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June 01, 2005|Eric Steinman; Russ Parsons

Splash it on

Verjus, the fresh juice of unripe wine grapes, has a lovely tartness that can heighten the flavors of a dish. It's mild and floral, so there's no fear of overpowering everything on the table the way vinegar might. Terra Sonoma, in the viticultural heart of the Alexander Valley, makes a fruity and sophisticated version from their vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc grapes. Make a vinaigrette with it for a goat cheese salad; it'll bring out the complexity of the cheese and the earthy quality of the greens. Or try it with garlic and olive oil to accent halibut steaks, or even as a brandy mixer with ginger ale.

Terra Sonoma verjus, 375 milliliters, $15,

-- Eric Steinman

Jack of the cheese trade

That there is great cheese in Sonoma is no surprise. The county is almost as well-known for its dairy products as it is for its wine. The granddaddy of all that curd is Vella Cheese Co., best known for its masterpiece: Special Select Dry Monterey Jack, a hard cheese of penetrating flavor and genuine profundity. It also makes a newer one called Mezzo Secco, which is moister and creamier than the Jack, with a texture not unlike a great Cheddar and a flavor that's more buttery than sharp. Ig Vella, the company's 76-year-old cheese maker, developed it after finding his father's notes on the original Monterey Jack. "This is the way I remember Jack tasting when I was a kid," he says.

Vella's Special Select Dry Monterey Jack, $9.99 a pound at Bristol Farms stores, $10.98 a pound at Bay Cities in Santa Monica, $10 a pound at the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills. Mezzo Secco, $10 a pound at the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills. Both cheeses can be mail-ordered from Vella Cheese Co., (800) 848-0505 or (prices include UPS shipping: Special Select Dry Monterey Jack, $40 for a quarter-wheel, or about 2 pounds; Mezzo Secco, $36 for a quarter-wheel, or about 2.5 pounds).

-- Russ Parsons

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