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The Rim of the World was in flames in the late summer and fall of 2013. Dawn came morning after morning with smoldering red-orange skylines.

By the time the conflagration was contained, the Yosemite Rim Fire had burned 400 square miles, making it the third-largest wildfire in California’s history. Wide swaths of charred hills and valleys were left in its wake.

Spared from flames were tempranillo grapes in the Zuni Vineyard, on the canyon’s far edges. Gas and carbon vapors, however, penetrated the grapes’ thin skins for more than 40 days.

Now those grapes are wine.

“You can taste that smoke,” says Lisette Sweetland. She’s pouring the 2013 Tempranillo at Inner Sanctum Cellars. We’re visiting the winery’s tasting room in Jamestown, a few miles west of Yosemite. “It affected the wine in interesting ways.”

You can’t predict the impact of a disaster, manmade or natural. Not for months or years. Maybe not ever.

Sweetland tips the wine into my glass. Folks have nicknamed this the Rim Fire Red, she says.

Her description of smoke gives me pause. I’m not a fan of wine that tastes like the underside of a grill—even if I am pairing that wine with barbecued meat.

Inner Sanctum’s 2013 Torro 3 Tempranillo defies expectations. Notes of charred air are there, yes, but these subtle tones are balanced expertly with brighter eruptions of growing things—savory herbs and brambly berries.

I’m impressed. What does it take to coax this complexity from grapes that spent the weeks before harvest saturated in smoke? A masterful winemaker.

In Tuolumne County, this guru of grapes is Chuck Hovey. My husband, Dave, and I are fans of Hovey’s art.

Hovey, 60, got his start at J. Lohr Winery in San Jose, and made wines at Stevenot Winery in Murphys for more than 20 years. Hovey’s brilliance there translated to more than 500 wine awards in various competitions. In fact, Stevenot’s 2006 Tempranillo was the Pike house wine five or six years ago, notable for its excellence and affordability. We bought it by the case ($99) for ourselves and shared with appreciative friends.

In 2008, Hovey started his own label, Hovey Wine. He’s also the consulting winemaker for Gianelli Vineyards, Inner Sanctum Cellars and Bodega del Sur Winery in Murphys.

Hovey is a legend in Tuolumne and Calaveras county wine-making. Now the legend is facing his own fires. Over the summer, Hovey survived two strokes and had to have a craniectomy. His son Kyle Hovey created a GoFundMe page to help pay for his dad’s medical care. To date, the site has received more than $44,000 in contributions.

While Hovey recovers this fall, his shoes are being filled by wine-making apprentice Cody LaPertche. The apprentice told a local reporter he’s doing his best to stick to what he’s learned from Hovey.

“Every day, coming in, I feel like he’s got his hand on my shoulder,” LaPertche told a reporter for The Union-Democrat (Sonora, Calif.). “Every single day, we come in thinking, ‘What would Chuck do?’”

In the meantime, Hovey’s winemaking influence is widely felt. At Gianelli Vineyards tasting room in Jamestown, Dave and I encounter a dozen award-winning wines that Hovey crafted from grapes grown a few miles out of town.

I’d heard good things about Gianelli. A list of 2013 distinctions includes 11 wines that won a combined 26 awards. Gianelli’s 2010 Aglianico, for example, won Best of Class in the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and Double Gold in the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

Of the wines we taste, Dave and I like ’em all. That’s unusual. Nothing strikes us as bland or acidic or even less than fabulous. Several are so delicious that we roll our eyes back and make happy sighs. Dave buys a few bottles, including the 2011 Aglianico ($27) and a delectable 2010 Dolcetto ($22).

Inner Sanctum’s tasting room is a few doors down from Gianelli. Between the two is a pan-for-nuggets tourist shop. This is gold country, after all.

Gianelli’s 2011 “The Don” Barbera won four awards in 2014, including a Double Gold at the Calaveras Wine Competition, and a silver in Sunset’s International Wine Competition. The “Don,” in this case, is wine-grower Ron Gianelli. And Inner Sanctum’s wine notes describe the wine as “flawlessly created by master winemaker Chuck Hovey.”

While we’re chatting with Sweetland, others pop in to ask about The Don.

“We’re out of the barbera,” Sweetland says, “but you’re more than welcome to come on in!”

Sweetland, though an experienced tasting-room employee, hasn’t worked here long. She’s company manager for the Sierra Repertory Theatre as well. She puts in a plug for a recent production while also talking knowledgeably about the local wine scene.

“This is my fun job,” she says.

Sweetland fell in love with Inner Sanctum because of the Torro 3. On a recent birthday, her partner was cooking up burgers with blue cheese and Portobello mushrooms. Hoping for a spectacular pairing, she brought home the Rim Fire Red. The wine’s vintage recalled the tumult of that fall. Sweetland had been pregnant. Her midwife had advised staying home, and not going out to breathe the dangerous air.

“But I had to work,” she says now. She recalls how the layers of smoke converged, most afternoons, to form a mushroom cloud. “It was apocalyptic,” she says.

And the wine?

“It’s a barbecue in a bottle,” she says. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

Before we leave, Sweetland recommends dinner at The Standard Pour in Sonora, a newish establishment created by veteran area foodies.

Though perhaps more widely known for craft beers, The Standard Pour offers a few Inner Sanctum wines. I order a glass of the Rim Fire Red, pairing it with a tangy brussel sprout and bacon appetizer. Then, because it can’t hurt to ask: Do they possess any of Inner Sanctum’s sold-out barbera? They do!

For dessert, I drink The Don, toasting the fine work of winemaker Hovey, and offering best wishes for his full and speedy recovery.

Gorgeous liquid, this. Salute!

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

The Rim Fire started small enough, on Aug. 17—a 200-acre blaze burning toward a place called Jawbone Ridge from a north-facing slope in the rugged Clavey River canyon, west of California’s Yosemite National Park.

The area was isolated, and no structures were immediately threatened.

By the 19th, local news sites were reporting 2,500 acres burned with evacuations advised for some neighboring communities. By the 22nd, the fire had exploded to more than 53,000 acres, and then it doubled in size the following day as it roared into Yosemite itself, making national headlines.

A video shot from a Channel Islands Air National Guard plane on Aug. 22 shows a towering mushroom cloud of smoke leaning all the way to the horizon, lit gold by flame and low-angle sun, and casting a dark shadow across forested hills. The pilots point out El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall off to the right, then more gravely observe how impressive the fire looks. As they bank towards the blaze, one says, “Wow… that’s kind of creepy.” As they close in to drop a load of fire retardant, with awe: “That is unreal.”

The word is apt for the dramatic flag of smoke and flame unfurling before the pilots’ eyes. And it certainly fits as of Tuesday afternoon (Aug. 27), with the Rim Fire’s footprint now at nearly 180,000 acres, at least 23 structures destroyed, various evacuations in effect, 3,752 people involved with fighting the blaze, well more than $20 million spent, and smoke billowing across the state line into Reno. And despite some progress towards containment (20 percent at last glance), Inciweb predicts continued “very large fire growth due to extremely dry fuels, strong winds and inaccessible terrain. Rapid fire growth and extreme fire behavior are hampering suppression efforts.”

“This fire is burning unlike anything we've seen in this area historically,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Ashley Taylor told the Los Angeles Times. In the neighboring community of Groveland, the Times reported, people gathered in the middle of the two-lane highway to watch the smoke rise. Nearly all the businesses in town were closed due to the fire, save for the Iron Door Saloon, in operation since 1852, where, “on Friday afternoon, every bar stool was taken. Maps showing the perimeter of the fire were laid out like place mats. People jabbed their fingers at the maps, swapping updates: ‘His shed is gone. But the house is still there.’”

The damage has indirectly reached all the way to San Francisco, nearly 200 miles away. The fire is burning towards the city’s drinking water in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and has already disrupted its supply of hydroelectricity, reports the San Francisco Chronicle:

Two of three power production plants downriver from the reservoir had to shut down before the fire swept through, prompting the city to rely on reciprocal agreements with other utilities and to spend about $600,000 buying supplemental power to make up the shortfall. One of the closed plants was still too dangerous to reach, while crews assessed the damage on the other Sunday afternoon and hoped to have repairs completed Monday. It will not be brought online until transmission lines in the fire zone can be inspected.

So far, though, “Despite ash falling like snowflakes on the reservoir and a thick haze of smoke limiting visibility to 100 feet, the quality of the water (itself) is still good,” reports The Associated Press.

The news of the blaze comes as the U.S. Forest Service grapples with paying for firefighting efforts across the nation in a tight budget year. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than $1 billion has been spent so far on suppression efforts in 2013 (last year’s tab was $1.9 billion). And for the first time since 2008, on Aug. 20, the NIFC raised the nation’s fire preparedness to level 5, meaning that the vast majority of firefighting resources are already committed to blazes—and that additional help may be needed from the National Guard and others.

Just a few days before, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell had ordered an immediate Forest Service spending freeze for restoration programs, employee travel, and other personnel costs to help funnel an additional $600 million into the agency’s suppression account, which had been bled down to a mere $50 million—about half of what’s typically needed to cover a single week at Level 5, reports E&E News (sub required). Such borrowing has happened six other times in the last decade, totaling $2.7 billion. Of that Congress eventually restored $2.3 billion, “but not without disruptions to important agency programs”—many of them the kind that could help lessen fire risks in the future.

The FLAME Act of 2009 was supposed to help head off that dynamic by creating a reserve fund for firefighting, but it doesn’t appear to be working, perhaps because of fluctuating appropriations.

Meanwhile, Tidwell also announced last week that, to meet the terms of the federal sequester, the Forest Service will withhold $18 million in Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act funds for habitat and restoration work, some of which could also potentially make ecosystems more resilient and resistant to megafires in the long run, reports the Associated Press:

Oregon stands to lose the most in the move, with nearly $4 million in reductions, (leaving) the state with about $3.4 million. (Those of us here in) California would lose nearly $2.2 million, leaving it with about $1 million. Idaho is set to lose $1.7 million, Montana nearly $1.3 million and Alaska, about $930,000—nearly half (its) allotment.

"This is a mess, as forecast," Chris Topik, who directs the Nature Conservancy's Restoring America's Forests program, told E&E News in response to the spending freeze. "It shows that we need to get serious about investing in the restoration work that reduces fire risk. We need to get serious about a new way of funding suppression.”

Sarah Gilman is the associate editor at High Country News, from which this was cross-posted.

Published in Environment