Articles in Agriculture

A citrus display at Agritopia's farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village.” But communities are drawn together for many reasons. Some cling tight to tradition with activities like barbecues and Fourth of July parades. Others share neighborhoods with backyards that spill onto golf courses, lakes and swimming pools. And then there’s Agritopia.

“If you live here, it just feels different,” business manager William Johnston said.

Cultivating an agrihood

Planted crops in the midst of Agritopia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Planted crops in the midst of Agritopia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

It is different. Located outside of Phoenix, in the little-known city of Gilbert, Agritopia is what’s called an agrihood, or suburban neighborhood planned around a working farm. Jim and Virginia Johnston purchased the farm in 1960. They built a home; grew crops, including cotton, wheat, barley, corn, alfalfa and sugar beets; and raised three boys. Time went on. The Johnston children grew up, and two continued the family farming tradition. The once-rural area surrounding the farm grew, and the third son, Joe, an engineer, got an idea to reinvent the place he called home.

“The kernel of the idea was in 1998, when I started thinking that I’d like to do a restaurant in our house that served produce from the farm: that was the ‘agri’ part. That was the extent of the idea,”  Joe said. “However, that idea was shortly followed by the notion that I’d like to live close to where I worked. That opened up a bunch of ideas, because we had a clean sheet of paper to design the kind of community we’d like to live in.”

Agritopia stretches 160 acres and has more than 450 houses. Four generations of the Johnston family, along with 1,500 or so other folks, call it home. At its center is the certified organic farm (where Jim and Virginia still live) and more than 11 acres of permanent urban farmland.

A cornucopia of crops

Romanesco broccoli, a favored neighborhood crop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Romanesco broccoli, a favored neighborhood crop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

“During the year we grow over 200 varieties of field and orchard crops,” William Johnston said. “It’s important for families to grow up together and understand food and farming.”

The farm bounty is diverse — and delicious. Along with Medjool dates and olive groves, there are citrus, apple, peach and plum groves. Other crops include cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, herbs, a variety of lettuces and tomatoes of assorted varieties.

Enjoying the fruits of their labor

The local coffeehouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

The local coffeehouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

The same-day harvest is readily available to residents and Agritopia visitors. But how folks get their farm-fresh fix varies. What was once an old tractor building is now an airy cafe called The Coffee Shop. The Johnston family homestead has a new lease on life as a modern diner called Joe’s Farm Grill. Whenever possible, fruit, vegetables and herbs come from The Farm at Agritopia.

Then there’s The Farm Stand. Open 24 hours a day, the stand is not staffed. All purchases are made using the honor system. Grab what you want, put your cash or check in an envelope and drop it in the pay slot. And residents can grow their own bounty by renting one of the more than 40 plots in the community garden.

Rural life, redefined

Coming home to roost. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Coming home to roost. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

When most city slickers envision life on a farm, they think of solitude. At Agritopia, rows of vegetables sprout within view of homes and the neighborhood school. With the antics of school recess and chickens clucking in the background, a cozy neighborhood feeling prevails in this unique slice of Arizona farm country, where houses have front porches and streets are lined with trees and sidewalks.

“We like the fact that people can kind of just wander and feel that sense of exploration,” William Johnston said. “A lot of people compare it to Mayberry.”

Main photo: A citrus display at Agritopia’s farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann 

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Roast chicken. Credit: Copyright 2016 iStock

I eased my shopping cart along the meat counter in a national chain grocery store to buy a whole chicken. Roast poultry for dinner seemed like a simple enough proposition. But like so many of us making food-purchasing decisions these days, I was stopped in my tracks by the range of choices.

Should I buy free-range or pasture-raised? Is organic better? Or is the best choice a brand like Foster Farms’ Simply Raised (whatever that means, exactly)?

Confused by all of the labels and marketing claims, I gave up. My family ate a meatless stir-fry for dinner that night.

Later, I learned about a new online resource called Buyingpoultry.com designed to help consumers navigate the supermarket. Could the site guide conscious consumers like me to more sustainable chicken?

Chicken production in a nutshell

Anyone hoping to buy a chicken that truly free-ranged on pastoral farmlands at a grocery store is generally out of luck.

The fact is that 99 percent of all chickens raised for meat (called broilers) in the U.S. come from factory farms. Through consolidation and high-tech breeding practices, the poultry industry has made chicken the most efficient and cheapest animal protein available.

Since 2010, broiler production has increased by more than 10 percent, according to statistics from the USDA. This graph looks surprisingly like the steep climb section on a Stairmaster program. Chicken production, which reached almost 9 billion birds in 2015, is still on the rise. Meanwhile, nationwide demand for barbecued-chicken pizza, chicken Caesar salad and General Tso’s chicken keeps in step.

Trouble is, while making chicken America’s favorite meat, the industrialized production system has incurred an untold debt to human health, the environment and the conditions of its own workers, not to forget the chickens themselves.

Consumers demand healthier chicken

Amid a stream of salmonella-superbug outbreaks and public-health concerns over the routine use of human antibiotics, the USDA announced its plan for stricter regulations and testing in 2015. Two of the largest chicken producers, Tyson and Purdue, pledged to stop using human antibiotics to prevent disease in hatcheries and as growth promoters during maturation. Major food corporations, including McDonald’s, Walmart and Subway, then vowed to shift toward purchasing chicken produced without human antibiotics.

Still, such improvements in the poultry market do not guarantee better animal welfare. According to whistleblower reports about the chicken industry and data from the ASPCA, cage-free chickens are still crammed into windowless barns for their short, dung-filled lives. These Cornish Cross birds, the main hybrid strain for the industry, grow three times as big in two-thirds the time as heritage breeds. Such fast fattening causes bone disorders, cardiovascular issues and other health issues over their roughly 45 days of life.

A sustainable buying guide

This chart can help you navigate the supermarket poultry case. Credit: Copyright 2016 Buyingpoultry.com

This chart can help you navigate the supermarket poultry case. Credit: Copyright 2016 Buyingpoultry.com

After returning from my shopping fail, I Googled Buyingpoultry.com. Created by the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Farm Forward, it is the country’s largest online database of poultry brands, products and retailers (including eggs and turkeys).

In the search field I typed in “Open Nature” and then “Foster Farms,” two of the brands I’d considered. “Avoid,” read the bold red graphic on my screen, and below that, “Birds likely suffer from the lowest levels of animal welfare.” The fine print detailed how both brands received an F grade because they did not have any regulated animal-welfare claims or third-party certifications.

“Buyingpoultry.com lets you go to the store with experts,” said Andrew deCoriolis, the website’s architect, when I reached him by phone.

Helpfully, the search results page offered links to the highest-welfare poultry products available as well as to a glossary of labels that clearly illustrates just how obfuscating and, in some cases, downright misleading the claims “free-range,” “pasture-raised” and “humanely raised” actually are.

“Like Seafood Watch, Buyingpoultry.com can be a standard of sustainability and create more transparency,” deCoriolis said.

Buying better poultry

One of the most upsetting experiences for the site’s 5,000 to 10,000 monthly users, according to deCoriolis, is discovering how USDA-certified organic products rank. Browsing Buyingpoultry.com, they’re shocked to see organic products with a D grade. DeCoriolis explained, “Organic is better but not necessarily for the animals.” For one thing, the USDA’s definition of “outdoor access” is ill-defined and does not stipulate indoor enrichments, including perches, or space for natural behaviors such as dust bathing.

At a different grocery store on another day, I opened Buyingpoultry.com on my phone’s browser to check on a regional brand, Draper Valley, for sale. All products in this brand rated “Better Choices,” and the organic line earned a C+. Since this was the best I could get in my area without visiting a small-scale farm, I nabbed this passing-grade chicken for our supper.

So what does it take to rate as a “Best Choices” chicken? According to Buyingpoultry.com’s criteria, these are heritage-breed chickens raised by producers abiding by the highest standards of animal welfare, with their claims certified by third-party groups such as Animal Welfare Approved. 

There’s only a limited supply from retailers in certain markets, including Natural Grocers in Denver, Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and some Whole Foods stores — but none at all at Trader Joe’s or other national chains.

Persistent consumer advocacy is putting pressure on the poultry industry, however. “The big companies are paying attention,” said deCoriolis. In March 2016, Whole Foods committed to stop selling fast-growing breeds by 2024. Starbucks and Nestlé soon followed, joining the animal-welfare initiative toward slower-growing chicken breeds raised in conditions where they can behave and interact like, well, actual all-natural chickens.

Main photo: Buying chicken can be more complicated than roasting it. Credit: Copyright 2016 iStock

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Maple trees primed for sugaring. Credit: Copyright 2016 Katherine Leiner

2016 has been an excellent year for maple syrup. In Vermont, the largest producer in the United States, sugaring started during mid-December in some places and mid-March in others — and it seems to be running still.

The sugaring process

Sugaring is one of the delights of late winter in the northeast and heralds the coming of spring. Sugar is made in the leaves of maple trees during summer, stored as starch in the trunks and root tissues with the coming of winter and, finally, converted to the sap that begins to drip after a good freeze followed by a thaw. Sap is mostly clear water with 2% sugar. You need an average of 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, but it can take as many as 100 gallons. The sugar content must be 66.9%. It’s a wearing and complicated job. You can see why, in our household, we call maple syrup gold.

Just as the indigenous peoples did hundreds of years ago, sugar makers carefully drill taps into maple trees that measure at least 10 to 12 inches around and then hang their steel buckets to wait for the thaw that causes the sap to drip. The old-fashioned way is to use plastic drip lines connecting one tree to another. The syrup is emptied by hand from each bucket into larger containers spread at convenient spots near the trees and then transported to the sugarhouse at the end of the day.

The production method

Boiling syrup in the sugarhouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Katherine Leiner

Boiling syrup in the sugarhouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Katherine Leiner

The sugarhouse is where the evaporation process happens and the boiling is done in a long, rectangular stainless steel pan, which sits on top of a firebox that needs to be filled with wood every five minutes. (The wood may be cut as much as two years in advance to ensure optimal dryness.) It’s an exciting activity to be part of, and the smell of the sap as it thickens is delicious. The sugar maker tests the syrup’s caramelization by pulling a metal scoop through the syrup and watching as it drips. When the temperature of the syrup reaches 219 F, the syrup is ready to draw off. Then it needs to be filtered and graded for color.

Syrup grading

The richness of flavor is graded on a scale from lightest to darkest.

Grade A Golden: Made earlier in the season when it’s colder, this has the lightest color and perhaps the most delicate flavor. Use it on ice cream and for cooking.

Grade A Amber: Made as the temperatures warm, this is slightly darker yet relatively subtle. Use in tea and coffee.

Grade A Dark: Both the color and the taste are stronger, more intense. Use for glazes and pancakes.

Grade A Very Dark: This has the strongest flavor and is good for baking.

What better sweetener than one that comes from our North American woods? Katie Webster’s wonderful “Maple: 100 Sweet and Savory Recipes Featuring Pure Maple Syrup” (Quirk Books, October 2015) answers that question with an overview of the history and science of sugaring as well as a complete guide to grades and recipes from breakfast through dinner. I recommend it highly. Here are two of my favorite recipes incorporating maple syrup. Both are delectable and gluten free.

Blue Corn Pancakes With Grade A Amber

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: About 10 minutes

Total time: About 25 minutes

Yield: 2 to 6 servings

Ingredients
Grade A Amber maple syrup

2 eggs, separated, yolks beaten wildly and whites beaten until they peak

1/4 cup butter or oil, melted

2 cups sifted blue-corn flour (or one cup blue, one cup yellow if you prefer)

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/3 teaspoon salt

2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice

Butter for greasing your pan

Directions
1. Gently warm the syrup in a pan over a low burner.

2. Add the beaten egg yolks to a medium bowl and stir in the butter. In a separate bowl, combine dry ingredients; add them to the egg mixture alternately with the orange juice. Blend well. Fold in the egg whites.

3. Heat a buttered griddle over a medium flame or burner. When it’s hot, spoon the batter onto the griddle, roughly a quarter-cup per pancake. Cook each until bubbles begin to form on the surface, then flip and repeat.

4. Generously pour syrup over the pancakes and serve.

Maple-Ginger Roasted Cod

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: About 15 minutes

Total time: About 35 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients
1/2 cup Grade A Dark syrup

2-inch piece of fresh ginger, minced

Salt and black pepper to taste

1/8 teaspoon red-pepper flakes

4 nice pieces fresh cod (I get mine at the farmer’s market), about 2 pounds total

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. In a small bowl, mix together the syrup, ginger and spices and spoon equal amounts onto the fish. Place the pieces into a casserole dish and pop into the oven.

3. Cook for 15 minutes or until fish flakes with a knife and serve.

Main photo: Maple trees primed for sugaring. Credit: Copyright 2016 Katherine Leiner

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This spring, be kind to the bats, bees, birds and toads that help your garden. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Jensen

The garden is bursting just now with unopened blooms, with thousands of peonies, irises and poppies, all swelling in their bloom buds on the eve of spring’s main riot. And the gardener’s mind is teeming with thoughts of what needs to be done in the vegetable garden to get ready for the explosive growth of spring. So this is the perfect moment to think what we can do to help the great helpers of the garden: birds and bees, toads and bats.

In our rambling old house with its maze of attics, we have a strong colony of bees that live with us. Every spring, a huge swarm emerges and forms on the north eaves at the top of the house outside the kids’ playroom, before flying off to begin a new colony. It is much larger than a basketball and very dense, with great gobs of honey dripping all over the patio. It is quite a mess but we love the free honey, which doesn’t get any more organic and local than that.

Be kind to bees

It's simple to buy or build habitats for bees that require no attention from the gardener. Credit: Courtesy of Gardener's Supply Company

It’s simple to buy or build habitats for bees that require no attention from the gardener. Credit: Courtesy of Gardener’s Supply Company

Global crops pollinated by bees are worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. But all over the world, bee colonies are under stress and many are suffering from the devastating phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD), where the worker bees disappear and leave behind only the queen, some food and a few nurse bees.

CCD has doubled the normal rate of colony loss in recent years and is causing drastic agricultural impacts. Imagine a world without bees or merely where they are rare — it’s unthinkable, really. Experts are not sure what is causing CCD, but heavily implicated are a class of powerful insecticides called neonicotinoids.

What can we do to help? Well, a great place to start would be with the American Beekeeping Federation. For people willing to explore beekeeping, you can learn there how to go about it. Short of becoming a beekeeper, there are many things you can do to help. If you have space in your garden, you can let a local beekeeper install and care for a beehive; you get all the benefits of the busy bees in the garden, and the beekeeper gets a place for his hive. It’s also very simple to build or buy habitats for orchard mason bees that require no attention from the gardener, and you can get them from sources like Gardener’s Supply Company.

Going to bat for creatures of the night

Bats are also a great help as a pollinator and as a voracious insectivore. Credit: Courtesy of BestNest, Inc.

Bats are also a great help as pollinators and as voracious insectivores. Credit: Courtesy of BestNest Inc.

Bats are also a great help to the gardener, both as pollinators and as voracious insectivores, though many people are squeamish about them. They also live in some of our attic spaces and we benignly look the other way, for all the good they do in the garden; what a joy it is to see them swooping through the evening garden, ridding us of all manner of nuisance bugs. Each bat eats a third of its body weight in insects every night, and several hundred insects in just a few hours. If bats were ever to become extinct, our planet would be overrun with insect pests and we would live in a nightmare world.

It is easy and interesting to have bats live in your garden, and you do not have to have them in your attic as we do. All you need to do is hang a handsome cedar bat shelter in a quiet part of the garden and let these helpful creatures do the rest. A good source is BestNest.com, and there are many others.

Make your garden toad-friendly

Toads may not be cute, but they will eat thousands of pests in one summer. Credit: Courtesy of Gardener's Supply Company

Toads may not be cute, but they will eat thousands of pests in one summer. Credit: Courtesy of Gardener’s Supply Company

"The Garden Interior: A Year of Inspired Beauty"

By David Jensen

Morgan James Publishing, 2016, 282 pages

» Click here to buy the book

Have you seen any toads in your garden lately? Toads do not have many friends, though it is hard to see why, but for an unreasoning prejudice against their appearance and thousands of years of superstition against them. Just one ordinary toad can devour thousands and thousands of garden pests in a single summer. If you are plagued by slugs and cutworms, as so many gardeners are, this is the helpmate for you.

They should be part of every healthy garden, and if you do not have friendly toads around the place, you can also provide a habitat that will attract them. Any sort of covered shelter will do, and you can certainly improvise your own but there are also good commercial providers, like Gardener’s Supply Company, and the National Wildlife Federation is a good source for general information about these great helpers and how to make your garden toad-friendly.

And we all like birds, right? They will strip your garden of insect pests faster than anything. What all these helpers have in common is that they will come to you if your garden is free or nearly free of insecticides and other chemicals. This spring, consider ending or at least curbing your reliance on chemicals in the garden. Let your garden heal, and enjoy the delightful, diverse company of these healthy garden helpers.

Main photo: This spring, be kind to the bats, bees, birds and toads that help your garden. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Jensen

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In Italy, there's a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce

Between revelations by Italian police in December linking organized crime to 7,000 tons of counterfeit olive oil, and an estimated four-fold increase in adulterated extra virgin following the dismal 2014 olive harvest, there is no denying that fraud remains rampant. With 72 percent worldwide sales of olive oil at stake and all eyes on industry practices, Italy is fighting back.

EU and Italian government and trade organizations, including members of parliament, the Italian Trade Agency, UNAPROL (a consortium of Italian olive oil producers), and even an emissary of the Vatican, met last month to both address the problem of olive oil fraud and to outline their plans for a comeback.

“We must recuperate our damaged reputation,” said Colomba Mongiello, an Italian senator and president of the Counterfeiting Commission. She was responding to a survey conducted at Expo Milan 2015 in October, showing that 99 percent of foreign visitors involved believed that Italian olive oil was adulterated and that the consumer was being cheated. “Our objective is to reach the U.S. market and make them understand the difference between what looks Italian and what is Italian,” she said.

Officials meet

From left, ITA Director General Roberto Luongo, publisher and designer Franco Maria Ricci and Italian senator Colomba Mongiello spoke passionately at the Extract olive oil conference in Rome. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

From left, ITA Director General Roberto Luongo, publisher and designer Franco Maria Ricci and Italian senator Colomba Mongiello spoke passionately at the Extract olive oil conference in Rome. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

The conference, billed “Extract,” is part of a larger Italian effort to promote the country’s food and wine in the U.S., where imitation products labeled with Italian names, or colors of the Italian flag, are often mistaken for genuine imports. The strategy is two-pronged: legislating tougher penalties for fraud by going after Italian producers who don’t follow regulations, and launching the largest marketing effort ever made to inform American consumers how to taste and use extra virgin olive oil.

“We have to do the same thing we do with wine to get people to understand olive oil,” said culture guru Franco Maria Ricci, who spoke. “Four-year old children in France are taught that wine is an angel. Italy is an olive oil culture and [its] significance needs to be transmitted in the same way …. If we don’t understand its qualities and terroir, we won’t understand its value.”

Crime has always been associated with olive oil, a substance so precious and prized in Mediterranean culture that its production and trade has invariably had a dark side. Merchants have been known to cut extra virgin with cheap oil to increase their profits since ancient times, and farmers had to fear brigands waiting in ambush as they transported oil to market.

Today there is a different kind of criminal on the olive oil trail. It is the unscrupulous producer who intentionally mislabels oils to mislead consumers into thinking they are buying genuine Italian virgin olive oil when they are not. These murky practices have both hurt ethical producers and confused consumers. As journalist and Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil,” told me recently, “The problem … is that there are two kinds of olive oil in the world: commodity oil and excellent oil, which is usually estate-bottled and always very carefully produced …. [but] we keep trying to judge excellent oil as a commodity and vice versa.”

World’s best olive oil

An 850-year-old olive tree in the vineyards of Azienda Agricola Amastuola in Puglia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

An 850-year-old olive tree in the vineyards of Azienda Agricola Amastuola in Puglia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

If Italy, which arguably produces the best olive oil in the world, has been a hotbed of fraud, it is also at the forefront of combating crime in the business. Where else are police trained to sniff out fakes at every stage of the supply chain? And who, but the Italians, have a system–IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) and the more stringent DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin)—that regulates the way it is made and that can lead us to the very trees it came from, and practically, the humans who crafted it?

From the terraced slopes and soft valleys of Italy’s central regions and the microclimates of Veneto and Liguria, to the expansive southern plateaus and sun-drenched islands, come some of the most sublime olives oils, produced by artisans who have the passion for making it in their bloodlines. Like the country’s new breed of winemakers who focus on quality over quantity, they are making delicious oils with the flavor peculiarities of their particular landscape. Utilizing the benefits of modern technology for cultivation while practicing sustainable growing and traditional picking methods, they are no doubt making better oil than their ancestors did.

How to buy good olive oil

Second-generation producers Francesca and Paola Billi of Castelnuovo di Farfa in Lazio have won many awards for their estate-bottled La Mola olive oil DOP. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Second-generation producers Francesca and Paola Billi of Castelnuovo di Farfa in Lazio have won many awards for their estate-bottled La Mola olive oil DOP. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

That said, not all well-made olive oil carries the DOP seal. If we were to limit ourselves to those alone, we would miss out on many fine extra-virgins. As with “USDA Organic,” the rigorous and costly bureaucratic process discourages many a small ethical producer from applying.

Assuming you are not an expert, the best approach to finding good olive oil is not unlike that for choosing good wine: Find a knowledgeable retailer to guide you. If such a place doesn’t exist in your neighborhood, you can order online from vendors whose buyers are experts. Each of these retailers carries a selection of fresh olive oil that is ethically produced from the current harvest:

Gustiamo in New York City, New York (www.gustiamo.com)

Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California (www.markethallfoods.com)

Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan (www.zingermans.com)

Main photo: In Italy, there’s a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

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A crate of Ojai Pixies ready for purchase. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Beaches and show biz bring coastal Southern California its fame, fortune and visitors. For many they represent the epitome of California living. But head inland and you’ll find that agriculture is the star of the show. Even though farm country isn’t Hollywood, it has a way of making its own magic. Get your hands on an Ojai Pixie and you’ll understand what I mean.

No, I’m not talking about a cartoon fairy with sparkly dust. I’m talking about Pixie tangerines. Approximately 25,000 Pixie trees are rooted in Ojai Valley, about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles; their fruits make up less than 1% of the state’s tangerine crop, yet slowly but surely they’re making a name for themselves in faraway places.

The roots of Pixie pride

A Pixie fresh off the tree. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

A Pixie fresh off the tree. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Sweet, seedless and easy to peel, Pixies typically begin ripening in March and hang around through May or June. Folks here love these tasty fruits so much they host a four-week festival dedicated to celebrating their natural sugar rush: April is Ojai Tangerine Pixie Month, when Pixie pride is at its strongest and tastiest.

A tour around Friend’s Ranch will teach you everything you ever needed to know and then some about Pixies. Five generations of Friends have lived and farmed in Ojai (and the sixth is currently growing up in the orchards, where they spend time playing and tasting).

A grower’s glory

In the groves at Friend's Ranch. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

In the groves at Friend’s Ranch. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Family members Emily T. Ayala and her brother George Thacher take visitors of all ages into the orchard to taste the very sweet fruit of their labor. Guests are invited to pick off the trees and taste as they learn about the Pixie and what makes it different from other tangerines. Seedless and a snap to peel, Pixies can vary in size and appearance, but in general they are small, 1-3 inches, with easily separated segments. “We won’t pick it if it doesn’t taste good,” says Ayala.

Getting messy is encouraged. Thacher carries a handy backpack with everything you could possibly need for your time among the trees, even baby wipes to tackle the inevitable sticky fingers.

“It’s just a fun place to be,” he says.

Pixie tangerine dreams

A visual feast of Ojai fruits and flowers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

A visual feast of Ojai fruits and flowers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

For such a little fruit, it seems to have brought the community of Ojai together in a big way. Take a walk through its small downtown and you’ll see signs everywhere: in clothing stores and boutiques, book stores and restaurants, tabletop displays that include tangerines mixed in with the flowers. 

Every chef at every restaurant has a favorite way of showing off the fruit. Family-run Knead Baking Co. is famous among locals and tourists alike for its citrus syrup cake with fresh Pixie juice. Throughout April, Ojai Valley Brewery’s White Pixie Ale will be poured at Azu California Tapas.

If you want to try your hand at creating a Pixie-inspired dish, you can juice up a weekend getaway with a cooking class at the Lavender Inn, where you’ll prepare such dishes as citrus-marinated whitefish crudo and tangerine chicken. Save room for the Pixie-fennel shortbread served with tangerine-orange curd. Ojai’s Mediterranean climate is ideal for picnics, so after your lesson, you can enjoy your creations at a table in the inn’s sunny garden.

As good for cocktails as cuisine

Sunshine in a glass. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Sunshine in a glass. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Craft cocktails at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa take on a citrus theme all season; from whiskey and gin to tequila and vanilla-flavored vodka, it’s amazing what happens when you add a little squeeze of tangerine juice. The Pixology Cocktail Class includes a demonstration and sampling of two cocktails, including margaritas that pack a tasty punch. Pixies have also squeezed their way into the resort’s spa, where Pixie Tangerine Body Scrub and a pampering Body Polish Spa Treatment are available from March through June when the tangerines are harvested.

Drinking in the view

A view of the Ojai Valley. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

A view of the Ojai Valley. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Work off all those Pixie calories with a power hike; Shelf Road is a quick 15-minute walk from downtown. The 1.5-mile trail is mostly level and easy to walk, run or bike and delivers great views. Expect a friendly dog or two. Citrus trees hang over the trail fences and all fruit in reach is fair game: Peels scattered along the way prove outdoor enthusiasts eat well along the trail — as everywhere else in Ojai.

Note: Dana’s trip was hosted by the Ojai Visitors Bureau, but as always her thoughts and opinions are her own.

Main photo: A crate of Ojai Pixies ready for purchase. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann 

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The Chablis vineyards of 2014 have produced a wonderful vintage. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

2014 is a great vintage in Chablis. Although June was hot and sunny, July and August were cooler than usual. As in so many years, things were not looking great at the beginning of September in this region of France, but once again the vintage was saved by a dry, sunny September, ensuring perfect conditions for the harvest. And the result is wine — now just being released — that has the razor-sharp acidity and flinty minerality that is the benchmark of all good Chablis, wines with a purity of fruit that will develop in bottle over a number of years.

What follows could be described as my shopping list. The premiers and grands crus of Chablis offer great value, compared to some of the more prestigious names of the Côte d’Or.

Chablis, Cuvée Chatillon, Domaine des Hâtes

Pierrick Laroche, who established his estate in 2010, already has a strong vintage in 2014. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Pierrick Laroche, who established his estate in 2010, already has a strong vintage in 2014. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

This is a relatively new estate, with a first vintage in 2010, when Pierrick Laroche took the family vines out of the cooperative. Chatillon is a new cuvée, just 2.4 acres of 45-year-old vines in the village of Maligny, with more depth and weight than his basic Chablis, with a small percentage of wine fermented in oak, and given 15 months élevage.

Chablis Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Gilbert Picq

Didier Picq now runs the family estate begun by his father. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Didier Picq now runs the family estate begun by his father. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

A wine of great concentration with balancing minerality coming from vines that are more than 60 years old. They adjoin the premier cru vineyard of Vaucoupin and the difference between the two is pretty imperceptible. This is family estate, with a first bottling by Gilbert Picq in 1981. These days, it is his son, Didier, who makes the wine, representing a shift in two generations from polyculture to viticulture and from selling wine in bulk to bottle.

Chablis 1er cru, Côte de Léchet, Domaine des Malandes

Lyne Marchive, a member of an old Chablis family, produces steely, flinty wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Lyne Marchive, a member of an old Chablis family, produces steely, flinty wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Lyne Marchive is a member of an old Chablis family, the Tremblays, and she has firm ideas about how Chablis should taste. It must have a purity of fruit, with stony minerality. And her Côte de Léchet, from the left bank of the river Serein, above the village of Milly, is just that, steely and flinty, with enough structure to sustain 5 or 10 years aging in bottle.

Chablis 1er cru l’Homme Mort, Domaine Adhémar et Francis Boudin

Francis Boudin and his father, Adhémar, are among the venerable wine growers of Chablis. Credit : Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Francis Boudin and his father, Adhémar, are among the venerable wine growers of Chablis. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Adhémar Boudin is now 95 and one of the venerable wine growers of Chablis — I always think his name befits that of a crusading knight. These days it is his son, Francis, who makes the wine, and they were the first to separate their vines of l’Homme Mort from the much larger cru of Fourchaume. Compare the two and l’Homme Mort is firmer and flintier, and almost austere, while Fourchaume is a little richer and fuller on the palate.

Chablis 1er cru Vaillons, Domaine William Fèvre

The talented winemaker Didier Seguier plays an important part at Domaine William Fèvre. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

The talented winemaker Didier Seguier plays an important part at Domaine William Fèvre. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

William Fèvre played an important part in the expansion of the vineyards of Chablis, and his estate boasts vines from virtually all the grand crus. In 1998 he sold to the champagne house of Henriot, who also own Bouchard Père et Fils, and the estate has gone on to even greater things with the talented winemaker Didier Seguier. I could have chosen virtually any of Didier’s wines in 2014, even his Petit Chablis, but have opted for the firm, flinty Vaillons with its elegant lift on the finish. Although a small proportion of the wine is fermented in old barrels, you are simply not aware of the oak impact on the palate, other than the addition of a little more weight and body.

Chablis grand cru les Clos Domaine Jean-Paul Droin

Benoit Droin, son of founder Jean-Paul, now makes the wine at an estate going back to the beginning of the 19th century. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Benoit Droin, son of founder Jean-Paul, now makes the wine at an estate going back to the beginning of the 19th century. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

This is another old family estate, going back to the beginning of the 19th century. These days it is Benoit, Jean-Paul’s son, who makes the wine, and on a visit to Chablis a couple of years ago, I was introduced to the 16th generation, Louis, in a stroller. Jean-Paul was enthusiastic about aging Chablis in new oak, whereas Benoit exercises a more restrained and subtle hand in the cellar, to very good effect. As for Benoit’s 2014s, I find it difficult to choose between Grenouilles, the smallest of the grands crus, with its elegant stylish fruit, and les Clos, the largest and generally richer and more powerful. Both have an underlying elegance, but Grenouilles is more ethereal, while les Clos is more substantial. Both will be delicious in about 10 years’ time.

The 2014 vintage is so good, that I could effortlessly select another six wines.

Main photo: The Chablis vineyards of 2014 have produced a wonderful vintage. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand. See more of  Jon Wyand’s photographs in his latest book, “Corton.”

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Podere Forte's vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

If you think of Tuscany and its wines, it is the famous names that immediately come to mind: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Bolgheri. But Tuscany is so much more than those. There are all manner of lesser-known wines off the beaten track.

I recently spent a couple of days in the Orcia valley, an area sandwiched between the vineyards of Montalcino and Montepulciano, with a river that rises at Monte Cetona and flows into the Ombrone. The Orcia DOC was recognized in 2000, and in 2004 the whole valley was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As for most of the red wines of Tuscany, Sangiovese is the dominant variety, often blended with the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. There are now about 40 wine estates in the 13 villages of the Orcia valley, with an impressive level of quality and just waiting to be discovered. Here are five that are well worth the detour.

Fattoria del Colle

Fattoria del Colle, near the village of Trequanda, produces three red wines and Vin Santo. Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Fattoria del Colle, near the village of Trequanda, produces three red wines and Vin Santo. Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is the property of Donatella Cinelli and Carlo Gardini. Donatella’s family has long been part of the wine scene of Montalcino, with her brother now running Fattoria dei Barbi, but Fattoria del Colle is where Donatella makes her mark outside Montalcino. She has about 81 acres of vines near the village of Trequanda and makes three red wines, not to mention Vin Santo, which is an essential part of every classic Tuscan estate.

Leone Rosso is Sangiovese with 40 percent Merlot, making for riper, fleshier flavors. Cenerentola, or Cinderella, is Sangiovese with 35 percent Foglia Tonda, an old Tuscan grape variety that almost disappeared. Donatella has played a large part in its successful revival. And then there is Il Drago e le Otto Colombe, a blend of Sangiovese with some Merlot, as well as 20 percent of an Umbrian grape variety, Sagrantino. The name of the wine refers to the fact that the estate is run by women, the doves, with just one man, or dragon, Donatella’s husband, Carlo. It makes an amusing aside. But Donatella has a serious focus; a fellow winegrower described her as the anima, or driving force, of the Val d’Orcia.

Podere Forte

Podere Forte’s cellar is state-of-the-art, with vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Podere Forte’s cellar is state-of-the-art, with vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is a relatively new estate, in Tuscan terms, for it was created in 1997 by Pasquale Forte, a businessman from Calabria. From one small purchase in 1997, he has developed a 416-acre estate, including 25 acres of vines (in addition, there are olive trees, extensive woodlands and land for rearing animals).

Sangiovese is the core variety, with some Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. They aim for self-sufficiency and even have a restaurant, the very stylish Osteria Perillà, in the nearby village of Castiglione d’Orcia, where you can enjoy the produce of the estate. They are moving toward biodynamic principles and paying enormous attention to the condition of the soil, with advice from the leading expert in the field, Claude Bourguignon.

A drive around the vineyards offered breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia, with the autumn sunshine reflecting on golden vines. The cellar can only be described as state-of-the-art, with several sorting tables, vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels.

They make three wines. Petruccino, a blend of 70 percent Sangiovese and 30 percent Merlot with 14 months’ oak aging, has a ripe fleshiness from the Merlot, balanced with freshness from the Sangiovese. More serious is Petrucci, a pure Sangiovese, described as their flagship wine, with aging in new oak. The third wine of the range is single-vineyard Guardiavigna, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The 2010 was drinking particularly well, with elegance and balance.

Olivi-Le Buche

Olivi-Le Buche produces a wide range of wines from an eclectic selection of grapes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Olivi-Le Buche produces a wide range of wines from an eclectic selection of grapes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This estate was developed by Giuseppe Olivi, who produces an eclectic range of wines from an equally eclectic selection of grape varieties, namely Sangiovese, the key Bordeaux varieties, Syrah, and Pugnitello, another Tuscan variety that has been revived in recent years. His flagship wine is I Puri, a varietal wine that changes from year to year, depending on which grape variety is the absolute best in that particular vintage. In 2009 it was Merlot and in 2010 Sangiovese, with a fine expression of the variety. Unusually for the Orcia valley, they also have some white varieties, Verdicchio, Viognier and Sauvignon, making a fragrant white wine with some stony minerality.

Podere Albiano

The wines from Podere Albiano make a convincing range of wines that illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

The wines from Podere Albiano make a convincing range of wines that illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is an enchanting spot, with views of Monte Amiata and the small town of Pienza. The almost abandoned property was bought in 1999 by Ada Becheri and Alberto Turri, and they began planting vines in 2002. Until 2008, they merely sold their grapes and did some experimental microvinifications. The following year, they built a neat compact cellar and now they make a convincing range of wines that amply illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley, with Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in varying proportions. Oak aging is essential to them all.

Citto, from all four varieties, is elegant and cedary; Ciriè is Sangiovese and Merlot, with some fleshy fruit; Tribòlo is a pure Sangiovese, and a riserva, which requires 24 months of aging. In fact, it has spent 30 months in small barrels, with some lovely elegant sour cherry fruit and just the right amount of oak. And finally there is Albiano, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with just a touch of Petit Verdot. This is riper and immediately more international in flavor, while still retaining the benchmark elegance of Podere Abiello.

Marco Capitoni

Two large amphorae in Marco Capitoni’s cellar are used for experimenting with Sangiovese. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Two large amphorae in Marco Capitoni’s cellar are used for experimenting with Sangiovese. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

Marco’s first vintage was 2001. He has developed the vineyards of an old family estate to make two wines: Capitoni, which is a blend of 80 percent Sangiovese with some Merlot, and Frasi, which comes from a 3.2-acre vineyard planted in1973 that is mainly Sangiovese, with Canaiolo and Colorino. The three varieties are all mixed up in the vineyard and consequently fermented together, then aged in large wood for two years. A vertical tasting of Le Frasi from 2010 to 2005 illustrated the vintage variations. But the first things you see in Marco’s cellar are two large amphorae, for he is experimenting with Sangiovese in amphora.

The flavors are fresh and perfumed, with elegant red fruit and potential, rather like Val d’Orcia, which is a sleeping giant waiting to be discovered.

Main photo: Podere Forte’s vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

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