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15 Dec 2015

Sniff the Cap: Fishing for Wine in Humboldt County

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Norman Coates pours his reds for a private tasting in Orleans, Calif. Norman Coates pours his reds for a private tasting in Orleans, Calif. Deidre Pike

I’m leaning back in a comfy bucket seat behind the driver of the Troutmobile—a Ford SUV. My tummy’s full of breakfast: poached duck eggs and mimosas from a wine bar in Arcata, Calif.

This is a fine way to start a quirky Humboldt County wine-tasting tour. I’ve joined an adventure that will end tonight with a private tasting at Coates Vineyards.

The winery is remote—in the Six Rivers National Forest, not far from the bustling unincorporated community of Orleans, which is 12 miles east of Weitchpec. Surely you’ve heard of Weitchpec. No? It’s at the juncture of the Trinity and Klamath rivers in Humboldt County—not far from the Pacific’s Lost Coast. This area is better known for crops other than wine.

The Coates Winery is a 12.5-hour drive north from Palm Springs and a mere 2.5 hours from Humboldt’s largest center of commerce, Eureka. About 15 wineries are listed as members on a Humboldt Wine Association website. Several more listed as nonmembers. Coates is one of the latter.

This is northern Northern California. In my vast 15 minutes of Internet research, I can’t find another California winery further north than Coates. Robin and Norman Coates’ all-organic vineyards are so remote that the grapes can grow on their own rootstock: They don’t have to be grafted to disease-resistant rootstock, as happens pretty much everywhere else. This fact, touted on the Coates Winery website, means that the grapes are “generally more healthy, vigorous, and … can better express their varietal characters.”

As the afternoon begins, we turn inland from the Pacific Coast drive and head into the mountains. Sitka spruce. Second-growth redwood. Invasive pampas grasses.

The Troutmobile slows through a residential area. A familiar smell wafts through the window—pungent, spicy, potentially intoxicating.

“Someone’s burning trim,” observes a co-adventurer.

The sun shines, a rarity. Recent rains have made the hills green alongside Highway 299, a logging road that moves inland from the Pacific Coast to Redding. The drive to Coates takes us off 299 in Willow Creek, well before Redding. We’re driving north toward Hoopa. We’re on the way to Weitchpec, a place written about in Vice magazine’s “War in Weed County.”

Before today, I knew only one person in this van—the journalist who invited me along. No matter. A love of wine makes us all fast friends.

We share memories of remarkable tastings in Amador County, Sonoma, Paso Robles and Southern Washington. Advice is shared, recommendations made. I take notes.

Because the drive is long, and we’re a thirsty bunch, we stop beyond Willow Creek at a private home overlooking the Trinity River. There, we sample local and regional wines—some we’ve brought along, like an award-winning 2009 Moonstone Crossing Barbera. Today’s tour organizers had spent the previous afternoon at the Moonstone tasting room in Trinidad. Moonstone’s Sharon Hanks had poured dozens of tastes of wine made from grapes imported from Amador, Lake and Mendocino counties by local genius winemaker Don Bremm. The winery is among the county’s best known. It’s open to the public and easy to find on Main Street, just off Highway 101.

We drink other fine bottles. Standouts include a Dutcher Crossing Carignane ($36, Sonoma winery and Mendocino grapes) and the 2010 Dogwood Mea Culpa ($65, Humboldt winery and Napa grapes). So tasty.

These are my kind of people.

Our designated driver herds us back into the Troutmobile. Then we’re going north-er and north-er. In Weitchpec, we turn east and drive along the Klamath River to Orleans. The winery isn’t in Orleans, but beyond it, of course—a few more miles up winding narrow roads.

“I forgot how early the sun goes down,” someone says.

Even in the dark, the Coates’ home and vineyards form a lovely oasis. A fire crackles in a woodstove. Robin Coates ushers us into the kitchen where bottles of red wine are lined up on a bar. Robin ladles out lentil soup, which pairs perfectly with the estate’s sangiovese and zinfandel.

A wine connoisseur in our group declares the 2012 Sangiovese ($18) the best he’s tasted all day, which is saying something. The varietal makes me think of Tuscany. Ah, Tuscany.

Our talk turns to wines with which one might start the day, and Norman Coates suggests his trebbiano, the Italian white from grapes he planted in the 1990s.

“If you have to drink wine for breakfast, that’s the one to drink,” he says.

Debate ensues as to whether one drinks the wine before coffee or after it.

My wine journalist friend seems disappointed that she can’t give readers the inside scoop on how to visit the Coates Winery. The winery is not open to the public. The couple prefers that people visit the website and, you know, buy the wine at area stores.

“We’re not as social as some winemakers,” says Norman.

Talk turns to crime in Humboldt County. We crowd into the Coates’ living room and watch the trending YouTube video series featuring a “Boondocking” guy—the Nomadic Fanatic—who makes a stop in Eureka. He encounters a Starbucks-drinking vandal, fends off the theft of his solar panels by a felonious meth-head, and parks a block away from a McDonald’s that is the site of a recent officer-involved shooting.

“Let’s get the hell out of Eureka,” concludes the nomad at the end of the YouTube video.

Laughter ensues. We taste the syrah and a delectable cabernet sauvignon—lighter than many California cabs and superbly drinkable. We eat cheese and pate and sourdough rye baked this morning.

Bliss ensues.

Before leaving, we hike up an unlit road to the Coates’ warehouse, where cases of wine are stacked alongside crates of ripe organic kiwi. Those grow here, too, and this year’s harvest was abundant.

We buy wine and tote two cases down the dark road. Giggling in the moonlight, we climb back into the Troutmobile and head back to the coast.

I seem to remember someone passing around a bag of gummy peach rings. But I might have been dreaming, dozing in the comfy bucket seat.

Ah, Humboldt County.

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