Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

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.

Howard FrasinettiThe 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.

Published in Wine

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.

Published in Wine

Among the chic desert shops and restaurants of downtown Palm Springs, and mere steps from the Sonny Bono fountain, is an oasis for cigar-smokers, wine-enthusiasts and craft-beer-lovers alike.

The unassuming Fame Lounge attracts tourists, locals and a fair share of cigar-aficionado celebrities. A wall of wine and beer, and spicy scents from the walk-in humidor greet visitors. My curiosity immediately led me to this herbaceous alcove. As a cigar newbie, I honestly didn’t know what to look for, but I found myself sniffing the various cigars as if I did. With the help of the owner, Mel Shaw, I learned I wanted a lighter, vanilla stogie with earthy and sweet woody undertones.

Fame owner Mel Shaw at the lounge's bar. (Photo by Sean Planck)Beyond the retail store—which features cigars, wines and an amazing selection of craft beers—lies a backroom lounge in the classic sense of the word: a living-room setting with comfy leather chairs and couches, dim lighting and a not a Bud Light drinker in sight. There were 10 tap varietals at the small bar in the corner; it was obvious the owner had a taste for the rare and specialized brews. To keep customers coming back, Shaw rotates the taps weekly. Whether you seek an Austrian Trappist like Engelszell Gregorius, or San Diego’s Karl Strauss 24th Anniversary Flanders-style Sour Red Ale, the quality selection doesn’t disappoint.

The ambiance caters to the true desert gentleman, but Shaw’s $10 beer and cigar “back room special” makes it easy for the novice to taste the sophisticated life. As a relatively new resident of the Coachella Valley, this was the Palm Springs I was looking for. It was a welcoming feeling. Pair an Indian Tabac Box Pressed Double Corona cigar with Allagash Fluxus on tap, and tell me you won’t be grinning like a kid with an ice-cream cone on a hot day.

Shaw obviously enjoys guiding people toward the perfect wine-and-cigar or beer-and-cigar pairing. He said matching lighter-flavored beer with a lighter-flavored cigar is a great way to start.

“Similar to beer, different flavor profiles, when you are drinking, how you’re drinking, how you’re pairing with food—it’s the same thing with cigars,” Shaw said. “A cigar will taste seven different ways during the day. If you smoke it early the morning, it will taste different than if you smoke it after lunch. It’s how your body reacts to the flavor.”

Shaw started smoking cigars in 1996 and opened the store in 2001. Fame has been in this Palm Canyon Drive location since January 2005. His consistent curiosity has made Fame one of the leading places in the Coachella Valley to enjoy not just a stogie, but a flavorful beer or wine. Shaw even had a shipment of cigars infused with Washington hops, specifically to pair with IPAs and hoppy pale ales. As a craft-beer writer, my mouth immediately dropped on the wooden bar when I heard this.

However, Fame isn’t the only cigar game in town. What’s the difference between Fame and the other cigar shops?

“I would classify them as cigar shops. Here, we enjoy cigars. It’s about the experience,” he said.

Just at that moment, my smoking cohort said, “Isn’t that John Salley from the Lakers looking at the wine over there?”

Yep, it was. After attending to his latest celebrity guest, Shaw rejoined us at the bar and embarrassedly chuckled as he told us about the time that Chris Noth, aka “Big” on Sex and the City, came into his lounge.

The cigar lounge owner was not a frequent viewer of the sexy show full of witticisms. When “Big” came casually walking into Shaw’s lounge, puffing on his own cigar, Mel politely asked him to put it out. As the other smoking patrons attempted to nudge Shaw with their eyes, Shaw smiled, as he had no idea who the “Big” man was.

Moments later, he glanced down at an issue of Cigar Aficionado, with none other than Chris Noth on the cover.

The scents, sophistication and overall surroundings bring to mind the concept of an old-school gentleman’s club. Fame keeps one foot anchored in this classic ideal, and the other in the contemporary world, while opening the eyes of its patrons to the appreciation of a good wine, a good beer and a good smoke.

Whether it’s a 2007 L'Aventure Estate Cuvee blend, a California craft beer or a multidimensional cigar, assuage your desire for rich flavors in an upscale, yet cozy atmosphere.

Fame Lounge is located at 155 S. Palm Canyon Drive, No. 3. For more information, call 320-2752, or visit

The beer selection at Fame—both in the shop and in the lounge—is surprising and unique. (Photo by Sean Planck)

Published in Features & Profiles

Merryvale Vineyards tasting room, Napa Valley, Calif. Noon on a Sunday.

Cars jammed Highway 29, filled with California-wine-lovers who’d flown in from Asia and Europe, Australia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Mexico and points beyond. We walked into Merryvale’s St. Helena tasting room about the same time as a group of around 30 people from Vallejo.

We had an hour to taste before our reserved tour at another winery up the road. No big deal. I had downloaded a two-for-one tasting coupon. So yay.

Before last weekend, the Napa experience had never been our thing. Big and crowded. Pretentious and expensive. I’d been there twice, years ago. Not impressed.

And yet we gave Napa Valley another try Saturday and Sunday, armed with coupons on the Winery Finder iPhone app. We were prepared for heavy traffic and pricey wines.

We weren’t disappointed.

At the same time, we met friendly, knowledgeable people who work in the wine industry. We learned stuff. We didn’t buy many bottles of wine to bring home. We invested in flavor memories.

The Merryvale visit was a happy accident.

Because of our work situations, the Significant Libertarian and I live in different states. My husband of 30 years makes the drive from Nevada to California once a month or so. I go the other way once a month as well. The rest of the time, we chat on Google.

Last weekend in Napa marked the end of my spring break and a celebration of my birthday (48, thanks). It was also our last day together for a couple of weeks.

We were feeling that. Not talking about it. Long looks, deep swallows.

“I already miss you.”

“Please don’t.”

“I know, I know.”

“Just enjoy what’s in this glass.”

“I’m going to cry.”

“No, you’re going to sneeze.”

And, in fact, he was right: I sneezed, loudly. Allergies. Blah. I dug in my pocket for a tissue, which was, in fact, wadded up toilet paper harvested from the bathroom at another winery.

Then we enjoyed what was in the glass. And then we enjoyed what was in the next glass. The SL liked the 2011 chardonnay ($35). Unusual. We are red people who tend to pass on “whites”—unless a wine-tasting costs $15, and a white’s on the list.

Merryvale’s chardonnay walks that fine line between oak and crispy citrus, between vanilla and pears.

At the other end of the wine bar, a couple dozen glasses held tiny sips. Clusters of drinkers posed for photos. This place was getting loud.

The next wine was a 2011 pinot noir ($35), made with Carneros region grapes. “Red cherry, cranberry, baking spices, toasted hazelnut, and crushed stone.” Crushed stone! We enjoyed this pinot, too, so different in character from some of the lighter fruit juice pinots we’ve tasted. You drink ’em. They disappear. But this pinot lingered. I credit those minerals.

The woman pouring our wine overheard our discussion and asked what wines we like. We mentioned some of the places and wines we’d tasted, Mendocino pinots, Mendoza (Argentina) malbecs and Sierra Foothills syrahs.

Turned out we were tasting with Sierra Foothills wine aficionados.

“We love Amador!” interjected another employee. We traded notes on favorite places to taste on Shenandoah Road in Plymouth, Calif.

Would we like to try another pinot noir? Does a salmon like to swim upstream to spawn?

A striking departure from the 2011 pinot, the 2010 Stanly Ranch ($65) came our way next. "Ripe fresh dark red and black cherry, wild strawberry, cranberry, cola berry, rose petal, herbal tea, cardamom, dried citrus rind, fresh earth and toasted marshmallow.” Also yummy, but we preferred the less-expensive 2011.

And that’s OK. The good wine is the wine you like, no matter the price on the bottle. (Unless the wine you like is the expensive one—and you have bills to pay at the end of the month.)

Speaking of fiduciary concerns, we had pulled our tent out of storage so that we could save money on Napa accommodations. Another lovely surprise! A state park in Napa with $35 tent sites, reasonably secluded in the trees, and hot showers. Saturday night, a friend who now works in the area joined us for dinner. We built a cooking fire and grilled New York steaks with gorgonzola sweet-onion butter.

To impress our pal, we opened Markham Winery’s “The Philanthropist,” a 2008 Yountville Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($55). Nicknamed “Phil,” the wine is billed as a “dark dangerous stranger” with “a sense of intrigue in his demeanor with aromas that touch on chocolate, smoke, licorice and hints of mint, or is that whiskey?”

I love wine writing.

And yes, we drank a $55 bottle of wine by our campfire. We drank it out of our stainless-steel backpacking wine goblets from REI. For us, that’s a giant sum. Before Saturday, the most we’d spent (outside of restaurants) on a bottle of wine was $50. That’s what we paid for a 2007 estate cabernet at Wofford Acres Vineyards in Camino, Calif., a couple of years ago. (I remember a sign on the winery’s wall: “Napa makes auto parts; El Dorado makes wine. Ouch!)

We still possess that bottle. It pains us to think of drinking it, expending the glory. A few sips and swishes. Then she’s gone.

To pair with the wine and beef, I sizzled up some taters with summer squash, mushrooms and sweet onions over the camp stove. I was thankful for the moonlit night, because batteries were dying in our Coleman lantern.

After The Philanthropist and during the steaks, we moved on to the bottle my friend brought—a 2009 Ladera High Plateau cabernet sauvignon ($65). “Intense aromas of ripe blackberries and black currants with layered notes of anise and nutmeg spice.” Perfect with our charred and cheese-encrusted entrée.

Drinking two pricey bottles of wine at the picnic table should have made my jaw drop. I’m the “sniff the cap” girl. Zero pretensions and blissful bargains, right?

As it turns out, it didn’t take me long to become inured to Napa pricing. Which takes me back to Merryvale. And the most expensive wine, to date, that I’ve put in my mouth. Let me set the scene.

Sunday. Crowded tasting room. Glossy wood bar and long shelves of elegantly labeled wines.

Taste. The SL sips slowly, letting the wine caress his every oral crevasse. After the pinots, we taste the merlot ($48), rolling the liquid around the center of our mouths, finally swallowing and waiting for the long, long finish to, well, finish. I can feel this wine in my mouth for what seems like ever. The wine is practically a blend, with 75 percent merlot, mixed with those bitchin’ Bordeaux varietals: cabernet sauvignon (20 percent), malbec (3), and smidges of cab franc (1) and petit verdot (1).

The finish on the 2009 cab sauvignon, Napa grown grapes, is even longer.

Finally, the Party of Huge moves on up or down the road, and the room’s volume lulls. We realize we won’t have time for lunch, but that’s OK, because Merryvale sells designer pork jerky. We try the black cherry BBQ Krave ($7.95) and buy two pouches.

I’m taking notes and collecting tips on places to visit. Our server pours us another wine, saying nothing about it, really, except, “What do you think of this?”

I won’t cheapen the experience by trying to describe the 2009 Profile ($165), a perfectly executed blend of the above-mentioned Bordeaux grapes.

The Pixies are playing. “Where Is My Mind?” And in the much-quieter room, I can hear the lyrics. “With your feet in the air and your head on the ground.” I have finished my last slurp of heaven, gargling the goodness. I never spit.

The SL takes his time. As if he wants to stretch this moment into forever. There’s about an ounce of Profile left in his glass, and he’s not touching it. He’s just being here. Saturated by now. Making it last.

“Take this trick and spin it.”

I reach for his glass. I can help him finish this wine. Maybe he feels he’s had too much.

My hand gets within an inch of the stem. He stops me.

“This is mine,” Dave says. “I am drinking the last of the $165 wine.”

Strange. He’s usually such a sharing kind of guy.

We walked out with the jerky and the $35 pinot noir. We couldn’t justify buying the Profile, but later that afternoon, I bought a bottle of Ladera High Plateau. To go.

I’m going to put it away for a couple of years, and open it for a special occasion. Like steak and gorg butter grilled over glowing embers in the moonlight.

Published in Wine

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf.

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf, grmmfthmp.

My partner and I had finally fallen asleep. The party at the Murphys Historic Hotel bar had gone on and on 'til the wee hours.

Now it was 3 a.m., and we were sitting up in our bed. Groggily wondering why: Why woulda hotel schedule renovation in the middle of the night?

In the room next to ours, it sounded like chairs and dressers were being dragged across the floor. Pounding, stomping, thumping. The thin wall behind our headboard vibrated.

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf.

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf, grmmfthmp.

The room next to ours should have been empty. It had not been rented. (We asked hotel staff the next morning.) In fact, previous hotel guests had been said to flee that very room now and then, some not stopping to ask for a refund.

Maybe the hotel hired a staffer to make noise at 3 a.m. to perpetuate haunting as tourist attraction. The strategy, though, seems fraught with unintended consequences, like lost customers and bad Yelp reviews.

Only one explanation seemed plausible.

“It’s Eleanor!”

Eleanor, the hotel’s resident ghost, is said to have been a former chambermaid who’d fallen in love with a gold miner in the Civil War era. The miner promised he’d return for her when he was a wealthy dude. She never saw him again. She worked another 30 years at the hotel and died there, still waiting, waiting, waiting.

Now she haunts the place. The kitchen staff has reported small objects flying through the air. People have glimpsed her in the Gold Room mirror, off the main dining room. But Room 9, or the Thomas Lipton Room, is said to be the most “paranormally active” in the hotel.

We were one door down in Room 10, the J.J. Astor Room.

We were at the hotel because of the bad luck we’d had on our previous trip to the area. Saving dough on accommodations means more to spend on wine, right? So on that previous trip, we camped, in tents, with friends at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. The park’s in Arnold, 12 miles east of Murphys on Highway 4.

A fine St. Pat’s Day weekend that turned out to be. It snowed. It sleeted. The town’s stilted leprechaun toughed it out in the street, marching about with icicles forming on his green top hat. My friends and I took shelter in Zucca Winery’s tasting cave, next to the cheese fondue.

That night at the campground, we built a fire and huddled together under a tarp, drinking Twisted Oaks’ River of Skulls, a darkly dense mourvèdre made from grapes grown in Angels Camp. The 2009’s going for $35 a bottle. Pairs with “dead people,” brags the winery’s website.

Gotta love Calaveras County. ¿Entiendes? Calaveras is Spanish for “skulls.”

During our snowy campout, we ventured from our canvas chairs only long enough to cook a marinated tri-tip over the flames. It was too cold to dig out plates and utensils, so we passed the meat around on a fork, tearing off chunks with our teeth, getting in touch with our inner primates. Wild!

It was memorable. And it was cold. And I didn’t want to do it again.

Did Eleanor have something to do with this? It’s clear she chose us to haunt and possibly, you know, to possess. I might be Eleanor, for all you know.

Identity crisis aside, for our next trip, we rented cozy warm rooms, right downtown. Rooms that opened onto a balcony overlooking Main Street. Rooms right over the hotel saloon. We hiked up to Mercer Cavern and descended into its depths. By 11 a.m., we were sipping wine at a half-dozen of the 20-plus tasting rooms in downtown Murphys, not worrying about a designated driver. The hotel was right there. We could walk, if we could walk. We tasted until we realized we needed to put some food in our tummies. So we went to our rooms, pulled our chairs out onto the balcony, and noshed on cheese and salami. To accompany our snacks, we opened Zucca’s Sorprendere (Italian for surprise!), a syrah-zin blend.

Our first trip to Murphys had been goal-oriented. I wanted Milliaire’s Clockspring zinfandel, and I acquired it. Once in Calaveras County, though, I tasted more lovely wines, plum-forward, with a bit of spice. A kickass red starts on notes of frutas rojas, downbeats with some viscous deliciousness around my tongue, bridges with black pepper or cardamom or even tobacco, and finishes with a flourish of vanilla. Like a dance party in me gullet, that. (Maybe read that last sentence with a pirate voice. Thanks. Arr.)

I call the above taste sensation “the Eleanor.” And she’s present in several Sierra Foothills wines.

I can taste the Eleanor in Zucca Winery’s syrah, but she’s really at her best in their Sorprendere. On my first visit, I tasted the award-winning 2006 and bought their last two bottles, which were only available to wine club members. Call me a joiner. The 2008 was sold out last time I checked. So now it’s wait, wait, wait.

Of course, given that we’d booked hotel rooms on this trip, the weather was perfect. From our balcony, we watched the rest of Murphys tasting crowd stumble by in the warm afternoon. The tourists looked up at us and lusted for our higher powers.

Maybe there was a nap. And I’m pretty sure we wandered down the street to enjoy a killer dinner at Alchemy Market and Wine Bar. Then we returned to the hotel’s saloon, where a fun dude was playing an electronic keyboard and singing hits from the ’70s, ’80s and whatever. The bar’s décor is contemporary Old West neon Bud signeclectia with a wood stove that oddly reminded me of that Tom Hanks’ movie The ’Burbs.

Best of all, the bartender knows his spirits.

Please note: I’m skeptical about Big Magic, about omnipotency and all that. But I’m a fan of harmless little magic. People don’t fight wars over simple things like lucky charms and Tarot cards. Why wouldn’t I believe in ghosts?

After some saloon time, we hiked up to our rooms and then back down the hall to use shared bathrooms. We collapsed in our beds. Snoring ensued. And then.

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf.

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf, grmmfthmp.

Yes, I have an active dream life. And yes, we had been drinking a teensy little bit. If my partner had not been hearing what I was hearing, I probably would have written the whole thing off. But instead, we decided to decree this a shared paranormal encounter.

It’s fun to say that our favorite wines pair spookily well with dead people.

Published in Wine

Maybe there’s some sort of social network these days for the spirit world—some MyHaunt or Facelessbook for paranormal beings to stay connected, make plans, conspire.

That would explain how we met Eleanor the Ghost on a wine tasting trip to Murphys, Calif.

Maybe you’ve heard of Murphys. Maybe not. It’s a tiny burg in north-central California, miles off the beaten path (10 miles east of Highway 49) on the way to nowhere (aka Arnold, Calif.) in the Sierra foothills. To get me there must have taken the coordinated effort of at least a couple of pranking poltergeists.

The Eleanor story begins and begins again at two haunted hotels about 20 miles apart. The story hasn’t ended yet. Haunting is like that, a lifelong problem or blessing, depending on your perspective. Just when you think you’ve exorcised a ghost, years later, she’s back in your life, making herself known.

The Significant Libertarian and I were driving Highway 49 on our way from There to Here and decided to spend the night at the Historic Sonora Inn. By the way, I’m talking about Sonora, Calif., not Sonoma, Calif., next to NapaLand. Sonora’s in the Sierra foothills between, well, Tuttletown and Soulsbyville. (Both real places.)

We booked the last room in the historic section of the Sonora Inn, built in 1896. The hotel’s claims to visitor fame date back to Grace Kelly, who stayed there during the filming of High Noon (1952), and Drew Barrymore, who stayed there during Bad Girls (1994). Any hotel in California more than 100 years old (or on a dark desert highway) is likely to be haunted, and, therefore, a satisfying place to spend a night. Sure enough, walking past Room 309 sets off the Ghost Radar app on an iPhone. (But to be fair, so does walking through the produce aisle at Vons on Palm Canyon Drive. Ghost Radar sees dead people everywhere, including the artichoke bin.)

We ordered a prix fixe dinner that night at a downtown restaurant. The meal came with appetizers, salad, entrée, dessert—and two glasses of local wine. Any two glasses. From a long delightful list. Happy jumping frogs of Calaveras County!

Now, it didn’t surprise me that Calaveras County had wineries. I’ve visited wineries in more unlikely places. Like New Mexico, where the wines are as dry as everything else, except when they’re not.

What surprised me was the eyes-roll-back-in-my-head deliciousness of one particular wine, the 2006 Milliaire Clockspring zinfandel. Why did I order this wine? The ghost of Sonora Inn’s Room 309 whispered the recommendation in my ear. Thanks, G of R309.

Though most of Milliaire’s wines are made from grapes grown in Calaveras County, the Clockspring was made with Amador grapes. My glass No. 1 of 2006 Clockspring arrived with a forgettable appetizer. I probably ate it. The salad included small tomatoes. The entrée was something Italian. Ho hum.

What I remember perfectly, though, is thrusting—thrusting!—my nose in the bulbous glass and inhaling something fascinating. Something that was, um … OK, let’s pause.

Do you hate Wine Words? You know, the pretentious gibberish that Wine Snobs Who Are Smarter Than You gush when drinking yummy red things in large bulbous glasses?

That’s a bummer. Because I’m now going to give Wine Words a try. Here goes: The wine was dark purple-brown and plummy. Not sweet, but not sucking the life out of my tongue.

I wanted to climb inside the glass. I wanted to slather the wine all over my body. I wanted to sink into a bathtub full of the stuff, let it permeate my pores as another fine way of filling me with its innate rotund ribald robust remarkable remarkableness.

OK, so I’m not good at the Wine Words. You can pick up a full refund at the entrance.

Speaking of refunds and other fiduciary matters, Milliaire’s Clockspring zinfandel is an affordable wine, with the 2010 Clockspring selling for $26.

What I didn’t know when I was snorting that aged grape juice during the prix fixe dinner, even before I’d taken a sip and fallen shamelessly in love, is that the wine had garnered its share of attention. It won a gold medal in a San Francisco Chronicle wine competition in 2010 and raked in awards at six county fairs from Amador to OrangeCounty.

Breaking news: The 2010 Clockspring just won a Double Gold in the SF Chron’s competition this year.

For Glass No. 2 of wine that night, I ordered another 2006 Milliaire Clockspring zinfandel. So did the Significant Libertarian, who’d tasted my Glass No. 1.

Wine can be deeply satisfying, but it’s a fleeting joy. Pleasure is like that, transient. When it happens, you have to crawl inside the glass and savor every drop. Some flavors will be remembered but never recaptured.

Since then, I’ve encountered a few other bottles from Milliaire and other Calaveras County wineries that approach that level of excellence. There’s a distinct flavor that unites them, a vibe that I’m not capable of expressing explicitly. Henceforth, I think I’ll call that indescribable flavor/vibe/wine identity “The Eleanor,” after the ghost of that Murphys historic hotel. Eleanor haunts the Lipton Room, or she had haunted it before she met us. Now I think she might be living in my car. Or my laundry room. We’ll get to that.

I knew if I wanted to taste more of The Eleanor, I’d have to plan a trip to Murphys. Since the town was founded by a couple of Irish gold mining brothers, St. Patrick’s Day seemed an appropriate time to visit. We’d slip inside the Milliaire Winery tasting room, join the cult—by which I mean wine club—and obtain enough zinfandel to bring home and share with friends.

I’ll write about the St. Pat’s Day visit to Murphys Historic Inn in my next storytelling effort, which will land in this news venue a few days before March 17. My tale will include a carnivorous moment shared with friends, a leprechaun on stilts braving spring sleet, and my new buddy Eleanor, who happens to have a visibility disability. In addition to that, she’s alive-deficient. But you can’t hold that against her. She has exceptional taste.

For now, let’s end on a Clockspring note. I opened a bottle of the 2006, months later, to accompany a forgettable meal at my own fun but slightly tipsy house party. I was hoping for some appreciation, but, well, we’d opened a few bottles of amazing already that night. We’d descended into guzzle mode.

Most of us.

A friend sat silently at my dinner table, his nose hanging low over a bulbous glass partly filled with Clockspring. He wasn’t contributing to our earth-shattering discussion of global warming or the preparedness of high school kids for college. In fact, he hadn’t spoken for a while. And he wasn’t drinking. I asked him if something was wrong.

“Smelling this wine is making me a better person,” he said. “I’m afraid to find out what will happen if I drink it.”

He had sensed The Eleanor. He took a sip.

Published in Wine

Get married on Friday the 13th, and you’re tempting fate.

That was our intention.

We woke up that morning in Lone Pine and drove to Kelso Dunes in the Mojave (not quite a three-hour drive from the valley), stopping to hike the Alabama Hills, once a setting for cowboy films starring John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart.

By the time we reached the Mojave, a storm was brewing. Whirling dervishes of sand. Blustery chill in the February air. I couldn’t shake a nagging fear that we’d disappear in the gritty desert—and that it would then snow.

We toughed it out. We’d chosen the doomed date and the desolate location as a metaphor for our decision to marry—or, rather, to renew our vows, to begin a lofty marriage do-over, against the odds, fate be damned.

We didn’t want to do this on Valentine’s Day. Too trendy. We’d made The Plan well before we pulled into the Kelso Dunes parking lot. Under a bleak sky.

As we parked, we stated the obvious, intoning facts as questions.

We could do this tomorrow?

Yeah … we could?

At the last minute, neither of us would be unfaithful to The Plan. We tromped out of the car and faced the trail. Hiked up about a mile. Recited brand-new vows through tears and chattering teeth. We exchanged chocolate peanut butter hearts, declared a thumb war and flew back to our car. For our wedding night, we’d booked a honeymoon suite at a discount hotel in Barstow. With a spa in our room.

A spa that leaked.

We’d brought candles, bubbles, a bottle of Tobin James Ballistic (2007) and the movie Sideways in DVD. It was about the third or fourth time we’d seen the movie. We’re endlessly entertained by the misadventures of wine-tasting Miles and his gauche womanizing friend, Jack.

The movie came out in 2004, which was a bad year for our marriage. George W. Bush’s re-election coincided with frequent urges to get divorced, a theme that recurred during the 2006 midterm elections, and again in 2008. We’d jammed through three marriage counselors during those years, the last of whom told us we’d never make it.

Our differences were deeply political and religious. We’d grown apart. We had nothing in common. We didn’t both like Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

We kept trying, on and off. When our kids were teens, we left town for long weekends, camping and hiking. After spending one such weekend in Lee Vining, putzing around MonoLake and Yosemite, we decided to drive up to Amador County—just to taste winey deliciousness for ourselves.

“Is it possible that wine saved our marriage?”

That’s what I asked my husband, my Significant Libertarian, on our re-wedding night in Barstow. It was Feb. 13, 2009. We had a stack of divorce papers neatly filed away, unsigned, at home. And we’d just recommitted ourselves to another lifetime together. The water had been seeping out of the tub, so we were reclining comfortably in a couple of inches of lukewarm water. We raised our glasses to wine. Ting.

We made it through half the movie. Maybe less.

Which perhaps inspired our decision, the next morning, to spend Valentine’s Day tasting wine in Sideways country. It was tricky getting a room, but we nabbed an opening at a discount motel in downtown Santa Maria, off Main Street. The motel’s apparently closed now (thank you, Google maps), and I can’t figure out why: The guests were marvelously friendly. As the Significant Libertarian unloaded the car, a dozen or so women stood in the doorways of their rooms posing in various costumes not entirely unlike women my SL had encountered seen in Amsterdam’s red-light district.

We checked in and headed out, down the road to our first wine stop, Kenneth Volk Vineyard (5230 Tepusquet Road, Santa Maria). It wasn’t the first stop made by the beloved tragic buddies in the movie (that was Sanford Winery, west of Solvang) but it worked for me. We were early—the first customers, really—so we had the pourmaster’s complete and undivided attention. Another couple later arrived on their Valentine’s Day date. We swapped cameras and took photos for each other. They were on their first date. We told them we were on our first date. We bought a bottle of the best chardonnay we’ve ever tasted. Ever.

As is our habit, we bypassed larger wineries for smaller ones. We drank at Rancho Sisquoc (6600 Foxen Canyon Road), Tres Hermanas (9660 Foxen Canyon Road) and Foxen (7200 Foxen Canyon Road). It’s possible that we tasted at other places, but I can’t remember last weekend, let alone four years ago. The tastings at the wineries I listed above all included keepsake wine glasses. I drank out of the above logo’d glasses for years. (The Foxen glass was my favorite, a Riedel with a subtle foxtail logo. I eventually broke it. Sadness.)

What we remember best is the proliferation of Los Angelenos and pinot noirs—the latter made famous by the movie. “Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression,” Miles tells Maya, the girl he’s hot for in the movie. “Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.”

The SL and I were in more of a bratty Jack mood. Our last stop was a crowded winery, not on the above list, over-priced, slightly pretentious. We began, in low tones, to pronounce the pinot noirs as “a bit young” and “lacking character,” and, my favorite, “Kool-aidy.”

Say Kool-Aid in a snooty voice next time you’re out tasting. I dare you.

I probably began saying “pee-noht” at some point. Which would be an accurate Spanish pronunciation. Which I possibly explained to anyone who’d listen, treating these lucky folks to stories about the semester I taught travel-writing in Chile. The most adorable thing about my Significant Libertarian is that he not only tolerates all of this; he seems to enjoy it.

We realized our tasting trip was about done when one of us asked the pourers if they had any fuckin’ merlot. We considered this original. We thought we were being hilarious.

What we were really being was together.

Deidre Pike is an assistant professor of journalism. She lived in Hawaii for a year but moved back to the Mainland to be closer to the grapes. She and her husband celebrated their 30th/4th anniversary this year. This column appears every other week.

Published in Wine

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