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14 Oct 2015

Sniff the Cap: The Don and the Rim Fire Red

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Lisette Sweetland is pouring the 2013 Torro 3 Tempranillo at Inner Sanctum Cellars. "It’s a barbecue in a bottle," she says. Lisette Sweetland is pouring the 2013 Torro 3 Tempranillo at Inner Sanctum Cellars. "It’s a barbecue in a bottle," she says. Deidre Pike

The Rim of the World was in flames in the late summer and fall of 2013. Dawn came morning after morning with smoldering red-orange skylines.

By the time the conflagration was contained, the Yosemite Rim Fire had burned 400 square miles, making it the third-largest wildfire in California’s history. Wide swaths of charred hills and valleys were left in its wake.

Spared from flames were tempranillo grapes in the Zuni Vineyard, on the canyon’s far edges. Gas and carbon vapors, however, penetrated the grapes’ thin skins for more than 40 days.

Now those grapes are wine.

“You can taste that smoke,” says Lisette Sweetland. She’s pouring the 2013 Tempranillo at Inner Sanctum Cellars. We’re visiting the winery’s tasting room in Jamestown, a few miles west of Yosemite. “It affected the wine in interesting ways.”

You can’t predict the impact of a disaster, manmade or natural. Not for months or years. Maybe not ever.

Sweetland tips the wine into my glass. Folks have nicknamed this the Rim Fire Red, she says.

Her description of smoke gives me pause. I’m not a fan of wine that tastes like the underside of a grill—even if I am pairing that wine with barbecued meat.

Inner Sanctum’s 2013 Torro 3 Tempranillo defies expectations. Notes of charred air are there, yes, but these subtle tones are balanced expertly with brighter eruptions of growing things—savory herbs and brambly berries.

I’m impressed. What does it take to coax this complexity from grapes that spent the weeks before harvest saturated in smoke? A masterful winemaker.

In Tuolumne County, this guru of grapes is Chuck Hovey. My husband, Dave, and I are fans of Hovey’s art.

Hovey, 60, got his start at J. Lohr Winery in San Jose, and made wines at Stevenot Winery in Murphys for more than 20 years. Hovey’s brilliance there translated to more than 500 wine awards in various competitions. In fact, Stevenot’s 2006 Tempranillo was the Pike house wine five or six years ago, notable for its excellence and affordability. We bought it by the case ($99) for ourselves and shared with appreciative friends.

In 2008, Hovey started his own label, Hovey Wine. He’s also the consulting winemaker for Gianelli Vineyards, Inner Sanctum Cellars and Bodega del Sur Winery in Murphys.

Hovey is a legend in Tuolumne and Calaveras county wine-making. Now the legend is facing his own fires. Over the summer, Hovey survived two strokes and had to have a craniectomy. His son Kyle Hovey created a GoFundMe page to help pay for his dad’s medical care. To date, the site has received more than $44,000 in contributions.

While Hovey recovers this fall, his shoes are being filled by wine-making apprentice Cody LaPertche. The apprentice told a local reporter he’s doing his best to stick to what he’s learned from Hovey.

“Every day, coming in, I feel like he’s got his hand on my shoulder,” LaPertche told a reporter for The Union-Democrat (Sonora, Calif.). “Every single day, we come in thinking, ‘What would Chuck do?’”

In the meantime, Hovey’s winemaking influence is widely felt. At Gianelli Vineyards tasting room in Jamestown, Dave and I encounter a dozen award-winning wines that Hovey crafted from grapes grown a few miles out of town.

I’d heard good things about Gianelli. A list of 2013 distinctions includes 11 wines that won a combined 26 awards. Gianelli’s 2010 Aglianico, for example, won Best of Class in the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and Double Gold in the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

Of the wines we taste, Dave and I like ’em all. That’s unusual. Nothing strikes us as bland or acidic or even less than fabulous. Several are so delicious that we roll our eyes back and make happy sighs. Dave buys a few bottles, including the 2011 Aglianico ($27) and a delectable 2010 Dolcetto ($22).

Inner Sanctum’s tasting room is a few doors down from Gianelli. Between the two is a pan-for-nuggets tourist shop. This is gold country, after all.

Gianelli’s 2011 “The Don” Barbera won four awards in 2014, including a Double Gold at the Calaveras Wine Competition, and a silver in Sunset’s International Wine Competition. The “Don,” in this case, is wine-grower Ron Gianelli. And Inner Sanctum’s wine notes describe the wine as “flawlessly created by master winemaker Chuck Hovey.”

While we’re chatting with Sweetland, others pop in to ask about The Don.

“We’re out of the barbera,” Sweetland says, “but you’re more than welcome to come on in!”

Sweetland, though an experienced tasting-room employee, hasn’t worked here long. She’s company manager for the Sierra Repertory Theatre as well. She puts in a plug for a recent production while also talking knowledgeably about the local wine scene.

“This is my fun job,” she says.

Sweetland fell in love with Inner Sanctum because of the Torro 3. On a recent birthday, her partner was cooking up burgers with blue cheese and Portobello mushrooms. Hoping for a spectacular pairing, she brought home the Rim Fire Red. The wine’s vintage recalled the tumult of that fall. Sweetland had been pregnant. Her midwife had advised staying home, and not going out to breathe the dangerous air.

“But I had to work,” she says now. She recalls how the layers of smoke converged, most afternoons, to form a mushroom cloud. “It was apocalyptic,” she says.

And the wine?

“It’s a barbecue in a bottle,” she says. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

Before we leave, Sweetland recommends dinner at The Standard Pour in Sonora, a newish establishment created by veteran area foodies.

Though perhaps more widely known for craft beers, The Standard Pour offers a few Inner Sanctum wines. I order a glass of the Rim Fire Red, pairing it with a tangy brussel sprout and bacon appetizer. Then, because it can’t hurt to ask: Do they possess any of Inner Sanctum’s sold-out barbera? They do!

For dessert, I drink The Don, toasting the fine work of winemaker Hovey, and offering best wishes for his full and speedy recovery.

Gorgeous liquid, this. Salute!

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