This understated snack is the culinary pairing of choice among California vineyards

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There is an element that is present in virtually every tasting room in Napa and Sonoma. At first, it blends into its surroundings so naturally and quietly that you may not even notice its existence. But once you know how to look for it, you’ll see it everywhere – and you’ll miss it on the rare occasions when it’s missing.

I’m talking, of course, about breadsticks.

Not just any breadstick: Panevino No. 6 Grissini, the breadstick of choice among premium California wineries. This 17-year-old Saint Helena company has pretty much cornered the market for wine tasting snacks. Among wineries large and small, formal and casual, expensive and affordable, there seems to be consensus that the thin, crisp, salty canes of Panevino are the perfect bite between sips of potent Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. .

From their commercial kitchen in Saint Helena, husband and wife David Katz and Mimi Martin make 20,000 breadsticks a day, which they sell to more than 175 local wineries. Katz likes to joke that they are “locally world famous”.

Breadsticks may seem innocuous, but there’s something subversively perfect about Panevino. They’re just the right degree of crispy and crumbly, with enough bite to feel fresh and satisfying without feeling too stiff. Thanks to the use of extra virgin olive oil, they are stealthily oily, a great counterpoint to the tannin and acid. Best of all, they’re salty. Wine needs salt.

It’s easy to take them for granted now, since they’re everywhere, but when Panevino was first launched, its salty, greasy approach to breadsticks was a major departure from the Wine Country norm. According to conventional wisdom, only very bland foods should be nibbled on with serious wine tastings. Unsalted water crackers – only slightly more delicious than communion wafers – were ubiquitous.

Panevino’s breadsticks, on the other hand, had taste and texture. “We got a first pushback from winemakers saying they were too reactive to food,” Katz said. He found the logic confusing. “What are you going to put in the mouth of someone who doesn’t react? Your palate needs a little fat and salt to enhance the flavor.”

Getting into the breadstick business was kind of an accident for Katz and Martin. They started in Napa Valley as winery caterers, preparing multi-course dinners paired with wines. They made breadsticks as an afterthought, something they put in the middle of the table for diners to snack on between courses. Then the wineries started asking if they could buy just the breadsticks.

“We started selling them for next to nothing,” Katz said. Eventually, they found a distributor, who helped them get the breadsticks to Whole Foods stores across the West Coast, among other places. A the four-ounce pack is $10.

A lot has changed for Katz and Martin since then. They started making charcuterie several years ago, and their charcuterie now accounts for between a quarter and a third of their business. They added new breadstick flavors, building on the original sea salt recipe: olive, cheddar, Calabrian pepper. When COVID-19 hit, they started packaging the breadsticks in sealed individual pouches.

But humans still make the breadsticks by hand on St. Helena, Katz said. The artisanal process means the product has some inconsistencies – each batch will have a slightly different amount of salt sprinkled on its semolina-rich dough, for example – but for customers of Panevino, an industry that values ​​a sense of craftsmanship and a sense of place, that’s part of the charm. “The St. Helena address is important for wineries,” Katz said.

For so many years, I ate Panevino breadsticks absently between sips of wine in tasting rooms. They were simply part of the backdrop, as integrated and unremarkable in the decor as the vines outside the tasting room window. But just as visiting a winery and learning about its history increases the pleasure of drinking its wines, I have found that an awareness of these breadsticks has, in a way, made them even better.

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