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Tue12102019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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.

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