Monday, October 21, 2013

The Food and Wine Renaissance

When I first arrived in Davis, California, some 25 years ago, to study Sustainable Agriculture, I discovered a whole new world of food that I had never before experienced – the world of freshly harvested fruits and vegetables.

I remember tasting a peach from a tree at the Student Farm at UC Davis. It was the best thing I had ever tasted in my life up until then. Then there were the heirloom tomatoes, the freshly dug potatoes, the enormous variety of melons, including yellow and Moon&Stars watermelons, and it went on from there.

I had been a very picky eater most of my life, but that chapter of my life was over once I discovered the explosion of flavors from food that hadn't spent too much time on the produce shelf or had been overly processed. Though it was several years before the term "foodie" was coined, that's what I became after that first summer in Davis.

Annie Main from Good Humus Produce
 at the Davis Farmers' Market
I was a regular at the amazing Davis Farmers Market, with long-time dedicated organic farmers like Jeff and Annie Main from Good Humus and the two Pauls from Terra Firma providing most of my daily sustenance. My life had changed drastically for the better – I found the religion of fresh food – and I wanted to preach the gospel.
A younger Steve harvesting basil,
destined for pesto, from our
garden in Davis. 

After finishing graduate school, I became an active promoter of Sustainable Agriculture through my many years working for a non-profit organization and successfully getting mainstream farmers to farm more sustainably.

When I met Steve, he had been an avid gardener and had a community garden plot
while he was a bicycle messenger in San Francisco. After we started dating, in Davis, our garden grew larger each year, and we began to have such an abundance that we started canning and freezing everything we couldn't eat.

Neither of us grew up with any exposure to wine beyond box and jug wines, but Steve got to experience some great wines during visits to a friend's family home while in college. Steve was excited to explore new wines and quickly got me hooked. We visited wineries and started making wine ourselves in our backyard. I always joked that we were co-dependant foodies, always trying to one-up each other's crazy ideas about food preservation.

We came to expect easy access to fresh, locally grown food, but when we moved to Napa, in 2002, we were surprised at how little there was to offer. We didn't have space for a very big garden, so we were starved for the fresh veggies and fruits that were abundant in Davis. Since many of our organic farmer friends were selling their produce in the San Francisco Bay Area, we thought that the organic farming "movement" was bigger than it turned out to be. Those of us insisting on good quality food were still in a very small minority...Steve and I were just too involved to have perspective.

Matthiasson Family at the Napa Farmers' Market

Always sharing the dream of farming, we had the opportunity to plant a fruit orchard on a friends property in Napa in 2004. Since it was rare to find locally grown fruit in Napa, we thought it would be easy to find a market for our peaches, plums, nectarines, etc. But we were mistaken. Only a couple of Napa restaurants/chefs – Zuzu and Chef Peter Pahk – were interested in what we had to offer. We struggled to sell everything that we could produce, so once again we started to can, freeze, and make lots of jam.

But I am happy to say that over the last five years or so, we've seen a big change. Restaurants in Napa like Oenotri, Norman Rose, Azzurro Pizzeria, and ABC Bakery have become regular peach buying customers and our sales at the Napa Farmers' Market are brisk. Several Napa Valley restaurants have their own gardens, and interest in local food seems to have taken hold. 

I'm also very encouraged as I travel around the country selling wine. In mid-sized cities, such as Denver, Charleston, and Salt Lake City, where only five years ago there were a handful of high-end restaurants, mostly steak houses, there is now a profusion of great restaurants focusing on local food.

The Menu from a dinner featuring
Matthiasson Wines at Linger Restaurant
in Denver

We have seen the same change in the interest in our wine. New York Times wine critic, Eric Asimov, said about us "their wines bear an agricultural stamp, as fresh, lively and alive as the best produce from a farmers’ market."  Our wines go with the food we grow; they aren't typical steakhouse Napa Cabs. With the proliferation of restaurants and consumers insisting on locally grown food and wines that match, I feel that we are part of a burgeoning food and wine renaissance. 

After promoting local food for so many years, it's very gratifying to witness this change. Because of my background, several young people just out of college contact and visit us looking for advise on how to get on the path of farming and winemaking that we are on. 

We have been able to stay on this path because of folks like you. I am excited about the direction things are going in the food and wine worlds. 

Thanks and keep it up!


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

RIP George Vare

Our dear friend, George Vare, recently passed away.  Many stories (see The Wine Spectator; The Napa Register;  The Terroirist) have eloquently told the story of the life of George Vare; a story that includes his many achievements, and they were truly remarkable.

So we just want to add a bit about the impact George has had on our lives, how much he meant to us, and how much we already miss him.

Steve met George when he was first getting started as a viticultural consultant in Napa. George was running things at Luna Vineyards, and Luna hired Steve to help with their vineyards. Then George hired Steve to help him with his own vineyard, and that is where we were introduced to George, his wife Elsa, and Ribolla gialla. George was incredibly passionate about this odd variety, and Steve had never seen any other grape grow with such a crazy growth habit. So after a couple of years, George and Elsa took Steve and George's winemaker at the time, Abe Schoener, to Friuli, Italy to learn how to grow this ancient grape variety and make the wine.

This was in 2005, and on that trip, Steve had an epiphany about what is possible with white wine, and the wines of Friuli have been an inspiration for our own wines ever since. When Steve returned from Italy we were lucky enough to get some Ribolla gialla from the Vare Vineyard for our MATTHIASSON White Wine; and this is wine that really put us on the map.

Steve racking the 2005 Red Wine at the "winery"
we shared with George in a warehouse in Napa
George took Steve under his wing, continued to mentor us about the business, and let us make our 2005-2007 vintages in his warehouse/garage of a bonded winery in exchange for Steve helping him in the vineyard. These were lean times for MATTHIASSON; we didn't have a lot of wine to sell and we were expanding, and the only reason we were able to stay in business was because of this arrangement.

Over the years, George and Elsa have become good friends. Every time people have the chance to taste the MATTHIASSON White Wine with us, we tell the story about George and the Ribolla gialla. The day that we found out that George was nearing the end of his life, we both had tastings with wine buyers. That day, it was very hard for both of us to tell that story; we both got chocked up and almost cried. Steve was fortunate enough to be able to say goodbye to him.
L to R: Nathan Roberts, Abe Schoener, George Vare, Dan Petroski,
Steve Matthiasson, Duncan Meyer: just a few of the younger
generation that George influenced

He passed away that same evening and since then we've told the story about George and the Ribolla gialla a number of times. It's a bit surreal. We talk about him as if he were still alive. We haven't figured out how to adjust the story that we've told so many times. In time that will come. But in the meantime, please bear with us, as we pause and our voices crack, and we continue the legend of our dear friend.

George, we will miss most the twinkle in your eye and the lift in your step.


Thank you Pablo Abuliak for allowing the use of these photos.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Now We're REALLY Farmers

......a tale that is not for the faint of heart

After years of dreaming of farming, we planted our first fruit orchard (on leased land) in 2004 and harvested our first crop in 2007. We sold the fruit at the Napa Farmers' Market and to local restaurants. In the same year, we moved to our current home vineyard/farm and bought a tractor and some other farming equipment. It was at that moment we started to think we were farmers....until this week....
one day old chicks
Last summer we acquired a few new chickens from some friends who had too many. One of the chickens kept getting out of the fence and then one day we didn't see her anymore, so we assumed the coyotes got her. About three weeks later we were sitting in our yard and here comes the missing chicken with ten newly hatched chicks in tow! We knew the babies wouldn't survive the coyotes for very long, so we brought them into the garage and put them under lights to raise them. 
the proud Papa
When they were old enough, we put them outside to roam around and at night they would go inside an old dog crate that we set up inside the garden fence. They seemed very safe until one morning when a raccoon (we think) got into the garden and stuck it's nose through the dog crate and killed five of the chickens. In was an awful sight to see.

After that we couldn't get the remaining young chickens to go into the crate at night. They would hide and we couldn't find them. We lost two more that way. We were left with three chickens when they were big enough to put with the rest of the flock - two hens and a rooster.
the lone surviving rooster
Since we already had a rooster, we knew we would have to "get rid of" the new rooster at some point. When the baby rooster started going through puberty, the Papa rooster started pushing the new guy out; their little world wasn't big enough for both of them and it was clear that one of them would have to go.

So finally, one morning, we slaughtered the now almost full-sized rooster and cooked him for dinner. Chicken and dumplings to be precise.

When we ate the rooster that was the progeny of our own chickens, the rooster that we had raised, the rooster whose whole life had been lived on our farm, that's when we REALLY felt like farmers. It was very different than eating vegetables from our garden or fruit from our trees or drinking wine from our vineyard (although that is always pretty cool); this animal had been alive and walking around our yard.

So we say Thank You to the spirit of that rooster and all animals that we eat.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Ol' Barn Roof

Now that the holidays are over, and we've eaten many wonderful meals and drunk many amazing wines, it's time to get back to everyday life.

The winter means focussing on a lot of projects that we don't have time for once the growing season gets started; at least for now the wines are all put to bed and the grapes are dormant.

When we bought our property, it came with a 100+ year old barn filled with "stuff." Some of that stuff is very cool and some is just junk. Over the years, we've bought some farm equipment (a few tractors, implements for tilling the soil and mowing, etc), adding to the mix of stuff and junk. We actually use some of the stuff that we "inherited" from the barn, like the old manure spreader that Steve unseized with two cans of WD-40. We use it to plant the cover crop every fall.

The barn is about three stories tall. At one time it had a hay loft where all of the hay for the year would have been stored. The story is that the loft was removed to put in the prune dehydrator. Before grapes, two of the main crops in the Napa Valley were walnuts interplanted with prunes. Another thing that we inherited were the fruit boxes that neighbors brought their prunes in which were destined for the dehydrator.

Well after 100+ years the barn roof is now full of holes and all of the valuable vineyard equipment that we've invested in is being exposed to the elements, so we bit the bullet and finally decided to replace the roof....we might have to put off our kids' college just to pay it!

Happy New Year!

All the best,

Steve, Jill and the boys

some old fruit boxes

holes in the old roof

tearing off the old roof

putting on the new one

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How to Love Wine

Harvest at Matthiasson is officially over! While much of the country suffered extreme heat and storms, we’ve had some of the best weather in years. Spring brought us ideal conditions for pollination of the grapes and fruit trees followed by a summer of nearly perfect weather, and we harvested some of the highest quality and quantity that we've seen in over a decade.

the pantry
Our fruit tree harvest, which began July 1st, went extremely well - demand for the fruit at local restaurants was the highest ever yet we still managed to make a lot of jams. The grape harvest spanned two and a half months and we fermented some exciting new varieties (including Aglianico and our first ever Pinot noir). And last week we picked the first crop of olives from the 55 trees that we planted when we first bought our property five and a half years ago, marking the very end of harvest - it was very exciting to take the olives to the mill for our first estate olive oil!

So this is our life. We mark the passage of time by the agricultural cycle. We grow food and find different ways to process it to preserve the bounty. Making wine is part of that.

In his recent book, How to Love Wine, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov captured the essence of our life in a passage he wrote about us after a couple of visits. He states, “It’s an almost magical feeling to be sitting with the Matthiasson family around their big, wooden dining table at the center of their residence. Platters of vegetables pickled and jarred by Jill whet the appetite, to be followed by lamb raised and now cooked by the family. Alongside, we drink the wines, both white and red.” He goes on to say, “This is chez Matthiasson, a kind of modern-day ode to the sort of community subsistence farming that defined how generations of Europeans lived their life.” And about our life he states, “It’s a do-it-yourself American ethos that we venerate freely in mythology but rarely in real life….”

He crystallized our effort with our wines by stating, “Most of all, they are alive – not denatured products but living, breathing wines that perhaps achieve this quality by sacrificing predictability.”
It is a great honor to be featured in this book about the author’s personal journey and his commentary about the place that wine fits into all of our lives.

We would encourage you to add How To Love Wine to your winter reading list....we promise that it will make for great reading and will pair nicely with a glass of MATTHIASSON wine!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What’s Cooking in the Garden?

I would be a terrible teacher. In my mind, the best teachers present information in a neutral, non-judgmental way. For older kids, good teachers provide both sides of a controversial subject and let the kids arrive at their own conclusions.

Not me……Every Fall for the last 10 years I’ve been teaching a class to 2nd and 3rd graders at my kids’ elementary school called “What’s Cooking in the Garden.” There is no objectivity when I teach. I am basically a propaganda machine promoting the importance of growing and cooking your food. Fast food and junk food get a bad rap in my class. The other day I had all of the kids pull out the wrappers from their lunches and read the ingredients. I told them if they couldn’t pronounce the ingredients they shouldn’t be eating the snack. Every snack but one ended up in the garbage. Then we made fruit salad with fresh fruit from the school's garden and they were thrilled.

I keep things pretty simple in the class so the kids can make the same things at home. This week I grabbed some Refosco grapes from our property and made grape juice. Every kid in the class claimed they knew someone who has a vineyard. That’s Napa for you!

There's always several kids who hesitate when we start squishing the grapes because they don’t want to get their hands dirty.  By the end the kids who hesitated the most are the hardest ones to get to stop.
getting their hands dirty

juice was flying everywhere

everyone finally gave in

pressing the grapes to extract the juice

the press cake - everyone loves cake, right?


Friday, October 5, 2012

Our Unsung Heroes

We are very excited to be harvesting our home vineyard today. This is the vineyard that we look at everyday; the vineyard that the kids walk out to to snack on grapes; and the vineyard we hope to pass on to them one day. The folks who come to visit us always get a tour of this vineyard.

But when I say “we” are harvesting the vineyard, it means that we got the harvest bins over to the property and we removed the shade cloth covering the western side of the vineyard (a family affair till dusk of last night), but the real “we” is really not the Matthiasson clan, but the work crew that we hire to literally do all of the heavy lifting. These guys are our heroes. They are out there right now, in our backyard, working faster and harder than we could ever even imagine working. This is the time of year when they have to make enough money to get them through the period of time after harvest when they get laid off for a few months. They typically start back in January when it’s time to prune. These are not our regular employees, but a crew that we hire a few times a year for the big pushes in the vineyard.

And without these hardworking guys, we would never be able to grow and harvest the grapes. So a big THANK YOU goes out to all of them, especially today, for being a key part of us being able to do what we do.

harvesting Ribolla gialla
the bins they are carrying weigh about 60 pounds when full
Jack, who works for us year round, has been
another invaluable part of our harvest this year

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Forbidden Fruit

From the very beginning the ancients were truly enamored with fruit.  Stories and traditions about human's origins connect him to a garden of paradise filled with fruit trees. The stories are essentially the same whether it be the Semitic Adam, the Teutonic Iduna, the Greek Hesperides, or the Celtic Avalon, in ancient times our idea of paradise centered on an abundance of cultivated fruit, its sensual irresistibility and the consequential calamity of its seduction.

Pink Pearl Apples to be made into Apple Butter
Apples, traditionally recognized as the forbidden fruit, have long been associated with love, beauty, health, comfort, pleasure, wisdom, temptation, and fertility. Apples became involved with many tales of love, bribery and temptation ranging from the abduction of Helen of Troy to the defeat and marriage of Atlanta. The romantic connotations of the apple were powerful reasons why apples came as dessert at the end of the meal.

Genesis depicts Adam and Eve leading the plush life in Eden. They may eat fruit from any tree except one, "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." However, in the Hebrew text, Genesis doesn't mention apples, only “fruit.” In fact it is unlikely that apples grew in the Middle East during biblical times. It seems that the early Christian scholars took the forbidden fruit to be an apple possibly because the Latin word “malum,” means both "apple" and "evil.” A contributing factor was that apples were a lot more popular in Europe than in the Middle East, where it's generally too hot for them to thrive.

It has been suggested that the forbidden fruit was actually a fig and not an apple. The apple was the favored representation of the forbidden fruit in early Christian art in France and Germany, but Byzantine and Italian artists tended to go with the fig, with Michaelangelo depicting Adam and Eve taking fruit from the forbidden fig tree on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Right now our fruit orchard is filled with several varieties of ripe apples and figs. On any given day it’s hard to say which would have been considered the more forbidden. However, in the end I have to vote for the fig. There is something simply luscious about biting into a fresh fig. (See our previous post The Sensuous Fig).

We produce Fig Jam and Apple Butter from our fruit trees for our Wine Club members. Taste these two delicious treats and you can come up with your own conclusion about which of these fruits is the more forbidden.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Grafting: Part 3

It's the beginning of September, four months after three varieties of grape budwood were grafted into our vineyard (see previous posts about the grafting: Grafting our Grapes and Grafting Part 2). The amount of growth is pretty amazing in such a short time. Next year we will be able to harvest a small crop off of the newly grafted vines and by the following year, we will get a whole crop.

May 11, 2012 a few days after the vine was grafted
June 11, 2012. the graft has taken and is starting to grow

September 4, 2012. The same vine 3 months later
has grown from 2 inches to 3 feet from the site
of the graft.
Both sides of the vine on September 4