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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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.

Published in Wine

You can make tofu taste like Italian sausage. You can toy with the texture, just a speck, so that a person eating your tofu chili will barely notice the curdled soy product.

This works best if the vegetarian grub is served with a seductive red wine—one that holds up to the challenge, complementing chili, cumin, onion and black beans.

Such a wine is the 2011 Twisted Oak Murgatroyd ($25). Yes, the wine’s name references Snagglepuss, the cartoon critter famous for the line: “Heavens to Murgatroyd!”

The Murg wine is a kitchen-sink blend. It has a funky hue I call Barney purple. Sharply acidic nose. Medium body. Tangy zingy zang on the finish.

I don’t know what’s in it. The bottle copy offers no hints; it merely plays on another Snagglepuss catch line, “Exit stage left.” (The label says: “Don’t Exit! Our animated blend is at the Stage where it is drinkable now, or may be Left for a few years.” The underlining and quirky capitalization is original to label text.) Nor does the Twisted Oak website give me clues as to which grape varietals went into this wine.

Wine is complicated, mysterious. So is life. These days, my world is full of intriguing new pairings.

My husband, Dave, and I have lived the commuter-marriage life for five years now. That has translated to weekend honeymoons with hiking, cooking, art, music, movies and wine sipped in languid bliss under star-studded skies.

On a together weekend, Dave might leave Reno early, drive all day and meet me at a wine bar for happy hour. Then we’ll pick up juicy ribeye steaks and grill them on the deck. We’d steam an artichoke for our appetizer. Bake a loaf of fresh bread. Pop open a delectable cabernet sauvignon.

Anyone jealous yet? You should be.

But the times, they are rearrangin’. In recent months, I’ve transitioned from living alone to living with adult children, their dogs and an infant. This has added a hearty dose of reality to honeymoon weekends.

Dave arrived for a recent visit early and headed straight to the house. I was at work. The dogs barked and wagged. He cleaned, did laundry, made my bed. He held our daughter’s newborn baby—pure bliss—while she kept an optometrist appointment.

We met at a bank to do some financial hoo-ha-ing. Finally, we went to the wine bar, a teensy bit exhausted. A 2009 Moonstone Crossing Amador County mourvedre revived us with its earthy fruits.

That night, we ate pumpkin soup and pasta.

The next night, we enjoyed broccoli pizza.

On Day Three, I concocted a giant pot of tofu chili. Did I mention that my adult children are vegetarians? As you might have guessed from the previous mention of steak, Dave and I are not. At least not yet.

Our household’s meals are generally vegetarian-friendly. A meat option is a rare addition to the menu.

No one is stopping us from eating meat. In fact, next time Dave comes, I might buy juicy steaks. But given the influence of my new roomies, I’ve been eating less meat—almost no red meat at all. Dave and I had both been complaining about red meat hangovers—the digestive unpleasantness that lasts for 12 to 18 hours after ingesting seared cow flesh.

Worse than slight intestinal discomfort is the possibility that something far more diabolical is going on in one’s bowels after a red-meat encounter. Cancer experts who rigorously reviewed hundreds of scientific studies have concluded that red meats are strongly linked to colorectal cancer. Red-meat consumption is also linked to lung, esophageal, stomach and pancreatic cancer.

Yeah, I know. Everything causes cancer. We’re all going to die of something. Life is 100 percent fatal.

Changing diet might mean changing a person’s experience of wine. I enjoy bites of juicy red meat between sips of a fine cab. Tannic red wines, with their astringent mouth feel, pair well with meat. One theory explains that the fatty texture of meat is balanced by the dry feel of the wine.

That said, I feel I’ve barely touched the possibilities of meat-free wine pairings. A vegetarian website offers such pairings for even the reddest of reds. A cabernet sauvignon, for example, might pair well with grilled veggies, barbecue sauces, garlicky things, and aged or stinky cheeses.

Still, I’m drooling over Twisted Oak’s website suggestions for Murgatroyd. The list begins with tri-tip marinated in “Murginade!” (That’s soy sauce, ginger and honey.) They also suggest “a nice cigar lamb osso bucco (and) Asian-style marinated flank steak, served over a bed of angel hair pasta with horseradish cream.”

Oh meat, meat, delicious meat.

By the way, I ended up calling the winery to find out what’s in the 2011 Murg. After putting me on hold for research, a friendly wine-room employee parsed the blend out at 60 percent petit verdot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon and 20 petite sirah.

OK, on to the secrets of tofu alteration: To transform tofu from the realm of slices, slabs and cubes, freeze it. This alters the texture of the curdled soy. Thaw it. Squeeze the water out. Break it up into bits and globs that almost resemble ground beef. Season with garlic, soy sauce and any spices that go with what you’re cooking. I used chili sauce, cayenne pepper, thyme, oregano, dried parsley, salt, black pepper, cumin and fennel. Toss this concoction until the tofu bits are evenly coated. Sear the tofu in olive oil until it gets as brown and crispy as you desire.

Then add to soup. I made this batch of chili with tomatoes from Dave’s garden, and beans that I soaked and boiled in salt, pepper, garlic, cumin and Sriracha. I sautéed onions, garlic, bell peppers, jalapeno and two stalks of celery, and tossed those in as well. Until we added cheese and sour cream later, this qualified as vegan chili.

Dave said he enjoyed the batch. “Tofu?” he said. “Not bad.”

The wine paired well with the soup’s heat and spice. Berries, currant and nutmeg are flavors suggested on the wine’s back label, the text of which concludes with one last bit of fun:

“Snaggle your puss anytime. Heavens to Murgatroyd!”

Published in Wine

Wednesday

On the night we open the Milano 2004 Redwood Valley Valdiguié, Dave skips his Italian-language class to stay home with me. Nice, right?

Because of our jobs, my husband and I live hundreds of miles apart. We’re together a few days a month.

The down side? Living alone; doing housework and errands and chores alone; cooking alone; and drinking good wine during our nightly Skype chats. Together—but alone.

The up side? We make the most of time together. Doing housework and chores together becomes a novelty. Meals are magical moments. When together, we drink our spectacular wines—smooth golden oldies or obscure varietals, bottles we don’t want to drink alone.

What’s not to love about a monthly honeymoon?

This month, it’s my turn to drive from my California home to Dave’s place in Reno. The house is at the desert’s edge, overlooking the Truckee Meadows and Sierra Nevada foothills. In the late afternoon, we walk the dogs out into dry hills of sage and rabbit brush, talking about everything from spirituality to parenting to our most important decision: What wine will we drink with our dinner?

Tonight’s planned meal is light: arugula salad with avocado, and baked mahi mahi fillets rubbed with cayenne pepper and smoked paprika.

We ponder a white. We have some nice ones. A Kenneth Volk chardonnay and a Holly’s Hill viognier. Because of the spice on the fish, we also might pull off a light-bodied red.

“Do you have a barbera or pinot noir?” I ask. Dave mentally checks his wine collection, noting a bottle or two of each. He maintains a list of bottles on a shared Google spreadsheet that I can pull up on my phone. If we sort the list by vintage, we quickly see our most mature bottles at the top.

Lately, we’ve been working our way through oldish reds. “Library” wines. Many California wines are released at a fine drinking time, close to their “peak.” Some varietals age better than others, so you don’t want to wait too long. A wine way past its prime can turn to sour vinegar—perhaps for use in zesty cole slaw.

Thus our conversation turns to the oldest wines on our list, one of which is the 2004 Valdiguié from the Milano Family Winery near the Russian River in Mendocino County. The Valdiguié, a single-varietal wine, was a gift from Dave’s Mendo-loving wine friend.

The production was limited to 105 cases. The bottle appears pricey but wasn’t terribly expensive when released—$14.50 a bottle. By comparison, the most recent 2006 vintage released sells for $35.

Valdiguié is a varietal from southern France, known there as Gros Auxerrois and in California wine country as Napa Gamay. Tasting notes at Milano’s website describe the 2004 Valdiguié as having a “soft fruit nose” with “huge cherry and raspberry flavors.” Full mid-palate. Soft, elegant finish. It won a silver in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and a bronze from the Orange County Wine Society.

I’m intrigued. Why have we not opened this bottle earlier? Is this the perfect pairing for a spicy mahi wine? Probably not. But no prob: We’ll enjoy it with some cheese before we eat dinner. Maybe with dark chocolate after dinner.

An unopened bottle of wine is an unread book. You pull it off the shelf, crack open the cover for the first time, and take a gander at the first sentence. Huh.

Not exactly what you were expecting?

That’s the Valdiguié. We open it and pour it into our decanter.

“Uh-oh,” says Dave. “Hmm.”

He hands me the cork, which smells … off, unpleasantly acidic. It’s far stretch from this odor to yummy deliciousness.

I pour about half an ounce in my glass. Swirl. Sniff. Meh. Taste.

And dump.

The remaining sip goes down the sink, and I rinse the glass.

“No good?” Dave says. “Should we dump it?”

I don’t know. It doesn’t hurt to leave it in the decanter, and see if it changes with some air. The fermented juice has been in the bottle for a decade. It’s gotta be feeling cramped.

While we’re waiting, we open a 2009 Zinfandel from Humboldt County’s Moonstone Crossing ($19). If Mendo disappoints, go north, wine-lovers. We love the earthiness of this wine. We enjoy the zing of the zin grapes that travel by pickup truck from Amador County to the Lost Coast, where winemaker Don Bremm crushes, ferments and bottles in the cool fog.

I taste the Valdiguié again before bed. It might be opening up. We pour it back into its bottle and cork it for tomorrow.


Thursday

He isn’t going to share it at first.

“You pooh-pooh’d this wine yesterday,” he says, orally volatizing the Valdiguie’s esters. He’s making what friends politely refer to as Dave’s wine “O” face.

“Yesterday, it smelled weird,” I remind him.

He pours me a glass. I don’t swirl, because the wine’s probably open enough from being in the decanter and getting funneled back into the bottle before we crawled into bed last night.

What a difference a day makes.

The flavor matches the wine’s ruddy color, rich and viscous. As for texture—what other words can be used to describe velvet? Heavier than silk, softer than leather. More body than flight. Ooh and aah.

The finish is plenty long and sultry. Tantric tannins. Shivers and goosebumps.

Tonight, we’re grilling St. Louis-style ribs. A loaf of sourdough bread is in the oven. We have olive oil and balsamic for dipping.

A crisp afternoon gale—Nevada’s zephyr wind—wafts through the warm house, rattling the blinds. Summer’s here.

We’re listening to The Tallest Man on Earth’s Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird. The lyrics of “The Dreamer” seem a propos: “I watch the birds, how they dive in then gone / It's like nothing in this world's ever still.”

With a little bit of patience, flavors resolve in wines and in relationships. Some tastes are worth the wait.

The ribs pair nicely with the decade-old Valdiguie that’s been introduced to some out-of-the-bottle atmosphere. We eat and spend some time planning summer wine-tasting adventures in Italy. We’ll be together three weeks.

After dinner, the last of the Valdiguié accompanies a soak in the hot tub under the starry desert sky. To the west, a sliver of moon slides over the Sierra and sinks into California. Tomorrow, I’ll drive home.

Published in Wine

Some day in the not-too-distant future, I want to make wine. But I don’t want to ruin perfectly good grapes.

So I’m training myself on bread. Sourdough bread, specifically. This spring, I’ve been nurturing a sourdough culture: lactic-acid bacteria and yeast, feeding and reproducing on wheat flour and water. What’s growing looks like gluey carbonated yogurt.

Aptly called starter.

The bread-making process isn’t unlike the wine-making process. Both grapes and wheat undergo chemical changes as bacteria and yeast reproduce, causing fermentation, alcohol and gas production, and the tasty conversion of acids.

To be honest, I started messing with sourdough because friends were baking it. I enjoy gnawing on a tangy bit of bread while I slurp fermented red. So, yum! Sourdough pairs with cabs. With merlot and sangiovese and barbera and aglianico.

A few great pairings:

• An earthy mourvèdre with sourdough and baked brie, drizzled with honey and garnished with pears.

• A jammy zinfandel with sourdough toast smeared with herbed butter.

• A syrah with sourdough crackers, baked with sea salt and flecks of black pepper.

Let the mouths water.

Pairings aside, I’m getting evangelical about the chemistry of sourdough and its health benefits for my intestines, waistline and mood. As I write this, Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” is looping in my brain.

I’ve been calling my sourdough starter yeast. And, yes, the starter has some of the single-cell fungi that make bread rise. But in most sourdough starters, lactic acid bacteria outnumber yeast by about 100 to 1. I love the names of these bacteria—Leuconostoc, Pediococcus, Weissella. And most prevalent, you know her and you love her: Give it up for the multi-talented Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis! Though you’d think that the latter microbe must be endemic to its namesake, San Francisco, it’s been found in sourdough cultures in Belgium, Italy and Germany.

In February, Karen Dixon, who works at the Moonstone Crossing Winery in Trinidad, Calif., gave me a plastic container of gloop—a legacy sourdough starter passed from friend to wino to friend. She sent me to a website, Cultures for Health, with info on the care and feeding of starter and how to make, knead, proof and bake bread.

I’m learning so much, so fast.

Keeping starter alive requires little time—but that little time must be dedicated on a regular, rhythmic basis. To keep it active and ready to make bread, I feed it daily. Because it’s a growing community, the small starter gloop becomes a massive sticky vat kinda fast.

If you don’t want to feed an ever-expanding mass of bacteria and yeast, you can discard some. Since it pains me to slather happy, healthy gloop into the trash, I’ve found recipes for putting this “discard” to good use, making crackers, pizza crust, cinnamon rolls.

I bake. A lot.

At its simplest, sourdough bread is flour, water and gloop—with a sprinkling of sea salt. Some recipes call for milk, fat and sugar. My recipe uses none of these. It’s vegan, lactose-free, sugar-free.

Kneading dough causes the gluten to develop. A byproduct of fermentation is carbon dioxide, and the gluten holds the gas in, making bread fluffy. Because sourdough is a slow-rising bread, the developing acids make the gluten more easily digestible. Some gluten-intolerants have no problem with traditional sourdough bread.

What I’ve learned: Don’t skimp on kneading. My first loaves were tough little dough wads. Not sour. Not fluffy. A good knead takes about 20 minutes, at least. As it turns out, this is the length of a South Park episode.

My second loaves were sourdough geodes—impenetrable rocky spheres inside of which a tasty sponge-like mass resided. The loaves dried out before I baked ’em. Slicing required a chainsaw. But inside … success—springy moist crumbs with the texture of pound cake! And so mouth-puckeringly sour. I cubed this up and ate it with runny eggs for breakfast.

I’m getting better. Warmer weather means my starter is livelier and, to be honest, that makes the kneaded bread rise—double in size—too fast. It takes time for fermentation to turn the bread sour. A few loaves have tasted sweet, bland even.

Clearly, this is an art—and a healthful one. Sourdough makes me feel physically great. Why? I read, um, health journals to find out.

The acids in sourdough activate enzymes that make more nutrients available to your body. Also, studies of bread-eating folks showed lower blood glucose levels after eating sourdough white bread compared to any other bread, including whole wheat. That’s great news for me, since diabetes runs in the family. It’s also a potential weight-loss strategy. I’ve noticed if I eat a piece of sourdough toast in the morning with some protein, I don’t get the mid-morning munchies until around 1 p.m.

Bread is rising as I write at 11 p.m. on a weeknight. I’m enjoying a lovely glass of 2008 Zucca Mountain Sorprendere, a red blend, and watching the sixth season of Mad Men on Netflix. Lovely mounds of dough are rising on baking stones atop my record player and my pellet stove (which is not fired up).

I made the dough around 3 p.m. and kneaded for a half-hour. The loaves have properly doubled, and I’ve punched the dough lightly with my fists so it can rise again without globbing over the edges of the stone.

I could throw the loaves in the oven tonight and watch another episode or finish this column. For full-on sour, though, I’m going to wait. Bread for breakfast! Baked before work! I’m going to have to get up mighty early, but that’s OK.

Have I mentioned how much bread-making helps me value the work that goes into that bottle of fermented grape juice? Thank you, hard-working makers of wine. Someday, I’d like to join your ranks.

Wine Events Coming

It’s Wine Riot time at the California Market Center, two hours away from the Coachella Valley in Los Angeles, at 110 E. Ninth St., on Friday and Saturday, May 9 and 10, featuring a gazillion tastings, temp tattoos, a Bubbly Bar and some Crash Courses in wine education. The Riot “reinvents wine for the thirsty and curious” and runs $60 per each of three sessions—Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Saturday night. Tickets and more info at secondglass.com/event-categories/wineriot.

Published in Wine