Such is life-take two steps forward, one step back. When one door closes, another one opens.

Larry Blagg, contributing columnist

Such is life-take two steps forward, one step back. When one door closes, another one opens. This month’s column is a mixture of glowing memories from a tour of California and the harsh realities of Mother Nature, as earthquakes and tsunamis create havoc on bakeries-and lives-overseas.

Glowing memories
Twenty guests and 12 of the 13 winners from the third annual America’s Best Raisin Bread Contest, along with members from the California raisin industry, completed a winners’ tour, March 1-6, where they traveled around Central and Northern California. After experiencing spectacular views of Yosemite’s Bridal Veil and Yosemite Falls, El Capitan and glimpses of Half Dome among the clouds, they settled in to a lunch at Yosemite Village, followed by a celebratory dinner with board members of the California raisin industry.

The next day encompassed a tour of two raisin packing plants and a look at the vineyards just getting ready to burst into life for the new season. Next, a trip to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone, St. Helena, Calif., proved to be quite enlightening-and filling-as they learned of the versatility of raisins in a whole range of dishes prepared especially for them by the CIA’s talented chefs. An herb garden tour, a lecture by professional baking and pastry chef instructor Robert Jorin on bakery trends of the future, a wine tasting at Beringer and another wonderful meal, this time at the Wine Spectator Restaurant, made the Napa leg of the tour truly memorable. The last day featured a tour of Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, Calif., part of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, which accrues $15,000 in retail sales and more than 1,000 register rings per day in only a 300-ft. retail space.

Guests then received a brief lecture by Craig Ponsford in San Rafael, Calif., at his new commercial enterprise, Ponsford’s Place (check out the February 2011 issue ofSnack Food & Wholesale Bakeryto read more about Craig Ponsford). Ponsford spoke of establishing a bakery that deals only in whole grain and gluten-free baked goods and expressed his eagerness to try new grains and new techniques in order to bring his products closer to nature.

All guests enjoyed the Golden Gate views and another bakery tour at sourdough bakery Boudin’s on Fisherman’s Wharf before tucking into a seafood dinner at Scoma’s. All guests are now safely back home, selling their award-winning products in their bakeries, and encouraging others to enter the fourth annual America’s Best Raisin Bread Contest, which is set to take place Oct. 13-15 at AIB International’s headquarters in Manhattan, Kan.

Harsh realities
The Sendai earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Northern Japan, followed by issues with Japan’s nuclear power plants, remind us that Mother Nature can be quite cruel at times. Word from Japan is that even the largest commercial bakeries, which provided major assistance during the 1995 Kobe earthquake, are challenged by a lack of raw materials and a system of rolling blackouts to produce enough bread to feed those most in need. The baking industry has a big heart in all parts of the world, and any assistance that Americans can provide to the Japanese will be greatly appreciated. It took more than 10 years to rebuild the city of Kobe following their earthquake, and it is expected that it will take even longer to make the infrastructure and other repairs in the Sendai area.

I encourage all Americans to make donations to the American Red Cross, specifically designated to help the victims in Japan.

Editor’s Note: Larry Blagg is senior vice president of marketing for Fresno, Calif.-based California Raisin Marketing Board, which sponsors America’s Best Raisin Bread Contest. Go to to learn more about California raisins and to enter the fourth annual America’s Best Raisin Bread Contest.