Fame Official: Vintner Richard Sanford to be Inducted Into Vintners Hall of Fame

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on October 23, 2011)

Richard Sanford
When Richard Sanford got into the wine business, he had two options: study viticulture at UC Davis or roll up his sleeves and plant vines.

“I thought, ‘I could either have a degree in four years, or I could have grapes in four years,’” he recalls.  And I chose grapes.”

That unabashed pioneering attitude has been well recognized by the Santa Barbara wine community for decades.  The vineyard that has long bared his name – Sanford & Benedict – remains to this day one of zone’s more stories sources for Burgundian grapes.  And the wineries he founded – Sanford first and, most recently, Alma Rosa – have been indisputable pacesetters in quality wine production.

Now, that acknowledgment has officially gone mainstream.  The Culinary Institute of America is inducting Sanford into its 2012 Vintners Hall of Fame, an honor that recognizes his profound contribution to an industry that may be as much about business and marketing as it is about instinct and art.  The new inductee feels humbled.

“I am flattered and proud,” he says.  “Just sort of overwhelmed, frankly.”

But even for the characteristically modest Sanford, there’s also as admission that the road to recognition has been paved with plenty of hard work and a fair share of innovation.

“For a long time, people have been talking about me as some sort of pioneer, and it’s all felt silly, really.  But truth is, it has been a long effort and experience and commitment.  And it feels great to look at the whole region and to see the quality we’ve achieved here.  That’s the biggest reward.”

The region Sanford refers to is the Santa Rita Hills, those roughly 100 square miles of now-prime grape growing real estate that stretches west of Highway 101, from Buellton toward Lompoc.  It won the federal stamp of approval as a unique appellation 10 years ago, and was touted as an area especially well-suited for cool climate grapes like pinot noir and chardonnay for at least a decade before that.  But back in the late 60s and early 70s, when a young Sanford spent many a day driving through the rolling valley with a thermometer in his car to study temperature and climate, “people thought I was nuts,” he recalls with a laugh. No one was growing wine grapes there, with plantings relegated instead to warmer areas like Foxen Canyon and Los Olivos.  “But I had confidence.”

In many ways, this environmental experimentation was cathartic for Sanford.  As soon as he’d graduated from UC Berkeley in 1965, he’d been drafted, and he spent the next three years at war as a sailor in the U.S. Navy.  “Back from Vietnam, to drive around in a tractor in nature was very healing,” he says.  “That time was precious, a spiritual kind of journey and a great period for me, personally.”

But the young man who’d opted for planting grapes instead of seeking a school degree had still managed to do his homework.  An early admirer of French wines, “I’d done a lot of research into the climates of Burgundy, went back 100 years in gathering climate information, and started comparing it to climates in California,” he recalls.  “My prejudice then was that pinot noir was going into climates that were too warm.  And I found that the east-west mountains [in the Santa Rita Hills] allowed weather to come in and make it cool.  That marine influence was important.  It’s about a degree Fahrenheit cooler for every mile you go west.  And that’s unusual for almost anywhere in the world.”

This, of course, was Sanford’s eureka moment.  It was the birth of a winemaking movement that, today, is responsible for some of Santa Barbara’s most lauded wines.  But in the years that followed, pioneering was a relatively lonely business.

Sanford and botanist Michael Benedict established the Sanford & Benedict nursery in 1970, cultivating cuttings from an experimental vineyard that had been planted in the Tepesquet Mesa in the mid 60s.  A year later, they put in the ground their namesake vineyard, which would take until 1976 to offer the young winemaker viable fruit.  That vintage was aged for two years and finally released in 1978. “That’s when people started to take some notice of the possibility here,” says Sanford, who left Sanford & Benedict in 1980.

Sanford Winery was founded in 1981, and much of the first decade of his solo winemaking project took Sanford on the road.  “I spent a lot of time traveling and talking about the region,” Sanford remembers.  And touting something brand new was no easy task.  “It would have been a lot easier if I was in a recognized region, like Napa.  And on the East Coast, everyone was looking to European wines in those days.”

Sanford admits that the Santa Rita Hills finally attained more widespread recognition in the 1990s, but he speaks about that period with a bittersweet tenor.  “By 1995, Prudential and Bank of America were the biggest vineyard owners in Santa Barbara County, and they were looking to get rid of them,” he says.  “Napa guys like Mondavi, Kendall-Jackson and Beringer were already buying up chardonnay from here to blend with Napa chard to increase quality, so they ended up buying all the vineyards from the insurance companies.  Of course, I lost the opportunity to buy grapes from Sierra Madre Vineyard when Mondavi bought it.”

He adds, “Once they had major investments here, that’s when they finally started to toot the horn.  It’s curious how it takes the effort of marketing to create a buzz,”

Sanford sold his eponymous winery in 2005 (the new owners continue to capitalize on the name) and launched his current and very personal winemaking endeavor, Alma Rosa Winery.

“This whole new effort is a chance to recognize the quality of the grapes growing in our region,” he says.  “At Sanford, we were making great wine but it was more classic and used more oak aging.  But I thought, here we are with these beautiful bright grapes and high acids, why not preserve that?”  The Alma Rosa wines include pinot gris, pinot blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir; much of the latter is sourced from the latest vineyard planted by Sanford, La Encantada in the Santa Rita Hills.  The wines are produced sustainably from organic grapes and are typically brilliant and light; Sanford uses absolutely no malolactic fermentation, a process that converts tarter malic acid to softer lactic acid, to give wines a fuller, more buttery mouth feel.

And he uses screwcaps, no corks, in all his wines.  He and wife Thekla “are very pleased with the way the wine keeps in terms of freshness and aging,” he says.  He admits that some traditionalist consumers are yet to be won over, but “I’m sold on it.”

Spoken like a pioneer.

Sanford will be inducted to the 2012 Vintners Hall of Fame on February 20th, 2012, at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in St. Helena.  The induction class, the 6th annual, will also include Peter Mondavi, Sr. of Charles Krug Winery, Professor Albert Winkler of UC Davis, Joe Heitz of Napa’s Heitz Cellars, former Beringer winemaker Myron Nightingale, Mendocino vintner Joe Parducci and soil scientist Dr. Eugene Hilgard.  Tickets are $175.  For more information, visit www.ciachef.edu.

And for more on Richard Sanford and Alma Rosa Winery, visit www.almarosawinery.com

Island in a Bottle: Distinct Wines Born from Rusack's Catalina Island Adventure

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on October 13, 2011)

Alison and Geoff Rusack
When Alison Wrigley Rusack and her husband, Geoff Rusack, planted the first ever vineyards on Santa Catalina Island four years ago, it was a lot like planting grapes in their own backyard.  After all, the rocky, 75-square-mile Channel isle – which is located some 22 miles off the Southern California coast – is a significant part of Mrs. Rusack’s family legacy.

The Rusacks own controlling shares of the Santa Catalina Island Company, which manages 11% of Catalina.  It’s proprietary control that stems back to Mrs. Rusack’s great-grandfather, William Wrigley, Jr.  The magnate who made a fortune selling chewing gum brands to the American public at the turn of the 20th century bought the island from fellow investors in 1919.

Perhaps most important to the Rusacks’ stake on Catalina is El Rancho Escondido, or the Hidden Ranch, which was established as a Wrigley family retreat in 1931.  For decades a tourist attraction, the ranch is closed now, as the Rusacks undertake a major overhaul aimed at transforming the property into a destination for weddings and corporate events, and to expand by adding a winery. 

The Rusacks have had commercial success with their namesake wine venture in Santa Barbara County since 1995, so this is them spreading their viticultural wings to their other home, across the channel.  Syrah was a serious consideration at first, but when weather studies pointed to ideal growing conditions for Burgundian grapes, the land was earmarked for pinot noir and chardonnay.  They also selected zinfandel, a warmer weather grape that’s not necessarily their ideal neighbor.  But this wasn’t your ordinary zin.  The Rusacks had obtained the wild vines from neighboring Santa Cruz Island, thanks to its long-standing collaboration with Catalina on conservancy projects.  Experts at UC Davis identified them as zinfandel, and it would be planted near its Burgundian neighbors, but on a sunnier south-facing slope.

Aerial view of Catalina Island Vineyard
The three vineyards are planted on six total acres that surround El Rancho Escondido: one acre of zinfandel, two of chardonnay and three of pinot noir; a portion of the pinot plot has been dubbed the “View Block” because the ocean is clearly visible in the distance on any clear day.  It’s over this block that the Rusacks envision building a wine tasting room with a deck.

For now the wines are being made at their Santa Ynez Valley facility.  That means that the grapes are being flown in a retrofitted Cessna from Catalina’s Airport in the Sky to the Santa Ynez Airport, then trucked to the awaiting winemaking team of John and Helen Falcone.  Not a cheap way to make wine.

The first Santa Catalina Island Vineyards vintage was 2009, a project made all the more thrilling by all the unknowns.  No one has grown wine grapes here before; there’s no past data to refer to; no past mistakes to learn from.  But “we’re making wine – really good wine -- in a spot in the world where no one else has ever done it before,” says John Falcone, “and that’s pretty cool.”

Falcone has made the Catalina wines very much like the Rusack wines from the Santa Ynez Valley; same facility, same barrels, same overall philosophy.  His goal is to extract the genuine flavors that the island imparts on the vines.  “What does Catalina really taste like?” he says.  And from what I can tell, the answer is, “Delicious and distinct.”

I recently sat with Falcone at the Rusack vineyard property to taste the three debut wines; in the case of the chardonnay and pinot, we taste them alongside their Santa Barbara County counterparts.  And what’s clear right of the bat is that there is, yes, plenty of merit here; the Falcones consistently make great wine.  But there’s also a clear uniqueness to these wines.  Terroir – or the expression of place inside the wine bottle – resides comfortably on the other side of each cork.

The Catalina chardonnay has a bouquet that’s rich in fruit, with earthy, spicy and tropical notes.  It’s big in the mouth – round in the front and mid-palate, especially – but with enough acidity, minerality and a wet stone streak to make it very drinkable.  It’s delectably layered and nuanced.  By comparison, the Santa Barbara County chard, made from Sierra Madre and Bien Nacido fruit, is leaner on the nose, with less acidity on the palate.  Equally worth every sip, of course, but different, and a fascinating study in differences in terroir.

The Catalina pinot noir may be the most distinct wine of all three.  Dark to the eye, and dark in its aromas of earth and tea leaves.  But its flavors are deliciously delicate: bright red fruit, some tart cherries, flowers and a soft spicy end.  It makes you want to reach for dried fruits – or a mix of nuts and cheeses – right away.  And it’s more focused on the palate than the Rusack Santa Maria pinot we tasted alongside, which proved broader in the mouth.  Overall, a very distinctive rendition of what’s become a very popular red wine.

“The ’09 zinfandel saw radically uneven bud break,” Falcone tells me as he pours.  “Like months apart.”  A Catalina curve ball.  But the result is surprisingly attractive, and sophisticated.  A perfumy nose leads to velvety jamminess in the mouth, generous fruit, black pepper and – stay with me here – a lean meat feel.  This is an elegant, restrained version of zinfandel and refreshingly lower in alcohol than many other, popular California zins: 14.3% versus 16% or 17%, or higher.  “Early on, this was really just going to be an experiment,” Falcone admits.  What would zinfandel grown so close to the sea really do?  “But honestly, when we tasted it after fermentation, we were all really impressed, so we went through with it and bottled it.”

The Rusacks have been permitted to plant 12 more acres, so this project’s output is bound to grow in vintages to come.  And since there’s no AVA, or federally-assigned appellation, established on Catalina (and seeking one for such a small venture may not be worth the expense), the wine carries a “California” designation.  The label features a simple drawing of the landmark Channel Island fox, seated, overlooking the vineyards and El Rancho Escondido.

With final pricing still being set, and public release expected within a few months, sales of the debut 2009 Santa Catalina Island Vineyards wines will be done through a waiting list, which you can access at www.catalinaislandvineyards.com.

Island Vintage: Santa Barbara Vintners Launch First Ever Catalina Island Wines

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on October 9, 2011)

Vineyards on Santa Catalina Island
The news that Alison Wrigley Rusack and her husband, Geoff, are about to launch the first ever wines grown on Santa Catalina Island is fresh off the press.  After all, their debut release – an island-grown chardonnay, pinot noir and zinfandel from the 2009 vintage – is just months away (and has many serious wine drinkers on a growing waiting list on pins and needles).  But in some ways, this story really began close to 30 years ago.

“Alison and I had just started dating and I remember we were riding horseback along a ridge, looking out to the ocean,” recalls Mr. Rusack.  He pauses to gaze out the window of his private plane as, 45 minutes after taking off from its Santa Barbara Municipal Airport home base, it begins its descent toward a rural runway on Catalina; three neatly manicured vineyards are coming into view through the parting clouds.  “And we said to ourselves, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to have vineyards here one day and make wine?’”

Quite the prophetic notion, it turns out. 

But many years would go by before their romantic conception would become reality.  The Rusacks married in 1985 and settled in Los Angeles, where she developed consumer products for Disney and he worked as an aviation law attorney.  They made the pastoral leap to Ballard Canyon in the early 90s and, before long, the vintner bug bit.  Rusack Vineyards and Winery was established in 1995; the doors to its tasting room opened two years later.  And today, thanks in large part to the talented stewardship by winemakers John and Helen Falcone, the brand is synonymous with some of the best Rhone and Burgundian wines in Santa Barbara County.

There’s always been that connection to Santa Catalina Island, though.  Anchored 22 miles off the Southern California coast, it’s the third largest isle on the Channel Island chain and the only one that’s privately owned.  And that’s where Mrs. Rusack -- and her pedigree – feature prominently.

William Wrigley, Jr., her great-grandfather, is easily one of the great businessmen in American history.  He founded the Wrigley Company in the 1890s and would go on to make a fortune selling wildly popular brands of chewing gum to the American public.  In the decades that followed, he’d own the Chicago Cubs baseball team; their historic hometown ballpark was named in his honor.  And he’d own the luxury, landmark Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix.

But a significant chapter of his legacy is what he did for Santa Catalina.  He joined investors in the 75-square-mile island in 1915 – they were the Santa Catalina Island Company – and, four years later, bought them out to own it outright.  In the years that followed, the made major improvements, such as revamping water systems and public utilities, and developing real estate, which included building the island’s iconic Casino building.  He also founded a company that used local clay to make glazed tiles and house wares which, today, command big money from collectors.  And he regularly hosted his Cubs for spring training on Catalina, on a custom diamond he called “Field of Dreams.”

The Wrigley generations that have followed have continued the legacy of enhancing the island.  Son Philip (also a baseball buff, whose creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was depicted in the 1992 Tom Hanks film, A League of Their Own) created the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy and deeded 88% of the island – to the tune of 42,000 acres – to it.  One percent of what remained is held, to this day, by private individuals, mainly longtime shop and home owners.  The other 11% is managed by the Santa Catalina Island Company, which Philip’s son, William, inherited; when he died in 1999, controlling shares in that company went to his daughter.

That daughter is Alison Wrigley Rusack.

Today, she and husband Geoff have taken the reigns in restoring the Company’s stake on the island.  That includes much of the tourism attractions on Avalon, Catalina’s main town and, for years now, a popular daytrip for Southern Californians.  “We’re primarily a real estate company,” says Mr. Rusack, referring to their three hotels and three restaurants in Avalon, including the much buzzed-about Avalon Grille.  The Company also manages several new tourist-friendly attractions – including semi-submersible boats, fly-fishing outposts and a 4000-foot zip-line – and general stores on the resort town of Two Harbors, which is popular with leisure boaters.

But the most important part of the Company’s portfolio, if for nothing more than sentimental reasons, is El Rancho Escondido, or The Hidden Ranch.  The rustic property was founded by grandfather Philip as a training ground for the Wrigley family’s Arabian horses, which were, for years, shown throughout the United States.  Until recently, and for some 70 years, the property was open to the public and became an effective attraction to get visitors off the beach and into the island’s unspoiled interior which, to this day, is marked by rocky roads, meandering canyons and wildlife.  Breeds of foxes, quail and shrews unique to the island are still readily spotted, as are more than 200 bison which were brought in as extras for a movie back in the 1920s and which, today, are allowed to roam free.   Native mahogany and ironwood trees dot the landscape.

The ranch is now closed, as the Rusacks begin the process of restructuring the property into what will one day reopen as “a spectacular visitors’ center,” says Mr. Rusack as he takes the News-Press on an exclusive tour.  “We’re envisioning this as a destination for weddings, concerts and corporate events.”

The property’s stable still houses expertly maintained carriages that, decades ago, would whisk VIP guests in from Avalon, as well as hand-crafted silver saddles owned by generations of Wrigleys.  Numerous black and white photos depict the family’s history; some, dating back to the late 1940s, show the Wrigley family arriving on the island for visits aboard their private DC-3.  And an old ranch house still abuts the stable; it’s home to dozens more old photos (one shows Phil Wrigley making music alongside Walt Disney), various taxidermied catches and a bathroom done entirely in that coveted Catalina tile.

But the most exciting part of the Rusacks’ project may be what Mr. Rusack animatedly outlines in pantomime fashion as he exits the stable.  “Here, here’s where we’ll put a winery,” he declares.  “And here, a tasting room with a deck,” pointing to a plot overlooking the ocean in the distance and -- and this is where the project’s uniqueness is most evident – a beautifully manicured vineyard in full bloom.

Prophetic notion fulfilled.

The Rusacks began to explore in earnest the idea of planting grapevines on Catalina Island in 2002.  They flew in experts from as far away as Australia to help study things like soil conditions and climate.  On the soil front, the initial news was not good; unrelenting ocean exposure had resulted in the presence of boron and, mainly, salt at significant levels.  The Rusacks would go on to do intensive soil flushing and rinsing; they would also plant vines at elevated heights to promote water flow, build a sophisticated drain system under each vineyard row and install a drip irrigation system.

At first, they considered planting syrah, a varietal with which they’d already had great success on the mainland, in Santa Barbara County.  “But all the data that was coming back was telling us that the conditions were so good for Bungundian grapes, that pinot noir and chardonnay became a no-brainer,” says Rusack.

In 2004, Mr. Rusack and two of their sons, Parker and Austin, flew out to neighboring Santa Cruz Island to hand-pick rugged grapevines that had long been growing wild.  Nature protection groups on both islands already enjoyed a collaborative relationship in myriad species recovery and environmental restoration projects, so when the Rusacks requested access to the vines, the Nature Conservancy’s Santa Cruz Island project “was happy to do so,” explains Rusack.  Cuttings were sent to UC Davis, where two grape varieties were identified: Mission and zinfandel.  The former enjoys little caché in the wine business, but the Rusacks made the call with little hesitation to include the newly discovered zin in their budding Catalina wine project.

In March of 2007, the Rusacks, themselves, joined members of Buellton-based Coast Vineyard Care in planting the very first vineyards on Santa Catalina Island: one acre of zinfandel, two acres of chardonnay and three acres of pinot noir; the pinot vineyard was quickly dubbed the “View Block” for the generous glimpse of ocean it offers.

It’s unusual to see pinot noir and chardonnay, which thrive in cooler environments, planted in such close proximity to the warmer-weather zinfandel.  “But we have the zin on a south facing slope,” says winemaker John Falcone, “and it’s amazing to see how different the conditions there can be.  It works!”

Falcone has two digital weather stations positioned throughout the vineyards, which he can check electronically even from the comfort of his Ballard Canyon home.  During harvest season, he flies out to Catalina at least weekly to check on growing conditions; usually, he tags along on flights aboard the Rusacks’ personal plane that are already carrying other employees on important family business.  When the grapes are harvested, they are transported to Catalina’s Airport in the Sky (it sits at an elevation of 1600 feet above sea level), packed inside oversized bins and loaded on a jet engine Cessna Caravan that’s been outfitted as a cargo plane.  They arrive, often in the early morning hours, at the Santa Ynez Airport, before being trucked to the Rusack Vineyards winemaking facility.  “I’ve never had grapes arrive by plane before,” admits Falcone with a chuckle.

The first harvest from the new vines took place in autumn of 2009.  There were, naturally, several challenges; among them, vastly different yields between the varietals and uneven bud break on the zinfandel.  “That’s common with zin,” says Falcone, “but here, it was definitely exacerbated.”  The 2010 yields were considerably smaller, due in large part to an unforeseen infestation by tens of thousands of yellow jackets.  The harvest for 2011 is going on now; no buzzers have been spotted in the horizon.

“When we planted, we really didn’t know what to expect,” admits Rusack as he meanders through the vines, inspecting grape clusters quickly nearing pick-ready conditions.  “But what’s really great to see now is how healthy the vines look.”

The 2009 debut crop resulted in 265 cases of chardonnay, 125 cases of pinot noir and just 60 cases of zinfandel.  A very small production for a truly unique wine project.  Real wine merits aside, these are bottlings that are, naturally, already generating buzz among the wine curious; prices are still being set and a waiting list is growing quickly for exclusive allocations of the first ever Santa Catalina Island Vineyards releases within a few months.  (You can find more information and join the waiting list at www.catalinaislandvineyards.com.)

But novelty aside, these wines are remarkably noteworthy and decidedly distinct.  “They were made the same way we make the Rusack wines” that use Santa Barbara County fruit, says Falcone, “but they are very different.”  What the industry defines as the expression of terroir – how a sense of place translates to flavor in the bottle – may be especially alive here.  The chardonnay is rich and tropical on the nose, with great acidity in the mouth.  The pinot noir is especially unique, with dark, earthy aromas but delicate red fruit flavors.  And the zinfandel displays wonderful elegance, generous in fruit and refreshingly lower in alcohol than many popular California zins. 

Distinctiveness is allowing the Rusacks to find real thrill in what started as an experiment and bona fide leap of faith.  For Falcone, the project has balanced a fair share of anxiety-producing unknowns with the type of professional satisfaction that may only come from doing something truly special.  “We’re making wine – really good wine -- in a spot in the world where no one else has ever done it before,” he says as he swings shut the gates to the vineyard than have been erected to ward off wandering bison.  “And that’s pretty cool.”

And so, with the investment and commitment of another generation, the Wrigley legacy continues.

A Personal Harvest: Local Food Purveyor Releases Book on Olive Oils and Vinegars

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on October 6, 2011)

“The possibilities for living a Caliterranean life are endless.”
This is how Theo Stephan ends her new book, “Olive Oil and Vinegar for Life: Delicious Recipes for Healthy Caliterranean Living,” which is set for release next week.

But it’s also a good place to start.

Stephan was born to Greek parents and into a household where cooking the Mediterranean way readily reigned supreme.  In her book, she recounts her earliest memory of tasting olive oil, at age eight, when her aunt Lou dipped a hunk of hamburger bun in it and had her take a bite.  “My mouth immediately welcomed the buttery, fresh, flowery fruitiness that is Kalamata Extra Virgin Olive Oil,” she writes.

Fast-forward a few decades to the mid 90s, when Stephan, now a successful graphic designed based in Dayton, Ohio, found herself visiting Southern California regularly on business.  The climate and the land struck a chord with her; it recalled, in many ways, the place from which her own family had come.  She invested in a fixer-upper ranch in Los Alamos – a haven, of sorts, during her regular cross-country works trips – which happened to be home to 50 olive trees.  And then, what she calls her “eureka moment.”  She recalls thinking in her new book, “Why not start my own brand, grow and sell olive oil from that handsome property and quite possibly, daringly change my life forever?”

That leap of faith came in 2001, when she sold her Dayton-based business and launched Global Gardens, a company aimed at cultivating local olive oils, vinegars and food products, and sourcing quality ones from around the globe.  Five years later, she opened a quaint storefront by the same name in the heart of Los Olivos, the only food-tasting venue amidst dozens of wine tasting ones.  And her purpose remained the same: to further what she would ultimately call, and officially trademark as, the “Caliterranean” lifestyle.

“I was in the shower when I thought of the word,” she told the News-Press.  “It just washed over me.”

For Stephan, California is unique in the way it mirrors the Mediterranean not only in its natural distinctiveness and abundance but also in the way its people embrace a healthier way of life.  “I really see us Californians as starting and leading this trend toward learning about nutrition and understanding the importance of eating fresh and local,” she says.  “With all our obesity and health issues today, we have more opportunities here to broaden the healthful aspects of our lifestyle and to introduce it to the entire country.”

And that’s the crux of her new culinary tome.  The book reads as much as an anthology of olive oil- and vinegar-based recipes as a prose-style introduction and guide to Stephan’s favorite ingredients.  History, nutritional information and storytelling combine to create an assorted, thorough, stunning book.

The hardcover, with its textured olive-green cover, impresses from a physical standpoint alone.  Oversized and solid, it resembles a weighty coffee table book.  The design was all Stephan’s; her former professional incarnation was put to good use.  And most of the photography was hers, too.  The food shots are eye-popping and rich, as are the myriad landscape and detailed close-ups featured prominently throughout the book.

This literary project also became a family affair.  Stephan’s two daughters – sisters Sunita, 17, and Anita, 16, whom she adopted from Nepal 10 years ago and who work the Global Gardens store in Los Olivos every summer – each contributed.  The eldest was responsible for much of the food design featured in the book; the youngest, a budding photographer, added her fair share of food snapshots. 

“We did a lot of cooking for this book, and everything was measuring and taking pictures,” says Stephan.  She continues with a laugh, “It was a real joke with the girls because we couldn’t eat anything without photographing it, and when we were done, it was like something was wrong when we’d sit down to it something without shooting it.”

Involving her children was also a way for Stephan to deliver a message to her readers about the importance of introducing healthier cooking styles early.  “When the girls were little, I’d only do their grilled cheese sandwiches in Kalamata [oil],” she says.  “Our taste buds develop early, and kids are receptive to healthier foods when they are part of the selection process.  It creates harmony.”

Stephan began working in earnest on her book last autumn, after the olive harvest, and it took “a lot of discipline, and having to calendar everything out,” the author says.  It required a rigorous travel schedule, including visits to Death Valley to shoot the pictures for the book’s section on “Campsite Dishes” and to Mendocino, “where I put together 12 courses for 12 people,” Stephan says.  Location shoots also took place throughout Santa Barbara County, San Diego and Napa.

But the most time consuming aspect of the book prep took place in the kitchen.  Stephan’s goal, after all, was to show how olive oil can entirely substitute popular, less healthy alternatives, like butter.  And that meant retooling and retesting a lot of recipes.

“I had to play with recipes a lot to figure out dimensions,” she recalls.  “Like when I wanted to come up with a good pie pastry.  I wanted it to be light and flaky but not too wet, or it would fall apart.  So I froze olive oil in tablespoon increments in an ice cube tray, and that was my substitute for butter patties.

“You have to work really fast and you can’t touch it a lot because gets really chewy,” she learned.  “But figuring that out was my biggest thrill and my biggest surprise.”

For the reader, the surprises may also abound, especially when recipes for popular dishes force them to reach for an olive oil bottle from the pantry rather than a butter stick from the fridge.  All reference the lineup of Global Gardens products, 15% of which Stephan produces herself from olives harvested on her Los Alamos ranch and Los Olivos home (and which won six medals at this year’s L.A. County Fair), and the rest of which she imports from boutique purveyors from places like Crete and Italy.  In the book’s “Breakfast Recipes,” for example, Stephan’s “Stuffed French Toast” calls for her Santa Ynez Italian Varietal Blend Extra Virgin Olive Oil while her “Fig ‘N Egg Omelet” requires both for some Global Gardens Meyer Lemon Extra Virgin Olive Oil and the Global Gardens Fig Balsamic Vinegar.

The bill of recipes may require the at-home cook to stock up on some new products and rethink the way standard foods are made, but it easily appeals on a fundamental, appetizing level.  The “Beginnings” section features recipes for an “Avocado Olive Salad” and “Mini Chevre Peppers.”  Seafood aficionados will find the “Scallops Ceviche and Red Curry Delight Sauce” especially tantalizing, while recipes for “Smoked Mendo Tri-Tip,” “Oven Roasted Chicken Supreme” and “Eggplant Caliterraneanna” – a baked delicacy featuring Farga Extra Virgin Olive Oil and two cheeses – will nab budding chefs with an appetite for something heartier.

The aforementioned “Campsite Dishes” includes recipes for “Death Valley Deviled Eggs” and “Campfire S’mores with Solar Sauce,” both of which call for Mission Manzanilla Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  “I love to go camping,” Stephan says, “but that doesn’t mean I have to starve.”

And “Desserts” include a mouth-watering array of sweet treats, from “Perfect Pecan Pie” (featuring that tried and tested pie pastry), a “Smoked Salt Chocolate Tart” and, of course, “Not Your Mother’s Baklava.”

There’s even a pair of recipes for Koroneiki olive oil -based “munchies” for dogs and cats.

Among Stephan’s own recipes are two that offer a healthy dose of nostalgia for her.  The “Lemon Garlic Veggies” are fried.  “If you’ve ever been to Greece and tasted fried zucchini and fried eggplant, you know it’s a real staple there,” she says.  She suggests Kalamata or Koroneiki Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil in her recipe, which “tastes just like Aunt Lou’s.” 

And her “Greek Walnut Cake” is “just like the one my grandmother used to make, and it’s a favorite dessert for my kids,” Stephan says; her recipe includes a pomegranate balsamic vinegar reduction.

The merits of olive oil in cooking are driven home by the inclusion of additional recipes by four high-profile chefs, including Bradley Ogden of Solvang’s Root 246 restaurant and Food Network regular Bill Wavrin.

Consumer education, of course, is a critical part of Stephan’s book.  She clearly defines what extra virgin olive oil means – it should contain “no more than 0.8 percent acidity” – and offers a list of flavors truly hand-crafted, quality olive oils will possess, including “grassy,” “peppercorns” and “woodsy.”  Stephan also includes a step-by-step look at how she produces her own extra virgin, first cold pressing olive oils, from tree to bottle; photographs detail everything from the harvest of her estate fruit trees to the certified organic stone mill in Petaluma that she contracts to press them.  The author also introduces the reader to the many varieties of olives she harvests and sources, like Farga, Koroneiki, Mission Manzanilla and Kalamata.  “Different varietals will give their own unique flavors to what you cook, much like pairing wine with different foods,” she insists.  “There are an infinite number of options.”

There are interesting historical tidbits sprinkled throughout, too; did you know Helen of Troy used to bathe in vinegar to relax, and that Caesar’s army drank it to avoid dehydration?

Stephan is currently working on her nutritionist certification and envisions two more books in the near future.  But for now, she’s excited about the day-to-day applications of her first publication.  After all, she says, “This country is still in its infancy of understanding how the right foods play into our overall health issues.”

For more information, visit www.globalgardensonline.com.