Last updateSun, 30 Aug 2015 2pm

Deidre Pike

You can make tofu taste like Italian sausage. You can toy with the texture, just a speck, so that a person eating your tofu chili will barely notice the curdled soy product.

This works best if the vegetarian grub is served with a seductive red wine—one that holds up to the challenge, complementing chili, cumin, onion and black beans.

Such a wine is the 2011 Twisted Oak Murgatroyd ($25). Yes, the wine’s name references Snagglepuss, the cartoon critter famous for the line: “Heavens to Murgatroyd!”

The Murg wine is a kitchen-sink blend. It has a funky hue I call Barney purple. Sharply acidic nose. Medium body. Tangy zingy zang on the finish.

I don’t know what’s in it. The bottle copy offers no hints; it merely plays on another Snagglepuss catch line, “Exit stage left.” (The label says: “Don’t Exit! Our animated blend is at the Stage where it is drinkable now, or may be Left for a few years.” The underlining and quirky capitalization is original to label text.) Nor does the Twisted Oak website give me clues as to which grape varietals went into this wine.

Wine is complicated, mysterious. So is life. These days, my world is full of intriguing new pairings.

My husband, Dave, and I have lived the commuter-marriage life for five years now. That has translated to weekend honeymoons with hiking, cooking, art, music, movies and wine sipped in languid bliss under star-studded skies.

On a together weekend, Dave might leave Reno early, drive all day and meet me at a wine bar for happy hour. Then we’ll pick up juicy ribeye steaks and grill them on the deck. We’d steam an artichoke for our appetizer. Bake a loaf of fresh bread. Pop open a delectable cabernet sauvignon.

Anyone jealous yet? You should be.

But the times, they are rearrangin’. In recent months, I’ve transitioned from living alone to living with adult children, their dogs and an infant. This has added a hearty dose of reality to honeymoon weekends.

Dave arrived for a recent visit early and headed straight to the house. I was at work. The dogs barked and wagged. He cleaned, did laundry, made my bed. He held our daughter’s newborn baby—pure bliss—while she kept an optometrist appointment.

We met at a bank to do some financial hoo-ha-ing. Finally, we went to the wine bar, a teensy bit exhausted. A 2009 Moonstone Crossing Amador County mourvedre revived us with its earthy fruits.

That night, we ate pumpkin soup and pasta.

The next night, we enjoyed broccoli pizza.

On Day Three, I concocted a giant pot of tofu chili. Did I mention that my adult children are vegetarians? As you might have guessed from the previous mention of steak, Dave and I are not. At least not yet.

Our household’s meals are generally vegetarian-friendly. A meat option is a rare addition to the menu.

No one is stopping us from eating meat. In fact, next time Dave comes, I might buy juicy steaks. But given the influence of my new roomies, I’ve been eating less meat—almost no red meat at all. Dave and I had both been complaining about red meat hangovers—the digestive unpleasantness that lasts for 12 to 18 hours after ingesting seared cow flesh.

Worse than slight intestinal discomfort is the possibility that something far more diabolical is going on in one’s bowels after a red-meat encounter. Cancer experts who rigorously reviewed hundreds of scientific studies have concluded that red meats are strongly linked to colorectal cancer. Red-meat consumption is also linked to lung, esophageal, stomach and pancreatic cancer.

Yeah, I know. Everything causes cancer. We’re all going to die of something. Life is 100 percent fatal.

Changing diet might mean changing a person’s experience of wine. I enjoy bites of juicy red meat between sips of a fine cab. Tannic red wines, with their astringent mouth feel, pair well with meat. One theory explains that the fatty texture of meat is balanced by the dry feel of the wine.

That said, I feel I’ve barely touched the possibilities of meat-free wine pairings. A vegetarian website offers such pairings for even the reddest of reds. A cabernet sauvignon, for example, might pair well with grilled veggies, barbecue sauces, garlicky things, and aged or stinky cheeses.

Still, I’m drooling over Twisted Oak’s website suggestions for Murgatroyd. The list begins with tri-tip marinated in “Murginade!” (That’s soy sauce, ginger and honey.) They also suggest “a nice cigar lamb osso bucco (and) Asian-style marinated flank steak, served over a bed of angel hair pasta with horseradish cream.”

Oh meat, meat, delicious meat.

By the way, I ended up calling the winery to find out what’s in the 2011 Murg. After putting me on hold for research, a friendly wine-room employee parsed the blend out at 60 percent petit verdot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon and 20 petite sirah.

OK, on to the secrets of tofu alteration: To transform tofu from the realm of slices, slabs and cubes, freeze it. This alters the texture of the curdled soy. Thaw it. Squeeze the water out. Break it up into bits and globs that almost resemble ground beef. Season with garlic, soy sauce and any spices that go with what you’re cooking. I used chili sauce, cayenne pepper, thyme, oregano, dried parsley, salt, black pepper, cumin and fennel. Toss this concoction until the tofu bits are evenly coated. Sear the tofu in olive oil until it gets as brown and crispy as you desire.

Then add to soup. I made this batch of chili with tomatoes from Dave’s garden, and beans that I soaked and boiled in salt, pepper, garlic, cumin and Sriracha. I sautéed onions, garlic, bell peppers, jalapeno and two stalks of celery, and tossed those in as well. Until we added cheese and sour cream later, this qualified as vegan chili.

Dave said he enjoyed the batch. “Tofu?” he said. “Not bad.”

The wine paired well with the soup’s heat and spice. Berries, currant and nutmeg are flavors suggested on the wine’s back label, the text of which concludes with one last bit of fun:

“Snaggle your puss anytime. Heavens to Murgatroyd!”

Wednesday, 14 October 2015 15:40

Sniff the Cap: The Don and the Rim Fire Red

The Rim of the World was in flames in the late summer and fall of 2013. Dawn came morning after morning with smoldering red-orange skylines.

By the time the conflagration was contained, the Yosemite Rim Fire had burned 400 square miles, making it the third-largest wildfire in California’s history. Wide swaths of charred hills and valleys were left in its wake.

Spared from flames were tempranillo grapes in the Zuni Vineyard, on the canyon’s far edges. Gas and carbon vapors, however, penetrated the grapes’ thin skins for more than 40 days.

Now those grapes are wine.

“You can taste that smoke,” says Lisette Sweetland. She’s pouring the 2013 Tempranillo at Inner Sanctum Cellars. We’re visiting the winery’s tasting room in Jamestown, a few miles west of Yosemite. “It affected the wine in interesting ways.”

You can’t predict the impact of a disaster, manmade or natural. Not for months or years. Maybe not ever.

Sweetland tips the wine into my glass. Folks have nicknamed this the Rim Fire Red, she says.

Her description of smoke gives me pause. I’m not a fan of wine that tastes like the underside of a grill—even if I am pairing that wine with barbecued meat.

Inner Sanctum’s 2013 Torro 3 Tempranillo defies expectations. Notes of charred air are there, yes, but these subtle tones are balanced expertly with brighter eruptions of growing things—savory herbs and brambly berries.

I’m impressed. What does it take to coax this complexity from grapes that spent the weeks before harvest saturated in smoke? A masterful winemaker.

In Tuolumne County, this guru of grapes is Chuck Hovey. My husband, Dave, and I are fans of Hovey’s art.

Hovey, 60, got his start at J. Lohr Winery in San Jose, and made wines at Stevenot Winery in Murphys for more than 20 years. Hovey’s brilliance there translated to more than 500 wine awards in various competitions. In fact, Stevenot’s 2006 Tempranillo was the Pike house wine five or six years ago, notable for its excellence and affordability. We bought it by the case ($99) for ourselves and shared with appreciative friends.

In 2008, Hovey started his own label, Hovey Wine. He’s also the consulting winemaker for Gianelli Vineyards, Inner Sanctum Cellars and Bodega del Sur Winery in Murphys.

Hovey is a legend in Tuolumne and Calaveras county wine-making. Now the legend is facing his own fires. Over the summer, Hovey survived two strokes and had to have a craniectomy. His son Kyle Hovey created a GoFundMe page to help pay for his dad’s medical care. To date, the site has received more than $44,000 in contributions.

While Hovey recovers this fall, his shoes are being filled by wine-making apprentice Cody LaPertche. The apprentice told a local reporter he’s doing his best to stick to what he’s learned from Hovey.

“Every day, coming in, I feel like he’s got his hand on my shoulder,” LaPertche told a reporter for The Union-Democrat (Sonora, Calif.). “Every single day, we come in thinking, ‘What would Chuck do?’”

In the meantime, Hovey’s winemaking influence is widely felt. At Gianelli Vineyards tasting room in Jamestown, Dave and I encounter a dozen award-winning wines that Hovey crafted from grapes grown a few miles out of town.

I’d heard good things about Gianelli. A list of 2013 distinctions includes 11 wines that won a combined 26 awards. Gianelli’s 2010 Aglianico, for example, won Best of Class in the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and Double Gold in the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

Of the wines we taste, Dave and I like ’em all. That’s unusual. Nothing strikes us as bland or acidic or even less than fabulous. Several are so delicious that we roll our eyes back and make happy sighs. Dave buys a few bottles, including the 2011 Aglianico ($27) and a delectable 2010 Dolcetto ($22).

Inner Sanctum’s tasting room is a few doors down from Gianelli. Between the two is a pan-for-nuggets tourist shop. This is gold country, after all.

Gianelli’s 2011 “The Don” Barbera won four awards in 2014, including a Double Gold at the Calaveras Wine Competition, and a silver in Sunset’s International Wine Competition. The “Don,” in this case, is wine-grower Ron Gianelli. And Inner Sanctum’s wine notes describe the wine as “flawlessly created by master winemaker Chuck Hovey.”

While we’re chatting with Sweetland, others pop in to ask about The Don.

“We’re out of the barbera,” Sweetland says, “but you’re more than welcome to come on in!”

Sweetland, though an experienced tasting-room employee, hasn’t worked here long. She’s company manager for the Sierra Repertory Theatre as well. She puts in a plug for a recent production while also talking knowledgeably about the local wine scene.

“This is my fun job,” she says.

Sweetland fell in love with Inner Sanctum because of the Torro 3. On a recent birthday, her partner was cooking up burgers with blue cheese and Portobello mushrooms. Hoping for a spectacular pairing, she brought home the Rim Fire Red. The wine’s vintage recalled the tumult of that fall. Sweetland had been pregnant. Her midwife had advised staying home, and not going out to breathe the dangerous air.

“But I had to work,” she says now. She recalls how the layers of smoke converged, most afternoons, to form a mushroom cloud. “It was apocalyptic,” she says.

And the wine?

“It’s a barbecue in a bottle,” she says. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

Before we leave, Sweetland recommends dinner at The Standard Pour in Sonora, a newish establishment created by veteran area foodies.

Though perhaps more widely known for craft beers, The Standard Pour offers a few Inner Sanctum wines. I order a glass of the Rim Fire Red, pairing it with a tangy brussel sprout and bacon appetizer. Then, because it can’t hurt to ask: Do they possess any of Inner Sanctum’s sold-out barbera? They do!

For dessert, I drink The Don, toasting the fine work of winemaker Hovey, and offering best wishes for his full and speedy recovery.

Gorgeous liquid, this. Salute!

There’s something spiff-alicious about opening a delectable bottle of wine after drinking low-budget swill for a couple of weeks.

I select a bottle from my wine cellar (read: garage). I break out the fine wine glasses, caress the delicate glass. I touch the bottle, read the label.

Madroña Zinfandel. El Dorado. 2012.

It’s an $18 bottle of wine from mixed vineyards—so no big whoop, right? But I recently jammed through a six-pack of low-end Blackstone cabs, cheap zins made from old vines (the nerve!), and a Yellow Tail merlot that turned out to be palatable with sketti. While cost is not necessarily an indicator of quality in wine—or anything else—it turns out 10 bucks a bottle makes a huge difference.

At my house these days, even the wine-formerly-known-as-average is saved for visitors. Tonight, that’s my husband, Dave, who has made his monthly sojourn from his home in Reno to my place in California.

I pull out the cork and pause, donning glasses to read descriptive text on the bottle’s back: “Situated at 3,000 feet in the El Dorado appellation of the Sierra Foothills, Madroña’s hillside vineyards offer ideal growing conditions.”

Madroña has single vineyard wines in the $50 range, but we love this wine. We’ve had this zinfandel at the winery’s tasting room in Camino, Calif. For the money, it’s excellent. Recently, I spotted this bottle on The New York Times Wine Club website.

I pour, giving the liquid some air, and inhale. Spice and berry balance on the nose. The first sip is nectar of the goddess. Wars might be fought and won for this wine. I’ve never tasted a better zinfandel. At least not in the past two or three weeks. Hence the hyperbole.

“It’s a little young,” suggests Dave. I’m reminded that he lives far away in a grand house with a wider-ranging wine selection.

“It’s perfect,” I argue.

“No, it’s really good,” he says.

“It’s amazing,” I reply, “especially as a change from Three-Buck Chuck.”

Oh yeah. I’m poor. Poor and, I admit, super-duper privileged at the same time. This year, I bought a house, and delectable wine became a luxury.

I was tired of renting and having to move when a landlord decided to sell or move back in. A few years back, I rented a house owned by a man who pocketed my dough and didn’t pay the mortgage. Bank foreclosed. House sold on the courthouse stairs to the highest bidder. Which was not me.

Saving for a house has meant limiting my wine appreciation on behalf of thriftiness.

Sort of. Perhaps I enjoyed fewer wine extravagances. An occasional weekend in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, drinking pinot noirs flavored by fog. And, yes, there was that spring camping trip to Paso Robles. And a handful of sojourns to the wine meccas of Lodi and Murphys.

Still, it took a while to collect enough dough for a down.

Wine connoisseurship gets pricey fast. In August, my daughter and I hit a couple of the tasting rooms on Santa Cruz’s trendy Westside. We’d been camping on a beach north of Monterey. Fires had been built, and marshmallows roasted. Before leaving for home Sunday, we drove up the coast to explore. We wandered into a tasting room while we had sunburns and our hair was smelling of charcoal and sea air—not intending to spend much. A chatty winemaker poured generous quantities of ruby ware, mostly pinot noirs in the $25-$30 range.

My daughter Steph, a doctoral student at Case Western Reserve’s School of Medicine, likes to say she knows little about wine. Yet she consistently identifies the most complex and refined wine in a tasting flight. In this case, the wine she most enjoyed was a new release, a 2012 pinot noir not on the winemaker’s tasting notes—or on his price list.

I had intended to buy a bottle; the $25-$30 range is doable if I’m only buying one bottle. My daughter liked the 2012. “We’ll take it,” I said. The winemaker handed me a credit card receipt for something like $45. The new release of pinot noir was $42, he said.

It’s entirely likely the winemaker wasn’t trying to exploit our inebriation but had merely raised the price of his pinot noir to reflect market demand. And neglected to tell us. I could have asked. I could have said no when I saw the credit card charge.

I did neither. Steph and I have a lovely bottle of $42 pinot noir. We’ll drink it when she graduates in 2018 or so. A well-crafted pinot noir ages nicely. We’ll see how this one holds up.

I have a few other bottles too fine to drink on the average kick-back-and-watch-Scandal sort of night. That said, I enjoy a glass of red wine most evenings. In search of affordable reds, most often I buy cases at wineries during various sales.

An overnight wine run to Murphys in early June netted six bottles of assorted varietals (at about $10 each) from Black Sheep Winery, a $99 case of Stevenot Winery merlot, and a $50 case of 2012 syrah—blowout sale!—from Sobon Estate in Amador County. Now it’s almost all gone. I blame adult children and plenty of parties.

Hence the grocery store six-pack. Think battery acid on the nose, with the mouth-feel of Kool-Aid. I won’t name the worst of the dreck. The Yellow Tail merlot was OK, which snooty me pronounced “not terrible.”

That’s why, tonight, the Madroña zinfandel provides a nice contrast to low-budget liquids. The wine’s complex fruit profile reminds Dave, he says, of the mourvedre varietal.

“Don’t you get that?”

Sure, I get that—and so much more.

The wine reminds me that deliciousness exists, and that I’ve never experienced anything like poverty—not even close. I own this house, in theory. I drive a Prius to shop for organic veggies at the farmers’ market. I have a great job. And family. And friends. And dogs. I have this wine and many other bottles to discover on other nights.

That’s not hard to swallow, not at all. Gratitude ensues.

Weather report for a dry, summer Friday afternoon in the Temecula Valley: Sunny, light wind, temps in the 90s. A group of visitors to the Frangipani Estate Winery wander outside with glasses of the 2013 Estate Grenache Rosé ($20).

It’s a bone-dry rosé, as tasting-room manager Nick Tavizon describes it.

“A floral nose, hint of strawberry … a touch of minerality,” he says. “A lot of people come in expecting it’s going to be a sweet wine. But it’s not.”

The latest vintage of Frangipani’s popular rosé was released in the spring. In Temecula, the grenache varietal is ideal for the crafting of a complex rosé. The valley’s too hot for pinot noir. Tavizon says the winery has played around with a few varietals for its rosés, but the grenache stands out.

“People are liking it,” Tavizon says. “Rosés are definitely coming back with a new twist, done in a Southern France style.”

That’s satisfying news for folks who like a chilled wine on a hot, hot day. And the weather report for fall? Looks like the heat’s going to stick around for a while.

Not too long ago, I would have snubbed any wine the color of that wine-like substance that gramps buys by the six-pack at Costco. (A Napa winery once countered the white zin craze by printing T-shirts that said: “Zin is red! Zin is red!”)

My thinking changed when my trusted wine-geek buddy—a woman who understood dry rosés before the rest of us—introduced a bottle of coral-tinged French wine at a summer barbecue. Some were dubious. She placed the chilled bottle on a friend’s patio table. Water condensed in the heat, wetting the label. I watched as another guest tipped the bottle to the side and examined the bottle copy. He set the wine down and, instead, polished off a pinot gris.

My wine geek friend opened the bottle of pinkness and poured some for me.

I suspended disbelief. She would not steer me into the land of unpleasant beverages.

“It’s a dry rosé,” she explained. “Try it with the prosciutto-wrapped melon.”

I drank the rosé, ate the melon, drank more rose, polished off the glass, and poured another. It paired nicely with everything from cucumbers to salmon.

Since then, I’ve savored many bottles of rosé. One of my favorites? Twisted Oak’s Calaveras Rosa (the label features a pink skull!), a rosé made with mourvedre.

“Mourvedre?” I said, when my friend handed me this chilled bottle as a birthday present. “You can make rosé from mourvedre?”

You can. And if the Calaveras Rosa is any indication, you should. I’ve lauded the dark mysteries of a delicious mourvedre before. But an encounter with the lighter version of the grape is like meeting Marilyn Manson as an adolescent Brian Hugh Warner: You just know this kid is going to end up seriously interesting.

The Calaveras Rosa is complicated like that, with dark fruits waiting to be discovered behind a crooked smile and clear complexion. We opened the wine that night and drank it with that night’s fusion feast—guacamole and chips, kale salad, boeuf bourguignon.

I’m bummed that the 2012 Calaveras Rosa ($20) was sold out at Twisted Oak’s online store when I last checked. Bring on the 2013.

For award-winning rosés closer to home, there’s Callaway Vineyard and Winery in Temecula. Callaway’s 2013 Special Selection Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) placed in this year’s Rosé Competition, which is open to rosés from across North America.

A standout is Callaway’s Rosé of Sangiovese ($20). The 2012 vintage nabbed a gold in the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and a gold in the 2014 Pacific Rim Wine Competition. Its 2011 Special Selection Rose of Sangiovese won 10 awards.

My idea of a glorious autumn afternoon might include zipping over to Callaway with a picnic basket, attaining a chilled bottle and kicking back in the shade at a table overlooking acres of ripe grapes.

Quick note: Some of my family members and friends do not appreciate dry, aka delicious wine. Gramps, as noted above, lusts for white zin. Mom calls my favorite wines “bitter.” Most recently, a young woman my son brings to dinner has been known to adulterate reds and whites uniformly with various substances, from fresh fruit to sparkling water and, well, spoons full of sugar. “This is so good!” she’ll exclaim, sipping away at her fizzy sangria Kool-Aid.

She is extremely cute and good-natured. I like her lots. It’s not my job to try to change anyone’s tastes, so I choose the indulgent rout. The young woman recently enjoyed Andre’s non-vintage spumante ($6). She added orange-mango juice and made mimosas.

It’s a bit awkward to skulk through a grocery store with cheap pink things in my cart. I keep my head down. Yes, I’m often guilty of being a pretentious wine snob. Bumper sticker/meme idea: “Stay calm and let people drink what they like.”

Preferring sweeter wines, though, doesn’t mean a person lacks appreciation for a delectable, hand-crafted rosé.

Many options exist for, say, a meal that demands a wine with higher residual sugar. Monte De Oro, off Rancho California Road in Temecula, crafts a lovely off-dry rosé from five estate-grown grapes—syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and zinfandel.

“Wine drinkers today understand what a rosé is versus a blush,” says Allan Steward, the tasting-room manager.

The winery educates consumers of rosés at its website, describing how the winemaker uses the saignee style—pulling grape juice from various fermentations after just a few days, allowing only limited contact with red-grape skins. Winemakers who use this style can end up with exquisite roses and also, some argue, more intensely concentrated reds down the road.

At Monte De Oro, the 2014 Synergy 65 Rosé ($22) was released at the end of July. Tasting notes describe the rosé as “youthful (with) appealing aromas of strawberries, currants, cherries, cranberries and raspberries complemented by hints of vanilla bean and fresh rose petals.” Could better flavors exist to pair with the crispness of late summer, harvest around the corner, fall in the air?

Steward says he would serve the Synergy with a spicy Thai dinner—the sweet would balance the heat.

“But I wouldn’t mind having it with a hamburger, either,” he says.

So versatile. That’s what keeps me drinking the pink.

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.

Thursday, 12 March 2015 16:40

Sniff the Cap: Making Mead Is a Must

The moon lights the way to my cottage. A lantern glows inside. Friends knock and enter, bringing veggies and bread. I pour sweet golden mead into clay mugs. I’ve been busy fermenting honey here in my hobbit hole. Folks pull out hand-crafted instruments. We build a bonfire under the stars, dancing and feasting until dawn.

That’s my vision of life after the apocalypse, an existence without indoor plumbing and electricity and WiFi. In my hippie fantasy, human society may fall into ruin, but it won’t look like the murderous anarchy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Instead, we’ll work together to survive and thrive. We’ll make music and drink mead—one of the most ancient and sustainable alcoholic beverages.

It’s going to be good.

OK, back to reality. I wasn’t thinking about surviving civilization’s collapse when I checked the progress of my bubbling liquid sunshine, aka a 6.5-gallon glass jug of honey wine.

For two weeks, my mead had been fermenting feistily. Then not so much. After a couple of weeks, the bubbling business slowed and seemed to stop.

“You need to buy a hydrometer,” said one advisee.

Got one.

“Have you been using it?”

Yup. I reported that the specific gravity measured 1.040 a couple days ago.

“That’s pretty sweet, like a dessert mead,” he said. “But you have a lot of time.”

He suggested I give my yeast a snack.

Does the above exchange make me sound like I know what I’m talking about? Thank you, Internet, for giving me chem lessons so I can break bad in my home lab.

Here’s what I’ve learned: A hydrometer (glass tube that floats atop the booze) measures the density of the liquid in my jar. The specific gravity of water is 1.000. Pure alcohol is 0.792. My mead, as you can see, is quite dense.

Fermentation slows and stops eventually. But my mead is still too sweet and only boasts about 5.25 percent alcohol. I’m hoping for 11 or 12 percent. If I give my yeast a snack, it’ll kick back into fermentation mode. While honey contains all the nutrients required by bees (and humans), yeast is needier. As the sugar transforms into alcohol, my yeast needs another shot of nutrients—a concoction containing amino and unsaturated fatty acids and the kinds of stuff that I could probably get from crushing up a multi-vitamin.

Rather than mash up my Geritol, though, I obtain a packet of tan powder called yeast nutrient, and unscrew the wide-mouth air-lock cap on the mead. I place my hydrometer in the mead and give it a gentle spin. When it stops moving, I take a reading. Still 1.040. I taste it. Not too syrupy, a bit effervescent. Nice. But I’d prefer it to be drier.

So in goes the nutrients, and the concoction bubbles like madness. Happy yeast makes tasty mead.

Two weeks or so ago, my husband, Dave, and I started our first batch of mead. Making mead is easy, we’d heard. You can make mistakes, and the mead will most likely survive.

We’d obtained 18 pounds of orange-blossom honey for the project. After equipment, buying honey is the priciest aspect of mead-making.

Why are we buying honey when Dave keeps bees in his backyard, where they feast on red raspberries, roses and lavender? Fair question. Dave’s honey is simply too precious for experimentation. First, we’ll get good at this.

Of course, Dave can be a little finicky. “Does this honey smell OK to you?” Dave asked.

“It does not smell as good as your honey, honey,” I replied.

For references, we had Ken Schramm’s book The Compleat Meadmaker, and a recipe in the back of a catalog for home-brewing supplies. I searched for “making mead” online, and Google reported 31.7 million results.

We also had six gallons of filtered water, a thermometer, a hydrometer and a 6.5 gallon glass carboy (jug). We had sanitizer to clean a long stirring spoon, cups and measuring utensils. We had Prise de Mousse wine yeast, nutrients, tartaric acid and Irish moss for clarity.

We were ready. Gobbing honey out of jars was sticky business. Then we heated the must, aka watered-down honey, aka proto-wine. The proportions of honey to water differ depending on the recipe. One online recipe suggested two pounds of honey per gallon of water. Schramm’s recipe included twice that—15 pounds of honey and four gallons of water. We landed right in the middle—18 pounds of honey and six gallons of water, or three pounds of honey per gallon.

We boiled water and added honey along with nutrients and energizer. Adding honey cooled the water, but then we took the liquid back up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. I fiddled with the burner for 10 minutes or so, trying to keep it hot without letting it boil. Another recipe calls for boiling. Go figure.

Heat then cool. Heat then cool. The must had to cool down again before we could add yeast.

So we waited. And waited. We got impatient. We were ready to sit down to crab appetizers and wine.

When the liquid was finally cool, we added yeast and stirred like maniacs to get plenty of oxygen into the must. I twirled a spoon until my arms hurt, then Dave gave it a go, creating a cyclone in the bottle.

We put a lid on it, fantasizing about the three cases of golden mead we’d be enjoying in six months or so. There’ll be a party with DIY music and a bonfire. We’ll drink mead from clay mugs. Sound like a good plan for a Friday night?

We thought so, too. Our work done, Dave and I opened a lovely bottle of Anderson Valley pinot noir for which we paid some serious dough.

The wine was excellent, and I’m thinking now it might be time to make wine-wine next time. Red wine. From grapes. This fall, in fact, I’d like to try my hand at, say, six gallons of zinfandel. I’m soliciting advice on this. Can I buy a smallish quantity of grapes and crush ’em in my kitchen? Yes, said one wine-making friend, no problem.

“But you’ll be sorry,” he warned.


“If it’s good, you’ll be sorry you didn’t make more.”

Monday, 16 February 2015 08:00

Sniff the Cap: Going Deep in Anderson Valley

“If pinot noir is the next best thing to sex, you must be having really good sex.”


Dave never buys pinot noir at home.

“No balls,” he says.

We know this wine variety can be amazing. We’ve seen the movie Sideways. We’ve tasted good pinot noirs in Washington and Oregon. But we’ve encountered insipid pinot noir far too many times. Cuz insipid pinot noir is cheap.

“I can’t afford to like pinot noir,” says our wine-aficionado friend.

Now here we are, drinking elegant pinot noir and adoring it, eyes rolling back in our head, drool escaping from corners of mouths. We whip out our credit cards for more, more.

We’re drinking on the west end of Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. Locals call this the Deep End. It’s too close to the Pacific, really, to grow grapes. Yet the Deep Enders do.

At Handley Cellars, tasting-room employee Ali Nemo pours a side-by-side tasting of 2011 pinots. One’s a blend of grapes from three appellations, two inland from here. The second pinot is from grapes all grown about 10 miles from the Pacific. Both wines resonate with complex flavors, feature rich color, and offer an outstanding finish that lingers on and on. But the wines differ in texture, acidity and flavor.

In the first, you can taste the sunshine. Pinot No. 2’s flavors are brought to you by fog.

Owner and winemaker Milla Handley, great-great granddaughter of Henry Weinhard, crafts wines from her 29-acre estate vineyard and also buys grapes from Redwood and Potter valleys. The grapes grown closest to the coast develop an “oceanic acidity.” The resulting pinot noirs have more tannins than we’ve come to expect from grocery-store pinots. That's why this wine can be plopped in a cellar (or dark closet) and emerge 15 years later drinking so, so smooth.

To get here, drive north beyond Santa Rosa. Head west on Highway 128 at Cloverdale, and cruise rolling green hills toward the coast. Now you’re in Boonville, population 1,035. Robert Mailer Anderson wrote a best-selling 2003 novel set in this quirky burg where oldsters speak a local dialect called “Boontling.” That’s a real thing. The book casts wine tourists as mere extras. That’s not far from reality, either. Mendocino County anchors the Emerald Triangle, where much weed is grown. We don’t encounter any native speakers of Boontling during our weekend in Anderson Valley but, dude, the grapes are good, good. This is a tucked-away place, south of Fort Bragg and, farther north, the Lost Coast, aka the King Range National Conservation Area.

Dave and I drive through Boonville to Philo (FILE-oh), population 349, where we’ve booked a room at the Anderson Valley Inn. Our first wine stop is Navarro Vineyards, named “Winery of the Year” at the 2014 California State Fair. We could stay here all day and let wine-room worker Nick Johnson pour 15 wines for us. These tastings are complimentary tastings—but we pass on award-winning whites and hit the reds. The 2012 Méthode à l'Ancienne ($29) blends pinots from 16 vines, all in Anderson Valley. Johnson describes low yields and tormented grapes grown near the coast, then pours for us the 2012 Deep End Blend ($49). Navarro won a gold medal, best of class, for this one.

I get it.

In two days, Dave and I drink spectacular pinots at many wineries. Along the way, we encounter a few zinfandels from inland vineyards. My favorites include Edmeades 2005 Perli Vineyard Zinfandel ($40) and its 2012 Gianoli Vineyard Zin ($35). Wine notes suggest “intense notes of blackberries and forest floor.” Who knew dirt paired so well with fruit?

These zins vary wildly from our beloved jammy zins of the Sierra Foothills, Amador and Lodi. Different spices. Blacker fruits. Oh yeah.

Anderson is famous for its whites and sparkling wines, so we sample a few of these. But for us, the pinots are the reds of note. At Drew Family Cellars, a smallish mom-and-pop place, we taste the 2012 Fog-Eater Pinot Noir ($45)—“pomegranate, orange and licorice with floral notes”—that was on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 wine list.

We learn that the term “fog-eater” is a Boontling pejorative for a person who lives too close to the coast, “on the margin.”

You know those bottles of wine that kill you with their luscious beauty? This is one of those. Fortunately, I have not yet hit the limit on my credit card.

Dave’s favorite Anderson Valley pinot noir comes from Harmonique and was crafted by Robert Klindt, a longtime local winemaker and owner of the acclaimed but now-defunct Claudia Springs Winery. Harmonique’s 2006 Oppenlander Vineyard Pinot Noir comes from grapes grown about eight miles from the ocean. Smooth with age, its essence lingers in my mouth for hours, days, weeks. I can still taste it. I have damp dreams about this wine.

Dave and I decide that we’re all about the fog. Blanketed by low stratus clouds, the grapes here strive for survival with testicular fortitude. We taste their anguish in the Deep End pinot noirs. Dave puts it simply: “These have the balls.”

At a newish tasting room for Lichen Estate, we sip a 2012 Pinot Noir ($65), a newly released work of art in a bottle. In the tasting room, we chat with Dan Rivin, who revels in the craftsmanship of small family-owned estates. The foggy wines of Mendocino’s coastal region are gaining popularity. And this makes Rivin oddly glum. He fears the coming influx of large corporate wineries that arrive “with suitcases of cash” and gobble up local estates.

“The secret’s out,” he laments.

There’ll be focus groups. Homogenized pinot noir that no longer pays tribute to the terroir of here. Emasculated flavors. Pinot that tastes like root beer and cotton candy.

Could be. Or perhaps the feisty Deep Enders will prove resistant to invasion.

Rivin pours us a last splash of pinot noir, luxuriously rich, with creamy layers of fruit and spice that taste like here.

We head home in a cloud.

Friday, 16 January 2015 08:00

Sniff the Cap: Drinking With the Top 20

A bright pink sky glows over trees and rooftops west of Berkeley. In our glasses glows the 2011 Boneshaker zinfandel—a relic of Lodi’s now-closed Cycles Gladiator Wines.

I’m visiting a friend, and she’s enjoying the Boneshaker. She almost always likes zinfandel. I note the grape’s plebian heritage. The grape of the people.

My friend doesn’t drink much these days, she says—a glass or two of wine a month. And she’s selective. An earlier bottle of wine, an average pinot noir from the nearby Berkeley Bowl independent supermarket, didn’t make the cut and sits open and forlorn on the counter.

The Boneshaker is robust, ripe, spicy with a teensy bit of smoke. I’m loving it, knowing I won’t be getting more unless parent company Hahn Family Wines resurrects the brand.

I will miss the Boneshaker zin.

Our conversation turns back to quantities of wine consumed per month. My friend’s dryish habits put her in the midrange of U.S. alcohol consumption, according to Philip J. Cook's book Paying the Tab. Cook’s findings were featured in a Washington Post story, “Think You Drink a Lot?” Catchy title, right?

Bottom line: About 30 percent of adults in the United States don’t drink. Done and done. The next 30 percent drink moderately, like my friend, a glass or two per month or week.

If you drink a glass of wine daily, you’re in the top 30 percent. Two glasses of wine, top 20 percent.

Drum roll, please: To break into the top 10 percent of U.S. adults, you need to drink slightly more than two bottles of wine a day.

I know. It’s wild, right? The top 10 percent of U.S. adults swill down 74 drinks per week—more than 10 drinks per day.

“No way,” my friend says. “I don’t believe that 10 percent of American adults are alcoholics.”

We pull up the statistics that Cook used in his research, which came from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.

The numbers don’t square with my friend’s environment, featuring 30-somethings who simply don’t drink much. They are smart professionals who work hard, relax healthfully and cook organically, on gluten-free or paleo or vegan diets.

“That can’t be accurate,” we conclude. “Something’s missing.”

It’s cool to live in the United States, where we can accept or dismiss scientific evidence based on our own life experiences. (Note to my students: The last sentence exemplifies irony, which is not a black fly in your chardonnay.)

My love of red, red wine puts me in the top 30 percent. I’m comfortable with that. In fact, I’m blissed out about the numbers. At least I am not a two-bottle-a-day’er! Imagine that. I couldn’t afford it, for one thing. Of course, you’d never have a hangover, because you’d just keep drinking.

Perhaps my wine craving is linked to the complexity of its DNA. That’s the theory of Tool’s lead singer, Arizona winemaker Maynard James Keenan. He talks about why people groove on wine in the documentary Blood Into Wine, referencing the movie The Fifth Element. He compares the DNA of grapes to the genetic superiority of the movie’s fictional super-humanish character, Leeloo. “Me fifth element—supreme being. Me protect you.” That’s a cute scene.

Grapes are genetically more complex that other fruit. Hell, wine grapes are genetically more complex than humans. Italian researchers mapped the pinot noir genome and found it to contain significantly more genetic information than the human genome. Vitis vinifera pinot noir has about 30,000 genes in its DNA. Humans have 20,000 to 25,000.

“Wine grapes are so much more evolved and so much more complex … with so much more history,” Keenan says, “which is probably on some level why we respond to (wine) and embrace it.  It’s a supreme being.”

The jury’s out on whether wine, in moderation, is good for you. From aforementioned study: “Given grape's content of resveratrol, quercetin and ellagic acid, grape products may contribute to reducing the incidence of cardiovascular and other diseases.” Then again, one study of dietary resveratrol’s impact on long-term health didn’t confirm a positive link.

I believe in wine’s innate goodness. I dig choosing a bottle of wine from our modest collection, anticipating its genetic complexities as I rotate metal down into the cork. I adore that first whiff of fermented grapes. The color of garnet or plum streaming into my glass. The viscous liquid revolving as I swirl. Inhaled esters. The first sip, savored on my tongue. Texture and flavor. Warmth in my throat. Then the finish, finale, fireworks—suture, catharsis, completion.

I love wine. And with the next sip, it begins again.

The sun’s out there somewhere, drooping over a grey swath of Pacific visible between trees and fog. I’m visiting a winemaker friend and his partner. And guess what we’re talking about? Yup, it’s Cook’s book, and the top 10 percent of U.S. adults downing 10 drinks a day. Here, these stats are met with cool acceptance, shrugs and nods. The numbers fit. We recall relatives and friends who drink a case of beer a day. And that neighbor who downs liter-sized bottles of vodka at an astonishing pace.

My friend’s 2009 nebbiolo is on the table, in our glasses, in my mouth like groovy velvet. It’s one of his finest reds right now and drinking perfectly.

When the Italian researchers mapped the wine grape genome, they found more than 100 genes whose sole purpose was flavor. That’s twice as many as most plants.

“In Italy, I guess a nebbiolo that’s this old would be a Barolo or a Barbaresco,” my friend notes. Indeed, nebbiolo is the noble grape that matures into these bomb-ass wines from either of these regions in Northern Italy.

Genetic complexity. Swirl liquid in glass, inhale, tip to lips.

Wine tastes. So. Ahh. 

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.

The dog wanders through the Illuminare tasting room in Camino, Calif.

Like his owner who’s pouring our wine, the pooch is chill. I try to attract the dog’s attention, to give him a scratch. He ignores me. Uber-chill. Do people still say uber? Do they use the umlaut to spell it? Über?

When I drink, I overthink.

I sample the 2011 Mourvedre and fall in love.

“Rich fungal earth!” I write in my notes. “Earth! Earth!”

And on the venue: “The dog doesn’t love me.”

The mourvedre is $25, and my designated driver/love-of-life Dave buys a bottle.

It’s 2:21 p.m., and I’m on a mission. I could taste at six wineries in one day—if I started early enough. Paced myself.

Illuminare is No. 4.

I need food. I have to pee. But the mourvedre, that dark smooth stranger with intense brambles—it’s worth trying many wines to get to this one.

Camino is less than an hour’s drive from South Lake Tahoe, halfway between Sacramento and Tahoe on Highway 50. During harvest, it transforms into a magical wonderland called Apple Hill, with fritters, pie, caramel-covered orbs and bumper-to-bumper traffic.

This time of year, the Christmas-tree farms kick into gear. If you’re headed to Tahoe for the holidays and need some pine, Camino’s got you covered.

My favorite reason to visit this El Dorado County town any time of year: more than a dozen or so smallish wineries, all with tasting rooms featuring complimentary pours and friendly, knowledgeable staff.

Dave and I plan a day trip. I pick six wineries.

I will be deliberate. Go slow. Drink water.

I can do this.

First stop: Lava Cap Winery—Lava Cap’s tasting room opens at 10 a.m., perfect for breakfast wine. I’ve kick-started my palate with coffee and a pastry in South Lake Tahoe. I’m ready to swirl and sip.

The terrain explains the name: ancient volcanoes. Layered lava leftovers. Miner ’49ers discovered gold under this lava cap—which happens to be ideal for growing grapes and making intense wines.

The wine’s affordable at Lava Cap, with the famed Rocky Draw Estate Zinfandel going for $22, $18 for members. Floral notes, fruit and spices, nicely balanced. One of my all-time favorite zins in this price range.

I decline white wines and head to the reds. First up, the Sangiovese 2012 Matagrano Vineyard. The pitch: Perfect with your turkey dinner. The sangio is stuffed with fruit, spices and “pleasant toasted almond” on the finish.

I jam through complimentary and reserve tastings. Notables include the newly released 2013 Grenache and the Tectonic 2011, a mourvedre and syrah blend. Mmm. Mourvedre. I buy it.

So far, so good.

Take two: Boeger Winery—Designated Dave cruises country roads, dodging tractors and tourists. California’s best barbera emerged from Boeger Winery, not to be confused with Bogle (Gnarly Head wines) or Boegle, Jimmy (my editor). Cal State Fair folks this year awarded 98 points to Boeger’s 2011 Barbera. I find the barbera’s dark fruit and light caramel aura quite agreeable.

On to the reserve tasting—$10, and keep the glass—where I’m undone by the 2010 Vineyard Select Barbera. A wine so deliciously smooth that, if entered in the competition, it would have kicked the 2011 Barbera’s behind. The reserve’s $30; the double-gold winner is $16—and it comes in spectacular bottles with, yup, a black-bear label. Dave buys the latter.

I need cheese. A tapas trio waits in the car. Give me manchego!

Three’s company: Madroña Vineyards—By 1 p.m., my palate is raring to go, and I’m talking to tasting-room employee Jordan Miller about Madroña Vineyards’ take on Bordeaux blends. He describes the style as halfway between a lighter, spicier French rendition, and a thick-bodied Argentinian. Which takes my mind to places not wine-related.

Speaking of South American soccer players: Miller is talking about getting punched in the face with tannins. I’ve lost the context, so I wax forth on the wines of Northern Italy, having spotted a 2011 Nebbiolo (Hillside vineyard) on the menu. It’s not open, but Miller will open it—because I can pronounce neb-EE-oh-loh. So so delicious. Many gorgeous wines here. Dave joins the club.

Four, and not on the floor: Illuminare Winery—I snarf pistachios in the car. Nuts balance booze. We’re at the wine strip mall in Camino, shared by a handful of small wineries. We head straight to Illuminare, where winemaker Aaron Hill pours goodness in my glass. It’s mostly locals here, inquiring of Hill: “How’s the wife? How are the kids? How’s the dog?”

The dog is not as friendly as Hill’s 2011 Mourvedre. I’m a sucker for this varietal, done right. Hill has done it right.

I guzzle a half-liter of water and munch on crackers, channeling my inner Stewie Griffin. Whhheeeat thins.

Five, sakes alive: Bumgarner Winery—We’ve saved the best for second-to-last. Owner/winemaker Brian Bumgarner’s worked for several other wineries in and out of the area, including Boeger. He opened his own winery in 2005. Genius wines. Tasting room employee Tami Fries pours and talks to me about apple pie and tamales. Her secret: Many dried peppers and lard.

I note the splendid minerality of a 2011 Tempranillo El Dorado ($27) and happily roll my eyes back at the complexity of cabernet sauvignon ($35)

We buy the cab, and I also pick up two bottles of hard cider in cool-looking bottles.

Is it lunch time?

Sixth and sense: Crystal Basin Cellars—We walk past Crystal Basin Cellars, an old fave, to get to the winery’s café. We can come back and enjoy tasting No. 6—more mourvedre!—after grubbing.

Finally, it’s feeding time. Outdoor seating, warm afternoon sun. A friendly winery dog works the crowd. Pulled pork sliders. Artichoke ravioli. Rich. Recommended wine pairing: Bada Boom, a red blend.

And the wine tastes, uh, mauve. As in: I can no longer differentiate flavors, nor can I judge the nose or finish. Drinking more wine, at this point, would be pointless.

“Done for the day,” I write in my notes.

“The dog loves me.”

Mission almost accomplished.

Below: Crushed grapes in a vat outside of Crystal Basin Winery, Camino, Calif.

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