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Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

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

The night we drank the 2004 Grandpere, we’d spent the day at our grandson Lathan’s birthday-party carnival. A couple dozen kids, balloon animals, face painting, carnival games.

“Everyone’s a winner!”

Kids raced about collecting candy and filling up bags of popcorn from a rented machine, washing it down with juice drinks in foil pouches.

We’d stayed to watch Lathan—his face painted superhero green—open a giant pile of presents. The booty included many things Hulk, from undies to action figures to two sets of Marvel The Avengers Gamma Green Smash Fists.

We ate cake.

The party was a huge success. And exhausting. We’d planned on going out. I’d looked up some venues with live music. I’d checked the theater schedules.

Then we got in the car. Tired. Hungry. “Wanna stay home and cook?”

I ticked through the stuff in the refrigerator. “Do we have chicken? I can make masala and naan.”

We picked up cilantro on the way home and sent my adult son Jesse, home for a rare night with the ’rents, back for yogurt.

Now: Choose a wine that goes with chicken tikka masala.

I started drinking red wines with Nepalese and Indian food at the Himalayan Kitchen in Kaimuki, Honolulu, during the year I worked in Hawaii. It was a BYOB place. The food was terrific, so I experimented with lighter, gentler red wines: a grenache and a barbera. These were great. But it seems that, with spicy and tangy sauces, a bigger fruit-forward red balances the spice, smoothes the heat. It’s not unheard of for chefs to pair a dark, fruit-forward syrah with a tikka masala dish.

We scanned our wine list, stared at our wall of reds and popped our head into our 40-bottle wine cooler, where we keep the good (for us) stuff.

The time seemed right.

“The Grandpere? It’s a 2004. Probably not getting any better with age at this point.”

We’d purchased the award-winning 2004 Renwood Grandpere at the Amador winery around the time Renwood filed Chapter 11 and was sued for millions regarding contract disputes.

The Grandpere wasn’t crazy expensive, and it had won several awards, including the 2007 Schott Zwiesel Gold at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Robert Parker gave the 2004 vintage 90 points.

The vintage came from a small crop out of a 20-acre vineyard in Plymouth, Calif., which boasts of being “home to the oldest clone of zinfandel in America.”

Our bottle was No. 10. We should have opened it between 2008 and 2011, according to online “when to drink” advice.

I started the naan dough, and Dave opened the bottle to let in some atmosphere. I wrote dates on the cork. These grapes were grown and the wine was made before our granddaughter was born, Dave said.

I thought about 2004, the year that Dave climbed Kilimanjaro. “That was the year you went to Africa,” I said. My husband returned that fall before U.S. voters re-elected George W. Bush. My vote canceled his vote. Now I read in Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column that people are forgiving Bush, forgetting what they didn’t like about him. With time comes balance, transfers of power.

Argentine billionaire oilman Alejandro Pedro Bulgheroni bought Renwood in 2011. Improvements ensued. The brand is getting increased visibility, participating in Hollywood’s Independent Spirit Awards and sponsoring film premieres. I haven’t been back to see the winery’s spiffy new digs, including fireplaces, patios and a “handsome new tasting bar.”

Kneading dough gives me time for reflection.

Jesse peeled pearl onions. I grated fresh ginger and mixed it into the yogurt with cinnamon, cumin and cayenne, then tossed in chicken and veggies to marinate. I picked fresh mint and lemon balm to throw in the blender with the cilantro, lemon juice and spice. My version of hari (green) chutney.

The night we drank the 2004 Grandpere, Dave set Pandora to play “songwriter/folk.” Jack Johnson covered Lennon, telling us to “imagine there’s no heaven.”

Dave decanted the wine. We inhaled some promising esters. But appreciating the smell doesn’t always equate to liking the taste or the tactile sensation of the wine on the tongue. We were reserving judgment ’til all the sensations were in.

“We’ll either be disappointed or not disappointed.”

Dave took out our Schott Zwiesel German crystal glasses.

“I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will live as one,” sang Johnson.

We poured wine, rust-colored with perfect clarity, into the crystal.

Ting.

Long smooth fruit and vanilla flavors didn’t distinguish themselves at first. The 9-year-old wine once was characterized as having “rich generous aromas of raspberry, vanilla and white pepper, with blasts of sweet cocoa and nutmeg.”

Those notes are still there, but not in “blasts.” This is the way the bottle ends, not with a bang, but with a floral bouquet and the calm suggestion that pepper and brown spices exist as Very Good Things. This wine goes quietly into that good night with a long finish of rich plum.

Grandfather Dave downloaded a new constellation app to his iPad. Tonight, we can look at the stars, he said.

“Should I start the grill?”

“Not yet. Just getting on the sauce.”

I showed Jesse how to scald tomatoes to get the skin off. I opened a rose of zinfandel from Mendocino and added a cup to the simmering sauce. Often, I will add the wine we’re drinking to the food we’re cooking. But not the night we drank the Grandpere. Every drop belonged in our mouths.

A pause over the counter. A swirl in the glass. A taste.

“I like it.”

“I like it, too.”

“It’s probably past its time. It hasn’t gone bad, just not what it was.”

We’re past our prime. We don’t taste bad. Just different.”

I like complicated things. Naan rises twice. After it doubles the first time, you pull it apart, make ping-pong balls out of it, and let it rise again. After this, stretch it and put it on the grill. Brush with butter and garlic.

Dave grilled the naan, coming into the house to sip his wine. After a half-hour or so, his happy wine smile was getting happier.

“It’s opening.”

Then onto the grill went the skewered meat and vegetables.

Into the sauce went more spices, more wine, the grilled meat and veggies, a dollop of heavy cream. Decadent.

The smooth fruit of the aged zinfandel was drinking well when we put the first bites of spice in our mouths.

For dessert, we finished off the bottle. We didn’t make it out to look at stars.

Grandparents, we are. Wine makes us sleepy.

Published in Wine