Weekend Wine: A Santa Barbara Yeast Does Double Duty
Breadmaker Melissa Sorongon and her daughter Juliet

Breadmakers and winemakers both use Saccharomyces cerevisiae to convert their raw materials into finished products, though the two processes employ different strains of the yeast species. Peter Pastan ignored the distinction on a 2005 harvest trip to Piedrassasi Winery in Lompoc, Calif. Pastan, the owner of Obelisk and Two Amys Pizza in Washington and a partner at Piedrassasi, took some yeast from one of the fermentation tanks and used it to make bread.

The result, says Piedrassasi winemaker Sashi Moorman, "was miraculous. It had the benefit of the additional flavor from the grapes, it had a remarkable purple color, because of the sugar, the crust was very caramelized, and the seeds were toasted in the process of baking. They provided a wonderful crunch and nutty flavor to the bread." The experiment inspired Moorman, who worked as a cook at Oceana and Etats-Unis in New York and with Pastan at Obelisk before switching coasts and careers, to launch a bakery in 2012 that now sells its wares on site and at the Santa Barbara Farmers' Market. The project has made for an education in growing grain and making bread that's given Moorman deeper insight into winemaking.

To sell at the farmers' market, Piedrassasi has to make bread from its own grain. Moorman and his wife Melissa Sorongon grow heirloom varieties of wheat in the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, among them Sonora, which in the 19th century was one of the most popular varieties in California's Central Valley, as well as red wheat, durum wheat, and some rye.

Grain varies significantly depending on where it's grown. "Most grain production in the U.S. happens at higher latitudes and in more fertile soil, which leads to higher productivity, but also more protein," than Piedrasassi's wheat has, Moorman says. Commercial flours used for breadmaking are also high in gluten. In part because Santa Barbara gets less rainfall than the typical grain-producing region, the wheat grown there is lower in protein and gluten, which means "more challenging" breadmaking, Moorman says. It also yields a lighter bread with softer crumbs and smaller air pockets.

Melissa Sorongon mills fresh flour for every bake and doesn't fully sift it, which leaves more flavor-producing bran. Piedrasassi uses a starter yeast maintained since the bakery was launched. The wild yeasts for the starter were taken from grapes at the winery. While wineries tend to be obsessive about cleanliness because bacteria can destroy wine, in the bakery, Moorman says, "The sourness that we love in sourdough breads comes from bacteria. The breadmaking process is both yeast and bacteria-driven, whereas in the winery, we try to be very specific about bacteria, which we need only for malolactic fermentation." Just as in wine, the bacteria in dough produce lactic acid, which helps give sourdough its flavor. Sorongon bakes the bread in an oven fired with wood from the walnut orchards in the area. The result, Moorman says, is a "very traditional" bread with "a beautiful deep crust."

Artisanal breadmaking is even more challenging commercially than small-scale winemaking. "People will pay for wine, but not for bread," Moorman says. "The idea of spending $8 or $10 for a loaf of bread is not widespread." Nevertheless, he adds, "We're part of a movement to get people to appreciate bread a little more than they have in the past. The more people purchase wine and bread from a local environment, the more enriched their lives will be."

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