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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

It is well to remember that there are five reasons for drinking: the arrival of a friend, one's present or future thirst, the excellence of the wine, or any other reason.

—Latin proverb

The Arrival of a Friend

I was wrapped in a blanket under a tree. Giant snow clumps fell from dark clouds at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. A half-dozen wine loving amici and I were camping in Arnold, Calif. In March.

The weather can be temperate in spring. That night, not so much.

We’d spent the day visiting wineries in and out of Murphys, 12 miles away. We went to Milliaire, Indian Rock, Zucca, Stevenot, Newsome-Harlow and Twisted Oak. That night, we huddled around the fire, teeth chattering, passing around a bottle or two of newly acquired red.

Hubbie Dave barbecued friend Launie’s tri-tip over flaming logs. She’d brought the juicy meat in a plastic bag, marinated in garlicky goodness.

“I think it’s done,” said Dave. Misty aimed a flashlight on the steaming cow flesh and concurred. Seared yet rare in all the right places.

“Someone get a plate.”

“We don’t need no stinking plate.”

“No stinking plates!”

“Yeah, just pass it around.”

I can’t remember who first tore into the meat. It made the rounds on a long metal fork. Taking turns, we ripped and pulled and growled and gnawed like primal dwellers of caves. A tribe of Wino sapiens, toughing out the snow, lighting a fire against the chill of night. We somehow avoided dropping the meat on the slushy ground.

We woke up sore, stiff, mostly dressed in the clothes from the previous day, and smeared with beef juice and splotches of Murphys’ reds.

These days, if those friends visit my fireplace on a long winter’s night, I’d like to greet ’em with a bottle of Twisted Oak’s 2010 River of Skulls, a Mourvèdre from Dalton Vineyards, Angels Camp. Viscous. Barbaric.

Pairs well with carnivorousness.

One’s Present Thirst

Tonight, I’m visiting parents in the faraway Midwest. Here, access to fabulous wine is limited, and I wonder if this impacts the politics. Would tastier wine help the red states turn blue? (Wrap your brains around that metaphoric color challenge.)

When I last visited here, I brought my own crate of California reds, checked as luggage. Sad story: The airline misplaced my box, and by the time they found it, I was on my way back to California.

My family drank the wine.

This year, I thought I’d live like any other Wisconsin wine heathen.

While trawling the slender wine aisle at a local liquor store, I struck up a conversation with a hometown wine aficionado.

“So many wines!” she said. “And so many good wines!” It didn’t seem polite to argue.

I smiled and noted something about amazing California wines.

She shrugged. “California wines are fine—but have you tried our wines?”

We were standing near a display of wines from southern Wisconsin’s Wollersheim Winery. Mom’s a fan of the winery’s River Gold, a sweet white blend that sells for $8.50. And, yes, I have tried that wine.

“You should try it again,” she suggested.

And she went her way. And I said to self: Why not? The winery’s “dry red” on display was the $9 Prairie Sunburst Red, unoaked and Wisconsin-grown. I bought it. On the bottle was an invitation for a free winery tour in nearby Prairie Du Sac. If the website is any indication, more sophisticated wines can be tasted and purchased at the winery’s tasting room. I might have to zip down the road for what sounds like an interesting pinot noir.

Which could take care of …

One’s Future Thirst

In a few days, I’ll be in Reno, Nev., with Dave. In his cellar is the complex 2011 Whalebone Cabernet Sauvignon ($35). From Paso Robles! This delicious wine won this year’s Affairs of the Vine Cabernet Shootout. I don’t know what that is. But I’ve been thirsty for this cab since I tasted it in Paso last spring.

Sadly, I have already polished off my Whalebone Boneyard 2012 ($33), a gorgeously balanced blend of syrah, petit sirah, mourvedre, grenache and tannat. Oooh, ahh.

The future thirst is now.

The Excellence of the Wine

We made few purchases of expensive wine this year. Instead, we acquired many, many more bottles that we love—and can also afford. Superb wines at a budget-friendly price point.

On the first day of Christmas—OK, it was more like Thanksgiving—my true love gave to me a half-case of Amador Foothills Aglianico. Dave and my oldest son made a whirlwind wine run, picking up bottles from Murphys, in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley, and in Fair Play, Calif.

When Dave spotted aglianico on sale, he remembered how much I had adored it on one of our wine hikes earlier this year. The wine feels light and round in the mouth—like satin and roses, a tasty Christmas ornament.

I bought a bottle of aglianico on my last visit to Amador Foothills about a year ago. Winemaker Ben Zeitman took me on a walk in his vineyard. Grapes were ripe, and we tasted the aglianico, picking small plumb fruit from the vines.

Zeitman said he would be selling his 32-acre vineyard and winery that produces 3,500 cases of wine annually. He was almost 80 and ready to retire.

Dave and I entertained a fantasy briefly. “Let’s buy a winery. Let’s live amongst the grapes and make small batches of delicious goodness.”

It sounds romantic, but we know better. Really, we do. We have wine-making friends, and we’ve seen how hard they work. I prefer to let the grape artists make the wine for me. Mmm.

Speaking of talented winemakers: Zeitman’s winery sold this summer to another winemaking couple I’ve much appreciated over the years, Tom and Beth Jones, who started Lava Cap Winery in Camino.

To me, that means the estate is in good hands.

Any Other Reason

When your kids come home for the holidays, and marvelous chaos descends on your dwelling, drink a good bottle of wine.

When your mate has had a long week at work and comes home exhausted, drink a good bottle of wine.

When you’re by yourself in a cottage in the woods, crafting words into sentences far into the night, drink a good bottle of wine.

When your book rolls off the presses, imperfect but done, drink a good bottle of wine.

When you don’t have time to cook, so dinner will be a bit of brie on day-old bread, eat this meager meal with a good bottle of wine.

Bliss ensues.

Published in Wine

I might be stressing out the college-aged woman who is pouring wine in Renwood Winery’s new Napa-tacular tasting room.

She’s been working for four months at the renovated Amador County winery. She’s memorized piles of information—including the single vineyard designate for each wine we taste. She lists these and pauses, expectantly.

“You get an A-plus,” I say. “It must have taken you a while to learn all of that.”

“It did!” She seems relieved and pours more wine in my glass.

Over the Labor Day weekend, we visited Amador County. We anticipated Rim Fire smoke from what’s now being called California’s fourth-largest wildfire ever, burning an area said to be larger than the combined square mileage of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.

After a bit of morning haze, though, delta breezes whisked toxic air from leafy rows of vines laden with ripening, violaceous clumps.

We haven’t been to Amador in a couple of years. Initially, we’d been drawn here because it was the antithesis of Napa and Sonoma: no castles, fountains or sprawling mansions. We tasted wines in sheds, barns and pole buildings. We met winemakers at small family vineyards. We paid no tasting fees, but always purchased a bottle or two of affordable, delicious wine.

That was the Amador brand—California wine-making before California wine making was A Thing.

Change happens. Turley Wine Cellars (from Paso Robles and Napa) moved into town, buying Karly Wines, a once-familiar stop on our Amador weekends. Expanding its market, Helwig Winery melds its wine biz with a spectacular event/music venue.

Renwood Winery’s new owners have put piles of dough into re-branding the place. A slick logo replaces the black-and-red wren art on bottles. Gone are cheesy cork art and the glossy wood bar of the tasting room, which now sports a more-contemporary box-shaped tasting bar, mod lighting and an expanded store with deli snacks and olive oils.

In Renwood’s spanking-new patio area, waiters fly between tables with large trays containing wine flights, glasses and bottles, accompanied by cheeses and charcuterie. Nouveau Renwood’s tastings are served in flights; there are four from which to choose. Two of the flights are exclusively zinfandel, which attests either to the winery’s devotion to its roots or a savvy willingness to capitalize on recent zin appreciation trends. Maybe both.

Dave and I opt for the King of Zin flight. I recognize almost none of the new-fangled names. Merida? Flutist? Musician? Where’s the Jack Rabbit Flat?

We pay for the tasting—and buy zero bottles. On the way out, I smear some lemon curd on an animal cracker. That’s about as low-brow as it gets.

We follow signs to another newish winery, not far from Renwood. BellaGrace’s makeshift tasting room consists of tables set up in a gravel lot outside of its newly completed wine caves. Weather-permitting. (The winery also has a more permanent tasting room in Sutter Creek.)

The outdoor venue at the BellaGrace estate consists of tables that are really just boards over wine barrels—adorned with colorful clothes blowing about in those delta breezes.

Our knowledgeable wine guide, Dewey, pulls out all the stops—or, rather, he pulls out bottles with stoppers shaped like animal heads. There’s a reindeer atop a chilly bottle of crisp rose made with grenache and mourvedre. Perfect for the 90-degree heat.

Dewey advances through the day’s listed pours and goes off list, because they just happen to have many open bottles—lucky us!

Drum roll, please: Dewey’s pouring the 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel (Shenandoah Valley). The grapes are from the oldest known zin vines in Amador County. He notes that this is the best zinfandel in Amador County. A bold claim.

“Dewey says it’s the best!” I repeat, grinning.

“No,” he replies. “The judges of the Amador County Fair say it’s the best.”

Bella Grace’s 2010 Zinfandel won a double gold at the fair, which is arguably a contest for zinfandel in the land of zinfandel. To be the top zin dog is a coup for the winemaker and a coup de (Bella) grâce to the stuffier oldsters on the block. (Yes, I amuse myself. Thanks for asking.)

The award-winning zin: dark garnet, rich and velvety smooth. I buy a bottle ($28), and while Dewey’s running my credit card, he proffers one last sip of something with intense dark fruit and a finish that keeps on giving.

Dave wants it. So we add Bella Grace’s 2009 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($49) to our order. I justify this purchase by saying, “Hey, no tasting fee, right?” Just a windy wine barrel stand with a view of estate grapes and a blue port-a-potty.

This is the brand experience we’ve been craving: sweating and drinking and laughing at the gravel that gets in my sandal.

Just up Steiner Road, it’s quiet at Amador Foothill Winery. Winemaker Ben Zeitman takes the time to introduce me to his aglianico grapes. It’s an obscure Italian varietal with thick skins that add glorious color and marvelous tannin structure.

“It’s got everything going for it,” Zeitman says.

Zeitman describes the smoke early in the week as “terrible,” but wildfires raging in the next county over didn’t deter the picking of this year’s first grapes—sauvignon blanc. They picked Monday and let the grapes settle before they crushed ’em. Yeast was added Thursday evening.

“And now it’s in a tank-fermenting,” Zeitman says.

As we sip a smooth 2009 Esola Zinfandel made with estate grapes, Zeitman describes with elegance the growing of zinfandel “pruned like a vase so the sun can get in.” He started as a home winemaker after growing up in a household that drank only Manischewitz—and only on the holidays.

I follow Zeitman out of the tasting room to nearby vines, and we taste sweet, barely tart, thick-skinned aglianico (don’t say the “g”—it’s ah-LYAN-ee-ko). Then we pick a few lighter barbera grapes on newish 2-year-old vines.

Wine grapes are sweet, even sweeter than table grapes. They taste like the wines they will become. In fact, before they’re even picked and crushed, I recommend the 2013 aglianico and barbera.

And though it’s a changing place, I recommend a visit to Amador—perhaps for the Big Crush wine festival on Oct. 5-6. (See Amadorwine.com for more information.) With any luck, they’ll be serving award-winning wines in sheds or on makeshift tables in gravel lots.

Deidre Pike is looking forward to Temecula Valley’s upcoming Crush 2013 event on Saturday, Sept. 14, at Callaway Vineyard and Winery; visit www.temeculawines.org for more information.

Published in Wine