Correction to This Article
This article misspelled the name of the town where French Laundry is located. It is in Yountville, Calif.

You Don't Know Beans...

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

NAPA, Calif. -- Grapevines carpet the landscape. There seems to be no one without at least a few rows of cabernet or syrah. But in Steve Sando's back yard, all that is growing are beans: Black Zebras, Red Limas and Parraleños, a chocolate-colored bean that Sando, the founder of bean company Rancho Gordo, discovered on a trip to Puebla, Mexico. In all, Sando has 15 heirloom varieties on trial. If he's lucky, one will grow well enough and taste good enough to be sold commercially.

Sando admits he can be a little obsessive. His first love was jazz; one room of his ranch-style home is lined, floor to ceiling, with thousands of CDs. Next it was online marketing. Now his passion is heirloom beans with romantic names such as Good Mother Stallard, Mayacoba and Yellow Indian Woman. Sando began selling heirlooms in 2001, and it wasn't long before they became favorites at such top restaurants as CityZen in Washington and the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. This month saw the publication of his "Heirloom Beans" (Chronicle Books), a cookbook that he hopes will get beans the respect they deserve.

Beans, even heirloom varieties, are no easy sell. In America, according to food historian Ken Albala, beans have long been stigmatized as a cheap protein for people too poor to afford meat. It doesn't help that canned ones tend to be mushy, while dried varieties take hours to cook, something that doesn't jibe with the American apotheosis of the 30-minute meal. "If I'm not there to sell them, they tend not to sell that well," Sando says. "People don't really want to buy beans. But they do like the stories, and that's how we sell Rancho Gordo beans."

Rancho Gordo is a fourth career for Sando, 48. And though it wasn't intentional, each of his previous jobs helped prepare him for his 21st-century bean crusade. Out of college, he worked as a salesman for clothing company Esprit, which taught him how to market a product. Next, he talked his way into a job as the host of a radio show called "Mr. Lucky" in Milan, where he played American jazz and, in mangled Italian, explained how to make classic cocktails. (Part of the schtick was holding a cocktail shaker up to the microphone and playing a tape of cocktail chatter so it sounded like a real party.)

Back in the States, his Mr. Lucky persona led Sando to start writing a music catalogue of his favorite CDs. Soon, he was publishing the zine online, which led to seven years as a Web designer, which taught him about online sales, which led to severe burnout, which led to a new interest in food and agriculture.

Sando's first idea was to grow heirloom tomatoes. And though he'd "never even grown a houseplant," he planted 30 varieties in his back yard. Most tomatoes can't be harvested until late summer, however. So when a fellow farmer came to him for help with marketing heirloom beans, he agreed. "I thought I'd do it till the tomatoes ripened," Sando remembers. "And then I realized: This makes so much more sense."

Beans were an appealing business for several reasons. They are relatively inexpensive to grow: When the beans are ripe, the water supply is cut off and they are left to dry on the plant, then collected with a combine. High-quality beans were an untapped niche; the dried beans on supermarket shelves can be up to seven years old, Sando says. Rancho Gordo sells all its beans within one year of harvest.

Equally important to Sando was that beans are a North American food with a distinct culinary heritage, a way to rediscover American traditions rather than simply copy European cuisines. Indeed, Sando never tires of pointing out that many beans that Americans think of as European have roots in North America. The flageolet bean, a must with leg of lamb in France, originally hails from Mexico. The borlotti, or cranberry bean, a foundation of many northern Italian dishes, is from Colombia.

Sando quickly realized that he didn't have a knack for agriculture. "The year I grew tomatoes, any fool could have grown them," he says. But he did have marketing skills. He soon contracted with several growers in Northern California to produce the beans and concentrated on making over their image from a Depression-era staple to a chef-worthy ingredient.

For inspiration, Sando turned to one of his obsessions, old Mexican movie posters, from which he took strong lettering and bright colors. The Rancho Gordo mascot, a sexy woman licking her lips, is meant to tease and be a little mysterious. (The name Rancho Gordo, which translates to "Fat Ranch," actually means nothing at all. It was a Web address Sando had registered when he once considered writing a book about how to lose weight eating Mexican food.)

Heirloom beans' biggest selling point is their flavor. "I work a lot with U.C. Davis," a leading agricultural science university in Northern California, Sando says. "They have this big bean day where they talk about uniformity, disease resistance, size and yield. And you ask about what they taste like -- how it affected the flavor -- and they say they haven't cooked them. After four years of a bean trial, they've never cooked one pot.

"That's what's wrong with American food, in a way. They see it as a science game. They don't see it as food."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company