret backbone in a lot of red wine,” says John, “but my father knew it could stand alone.”

It’s not the easiest grape to vinify, but the winery’s devotion to it has helped raise Petite Sirah’s profile and build its fan base. Today, California counts more than 10,000 acres planted to this heritage grape.

“Historical preservation is a big theme around here,” says John. The company has placed 200 acres of estate vineyards in a conservation trust, and upon learning that a historic Victorian home nearby was about to be demolished, the winery bought it, moved it, restored it, and now uses it for special events. The past is a fitting preoccupation for a winery whose white wine was served to Franklin Roosevelt and whose many “firsts” include hiring America’s first professional female winemaker, Katherine Vajda, a former Hungarian ballerina with a chemistry background. With time, perhaps a fifth generation of Concannons will step up to lead this groundbreaking winery into the future.

Photo by Sara Remington


Excerpt from Wine Country Table: With Recipes that Celebrate California’s Sustainable Harvest
By Janet Fletcher

How clever of nature to ripen apricots and cherries at the same time; the two fruits are so compatible. Toss them with a little sugar and tapioca to thicken their juices, add a crunchy oat and walnut topping, and bake until bubbly. This home-style summer dessert can stand alone, but vanilla-bean ice cream mingling with the warm juices would make it even more luscious. Allow time for cooling. The crisp is much better warm than hot.

Serves 8

¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of kosher or sea salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, firm but not chilled, cut into 12 pieces
½ cup chopped toasted walnuts
⅓ cup old-fashioned rolled oats

1½–1¾ pounds apricots, halved and pitted
½ pound cherries, halved and pitted
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca

Preheat the oven to 375°.

Make the topping: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Mix on low speed until blended. Add the butter and continue to mix on low speed until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the walnuts and oats and mix just until clumps form. You can refrigerate this mixture, covered, for up to 2 days.

Cut the apricot halves into 2 to 4 wedges, depending on their size. Combine the apricots, cherries, sugar, and tapioca in a bowl and toss well. Let stand for 10 minutes to draw some juices out of the fruit. Transfer the mixture to a 9½-inch pie pan. Spread the topping evenly over the surface; it should cover the fruit. Put the pie pan on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any drips. Bake until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is lightly browned and crisp, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 45 minutes before serving.

WINE SUGGESTION: California late-harvest dessert wine from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, or Riesling