Geneva Anderson digs into art

Justin Wangler, K-J’s top chef, talks tomatoes on the eve of the 15th Annual Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival

Justin Wangler, Kendall's-Jackson's executive chef, will be heading the K-J culinary team at the 15th Annual Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival on Saturday, September 10, 2011. Wangler has "at least" 12 festivals under his belt and helped choose the chefs for the popular Chefs Challenge competition. He is responsible for the fabulous food and wine pairings at Kendall-Jackson. His go-to heirloom is Cherokee Purple, which he also grows at his Santa Rosa home. Photo: courtesy Kendall-Jackson

Tomorrow, Kendall-Jackson celebrates all things tomato with their 15th Annual Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival, a 5-hour gourmet and sensory extravaganza with samples galore. Kendall-Jackson’s executive chef Justin Wangler will head a culinary team of twenty chefs and a large group of volunteers in preparing for the biggest annual event at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center. Before joining the Kendall-Jackson Culinary Team in 2003, Justin worked at Syrah in Santa Rosa, at Saddleback Cellars and at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley.  He attended culinary school in his home state of North Carolina.

I spoke with Justin on Thursday, just before the Chef’s Challenge contenders were slated to arrive at the center to begin preparations for Saturday.  This year’s three visiting contenders—Jen Carroll (10 Arts Bistro & Lounge by Eric in Philadelphia), Chris Jacobsen (“CJ”) (The Yard in Santa Monica) and Kevin Gillespie (Woodfire Grill in Atlanta) —have all competed on Bravo’s hit TV show “Top Chef.” Justin was responsible for choosing all of them as well as for inviting the five local chefs—Douglas Keane (executive chef and owner of the two-Michelin-Star Cyrus in Healdsburg, serving from Shimo Modern Steak in Healdsburg), Paul Monti (Monti’s in Santa Rosa), Josh Silver (Petite Syrah and Jackson’s Bar and Oven in Santa Rosa), Jeff Mall (executive chef at Zin in Healdsburg, and John Ash in Santa Rosa).

First on their activities list was a trip up to Healdsburg to visit K-J’s 5-acre tomato garden, on which over 175 varieties of heirloom tomatoes are grown.  The evening would be spent dining at some of Northern California’s finest restaurants including Syrah, in Santa Rosa, where Justin had previously cooked before K-J lured him away.  On Friday, each of the guest chefs would be paired up with a sous-chef from Kendall-Jackson’s staff and together they would strategize for the Chef’s Challenge competition.  The challenge, which is enormously popular, entails cooking three tomato-based dishes in 25 minutes, also incorporating the contents of a “mystery basket” of local meats and fish.  Here’s what Justin had to say on the eve of the big event:   

In your opinion, what are the best techniques to capture robust heirloom tomato flavor in cooking?

Justin Wangler:  We use lots of different techniques for lots of different tomatoes and I think there are great flavors to be had from all techniques.  This year we’ve had a lot of green tomatoes because they haven’t gotten ripe yet, so we’ve been making fried green tomatoes all summer.  Also for this event we do some oven-roasted ones where we just toss the tomatoes, kind of like a plum tomato, we slice it in half lengthwise and we toss it with garlic, olive oil, thyme, and rosemary and just put it the oven cut side up and turn the oven on to about 95 degrees and we just leave it overnight and then we come in the next morning and they’re oven-dried tomatoes, which intensifies the sugars.  It’s a good technique if you don’t have the best tomatoes.

But my personal favorite way is just raw tomatoes with really nice salt.  I like Malden sea salt flakes from Essex: it’s very flaky and looks like snowflakes and has a really crunchy texture.  I would imagine any high-end food purveyor would have it.

What are your favorite tomatoes just for eating with some good salt?

Justin Wangler:  I’m a big fan of the Cherokee Purple.  It’s so sweet and the color is so beautiful.  Usually at my house I try to be growing about five different tomato varieties at any given time.  I try to do one or two little cherry tomatoes, red or yellow, just for salads or snacking.  I try and mix it up.  We have so many seeds here, I try and change it up each year.  But I always like Yellow Sun Gold, and then we have one called Orange Currant which is super-sweet.  Usually I try and do a couple of big tomatoes like the Cherokee Purple, which is good for BLTs.  And then every year I try one I’ve never heard of, just for fun.  One of my favorites is the Big White Pink Stripe, a yellow tomato that almost looks like it’s tie-dyed inside with pink colors.  That’s a fun one.  We have 400 seeds on hand, so we try to do new stuff each year.

Which heirloom tomatoes do you prefer for sauces?

Justin Wangler:  Definitely the plum and Italian tomato varieties.  But what we do is as soon as we start slicing tomatoes we put a nice big container in the fridge and we save all the scraps and we just pile them in there.  Then usually about once a week we just toss it with garlic and some herbs and we roast it in the oven and caramelize it and then we puree that in a blender, strain it, put it in a pot and cook it down, and then we can it at the end of each season.  So we don’t waste anything.  All the tops and bottoms of our tomatoes we save, skin and everything.  We just remove the stems with what we call a tomato shark, like a melon baller, because the stems can make it a little bitter.

Justin Wangler's "go-to" heirloom for eating is Cherokee Purple, a delicious sweet fruit over 100 years old that has captured the hearts of many, especially food-writers who have embellished its history with all sorts of lore. Photo: Geneva Anderson

What are the most unusual or creative uses of heirloom tomatoes you’ve encountered—both successes and failures?

Justin Wangler:  Every year for our Chefs Competition I try to make a dessert.  One of my favorites was a cherry tomato clafouti–like a pancake batter with cherry tomatoes that’s baked.  I served it with a little whipped cream.  Actually it’s almost sweeter than with cherries, which are sweet and tart, but tomatoes are just sweet.  Also, one year Carrie Brown from Jimtown Store in Alexander Valley made a sweet tomato shortcake.  She made these little biscuits and put whipped cream on them and just marinated some really sweet tomatoes with a little bit of sugar and mint and it was really good.  And then the John Ash restaurant a couple of years ago did a tomato cheesecake and I think they won that year.  Then one year somebody peeled tomatoes, then blanched them, and then took little petals out and dipped them in chocolate, like tomato roses dipped in chocolate.  So there’s always fun and really exciting stuff.  Every year brings some new items and new things we haven’t seen before so we always look forward to the Tomato Festival to see what people are doing.

A highlight of every K-J Tomato Festival is the pairing of locally grown vine-ripened tomatoes with Kendall-Jackson wines.  What do you have planned for this year?

Justin Wangler:  We try to create dishes to match the flavors in the wine.  This year some of my favorites are Sauvignon Blanc with our fried green tomatoes and then we have a beautiful pasta that we’re pairing with our new Avant Chardonnay.

This year’s dishes prepared by our Culinary team:

Smoked Fennel & Paul Robeson Tomato Soup
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Pinot Noir

Fried Green Tomatoes with Delice de la Vallee
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Sauvignon Blanc

Farfalle with Marinated Yellow Marble Tomatoes & Point Reyes Mozzarella
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Avant Chardonnay

Fresh Baguette with Indian Moon Yellow Tomatoes, Bacon & Beehive Cheese
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay

Herb Roasted Boxcar Willie Tomatoes with Point Reyes Blue Cheese Bruschetta
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Syrah

Smoked Kobe Beef on Fresh Baguette with Bearnaise Aioli & Black From Tula Tomato
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon

What’s the best way to care for heirloom tomatoes once you buy or pick them?

Justin Wangler:  At my house usually I set them with core side down in a cool dark place.  You can put them in a paper bag but you don’t want them touching too close together, you want a little air to circulate so they don’t get moldy. 

We’re often told it’s not good to refrigerate them.  Is that true, and if so, why?

Justin Wangler:  It changes the texture a little bit.  If you’re taking the time to grow or buy really good tomatoes, you might as well just leave them out and eat them as soon as possible.

What are you most looking forward to this weekend?

Justin Wangler:  The Heirloom Tomato Festival is one of those events where you get to see all your friends from around the county and also meet new chefs from all around the country.  I like the interaction with all the guests, and to see how much people enjoy themselves drinking great wine and eating lots of tomatoes.

Any cool tomato tips?

Justin Wangler:  We’ve got a slicing technique that you’re going to love.

Details:  Saturday, September 10, 2011 • 11am – 4pm, Kendall-Jackson Wine Center

5007 Fulton Road, Fulton, California 95439, information: 707.571.7500

TICKETS– This year’s festival is completely sold out, but make sure to check Kendall-Jackson’s webpage in May 2012 for information and tickets for the 16th Annual Festival in September 2012.  Tickets, $65, are pre-sold only (3,000 are available) and will be available online at, or at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center itself or the Healdsburg Tasting Room.  

Directions:  From Highway 101 going NORTH, take River Road exit.  Come to stop light and turn LEFT going over the freeway.  Travel approximately 1 1/4 mile to first stoplight, which is Fulton Road.  Turn RIGHT at Fulton Road.

Kendall-Jackson Wine Center is less than 1/2 mile on the LEFT side of the road.  (If you go over the Hwy 101 overpass on Fulton, you’ve gone too far.)

From Highway 101 going SOUTH, take Fulton Road exit.  The FIRST driveway on the right is the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center.

September 9, 2011 Posted by | Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kendall-Jackson’s Heirloom Tomato Festival–Food, Fun, and TONS of TOMATOES

The festival is all about tomatoes and attendees could sample over 170 varieties freshly picked from Kendall-Jackson's organic sensory garden.

Last Saturday’s Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center turned out to be a hoot for ARThound and the weekend’s hottest gourmet ticket.  The event’s 3,000 tickets were sold out in early September.  The festival, now in its 14th year, was well worth the $65 donation, which went to the School Garden Network of Sonoma County, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable garden and nutrition-based learning programs for local students.   Considering there was ample opportunity to gorge yourself on as much food as you could eat in 5.5 hours, 5 complementary samplings of Kendall-Jackson wines, and loads of great entertainment, there was a lot of value in that ticket too.  True, this festival is all about heirloom tomatoes but it’s also a very well-run gourmet event, and by that I mean fairly high-end gourmet.  Fifty-five of the area’s top restaurants sampled incredible delicacies using heirloom tomatoes that came right from Kendall-Jackson’s own gardens, with attendees voting on whose dish was most delectable.   The event also included a number of timed cook-offs which pitted top chefs against each other, winners determined by audience applause.   

Tasting Tent: 170 varieties

Central to the annual event is a large tent with long tables holding dozens of plates of sliced heirloom

ARThound loved the sweet carrot-colored and orange-sized "Glory of Moldova" which makes an excellent juice.

tomatoes, organized by color/type which attendees are encouraged to taste with toothpicks and then rank.  This year, there were over 170 varieties that had been freshly picked from Kendall-Jackson’s organic culinary gardens, which were also available to tour.  I had come to try “Zogola,” a huge, deep-red beautifully fluted on the shoulders beefsteak.  Its taste was reportedly full-bodied, tangy, rich and sweet.  And like the fascinating and legendary first King of Albania, who I imagine is this tomato’s namesake, Zogola is noble and reliable.  While listed on the JK tasting sheet, there was no Zogola to be found, so I made my way down the tables and landed upon the luscious “Glory of Moldova,” which seduced me immediately with its rich carrot-orange color and sweet mild taste and that name, harkening to the Republic of Moldova’s independent status.  I had visited this remote rural area when it was still part of Romania.  A prolific late-season heirloom that yields 2 to 3 inch fruits, I was told that Glory of Moldova makes fantastic juice. 

Mia Brown of Lodi won 6 of 18 available awards, including the prestigious "Golden Trowel" in the annual tomato growing competition.

To be honest, I have to reveal my personal biases.  As a journalist who spent years in the former Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans, I am easily moved by any Siberian, Ukrainian, Black Sea or pre and post-glasnost names.  And with good reason, many of the exotic purple, dusky brown, bluish brown and mahogany skinned tomatoes that Northern Californians are currently so enamored with, hail from this part of the world.

Originally, black-purple tomatoes were native to the Southern Ukraine during the early 19th century and were found on a small Crimean peninsula.  They spread throughout the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and ultimately made their way here, where we marvel at their colors and bold complex taste. In tomato tastings all over, blacks are placing as high as reds or pinks.   Actually, “black” became the new red among tomatoes a few years ago in the haute food world and now it seems like almost everyone has tried them.  They are gorgeous sliced and served plain on a plate, sprucing up a salad or sandwich and they are robust enough for sauces.   This year’s festival offered—Black, Black from Tula, Black Krim, Black Plum, Paul Robeson, Purple Prince, Cherokee Purple. 

Mia Brown's "San Marzano Redorita," a Sonoma County favorite for sauces, won the Paste competition.

An heirloom that I grow in my own garden, the Japanese Black Trifele, produces pear-shaped globes with a rich flavor that can’t be beat. 

Growing Contest–Looks, Flavor, Weight 

Growers from far and wide entered the home-grown tomato-growing competition where judging was based on looks, flavor, and weight.  The “Golden Trowel Award” for best of show went to Mia Brown of Lodi for her “Green Doctor” tomatoes which won the Cherry and Currant Division.  Brown seems to have had the right tomato karma this year—she got 6 of 18 awards given, more than anyone else.  The Largest/Heaviest tomato was a 2lb 4.5 oz “Pineapple Stripe” tomato grown by Brad Agerter of Healdsburg.  Other categories included “White and Green,” “Yellow and Orange,” “Pink and Red,” “Purple, Brown and Black” and “Paste.”



Sonoma Cheesemaker Sheana Davis of Epicurean Connection paired a dallop of her creamy award-winning Delice de la Vallee cheese with Kendall-Jackson heirloom tomoatoes and dresed it homemade balsamic vinegar and Kendall-Jackson Estate olive oil.

Gourmet Samples–GALORE!


The chance to try amazing tomato gourmet delicacies created right before your eyes by some of the area’s top chefs is what makes this festival so popular.  All of them use freshly picked heirloom tomatoes supplied by Kendall-Jackson and, in many cases, KJ olive oil and wine too.   Here are a few that caught my fancy—

Carrie Brown of Healdsburg's Jimtown Store was serving a romesco, a Spanish-inspired gourmet spread.

I started off with dessert, no breakfast.  Chef Rene Jakushak of Nectar Restaurant (Hilton Sonoma Wine Country) did tomato waffles (pureed Brandywine tomatoes are a staple in the pink batter), with heirloom tomato whipped butter, a sweet tomato syrup, topped with ground pistachios.  The amazing thing about this combo was its sweet taste, hinting at its prime ingredient. 

Cheesemaker Sheena Davis of Epicurean Connection, Sonoma, was sampling scoops of her award-winning Delice de la Vallee cheese, a sweet and creamy blend of fresh triple cream cow and fresh goat milk, over heirlooms with fresh homemade balsamic and Kendall-Jackson Estate extra virgin olive oils.  By 1:30 pm she and her beaming assistant Eva (manning the scoop) had served about 4,500 samples.  “We’re gonna keep going,” she said.  “People can’t get enough of this.”    Like many of the vendors I met, Davis’ acclaim in the highly competitive cheese world is hard-won and something she is very proud of.   She had a copy of cheese aficionado and author Juliet Harbut’s The World Cheese Book proudly displayed at her booth and told me that she had authored the American cheese section, quite an honor.  As it turns out, Davis’ section of this gorgeous cheese book is packed with wisdom about cheese making and pairings.

Just down the way, Carrie Brown, proprietress of Healdsburg’s charming Jimtown Store, was sampling more of Davis’ cheese with her own “Spicy Pepper Jam” and another delicacy–Spanish “romesco” sauce of roasted red pepper, toasted almonds, smoked paprika, garlic, and olive oil, topped with cucumber-fennel slaw on a hand-cut corn tortilla chip.  Brown proudly informed me that her spicy pepper jam is soon going to be sold in tubs in the refrigerated cheese sections of stores like Whole Foods so that it can be paired with the fresh cheeses it so wonderfully complements.  Coups like this are to be celebrated. In my enthusiasm, I forgot to inquire about the tomato component of her offerings….aheemmm.

Part of the fun is getting to vote by casting your chip into the bowl of your favorite vendor.  This year’s people choice Food Vendor Award went to Tolay, Sonoma County Cuisine (at the Sonoma Sheraton Petaluma) and executive chef Danny Mai for their “Sope de Tinga,” chicken sopes with tomato sauce.  Mai is well-known for appropriating ideas from several different regions and then recreating them in his own assimilated signature dishes.  He told me that his inspiration for cooking comes from chef Rick Bayless who has changed the image of Mexican food in America and yet remains a very humble and authentic person.   Mai’s sopes were essentially very thick homemade tostadas piled high with a perfect mix of simple ingredients—shredded chicken, cubed

The "People's Choice Award" went to Sonoma County Cusine's "Sope de Tinga," Chicken sopes with tomato sauce.

heirlooms and chiplote in a salsa called tingua, cilantro, fresh cream, sour cream and feta cheese.  At 4-inches in diameter (among the most generous servings offered), these chunky heavenly Cal-Mex treats, with their rainbow of bright colors, had everyone buzzing.   I had two.  Hats off to Tolay! 

Adam Mali, executive chef, Nick’s Cove in Point Reyes, offered up thousands of oysters simply topped with mild heirloom tomato varieties.  Sean Thomas, aka The Zinful Chef, offered another winning seafood-tomato combo– yellow heirloom tomato lobster bisque that looked mild but actually delivered a robust red tomato taste.  Thomas was one of these chefs who was really chatting it up with people, and was as interested in their opinions as he was in telling them about his innovative catering.  

I topped off my afternoon of tasting with a long wait in line for Anthony Bonviso’s Watermelon Tomato Mint gelato at Fiorello’s Italian Ice Cream stand.  Fiorello’s is a San Rafael institution and Anthony told me he is currently refining his popular basic wine sorbet into several spin-offs. 

Tomato Talks

Tomato guru Amy Goldman, from New York gave a fascinating, informative and humorous lecture on

Amy Goodman, author and chairman of the Seed Saver's Exchange, encouraged people to grab and save the seeds of the tomatoes that most impressed them.

 heirlooms to a standing room only audience.  As chairman of the Seed Savers Exchange (the largest organization of rare seed devotes in the world) she also had a lot to say about the  Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, the ultimate safety deposit box for biodiversity and global food supply preservation, storing duplicate collections of seeds on behalf of gene banks from around the world.  (ARThound will be devoting a special article to Goldman and her work later.)

 While the heirloom varieties that Seed Savers Exchange has contributed—for example, “Tomato German Pink”– make-up only a small portion of the total “deposits” at Svalbard, she mentioned that these are from seeds conserved

Laura Taylor of Woodland Hills produced a unique and gorgeous Tomato calendar that tracks the tomato-growing season with photos, tasks, recipes.

by its members who are largely home gardeners.  Goldman encouraged people to snatch and save the seeds of those heirloom tomatoes that catch their fancy.  For those interested in germinating and starting their own heirlooms, her book The Heirloom Tomato, has everything a novice needs to know on the topic. 

After Goldman’s lecture, I ran into gardener Laura Taylor of Woodland Hills, who gave me a copy of her tomato calendar, a gorgeous month-by-month guide to growing tomatoes that begins in March and runs through February.   Taylor represents the pioneering attitude that, along with the climate, has established Northern California as a Mecca for gardeners.  While yet to start her own heirloom tomatoes from seeds, she has an unbridled passion for tasty tomatoes and a knack for gardening that she has turned into a business.  She has branded herself  “Laura Taylor at Home in the Garden,” teaches  tomato growing and cooking classes, blogs about tomatoes, and has numerous media appearances.  She came to this year’s KJ festival with a dream and mission—to be a featured tomato author/lecturer in the future.


TICKETS– The festival is a perennial sell-out.  Tickets, $65, are pre-sold only (3,000 are available) and are available online at, or the Kendall Wine Center itself or the Healdsburg Tasting Room.   Inquire about May, 2011.

September 18, 2010 Posted by | Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment