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Deidre Pike

If you want to make it rain in wine country, you can try the usual magic rituals—like washing your car, planning a sunny picnic or forgetting your raincoat.

Or you can simply decide to write about the impact of drought on the wine industry.

The sky was clear when I started thinking about water and wine, as I drove up the bone-dry Interstate 5—desert dry, crispy dry, whispy dry—in late January. I’d been jarred by stark images from NASA’s Terra satellite, showing a swath of tan mountains reaching up along the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valley, juxtaposed with a 2013 shot of a snowy white Sierra Nevada

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in California on Jan. 17. A few days later, state health officials released a list of 17 communities and water districts—from Mendocino County to Kern County—that could run dry before summer if no action was taken.

Then in early February came rain—up the coast from Monterey to Crescent City, in Napa and Sonoma, on the coast and in the foothills. It snowed over Lake Tahoe and the Sierra. Even here in SoCal, we had a couple of overcast days and a few rain sprinkles.

Ahh. The sweet smell of hydration.

Of course, the drought’s still on. Just as record freezing spells in the Midwest don’t negate the reality of global warming, a nice soaker isn’t going to make up for several months of missing precip. California’s still having the driest year ever, according to state climatologist Michael Anderson. Anderson noted in January that, statewide, only 1.53 inches of rain were recorded from October through December, the lowest aggregate total since record-keeping began in 1895. The average for that period is 7.87 inches.

From the narrow perspective of a grape-lover: That’s a lot of thirsty vines.

Did I say narrow? I meant it. Obviously, so much more is at stake than delicious fermented grape beverages. Several species of fish, including salmon and steelhead populations, are at risk. Farmers’ livelihoods are on the line. Worse, the wealthy could end up washing faces with Evian, like that reporter tweeting from a crappy hotel in Sochi.

As usual, the less-affluent would be screwed.

What are folks in the wine biz thinking on the topic of drought?

One of my favorite Sierra Foothills winemakers, Ted Bechard has a plan for this season’s challenges, which includes savvy pruning around the vernal equinox and earlier-than-usual irrigation.

When I talked to him, Bechard was in his winery, putting foil tops and labels on bottles. Rain was drizzling over his small vineyard in Somerset, Calif., about an hour east of Sacramento.

“We’re still quite a ways behind,” Bechard says. “But it’s not unlike this area for us to get some rain in April and May. We may make up the difference at that point.”

Like many others in the wine industry, he’s thinking that 2014 might not be the most-prolific year for grapes. But with the generous harvests in 2012 and 2013, California’s not going to run out of wine anytime soon. Unless some unforeseen new demand kicks in, the sizable wine inventory at many California wineries should be sufficient, says Ben Drake, president of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association

“We’ve come off two good years,” Drake says. “I think we’re going to be in good shape.”

Drake’s in a good position to know. He runs Drake Enterprises, a farm-management company that handles avocado- and citrus-farming, as well as vineyards. He’s also on the state’s Drought Task Force.

Drake attended the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in late January in Sacramento and drought was absolutely on the agenda. Farmers are worried, and rightfully so. Northern California’s water supplies are on-stream, from rivers to reservoirs—and that requires government officials to make hard choices about who gets water and when. Sound like a political football? Yeah. Stay tuned.

Drake notes that Southern California wineries are in the enviable position of having the chock-full-o’-water man-made Diamond Valley Lake. The 800,000-acre-foot offstream reservoir near Hemet contains the Colorado River harvest. Between Diamond Lake and other water resources for Southern California, Drake predicts that 2014 won’t be a problem.

But 2015? That’s another story.

Here’s something for winos to appreciate: When it comes to efficient use of water, wine grapes are much better than other popular Southern California crops. Growing wine grapes requires less than half the water needed to grow most citrus trees, and about one-fourth of the water required for avocados.

Let them eat wine!

Drake suggests that the governor’s suggestion for Californians to reduce water use by 20 percent is an important step toward change. We need to evaluate how we live and what we grow—rethinking luxuries like lawns and landscaping, for starters.

“Realizing the climate is changing, we’re going to have to look at a new pattern for what we’re doing in our households—and by changing crops,” Drake says.

I was heartened to read that the state government plans to lead the way on efficient water use, turning off decorative fountains and not washing government vehicles as often. Those moves are mostly for show, true. A bigger water-saver will come from not irrigating highway vegetation. That saves 6 billion gallons of water annually, as much as a year’s supply of water for a city of 30,000.

At Bechard’s winery in Somerset, winemaker Ted reminds me it’s too early to predict what the year will bring.

“Who knows?” he says, “Maybe it will sort itself out and be a wonderful year.”


Did I mention a prolific wine supply? Here’s a chance to taste it all: The Temecula Valley’s World of Wines Barrel Tasting Weekend runs Saturday and Sunday, March 1 and 2 with barrel-tastings and more exciting shin-diggery at 35 wineries along Rancho California and DePortola Roads in Temecula. Tickets are $99, with various discounts. And for much less than the price of a DUI attorney, you can hire a VIP shuttle or wine tour guide to drive you around. For more information, visit www.temeculawines.org/events/index.php?events_id=51.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014 15:30

Sniff the Cap: A Tribute to Mourvèdre

If wine grapes made noise, Mourvèdre would hum low and long, like a foghorn thrumming out a warning in the dark, thick stratus. Perhaps a melodic tune would emerge—something a stand-up gal could capture with the strings of her bass.

Thum-bum-ba-dum, hum-ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.

If grapes had personalities, Mourvèdre would be the brooding dude standing on the party’s outer ring like a non-sequitur, quoting Sartre and the obvious. “Consciousness is prior to nothingness and ‘is derived’ from being,” he’d say. “Weather forecast for tonight: Dark.”

Mourvèdre captures my imagination, and inspires the notes of black and blue paint that are making a muddy glum on my canvas.

I’m drinking and painting—or at least using assorted brushes to glop oil pigment on stretched white fabric. I’m brandishing the artistic confidence of a 4-year-old not yet ruined by school.

A friend is staying at my place, and we are drinking and painting for fun and obviously not profit. The wine is Twisted Oak’s 2010 River of Skulls, a Mourvèdre from Dalton Vineyards, Angels Camp, blended with nothing. The canvasses are 14 by 18 inches.

Billie Holiday’s voice crackles from a vinyl album.

My friend expresses concern about working with oil paints. She hasn’t done it since childhood. The canvas is so big, she says. So much space with which to work.

I proffer my own lack of expectations as an assurance: Just slather some paint on the pale expanse and reduce its blankness. Replace fear with joy, nothingness with being. Sometimes, a person should think long and hard about choices. Other times, hell, we’re just playing, pretending we can make art. Because we can. Because it’s winter, and we went out on the town last night.

Later, we can watch Netflix.

I keep our glasses filled. The wine is ruddy red, dirty plum. An unblended Mourvèdre wine is a rare treat, if you like the grape.

I love the grape, a Rhone varietal from France most often used in blending with Grenache and Syrah. It’s mixed with these grapes so often that the blend has its own acronym, GSM. About 900 acres of Mourvèdre was grown in California in 2012, a drop in the bottle compared with 80,000 acres of cabernet sauvignon. The numbers are from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has fun charts you can read here. You won’t actually see Mourvèdre on the list, because it’s identified as Mataró and also known as Monastrell.

Confusing, yes. But the grape is called Mourvèdre on my bottle, so I’m going with that.

Some winemakers won’t make a 100 percent Mourvèdre, because the grape oxidizes easily and can attract a buildup of the kind of yeast that gives wine an earthy funk. Now I’m all for a little earthy funk, but I don’t like to feel like I’m drinking wine straight from the compost pile. “Worm castings” is how my friend aptly describes this when she gets a nose full of it at one winery’s tasting room or another.

She likes to pretend she knows nothing about wine. It’s a ruse.

The River of Skulls has the tiniest smidgen of funk, just enough to accent those dark, rich fruits that I love so very much. Then there’s silky spice and a gruff, lingering vanilla finish. It’s a perfect bottle of wine.

Did I mention the label is a red skull?

The wine’s name comes from Spanish Lt. Gabriel Moraga’s discovery in the early 1800s of a Central Valley river filled with, you got it, human skulls. “Perhaps an ancient battle. Or perhaps a really great party gone horribly wrong,” suggests text on the back of the bottle.

I bought the River of Skulls in the Sierra foothills just after Thanksgiving, during my Christmas-present wine tasting adventure with my husband, Dave. Mourvèdre was on our holiday wish list. A couple of years ago, I ordered a glass of Vina Moda’s 2008 Mourvèdre at a restaurant and wanted more, more. Dave and I went to the tasting room and bought two bottles. We drank them both in 2012 and decided that this wine was one of the best we’d tasted that year. Why, oh why, didn’t we buy three bottles?

No problem. We thought we could drive back to the Sierra foothills and procure additional deliciousness. We attempted this for my birthday last March. Sadly, when we went to Vina Moda, the Mourvèdre was gone. Sold out. Owner and genius winemaker Nathan Vader suggested a couple of stores and restaurants that might still have bottles. We spent a good part of a day on a futile odyssey in search of the 2008 Mourvèdre. No luck.

So when we returned after Thanksgiving and tasted Vina Moda’s 2009 Mourvèdre, we bought a few bottles and put them in safe places. The winery describes its Mourvèdre like this: “She is a lithe and mysterious spider. Shining mirrors of geometrical balance and perfection. Dangerous? Possibly. Irresistibly alluring? Absolutely. Climb into her web, we dare you …”

Dare taken.

Vader made 123 cases. When he runs out, don’t look at us.

I bought only one River of Skulls on this post-Thanksgiving trip. I'll miss it when it's gone, a moment that's fast approaching.

Billie Holiday is singing: “The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea.” And my friend is singing along: “… They can’t take that away from me.”

We’re finishing up the bottle and the better part of two paintings. Mine loosely depicts a bracket fungus on the end of a log, but could also be read as a gelatinous Casper the ghost floating through swirls of grubby ectoplasm. The clean geometric lines of my friend’s landscape—bright rolling grasses and the clean angles of a far-off barn—provide an intriguing contrast.

We put the art in a closet to dry, sip the last of the Mourvèdre, and watch the “Blood Donut” episode of Orange Is the New Black.

Art plus wine—that’s easy living.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013 15:30

Sniff the Cap: Making Each Glass of Wine Sexy

The couple picks up a bottle of expensive wine for a special occasion—something off the top shelf at the strip-mall liquor store, perhaps. They know they like cabernet sauvignon. But faced with a row of bottles that are relatively pricy, they’re lost.

What year? What winery? In the end, they choose the wine with the most-attractive label.

Call it crapshoot cab. Maybe they like it. Maybe they don’t. Maybe they won’t be able to figure out, exactly, why this wine costs more than a case of three-buck chuck. Is it really that good? They may think: Are we just too stupid to appreciate the finer qualities of this wine?

Nah. Really, all wine is a crapshoot. Like lovers, no two bottles of wine are alike—and they won’t ever be experienced in the same way twice. But if you’re after an erotic experience with a bottle of fine wine, keep a few things in mind.

1. Choose wisely, grasshopper. Buy wine you’ve sampled at a tasting room or wine bar. Know what’s up at your local wine-bottle shop. Mega wine stores track their inventory closely, and when wines get too dusty, they end up on sale. A grocery store or gas station can keep bottles on its shelves forever and ever—not so good. Probably avoid discount stores altogether. You don’t know where that wine has been, or to what temperatures it’s been exposed.

2. Older is not always better. Some wine is built to age well. Oh so patient are the people who stayed behind in Europe, making wine in France and Italy, while the cool kids were colonizing the Americas. However, many California reds are built for drinking sooner rather than later. We do not like to wait. That said, my favorite Napa and Sierra Foothill cabernets right now are from the 2006-2008 vintages. Five or 6 years old—kindergartners.

3. Unleash the beast. Get that wine out of the bottle, and introduce it to the air. Like the Genie of the Lamp, a wine needs to stretch a bit after being cramped up in a bottle for long periods of time. This is what decanting and aeration is all about. If you’re great at planning ahead, you can decant the wine by pouring it into any large glass container with lots of surface space. You can buy reasonably priced decanters for $15 to $20. If you possess less patience, invest in an aerator. Dave has a sturdy Vinturi that’s survived after being dropped on tile and rolled in the dirt under picnic tables. I have a Soiree that fits in the top of a bottle and aerates as you pour. It’s a sexy but fragile little gizmo.

Note: Decanters or aerators are only good for those heavier red wines. White wines and light-to-medium-bodied reds, like pinot noir, most likely get enough air simply being poured into the glass.

4. Use decent wine glasses. The wine won’t be all it can be if you drink it out of plastic cups or Mason jars. Shape—the architecture of the bowl, stem and base—counts. Large wine glasses help aerate full-bodied wines. Stemware makers contend that glasses specifically shaped for a varietal—say, one for a pinot noir, and another for a cabernet—help deliver that varietal’s bouquet, texture, flavor and finish. Burp. I’ll drink out of anything that’s big enough to aerate the wine and send its molecules of deliciousness at my nose. I prefer thinner glass on my lips.

5. Manage the flavors in your mouth. A fine red wine consumed after something tangy may not feel as smooth and refined as the same wine after cheese, bread or olive oil. Experiment with a few foods to see what you like. Keep dark chocolate on hand for emergencies.

6. Spend a few minutes on foreplay. You’ve picked a decent wine, and you’re decanting or aerating. It’s waiting in the nice, bulbous glass. Sniff it. Give it a swirl. Like what you’re smelling? Inhale deeply. Your mouth should water a bit. Tease your palate. Get excited. This is going to be good.

This all sounds like lots of work, I know, but it’s really just a start—habits I’m still learning.

I hang out at a bar that pours Carter Cellars 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Revilo Vineyard by the glass. A glass is $16—not something I can really afford—but it’s half-price during happy hour. I can and do pay $8 for a glass of this Revilo Vineyard cab.

If Bartender Zach opens a new bottle, and I swill that redness down right away, I’m going to be sorely disappointed—even if Zach pours it in a giant wine glass, shaped especially for cabernet sauvignon. Without enough exposure to the atmosphere outside of the bottle, the wine’s tight and chalky, with dust on the nose. Not something you’d want to drop $16 a glass on.

Zach is a smart dude. He’s offered to pour my wine when he comes in to work and set it on the back of the bar (when I give him advance notice that I’m coming, of course). When I show up an hour later, it’s almost ready to drink. I can give it a hearty swirl in the giant glass and, man oh man, let the adventure begin. I inhale warm swirls of cocoa and black cherries and leather. I smell the wine so long that others at the bar give me sideways glances. There’s a reason that this wine costs so damn much.

My tongue gets all tingly.

And then I take a sip.

Ah, mouth-gasm.

I feel privileged all year long, not just on Thanksgiving. Last night, hubby Dave bought a bottle of 2011 Tobin James Ballistic zinfandel, an old fave. The wine’s about $18, not terribly expensive.

For our budget.

It’s a jammy zin, without apology. As I enjoyed it, I thought back to a recent conversation with a fellow drinker about my age named Lea, 46.

Lea is homeless, or at least “in transition,” a less-permanent-sounding term. In September, Lea returned to California from Colorado, where she predicted there’d be five inches of snow by Thanksgiving Day. Lea camps out most nights. I spotted Lea sitting under a tree, drinking a 40-ounce Miller and smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. She had a worn paperback book open across her chest.

For Lea, the holidays are like any other day—although she has a slightly higher chance of getting a tasty meal. She was expecting a care package from a friend in Colorado. The package had been mailed to general delivery and had not yet arrived. She wanted to use my phone to call her friend.

I have a newish phone. I bought it because it has twice the battery life of other phones on the market. Choosing a cell phone and plan from the oodles of choices was rough. First World problems are the only kind I have.

A friend handed Lea a paper carton with what looked like mac-and-cheese. Lea drank beer with her dinner, noting that she was drinking in public.

“But I’m not breaking any glass or anything, and I'm not being loud or picking fights,” she said. Public is the only place she has to drink.

“I drink wine with my dinner most nights,” I said, in a lame attempt to connect.

“I like wine,” she replied, “but it’s too expensive.”

I thought of my embarrassing collection of wine, which lines a wall of our kitchen pantry.

This is how I justify my wine-spending habits. I don’t have a big-screen TV. My car is dented, high-mileage and paid for. Instead of paying for a gym membership, I go for daily hikes. I buy clothes at thrift shops. I pack lunches and cook in rather than dine out. That’s how I buy good wine.

Niggled by liberal guilt, I wonder how others reconcile privileged lifestyles in a world where so many starve, lack health care, lack housing, lack everything. Sometimes I think I could quit my college-prof gig and head to a developing nation to help. But I’m not the Mother Teresa type. I don’t like bugs or uncomfortable sleeping arrangements. I do like flush toilets and hot showers.

So to do my part, for now, I plan to devote some time, money and political attention to the needs of others. (You couldn’t call this noblesse oblige, because I have no noblesse. Maybe middle-class oblige?) I give a tiny bit of dough to an international agency that helps kids in Nepal obtain food, school and health care. But a person doesn’t have to look to distant nations to find poverty. Plenty of need is apparent right here at home.

I’ve been considering volunteer work in literacy education. I teach, so that makes sense. But recently I learned of a California street newspaper that could use some pro bono assistance. That’s how I ended up interviewing people in transition last week.

People I met:

• Mike, a middle-age man confused about why he wasn’t getting disability checks, who panhandled to get grocery money.

• Star, a 21-year-old who drove across the country from Pennsylvania with her husband, five other people, three dogs and no jobs lined up.

• Martha, born in California, who’d been recently assaulted in a homeless camp. No phone—so no call to the police. She had to wait until the next day to get to the emergency room. A gash on her face that needed stitches didn’t get them.

Overwhelming, right? (Who needs a drink?)

A bill has been working its way through the California Assembly that would create a Homeless Bill of Rights. AB 5 was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee earlier this year, but in May, the bill was put on hold, probably until early next year. The Appropriations Committee needed time to figure out how the state might pay around $300 million to build and operate an estimated 540 public-hygiene centers with showers and bathrooms—one in each city and county. That’s just one of the bill’s stipulations: the State Department of Public Health must “fund the provision of health and hygiene centers, as specified, for use by homeless persons in designated areas.”

(Follow the bill's progress here.)

The bill’s sponsor is Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat, who told The Sacramento Bee the bill would end laws that “infringe on poor peoples' ability to exist in public space, to acquire housing, employment and basic services and to equal protection under the laws.”

I’m no expert on solutions to help people in transition, but I think a bill like Ammiano’s is needed. That said, I’m not sure how I feel about building showers, aka treating the symptoms and not attacking the problem at its roots. It seems more logical for California to spend $300 million getting individuals into apartments with their own bathrooms and showers.

It’s an issue that I’ll be following. Turns out nothing pairs better with a trek through the California Legislature’s website better than a viscous Paso Robles zin.

If you’re looking to assuage some liberal guilt, you could write a check to Roy’s Desert Resource Center in Palm Springs. About 90 people in transition receive shelter there nightly. And showers: www.desertsos.org/RoysDesertResourceCenter.aspx.

My husband and I live in different states and maintain two separate households. That gets expensive, so we’re budget-conscious when we can be.

Yes, life’s too short to drink bad wine, but balance exists between special-occasion reds and house wine—the everyday stuff you sip while watching reruns of Arrested Development on Netflix.

Discount wine. I didn’t want to knock it ’til I’d tried it.

That’s why we recently checked out the wine selection at a discount grocery chain, aka a flea market for food.

My neighbors recommended the store a while back. Good selection, ever-changing. I tried not to wrinkle my nose or say: “Wine there? How do you know where it’s been?”

I kept those thoughts to myself, hoping the neighbors wouldn’t think me a wine snob. To prove my lack of pretentions, I made the trek and discovered a chaotic variety. The store sells cupcake pans and organic shampoo next to spices, produce, milk, eggs and car floormats.

And then there’s the wine section. My eyes actually lit up when I saw a Karly 2010 Pokerville Zinfandel from Amador County—for $6.99. I’ve been to the Karly tasting room. I love their zin.

I bought that and two even cheaper wines, a 2012 Harlow Ridge Lodi Zinfandel and a Backstory Cabernet Sauvignon—$4.99 each. Lucky me, it was Wine Sale Weekend, and bottles were discounted another 20 percent. Total for three bottles: about $15.

Impressed? Hang on.

At home, I decided to open and taste all three. They were on sale, right? If they weren’t half bad, I could go back and buy more. So I uncorked the bottles and unscrewed the Karly cap. (I didn’t actually sniff it. Sniffing the cap, though the name of this column, is merely metaphoric, a signifier for open-mindedness.)

I decided to pair the wines with Spanish manchego, theorizing that even a low-brow red might rise to the occasion. I’d purchased the cheese at Costco, another commodity warehouse that sells wine at reduced rates. Costco's wine sales add up to more than $1 billion per year, making it the largest wine retailer in the United States. I’ve never flinched at buying Costco wine. So why would I be so dubious about this wine?

Let the tasting begin.

First up, the 2012 Harlow Ridge Zinfandel (Lodi). This label’s the brainchild of Fred Franzia, a.k.a. Mr. Two-Buck Chuck. Harlow Ridge is the comparable offering for folks who don’t shop at Trader Joe’s. The label’s attractive. When I bought it, not knowing about the two-buck connection, I wondered if I’d been to this Lodi winery.

What’s the wine like? Pour zin, observe color, insert nose. The first word that popped into my head: Bacon. Salty pork just before it hits the pan.

Some people enjoy that kind of thing. I’ve encountered weirder smells—some of which have set me back a lot more than $4 or $5. (Insert anecdote in which my husband notes that a bottle I’ve opened smells like dill pickles. I poo-poo his dismal suggestion and read the text on the bottle. Indeed, the bottle text actually brags about the wine’s notes of dill pickle … and cotton candy, no less. We pour $25 down the drain.)

The Harlow Ridge was not as bad as the dill-pickle wine, but it was dull. You could absolutely pair this with Hot Cheetos smothered in nacho cheese sauce. (I read recently about this Texas treat. Gooey.)

Moving right along … the Backstory Cabernet Sauvignon. What year? Who knows? What region? Oh yeah, California. That narrows it down.

Open, breathe, pour, smell. Nothing. Swirl, smell. Almost nothing. Maybe ripe red raspberries, but they’re a couple stories up or down—way back. So not much in the way of aromatics. The same goes for the disappearing flavor. No body, no viscous mouth feel.

Also missing in the Backstory was the thing winos call finish—a flavor that lingers on the tongue after you’ve been a good girl and swallowed. The longer, the better.

The Backstory brand is a creation of O’Neill Vintners, which intends the wines to be competitively priced and “varietally correct … for restaurant house pours, catering events, and your casual party wine.” It was drinkable, and I was snacking on delicious cheese. So $4 worth of fine.

The Karly was the buy of the day, of course—an extra $2 well-spent on Amador zinfandel.

Karly’s brand and vineyards were purchased more than a year ago by Turley Wine Cellars, which has a giant tasting room and event venue just up the road in Amador.

The Pokerville’s never been a fine or expensive wine. The “rowdy young vine zin,” to quote the label text, was bright and fruit way forward. It looked and smelled Barney purple—big, ripe and happy. Perfect to pair with zingy pizza or pasta.

I don’t exactly feel like I wasted $15 on these three wines. The experiment was worthwhile—but I won’t go back for more. I don’t need to, because now is the season to buy wine from the winemakers. Plenty of small family wineries offer terrific deals before Christmas, some with prices comparable even to those at bargain stores. And that’s my biggest problem with buying warehouse wine—especially if you live within a few hours of tasting rooms.

Last year before Christmas, I bought some terrific cases of boutique wines for around $80 or $90 (less than $8 per bottle) at tasting rooms in the Sierra Foothills, Lodi and Mendocino. If you walk into the right winery at the right time, you can nab some cases for $60 or $70—that’s $5 or $6 per bottle. At the Tulip Hill tasting room in Rancho Mirage, the Trace Sauvignon Blanc was selling this fall for $49.95 a case, about $4 per bottle, and the 2009 Merlot was $69.95 a case, or less than $6 per bottle.

When you buy in a tasting room, you know what you’re getting. You know who made it. It’s gonna be good.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have cheap wine to finish and some top ramen left over from the above photo shoot.

For Tulip Hill Winery president Kristi Brown, one day per year is usually better than every other—and it’s not even a holiday.

It's the day when winery staff, family, friends and wine consultants meet to blend Tulip Hill’s wine.

“A fun day is a blending day,” Kristi Brown says. “You sniff them all, taste them, look at their color. One might have a great bouquet, another nice color, another fruit or acid or finish or tannin.”

Ten to 15 people sit around the table, tasting. Each blend may take four or five—or maybe 10 attempts. Each time, the mix shifts incrementally. They’ll try 3 percent petite sirah, instead of 2, Brown explains, or 11 percent merlot instead of 9.

She thinks back to earlier days, when the blending partiers would watch winery founder Robert Henderson “Budge” Brown Sr., Kristi’s father. They’d know when a mix of varietals hit the mark.

“He’d get this glimmer in his eyes,” says Kristi Brown, “and we’d know: That’s the one.”

Budge Brown, perhaps best known as the founder of Manteca Waterslides water park and the inventor of the fiberglass waterslide tube, died when his plane crashed in May 2011 in the Eldorado National Forest in Amador County.

“My dad influenced and affected a lot of people,” Kristi Brown tells me. “So many people from so many phases of his life.”

The Tulip Hill tasting room has been open in The River in Rancho Mirage since 2002. Kristi Brown considers the Coachella Valley an ideal location to feature her father’s wine—which is made from grapes grown outside of Tracy, a six-hour drive north. She and her partner, Sara Hammond, the winery’s marketing specialist and wine-club coordinator, moved to the area from Orange County.

“When we first started checking the desert out, 11 years ago,” Kristi Brown says, “you had this valley full of amazing restaurants with incredible wine lists. Obviously, there’s a consumer here who loves that lifestyle. But nothing was going on in terms of wine.”

At that time, the Coachella Valley boasted a couple of wine shops and grocery stores with wide selections—and that was it. Eventually, larger bottle shops opened, a couple with wine bars cordoned off from the rest of the shopping area.

But 11 years ago, the Tulip Hill tasting room became the sole winery tasting room in the Palm Springs area. It still is.

“We really are the only one,” Kristi Brown says.

The weather—not counting sizzling-hot summer months—is what drew Brown to the area. She soon fell in love with the desert and the people. Many Palm Springs-area residents are transplants, she’s noticed, from all around the United States, Canada—the world.

“People are here because they want to be here,” she says. “And everyone seems relatively happy.”


Jimmy Boegle and I are the only people in the winery around noon on a Saturday (although it soon starts getting busier). We start by tasting whites, as we light-heartedly joke about shopping for excellent “breakfast wines.” Sales associate Jean Pond (pictured) doesn’t miss a beat, pouring us a crisp 2009 sauvignon blanc.

“This would go well with fruit and lighter cheeses,” she suggests, pairing morning foods on the fly. “But I’d have to have truffle scrambled eggs.”

The wine is crisp, fruit-forward—a perfect day-starter. With sangria in mind, Boegle buys a bottle, and also picks up a case of the 2010 Trace sauvignon blanc, a sister-label steal, for $49.99. Tulip Hill bottles wine under three labels that include its value brand Trace, and its distribution label Tulip Hill Cellar Select.

Pond has been pouring wine at the Tulip Hill tasting room for six years. She raves about the Mount Oso vineyards near Tracy. Grapes are grown at low elevations, from zero to 500 feet above sea level. The vineyards receive only about 8 or 9 inches of rainfall each year.

Vineyard manager Jeff Brown irrigates using water from more than 100 feet below the ground, “stressing (the vines) to create small tight berries with amazing flavor,” as the winery’s website notes.

Boegle and I work our way through a half-dozen distinctive wines, including the complex 2008 Tracy Hills Mirage ($22), a merlot-syrah blend that combines flavors of fruit, earth and spice.

Many of Tulip Hill’s most-intriguing wines are creatively named blends like Sangiovignon, a cab-sangiovese blend ($25); Nerovignon, a blend of cab with the Italian varietal Nero d’Avola ($28); and a tasty-licious Cabepulciano ($32)—45 percent montepulciano and 55 percent cabernet sauvignon.

I buy the latter bottle, receiving a Wine Club discount that knocks a few dollars off the price. Being a Tulip Mania Wine Club member means invitations to wine-release parties, pairing events and winemakers’ dinners, as well as complimentary tastings at the Rancho Mirage tasting room.

About 600 locals are in Tulip Hill’s wine club, Pond says, which now totals about 1,200 members. Tulip Hill ships its wine to members across the nation.

“If you live in Minnesota and you want California wine, well, you can’t buy our wines anywhere else,” Pond says.


The Browns started growing grapes in the 1980s. For years, their grapes were sold to other California wineries. Budge and his wife, Arlene, shared a dream of making their own wine, though—and in 2001, the Browns decided it was time.

Tulip Hill was born.

“My dad was one of these really great guys, a visionary, an entrepreneur and an inventor,” Kristi Brown says. “He was always going 100 miles per hour.”

Budge Brown loved wine—and he was generous with it. When Kristi Brown would drive home to Manteca during her years at the University of California at Santa Barbara, her father would take her downstairs into his wine room.

“It was nothing glamorous,” she says. “Don’t conjure up the wine cellars of today.”

Her father would start pulling out bottles, assembling a case for her to take back to college.

She’d return to Santa Barbara with some mighty fine wine. “I’d go back to my college buddies,” she recalls, “and while most people were drinking Boone’s Farm or whatever, we were drinking some quality California reds—Silver Oak and Groth and all these great wines.”

Kristi Brown has fond memories of drinking wine with her father in Napa, under a big oak tree in the rolling Pope Valley. “He obviously enjoyed drinking the fruit of his labor,” she says.

After his wife died of breast cancer, Budge Brown established the Cleavage Creek Winery in Napa, donating a percentage of its profits to the Bastyr Integrative Oncology Research Clinic.

Family friend Ronn Wiegand, a master sommelier and wine consultant, calls Cleavage Creek a testament to Brown’s character. The Cleavage Creek labels featured photos of breast-cancer survivors.

“How audacious was that?” Wiegand says.

Ten percent of the gross sales from every bottle went to the Bastyr University clinic, which Budge Brown had visited and approved.

“This was vintage Budge,” Wiegand says. “He wanted those donations to have an impact on finding a cure for breast cancer—and as quick a one as possible.”

Wiegand met Budge Brown at an evening wine-appreciation class that Wiegand was teaching at Napa Valley College. Brown asked Wiegand to taste Tulip Hill’s syrah, a wine that went on to win several wine competitions.

“I was enthusiastic, very impressed by the wine,” Wiegand says. “Over the years, we became friends. I enjoyed his enthusiasm for the wine industry and his think-outside-the-box mentality.”

After Budge Brown’s death, the family sold the Cleavage Creek Winery. The family retains the Tulip Hill brand, the Mount Oso vineyards outside of Tracy and the Rancho Mirage tasting room. Budge’s son Jeff grows grapes. Kristi runs the business.

Wiegand participates once or twice a year as a consultant and says he’s enjoyed many blending events with the Brown family and friends.

Kristi Brown credits Wiegand with having an uncanny palate. Though she was an English major in college, she’s learned plenty about wine from working with experts like Wiegand.

“Over the years, you begin to train your own palate and learn those pearls of wisdom he passes along,” she says.

What does the future hold for Tulip Hill?

“After 11 years at The River, we’re pretty content where we’re at,” Kristi Brown says. “We have a nice loyal following in the desert.”

Tulip Hill Winery's tasting room is located at 71800 Highway 111, No. A125 (at The River), in Rancho Mirage. For more information, call 760-568-5678, or visit tuliphillwinery.com.

The night we drank California’s best zinfandel, a 5.0 earthquake jiggled tectonic plates off the Pacific Coast.

We didn’t feel it. No tsunami warnings ensued.

Dave asked me if I would like to feel Adventurous. I said I did.

He was washing dishes. I was scalding tomatoes, making them into a salsa with avocado, lime juice, late-harvest green onions and fresh basil.

The chunky concoction tasted more Italian, like something you’d put on bruschetta. We ate it with tortilla chips.

Dinner was on the grill: St. Louis-style barbequed ribs, a rack and a half, which is all that fits on my small portable gas grill.

What wine goes best with ribs? Syrah! Malbec! Zinfandel!

Tough choices.

We chose to celebrate. Because it was Friday. Because Dave’s a federal employee who’s still working—he’s “essential”—but not getting paid. Because we have enough wine to ride out a couple of weeks of shutdown. (Paying the mortgage … that’s another story.)

We ended up opening this year’s best zinfandel, the double-gold-medal-winning California State Fair top pick—the Adventurous, a Macchia 2011 Amador County Zinfandel from the Linsteadt vineyard.

Macchia’s tasting room in Acampo, Calif., is a down-homey place with moderately priced wines. The Adventurous is $26.

We bought California’s Best Zinfandel on a Sunday in September. Dave drove over from Reno. I left Palm Springs at about 6 a.m. and arrived in the land of wine around 1 p.m. (My travel time included a crepe stop at the International House of Pancakes on Interstate 5. One shouldn’t taste award-winning wines on an empty stomach.)

Macchia’s tasting room was our third and last stop for the afternoon. We’d been to a super-loud and crowded tasting room, and then a quieter but fruit-fly-infested winery.

By contrast, Macchia was perfect. Friendly winery dogs greeted us and submitted to hearty petting. Tasting-room employee Vanessa Gonzales wore a Chiefs football jersey. Sampling commenced.

Macchia’s naming convention is memorable. A Sangiovese is called Amorous; a Barbera is Infamous. Zinfandels include Oblivious, Generous and Prestigious. We enjoyed subtle differences in fruit and spiciness and in the way the wine felt in our mouths. All remarkably delicious.

We’d tasted several wines before Gonzales remembered to tell us that they’d just gotten that big blue 2013 California State Fair ribbon on the wall for the 2011 Adventurous.

We sipped, liked and purchased.

We thought it was cool that the wine had won an award. Later, we realized that this wine had won The Award—“Best Zinfandel” in the state. After five minutes of extensive online research, I was duly impressed. (This year’s commercial wine winners are listed on the fair’s website. It’s fun to scroll through and plot future visits.)

The night we drank the best zinfandel in California, we opened the bottle more than an hour before dinner, but didn’t drink it. Ploop. Out came the cork. Dave sniffed the bottle. I sniffed the bottle. Nose-gasms ensued.

A decanting debate was brief: Should we dump the liquid into a large, oddly shaped bottle to let the wine open up?

“You don’t want to flatten it,” I said.

“You can’t flatten it,” he contended.

Dave poured a half-ounce into my glass. “Yeah, decant it,” I said.

We dumped.

Because I like to sip a little something while I’m cooking, I had a couple of ounces of Montepulciano that I’d opened the previous night. Perfect with Italian dry coppa and Spanish manchego. I learned to say Montepulciano by watching a YouTube video. How did you learn to say Montepulciano?

Speaking of streaming video, we'd planned to watch an episode of The West Wing’s season five on Netflix, but the night’s ante had upped. We selected an artsy Italian thriller instead. With English subtitles.

Dave had harvested purple potatoes, so we shredded those and cooked ’em up with garlic and chanterelle mushrooms. Zin’s a fine meat-and-tater wine.

Then the meat was on our plates. A toast—to Friday nights. We tested the velvet in our glasses, Dave noting caramel and light fruit. Me, nice warm spices. Then we dug in, dipping our perfectly seared ribs into a tangy Red Tail Ale barbecue sauce from Mendocino Brewing Company. Yeah.

But how would the wine fare with the super zingy ribs?

Not to worry. The wine not only didn’t disappear; the meat brought out the wine’s giant fruits. Big peppery plums! “Not for the faint-hearted,” as the wine’s promo proclaimed.

This is what pairing is about.

The movie, La Doppia Ora (The Double Hour), from 2009, began with a suicide and a dismal speed-dating scene. We hunkered on the couch and nursed the rest of the bottle for 90 minutes or so, wearing glasses over our schnozzes like oxygen masks. Inhaling flavor.

Can you use up smell?

I sat my glass down but was distracted by the intoxicating vapors coming from Dave’s wine. He guarded his Adventurous.

The plot twisted. The characters were not who they seemed to be. Everything changed. Our wine shifted as well, into harmonious balance, hints of vanilla.

Then bullets. Bad dreams. Hallucinations.

Is this wine the best because it is the best? Or is it the best because we think it’s the best?

Later while cleaning up, I polished off a few sips of montepulciano. After the Adventurous bliss, the formerly OK wine tasted disgustible with notes of sour refuse.

As the movie climaxed, we savored the last of our Adventurous, hopping on the Macchia website to price out a case ($312) that we would not be buying.

Finally, our last sip. The Italian thriller had resolved, and I don’t mean to spoil it, but true love was not served. Or was it?

We raised our empty glasses for a final toast.

Nothing notable, really, about our Friday night. We turned it into the night we drank California’s best zinfandel.

Wednesday, 02 October 2013 15:30

Sniff the Cap: The Wines of Volcano Country

“Take me to the volcano!”

—Joe Banks, in Joe Vs. the Volcano.

We smelled Bumpass Hell well before we careened down the trail into acres of steaming ponds, boiling mud pots and fumaroles.

Signs warned us to stay on the boardwalk as we toured the lakes of glurbing grey glop and sulfuric steam. If you step on the crusty surface—and break through to the 198-degree mud beneath—well, you could lose your leg. That’s what happened to Mr. Kendall VanHook Bumpass, the 1860s tour guide for whom the trail is named.

Nothing like the threat of an amputated limb to add texture to a Northern California hike through a national park.

“This is better than Yellowstone,” said a fellow hiker.

I agreed. Before the government shut down this week, closing all national parks (speaking of threats and amputations), Lassen Volcanic National Park was better than Yellowstone. Its surreal hydrothermal features like Sulphur Works, Devil’s Kitchen, Terminal Geyser and Bumpass are relatively close to home. Lassen’s a nine-plus-hour drive up Interstate 5 from the Coachella Valley, but still, it’s in California.

Lassen also hasn’t been attracting gigantic numbers of tourists who jab you with their walking canes to beat you to the front of Old Faithful. Yellowstone counted 3.5 million visitors in 2012. Yosemite’s even busier—around 3.9 million.

Lassen? A mere 400,000 visitors in 2012.

But the best reason to visit Lassen, from a Cap-Sniffing perspective, is the handful of vineyards growing grapes and making wine in the lava lands. Volcano wine!

When you can taste the soil type in the wine you drink, you’re tasting the wine’s terroir. I learned this word at Lassen about five or six years ago. Dave and I had camped there and picked up a few bottles of local wines. We drank a bottle of Lassen Peak Winery red, made with estate-grown grapes from the nearby Shingletown, Calif., vineyard. We sat by the campfire that night, gazing up at stars glowing between ponderosa pines. We noticed that this wine tasted much different than the wines of, say, Amador or Sonoma counties. We’d read about this phenomenon, the flavor difference that comes from dirt.

We were tasting the volcano—the basaltic soil, the water that had filtered through its minerals to hydrate these grapes. Terroir. To say it, put that high-school French to work, and growl those Rs.

The weekend before The Shutdown, a few friends from Reno and Yankee Hill, Calif., joined Dave and me at Lassen for some tasting, hiking and camping out under aforementioned stars.

Several area wineries are clustered together in Manton, population 347. Most wineries are open on weekend afternoons, and some can be visited on weekdays by appointment.

In the land of volcanoes—dormant or less so—neighbors look out for each other. At a tasting event held in Lassen’s visitor center on Sept. 28, Lorna Knedler of Shasta Daisy Vineyard was pouring wine for a competitor, Cedar Crest.

“This is not my wine,” she explained to a Grass Valley couple who’d stopped by for a taste. “It’s my neighbor’s wine. It’s good wine. They’re good people.”

There’s something appealing about good people making good wine. Is that another aspect of terroir? Can a person taste community?

Knedler poured the Cedar Crest 2010 Al’s Field Blend (estate-grown petite sirah, cab sauvignon, cab franc and viognier). I enjoyed the wine—and the touching label text, written by winemaker Jim Livingston, which explains this wine comes from Cedar Crest’s first, smallish harvest in 2010. Jim and his wife Corey Livingston chose to blend the grapes. “And it came out really good,” label text explained.

The wine’s dedicated to “Papa” Al, who died in 2010.

“He introduced me to the pleasure of wine when I was dating Corey many years ago and greatly supported our Manton adventure. We all miss him very much!!”

Sweetness and dark fruits in a bottle.

Cedar Crest’s tasting room is only about five miles from Knedler’s Shasta Daisy.

“In the mountains, that’s nothing,” Lorna said.

We tasted Shasta Daisy’s 2009 and 2011 pinot noirs ($22) side by side—and appreciated them as two very distinct wines. The 2011 was spicy, with rose hips on the nose. The 2009 felt bright with fruit, balanced. The Knedlers lost their 2012 pinot noir harvest—and about 500 acres of timber—in a wildfire last year.

With a number of new wineries cropping up, a wine-lover might get the notion that this is a relatively new grape region. Not so.

Alger Vineyards has a 12-acre petite sirah vineyard that dates back to 1971. Syrah was planted in the 1990s. By 2007, owners had added a few acres of zinfandel and tiny plots of malbec, pinot grigio, syrah noir, mourvedre and turiga.

At one time, says owner John Alger, the vineyard’s organic grapes were sold to Fetzer’s Bonterra, a widely marketed and top-selling organic wine.

Now, Alger’s earning a reputation for wines that can compete with those from more well-known regions. Alger’s winemaker, Bob Marr, has worked for a half-dozen wineries and started his own Marr Cellars, now based near Sacramento. Alger’s wines have won awards from the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition, and they’re pricier than those from some of the neighbors. (Lassen Peak Winery in Shingleton sells its highly drinkable Redneck Red for $8.) Dave and I smacked our lips over the 2010 Syrah ($27) that owner Alger was pouring.

Alger’s a lean man with a thick cowboy mustache. I asked if syrah grew especially well in the area, and Alger nodded laconically. I pressed the point, noting many area wineries had tasty syrahs. “They’re all copying me,” he said, straight-faced but eyes glinting with humor.

Kristy Coffee, sales and events rep for Indian Peak Vineyards, moved to Manton in 1976.

“When we moved here, it was the wild, wild west,” she said, pouring me a taste of Indian Peak’s Abstract blend ($15).

So what’s life like in Manton now?

Coffee cupped her hand to her face and faux-whispered: “It’s still the wild, wild west.”

“Especially on Saturday nights,” her co-worker added.

I bought the Abstract, and we drank it that night with friends around the campfire. Dancing flames. Heat. Terroir.

Below: John Alger, the owner of Alger Winery, pours reds at a wine-tasting event at Lassen Volcanic National Park on the weekend before The Shutdown closed national parks.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013 15:30

Sniff the Cap: It's Grape-Picking Time in Temecula

“California has a climate which is not well suited for growing grapes to make the finest wines. There are rather too many years when the sun scorches the grapes, so that the wine lacks the finest flavor.”

—Excerpt from dog-eared copy of Wines and Spirits of the World (1958), read by Temecula winemaker Phil Baily.

The sunset sparkled rosé over the rolling fields of grapes west of Callaway Vineyard and Winery

Matt Russell, offsite events manager for Lorimar Vineyards and Winery, poured me Lorimar’s 2010 Syrah. In the waning light, the wine appeared inky and luscious—a dark contrast to Frangipani Winery’s well-rounded 2010 Cabernet Franc, which I’d enjoyed at a nearby table.

Lorimar and Frangipani, relative newcomers to the Temecula Valley, were two of 35 wineries pouring at Crush 2013, the apex of California Wine Month festivities in Temecula, on Saturday, Sept. 14.

The valley had cooled since I’d arrived with Independent editor Jimmy Boegle to meet and drink with local winemakers before the larger taste-fest began. In the Coachella Valley, temps reached 108 on Saturday. In the lush green wine-growing region a mere 66-mile drive west—only 100.

Callaway’s patio was ringed with dim round lamps and flickering candles. Canadian singer-songwriter Michael LeClerc performed, silhouetted against the night sky.

The major attraction: bottles of reds on table after table. Whites and rosés chilled in bowls of ice. Sparkling wine. Sweet wine. Dry wine. Wine redolent with the Temecula terroir, flavor derived from the area’s earth, air and water.

Longtime Temecula winemakers have faced hard times. In the 1990s, area grapes were infested by the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which spread Pierce’s disease. Thousands of acres were lost.

Now, the area’s now been re-tooled into this—with several hundred wine-lovers swirling and sipping, contemplating what one earlier speaker had called “the world in the glass.”

Since I had a designated driver, I was in Sniff the Cap heaven.

Speaking of caps, corks and things related to closure, the topic of synthetics came up during the winemakers’ panel discussion.

Temecula wine pioneer Phil Baily, of Baily Vineyard and Winery, argued that synthetic corks give wines consistency and avoid any chance of cork taint.

He’d brought along Baily’s 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (Estate Clone 7 Cab). The wine is a deep garnet color. No heavy tannins, which can be astringent.

“None of that puckering,” Baily said, “which I personally can’t stand.”

Baily read to the audience from a worn and politely condescending paperback book, Wines and Spirits of the World (1958): “The difficulty is merely that in the Californian climate the finest varieties do not give of their best.”

We laughed.

When Baily started growing grapes in Temecula, he encountered similar skepticism. By the 1980s, people were lauding Northern California wines. But Temecula? Never.

“Be careful what you read from the experts,” Baily said.

Callaway winemaker Craig Larson told us he was pleased to be living somewhere warmer than Washington state, where he began his career in wine.

“I had a passion to get south and make wine,” he said. “This is a dream come true.”

Larson said wine-clubbers and fans sometimes treat him, well, like a god. He actually seems quite soft-spoken.

“It’s just wine,” he understated.

Boegle and I both liked Callaway’s 2009 Calliope Red, a blend of syrah, mourvedre, grenache, cinsault and counoise. Boegle dug this wine so much that I had to finish his taste so he wouldn’t be tempted to drink more. (He had offered to drive in exchange for drinks later within walking distance of his home.)

“It’s just wine.”

Nick Palumbo, from the Palumbo Family Winery, served a 2010 Sangiovese, joking about its 15.6 percent of alcohol.

“I made this wine before I started going gray,” he said.

Palumbo credited grape-growing success to “pure luck” and a prescient dude named Catfish, who’d long ago planted cabernet franc and merlot on the acreage that Palumbo acquired.

“Those were just the right grapes for the site,” Palumbo said. The winery just released its 2010 Estate “Catfish Vineyard” Merlot.

Palumbo and his family live on the estate. This lets him micro-manage his micro-climates and introduce wine to his children at an early age.

One night, he said, his daughter had been watching the grown-ups do some blending and tasting.

“And I handed a glass to my daughter, who is 8, and I said, ‘What do you smell?’ With a real dead-serious look, she took the glass and swirled it.”

Then she looked up at her dad. “It smells like grapes,” she said.

Also on the panel was Ben Drake, a longtime Temecula wine consultant who runs a farm-management company that oversees vineyards and avocado farms.

He said that his biggest challenge is finding enough workers to pick fruit. He called for the need to legalize labor. Hand-picked grapes are superior to those harvested by expensive machines, because people tend to differentiate between grapes, mice and lizards. Machines aren’t as picky.

Dave Fox, Saturday’s panel moderator and a partner at Touring and Tasting magazine, noted that he’s been impressed over the years with Temecula’s cooperative winemaking community. “There’s a camaraderie here,” he said, “a sense of pride in the region.”

The legendary Joe Hart of Hart Winery planted his first acre of grapes in Temecula back in 1974. On Saturday, he introduced us to his 2011 Mourvedre Cruz Way Vineyard, which smelled of ripe juicy raspberries glazed with caramels.

Hart said he’s pleased with the prospects of the 2013 vintage.

“It’s been a terrific year,” Hart said. “Expect outstanding wines.”

Because she enjoys the fruits of hard-working winemakers’ labor, Deidre Pike feels blissful and rested during crush season, aka September, aka California Wine Month, during which the Temecula Winegrowers’ Sip Passport gets you tasting flights at four area wineries for $35. Visit www.temeculawines.org/events for more information.

I might be stressing out the college-aged woman who is pouring wine in Renwood Winery’s new Napa-tacular tasting room.

She’s been working for four months at the renovated Amador County winery. She’s memorized piles of information—including the single vineyard designate for each wine we taste. She lists these and pauses, expectantly.

“You get an A-plus,” I say. “It must have taken you a while to learn all of that.”

“It did!” She seems relieved and pours more wine in my glass.

Over the Labor Day weekend, we visited Amador County. We anticipated Rim Fire smoke from what’s now being called California’s fourth-largest wildfire ever, burning an area said to be larger than the combined square mileage of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.

After a bit of morning haze, though, delta breezes whisked toxic air from leafy rows of vines laden with ripening, violaceous clumps.

We haven’t been to Amador in a couple of years. Initially, we’d been drawn here because it was the antithesis of Napa and Sonoma: no castles, fountains or sprawling mansions. We tasted wines in sheds, barns and pole buildings. We met winemakers at small family vineyards. We paid no tasting fees, but always purchased a bottle or two of affordable, delicious wine.

That was the Amador brand—California wine-making before California wine making was A Thing.

Change happens. Turley Wine Cellars (from Paso Robles and Napa) moved into town, buying Karly Wines, a once-familiar stop on our Amador weekends. Expanding its market, Helwig Winery melds its wine biz with a spectacular event/music venue.

Renwood Winery’s new owners have put piles of dough into re-branding the place. A slick logo replaces the black-and-red wren art on bottles. Gone are cheesy cork art and the glossy wood bar of the tasting room, which now sports a more-contemporary box-shaped tasting bar, mod lighting and an expanded store with deli snacks and olive oils.

In Renwood’s spanking-new patio area, waiters fly between tables with large trays containing wine flights, glasses and bottles, accompanied by cheeses and charcuterie. Nouveau Renwood’s tastings are served in flights; there are four from which to choose. Two of the flights are exclusively zinfandel, which attests either to the winery’s devotion to its roots or a savvy willingness to capitalize on recent zin appreciation trends. Maybe both.

Dave and I opt for the King of Zin flight. I recognize almost none of the new-fangled names. Merida? Flutist? Musician? Where’s the Jack Rabbit Flat?

We pay for the tasting—and buy zero bottles. On the way out, I smear some lemon curd on an animal cracker. That’s about as low-brow as it gets.

We follow signs to another newish winery, not far from Renwood. BellaGrace’s makeshift tasting room consists of tables set up in a gravel lot outside of its newly completed wine caves. Weather-permitting. (The winery also has a more permanent tasting room in Sutter Creek.)

The outdoor venue at the BellaGrace estate consists of tables that are really just boards over wine barrels—adorned with colorful clothes blowing about in those delta breezes.

Our knowledgeable wine guide, Dewey, pulls out all the stops—or, rather, he pulls out bottles with stoppers shaped like animal heads. There’s a reindeer atop a chilly bottle of crisp rose made with grenache and mourvedre. Perfect for the 90-degree heat.

Dewey advances through the day’s listed pours and goes off list, because they just happen to have many open bottles—lucky us!

Drum roll, please: Dewey’s pouring the 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel (Shenandoah Valley). The grapes are from the oldest known zin vines in Amador County. He notes that this is the best zinfandel in Amador County. A bold claim.

“Dewey says it’s the best!” I repeat, grinning.

“No,” he replies. “The judges of the Amador County Fair say it’s the best.”

Bella Grace’s 2010 Zinfandel won a double gold at the fair, which is arguably a contest for zinfandel in the land of zinfandel. To be the top zin dog is a coup for the winemaker and a coup de (Bella) grâce to the stuffier oldsters on the block. (Yes, I amuse myself. Thanks for asking.)

The award-winning zin: dark garnet, rich and velvety smooth. I buy a bottle ($28), and while Dewey’s running my credit card, he proffers one last sip of something with intense dark fruit and a finish that keeps on giving.

Dave wants it. So we add Bella Grace’s 2009 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($49) to our order. I justify this purchase by saying, “Hey, no tasting fee, right?” Just a windy wine barrel stand with a view of estate grapes and a blue port-a-potty.

This is the brand experience we’ve been craving: sweating and drinking and laughing at the gravel that gets in my sandal.

Just up Steiner Road, it’s quiet at Amador Foothill Winery. Winemaker Ben Zeitman takes the time to introduce me to his aglianico grapes. It’s an obscure Italian varietal with thick skins that add glorious color and marvelous tannin structure.

“It’s got everything going for it,” Zeitman says.

Zeitman describes the smoke early in the week as “terrible,” but wildfires raging in the next county over didn’t deter the picking of this year’s first grapes—sauvignon blanc. They picked Monday and let the grapes settle before they crushed ’em. Yeast was added Thursday evening.

“And now it’s in a tank-fermenting,” Zeitman says.

As we sip a smooth 2009 Esola Zinfandel made with estate grapes, Zeitman describes with elegance the growing of zinfandel “pruned like a vase so the sun can get in.” He started as a home winemaker after growing up in a household that drank only Manischewitz—and only on the holidays.

I follow Zeitman out of the tasting room to nearby vines, and we taste sweet, barely tart, thick-skinned aglianico (don’t say the “g”—it’s ah-LYAN-ee-ko). Then we pick a few lighter barbera grapes on newish 2-year-old vines.

Wine grapes are sweet, even sweeter than table grapes. They taste like the wines they will become. In fact, before they’re even picked and crushed, I recommend the 2013 aglianico and barbera.

And though it’s a changing place, I recommend a visit to Amador—perhaps for the Big Crush wine festival on Oct. 5-6. (See Amadorwine.com for more information.) With any luck, they’ll be serving award-winning wines in sheds or on makeshift tables in gravel lots.

Deidre Pike is looking forward to Temecula Valley’s upcoming Crush 2013 event on Saturday, Sept. 14, at Callaway Vineyard and Winery; visit www.temeculawines.org for more information.

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