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Getting the scoop on Napa Valley and java

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During the 1990s, Napa Valley real estate became the new gotta have luxury status symbol. Folks from varying backgrounds across the US turned their ultimate IPO and dot com profits into owning a small piece of "Eden." Then they began to plant vines and make wines, especially highly prized Cabernet Sauvignon, aka "rocket juice." With all their money, they hired the best people to cultivate their acreage, mix their juice, and get them good press. The goal was to make wine, their own wine, a cult wine.

In The Far Side of Eden, author James Conaway takes up Napa's social history where he left off in Napa, The Story of an American Eden, which detailed the farming families of Napa, the Gallos and Mondavis, and those who arrived in the 1970s such as the Davieses. Napa was a tale of fortunes made and lost.

In Far Side, Conaway notes that during the 1990s, Napa became a tourist mecca, with over five million visitors annually, second only to Disneyland in tourism. During this decade the face-off between "lucky spermers," the inheritors of acreage and vineyards, and the nouveau riche interlopers began. While the latter blasted away slopes in order to plant vineyards and then had runoffs that muddied the valley watershed, long-time residents could barely work fast enough to prevent the onslaught of newcomers. What had once been settled in Napa with a handshake was now determined by GPS systems and high-powered attorneys.

Conaway writes, "Money was credibility, but it could also be destructive. The national assumption nowadays was that if you had a lot of money you had to build an in-your-face mansion and an in-nature's face vineyard. Those building them didn't want to be told what to do, but they were telling everyone else what to do -- accommodate my spectacle, my erosion, my water diversion, my herbicides and pesticides. Well, wine was a luxury, and an economy based on luxury shouldn't be allowed to destroy the landscape."

Readers on winery mailing lists, or waiting mailing lists, of Napa cult wineries may find the vintners of highly sought, expensive wines spotlighted in Far Side. Conaway writes in a gossipy, fly on the wall, semi-fictional manner which pulls back the glamorous label a bit to reveal some of the nastier inner workings of Napa society and the age-old western battle between those who want to conserve the earth and those who want it all now: the farmer versus the cowboy.

Corby Kummer has been chronicling the popularity of quality coffee for two decades. In this revision of Joy of Coffee, he notes that Starbucks has gone from being a Seattle coffeehouse to an international shop, "almost as famous as McDonald's -- and a similar reviled and admired symbol of America."

Kummer notes the recent emergence of Vietnamese coffee farmers who grow robusto, "a cheap filler coffee," while a disorganized band of small growers in Central and South America and Africa who cultivate arabica have been plagued with political and distribution problems. In Joy, Kummer visits La Minita, a coffee plantation in Costa Rica, where the owner prunes the coffee trees to eight feet tall, not allowing them to reach their natural 30 feet which would necessitate workers leaning ladders against trees, and possibly harming themselves or the trees. The coffee on this plantation is shaded by banana trees and other varieties, and owner Bill McAlpin cultivates Caturra, an heirloom coffee which is expensive to grow and an impractical choice for most coffee farmers. Costa Rican coffees are considered among the world's best, partially because of the wet processing the beans undergo.

Joy starts on a coffee plantation and ends in the kitchen with precise steps on brewing. Should you use cold water or hot? The author says cold water is fresher since it hasn't been sitting in a hot water tank and is more oxygenated, but personal taste should dictate. To brew, Kummer prefers the drip method and in proportions of two tablespoons of coffee per six ounces of water. For those around the office coffee machine, Kummer says 40 minutes is max for brewed coffee. Kummer includes a chapter of recipes of sweets to eat with coffee, including one for biscotti made by either mixer or food processor.

EATER'S DIGEST

Speaking of coffee, construction is underway for a Starbucks in a local Target. The Carolina Pavilion store will also have a Pizza Hut. Hmmm. Pizza and coffee seem as unlikely a duo as Starbucks and Target.

Owner and chef James Le has sold his Taste of Asia, Vietnamese and Chinese Restaurant, 9626 Monroe Road (Monroe and Sardis Road North), due to medical reasons. The restaurant is closed for renovations, but will reopen quite soon. Le may consult in the new endeavor. Mr. Le was known for talking to his customers from his open kitchen and for the freshness of his ingredients. We wish him well.

Opened next door in that same shopping center is a new Akropolis Cafe, 704-845-5595. The original Akropolis Cafe opened in the food court of Eastland Mall in the early 1980s, and then closed to reopen in the Arboretum when that shopping center was built. The new location in southeast Charlotte is owned by Tony Bayat, who has been in the restaurant business for 24 years, including a stint at La Bibliotheque. Bayat, who is Persian, has added a handful of Persian dishes to the menu, including a lamb platter and a kobideh kabob. He plans to open another Akropolis Cafe near downtown in early 2004.

Ed Steedman and Liz Andress have closed Bijoux Brasserie & Bar, 201 North Tryon Street. Local and national concerns have initiated offers on the 175-seat space.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. To contact Tricia via email: TLChild@bellsouth.net.

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