New ‘Spoiled to Perfection’ video series celebrates fermentation.

Any dietician will tell you not to binge, let alone binge on briny, fermented foods—no matter how delicious. You can, however, sublimate your desire to devour a jar of pickles or a fistful of sauerkraut by binging on Spoiled to Perfection, a new locally produced video series.

Underwritten by Bubbies, the San Francisco-based pickled products brand and subtitled “The Art of Pickling, Fermentation, and Other Food Alchemy,” the series is produced by Sonoma County advertising veteran Steven Rustad, who cut his teeth in media marketing just after the Mad Men era, when “pickled” had a different workplace connotation. Despite these bona fides, Spoiled to Perfection isn’t merely a branded infotainment series but rather an earnest exploration of the fermentation phenom’s foothold in Sonoma County.

“Sonoma County is not just where I live, but it turns out to be what I call ‘Ground Zero’ for this movement,” says Rustad, who has anointed Sonoma County “the fermentation capitol of the world” on his blog. “We’ve had no trouble in finding experts and advocates and people who are passionate about pretty much all aspects of pickling and fermentation,” he adds.

Once it’s fermented and it’s aged, you’ve got a way of turning your commodity into a kind of currency. Steven Rustad

Among them is local fermentation proponent and instructor Jennifer Harris, who founded Santa Rosa’s Farm to Fermentation Festival at which the web series officially debuted this August. The second episode features Ellen Cavalli of Tilted Shed Ciderworks, whose interview—nearly 15 minutes that ably recount her fermentation origin myth (it was her means of getting “back to the land without dropping out of society”) —is both informative and oddly captivating.

The series is hosted by the affable Garrett Martin, an associate winemaker with Joel Gott Wines who also has a sideline as a church musician. “He’s actually a very talented musician, a great singer, and just a good natural speaker. He’s got a lot of energy,” says Rustad of the fresh-faced Petaluman.

More to the point, Martin is a useful foil for his subjects. Though he’s familiar with fermentation as a winemaker, he seems genuinely keen to learn about its other applications. This underscores one of Rustad’s missions: To promote what those in the fermentation community do rather than what they’re selling.

“Jennifer Harris doesn’t really have a product. She calls herself ‘a bacterial advocate’ or something like that,” Rustad laughs. For that matter, Cavalli bills herself as a “cider evangelist.” Each interviewee makes a convincing case for fermentation whilst being beautifully shot with a preponderance of shallow depth of field photography. The aesthetic is Rustad’s choice—everything is, in fact. As he is quick to point out, he and his collaborators have total editorial control over the series.

“Bubbies underwrites this,” Rustad says, “but this is not a commercial for Bubbies. Other than the tag at the end of the show, we don’t really promote Bubbies. What we and Bubbies really want to do is raise awareness for the value of pickling, raw foods, and fermentation.”

Rustad’s relationship with Bubbies began when its current owner—also a former ad man—John Gray, acquired the company in the ‘80s. Since then, Rustad had been tasked with the company’s marketing and branding efforts—from product labels to the “Bubbiemobile,” a cuke-hued ‘53 Chevy delivery wagon with the license plate “GR8PKLS.” 

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Michael B. Woolsey Photography

Earlier this year, Gray charged Rustad with launching the pickling-themed web series. He picked the right man. Rustad is a genuine fermentation enthusiast and can rhapsodize at length about its history and health benefits, live cultures, and bacillus.

“Commercial food makers arrive at flavor through the addition of sugar and salt and fats, but through other kinds of food processing and fermentation, you can add flavor to food in a way that doesn’t adulterate it,” Rustad says authoritatively. “You take cucumbers, which are a pretty prosaic food, you pickle them, and now you have a delicacy.”

Spoiled to Perfection is produced in close collaboration with Geyserville’s Shoot Blue Productions, a company co-founded by Leslie Simmons, who also serves as the show’s associate producer and assistant director. The production cycle for a typical episode begins with Rustad and Simmons developing a concept (fermented meats are on the horizon) before seeking out on-camera interviewees whom they can shoot on location.

Such was the case with Cavalli and her Tilted Shed Ciderworks. Rustad was predictably enthused about cider-making.

“It’s really again about this love of creating an authentic product and using varieties of apples of which people are unaware,” he says. “I mean, these guys are using apples that came to the United States 200 years ago. They’re using varieties that you’d never ever run into in the store or in typical food manufacturing, but varieties that came to the U.S. from Europe specifically for cider.

“Like Ellen says in the videos, there’s only so much apple stuff you can make, but you make cider and again, you’ll be able to preserve your inventory for quite a while,” Rustad says. “Once it’s fermented and it’s aged, you’ve got a way of turning your commodity into a kind of currency.”

Rustad also sees a kind of currency in the fermentation movement, though one more akin to social currency, which he attributes to a shift in generational values.

“Sonoma County considers itself very progressive and a lot of aspects of the progressive movement are really about getting back to older truths,” he says. “I think that millennial foodies have a different focus in their food than, say, the foodies of older generations. I think they’re very concerned with the environment. They have a passion for sustainability, the idea of being able to make the land fruitful without harming it, and getting ecological as well as economic and cultural benefits out of it.”

Now that’s a notion worth preserving.

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