Desert dwellers crave wine.
Rose Baker and her husband, Buster, suspected as much when they envisioned a wine bar in Yucca Valley.
The venue is no slick wine-country rip-off.
Rose and Buster’s Wine Tasting Room sports an eclectic vibe the couple calls “cowboy feng shui”—with Buddhas, cactus, dream catchers, Ganesha banners, mandalas, the headdresses of Southwestern tribes, craft beers, guitars and, of course, Northern California wines. Wines like Peterson Winery’s Mendo Blendo from Redwood Valley, Hop Kiln pinot noir from Healdsburg, and Rose and Buster's own private-label wines, from cab to chardonnay, bottled at Vista Verde Winery north of Paso Robles.
The couple carries Tulip Hill’s sauvignon blanc, a summertime hit obtained from the winery’s Rancho Mirage tasting room. They’ve exhausted their supply, though, and can’t get more, so they eagerly await the next batch.
“I’m bummed out about that,” Buster says. “I hope they’re making more. I have enough reds to choke a horse.”
Travelers can’t miss the new “Wine Tasting” sign along the Twenty Nine Palms Highway through Yucca Valley. Before the Bakers came along, a Yucca Valley wine aficionado’s choices were limited to mass-produced grocery store wine—with its six-bottle discount and bland selection—or a drive to the nearest wine bars in Palm Springs. Tulip Hill Winery’s tasting room in Rancho Mirage is a 45-minute drive, and Temecula wineries are twice that.
The Bakers wanted to bring a big gulp of Northern California to Yucca Valley. Buster lived in Santa Rosa 18 years ago, when he moved west from Ohio. His friends worked for wineries and turned him on to old vine zinfandels. Love at first sip.
“On my days off, heck, I’d just get in the car, drive out to Kenwood and make about five stops before it was time to turn back,” Buster says, reminiscing. “The next weekend, I’d head to the Dry Creek area. In those days, that's when Sonoma was famous for free wine-tasting. And only Napa charged.
“Now everybody’s charging.”
Sigh. Everybody’s charging.
It’s 91 degrees on a sunny Friday afternoon. Buster’s alone in the tasting room, but traffic is light. Hot afternoons, he says, make sangria a popular choice. Buster mixes his from Sangria Igardi, one of the only reds on offer not obtained from California. (The other is an Italian chianti.)
Buster adds fruit—and a splash of orange muscat. Chillicious.
“Believe me, on a hot day, people come in, and they like it a lot,” Buster says.
The bar offers a flexible flight of any four wines for $15—chosen from around 30 wines available. The fee includes a souvenir glass with the Rose and Buster’s logo.
“And we give pretty nice pours, especially if my wife is pouring! She gets talking to people and gives away the store.”
Rose is from Guatemala. Buster describes her as a minimalist. All the assorted bric-à-brac on the walls? That’s his.
“She is the yin to my yang,” Buster says.
The couple enjoys meeting folks from around the world who come in for wine. A trio from South Africa came through not long ago. They’d read about Rose and Buster’s on Trip Advisor. Buster didn’t even know a review of Rose and Buster’s existed on Trip Advisor. He’s busy juggling a lively Facebook page, Yelp reviews and live streaming of music events at UStream.
Social media makes me thirsty.
What wine would Buster want if he were stranded on a deserted island—and could only have, you know, one last bottle?
He names Manzanita Creek Winery’s Cloud Buster zinfandel from the Russian River Valley. It’s near Healdsburg. Mmm. Old vine zin paradise.
He looks at the bottle he’s holding.
How did Buster Baker’s life journey bring him to the desert? A cable-advertising pro in Sonoma County, Buster jumped at a better job in Los Angeles. That’s where he met Rose, and “it was love at first sight,” he says. The two married in 2008, went camping at Joshua Tree National Park to get outta the city, and ended up buying a house in Desert Hot Springs.
While scoping out kitsch at local antique shops, the two met their eventual landlord, who owns a consignment shop in Yucca Valley. He had some space opening up.
“Something this desert needs is wine, a wine bar,” Buster recalls thinking. “I’d been spoiled living up there in wine country.”
The wine bar opened around Thanksgiving 2013. During the slow summer months, it’s only open on weekends. For the first year, because of its liquor license, the venue closes at 9 p.m. This means live music starts crazy early at Rose and Buster’s.
Buster doesn’t mind for now, since it means getting home at a reasonable hour.
“I’m an old dude.”
If pressed, Buster describes his own appearance as similar to that of a famed 1970s recording artist.
“I’m reminiscent of Leon Russell, (with) the long straight hair, mustache and beard,” he says.
Buster worked in the music industry while living in Ohio. He sang in a band; emcee’d at the Cleveland Agora, a renowned music venue; and worked as a stringer for Entertainment Tonight, producing segments on the Jamaican World Music Festival and the first-ever Rock in Rio event. He’s met musical legends from Kiss to the Talking Heads, and has the photos to prove it. For a gift, Rose ordered him a coffee mug that displays a 1971 shot of John and Yoko from a meeting in London.
A guy walked into the bar recently and saw Buster drinking out of the mug.
“Is that … ?”
“Yeah, and do you know who that is with him?”
“Is that … you?”
Relating the story, Buster laughs. “I was a lot younger then. My hair was a lot darker.”
Buster’s the kind of guy who can narrate life adventures all day long—aka an engaging bartender.
“If someone wants to come in and talk about how I met John Lennon, come on in,” Buster says. “I’ll pour you a glass of wine and I’ll tell you a story.”
We are in a grape.
Dave and I are in the grape—yes, you heard me right. It's a contemporary wonder of Italian architecture called The Acino, named after an Italian word for grape. We’re looking through its translucent ethylene skin at a steady rain drizzling over acres and acres of Piedmont-region wine grapes.
Nebbiolo, barbera, dolcetto—the important reds. And arneis, a white grape with a loyal following in Northern Italy’s most-prestigious wine region.
The interior of this structure is 500 square meters, large enough for a hearty wine tasting event. And that’s pretty much the purpose of Ceretto Winery’s little building, an addendum to their ancient estate.
I’m reminded of a Napa wine mogul who built a European medieval-style castle just for fun. I write in my notebook: “Napa builds a castle with a view of grapes. Piedmont builds a grape with a view of castles.”
Because we’re in Italy, castles top many nearby hills. The sight of them helps me remember where I am.
For the past two weeks, Dave and I have been drinking our way through Italy. Which is a bit like drinking your way through California—by which I mean impossible. And exactly as much fun as you think it’s going to be.
We knew nothing about Italian wine when we began. Now we know that Tuscany is packed with tourists, but still does amazing things with the sangiovese grape. Dave and I savored the Brunello di Montalcino in Montalcino and the Vino Nobile of Montepulciano in Montepulciano. We drank the wines of the Cinque Terre as we sweated our way over the one-fourth of the famous coastal hiking trail. (Three-fourths of the trail was closed. Which gave us more time to drink wine. Thank you, TrenItalia, for the safe rides between villages.)
Our favorite wine town, by a far cry, is Alba, Italy, just south of Asti, the famous spumante town, in the Piedmont region. People travel to Alba simply to eat and drink. We have a day between the Cinque Terre and Venice. So we buzz up to eat and drink.
We discover that one day is not long enough to begin to taste Piedmont’s deliciousness, with its black truffles, handmade pastas and artisanal cheeses. We eat veal raviolini in sage and butter, grilled peppers adorned with fresh pesto, and goat cheese laced with vegetative ash served with a reduction made of wine, hazelnuts and frutti di bosco (fruits of the forest). Even the simple sliced salami served as a free aperitivo (appetizer) with our evening wine is saporito (tasty).
In Alba, we visit a handful of enotecas and book a visit to one of the area’s large family-owned wine estates.
This ain’t no Temecula Valley, where a wine-lover can drive from winery to winery, sampling whites and reds. Most Italian wineries don’t have tasting rooms with regular hours. Call or email ahead. Learn survival Italian.
Ceretto is huge, so a visit is relatively easy. The person who answers the phone dissuades me from attempting to use my Italian. Yup, it’s that bad.
The family has four estates. The Acino overlooks the family’s Monsordo Bernardina estate outside of Alba.
Our hostess wine guide, Serena Vaccaro, explains the symbolism in The Acino’s oak floors—“to recall the barrels of the wine”—and the stainless-steel fixtures that hold the grape’s “skin” in place. The outer layer is made from the innovative plastic used for Olympic swimming pools in Beijing. “The material is soft and pliable, frosted like the skin of a grape,” says Ceretto’s website.
Vaccaro pours three wines. The first, a 2013 Langhe Arneis Blange, is light and zingy with grapefruity goodness. “The arneis grape is not well known,” Vaccaro explains. “But instead of a chardonnay or pinot grigio, the brothers decide to stick with the local grape.” Though obscure, imported Ceretto’s Arneis sells in some California wine stores for around $18 to $20.
Then we try what’s described as the “king” and “queen” of the region—the barolo (a 2006 from the Brunate vineyard) and barbaresco (2010, Bernardot vineyard). The latter wine is sharper, more acidic. “It is young,” Vaccaro says. Her English is terrific. “Keep it three to four years, and it will be ready.”
Of the 2006 she says, “This is ready.”
There’s no pressure to buy the wine, though a folder in the tasting room offers the three bottles for the discounted price of 79 euro, which includes the tasting for free. Dave and I pay 10 euro each for the tour and tasting, resisting the urge to begin an Italian wine collection.
We head back to our B&B Casa Bona room for a nap. The place is a great find—within walking distance of about a dozen enotecas, which comes in handy if you plan to try a few glasses of wine.
Which we do that evening. A short walk, and we’re on at a piazza on the other side of town lined with bars selling wines by the glass. At Bar La Brasilera, folks watch the World Cup on a large TV screen. France is playing Germany. On a board, the bar lists the 17 wines open tonight. Five are more than a decade old. I order the most ancient, for a kick, the 1999 Langhe Rosso Sito Moresco Gaja. It’s 9 euro per glass, or 50 euro for a bottle. A glass works for me. The wine arrives, the color of dark-brown bricks, smooth as satin with a soft lingering finish. I’m drinking a wine from the last millennium. Y2K … wine.
Dave, a man newly in love, orders a barolo, and then another barolo.
We could be in any small California wine town, where winemakers congregate to wax eloquently about soil composition, irrigation and barrels. And maybe watch a game. Only these wine aficionados speak Italian. And I can’t think of many Cali restaurants that open 15-year-old bottles to sell by the glass.
Speaking of which: We know almost nothing about soccer. I take an Instagram photo of the game as it appears through my wine glass, feeling surreal.
Which team is which? The guys in white shirts miss a goal. Cheers! And we’re all happy. The wine is complicated, different. Life is simple. Bliss happens.
Tomorrow we head to Venice, to witness its sinking decay. But tonight, we’re in the grape in Alba.
The night I drink the Montefalco Rosso, Cesarini Sartori Fiorella, 2009—a blend of sangiovese, merlot, cabernet and sagrantino—might more aptly be dubbed Sunday afternoon.
I’ve been napping, dozing between the bells that ring out from a nearby Italian church. The bells clang one long, low DONG for the hour, and a brisker, lighter dong for each 15 minutes incrementally. So 1:30 goes like this: “DONG dong dong.”
That’s when I take a break from the hot day and sprawl out on my mattress.
The power went out for a minute yesterday. The digital clock next to my bed is flashing the wrong time. No matter. The bells keep me on track.
“DONG DONG DONG dong dong dong.”
I roll over and reset the clock to 15:46. Because I’m in Europe. There’s no confusing repetition of a 12-hour cycle here. A girl trucks through life one ’til 24. So it goes. Thankfully, the clock never rings 24 DONGs. Craziness.
I attempt to check Facebook. No luck. I’ve consumed my Internet bandwidth for the month. It will reset on Tuesday—in 48 hours.
I’m cut off from the world. I can’t post my witty, pointless observations about life for folks back home. Like “Q: How many Italian bartenders does it take to kick eight U.S. college students and a professor out of a bar when it’s closing? A: Only one, distractedly flipping the switch that turns off the Wi-Fi.”
I open the wine. The bottle is recommended by Pietra, a young man who owns Vino Symposium, a few labyrinthine blocks from my apartment. Pietra also sells vini sfuzi, “loose wines,” on tap in giant stainless-steel vats. Sfuzi—the original two-buck Chucks—sell for a couple euro per liter. Bring your own bottle; sfuzi go in any container. Last week, I bought a montepulciano/sangiovese blend. Pietra filled my 1.5-liter water bottle for three euro.
The Cesarini Sartori Fiorella starts out a bit tight, but smoothes out nicely. I’m sipping my first glass as I assemble a pasta sauce. I’d been to the market for onions, a red bell pepper, fat garlic bulbs and several kinds of tomatoes, including half-ripe Sicilians and small Piccadilli that pack a big punch.
Food tastes great in Italy, because the ingredients are fabulous. Extra-virgin olive oil pressed from local family farms. Pastas handmade at a shop just around the cobblestoned corner. Meats, fresh and smoked, sliced thin or fat or diced or spiced, in a thousand varieties. Veggies soaking up the sun in fields of Sicily or Tuscany or right here in Lazio.
I blanch the skins off the tomatoes while I sauté an onion, minced garlic and some red bell pepper in tasty extra-virgin olive oil. When the veggies are getting done, I add a half cup or so of Pietra’s sfuzi.
I’m drinking the Cesarini Sartori Fiorella because this is my week to encounter wines from Italy’s Umbrian region, slightly north and east of the Lazio region in which I’m living for a couple months. Each Italian wine region specializes in some specific kinds of grapes. The rare sagrantino grows in and around the city of Montefalco. I could not find the exact wines listed in my Italian wine bible—Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. The book’s my tour guide. Without Internet, I’ve been poring over its pages. Highlighting and underlining. Starring the wines I’ve samples and the recipes I’ve tried.
The sfuzi bubbles over the veggies, and I add about a tablespoon zucchero (sugar) so the mixture will caramelize. I mashed peeled tomatoes with my hands, thinking about how delicious it must feel to dance around in a vat of grapes.
I stir the whole thing together—and I could eat it just like this! But I don’t. It will be so much tastier when it cooks down, and the flavors meld. The individual elements will lose their distinct characters and become one with the tasty sauce. In the Middle Ages, art was like this, says an architect who’s teaching a class in urban landscape here. Art emerged from the community without any specific artistic ego imposing its brand.
And then along came the Renaissance, and with it, the beginnings of rugged individualism. Religious and humanist pretensions. I digress wildly.
The day I drink the Montefalco Rosso, I chat with hubby Dave via Google chat on my telephone. This doesn’t use too much of my Verizon international data plan, which costs $25 for 100 megabytes of data. (To put this in perspective, I ran through an entire 10 gigabytes of data using Skype on my laptop. If I had to pay Verizon’s rates, that would be $2,500.)
Skype sucks up giant vats of data, which I imagine flowing from a shiny sfuzi-like tank, as precious as wine. I always remember to turn off my Wind (that’s a brand of Italian mobile Internet service provider) when I’m not using it.
My sauce gets tastier. The wine opens up. The two flavors seem molto compatible.
DONG DONG DONG DONG DONG DONG. It’s only 18:00. Too early to cook the pasta, thin coils of capelli d'angelo. I read some stories from a book of women writers on their Italian travels. Here’s Mary Shelley: “The name of Italy has magic in its very syllables.” She digs gondola rides in Venice.
I start boiling salty pasta water around 19:00. Italians use salt in terrifying quantities. And I’m liking it. I pour a second glass of wine with dinner.
Finally, it’s time. But eating is like making love: Describing it, blow by blow, gets weird. To cut to the chase: It’s an exceptional sauce that brings out the best in this blend of Italian grape varietals.
I decide to watch Life Is Beautiful, an award-winning movie about an optimistic Jewish poet in Italy as World War II breaks out. The tale depicts a young family that ends up in a forced labor/death camp. Dad saves his preschool-aged son by transforming the horror of the camp into a game.
My Italian’s almost OK enough that I could watch this movie without subtitles and still get the full-on heartbreak.
Eleven quarter-hour DONGs later, I’m crying in my Montefalco Rosso.
So it goes.
Some day in the not-too-distant future, I want to make wine. But I don’t want to ruin perfectly good grapes.
So I’m training myself on bread. Sourdough bread, specifically. This spring, I’ve been nurturing a sourdough culture: lactic-acid bacteria and yeast, feeding and reproducing on wheat flour and water. What’s growing looks like gluey carbonated yogurt.
Aptly called starter.
The bread-making process isn’t unlike the wine-making process. Both grapes and wheat undergo chemical changes as bacteria and yeast reproduce, causing fermentation, alcohol and gas production, and the tasty conversion of acids.
To be honest, I started messing with sourdough because friends were baking it. I enjoy gnawing on a tangy bit of bread while I slurp fermented red. So, yum! Sourdough pairs with cabs. With merlot and sangiovese and barbera and aglianico.
A few great pairings:
• An earthy mourvèdre with sourdough and baked brie, drizzled with honey and garnished with pears.
• A jammy zinfandel with sourdough toast smeared with herbed butter.
• A syrah with sourdough crackers, baked with sea salt and flecks of black pepper.
Let the mouths water.
Pairings aside, I’m getting evangelical about the chemistry of sourdough and its health benefits for my intestines, waistline and mood. As I write this, Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” is looping in my brain.
I’ve been calling my sourdough starter yeast. And, yes, the starter has some of the single-cell fungi that make bread rise. But in most sourdough starters, lactic acid bacteria outnumber yeast by about 100 to 1. I love the names of these bacteria—Leuconostoc, Pediococcus, Weissella. And most prevalent, you know her and you love her: Give it up for the multi-talented Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis! Though you’d think that the latter microbe must be endemic to its namesake, San Francisco, it’s been found in sourdough cultures in Belgium, Italy and Germany.
In February, Karen Dixon, who works at the Moonstone Crossing Winery in Trinidad, Calif., gave me a plastic container of gloop—a legacy sourdough starter passed from friend to wino to friend. She sent me to a website, Cultures for Health, with info on the care and feeding of starter and how to make, knead, proof and bake bread.
I’m learning so much, so fast.
Keeping starter alive requires little time—but that little time must be dedicated on a regular, rhythmic basis. To keep it active and ready to make bread, I feed it daily. Because it’s a growing community, the small starter gloop becomes a massive sticky vat kinda fast.
If you don’t want to feed an ever-expanding mass of bacteria and yeast, you can discard some. Since it pains me to slather happy, healthy gloop into the trash, I’ve found recipes for putting this “discard” to good use, making crackers, pizza crust, cinnamon rolls.
I bake. A lot.
At its simplest, sourdough bread is flour, water and gloop—with a sprinkling of sea salt. Some recipes call for milk, fat and sugar. My recipe uses none of these. It’s vegan, lactose-free, sugar-free.
Kneading dough causes the gluten to develop. A byproduct of fermentation is carbon dioxide, and the gluten holds the gas in, making bread fluffy. Because sourdough is a slow-rising bread, the developing acids make the gluten more easily digestible. Some gluten-intolerants have no problem with traditional sourdough bread.
What I’ve learned: Don’t skimp on kneading. My first loaves were tough little dough wads. Not sour. Not fluffy. A good knead takes about 20 minutes, at least. As it turns out, this is the length of a South Park episode.
My second loaves were sourdough geodes—impenetrable rocky spheres inside of which a tasty sponge-like mass resided. The loaves dried out before I baked ’em. Slicing required a chainsaw. But inside … success—springy moist crumbs with the texture of pound cake! And so mouth-puckeringly sour. I cubed this up and ate it with runny eggs for breakfast.
I’m getting better. Warmer weather means my starter is livelier and, to be honest, that makes the kneaded bread rise—double in size—too fast. It takes time for fermentation to turn the bread sour. A few loaves have tasted sweet, bland even.
Clearly, this is an art—and a healthful one. Sourdough makes me feel physically great. Why? I read, um, health journals to find out.
The acids in sourdough activate enzymes that make more nutrients available to your body. Also, studies of bread-eating folks showed lower blood glucose levels after eating sourdough white bread compared to any other bread, including whole wheat. That’s great news for me, since diabetes runs in the family. It’s also a potential weight-loss strategy. I’ve noticed if I eat a piece of sourdough toast in the morning with some protein, I don’t get the mid-morning munchies until around 1 p.m.
Bread is rising as I write at 11 p.m. on a weeknight. I’m enjoying a lovely glass of 2008 Zucca Mountain Sorprendere, a red blend, and watching the sixth season of Mad Men on Netflix. Lovely mounds of dough are rising on baking stones atop my record player and my pellet stove (which is not fired up).
I made the dough around 3 p.m. and kneaded for a half-hour. The loaves have properly doubled, and I’ve punched the dough lightly with my fists so it can rise again without globbing over the edges of the stone.
I could throw the loaves in the oven tonight and watch another episode or finish this column. For full-on sour, though, I’m going to wait. Bread for breakfast! Baked before work! I’m going to have to get up mighty early, but that’s OK.
Have I mentioned how much bread-making helps me value the work that goes into that bottle of fermented grape juice? Thank you, hard-working makers of wine. Someday, I’d like to join your ranks.
Wine Events Coming
It’s Wine Riot time at the California Market Center, two hours away from the Coachella Valley in Los Angeles, at 110 E. Ninth St., on Friday and Saturday, May 9 and 10, featuring a gazillion tastings, temp tattoos, a Bubbly Bar and some Crash Courses in wine education. The Riot “reinvents wine for the thirsty and curious” and runs $60 per each of three sessions—Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Saturday night. Tickets and more info at secondglass.com/event-categories/wineriot.
An older couple in a BMW drove randomly, stopping in directionless confusion at one busy intersection before zipping illegally around a car parked at a stoplight and lurching up the Highway 101 onramp.
“I’m going to assume everyone on the road is sloshed,” said Dave.
Fair assumption. Drivers might be three sheets to the
wine wind anywhere. But Paso Robles—not quite a five-hour drive from Palm Springs, just north of San Luis Obispo—sports 120 wine tasting rooms sprawled over a twisting, hilly maze of country roads.
It’s no wonder the Paso Wines website recommends swishing and spitting when tasting. Or hiring a driver.
Speaking of hired drivers: I must give a shout-out to my extremely responsible husband, who limited himself to tiny tastes so that I could drink. Which is why I was three sheets to the wine as I wrote notes for this column in the front seat of his Honda Civic.
A weekend of delicious fermented goodness! Paso’s Wild Wine Festival weekend, no less! It was close enough to my birthday to qualify as my gift.
Dave booked an ocean-view campsite at Hearst San Simeon State Park. Paying $20 a night for a campsite instead of $200 a night at a bed-and-breakfast meant we could buy more wine to take home.
And the stars were glorious.
Of course, my smartphone died, and the battery in Dave’s iPad ebbed to almost non-existent. So when Sara Hufferd, serving wine at Cypher Winery, handed us a booklet with a print map, we were grateful. Print on paper—still so useful.
Hufferd introduced us to Cypher’s rule-bending wines, from the 2010 Freakshow Anarchy ZMS ($40, zin-mourvedre-syrah) to the raging 2011 ZinBitch ($30). Dave purchased the 2009 Peasant GSM ($40, grenache-syrah-mourvedre), and we drank it that night by our campfire.
We went back Saturday so I could buy the Bitch.
Paso’s March event once celebrated zinfandel exclusively, but has expanded to include “other wild wines.” Coming soon: Paso’s 32nd Annual Wine Festival, May 15-18, with a Grand Tasting—60 wineries and gourmet food fare—on May 17. This event tends to sell out, so plan ahead.
Festival goodies varied by winery but included free food pairings, barrel tastings, live music, winemaker dinners, vineyard tours—and piles of people.
Some tasting bars were three-deep in sippers. But the Paso folks kept things running remarkably smooth. At many wineries, tasting bars were set up outside or spread out in large sprawling buildings. At Tablas Creek Vineyard, we received plenty of personal attention from Cindy, who took us through the featured wines and food pairings—and even went off-menu, rustling up a delicious 2011 mourvedre ($40) and a fun obscure 2011 tannat ($40). “Because it’s your birthday!” she said.
Everywhere we went, servers were friendly and attentive, even when wildly busy. When we walked into the jam-packed wine bar at Whalebone Winery, Victoria the Temp behind the bar made eye contact, grinned and managed to pass me a taste of Whalebone’s 2012 Ballena Blanca. She gave me tasting notes so that I could read about this tasty white ($28, marsanne, grenache blanc, roussanne). Victoria works in a law office by day. She’s a fan of the 2011 Boneyard ($33, mourvedre and friends), which we buy.
Obviously, Paso also didn’t disappoint on its original promise—zinfandel.
Stand-outs? At Adelaida Winery, one tasting bar was devoted to library zins bottled more than a decade ago. The bar was, again, swarmed, but a kind server walked around the bar to meet me with a bottle of 2002 zinfandel and tasting notes printed on card stock. The aged velvet fruit hit my tongue, and I wrote “holy shit!” at the top of the page, followed by “redolent with zinness.” At age 12, the wine’s tannins have matured, disappeared, leaving smooth fruit and spicy black licorice.
I stood in the shade, enjoying this zin and watching a mass of joyous humanity. A woman played guitar and sang “Wagon Wheel” as the server roamed back around to me and delivered a 2002 reserve zin ($60)—even better than the first. The grapes came from 80-year-old vines in a dry-farmed vineyard nearby.
I tasted three more zins before moving on to the winery’s current release, the 2011 Michael’s Vineyard zin ($36). After so many leathery old wines, this one clambered for attention like an adolescent. No matter: We know what he’s going to be when he grows up.
Speaking of young, Adelaida’s 2012 zinfandel was still in barrels. Inside the winery, a woman dispensed tastes by inserting a phallic glass tube, or “thief,” into the barrel’s bung. Tasters lined up, three or four at a time, and she dispensed an ounce or two in each glass. Barrel tasting excites folks.
We had arrived in Paso Robles on Friday afternoon when the wineries were less populated by swarming hordes. We drove past dozens of tasting rooms, looking for one recommended by several friends. Zin Alley is right off Highway 46 West, next door to Cypher. Inside, a partially lit fellow was drinking and buying a T-shirt with a clever logo: “If found, please return to the nearest winery.”
“I just had to have it!” the man said, face glowing.
“The nearest winery,” I replied, happily, “because any winery will do!”
Zin Alley has plenty of such kitsch, including a sign that notes: “Wine is how classy people get shit-faced.”
The guy left, and we had the place and winemaker Frank Nerelli to ourselves.
Nerelli grows grapes, makes small batches of wine and pours for folks in the tasting room. It’s not surprising that he’s a skilled wine-making fiend. His great grandparents Lorenzo and Rena Nerelli owned one of the first vineyards in Paso Robles, which they bought in 1917. Frank Nerelli bought his property from his uncle in the 1970s.
When I cast him as a hard-working guy, though, he shrugged.
“I play quite a bit,” he assured me. “You gotta know how to prioritize.”
On a weekday morning, he might work, say, pruning a row or a row and a half of grapes. “If I start at 6, I’m done at 9,” he said. “Then I can drink beer all day.”
We liked this guy.
Nerelli’s award-winning wines were as amazing as my friends’ rave reviews suggested. Nerelli’s Generation 4 ($47) is a blend of 80 percent syrah with 20 percent grenache. Dry-farmed. Never any pesticides. The grenache balanced the rich, dark syrah expertly.
We liked this wine.
Nerelli looked at my business card. “Sniff the Cap,” he said and chuckled.
Dave and I felt right at home. Paso Robles, we’ll be back.
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.