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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

This is about creeping age and rolling green hills. It’s about interspersed wide patches of California poppies that cause drivers to pull over and take photos—as do acres of vines and vines and vines.

I’m 49 years old, and I could spend every spring on the Central Coast.

Dave and I drive the hybrid to Paso Robles the week before I turn 50. Wining and dining here ain’t no bargain, but we’re still young enough to camp in a tent among the spring-breaking crowd at Hearst San Simeon State Park.

As age advances, though, I sense in myself less barrel-tasting wildness and more smoothness, like velvet syrah cellared with a cool film of crusty particulates forming over a bottle. I feel mildly dusty in Tobin James’ crowded tasting room, when we’re drinking charming, affordable wines and feeling less than enchanted. That bottle of jammy Tobin James Ballistic zinfandel ($18) we loved so much six or seven years ago? Its once-beloved plumishness feels gooey to us now.

We taste and shrug. It’s fine. “Maybe we outgrew the Ballistic,” I speculate, as a perceptive tasting-room employee introduces us to Tobin James’ finer vintages. We walk out with a delectable bottle of 2011 Dusi Vineyard Zinfandel ($38). Dry-farmed. Intense.

Maybe it’s the voice of experience, or tasting the $75 bottle of Jada’s 2012 WCS JackJohn. But I realize this shit’s getting expensive. Not a new epiphany, of course—not the first time Dave and I realize that we could spend serious dough on wine, money we don’t have.

Seems the price of boutique wine is escalating—supply and demand, baby—at the same time as our, you know, palates are improving. Spendy combination, that. Credit card debt looms.

Dave and I arrive at Jada Vineyard and Winery around 10:30 a.m. for my breakfast wine. The winery’s one of more than a dozen on that famed stretch west of Paso Robles—Vineyard Drive, just off Highway 46 West.

Many people are kicking back at tables on the patio already. Knowledgeable servers deliver tastes of wine paired with various cheeses. A person might be here for a couple of hours, sipping, snacking, soaking up the sun—and then buying the 2011 Jersey Girl Estate Syrah ($47) and/or the 2012 Jack of Hearts ($54, petit verdot, cab sauvignon).

Dave and I opt to stand at the bar, and I ask to taste only reds—a few from the “reserve” pairing, and a few from the “signature” pairing. Today, I’m searching for the best GSMs in the land of the Rhone Rangers.

It’s good to have a goal.

A GSM isn’t the meat additive from Chinese restaurants. It’s a red Rhône blend, modeled for wine blends from the Rhône wine region of southern France. Grenache grapes—with bright red berry and spice flavors—most often dominate the blends. Syrah contributes inky depths and structure. Mourvedre gives it the mysterious and ruddy elegance.

For me, it’s all about the mourvedre. I’ve been drooling over the memories of my last year’s Paso GSM finds. I want more.

Fortunately for my pocketbook, Jada’s JackJohn GSM blend disappoints me. It’s nice. I like it. But I don’t adore it to the tune of $75. I don’t want to drown in a vat of it. Or pour it all over my lover and, well, you know. Maybe that’s because the blend features only 9 percent mourvedre. I need more mourvedre.

The Jada wine I want is the 2012 WCS Tannat, also $75. Tasting notes quote wine columnist Anthony Dias Blue, who calls it “dark and lush” and “long and seamless.” High happy five to the tannat. I’ll buy a bottle when I win the lottery.

Jada is one of about 200 member wineries of the Rhone Rangers. Since the 1980s, Central Coast winemakers have riffed on southern Rhone wine styles with creative finesse.

Dave and I won’t make it to more than a handful of wineries over the weekend. That’s OK. Every trip to Paso Robles should include a visit to the Albertsons on Niblick Road. There, we pick up Kenneth Volk’s 2012 Mourvedre, Kukkula’s finely tuned and nicely aging 2007 Sisu (GSM), and Hearst Ranch Winery 2012 Three Sisters Cuvee (GSM). Buy enough wine, and a 30 percent discount kicks in. The tasty $22 Hearst wine ends up less than $16. I will have caps to sniff.

Back on the road, I pick the collective wisdom of tasting-room employees about who’s pouring what, where and when. The kind folks at Tobin James send us to Cass Winery. There, Dave doles out the dough for a 2012 Rockin’ One Red ($43) as my birthday gift. Thanks, sweetie pie. Speaking of pie, the Rockin’ One is 60 percent mourvedre, and I fight the urge to dab some behind my ears and on my wrists to wear as cologne.

The folks at Cass send me to Zenaida Cellars for the 2011 Wanderlust ($35), a wine that pulls off a 50 percent grenache-dominated blend. Also of note: the 2012 Fire Sign ($42), a cab sauvignon-syrah-zin blend that kicks off a burning desire for more.

Someone else recommends the Lone Madrone, where I find much to love in the mourvedre-dominated 2011 Points West Red ($35), a complex Rhone that contains the GSM trio of grapes plus hardy cinsault and the dark-skinned counoise.

We spend the longest time at Whalebone Vineyard, a family winery with excellent everything. There, Travis Hutchinson talks us into joining the club in order to nab a couple bottles of the 2011 Boneyard. Yes. It’s that good. Hutchinson invites us to stay for cheeseburgers. We have other plans, but we appreciate the invite. This is our kind of place, and we’ll be back and back.

A final recommended stop: the new guys on the block, Brecon Estate. Brecon is a teeny outfit with only a few wines released so far. But one of these wines is a 2013 Mourvedre ($42). It’s splendid now, but promises luxury overload in five or six years.

I buy this bottle as a gift to myself for my 55th birthday. I will put it in my “cellar” (read: dark closet) ’til 2020.

If I feel old now, I can’t imagine how I’ll feel then. But the mourvedre will make it all better. Given the rising price of wine, I’m betting it will taste like 100 bucks.

Published in Wine

It is well to remember that there are five reasons for drinking: the arrival of a friend, one's present or future thirst, the excellence of the wine, or any other reason.

—Latin proverb

The Arrival of a Friend

I was wrapped in a blanket under a tree. Giant snow clumps fell from dark clouds at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. A half-dozen wine loving amici and I were camping in Arnold, Calif. In March.

The weather can be temperate in spring. That night, not so much.

We’d spent the day visiting wineries in and out of Murphys, 12 miles away. We went to Milliaire, Indian Rock, Zucca, Stevenot, Newsome-Harlow and Twisted Oak. That night, we huddled around the fire, teeth chattering, passing around a bottle or two of newly acquired red.

Hubbie Dave barbecued friend Launie’s tri-tip over flaming logs. She’d brought the juicy meat in a plastic bag, marinated in garlicky goodness.

“I think it’s done,” said Dave. Misty aimed a flashlight on the steaming cow flesh and concurred. Seared yet rare in all the right places.

“Someone get a plate.”

“We don’t need no stinking plate.”

“No stinking plates!”

“Yeah, just pass it around.”

I can’t remember who first tore into the meat. It made the rounds on a long metal fork. Taking turns, we ripped and pulled and growled and gnawed like primal dwellers of caves. A tribe of Wino sapiens, toughing out the snow, lighting a fire against the chill of night. We somehow avoided dropping the meat on the slushy ground.

We woke up sore, stiff, mostly dressed in the clothes from the previous day, and smeared with beef juice and splotches of Murphys’ reds.

These days, if those friends visit my fireplace on a long winter’s night, I’d like to greet ’em with a bottle of Twisted Oak’s 2010 River of Skulls, a Mourvèdre from Dalton Vineyards, Angels Camp. Viscous. Barbaric.

Pairs well with carnivorousness.

One’s Present Thirst

Tonight, I’m visiting parents in the faraway Midwest. Here, access to fabulous wine is limited, and I wonder if this impacts the politics. Would tastier wine help the red states turn blue? (Wrap your brains around that metaphoric color challenge.)

When I last visited here, I brought my own crate of California reds, checked as luggage. Sad story: The airline misplaced my box, and by the time they found it, I was on my way back to California.

My family drank the wine.

This year, I thought I’d live like any other Wisconsin wine heathen.

While trawling the slender wine aisle at a local liquor store, I struck up a conversation with a hometown wine aficionado.

“So many wines!” she said. “And so many good wines!” It didn’t seem polite to argue.

I smiled and noted something about amazing California wines.

She shrugged. “California wines are fine—but have you tried our wines?”

We were standing near a display of wines from southern Wisconsin’s Wollersheim Winery. Mom’s a fan of the winery’s River Gold, a sweet white blend that sells for $8.50. And, yes, I have tried that wine.

“You should try it again,” she suggested.

And she went her way. And I said to self: Why not? The winery’s “dry red” on display was the $9 Prairie Sunburst Red, unoaked and Wisconsin-grown. I bought it. On the bottle was an invitation for a free winery tour in nearby Prairie Du Sac. If the website is any indication, more sophisticated wines can be tasted and purchased at the winery’s tasting room. I might have to zip down the road for what sounds like an interesting pinot noir.

Which could take care of …

One’s Future Thirst

In a few days, I’ll be in Reno, Nev., with Dave. In his cellar is the complex 2011 Whalebone Cabernet Sauvignon ($35). From Paso Robles! This delicious wine won this year’s Affairs of the Vine Cabernet Shootout. I don’t know what that is. But I’ve been thirsty for this cab since I tasted it in Paso last spring.

Sadly, I have already polished off my Whalebone Boneyard 2012 ($33), a gorgeously balanced blend of syrah, petit sirah, mourvedre, grenache and tannat. Oooh, ahh.

The future thirst is now.

The Excellence of the Wine

We made few purchases of expensive wine this year. Instead, we acquired many, many more bottles that we love—and can also afford. Superb wines at a budget-friendly price point.

On the first day of Christmas—OK, it was more like Thanksgiving—my true love gave to me a half-case of Amador Foothills Aglianico. Dave and my oldest son made a whirlwind wine run, picking up bottles from Murphys, in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley, and in Fair Play, Calif.

When Dave spotted aglianico on sale, he remembered how much I had adored it on one of our wine hikes earlier this year. The wine feels light and round in the mouth—like satin and roses, a tasty Christmas ornament.

I bought a bottle of aglianico on my last visit to Amador Foothills about a year ago. Winemaker Ben Zeitman took me on a walk in his vineyard. Grapes were ripe, and we tasted the aglianico, picking small plumb fruit from the vines.

Zeitman said he would be selling his 32-acre vineyard and winery that produces 3,500 cases of wine annually. He was almost 80 and ready to retire.

Dave and I entertained a fantasy briefly. “Let’s buy a winery. Let’s live amongst the grapes and make small batches of delicious goodness.”

It sounds romantic, but we know better. Really, we do. We have wine-making friends, and we’ve seen how hard they work. I prefer to let the grape artists make the wine for me. Mmm.

Speaking of talented winemakers: Zeitman’s winery sold this summer to another winemaking couple I’ve much appreciated over the years, Tom and Beth Jones, who started Lava Cap Winery in Camino.

To me, that means the estate is in good hands.

Any Other Reason

When your kids come home for the holidays, and marvelous chaos descends on your dwelling, drink a good bottle of wine.

When your mate has had a long week at work and comes home exhausted, drink a good bottle of wine.

When you’re by yourself in a cottage in the woods, crafting words into sentences far into the night, drink a good bottle of wine.

When your book rolls off the presses, imperfect but done, drink a good bottle of wine.

When you don’t have time to cook, so dinner will be a bit of brie on day-old bread, eat this meager meal with a good bottle of wine.

Bliss ensues.

Published in Wine

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.

Before we hit the road, I created a “zinful itinerary” on the Paso Wine website, focusing on wineries in West Paso, many that specialize in Rhone varietals. Dave also made a Google map with wineries we knew or that were recommended by friends. (Drop me an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and I’ll share the map with you.)

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!”

“Exactly!”

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.

Published in Wine