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.
Sacramento boasts plenty of wine bars—some with witty hipsters, and others with well-dressed lobbyists. Or hipster lobbyists.
We end up in California’s capital, now and again, on business or pleasure. For something new during a recent visit, we drive south from our downtown hotel on Highway 99. Exit and turn east on Florin Road. Zoom past strip malls with the usual Starbucks, Panda Express and Sizzler chains.
The journey is daunting. I’m not especially hopeful. But we have reservations at a landmark winery, Sacramento’s oldest, producing alcohol from grapes since 1897.
Doubts double as we turn on Frasinetti Road, just before the railroad tracks. What in the heck are we doing out here? A Burlington Northern train chugs by. On the right, an auto repair shop, building supplies, Industrial Minerals. Just up the road, Siemens operates a light-rail manufacturing facility, and Pepsi bottles liquids of the carbonated variety.
“A winery back here? Really? What were they thinking?”
Of course, Frasinetti Winery was here first, founded by Italian immigrant James Frasinetti about 115 years ago. Its first wines were hauled into Sacramento on horse-drawn wagons. The vineyard survived Prohibition. Made it through the Depression. Thrived and grew to 400 acres.
Howard Frasinetti, James’ grandson, remembers a time when the surrounding neighborhood was country—expansive fields, grapes growing in all directions. “After your chores were done, you could get out there with your .22 and do some shooting,” he says.
Still family-owned, Frasinetti now buys its grapes from Napa and elsewhere. Its wines sell in the tasting room and restaurant, but aren’t commercially distributed.
The winery will put custom labels on its wine for special events for $2 per label. I read this on the website—with muted dismay. You don’t slap a “Happy Anniversary, Joan and Bennie!” label on a high-end bottle of wine. Though who am I, the cap-sniffer, to judge?
We turn into the palm-tree-lined wine oasis. Parking lot packed. The door to the tasting room is propped open. Inside, I spot a wine bottle filled with blinking disco lights flashing on a shelf near the tasting bar.
We have reservations for dinner, but the recommended course of action is to enjoy complimentary wine-tastings before dinner. This way, we can pick a bottle for the meal.
It’s a warm Friday, around 6:30 p.m., and Dana Underwood, behind the tasting bar, is pouring chilled whites, sultry and sweet. We talk about wine-tasting—why we like it. Conclusion: Wine is good. Wine people are friendly people. And wine is good.
We discuss Pablo Cruise, Napa cabs and properly training teenagers to be our designated drivers when we go wine tasting. This seems a great way to model responsibility, no joke.
Then we advance to Frasinetti’s reds—a lightly sweet chianti, a decent cabernet sauvignon, and viscous burgundy. Solid table wines, these. Not something you buy to impress wine snob friends, but drinkable. I like the sepia labels with serif-ed Old World font. I buy the cabernet sauvignon ($18) and order a bottle of chianti ($10) at dinner.
We debate wine-and-food pairing. Underwood owns her tastes.
“My philosophy is that I’m going to drink whatever I want,” she says. “If I want a red wine with fish, I’m going to drink a red wine with fish. Or maybe I’ll want a cold beer.”
Ah, a kindred spirit.
That said, the chianti’s fine with our meal. A friendly gentleman seats us, regaling us with stories about his marriage and the Vietnam draft, which he miraculously escaped (Vietnam, not marriage, which has led to decades of bliss).
Our waiter is similarly attentive, if not as personable.
We eat light, sharing an appetizer, soup and entrée. Grilled French brie ($10.95) arrives with toasted crostinis, a mound of roasted garlic and a generous helping of sweet-red-pepper chutney. I attempt to reverse-engineer the chutney’s ingredients so I can reproduce it.
The restaurant is hopping when we arrive. We’re seated next to a table with a largish family, including kids. The quarters feel slightly cramped, but that’s because the restaurant was crafted from a space that once boasted a dozen 12-foot-square wine-fermenting tanks, made with poured cement. The tanks were state-of-the-art wine-making in the 1930s and 1940s, says Howard Frasinetti. Oh, yeah: Turns out that the storytelling host who seated us is the co-owner, a third-generation Frasinetti.
Howard comes back to see how we’re liking our meal. He points out historic photos and giant redwood barrels that once held 15,000 gallons of wine. His grandfather’s citizenship papers and marriage certificate, framed, hang on the walls. He invites us to tour the property, including the gardens, where a wedding rehearsal is under way.
Next up, bowls of clam chowder ($4.95) and seafood manicotti ($17.95), which arrives already split on two plates ($3 for sharing). Plenty of seafood in the soup. Salmon dominates the manicotti filling, and the pasta’s drizzled in tarragon butter sauce—rich as hell, and therefore yummy. If I drank whites, I’d have paired the entrée with the winery’s 2010 sauvignon blanc, balancing crisp and creamy.
By the time we leave, well before 8 p.m., the place has cleared out. Too many empty tables.
Frasinetti expresses concern about the future of his family’s biz. Generation No. 4 isn’t interested in running the winery or restaurant, he says. And these days, he contends, the only real restaurant success is going to the chains.
I disagree, smiling. Consumers are rejecting chains, and appreciating small, local and family-owned, I say. He shrugs and smiles.
We spend a few minutes in the Frasinetti garden after dinner. The wedding rehearsal’s over, and I have a tipsy vision: A Frasinetti face-lift that includes local, organic food-sourcing and a winemaker with contemporary sensibilities. Toss in marketing efforts to highlight changes that preserve the Italian-immigrant roots of the wine and cuisine. Instant cachet. The wine bottle with disco lights becomes, you know, ironic. The location contributes to the place’s distinctive identity, the small patch of green in the midst of grey industry. David holding his own against Goliath!
But hang on, cap-sniffing self. David has been holding his own against Goliath. Frasinetti’s is already a green oasis, filled with living things packed between the machines, and gushing with California wine-making history, not to mention ironic bottle lights and friendly people who celebrate the innate goodness of wine.
Totally worth the 20-minute drive from downtown.
To maintain her independence and ability to write and say whatever the hell she wants, California’s least-pretentious wine columnist, Deidre Pike, does not accept gifts of food, wine, desserts, lodging, airplane tickets or cheese fondue. Though free cheese does sound tempting.
Midwestern girl, me. The first wine I put in my mouth flowed from a silver chalice in the hands of a Lutheran pastor. We’ll call him Greg.
About my “confirmation, the Lutheran coming-of-age rite, and subsequent first communion,” I recall three things.
One, I was feeling angelic in a white confirmation gown over a new dress.
Two, Pastor Greg was young, blonde, godlike in build, thoughtful and humorous in perfect proportions. Six young girls in my communion class all had a crush on Pastor Greg.
Three, I remember the flavor and feel of wine in my mouth. There was something sensual about the bitter fruit, the astringent pull of alcohol on my tongue. Welcome to the adult world. This is how it’s going to taste, the blood, paired with thin bland wafer, the body.
A party followed my communion event. Now an adult, I was entitled to drink alcoholic beverages. A glass of wine was poured for me. Grown-ups chuckled when I got a little tipsy.
Germans. Northern Wisconsin. I was 12.
Pastor Greg showed up and didn’t drink wine. Beer with tomato juice was his beverage of choice. This seemed odd to me. I was familiar with the drinking habits of adults, and no one mixed substances in beer. Only in gin, which apparently tasted great with tonic water and limeade. (Mom!)
But here was Greg, the Reverend, drinking whatever he wanted. If you invited him to your party, you’d make sure that you had beer and tomato juice.
Wine Tasting Lesson No. 1: Tastes vary by individual and environment, by nature and culture.
My tastes didn’t refine much over the years. High school friends in the early 1980s drank Boone’s Farm (strawberry) and Miller Genuine Draft, sans tomato. After high school, I spent about a decade in a non-drinking cult. My reintroduction to wine started with malt beverages called “wine coolers,” like Bartles and James Fuzzy Navel, and progressed to Fetzer’s Gewürztraminer, which is made from actual grapes.
Then came a big-girl trip to Sonoma. A tour of historic Buena Vista Winery, founded in 1857, a California historical monument, included an instructional wine tasting. My husband and I sat at a table with a tray of bread, cheese, salami, slice of lemon and pieces of dark chocolate. We tasted several wines, whites and reds, pairing them with various food items for diverse effects.
We learned about acidity and tannins. In pairing wine with food, seek equilibrium. Sweetness balances mouth-puckering sharpness. Protein mellows tannins. Almost no red wines are drinkable if you’ve just put a sour lemon in your mouth.
We were brand new to the wine world and drank in every detail. Then, because we were drinking, we forgot most of it. The wine educator’s most important lesson, though, was a comforting affirmation we pass along to others.
“The good wine is the wine you like,” he said. That’s Wine Tasting Lesson No. 2. Simple.
I like deep, dark complex red wines. Invariably. Problematically. Wines I enjoy pair best with juicy steaks and zesty ribs, which I rarely eat. Some beloved zins and tempranillos pair nicely with pasta in tomato sauce. That works. But when I eat pasta every night, I get puffy.
Shellfish, steelhead trout? Fish slims. I can get away with a light red grenache or maybe even barbera. Don’t cringe. Salmon pairs well with a barely there pinot noir. All good things.
What about veggies? Salads, overall, taste nasty with red wine. I know this. And yet I drink reds and eat greens.
While writing this column, I’m enjoying some spinach with a dressing made from raspberry and onion. A bottle of Foris Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, purchased on a trip up to the Rogue River Valley in Southern Oregon? It’s open. I swallowed some while cooking. Yum. But that was before the salad. Woe to the forgetful me who washed down the leaves with a sip of cab. Bleagh.
The good news: It takes less than 10 minutes to eat a salad. The wine will wait. Then a bite of cheese will shift the taste atmosphere.
As a matter of fact, in the time it took me to think up the words “taste atmosphere,” I consumed the last of the vegetation. Took a bite of savory Swiss. With proteins coating my palate, I tasted the wine again. Gone are the sharp edges. A sliver of salami, and the wine’s just fine. This one’s a bit chalky, with lots of minerals, and slightly grassy hints of “clover and pine.” We visited the Foris Winery this winter, and all the wines we tasted had an earthiness.
Wait, earthy. Clover? Should not this wine pair with things that grow in the dirt?
Trying to work out the logic, I turned to an expert, award-winning wine writer Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, who says that the rule of serving wines and foods with similar flavors does not apply easily to salads.
“We drink meaty red wines with meaty red meats, and creamy white wines with creamy poultry or shellfish,” Grumdahl writes. “But what exactly do you drink with a nice salad—a shot of gin in a tumbler of wheatgrass juice?”
Grumdahl recommends a few whites that’ll do. But that does not help me, the joiner of reds-only wine clubs.
At home, meh, not a problem. No social pressure. But I also order the wrong wine at restaurants. At one schmancy place, I ordered a glass of red before dinner started. My waiter argued with me: Wouldn’t I prefer the white for the seafood starters? No, I would not prefer the white. This was one of those places that had pre-set the table with wine glasses that match the varietal. The huffy waiter plucked the sauvignon blanc-appropriate glasses off the table and came back with bulbous goblets for my red. He was rolling his eyes on the inside. But it was my dinner.
At one time, I’d make excuses for my ignorant wine choices. So the waiter would understand that I'm not completely ignorant. Lies! “I know,” I’d say, “that this wine isn’t just right for that, and thanks for your fine advice, but I want this wine, and, yeah, I’m going to eat that wrong thing.”
Now I barely bother. I’m polite, and I order what I want, no matter the dirty look from foodie waiter who’s offended I’m not drinking Riesling with the Asian chicken salad. Yes, the merlot won’t be dandy with the citrusy marinade and slivered, lightly charred whatsis. Leave me alone.
And that’s Wine Tasting Lesson No. 3: Judge not that you be not judged. Own your likes and dislikes. Let others own theirs.
This applies when your date thinks the pink zinfandel is glorious. When your dinner guest asks for some Sprite and ice to put in a Napa cabernet. When the pastor dumps Clamato in his beer.
Leave us alone.
I arrive at the motel early. Housekeepers are still cleaning rooms. Two patrons read newspapers by the pool. I check my email in the parking lot.
A Jeep pulls up next to me. Within seconds, we’re out of our vehicles and in each other’s arms.
Lovers meeting for a romantic tryst—in Lodi, California.
Scoff if you must. We’re here by design. This is not an “Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again” moment, as the Creedence Clearwater Revival song laments.
We like this appellation, east of San Francisco, where grapes have been growing blissfully since the 1850s. Lodi’s sandy soils and Mediterranean climate, with warm days and nights cooled by Sacramento River Delta breezes, are ideal for growing zinfandel, the punk-rocker of grape varietals. Unpretentious but hardly humble. In your face with gooey fruit and zingy spice. Unsubtly dissonant. Rough around the edges, most often without apology.
Lodi is synonymous with zin.
My hubby of 30-plus years and I, reunited for the weekend, can’t check in yet. We have a couple of hours to kill. Whatever can we do? We’ve done no research for this trip. So our first stop: the Lodi Wine and Visitor Center, and a cheat sheet for local wines that are drinking nicely right now.
Outside the center, an educational vineyard displays a half-dozen varieties of grapes on and off trellises. Head-trained zinfandel grapes burst with new spring foliage. Nearby, syrah, merlot and pinot gris are neatly pruned into the vertical shoot position—that’s the sexy T-shaped vine with new shoots emerging from the horizontal cordons (the top of the T).
Inside the center, we obtain maps, advice and tastes of a few representative Lodi wines. It’s $5 to taste four of the seven wines they’re pouring—all from different vineyards. We eliminate the two whites from the list and share a tasting of all the reds except for the one we already know—Cycles Gladiator’s 2010 Old Vine Zin, nicknamed the Boneshaker.
We skip the Boneshaker, because we know we like it. In fact, before we leave Lodi, we’ll head to Cycles to pick up a Boneshaker ($25) and a bottle of red cuvee, the 2010 Banned in Alabama ($18).
Please note the relatively modest prices. In March, we went on a tasting adventure in Napa. We camped in a tent and drank fabulous $60 bottles of wine at a bird-shit encrusted picnic table. Practically nothing we tasted in Napa was less than $40 a bottle.
What a difference an appellation and 64-mile drive makes. None of the Lodi wines poured at the visitor’s center run more than $25. Does this equate to wines that are half as structured, refined, tasty-licious?
Good question, one that I spend the day asking others while consulting my own completely amateur palate. (Mmm. Red wine good. More, please. Urp. Excuse me.)
What I learn: Though the Lodi (the “L-word”) has been dismissed by some in the wine world, many folks agree that in the past decade, the region has upped the ante.
“It’s hard for us to go up to Napa and pay $60 for a bottle of wine,” a woman at the visitor center tells me, “when we have the quality here, too.”
We only have time for a couple of winery visits before tonight’s School Street Stroll—23 wineries pouring at local businesses, clothing boutiques, galleries and salons in downtown Lodi. So we chart our course to Fields and Harney Lane.
The Fields Family Estate Winery has a bar set up on a cement floor in a low cool building packed with barrels. Ambiance includes a forklift. This makes me happy.
When we walk in, tasting room manager Michael Perry is giving an aromatics lecture to a young couple. “If you close your eyes and pinch your nose, are you going to taste the wine?” he asks, acknowledging our presence with a nod. “You ain’t gonna get anything.”
Perry’s clearly great at his job, not only pouring and explaining the wines, but giving wine ingénues a broader oenological education. Perry says wine critics, historically, hadn’t given the time of day to Lodi wines.
“They’d turn up their noses at the L-word,” he says, “and rightfully so. Lodi didn’t always make great wines. That’s turning around with the small boutique wineries.”
We try more of the award-winning Tempranillo ($22), which nabbed a gold at the SF Chronicle International Wine Competition. The winemakers also made a Santa Barbara pinot noir in 2009, so we taste and buy that ($22), and a 2009 merlot ($28) made with grapes from Napa’s Oak Knoll District. Wine Spectator gave this wine 90 points. We walk out with three bottles, and feel weirdly like we’re saving money.
To be fair, Fields has a 2009 Napa cabernet sauvignon, Dr. Konrad’s Vineyard, Mount Veeder, that runs $59. Close your eyes when you gargle this; imagine a tasting room filled with international tourists; and you’ll believe you’re in Napa. It’s the aromatics.
Next goal: Acquire the requisite bottle or two of Lodi zinfandel. Lodi holds Zinfest 2013 on May 17-19, but I can’t make it back for this glorious event.
Today, it’s zin or bust. So we head to Harney Lane Winery, where the 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel, Lizzy James Vineyard ($35), achieves that mouth-watering berry-spice balance.
We taste, groan appreciatively—“Now that’s a Lodi zin!”—and buy a bottle. Then it’s back to the motel for a dip in the pool and a walk downtown to School Street in downtown Lodi.
We stand in line at art galleries and furniture stores. We listen to live music on and off the street. A guy’s playing jazz hits on an accordion at a furniture store. A flamenco guitarist launches into “Barcelona Nights” in the Atrium Plaza.
My honey and I hold hands plenty, because, well, we’re doing the long-distance marriage for the second year in a row. Every night together is a date.
A man who’s pouring Viaggio Estate wines compliments me for knowing how to pronounce carignane. I’d guessed, saying “CAR-in-gyan.” Thank you, Monsieur Chatelain from eighth-grade French class.
A Sniff the Cap hint: Confidence is key when it comes to pronouncing odd wine varietals. Even if you fuck up a foreign word fabulously, do it with flair and gutsy certitude. Yes, you may annoy a few snobs. That’s part of the fun.
We snack on a dizzying variety of cheese, fruit and small processed meat products. Dipping strawberries, cake and other food items in melted chocolate fondue seems popular. At a beauty salon, a woman encourages me to try something new—something I’ve never tasted before.
“Dip a potato chip in the chocolate,” she recommends. “You won’t believe how good it is.” Which seems, to me, a very Lodi thing to say.
Did I mention the wine stroll was sponsored in part by Waste Management? Zero pretensions. Love it. As it turns out, the salty sweet choco-chips pair nicely with CAR-in-gyan.
We end our night at the Dancing Fox’s tasting room, talking to winemaker Gregg Lewis. He’s showing off the 2009 Triskele, a red blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet Franc. We walk out with a bottle of 2007 Old Vine Zin ($24).
We saunter back to the motel, about a mile and a half through mostly residential streets. Passing a few stores, closed for the night, with signs in Spanish, we felt we could be in South America or Spain. We visited Spain a couple of years ago. We didn’t go out for dinner at night in Madrid or Granada. Instead, we consumed wine and tapas and wine and tapas and wine and tapas at a variety of bars until midnight or 1 a.m. The School Street Stroll was a little like that. Only it ended around 9 p.m. and it was, you know, in Lodi.
Sunday morning, my guy and I packed wine purchases into our separate cars, kissed and drove off in opposite directions. We’ll plan another rendezvous soon.
We don’t mind being stuck in this appellation again and again.