Sniff the Cap
The dog wanders through the Illuminare tasting room in Camino, Calif.
Like his owner who’s pouring our wine, the pooch is chill. I try to attract the dog’s attention, to give him a scratch. He ignores me. Uber-chill. Do people still say uber? Do they use the umlaut to spell it? Über?
When I drink, I overthink.
I sample the 2011 Mourvedre and fall in love.
“Rich fungal earth!” I write in my notes. “Earth! Earth!”
And on the venue: “The dog doesn’t love me.”
The mourvedre is $25, and my designated driver/love-of-life Dave buys a bottle.
It’s 2:21 p.m., and I’m on a mission. I could taste at six wineries in one day—if I started early enough. Paced myself.
Illuminare is No. 4.
I need food. I have to pee. But the mourvedre, that dark smooth stranger with intense brambles—it’s worth trying many wines to get to this one.
Camino is less than an hour’s drive from South Lake Tahoe, halfway between Sacramento and Tahoe on Highway 50. During harvest, it transforms into a magical wonderland called Apple Hill, with fritters, pie, caramel-covered orbs and bumper-to-bumper traffic.
This time of year, the Christmas-tree farms kick into gear. If you’re headed to Tahoe for the holidays and need some pine, Camino’s got you covered.
My favorite reason to visit this El Dorado County town any time of year: more than a dozen or so smallish wineries, all with tasting rooms featuring complimentary pours and friendly, knowledgeable staff.
Dave and I plan a day trip. I pick six wineries.
I will be deliberate. Go slow. Drink water.
I can do this.
First stop: Lava Cap Winery—Lava Cap’s tasting room opens at 10 a.m., perfect for breakfast wine. I’ve kick-started my palate with coffee and a pastry in South Lake Tahoe. I’m ready to swirl and sip.
The terrain explains the name: ancient volcanoes. Layered lava leftovers. Miner ’49ers discovered gold under this lava cap—which happens to be ideal for growing grapes and making intense wines.
The wine’s affordable at Lava Cap, with the famed Rocky Draw Estate Zinfandel going for $22, $18 for members. Floral notes, fruit and spices, nicely balanced. One of my all-time favorite zins in this price range.
I decline white wines and head to the reds. First up, the Sangiovese 2012 Matagrano Vineyard. The pitch: Perfect with your turkey dinner. The sangio is stuffed with fruit, spices and “pleasant toasted almond” on the finish.
I jam through complimentary and reserve tastings. Notables include the newly released 2013 Grenache and the Tectonic 2011, a mourvedre and syrah blend. Mmm. Mourvedre. I buy it.
So far, so good.
Take two: Boeger Winery—Designated Dave cruises country roads, dodging tractors and tourists. California’s best barbera emerged from Boeger Winery, not to be confused with Bogle (Gnarly Head wines) or Boegle, Jimmy (my editor). Cal State Fair folks this year awarded 98 points to Boeger’s 2011 Barbera. I find the barbera’s dark fruit and light caramel aura quite agreeable.
On to the reserve tasting—$10, and keep the glass—where I’m undone by the 2010 Vineyard Select Barbera. A wine so deliciously smooth that, if entered in the competition, it would have kicked the 2011 Barbera’s behind. The reserve’s $30; the double-gold winner is $16—and it comes in spectacular bottles with, yup, a black-bear label. Dave buys the latter.
I need cheese. A tapas trio waits in the car. Give me manchego!
Three’s company: Madroña Vineyards—By 1 p.m., my palate is raring to go, and I’m talking to tasting-room employee Jordan Miller about Madroña Vineyards’ take on Bordeaux blends. He describes the style as halfway between a lighter, spicier French rendition, and a thick-bodied Argentinian. Which takes my mind to places not wine-related.
Speaking of South American soccer players: Miller is talking about getting punched in the face with tannins. I’ve lost the context, so I wax forth on the wines of Northern Italy, having spotted a 2011 Nebbiolo (Hillside vineyard) on the menu. It’s not open, but Miller will open it—because I can pronounce neb-EE-oh-loh. So so delicious. Many gorgeous wines here. Dave joins the club.
Four, and not on the floor: Illuminare Winery—I snarf pistachios in the car. Nuts balance booze. We’re at the wine strip mall in Camino, shared by a handful of small wineries. We head straight to Illuminare, where winemaker Aaron Hill pours goodness in my glass. It’s mostly locals here, inquiring of Hill: “How’s the wife? How are the kids? How’s the dog?”
The dog is not as friendly as Hill’s 2011 Mourvedre. I’m a sucker for this varietal, done right. Hill has done it right.
I guzzle a half-liter of water and munch on crackers, channeling my inner Stewie Griffin. Whhheeeat thins.
Five, sakes alive: Bumgarner Winery—We’ve saved the best for second-to-last. Owner/winemaker Brian Bumgarner’s worked for several other wineries in and out of the area, including Boeger. He opened his own winery in 2005. Genius wines. Tasting room employee Tami Fries pours and talks to me about apple pie and tamales. Her secret: Many dried peppers and lard.
I note the splendid minerality of a 2011 Tempranillo El Dorado ($27) and happily roll my eyes back at the complexity of cabernet sauvignon ($35)
We buy the cab, and I also pick up two bottles of hard cider in cool-looking bottles.
Is it lunch time?
Sixth and sense: Crystal Basin Cellars—We walk past Crystal Basin Cellars, an old fave, to get to the winery’s café. We can come back and enjoy tasting No. 6—more mourvedre!—after grubbing.
Finally, it’s feeding time. Outdoor seating, warm afternoon sun. A friendly winery dog works the crowd. Pulled pork sliders. Artichoke ravioli. Rich. Recommended wine pairing: Bada Boom, a red blend.
And the wine tastes, uh, mauve. As in: I can no longer differentiate flavors, nor can I judge the nose or finish. Drinking more wine, at this point, would be pointless.
“Done for the day,” I write in my notes.
“The dog loves me.”
Mission almost accomplished.
Below: Crushed grapes in a vat outside of Crystal Basin Winery, Camino, Calif.