If you want to make it rain in wine country, you can try the usual magic rituals—like washing your car, planning a sunny picnic or forgetting your raincoat.
Or you can simply decide to write about the impact of drought on the wine industry.
The sky was clear when I started thinking about water and wine, as I drove up the bone-dry Interstate 5—desert dry, crispy dry, whispy dry—in late January. I’d been jarred by stark images from NASA’s Terra satellite, showing a swath of tan mountains reaching up along the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valley, juxtaposed with a 2013 shot of a snowy white Sierra Nevada.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in California on Jan. 17. A few days later, state health officials released a list of 17 communities and water districts—from Mendocino County to Kern County—that could run dry before summer if no action was taken.
Then in early February came rain—up the coast from Monterey to Crescent City, in Napa and Sonoma, on the coast and in the foothills. It snowed over Lake Tahoe and the Sierra. Even here in SoCal, we had a couple of overcast days and a few rain sprinkles.
Ahh. The sweet smell of hydration.
Of course, the drought’s still on. Just as record freezing spells in the Midwest don’t negate the reality of global warming, a nice soaker isn’t going to make up for several months of missing precip. California’s still having the driest year ever, according to state climatologist Michael Anderson. Anderson noted in January that, statewide, only 1.53 inches of rain were recorded from October through December, the lowest aggregate total since record-keeping began in 1895. The average for that period is 7.87 inches.
From the narrow perspective of a grape-lover: That’s a lot of thirsty vines.
Did I say narrow? I meant it. Obviously, so much more is at stake than delicious fermented grape beverages. Several species of fish, including salmon and steelhead populations, are at risk. Farmers’ livelihoods are on the line. Worse, the wealthy could end up washing faces with Evian, like that reporter tweeting from a crappy hotel in Sochi.
As usual, the less-affluent would be screwed.
What are folks in the wine biz thinking on the topic of drought?
One of my favorite Sierra Foothills winemakers, Ted Bechard has a plan for this season’s challenges, which includes savvy pruning around the vernal equinox and earlier-than-usual irrigation.
When I talked to him, Bechard was in his winery, putting foil tops and labels on bottles. Rain was drizzling over his small vineyard in Somerset, Calif., about an hour east of Sacramento.
“We’re still quite a ways behind,” Bechard says. “But it’s not unlike this area for us to get some rain in April and May. We may make up the difference at that point.”
Like many others in the wine industry, he’s thinking that 2014 might not be the most-prolific year for grapes. But with the generous harvests in 2012 and 2013, California’s not going to run out of wine anytime soon. Unless some unforeseen new demand kicks in, the sizable wine inventory at many California wineries should be sufficient, says Ben Drake, president of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association.
“We’ve come off two good years,” Drake says. “I think we’re going to be in good shape.”
Drake’s in a good position to know. He runs Drake Enterprises, a farm-management company that handles avocado- and citrus-farming, as well as vineyards. He’s also on the state’s Drought Task Force.
Drake attended the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in late January in Sacramento and drought was absolutely on the agenda. Farmers are worried, and rightfully so. Northern California’s water supplies are on-stream, from rivers to reservoirs—and that requires government officials to make hard choices about who gets water and when. Sound like a political football? Yeah. Stay tuned.
Drake notes that Southern California wineries are in the enviable position of having the chock-full-o’-water man-made Diamond Valley Lake. The 800,000-acre-foot offstream reservoir near Hemet contains the Colorado River harvest. Between Diamond Lake and other water resources for Southern California, Drake predicts that 2014 won’t be a problem.
But 2015? That’s another story.
Here’s something for winos to appreciate: When it comes to efficient use of water, wine grapes are much better than other popular Southern California crops. Growing wine grapes requires less than half the water needed to grow most citrus trees, and about one-fourth of the water required for avocados.
Let them eat wine!
Drake suggests that the governor’s suggestion for Californians to reduce water use by 20 percent is an important step toward change. We need to evaluate how we live and what we grow—rethinking luxuries like lawns and landscaping, for starters.
“Realizing the climate is changing, we’re going to have to look at a new pattern for what we’re doing in our households—and by changing crops,” Drake says.
I was heartened to read that the state government plans to lead the way on efficient water use, turning off decorative fountains and not washing government vehicles as often. Those moves are mostly for show, true. A bigger water-saver will come from not irrigating highway vegetation. That saves 6 billion gallons of water annually, as much as a year’s supply of water for a city of 30,000.
At Bechard’s winery in Somerset, winemaker Ted reminds me it’s too early to predict what the year will bring.
“Who knows?” he says, “Maybe it will sort itself out and be a wonderful year.”
Did I mention a prolific wine supply? Here’s a chance to taste it all: The Temecula Valley’s World of Wines Barrel Tasting Weekend runs Saturday and Sunday, March 1 and 2 with barrel-tastings and more exciting shin-diggery at 35 wineries along Rancho California and DePortola Roads in Temecula. Tickets are $99, with various discounts. And for much less than the price of a DUI attorney, you can hire a VIP shuttle or wine tour guide to drive you around. For more information, visit www.temeculawines.org/events/index.php?events_id=51.
If wine grapes made noise, Mourvèdre would hum low and long, like a foghorn thrumming out a warning in the dark, thick stratus. Perhaps a melodic tune would emerge—something a stand-up gal could capture with the strings of her bass.
Thum-bum-ba-dum, hum-ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.
If grapes had personalities, Mourvèdre would be the brooding dude standing on the party’s outer ring like a non-sequitur, quoting Sartre and the obvious. “Consciousness is prior to nothingness and ‘is derived’ from being,” he’d say. “Weather forecast for tonight: Dark.”
Mourvèdre captures my imagination, and inspires the notes of black and blue paint that are making a muddy glum on my canvas.
I’m drinking and painting—or at least using assorted brushes to glop oil pigment on stretched white fabric. I’m brandishing the artistic confidence of a 4-year-old not yet ruined by school.
A friend is staying at my place, and we are drinking and painting for fun and obviously not profit. The wine is Twisted Oak’s 2010 River of Skulls, a Mourvèdre from Dalton Vineyards, Angels Camp, blended with nothing. The canvasses are 14 by 18 inches.
Billie Holiday’s voice crackles from a vinyl album.
My friend expresses concern about working with oil paints. She hasn’t done it since childhood. The canvas is so big, she says. So much space with which to work.
I proffer my own lack of expectations as an assurance: Just slather some paint on the pale expanse and reduce its blankness. Replace fear with joy, nothingness with being. Sometimes, a person should think long and hard about choices. Other times, hell, we’re just playing, pretending we can make art. Because we can. Because it’s winter, and we went out on the town last night.
Later, we can watch Netflix.
I keep our glasses filled. The wine is ruddy red, dirty plum. An unblended Mourvèdre wine is a rare treat, if you like the grape.
I love the grape, a Rhone varietal from France most often used in blending with Grenache and Syrah. It’s mixed with these grapes so often that the blend has its own acronym, GSM. About 900 acres of Mourvèdre was grown in California in 2012, a drop in the bottle compared with 80,000 acres of cabernet sauvignon. The numbers are from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has fun charts you can read here. You won’t actually see Mourvèdre on the list, because it’s identified as Mataró and also known as Monastrell.
Confusing, yes. But the grape is called Mourvèdre on my bottle, so I’m going with that.
Some winemakers won’t make a 100 percent Mourvèdre, because the grape oxidizes easily and can attract a buildup of the kind of yeast that gives wine an earthy funk. Now I’m all for a little earthy funk, but I don’t like to feel like I’m drinking wine straight from the compost pile. “Worm castings” is how my friend aptly describes this when she gets a nose full of it at one winery’s tasting room or another.
She likes to pretend she knows nothing about wine. It’s a ruse.
The River of Skulls has the tiniest smidgen of funk, just enough to accent those dark, rich fruits that I love so very much. Then there’s silky spice and a gruff, lingering vanilla finish. It’s a perfect bottle of wine.
Did I mention the label is a red skull?
The wine’s name comes from Spanish Lt. Gabriel Moraga’s discovery in the early 1800s of a Central Valley river filled with, you got it, human skulls. “Perhaps an ancient battle. Or perhaps a really great party gone horribly wrong,” suggests text on the back of the bottle.
I bought the River of Skulls in the Sierra foothills just after Thanksgiving, during my Christmas-present wine tasting adventure with my husband, Dave. Mourvèdre was on our holiday wish list. A couple of years ago, I ordered a glass of Vina Moda’s 2008 Mourvèdre at a restaurant and wanted more, more. Dave and I went to the tasting room and bought two bottles. We drank them both in 2012 and decided that this wine was one of the best we’d tasted that year. Why, oh why, didn’t we buy three bottles?
No problem. We thought we could drive back to the Sierra foothills and procure additional deliciousness. We attempted this for my birthday last March. Sadly, when we went to Vina Moda, the Mourvèdre was gone. Sold out. Owner and genius winemaker Nathan Vader suggested a couple of stores and restaurants that might still have bottles. We spent a good part of a day on a futile odyssey in search of the 2008 Mourvèdre. No luck.
So when we returned after Thanksgiving and tasted Vina Moda’s 2009 Mourvèdre, we bought a few bottles and put them in safe places. The winery describes its Mourvèdre like this: “She is a lithe and mysterious spider. Shining mirrors of geometrical balance and perfection. Dangerous? Possibly. Irresistibly alluring? Absolutely. Climb into her web, we dare you …”
Vader made 123 cases. When he runs out, don’t look at us.
I bought only one River of Skulls on this post-Thanksgiving trip. I'll miss it when it's gone, a moment that's fast approaching.
Billie Holiday is singing: “The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea.” And my friend is singing along: “… They can’t take that away from me.”
We’re finishing up the bottle and the better part of two paintings. Mine loosely depicts a bracket fungus on the end of a log, but could also be read as a gelatinous Casper the ghost floating through swirls of grubby ectoplasm. The clean geometric lines of my friend’s landscape—bright rolling grasses and the clean angles of a far-off barn—provide an intriguing contrast.
We put the art in a closet to dry, sip the last of the Mourvèdre, and watch the “Blood Donut” episode of Orange Is the New Black.
Art plus wine—that’s easy living.
The couple picks up a bottle of expensive wine for a special occasion—something off the top shelf at the strip-mall liquor store, perhaps. They know they like cabernet sauvignon. But faced with a row of bottles that are relatively pricy, they’re lost.
What year? What winery? In the end, they choose the wine with the most-attractive label.
Call it crapshoot cab. Maybe they like it. Maybe they don’t. Maybe they won’t be able to figure out, exactly, why this wine costs more than a case of three-buck chuck. Is it really that good? They may think: Are we just too stupid to appreciate the finer qualities of this wine?
Nah. Really, all wine is a crapshoot. Like lovers, no two bottles of wine are alike—and they won’t ever be experienced in the same way twice. But if you’re after an erotic experience with a bottle of fine wine, keep a few things in mind.
1. Choose wisely, grasshopper. Buy wine you’ve sampled at a tasting room or wine bar. Know what’s up at your local wine-bottle shop. Mega wine stores track their inventory closely, and when wines get too dusty, they end up on sale. A grocery store or gas station can keep bottles on its shelves forever and ever—not so good. Probably avoid discount stores altogether. You don’t know where that wine has been, or to what temperatures it’s been exposed.
2. Older is not always better. Some wine is built to age well. Oh so patient are the people who stayed behind in Europe, making wine in France and Italy, while the cool kids were colonizing the Americas. However, many California reds are built for drinking sooner rather than later. We do not like to wait. That said, my favorite Napa and Sierra Foothill cabernets right now are from the 2006-2008 vintages. Five or 6 years old—kindergartners.
3. Unleash the beast. Get that wine out of the bottle, and introduce it to the air. Like the Genie of the Lamp, a wine needs to stretch a bit after being cramped up in a bottle for long periods of time. This is what decanting and aeration is all about. If you’re great at planning ahead, you can decant the wine by pouring it into any large glass container with lots of surface space. You can buy reasonably priced decanters for $15 to $20. If you possess less patience, invest in an aerator. Dave has a sturdy Vinturi that’s survived after being dropped on tile and rolled in the dirt under picnic tables. I have a Soiree that fits in the top of a bottle and aerates as you pour. It’s a sexy but fragile little gizmo.
Note: Decanters or aerators are only good for those heavier red wines. White wines and light-to-medium-bodied reds, like pinot noir, most likely get enough air simply being poured into the glass.
4. Use decent wine glasses. The wine won’t be all it can be if you drink it out of plastic cups or Mason jars. Shape—the architecture of the bowl, stem and base—counts. Large wine glasses help aerate full-bodied wines. Stemware makers contend that glasses specifically shaped for a varietal—say, one for a pinot noir, and another for a cabernet—help deliver that varietal’s bouquet, texture, flavor and finish. Burp. I’ll drink out of anything that’s big enough to aerate the wine and send its molecules of deliciousness at my nose. I prefer thinner glass on my lips.
5. Manage the flavors in your mouth. A fine red wine consumed after something tangy may not feel as smooth and refined as the same wine after cheese, bread or olive oil. Experiment with a few foods to see what you like. Keep dark chocolate on hand for emergencies.
6. Spend a few minutes on foreplay. You’ve picked a decent wine, and you’re decanting or aerating. It’s waiting in the nice, bulbous glass. Sniff it. Give it a swirl. Like what you’re smelling? Inhale deeply. Your mouth should water a bit. Tease your palate. Get excited. This is going to be good.
This all sounds like lots of work, I know, but it’s really just a start—habits I’m still learning.
I hang out at a bar that pours Carter Cellars 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Revilo Vineyard by the glass. A glass is $16—not something I can really afford—but it’s half-price during happy hour. I can and do pay $8 for a glass of this Revilo Vineyard cab.
If Bartender Zach opens a new bottle, and I swill that redness down right away, I’m going to be sorely disappointed—even if Zach pours it in a giant wine glass, shaped especially for cabernet sauvignon. Without enough exposure to the atmosphere outside of the bottle, the wine’s tight and chalky, with dust on the nose. Not something you’d want to drop $16 a glass on.
Zach is a smart dude. He’s offered to pour my wine when he comes in to work and set it on the back of the bar (when I give him advance notice that I’m coming, of course). When I show up an hour later, it’s almost ready to drink. I can give it a hearty swirl in the giant glass and, man oh man, let the adventure begin. I inhale warm swirls of cocoa and black cherries and leather. I smell the wine so long that others at the bar give me sideways glances. There’s a reason that this wine costs so damn much.
My tongue gets all tingly.
And then I take a sip.
The night we drank California’s best zinfandel, a 5.0 earthquake jiggled tectonic plates off the Pacific Coast.
We didn’t feel it. No tsunami warnings ensued.
Dave asked me if I would like to feel Adventurous. I said I did.
He was washing dishes. I was scalding tomatoes, making them into a salsa with avocado, lime juice, late-harvest green onions and fresh basil.
The chunky concoction tasted more Italian, like something you’d put on bruschetta. We ate it with tortilla chips.
Dinner was on the grill: St. Louis-style barbequed ribs, a rack and a half, which is all that fits on my small portable gas grill.
What wine goes best with ribs? Syrah! Malbec! Zinfandel!
We chose to celebrate. Because it was Friday. Because Dave’s a federal employee who’s still working—he’s “essential”—but not getting paid. Because we have enough wine to ride out a couple of weeks of shutdown. (Paying the mortgage … that’s another story.)
We ended up opening this year’s best zinfandel, the double-gold-medal-winning California State Fair top pick—the Adventurous, a Macchia 2011 Amador County Zinfandel from the Linsteadt vineyard.
Macchia’s tasting room in Acampo, Calif., is a down-homey place with moderately priced wines. The Adventurous is $26.
We bought California’s Best Zinfandel on a Sunday in September. Dave drove over from Reno. I left Palm Springs at about 6 a.m. and arrived in the land of wine around 1 p.m. (My travel time included a crepe stop at the International House of Pancakes on Interstate 5. One shouldn’t taste award-winning wines on an empty stomach.)
Macchia’s tasting room was our third and last stop for the afternoon. We’d been to a super-loud and crowded tasting room, and then a quieter but fruit-fly-infested winery.
By contrast, Macchia was perfect. Friendly winery dogs greeted us and submitted to hearty petting. Tasting-room employee Vanessa Gonzales wore a Chiefs football jersey. Sampling commenced.
Macchia’s naming convention is memorable. A Sangiovese is called Amorous; a Barbera is Infamous. Zinfandels include Oblivious, Generous and Prestigious. We enjoyed subtle differences in fruit and spiciness and in the way the wine felt in our mouths. All remarkably delicious.
We’d tasted several wines before Gonzales remembered to tell us that they’d just gotten that big blue 2013 California State Fair ribbon on the wall for the 2011 Adventurous.
We sipped, liked and purchased.
We thought it was cool that the wine had won an award. Later, we realized that this wine had won The Award—“Best Zinfandel” in the state. After five minutes of extensive online research, I was duly impressed. (This year’s commercial wine winners are listed on the fair’s website. It’s fun to scroll through and plot future visits.)
The night we drank the best zinfandel in California, we opened the bottle more than an hour before dinner, but didn’t drink it. Ploop. Out came the cork. Dave sniffed the bottle. I sniffed the bottle. Nose-gasms ensued.
A decanting debate was brief: Should we dump the liquid into a large, oddly shaped bottle to let the wine open up?
“You don’t want to flatten it,” I said.
“You can’t flatten it,” he contended.
Dave poured a half-ounce into my glass. “Yeah, decant it,” I said.
Because I like to sip a little something while I’m cooking, I had a couple of ounces of Montepulciano that I’d opened the previous night. Perfect with Italian dry coppa and Spanish manchego. I learned to say Montepulciano by watching a YouTube video. How did you learn to say Montepulciano?
Speaking of streaming video, we'd planned to watch an episode of The West Wing’s season five on Netflix, but the night’s ante had upped. We selected an artsy Italian thriller instead. With English subtitles.
Dave had harvested purple potatoes, so we shredded those and cooked ’em up with garlic and chanterelle mushrooms. Zin’s a fine meat-and-tater wine.
Then the meat was on our plates. A toast—to Friday nights. We tested the velvet in our glasses, Dave noting caramel and light fruit. Me, nice warm spices. Then we dug in, dipping our perfectly seared ribs into a tangy Red Tail Ale barbecue sauce from Mendocino Brewing Company. Yeah.
But how would the wine fare with the super zingy ribs?
Not to worry. The wine not only didn’t disappear; the meat brought out the wine’s giant fruits. Big peppery plums! “Not for the faint-hearted,” as the wine’s promo proclaimed.
This is what pairing is about.
The movie, La Doppia Ora (The Double Hour), from 2009, began with a suicide and a dismal speed-dating scene. We hunkered on the couch and nursed the rest of the bottle for 90 minutes or so, wearing glasses over our schnozzes like oxygen masks. Inhaling flavor.
Can you use up smell?
I sat my glass down but was distracted by the intoxicating vapors coming from Dave’s wine. He guarded his Adventurous.
The plot twisted. The characters were not who they seemed to be. Everything changed. Our wine shifted as well, into harmonious balance, hints of vanilla.
Then bullets. Bad dreams. Hallucinations.
Is this wine the best because it is the best? Or is it the best because we think it’s the best?
Later while cleaning up, I polished off a few sips of montepulciano. After the Adventurous bliss, the formerly OK wine tasted disgustible with notes of sour refuse.
As the movie climaxed, we savored the last of our Adventurous, hopping on the Macchia website to price out a case ($312) that we would not be buying.
Finally, our last sip. The Italian thriller had resolved, and I don’t mean to spoil it, but true love was not served. Or was it?
We raised our empty glasses for a final toast.
Nothing notable, really, about our Friday night. We turned it into the night we drank California’s best zinfandel.
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.
If you’ve seen Adam Sandler’s Bedtime Stories or you’re a faithful fan of The Bachelor, you’ve seen Napa marketing genius Dario Sattui’s castle, located in Calistoga.
On the north end of Napa County, Castello di Amorosa isn’t exactly ancient. The 121,000-square-foot winery and eight-level playland opened to visitors in 2007.
Think Citizen Kane’s Xanadu—except this rich dude’s over-the-top architectural fantasy has a twisting, turning cave maze lined with wine in French oak barrels.
The Empire Sattui makes wine, too.
No, Castello di Amorosa wasn’t an Italian castle brought over to the United States brick by brick and reassembled. But, yes, bricks were brought over, along with doors, hunks of iron and various medieval fixtures—all used to generate the 107-room, $40 mil-ish castle, including its moat, drawbridge, torture chamber and wine caves. It’s a larger-than-life-sized model of a medieval castle as researched, imagined and re-created by a U.S. winemaker with a shit-ton of money who grew tired of simply buying up ancient Italian landmarks, including a medieval monastery near Siena, and a Medici palace.
Sattui writes about his passion—“some would say obsession”—on the Castello’s medieval themed website: “I was determined to erect the most beautiful and interesting building in North America for showcasing great wines; for it must not be forgotten that, aside from being defensive fortifications, throughout history and in modern times, many of the great wines in Europe have and are being made in castles.”
I’ve tasted some pretty terrific wines made in sheds and garages, but sure. OK. Build it, and we will come.
Sattui purchased the 170-acre property in the 1990s. The project sprawled from a modest 8,500-square-foot McCastle to, well, the spectacle we visited on a Saturday afternoon.
Packed parking lot. At least three couples taking wedding photos—though you can’t get married there. A half-hour wait in line to buy tickets was followed by a half-hour wait for our guided tour to begin. Not bad.
You don’t need to take a tour. You can roam limited areas and do a standard five-wine tasting for $18. For $33, there’s a guided tour that weaves through the castle bowels to a five-wine tasting at a private bar.
Upgrades: For $43, you sip six “low-production, high-end reserve wines.” For $69, it’s the Royal Pairing. You’ll be “secreted away to the elegantly appointed Royal Apartment” and sample award-winning wines paired with “savory bites” while seated at a “rustic Tuscan table.” Reservations recommended.
Meh. Dave and I didn’t have reservations. We wanted to see the castle because, well, it’s there, big, hyperreal—and we’re Americans. We opted for the standard tour and tasting, thank you. No, we didn’t want to add chocolate ($4), cheese ($15) or charcuterie ($15).
Besides, we’d enjoyed a barbecue on the lawn earlier at V. Sattui Winery—Dario Sattui’s original and obviously profitable winery, deli and playland.
You can get married there. The “V” is for Vittorio, D’s great granddad, whose own winery flourished in San Francisco through the early 1900s and then closed during Prohibition.
It’s hard to miss V. Sattui Winery. Driving through St. Helena, it’s on the main drag and jam-packed with cars, humans and dogs. Pet-friendly. Pretention-unfriendly. There is no room to snob it up in a loud, crowded tasting room when your wine’s poured by a guy from the Bronx.
“And this one here’s yer pasta wine. And this is gonna be puffect for the barbecue, right? You like that? Yeah, you do.”
V. Sattui charges for tastings. We found a buy-one-get-one coupon app on my smart phone and spent $10 for the two of us to share tastes of 12 wines.
We bought the 2010 Napa Valley Merlot ($34), because 1) we liked it and 2) Sattui’s wines aren’t sold in wine shops or at the 7-Eleven. For years, you could only buy ’em at the winery. Nowadays, you can buy online.
Then we stood in line to buy barbecued meat items that can be consumed on the winery lawn. Around us roamed honeymooners and parties of friends celebrating birthdays and upcoming weddings. We talked to tourists from Europe, Asia, Mexico, Pennsylvania and Los Angeles.
Sattui’s fortune, it turns out, doesn’t come merely from wine sales, but also from the deli and from weddings and picnics held on the property. Savvy, right? He’s been cornering this market since before Napa became Wine-Swilling Tourist Central.
Done with lunch, we were on to the Castello.
Thanks to Sattui’s extensive Italian travels and research, the medieval Tuscan castle is about as authentic as a reproduced medieval Tuscan castle built in the rolling hills of the Golden State can be. Above one large entrance are windows from which boiling oil can be poured on invaders. The attached room has actual oil boiling capabilities, according to our tour guide, Shawn Wager.
Speaking of sieges, there’s a working well inside the castle walls. That way, the invaders—Sonoma winemakers?—can’t pour poison or dirt into the community water supply.
“So don’t worry,” Wager told us. “If we’re besieged, we’ll be OK.”
Winery president Georg Salzner told a Sacramento Bee reporter that Sattui worries about people equating the Castello to Disneyland or Las Vegas. I don’t see the problem. People love Disneyland with its larger-than-life cartoon mammals. We love Vegas with its Fake Eiffel Tower, Fake Pyramids of Egypt and Fake Venetian Canals, complete with Fake Gondolas. Copies don’t need to feel real; they become their own “Real.” (See cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, best read with a second or even third glass of red.)
In fact, it’s comforting to me that no one has really died in the Castello’s Fake Torture Chamber, with its various historic artifacts, including the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg.
The Iron Maiden looks like a giant stand-up tomb, by the way. When a human body is closed in this device, it’s jabbed with 4-inch glowing hot spikes designed to poke and cauterize your guts, but not to puncture internal organs. Maximum pain—without death. You will tell your secrets, change your religion, alter your sexuality. Anything to stop the pain.
“A human pin cushion!” exclaimed our tour guide. Take that, water-boarding pussies, I thought.
In an underground tasting room, menus were doled out. Since Dave and I shared tastes, we tried 10 wines. All fine. Their wines win awards, so who am I to pooh-pooh?
The Il Barone 2009 ($88) won a double gold in the 2013 American Fine Wine Competition and received a 92 from Antonio Galloni, who is a real person (I checked) and, in fact, a renowned wine critic.
We didn’t buy wine. We noted, though, that the Castello sounded like an entertaining place, after hours, for employees.
Favorite quote from tour guide: “I love to catapult things into the lake.”
I’m sitting at a table in a parking lot—at 18 Hangar Way, Suite C, in Watsonville, to be exact. Near an airport.
There’s an airport in Watsonville, a farming community between Santa Cruz and Monterey. And there are wineries. Today, 10 of ’em all, in one place. Here.
Am I slurring? Talking too loud? Where’s the restroom again?
That's right. It’s under the gorilla.
“And he doesn’t peek,” says Al Drewke, owner of Roudon-Smith Winery. Drewke’s referring to an ape face painted into a jungle mural on the wine-warehouse wall.
I’m outside, taking a break, snacking on cheese and chocolate from Original Sin, a Soquel, Calif., caterer.
It’s 2 p.m. I started tasting wine around noon. I might be tipsy, animated. Babbling on and on (and on) to a Bay Area couple about this unexpected treat. A tiny, tasty wine event, well, here.
Rather than in Santa Cruz. Or Monterey.
Watsonville, defined by Urban Dictionary, is “just a boring crappy town,” while Santa Cruz is “kick-ass … laid-back, (with) great surfing (and) awesome local bands.”
So Watsonville and wine? Sounds like a juicy adventure.
Dave and I planned a Saturday visit to four or five wineries near Watsonville and nearby Aptos. We never made it past stop No. 1.
Stop No. 1 was Roudon-Smith, billed as one of the original wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains Wine Appellation. Though it’s just off Highway 1, we took back roads there, weaving our way through the hills of the Pajaro Valley, drooling over strawberry fields and a few pricey homes. We cruised past a local animal shelter advertising $40 spays and neuters, an antenna biz, a thrift store and a hydroponics retailer.
At Roudon-Smith, an event was gearing up. An art fair? Barrel-tasting? Bottles were appearing on tables circling the interior of a large warehouse. Barrels lined one wall. A giant mural included colorful plants and primates.
It was a few minutes before noon. A woman greeted us warmly. “You’re the first ones here!”
Turns out Roudon-Smith shares space in the Santa Cruz Winemakers' Studio, a newish wine co-op that includes Myka Cellars and Wargin Wines.
When the Hangar Way tasting room is open from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, three wineries are pouring. The day we visited, the co-op was partying with seven additional wineries, appetizers and music. Happy me.
So let’s do the math while I still can: Ten wineries times, say, three 1-ounce tastes of wine at each, is 30 ounces of wine. That’s not including generous extra pours or the occasional revisit of something amazing.
At this type of event, pacing is key. Tee-hee-hee. I’m rhyming.
We tasted slowly, spending time at each tasting table. We met passionate winery owners like Drewke, who assumed sole ownership of Roudon-Smith in 2011. Before Sept. 11, 2001, Drewke worked in tech. Then Uncle Sam came calling. Military service over, Drewke thought: “Do I want to herd cats again?” The answer (negatory) included going back to school—in the Bordeaux region of France—for a master’s degree in the wine business.
Roudon-Smith’s Santa Cruz-grown chardonnay is zingy. Drewke said creamy flavors should not be foisted on a zesty grape, chock full of citrus and minerality. This causes the taster’s brain to rebel. You gotta know the fruit.
“I don’t butter lemons and limes,” Drewke says.
Roudon-Smith’s wines, crafted by winemaker Brandon Armitage, were among the more-mature vintages served at the event. Armitage also has his own label and was serving at a table nearby.
I savored Roudon-Smith’s 2008 pinot noir, aged in neutral oak, possibly because of the way Drewke talked about the grapes, which are growing “right down the street.” Pinot noir thrives with the valley’s warm days and cool evening fog. It’s a finicky grape that demands special attention. As a winemaker, Drewke said, you’re constantly checking in: “Are you comfy, dear? Can I rub your feet, dear?” If you fail to pamper, the grape “builds up grudges and lets its angst and anger out in the bottle.”
Roudon-Smith treats its grapes right. The splendid result: a light bodied mix of anise and cherry.
Dave bought a bottle of 2007 Duet ($27), a blend of cabernet franc (60 percent) and cabernet sauvignon (40), made from San Miguel grapes.
One table down, nine to go. We moved three feet to the right and landed at Bottle Jack Wines. Winemaker John Ritchey, 34, greeted us: “You’ve never heard of us. We’re super-small and super-new.”
Ritchey poured his 2008 Firenze, a super Tuscan-style wine. (Outlaw Italians! Google it!)
The caterer walks up behind us: “Would you like caprese?” Mmm. Tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella pair marvelously with the Firenze. (And I probably need to eat something.)
Ritchey fell in love with wine-making while working with the Peace Corps in Moldova. He returned to Fresno State for an enology degree, missing class to pick up grapes for his own winery.
Ritchey is an optimist. “Economy tanking? Collapse? That’s a good time to start a winery.”
Halfway around the room, and a few wineries later, we land at the table of Mica Raas, pouring his Myka Cellars. The co-op is Raas’ brainchild.
Raas dreams of the Pajaro Valley becoming its own appellation. He opened the wine co-op in Watsonville because the space was affordable. But he also enjoys his newish role of outsider winemaker, playing up the “rebel” label for news media.
Raas didn’t exactly hire the guy who painted the mural to paint a jungle. Raas paid for the paint, and gave the artist carte blanche. Then Raas held his breath. He described coming back the next day, saying to himself, “Please don’t be a naked lady. Please don’t be a naked lady.”
Of course, Raas supports artistic expression. “I just can’t have a 40-foot-high naked lady in here. Think of the detail.”
I complied. Then we bought Myka Cellars’ Mitzi Unoaked 2012 Chardonnay ($28) and the 2011 Kane Cabernet Sauvignon ($26).
I needed to visit the restroom under the gorilla.
Five wineries down. Five to go.
Pacing is key. Tee-hee-hee.
An eco-activist friend looked at me askance a couple of years ago when I bought a wine chiller.
The small refrigerator keeps 44 bottles of wine at around 60ish degrees. I considered the purchase a survival strategy while living a year in a toasty, not air-conditioned apartment in Honolulu.
While living in Hawaii, I rode my bike to work at the university. I generated very little trash. I didn’t have a microwave or, for months, a toaster.
But, still, a wine refrigerator? Am I a bad citizen of the planet? Environmental guilt is at least as bad as religious guilt. So many rules.
Thou shalt not wear gold jewelry (cuz gold mining’s satanic).
Thou shalt have no other gods beside thine hybrid car.
Thou shalt eat organic; buy local; shop at thrift stores; drink shade-grown, fair-trade coffee; and purchase chocolate bars that promise donations to rain-forest preservation.
Thou shalt water thine garden with recycled gray water from thine bathtub.
I’m all for it.
I’m all for ecological balance, and righting the climate-change wrongs. I care about future generations. My grandkids should enjoy this great, green planet as much as I do. I care for selfish reasons. I want to protect the world’s best grape-growing climates. All I need is the air that I breathe and a glass of tasty cabernet sauvignon—preferably served at about 62 degrees.
But it’s getting hot out there. Climate change is my fault and not my fault. I can do my part. Recycle! Bike! Small changes add up, right? However, it seems to me that real reform will have to come from the Big Polluters (power pushers, industrial manufacturing, gas and oil companies, auto manufacturers). I’m not going to pretend that I can make the world a better place by consuming less wine.
I recently quoted, to a despairing friend, applicable advice from The West Wing’s Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff): “Listen, when you get home tonight you're going to be confronted by the instinct to drink alone. Trust that instinct. Manage the pain. Don't try to be a hero.”
Like every maker of stuff we love from shoes to road trips to Fritos, the wine industry contributes to the toxing-up of the planet. Wine goes into bottles, the manufacture of which wastes water. Some grape-growers use pesticides. Wine is a monoculture. Corks are bad. Screw tops end up in landfills. Wine gets shipped from Australia to California. Or Chile to California. Or France and Italy to California.
Most of the wine I drink is purchased from the folks who make it—right here in California. That makes me feel OK. But the best way I’ve found to avoid feeling guilty is, well, by deciding not to feel guilty. It’s tricky. I refuse to call my wine-drinking a guilty pleasure. It’s a pleasure pleasure.
Manage the pain. Don’t be a hero.
It helps my psyche to know that many wineries shifting are shifting to eco-friendly practices. Dozens of wineries are experimenting with eco-friendly packaging. Organic wines are popping up everywhere. The next happy green trend? Biodynamics.
If that sounds eco-groovy, it should. The folks at Chateau Davell in Camino, Calif., allow small animals to roam the vineyards, keeping the land weed-free while not harming the grapes. Cute. Chateau Davell’s a newish, family-owned winery that makes use of solar power when possible.
In Santa Cruz, Bonny Doon Vineyard began using biodynamic farming practices in 2004. The winery promotes its wines as “soulful” and evincing “a deeper sense of place, complexity and varietal expression.” I like it. I don’t often buy white wine, but Bonny Doon crafts an albarino, an obscure Spanish grape that pairs perfectly with summer heat. Last I checked, the 2009 Ca’ Del Solo Albarino ($18) can be purchased online.
At Bonterra, grape-growers engage in the freakishly fascinating biodynamic practice of filling of a cow horn with manure and quartz. The horn is buried in the ground, left to mature, and then finally mixed with water and used as a natural fertilizing spray on roots and leaves. Poop is good food. You’ve probably seen Bonterra in a wine or grocery store, as it’s one of the more widely distributed organic wines.
Bonterra is in Mendocino County, where the red wines couldn’t be greener. It’s a neighbor to Jeriko Estates, where Daniel Fetzer (of the Fetzer wine dynasty) commits to growing grapes without using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides. Instead, cover crops are planted, and chickens and goats roam the vineyards, taking care of the weeds.
The results? Some elegant pinot noirs. The Jeriko Estate 2011 Pinot Noir Pommard Clone offers complex deliciousness—pepper, sour berries, vanilla and brown spices. It’s $64, so it’s not a house wine. But occasional case sales happen at Jeriko. At a visit before Christmas last year, I walked out with a case of chardonnay and a case of grenache noir at prices that made the bottles less than $15.
After all, biodynamic wines make great gifts.
At Parducci Wine Cellars in Ukiah, the winemakers boast of going beyond mere organic and biodynamic growing methods. They also recycle and reuse water. Take steps to reduce their electricity consumption. Treat their employees well. I read this all on their website.
If you visit Parducci, pick up a bottle of Coro Mendocino ($38), a lovely red blend of local Mendo grapes. Somewhere melded into the layers of robust dark fruits, you can taste Parducci’s teensy-weensy ecological footprint. The tasty terroir of sustainability and fair labor practices.
The Coro is good enough to rate a spot in my wine chiller.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“Wine is sunlight held together by water.” —Galileo Galilei
Driving across the Midwest and Southern United States, I’ve noticed an abundance of sun and moisture.
These days, fields of grapish dreams are emerging everywhere from Georgia to Missouri. Wineries seem to be thriving with tasting rooms handily close to major highways.
The nation is becoming one giant California. Fun to say, given that folks ’round here tend to mock my Left Coast leanings.
The change cheers me. I’m on a road trip to see family and friends. I’ve made short stops in near-beer Utah and Arbor Mist-y Nebraska, before moving on through Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina—all states with dozens of wineries, associations and marketing plans.
My Ohio-dwelling adult daughter planned a visit to a local winery. She even practiced wine-drinking beforehand: She bought various varietals at Ohio stores. Now a year out of college and practicing the art of self-education, she tried to comprehend the wine, um, thing.
She revealed her studies on our drive through the rolling green Midwestern hills.
“I want to be part of this family,” she said. “When it comes to the wine thing, I feel left out.”
I get that. There’s a scene in The Lost Boys when the Kiefer “Young!” Sutherland, Punk Vampire, hands Jason “Young!” Patric a jug of blood and says, “Drink some of this, Michael; be one of us.”
Be one of us.
A couple of years ago, I took my older daughter—the younger Ohio-dweller’s sister—to the Sierra Foothills for a tasty trip: Tahoe to Placerville and up Highway 49 to Auburn. On a sunny Friday afternoon, we were the only patrons in several tasting rooms, so we garnered plenty of undivided attention from knowledgeable employees. At smaller wineries, the winemakers themselves might be the ones pouring on a quiet Friday afternoon.
At Bumgarner Winery in Camino, genius winemaker Brian Bumgarner filled our glasses and explained tastes, blending flavor with his stories about growing up as a blonde, blue-eyed “haole” in Hawaii. The winery’s tasting room was brand-new, and the cabernet sauvignon was one of that varietal’s first releases. Daughter Older sniffed, put the wine in her mouth, felt it and made the happy delicious goodness face.
Epiphany! She’d tasted the “sunlight held together by water,” about which Galileo wrote. And it was good.
“I want this wine,” she said. “I want to drink a bottle of this wine.”
Be one of us.
Would Daughter Younger be similarly recruited into the ranks of our family’s perma-purple fangs?
We headed into the Ohio hills on a Sunday afternoon. Destination: the Winery at Wolf Creek in Norton, about 30 miles south of Cleveland. We drove over the creek named Wolf several times, and hung out at a Strawberry Festival where shortcake, berries and honey were on sale. Local wines were on display—but not for purchase. Because it was Sunday. Puzzling, but that’s the way it works in Ohio.
Fortunately, the winery has a permit to sell wine on Sundays.
I got a bit lost driving to the winery. “We don’t have to go,” Daughter Younger suggested. It occurred to me that a person’s first tasting-room visit can be fraught with uncertainty. Or perhaps she was a bit embarrassed by me, looking sunburned and scruffy, driving a car with California plates that include the letters “VINO.” No matter. Armed with a credit card and oodles of charging power, I wanted to experience wines of the Midwest.
Does my daughter mind if I take notes?
“When do you not take notes?” she wanted to know. Touche, lovely smartass.
All is well. The tasting room isn’t crowded. The woman behind the counter seems friendly and open-minded. No snoots mar our bliss.
The tasting room features a stunning overlook with views of forests and farmlands. Visitors can buy a glass or bottle and sit at a table. Or taste all you’d like for 50 cents per one-ounce pour. Three for $1.
The list of wines heartened me. Days earlier, tasting local wine with relatives in Wisconsin, I’d endured a flight of super-sweet wines made from Concord grapes, apples and raspberries. The latter wine would pair well with peanut butter in a sandwich, I said, before realizing that I should have filtered. I don’t think the winemaker was offended.
Joy! Wolf Creek was pouring syrah, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and cabernet franc—the latter from grapes grown on the estate. Treat of the day: a zingy fruit-forward red called “Exodus,” made with marechal foch, a hybrid grape developed for colder climates and said to be similar to pinot noir. A definite maybe on that one. But it was hella cool to try a new grape.
Be one of us.
Wolf Creek knows its Midwestern audience. The winery offers plenty of light and sweet wines, including fruit wines with names like “Blue” (blueberry) and “Space Cowboy” (peach). The “dry” wine, aka “wine,” is labeled on the menu as such, so that folks can avoid what my mom calls “that sour stuff—I don’t know how you can put that in your mouth.” Wisconsin-dwelling Mom would like the Blue.
I noted that the winery is “Now Serving Wine Slushies!” in two flavors: Muscat Black Cherry and Space Cowboy Peach Berry ($5). Daughter Younger offered to buy me one, as I’ve not ever tasted a wine slushie. But we were fresh from the Strawberry Fest. All I wanted was a nice bottle of red wine.
I worked through the possibilities, which were listed on a menu in an innovative order. Tasting a dark, meaty syrah before a kind, gentle cabernet franc ain’t usually recommended. Most wineries arrange a tasting flight from lighter to bolder wines so that the lighter wines have a fleeting chance on your buds of taste.
Easy fix: I taste the syrah last after the zinfandel, the praises of which I will now sing. It’s a 2011 zin, so young. Aged in American oak. But bright fruits balanced with nice spice. Cherry and black licorice. Tastes like heaven to me.
The woman has a binder with tasting notes about the wines, from residual sugar (0 percent) to cases produced (140). The 2011 vintage is the first time that the winery has released zinfandel as its own varietal.
A ha! Wolf Creek gets its zinfandel grapes from Lodi, California. The wine doesn’t taste like heaven, silly me. It tastes like the Golden State.
Turns out Wolf Creek’s wine is in such high demand in Ohio that they import grapes from elsewhere. Brilliant! I bought a bottle ($20). I planned to take it home to my wine-loving husband, but the bottle didn’t make it. I opened it at Daughter Older’s house, my next stop. She’s now living in North Carolina.
The Winery at Wolf Creek, though a fine find, didn’t quite possess the ferment to turn my 20-something into a grape-thirsting fiend. The next time she comes to visit me in California, though, Daughter Younger should plan on having a tasty epiphany.
Be one of us.