Janet Fletcher celebrates California's sustainably grown crops in 'Wine Country Table'
It was the assignment of a lifetime for Napa food writer Janet Fletcher: Take a road trip through the Golden State, with pit stops at two dozen farms and wineries on the leading edge of sustainability.
As the author of one of the first farmers markets cookbooks - “Fresh from the Farmers’ Market,” in 1997 - and the wife of a longtime Napa winemaker, Fletcher was already familiar with the fertile food and wine scene of Northern California.
“I spent two years at Chez Panisse, and that really changed how I thought about food and introduced me to great ingredients and the importance of small farms in California,” Fletcher said in a phone interview from her home in Napa. “This was right up my alley.”
At the end of the trip, Fletcher wove together 23 growers’ stories of water reuse and energy conservation with 50 seasonally driven recipes to create one hefty tome, “Wine Country Table: With Recipes that Celebrate California’s Sustainable Harvest” (Rizzoli, $45), released earlier this spring.
The ambitious project commissioned by the Wine Institute - a California wine advocacy group that received a grant to promote California’s specialty crops - also celebrates the state’s diverse growers and growing regions, from Mendocino County’s Handley Cellars and Sonoma County’s Francis Ford Coppola Winery to a San Joaquin County cherry orchard and a Santa Barbara County avocado farm.
“The landscape photographs of the wineries (by Robert Holmes) are just gorgeous,” Fletcher said. “It’s just a visual tour of California, and it’s mouthwatering to see my dishes come alive.”
For those getting ready to celebrate Mother’s Day, Fletcher has sprinkled spring dishes throughout the book that would serve as a fitting tribute to moms of all ages, from a Warm Salmon Salad with Asparagus and Farm Eggs to a Warm Apricot and Cherry Crisp. And what better way to honor Mother Earth than a wine-and-food feast grown sustainably?
Foggy, cool North Coast
Before writing the book, Fletcher said there was a lot of discussion about how to organize it - by season, by crop, or by region?
“We decided it made the most sense to look at it as a road trip, from north to south,” she said. “So that’s the approach I took.”
The book begins with the cool climate of the North Coast, a fog-kissed region naturally hospitable to viticulture and the cool-weather fruits and vegetables that locals already know and love.
“Some of the best wines come from the North Coast,” she said. “It’s about cool crops - artichokes, lettuces, fava beans - and cooler climate fruits like apples and pears. It’s perfect for salad greens but not so much for tomatoes.”
Next, the book takes the reader through the warmer growing regions of the Sierra Foothills and Inland Valleys, then swings down to the cool, Central Coast and winds up amid the citrus, date and flower farms of Southern California.
“The lion’s share of California crops come out of the San Joaquin and Central Valley,” she said. “That whole beautiful valley feeds the nation, and it’s a beautiful sight to drive through there, especially in spring when all the fruit trees are blooming.”
On the other hand, she discovered that delicious wine varietals can be found everywhere, some demonstrating a different character depending on where they are grown - a lean, crisp chardonnay from a cool area, for example, or a richer, riper chardonnay from a region with more heat.
“What really came home to me was that there are so many different climates in this state and that just about every wine variety you can imagine is going to find its sweet spot somewhere,” she said. “Whether it’s zinfandel in Lodi and the Sierra foothills or the Rhone varieties that do well on the Central Coast … all the way down to Temecula, which is warm, but they grow some great cabernet there.”
Along the way, Fletcher was delighted by the growers’ inventiveness and willingness to fulfill the broad demands of sustainability.
“It’s not just whether you do or don’t spray your crops,” she explained. “It has a lot to do with employee welfare and the waterways and wildlife. It’s a big, all-encompassing idea.”
One of the common themes she discovered was a long-standing commitment to pass onto the next generation a farm that is even healthier than the one that came before.
“In almost every case, the farms were multigenerational, like the pear grower (Henderson Family Farms) in Lake County,” she said. “She (Diane Henderson) is fifth generation, and her trees are 140 years old.”
Then there’s Six Sigma Winery in Lake County, a 4,300-acre former cattle ranch purchased by real-estate broker Kaj Ahlmann and his wife, Else, in 2000.