SWEET SUCCESS AT BAKESALE BETTY
A Spirited Revival of Home Baked Treats
By Romney Steele
Photography, Carole Topalian
LIVERMORE VALLEY WINE
Back from the Brink
By Derrick Schneider
Color Photographs, Carole Topalian
Winemaker photgraph, Melissa Schneider
AFOOT IN A BRENTWOOD GARDEN OF EDEN
Knoll Farm’s Dance of Life
By Cheryl Koehler
Photographs courtesty Kristie Knoll
Alison Barakat (aka Betty) wears a bright blue wig and has an infectious smile. She exudes warmth and has seemingly boundless energy to match-greeting customers like they were old friends, affectionately calling them “my love” and tending to their needs in between our conversation.
Mind you, the shop was closed while we held our interview, but the door was quick to open every few minutes for the curious passerby or the mother who wanted one of the “same brownies” she had yesterday. In a business synonymous with hard work and all-night shifts, Alison is unfazed. “There is nothing I’d rather be doing,” she says-words spoken by a woman on the verge of sweet success.
Alison began selling her goods at local farmers’ markets in 2002, but this year she and her husband and partner, Michael Camp, opened Bakesale Betty, a retail shop on the corner of 51st and Telegraph in Oakland, in the heart of the burgeoning Temescal neighborhood. It’s just a hop and a skip down from Piazzola and Dona Tomas, two hot spots for dining in this neck of the city. Drawn to the neighborhood’s mix of people, friendliness, and businesses, they moved in above the bakery a year ago and have been working on the space ever since. The work is 24/7 but they’ve taken a long-term lease and are in it for the duration, finding their niche in a neighborhood that is swirling with energy and in the throes of renewal.
The space itself is homey, a just fit for family-centered Temescal. The wainscoting is painted a cheerful celadon-eggshell-white walls are framed by black trim and anchored by a red and brown checkerboard floor; a flash of cotton-candy pink trimmed with red and black tiles brightens the space behind the register. In keeping with the retro look and to get that “bake sale feel,” the couple has set up two vintage ironing boards (an idea they started at the farmers’ markets) to showcase their wares. Short stools run the length of the street facing-windows, creating a sunny spot for taking in the view with a cup of locally roasted coffee and a ginger scone or one of Betty’s savories. Currently they offer pressed sandwiches during lunch, but they are gradually adding take-home meals to their repertoire, such as beef and chicken pot pies-and yes, that is with a double crust.
The single reach-in case for drinks is where you’ll find the Bakesale Betty signature “sticky-date pudding.” The scrumptious moist pudding cake is sold in its tin along with a container of to-die-for caramel sauce and directions for warming and serving. It was a winner at our house. Festooned with some vanilla ice cream, it practically melted in the mouth-a luscious reminder of a good ol’ spice cake, sans the spice, and rich with the honey-like taste of Medjool dates. Look for the cello-wrapped packages tied with a bright blue ribbon.
The character Betty is a play on a 1950s Australian housewife initiating a spirited revival of home baked treats from a different era. “It is just for fun,” Alison said when I asked about why she wears the blue wig, “an alter-ego. You can be more flamboyant. A character that somebody can maybe relate to.” Her husband said more matter-of-factly, “It was genius, is
what it was.” And I think he’s right. According to Alison, kids and adults love Betty-drawn no doubt by the kitschy blue wig, but also by the old-fashioned baked goods inspired in part by the “Lamington drives” or bake sales of Alison’s youth. Lamingtons-vanilla sponge cake bars filled with strawberry jam, dipped in chocolate, then rolled in coconut-are another signature treat at Betty’s and a traditional favorite at Australia’s school bake sales, where families preorder Lamingtons by the dozen-sending all the moms and grandmas scurrying home to bake them to raise money for the schools.
A trained chef, Alison cooked in Australia for 10 years before coming to the States and landing a job at Chez Panisse Restaurant. “They taught me the importance of seasonality,” she says, remarking that it was the best place to learn about California cuisine and about using fresh, local produce. Alison brings a similar approach to her baking at Bakesale Betty, where she uses fresh fruit and vegetables from local farmers and some from families who drop by with the occasional bag of lemons. Some of the produce comes from Amity Works (see article on page 21). The Bakesale Betty crew uses organic when they can and when it makes sense, given their commitment to being an affordable neighborhood bakery. “Our customers are looking for quality, freshness, and how good things taste,” she says.
Judging by the local buzz and the stream of customers coming in and out (even long after the doors are closed), the new bakery is already a popular neighborhood spot, drawing a regular crowd throughout the week. People are won over by the delicious sweets, but there is no doubt that they also love Betty’s bright blue wig and her upbeat, friendly manner.
|Back from the Brink|
|BY DERRICK SCHNEIDER|
|Color Photographs, Carole Topalian. Winemaker
photgraph, Melissa Schneider
“They make wine in Livermore?” That question, which a friend recently asked me, symbolizes modern awareness of this East Bay viticultural area. Few people know of it; fewer still believe you’ll find good wine here.
So most people are surprised to learn that the Livermore Valley has been a noteworthy wine region for more than 120 years. In 1883 Carl Wente (a Charles Krug trainee) and Irish vintner James Concannon founded the wineries that still bear their names. Today, Wente Vineyards owns two thirds of the vineyards in the area and dominates the Valley’s output with half a million cases a year, and Concannon sits in the number two spot, bottling 100,000 cases annually. The two wineries shaped the state’s young wine industry: Most of California’s modern Chardonnay vineyards are planted with the “Wente clone” and Concannon’s Clone Seven and Clone Eight Cabernet Sauvignon vines are popular as well.
The Valley’s climate and soil have always suggested greatness. Before Prohibition, critics considered Livermore to be the state’s premier wine region. Modern Bay Area residents think of the region as hot and arid, but the Valley’s producers are quick to disagree. “We’re one layer of hills away from the Bay,” says Thomas Coyne, the Penn State alumnus who inspires and teaches many of the small producers in the area. “We get definite influences from that.” Hot air over the Central Valley sucks cool ocean air through two gaps in the Valley’s western border of golden hills. This simple mix of thermodynamics and geography creates a strong, cooling wind that produces temperature profiles similar to the best regions in Napa. It’s not uncommon for the thermometer to drop 30 degrees at night, and the cloud cover pulled off the Bay prevents temperatures from warming too quickly in the morning. Anyone standing in a vineyard on the Valley’s southern side can feel the brisk breeze, but 7,000 energy-generating wind turbines in the Altamont Pass attest to the wind’s force.
Warm days followed by cool nights provide a good environment for wine grapes, but the Valley floor’s rocky soil provides its own set of ideal conditions. “Our property manager says that if you removed all the rocks, you wouldn’t have any soil left,” says Coyne with a chuckle. The loose stones that many compare to the Graves region of Bordeaux drain water quickly and force vine roots to twist deeply into the soil. The stressed vines yield grapes that taste more complex.
Why is Livermore anonymous today, despite a promising terrain and a prestigious history? “Napa won the marketing game,” shrugs Karl Wente, the fifth-generation wine maker at Wente Vineyards who put on the Black Crowes as he drove us to different vineyard sites. Robert Mondavi knew how to generate buzz for Napa, and starting in the 1960s, that region began its ascent to the stardom it enjoys today. Napa wineries don’t just enjoy more publicity; Napa bottles dominate shelf space and crowd out bottles from regions with a small number of producers.
As Livermore’s legacy faded from the public’s memory, the grapes could no longer command high prices and consumers ignored any Livermore bottles they saw. Price fluctuations are an agricultural constant, but the Valley’s proximity to the Bay Area, especially growing technology centers such as Fremont, made its vineyards attractive targets for urban developers. Families looking for a suburban lifestyle or lower housing costs eagerly bought the houses that sprang up. Acreage under vine dropped as struggling growers accepted offers from businessmen who saw cul-de-sacs instead of Cabernet Sauvignon and sidewalks in place of Semillon. Twelve hundred acres of vineyard were all that remained of the 5,000 that blanketed the Valley floor in the region’s heyday. In the mid 1980s, concerned citizens felt a crisis was imminent. “They approached Alameda County about a plan that would allow agriculture to be preserved and reinvigorated,” says Phil Wente, Karl’s uncle, who has been involved with the plan since the beginning. Their efforts were surprisingly successful: The county agreed to a proposal that required land to be put under easement for agricultural use to offset housing developments in the southern half of the Valley. The South Livermore Valley Area Plan that came about several years later required developers to find or plant an acre of cultivatable agriculture for every lot that was built up and for every acre covered with housing. “If you put three lots on an acre,” he clarified, “you would need to compensate with four acres of agriculture: one for each lot and one for the acre.” The easements were put into the hands of the South Livermore Valley Area Trust, which holds them in perpetuity.
Another threat to Livermore’s agriculture arose with the Ruby Hill development. Signature Properties, the underwriting developer, planned to build 2,000 homes, and citizens demanded that 600 acres be put under easement as compensation. Furthermore, though Signature could buy large plots of land and subdivide them, the company could only portion them into 20-acre chunks; 18 acres of each parcel had to be set aside for agriculture. Signature agreed, probably preferring the compromise to an outright ban on the development.
As the Ruby Hill development neared completion, members of the trust that held the easements recognized that the agency could take a role beyond simply safeguarding the land acquired from the
agreement. When Dublin and Pleasanton approached the organization about managing some of their land, members formed the Tri Valley Conservancy to handle the larger scope.
The Conservancy manages the easements from the original South Livermore Valley Area Plan, the Ruby Hill development, and land put into trust as part of amended zoning laws in the county. But now its members also do some fund-raising and work on initiatives that support the Conservancy’s mission.
The effort to protect Livermore’s agriculture has paid off-3,700 acres are now under easement. “I’m not sure there would have been any other way to get that land back,” says Sharon Burnham, executive director of the Conservancy. A network of trails that meanders through the Valley gives hikers, bikers, and horseback riders “a chance to commune with nature” in plots that have been replanted with native flora.
But for wine lovers, the reclaimed acreage is even better news. Though some growers are planting orchards or olive trees (the Valley’s olive oil industry also has a long history), most are planting vines. “Wine brings in more money,” points out Phil Wente. The abundance of grapes has encouraged small wine makers to set up shop, adding diversity to a wine region long monopolized by Wente and Concannon. Almost 30 wineries dot the Valley floor now, whereas only 15 existed in 1999.
With more wine makers and more vineyards, growers can take a chance on less-common varieties that weren’t economically viable in the ’80s. It will take time for those vines to reach maturity, but small producers are counting the days. “I’d rather have Wente and Concannon make mainstream wines,” says Thomas Coyne, “and do some of the oddball varieties myself. ” Coyne is a fan of Rhône grapes, and he’s excited to see more growers planting them.
Despite Livermore’s history, the renewed wine industry still feels young. It’s difficult for a casual visitor to discover a distinct Livermore character in the wines, largely because at many wineries, you’ll find just one or two wines from Livermore grapes, even if the winery has a wide selection of bottles. Wine makers look elsewhere out of necessity. “Ten years ago, ” says Coyne, “there wasn’t any Syrah in this valley, so I went outside, and I built up relationships that I’ve kept.” But a unique sense of place is a valuable commodity in the wine business, and those more intimate with the region’s wines see that character already. Coyne finds a consistent earthy, mineral quality to Livermore wines, and author Karen MacNeil writes that many of them have a “wild herb, resiny, garigue character similar to the wines of Provence and Languedoc-Rousillon.” It’s not uncommon for wine makers to describe their wines as “more European” in taste.
Vintners need to relearn which grapes show the Valley at its best. While other old wine regions have had the time to find the right matches between grape and site, Livermore, curiously, has not. The Valley’s vines have instead followed market trends closely in recent years. “I don’t think we’ve had the diversity of viticulture to tell us what are the best grapes,” says Coyne. Concannon has its money on Petite Sirah, which isn’t surprising since it was the first winery in the state to plant that grape, and today it accounts for half the winery’s holdings. Their intensely flavored bottlings make a compelling argument for the appropriateness of that grape. The Oxford Companion to Wine suggests that Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon would dominate “if the gods had got it all right.” The Sauvignon Blancs were surprisingly good: They are truer to the grape than the flabby examples one often finds in California. Coyne thinks mainstream varieties do reasonably well. Karl Wente sums up the arguments succinctly: “It’s an intellectual challenge, getting the right vines onto a site.”
But Livermore producers now know that they can’t focus only on making good wine: They need to acquire the marketing savvy they have lacked for many years. Wine makers in the Valley know that it will be an uphill battle to get their bottles onto store shelves and restaurant wine lists. They’re starting on the home front, attracting the weekend tasting crowd who make up the bulk of sales for the smaller wineries. Mike Eckert, who owns the award-winning Eckert Estate with his wife, Vickie, is working on remodeling his tasting room and creating new roadside signs to lure customers in. The landscaping will include fountains, picnic tables, and a demonstration vineyard in front of the tasting room (“It will be planted to Malbec,” he says emphatically, a grape he loves but can’t yet find in the region). Even Wente, which doesn’t have a problem with sales, built a golf course, restaurant, concert pavilion, and visitors center as an opulent invitation to passersby. Concannon is building out its facilities and providing areas for weddings, a business model that has worked well for nearby winery Rios-Lovell. Many of the producers look to Lodi as inspiration: Successful marketing has almost reversed that appellation’s reputation for jug wine, and now it’s a popular wine destination.
Livermore wineries don’t just have more vines to work with now. Greater flexibility, more knowledge, and more choices have given confidence to area producers. “I don’t need to live up to Napa,” says Wente. “I want to be on the table with them, and I feel confident that we can compete.”
History is on his side.
Derrick Schneider is a freelance writer based in Oakland. He can be contacted via his website, www.obsessionwithfood.com.
As a casual Westerner, I always feel an odd sense of awe when visiting a home where the convention is to take off one’s shoes at the door. The custom implies a certain honoring of the space within the home. A similar feeling arose as I drove up to Knoll Farm in Brentwood. Within the densely planted strip there is little room for a motorized vehicle to maneuver, and although there are no instructions to abandon all cars on the farm’s narrow Byron Highway frontage, it feels like the right thing to do.
Kristie and Rick Knoll bought this 10 acres of Brentwood farmland in 1979 with the intention of living alongside their chickens and their large biodynamic kitchen garden. Since then, the garden has morphed into a 10-acre edible forest supplying specialty produce to Bay Area markets and restaurants such as Chez Panisse. And while those lovingly tended crops would seem to be what is now most honored here, even the famous Knoll figs, green garlic, and rosemary play but a single part in the big Knoll Farm dance of life. They share the stage with all manner of weeds (important to the biodynamic balance), cover crops (some of which are sold as food), the dirt, the weather, the workers, the chickens, a pot-bellied pig, and especially the myriad of worms, insects, and microbes that carry out the farm’s most specialized duties.
“We always try to have something blooming to bring in the nectar gatherers,” says Kristie Knoll as we take an early Summer walk through a plum grove where a wide patch of rosemary twinkles with little white blossoms. Indeed, there are flowers everywhere for the nectar gatherers to ravage: Cosmos grow thickly between the fig trees; flowering peas twine through a patch of red chard, over a rose bush, and around a gigantic prickly pear cactus. The amaranth, with its gaudy magenta plume-like flowers, looks like it’s trying to upstage the demure silver foliage of a small olive grove. Artichokes as high as an elephant’s eye proceed into full purple bloom.
Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Dirt First” Kristie details the effort that they put into a daily rebuilding of the farm’s soil, working it with compost, chipped stone and oyster shells, and, no doubt, the manure from their small menagerie of beasts. “As plants take nutrients out of the soil you need to put them back,” she says. “It’s like a savings account.”
She describes the role of the ants: “they aerate the ground and take nutrients down deep into the soil,” and she even honors the wasps for their role in decomposing creatures that happen to take their last gasps somewhere on the acreage. “We struggle with them,” she admits, but as she outlines the challenges of biodynamic farming, it seems that the only true pests in the vicinity are the conventional farmers working the cornfield next door. “They aren’t supposed to spray next to us,” she says, implying that sometimes they do anyway. “The chemicals drift through the air and pollute the groundwater. It’s a problem for everyone.”
Still, the Knolls go to great efforts to keep on friendly terms with the conventional farmers-they understand that the farmers all are partners in the larger cause of keeping agriculture alive in Brentwood. “This is some class-one soil for farming,” says Kristie. “It would only take three or four supervisors’ votes to change the zoning.” Her words reverberate out on the roads where the relentless incursion of subdivisions and strip malls has changed the sleepy, rural byways into a raging stream of oil-swilling metal beasts. Even at midday, getting onto Byron Highway from the Knoll Farm parking strip can involve a long wait for a break in the traffic.
As we walk past a patch of lemon verbena, Kristie notes that the aromatic herb was used to flavor ice cream made up for a recent Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust (BALT) fundraiser. Like land trusts springing up all over the country, BALT is in business “to create agricultural conservation easements that provide farmers with an economically viable
alternative to selling their land for development.” The BALT website explains that when the organization buys the zoning easements, it allow farmers to “continue to own and farm their land while receiving compensation for the development value of the land, as well as significant tax benefits.” It’s a reasonably simple equation that is being applied more and more as communities begin to recognize what is being lost to urban sprawl.
More complex equations are calculated every day in a finely tuned agro-ecosystem like Knoll Farm, and in our markets and kitchens as we make our seemingly simple daily food-buying decisions. Acknowledging that the Knoll Farm produce may seem expensive, Kristie points out some of the hidden costs we bear through our taxes and health insurance when we buy into the conventional food production system: farm subsidies (that go mostly to large agribusiness), treatment for chemical induced illnesses like cancer, environmental cleanup, and the heartbreakingly inadequate social services that prop up our nation’s underpaid farm workers.
Out in the agro-forest that is Knoll Farm, the workers hand pick the figs for our Chez Panisse salad wearing surgical gloves and using a knife that Rick Knoll designed to protect against the skin-burning liquid that oozes from each cut fig stem. The precautions add to the cost, but the Knolls have understood from their own experience that their pickers could not continue to work if their hands were damaged.
“The choice is ours,” the Knolls often say. “We must remember: Things of value are not attained cheaply or easily.”
The yard around the Knoll’s living and working quarters exhibits a similar haphazard aesthetic to that of the full 10-acre farm, yet many of the Knoll’s friends and acquaintances opt to hold weddings and parties here. They take advantage of Rick’s hand-built outdoor oven, where various foods get wrapped in leaves of fig, grape, horseradish, and artichoke, or skewered on twigs of rosemary. The foods are then roasted over wood pruned from the shrubby herbs and fruit trees-heavenly.
Such lively cooking makes for a daily celebration of food at the farm, except for about one day a week when the Knolls make their way to a Brentwood eatery. Kristie says that they rarely go further because they don’t like fighting traffic and trying to park. “Our favorite places to eat when we feel like making a federal case outa getting there and back are: Oliveto and Dopo in Oakland; Chez Panisse and Eccolo in Berkeley; Blue Plate, Greens, Le Petit Robert, and Incanto in San Francisco; Va de Vi in Walnut Creek.
I didn’t check, but I suspect there’s a good chance the Knolls would be eating some exceptional produce at these places. Shoppers who want to find Knoll products can go to Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, Monterey Market in Berkeley, Market Hall Produce in Oakland, Raley’s in Brentwood, the Brentwood Farmers’ Market (currently closed for the season) and the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco on Saturdays, from February through most of December, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Knoll Farm is located at 12510 Byron Highway in Brentwood. They are not set up to take visitors, but you can tour the farm and learn more at their website www.knollorganics.com. The website includes many pages of fascinating information and a long, passionate essay on the philosophy behind the Knolls’ work at Knoll Farm.