Steve Sando, the owner of Napa Valley’s Rancho Gordo, is a persuasive heirloom-bean salesman. He’s making beans exciting, and it’s a sight to behold. At his outdoor stall at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, he might hand a shopper a bag of tan-and-violet-striped Eye of the Goat beans, explaining how they taste so much like steak that they recently resolved the marital difficulties a customer was having with her vegetarian husband. Or he might pull out his Good Mother Stallards, covered in white and purple swirls, and describe how they create such a delicious “pot liquor,” or broth, when slow-simmered in water that it’s like free soup.
Through Rancho Gordo, Sando sells nearly 30 varieties of heirloom beans from Mexico, Peru, Colombia and the American Southwest—rarer, older, intensely flavorful breeds rejected by industrial agriculture because yields can be small and unpredictable. Sando finds many of these beans on trips through remote parts of Central and South America. (Increasingly, customers also mail him their own bean finds.) He judges by looks as well as flavor, planting his most beautiful discoveries on two acres of land by his house in Napa. If he likes how they taste, he sends the beans to farmers, who grow them on 150 acres in the Napa and Central valleys. Sando spreads the word through an online store (ranchogordo.com), at the Ferry Building and in his brand-new cookbook, Heirloom Beans.
By his own count, bean entrepreneur is Sando’s seventh career. He’s been a clothing salesman and an aspiring diet guru (he first conceived of Rancho Gordo, or “fat ranch” in Spanish, to promote Mexican food for weight loss). For one year in the late 1980s, he worked as a jazz DJ for a radio station in Milan, where he mixed classic American cocktails on the air, holding the shaker up to the microphone. As that experience suggests, he’s always loved American food and drink. In the early ’90s, back in the States and working as a consultant and graphic designer, he began growing native American varieties of heirloom tomatoes at his home in Napa. Then, one day in 1999, he was flipping through a seed catalog and spotted a picture of some Rio Zape beans. Burnished-sienna with black streaks, the pinto-like beans were used by the Hopi Indians of the Southwest as a string bean. Sando bought some, planted a few and cooked the rest. “They had these hints of chocolate and coffee, these flavors I’d never tasted in a bean before,” he recalls. “I thought, Well, here’s something I know, only it tastes so much better. I just wanted to try more.”