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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

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf.

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf, grmmfthmp.

My partner and I had finally fallen asleep. The party at the Murphys Historic Hotel bar had gone on and on 'til the wee hours.

Now it was 3 a.m., and we were sitting up in our bed. Groggily wondering why: Why woulda hotel schedule renovation in the middle of the night?

In the room next to ours, it sounded like chairs and dressers were being dragged across the floor. Pounding, stomping, thumping. The thin wall behind our headboard vibrated.

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf.

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf, grmmfthmp.

The room next to ours should have been empty. It had not been rented. (We asked hotel staff the next morning.) In fact, previous hotel guests had been said to flee that very room now and then, some not stopping to ask for a refund.

Maybe the hotel hired a staffer to make noise at 3 a.m. to perpetuate haunting as tourist attraction. The strategy, though, seems fraught with unintended consequences, like lost customers and bad Yelp reviews.

Only one explanation seemed plausible.

“It’s Eleanor!”

Eleanor, the hotel’s resident ghost, is said to have been a former chambermaid who’d fallen in love with a gold miner in the Civil War era. The miner promised he’d return for her when he was a wealthy dude. She never saw him again. She worked another 30 years at the hotel and died there, still waiting, waiting, waiting.

Now she haunts the place. The kitchen staff has reported small objects flying through the air. People have glimpsed her in the Gold Room mirror, off the main dining room. But Room 9, or the Thomas Lipton Room, is said to be the most “paranormally active” in the hotel.

We were one door down in Room 10, the J.J. Astor Room.

We were at the hotel because of the bad luck we’d had on our previous trip to the area. Saving dough on accommodations means more to spend on wine, right? So on that previous trip, we camped, in tents, with friends at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. The park’s in Arnold, 12 miles east of Murphys on Highway 4.

A fine St. Pat’s Day weekend that turned out to be. It snowed. It sleeted. The town’s stilted leprechaun toughed it out in the street, marching about with icicles forming on his green top hat. My friends and I took shelter in Zucca Winery’s tasting cave, next to the cheese fondue.

That night at the campground, we built a fire and huddled together under a tarp, drinking Twisted Oaks’ River of Skulls, a darkly dense mourvèdre made from grapes grown in Angels Camp. The 2009’s going for $35 a bottle. Pairs with “dead people,” brags the winery’s website.

Gotta love Calaveras County. ¿Entiendes? Calaveras is Spanish for “skulls.”

During our snowy campout, we ventured from our canvas chairs only long enough to cook a marinated tri-tip over the flames. It was too cold to dig out plates and utensils, so we passed the meat around on a fork, tearing off chunks with our teeth, getting in touch with our inner primates. Wild!

It was memorable. And it was cold. And I didn’t want to do it again.

Did Eleanor have something to do with this? It’s clear she chose us to haunt and possibly, you know, to possess. I might be Eleanor, for all you know.

Identity crisis aside, for our next trip, we rented cozy warm rooms, right downtown. Rooms that opened onto a balcony overlooking Main Street. Rooms right over the hotel saloon. We hiked up to Mercer Cavern and descended into its depths. By 11 a.m., we were sipping wine at a half-dozen of the 20-plus tasting rooms in downtown Murphys, not worrying about a designated driver. The hotel was right there. We could walk, if we could walk. We tasted until we realized we needed to put some food in our tummies. So we went to our rooms, pulled our chairs out onto the balcony, and noshed on cheese and salami. To accompany our snacks, we opened Zucca’s Sorprendere (Italian for surprise!), a syrah-zin blend.

Our first trip to Murphys had been goal-oriented. I wanted Milliaire’s Clockspring zinfandel, and I acquired it. Once in Calaveras County, though, I tasted more lovely wines, plum-forward, with a bit of spice. A kickass red starts on notes of frutas rojas, downbeats with some viscous deliciousness around my tongue, bridges with black pepper or cardamom or even tobacco, and finishes with a flourish of vanilla. Like a dance party in me gullet, that. (Maybe read that last sentence with a pirate voice. Thanks. Arr.)

I call the above taste sensation “the Eleanor.” And she’s present in several Sierra Foothills wines.

I can taste the Eleanor in Zucca Winery’s syrah, but she’s really at her best in their Sorprendere. On my first visit, I tasted the award-winning 2006 and bought their last two bottles, which were only available to wine club members. Call me a joiner. The 2008 was sold out last time I checked. So now it’s wait, wait, wait.

Of course, given that we’d booked hotel rooms on this trip, the weather was perfect. From our balcony, we watched the rest of Murphys tasting crowd stumble by in the warm afternoon. The tourists looked up at us and lusted for our higher powers.

Maybe there was a nap. And I’m pretty sure we wandered down the street to enjoy a killer dinner at Alchemy Market and Wine Bar. Then we returned to the hotel’s saloon, where a fun dude was playing an electronic keyboard and singing hits from the ’70s, ’80s and whatever. The bar’s décor is contemporary Old West neon Bud signeclectia with a wood stove that oddly reminded me of that Tom Hanks’ movie The ’Burbs.

Best of all, the bartender knows his spirits.

Please note: I’m skeptical about Big Magic, about omnipotency and all that. But I’m a fan of harmless little magic. People don’t fight wars over simple things like lucky charms and Tarot cards. Why wouldn’t I believe in ghosts?

After some saloon time, we hiked up to our rooms and then back down the hall to use shared bathrooms. We collapsed in our beds. Snoring ensued. And then.

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf.

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf, grmmfthmp.

Yes, I have an active dream life. And yes, we had been drinking a teensy little bit. If my partner had not been hearing what I was hearing, I probably would have written the whole thing off. But instead, we decided to decree this a shared paranormal encounter.

It’s fun to say that our favorite wines pair spookily well with dead people.

Published in Wine

Maybe there’s some sort of social network these days for the spirit world—some MyHaunt or Facelessbook for paranormal beings to stay connected, make plans, conspire.

That would explain how we met Eleanor the Ghost on a wine tasting trip to Murphys, Calif.

Maybe you’ve heard of Murphys. Maybe not. It’s a tiny burg in north-central California, miles off the beaten path (10 miles east of Highway 49) on the way to nowhere (aka Arnold, Calif.) in the Sierra foothills. To get me there must have taken the coordinated effort of at least a couple of pranking poltergeists.

The Eleanor story begins and begins again at two haunted hotels about 20 miles apart. The story hasn’t ended yet. Haunting is like that, a lifelong problem or blessing, depending on your perspective. Just when you think you’ve exorcised a ghost, years later, she’s back in your life, making herself known.

The Significant Libertarian and I were driving Highway 49 on our way from There to Here and decided to spend the night at the Historic Sonora Inn. By the way, I’m talking about Sonora, Calif., not Sonoma, Calif., next to NapaLand. Sonora’s in the Sierra foothills between, well, Tuttletown and Soulsbyville. (Both real places.)

We booked the last room in the historic section of the Sonora Inn, built in 1896. The hotel’s claims to visitor fame date back to Grace Kelly, who stayed there during the filming of High Noon (1952), and Drew Barrymore, who stayed there during Bad Girls (1994). Any hotel in California more than 100 years old (or on a dark desert highway) is likely to be haunted, and, therefore, a satisfying place to spend a night. Sure enough, walking past Room 309 sets off the Ghost Radar app on an iPhone. (But to be fair, so does walking through the produce aisle at Vons on Palm Canyon Drive. Ghost Radar sees dead people everywhere, including the artichoke bin.)

We ordered a prix fixe dinner that night at a downtown restaurant. The meal came with appetizers, salad, entrée, dessert—and two glasses of local wine. Any two glasses. From a long delightful list. Happy jumping frogs of Calaveras County!

Now, it didn’t surprise me that Calaveras County had wineries. I’ve visited wineries in more unlikely places. Like New Mexico, where the wines are as dry as everything else, except when they’re not.

What surprised me was the eyes-roll-back-in-my-head deliciousness of one particular wine, the 2006 Milliaire Clockspring zinfandel. Why did I order this wine? The ghost of Sonora Inn’s Room 309 whispered the recommendation in my ear. Thanks, G of R309.

Though most of Milliaire’s wines are made from grapes grown in Calaveras County, the Clockspring was made with Amador grapes. My glass No. 1 of 2006 Clockspring arrived with a forgettable appetizer. I probably ate it. The salad included small tomatoes. The entrée was something Italian. Ho hum.

What I remember perfectly, though, is thrusting—thrusting!—my nose in the bulbous glass and inhaling something fascinating. Something that was, um … OK, let’s pause.

Do you hate Wine Words? You know, the pretentious gibberish that Wine Snobs Who Are Smarter Than You gush when drinking yummy red things in large bulbous glasses?

That’s a bummer. Because I’m now going to give Wine Words a try. Here goes: The wine was dark purple-brown and plummy. Not sweet, but not sucking the life out of my tongue.

I wanted to climb inside the glass. I wanted to slather the wine all over my body. I wanted to sink into a bathtub full of the stuff, let it permeate my pores as another fine way of filling me with its innate rotund ribald robust remarkable remarkableness.

OK, so I’m not good at the Wine Words. You can pick up a full refund at the entrance.

Speaking of refunds and other fiduciary matters, Milliaire’s Clockspring zinfandel is an affordable wine, with the 2010 Clockspring selling for $26.

What I didn’t know when I was snorting that aged grape juice during the prix fixe dinner, even before I’d taken a sip and fallen shamelessly in love, is that the wine had garnered its share of attention. It won a gold medal in a San Francisco Chronicle wine competition in 2010 and raked in awards at six county fairs from Amador to OrangeCounty.

Breaking news: The 2010 Clockspring just won a Double Gold in the SF Chron’s competition this year.

For Glass No. 2 of wine that night, I ordered another 2006 Milliaire Clockspring zinfandel. So did the Significant Libertarian, who’d tasted my Glass No. 1.

Wine can be deeply satisfying, but it’s a fleeting joy. Pleasure is like that, transient. When it happens, you have to crawl inside the glass and savor every drop. Some flavors will be remembered but never recaptured.

Since then, I’ve encountered a few other bottles from Milliaire and other Calaveras County wineries that approach that level of excellence. There’s a distinct flavor that unites them, a vibe that I’m not capable of expressing explicitly. Henceforth, I think I’ll call that indescribable flavor/vibe/wine identity “The Eleanor,” after the ghost of that Murphys historic hotel. Eleanor haunts the Lipton Room, or she had haunted it before she met us. Now I think she might be living in my car. Or my laundry room. We’ll get to that.

I knew if I wanted to taste more of The Eleanor, I’d have to plan a trip to Murphys. Since the town was founded by a couple of Irish gold mining brothers, St. Patrick’s Day seemed an appropriate time to visit. We’d slip inside the Milliaire Winery tasting room, join the cult—by which I mean wine club—and obtain enough zinfandel to bring home and share with friends.

I’ll write about the St. Pat’s Day visit to Murphys Historic Inn in my next storytelling effort, which will land in this news venue a few days before March 17. My tale will include a carnivorous moment shared with friends, a leprechaun on stilts braving spring sleet, and my new buddy Eleanor, who happens to have a visibility disability. In addition to that, she’s alive-deficient. But you can’t hold that against her. She has exceptional taste.

For now, let’s end on a Clockspring note. I opened a bottle of the 2006, months later, to accompany a forgettable meal at my own fun but slightly tipsy house party. I was hoping for some appreciation, but, well, we’d opened a few bottles of amazing already that night. We’d descended into guzzle mode.

Most of us.

A friend sat silently at my dinner table, his nose hanging low over a bulbous glass partly filled with Clockspring. He wasn’t contributing to our earth-shattering discussion of global warming or the preparedness of high school kids for college. In fact, he hadn’t spoken for a while. And he wasn’t drinking. I asked him if something was wrong.

“Smelling this wine is making me a better person,” he said. “I’m afraid to find out what will happen if I drink it.”

He had sensed The Eleanor. He took a sip.

Published in Wine