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An older couple in a BMW drove randomly, stopping in directionless confusion at one busy intersection before zipping illegally around a car parked at a stoplight and lurching up the Highway 101 onramp.

“I’m going to assume everyone on the road is sloshed,” said Dave.

Fair assumption. Drivers might be three sheets to the wine wind anywhere. But Paso Robles—not quite a five-hour drive from Palm Springs, just north of San Luis Obispo—sports 120 wine tasting rooms sprawled over a twisting, hilly maze of country roads.

It’s no wonder the Paso Wines website recommends swishing and spitting when tasting. Or hiring a driver.

Speaking of hired drivers: I must give a shout-out to my extremely responsible husband, who limited himself to tiny tastes so that I could drink. Which is why I was three sheets to the wine as I wrote notes for this column in the front seat of his Honda Civic.

A weekend of delicious fermented goodness! Paso’s Wild Wine Festival weekend, no less! It was close enough to my birthday to qualify as my gift.

Dave booked an ocean-view campsite at Hearst San Simeon State Park. Paying $20 a night for a campsite instead of $200 a night at a bed-and-breakfast meant we could buy more wine to take home.

And the stars were glorious.

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

Of course, my smartphone died, and the battery in Dave’s iPad ebbed to almost non-existent. So when Sara Hufferd, serving wine at Cypher Winery, handed us a booklet with a print map, we were grateful. Print on paper—still so useful.

Hufferd introduced us to Cypher’s rule-bending wines, from the 2010 Freakshow Anarchy ZMS ($40, zin-mourvedre-syrah) to the raging 2011 ZinBitch ($30). Dave purchased the 2009 Peasant GSM ($40, grenache-syrah-mourvedre), and we drank it that night by our campfire.

We went back Saturday so I could buy the Bitch.

Paso’s March event once celebrated zinfandel exclusively, but has expanded to include “other wild wines.” Coming soon: Paso’s 32nd Annual Wine Festival, May 15-18, with a Grand Tasting—60 wineries and gourmet food fare—on May 17. This event tends to sell out, so plan ahead.

Festival goodies varied by winery but included free food pairings, barrel tastings, live music, winemaker dinners, vineyard tours—and piles of people.

Some tasting bars were three-deep in sippers. But the Paso folks kept things running remarkably smooth. At many wineries, tasting bars were set up outside or spread out in large sprawling buildings. At Tablas Creek Vineyard, we received plenty of personal attention from Cindy, who took us through the featured wines and food pairings—and even went off-menu, rustling up a delicious 2011 mourvedre ($40) and a fun obscure 2011 tannat ($40). “Because it’s your birthday!” she said.

Everywhere we went, servers were friendly and attentive, even when wildly busy. When we walked into the jam-packed wine bar at Whalebone Winery, Victoria the Temp behind the bar made eye contact, grinned and managed to pass me a taste of Whalebone’s 2012 Ballena Blanca. She gave me tasting notes so that I could read about this tasty white ($28, marsanne, grenache blanc, roussanne). Victoria works in a law office by day. She’s a fan of the 2011 Boneyard ($33, mourvedre and friends), which we buy.

Obviously, Paso also didn’t disappoint on its original promise—zinfandel.

Stand-outs? At Adelaida Winery, one tasting bar was devoted to library zins bottled more than a decade ago. The bar was, again, swarmed, but a kind server walked around the bar to meet me with a bottle of 2002 zinfandel and tasting notes printed on card stock. The aged velvet fruit hit my tongue, and I wrote “holy shit!” at the top of the page, followed by “redolent with zinness.” At age 12, the wine’s tannins have matured, disappeared, leaving smooth fruit and spicy black licorice.

I stood in the shade, enjoying this zin and watching a mass of joyous humanity. A woman played guitar and sang “Wagon Wheel” as the server roamed back around to me and delivered a 2002 reserve zin ($60)—even better than the first. The grapes came from 80-year-old vines in a dry-farmed vineyard nearby.

I tasted three more zins before moving on to the winery’s current release, the 2011 Michael’s Vineyard zin ($36). After so many leathery old wines, this one clambered for attention like an adolescent. No matter: We know what he’s going to be when he grows up.

Speaking of young, Adelaida’s 2012 zinfandel was still in barrels. Inside the winery, a woman dispensed tastes by inserting a phallic glass tube, or “thief,” into the barrel’s bung. Tasters lined up, three or four at a time, and she dispensed an ounce or two in each glass. Barrel tasting excites folks.

We had arrived in Paso Robles on Friday afternoon when the wineries were less populated by swarming hordes. We drove past dozens of tasting rooms, looking for one recommended by several friends. Zin Alley is right off Highway 46 West, next door to Cypher. Inside, a partially lit fellow was drinking and buying a T-shirt with a clever logo: “If found, please return to the nearest winery.”

“I just had to have it!” the man said, face glowing.

“The nearest winery,” I replied, happily, “because any winery will do!”

“Exactly!”

Zin Alley has plenty of such kitsch, including a sign that notes: “Wine is how classy people get shit-faced.”

The guy left, and we had the place and winemaker Frank Nerelli to ourselves.

Nerelli grows grapes, makes small batches of wine and pours for folks in the tasting room. It’s not surprising that he’s a skilled wine-making fiend. His great grandparents Lorenzo and Rena Nerelli owned one of the first vineyards in Paso Robles, which they bought in 1917. Frank Nerelli bought his property from his uncle in the 1970s.

When I cast him as a hard-working guy, though, he shrugged.

“I play quite a bit,” he assured me. “You gotta know how to prioritize.”

On a weekday morning, he might work, say, pruning a row or a row and a half of grapes. “If I start at 6, I’m done at 9,” he said. “Then I can drink beer all day.”

We liked this guy.

Nerelli’s award-winning wines were as amazing as my friends’ rave reviews suggested. Nerelli’s Generation 4 ($47) is a blend of 80 percent syrah with 20 percent grenache. Dry-farmed. Never any pesticides. The grenache balanced the rich, dark syrah expertly.

We liked this wine.

Nerelli looked at my business card. “Sniff the Cap,” he said and chuckled.

Dave and I felt right at home. Paso Robles, we’ll be back.

Published in Wine

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.

Published in Wine

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.

Published in Wine

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.

Published in Wine

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.

Published in Wine

If you’ve seen Adam Sandler’s Bedtime Stories or you’re a faithful fan of The Bachelor, you’ve seen Napa marketing genius Dario Sattui’s castle, located in Calistoga.

On the north end of Napa County, Castello di Amorosa isn’t exactly ancient. The 121,000-square-foot winery and eight-level playland opened to visitors in 2007.

Think Citizen Kane’s Xanadu—except this rich dude’s over-the-top architectural fantasy has a twisting, turning cave maze lined with wine in French oak barrels.

The Empire Sattui makes wine, too.

No, Castello di Amorosa wasn’t an Italian castle brought over to the United States brick by brick and reassembled. But, yes, bricks were brought over, along with doors, hunks of iron and various medieval fixtures—all used to generate the 107-room, $40 mil-ish castle, including its moat, drawbridge, torture chamber and wine caves. It’s a larger-than-life-sized model of a medieval castle as researched, imagined and re-created by a U.S. winemaker with a shit-ton of money who grew tired of simply buying up ancient Italian landmarks, including a medieval monastery near Siena, and a Medici palace.

Sattui writes about his passion—“some would say obsession”—on the Castello’s medieval themed website: “I was determined to erect the most beautiful and interesting building in North America for showcasing great wines; for it must not be forgotten that, aside from being defensive fortifications, throughout history and in modern times, many of the great wines in Europe have and are being made in castles.”

I’ve tasted some pretty terrific wines made in sheds and garages, but sure. OK. Build it, and we will come.

Sattui purchased the 170-acre property in the 1990s. The project sprawled from a modest 8,500-square-foot McCastle to, well, the spectacle we visited on a Saturday afternoon.

Packed parking lot. At least three couples taking wedding photos—though you can’t get married there. A half-hour wait in line to buy tickets was followed by a half-hour wait for our guided tour to begin. Not bad.

You don’t need to take a tour. You can roam limited areas and do a standard five-wine tasting for $18. For $33, there’s a guided tour that weaves through the castle bowels to a five-wine tasting at a private bar.

Upgrades: For $43, you sip six “low-production, high-end reserve wines.” For $69, it’s the Royal Pairing. You’ll be “secreted away to the elegantly appointed Royal Apartment” and sample award-winning wines paired with “savory bites” while seated at a “rustic Tuscan table.” Reservations recommended.

Meh. Dave and I didn’t have reservations. We wanted to see the castle because, well, it’s there, big, hyperreal—and we’re Americans. We opted for the standard tour and tasting, thank you. No, we didn’t want to add chocolate ($4), cheese ($15) or charcuterie ($15).

Besides, we’d enjoyed a barbecue on the lawn earlier at V. Sattui Winery—Dario Sattui’s original and obviously profitable winery, deli and playland.

You can get married there. The “V” is for Vittorio, D’s great granddad, whose own winery flourished in San Francisco through the early 1900s and then closed during Prohibition.

It’s hard to miss V. Sattui Winery. Driving through St. Helena, it’s on the main drag and jam-packed with cars, humans and dogs. Pet-friendly. Pretention-unfriendly. There is no room to snob it up in a loud, crowded tasting room when your wine’s poured by a guy from the Bronx.

“And this one here’s yer pasta wine. And this is gonna be puffect for the barbecue, right? You like that? Yeah, you do.”

V. Sattui charges for tastings. We found a buy-one-get-one coupon app on my smart phone and spent $10 for the two of us to share tastes of 12 wines.

We bought the 2010 Napa Valley Merlot ($34), because 1) we liked it and 2) Sattui’s wines aren’t sold in wine shops or at the 7-Eleven. For years, you could only buy ’em at the winery. Nowadays, you can buy online.

Then we stood in line to buy barbecued meat items that can be consumed on the winery lawn. Around us roamed honeymooners and parties of friends celebrating birthdays and upcoming weddings. We talked to tourists from Europe, Asia, Mexico, Pennsylvania and Los Angeles.

Sattui’s fortune, it turns out, doesn’t come merely from wine sales, but also from the deli and from weddings and picnics held on the property. Savvy, right? He’s been cornering this market since before Napa became Wine-Swilling Tourist Central.

Done with lunch, we were on to the Castello.

Thanks to Sattui’s extensive Italian travels and research, the medieval Tuscan castle is about as authentic as a reproduced medieval Tuscan castle built in the rolling hills of the Golden State can be. Above one large entrance are windows from which boiling oil can be poured on invaders. The attached room has actual oil boiling capabilities, according to our tour guide, Shawn Wager.

Speaking of sieges, there’s a working well inside the castle walls. That way, the invaders—Sonoma winemakers?—can’t pour poison or dirt into the community water supply.

“So don’t worry,” Wager told us. “If we’re besieged, we’ll be OK.”

Winery president Georg Salzner told a Sacramento Bee reporter that Sattui worries about people equating the Castello to Disneyland or Las Vegas. I don’t see the problem. People love Disneyland with its larger-than-life cartoon mammals. We love Vegas with its Fake Eiffel Tower, Fake Pyramids of Egypt and Fake Venetian Canals, complete with Fake Gondolas. Copies don’t need to feel real; they become their own “Real.” (See cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, best read with a second or even third glass of red.)

In fact, it’s comforting to me that no one has really died in the Castello’s Fake Torture Chamber, with its various historic artifacts, including the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg.

The Iron Maiden looks like a giant stand-up tomb, by the way. When a human body is closed in this device, it’s jabbed with 4-inch glowing hot spikes designed to poke and cauterize your guts, but not to puncture internal organs. Maximum pain—without death. You will tell your secrets, change your religion, alter your sexuality. Anything to stop the pain.

“A human pin cushion!” exclaimed our tour guide. Take that, water-boarding pussies, I thought.

In an underground tasting room, menus were doled out. Since Dave and I shared tastes, we tried 10 wines. All fine. Their wines win awards, so who am I to pooh-pooh?

The Il Barone 2009 ($88) won a double gold in the 2013 American Fine Wine Competition and received a 92 from Antonio Galloni, who is a real person (I checked) and, in fact, a renowned wine critic.

We didn’t buy wine. We noted, though, that the Castello sounded like an entertaining place, after hours, for employees.

Favorite quote from tour guide: “I love to catapult things into the lake.”

Published in Wine

I’m sitting at a table in a parking lot—at 18 Hangar Way, Suite C, in Watsonville, to be exact. Near an airport.

There’s an airport in Watsonville, a farming community between Santa Cruz and Monterey. And there are wineries. Today, 10 of ’em all, in one place. Here.

Am I slurring? Talking too loud? Where’s the restroom again?

That's right. It’s under the gorilla.

“And he doesn’t peek,” says Al Drewke, owner of Roudon-Smith Winery. Drewke’s referring to an ape face painted into a jungle mural on the wine-warehouse wall.

I’m outside, taking a break, snacking on cheese and chocolate from Original Sin, a Soquel, Calif., caterer.

It’s 2 p.m. I started tasting wine around noon. I might be tipsy, animated. Babbling on and on (and on) to a Bay Area couple about this unexpected treat. A tiny, tasty wine event, well, here.

Rather than in Santa Cruz. Or Monterey.

Watsonville, defined by Urban Dictionary, is “just a boring crappy town,” while Santa Cruz is “kick-ass … laid-back, (with) great surfing (and) awesome local bands.”

So Watsonville and wine? Sounds like a juicy adventure.

Dave and I planned a Saturday visit to four or five wineries near Watsonville and nearby Aptos. We never made it past stop No. 1.

Stop No. 1 was Roudon-Smith, billed as one of the original wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains Wine Appellation. Though it’s just off Highway 1, we took back roads there, weaving our way through the hills of the Pajaro Valley, drooling over strawberry fields and a few pricey homes. We cruised past a local animal shelter advertising $40 spays and neuters, an antenna biz, a thrift store and a hydroponics retailer.

At Roudon-Smith, an event was gearing up. An art fair? Barrel-tasting? Bottles were appearing on tables circling the interior of a large warehouse. Barrels lined one wall. A giant mural included colorful plants and primates.

It was a few minutes before noon. A woman greeted us warmly. “You’re the first ones here!”

Turns out Roudon-Smith shares space in the Santa Cruz Winemakers' Studio, a newish wine co-op that includes Myka Cellars and Wargin Wines.

When the Hangar Way tasting room is open from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, three wineries are pouring. The day we visited, the co-op was partying with seven additional wineries, appetizers and music. Happy me.

So let’s do the math while I still can: Ten wineries times, say, three 1-ounce tastes of wine at each, is 30 ounces of wine. That’s not including generous extra pours or the occasional revisit of something amazing.

At this type of event, pacing is key. Tee-hee-hee. I’m rhyming.

We tasted slowly, spending time at each tasting table. We met passionate winery owners like Drewke, who assumed sole ownership of Roudon-Smith in 2011. Before Sept. 11, 2001, Drewke worked in tech. Then Uncle Sam came calling. Military service over, Drewke thought: “Do I want to herd cats again?” The answer (negatory) included going back to school—in the Bordeaux region of France—for a master’s degree in the wine business.

Roudon-Smith’s Santa Cruz-grown chardonnay is zingy. Drewke said creamy flavors should not be foisted on a zesty grape, chock full of citrus and minerality. This causes the taster’s brain to rebel. You gotta know the fruit.

“I don’t butter lemons and limes,” Drewke says.

Roudon-Smith’s wines, crafted by winemaker Brandon Armitage, were among the more-mature vintages served at the event. Armitage also has his own label and was serving at a table nearby.

I savored Roudon-Smith’s 2008 pinot noir, aged in neutral oak, possibly because of the way Drewke talked about the grapes, which are growing “right down the street.” Pinot noir thrives with the valley’s warm days and cool evening fog. It’s a finicky grape that demands special attention. As a winemaker, Drewke said, you’re constantly checking in: “Are you comfy, dear? Can I rub your feet, dear?” If you fail to pamper, the grape “builds up grudges and lets its angst and anger out in the bottle.”

Roudon-Smith treats its grapes right. The splendid result: a light bodied mix of anise and cherry.

Dave bought a bottle of 2007 Duet ($27), a blend of cabernet franc (60 percent) and cabernet sauvignon (40), made from San Miguel grapes.

One table down, nine to go. We moved three feet to the right and landed at Bottle Jack Wines. Winemaker John Ritchey, 34, greeted us: “You’ve never heard of us. We’re super-small and super-new.”

Ritchey poured his 2008 Firenze, a super Tuscan-style wine. (Outlaw Italians! Google it!)

The caterer walks up behind us: “Would you like caprese?” Mmm. Tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella pair marvelously with the Firenze. (And I probably need to eat something.)

Ritchey fell in love with wine-making while working with the Peace Corps in Moldova. He returned to Fresno State for an enology degree, missing class to pick up grapes for his own winery.

Ritchey is an optimist. “Economy tanking? Collapse? That’s a good time to start a winery.”

Halfway around the room, and a few wineries later, we land at the table of Mica Raas, pouring his Myka Cellars. The co-op is Raas’ brainchild.

Raas dreams of the Pajaro Valley becoming its own appellation. He opened the wine co-op in Watsonville because the space was affordable. But he also enjoys his newish role of outsider winemaker, playing up the “rebel” label for news media.

Raas didn’t exactly hire the guy who painted the mural to paint a jungle. Raas paid for the paint, and gave the artist carte blanche. Then Raas held his breath. He described coming back the next day, saying to himself, “Please don’t be a naked lady. Please don’t be a naked lady.”

Of course, Raas supports artistic expression. “I just can’t have a 40-foot-high naked lady in here. Think of the detail.”

I complied. Then we bought Myka Cellars’ Mitzi Unoaked 2012 Chardonnay ($28) and the 2011 Kane Cabernet Sauvignon ($26).

I needed to visit the restroom under the gorilla.

Five wineries down. Five to go.

Pacing is key. Tee-hee-hee.

The Santa Cruz Winemakers' Studio, quiet before the event, fills up with wine-lovers by the time I leave a few hours later.

Published in Wine

“Wine is sunlight held together by water.” —Galileo Galilei

Driving across the Midwest and Southern United States, I’ve noticed an abundance of sun and moisture.

These days, fields of grapish dreams are emerging everywhere from Georgia to Missouri. Wineries seem to be thriving with tasting rooms handily close to major highways.

The nation is becoming one giant California. Fun to say, given that folks ’round here tend to mock my Left Coast leanings.

The change cheers me. I’m on a road trip to see family and friends. I’ve made short stops in near-beer Utah and Arbor Mist-y Nebraska, before moving on through Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina—all states with dozens of wineries, associations and marketing plans.

My Ohio-dwelling adult daughter planned a visit to a local winery. She even practiced wine-drinking beforehand: She bought various varietals at Ohio stores. Now a year out of college and practicing the art of self-education, she tried to comprehend the wine, um, thing.

She revealed her studies on our drive through the rolling green Midwestern hills.

“I want to be part of this family,” she said. “When it comes to the wine thing, I feel left out.”

I get that. There’s a scene in The Lost Boys when the Kiefer “Young!” Sutherland, Punk Vampire, hands Jason “Young!” Patric a jug of blood and says, “Drink some of this, Michael; be one of us.”

Be one of us.

A couple of years ago, I took my older daughter—the younger Ohio-dweller’s sister—to the Sierra Foothills for a tasty trip: Tahoe to Placerville and up Highway 49 to Auburn. On a sunny Friday afternoon, we were the only patrons in several tasting rooms, so we garnered plenty of undivided attention from knowledgeable employees. At smaller wineries, the winemakers themselves might be the ones pouring on a quiet Friday afternoon.

At Bumgarner Winery in Camino, genius winemaker Brian Bumgarner filled our glasses and explained tastes, blending flavor with his stories about growing up as a blonde, blue-eyed “haole” in Hawaii. The winery’s tasting room was brand-new, and the cabernet sauvignon was one of that varietal’s first releases. Daughter Older sniffed, put the wine in her mouth, felt it and made the happy delicious goodness face.

Epiphany! She’d tasted the “sunlight held together by water,” about which Galileo wrote. And it was good.

“I want this wine,” she said. “I want to drink a bottle of this wine.”

Be one of us.

Would Daughter Younger be similarly recruited into the ranks of our family’s perma-purple fangs?

We headed into the Ohio hills on a Sunday afternoon. Destination: the Winery at Wolf Creek in Norton, about 30 miles south of Cleveland. We drove over the creek named Wolf several times, and hung out at a Strawberry Festival where shortcake, berries and honey were on sale. Local wines were on display—but not for purchase. Because it was Sunday. Puzzling, but that’s the way it works in Ohio.

Fortunately, the winery has a permit to sell wine on Sundays.

I got a bit lost driving to the winery. “We don’t have to go,” Daughter Younger suggested. It occurred to me that a person’s first tasting-room visit can be fraught with uncertainty. Or perhaps she was a bit embarrassed by me, looking sunburned and scruffy, driving a car with California plates that include the letters “VINO.” No matter. Armed with a credit card and oodles of charging power, I wanted to experience wines of the Midwest.

Does my daughter mind if I take notes?

“When do you not take notes?” she wanted to know. Touche, lovely smartass.

All is well. The tasting room isn’t crowded. The woman behind the counter seems friendly and open-minded. No snoots mar our bliss.

The tasting room features a stunning overlook with views of forests and farmlands. Visitors can buy a glass or bottle and sit at a table. Or taste all you’d like for 50 cents per one-ounce pour. Three for $1.

The list of wines heartened me. Days earlier, tasting local wine with relatives in Wisconsin, I’d endured a flight of super-sweet wines made from Concord grapes, apples and raspberries. The latter wine would pair well with peanut butter in a sandwich, I said, before realizing that I should have filtered. I don’t think the winemaker was offended.

Joy! Wolf Creek was pouring syrah, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and cabernet franc—the latter from grapes grown on the estate. Treat of the day: a zingy fruit-forward red called “Exodus,” made with marechal foch, a hybrid grape developed for colder climates and said to be similar to pinot noir. A definite maybe on that one. But it was hella cool to try a new grape.

Be one of us.

Wolf Creek knows its Midwestern audience. The winery offers plenty of light and sweet wines, including fruit wines with names like “Blue” (blueberry) and “Space Cowboy” (peach). The “dry” wine, aka “wine,” is labeled on the menu as such, so that folks can avoid what my mom calls “that sour stuff—I don’t know how you can put that in your mouth.” Wisconsin-dwelling Mom would like the Blue.

I noted that the winery is “Now Serving Wine Slushies!” in two flavors: Muscat Black Cherry and Space Cowboy Peach Berry ($5). Daughter Younger offered to buy me one, as I’ve not ever tasted a wine slushie. But we were fresh from the Strawberry Fest. All I wanted was a nice bottle of red wine.

I worked through the possibilities, which were listed on a menu in an innovative order. Tasting a dark, meaty syrah before a kind, gentle cabernet franc ain’t usually recommended. Most wineries arrange a tasting flight from lighter to bolder wines so that the lighter wines have a fleeting chance on your buds of taste.

Easy fix: I taste the syrah last after the zinfandel, the praises of which I will now sing. It’s a 2011 zin, so young. Aged in American oak. But bright fruits balanced with nice spice. Cherry and black licorice. Tastes like heaven to me.

The woman has a binder with tasting notes about the wines, from residual sugar (0 percent) to cases produced (140). The 2011 vintage is the first time that the winery has released zinfandel as its own varietal.

A ha! Wolf Creek gets its zinfandel grapes from Lodi, California. The wine doesn’t taste like heaven, silly me. It tastes like the Golden State.

Turns out Wolf Creek’s wine is in such high demand in Ohio that they import grapes from elsewhere. Brilliant! I bought a bottle ($20). I planned to take it home to my wine-loving husband, but the bottle didn’t make it. I opened it at Daughter Older’s house, my next stop. She’s now living in North Carolina.

The Winery at Wolf Creek, though a fine find, didn’t quite possess the ferment to turn my 20-something into a grape-thirsting fiend. The next time she comes to visit me in California, though, Daughter Younger should plan on having a tasty epiphany.

Be one of us.

Published in Wine

Sacramento boasts plenty of wine bars—some with witty hipsters, and others with well-dressed lobbyists. Or hipster lobbyists.

We end up in California’s capital, now and again, on business or pleasure. For something new during a recent visit, we drive south from our downtown hotel on Highway 99. Exit and turn east on Florin Road. Zoom past strip malls with the usual Starbucks, Panda Express and Sizzler chains.

The journey is daunting. I’m not especially hopeful. But we have reservations at a landmark winery, Sacramento’s oldest, producing alcohol from grapes since 1897.

Doubts double as we turn on Frasinetti Road, just before the railroad tracks. What in the heck are we doing out here? A Burlington Northern train chugs by. On the right, an auto repair shop, building supplies, Industrial Minerals. Just up the road, Siemens operates a light-rail manufacturing facility, and Pepsi bottles liquids of the carbonated variety.

“A winery back here? Really? What were they thinking?”

Of course, Frasinetti Winery was here first, founded by Italian immigrant James Frasinetti about 115 years ago. Its first wines were hauled into Sacramento on horse-drawn wagons. The vineyard survived Prohibition. Made it through the Depression. Thrived and grew to 400 acres.

Howard Frasinetti, James’ grandson, remembers a time when the surrounding neighborhood was country—expansive fields, grapes growing in all directions. “After your chores were done, you could get out there with your .22 and do some shooting,” he says.

Still family-owned, Frasinetti now buys its grapes from Napa and elsewhere. Its wines sell in the tasting room and restaurant, but aren’t commercially distributed.

The winery will put custom labels on its wine for special events for $2 per label. I read this on the website—with muted dismay. You don’t slap a “Happy Anniversary, Joan and Bennie!” label on a high-end bottle of wine. Though who am I, the cap-sniffer, to judge?

We turn into the palm-tree-lined wine oasis. Parking lot packed. The door to the tasting room is propped open. Inside, I spot a wine bottle filled with blinking disco lights flashing on a shelf near the tasting bar.

Huh.

We have reservations for dinner, but the recommended course of action is to enjoy complimentary wine-tastings before dinner. This way, we can pick a bottle for the meal.

It’s a warm Friday, around 6:30 p.m., and Dana Underwood, behind the tasting bar, is pouring chilled whites, sultry and sweet. We talk about wine-tasting—why we like it. Conclusion: Wine is good. Wine people are friendly people. And wine is good.

We discuss Pablo Cruise, Napa cabs and properly training teenagers to be our designated drivers when we go wine tasting. This seems a great way to model responsibility, no joke.

Then we advance to Frasinetti’s reds—a lightly sweet chianti, a decent cabernet sauvignon, and viscous burgundy. Solid table wines, these. Not something you buy to impress wine snob friends, but drinkable. I like the sepia labels with serif-ed Old World font. I buy the cabernet sauvignon ($18) and order a bottle of chianti ($10) at dinner.

We debate wine-and-food pairing. Underwood owns her tastes.

“My philosophy is that I’m going to drink whatever I want,” she says. “If I want a red wine with fish, I’m going to drink a red wine with fish. Or maybe I’ll want a cold beer.”

Ah, a kindred spirit.

That said, the chianti’s fine with our meal. A friendly gentleman seats us, regaling us with stories about his marriage and the Vietnam draft, which he miraculously escaped (Vietnam, not marriage, which has led to decades of bliss).

Our waiter is similarly attentive, if not as personable.

We eat light, sharing an appetizer, soup and entrée. Grilled French brie ($10.95) arrives with toasted crostinis, a mound of roasted garlic and a generous helping of sweet-red-pepper chutney. I attempt to reverse-engineer the chutney’s ingredients so I can reproduce it.

Howard FrasinettiThe restaurant is hopping when we arrive. We’re seated next to a table with a largish family, including kids. The quarters feel slightly cramped, but that’s because the restaurant was crafted from a space that once boasted a dozen 12-foot-square wine-fermenting tanks, made with poured cement. The tanks were state-of-the-art wine-making in the 1930s and 1940s, says Howard Frasinetti. Oh, yeah: Turns out that the storytelling host who seated us is the co-owner, a third-generation Frasinetti.

Howard comes back to see how we’re liking our meal. He points out historic photos and giant redwood barrels that once held 15,000 gallons of wine. His grandfather’s citizenship papers and marriage certificate, framed, hang on the walls. He invites us to tour the property, including the gardens, where a wedding rehearsal is under way.

Next up, bowls of clam chowder ($4.95) and seafood manicotti ($17.95), which arrives already split on two plates ($3 for sharing). Plenty of seafood in the soup. Salmon dominates the manicotti filling, and the pasta’s drizzled in tarragon butter sauce—rich as hell, and therefore yummy. If I drank whites, I’d have paired the entrée with the winery’s 2010 sauvignon blanc, balancing crisp and creamy.

By the time we leave, well before 8 p.m., the place has cleared out. Too many empty tables.

Frasinetti expresses concern about the future of his family’s biz. Generation No. 4 isn’t interested in running the winery or restaurant, he says. And these days, he contends, the only real restaurant success is going to the chains.

I disagree, smiling. Consumers are rejecting chains, and appreciating small, local and family-owned, I say. He shrugs and smiles.

We spend a few minutes in the Frasinetti garden after dinner. The wedding rehearsal’s over, and I have a tipsy vision: A Frasinetti face-lift that includes local, organic food-sourcing and a winemaker with contemporary sensibilities. Toss in marketing efforts to highlight changes that preserve the Italian-immigrant roots of the wine and cuisine. Instant cachet. The wine bottle with disco lights becomes, you know, ironic. The location contributes to the place’s distinctive identity, the small patch of green in the midst of grey industry. David holding his own against Goliath!

But hang on, cap-sniffing self. David has been holding his own against Goliath. Frasinetti’s is already a green oasis, filled with living things packed between the machines, and gushing with California wine-making history, not to mention ironic bottle lights and friendly people who celebrate the innate goodness of wine.

Totally worth the 20-minute drive from downtown.

To maintain her independence and ability to write and say whatever the hell she wants, California’s least-pretentious wine columnist, Deidre Pike, does not accept gifts of food, wine, desserts, lodging, airplane tickets or cheese fondue. Though free cheese does sound tempting.

Published in Wine

Midwestern girl, me. The first wine I put in my mouth flowed from a silver chalice in the hands of a Lutheran pastor. We’ll call him Greg.

About my “confirmation, the Lutheran coming-of-age rite, and subsequent first communion,” I recall three things.

One, I was feeling angelic in a white confirmation gown over a new dress.

Two, Pastor Greg was young, blonde, godlike in build, thoughtful and humorous in perfect proportions. Six young girls in my communion class all had a crush on Pastor Greg.

Three, I remember the flavor and feel of wine in my mouth. There was something sensual about the bitter fruit, the astringent pull of alcohol on my tongue. Welcome to the adult world. This is how it’s going to taste, the blood, paired with thin bland wafer, the body.

A party followed my communion event. Now an adult, I was entitled to drink alcoholic beverages. A glass of wine was poured for me. Grown-ups chuckled when I got a little tipsy.

Germans. Northern Wisconsin. I was 12.

Pastor Greg showed up and didn’t drink wine. Beer with tomato juice was his beverage of choice. This seemed odd to me. I was familiar with the drinking habits of adults, and no one mixed substances in beer. Only in gin, which apparently tasted great with tonic water and limeade. (Mom!)

But here was Greg, the Reverend, drinking whatever he wanted. If you invited him to your party, you’d make sure that you had beer and tomato juice.

Wine Tasting Lesson No. 1: Tastes vary by individual and environment, by nature and culture.

My tastes didn’t refine much over the years. High school friends in the early 1980s drank Boone’s Farm (strawberry) and Miller Genuine Draft, sans tomato. After high school, I spent about a decade in a non-drinking cult. My reintroduction to wine started with malt beverages called “wine coolers,” like Bartles and James Fuzzy Navel, and progressed to Fetzer’s Gewürztraminer, which is made from actual grapes.

Then came a big-girl trip to Sonoma. A tour of historic Buena Vista Winery, founded in 1857, a California historical monument, included an instructional wine tasting. My husband and I sat at a table with a tray of bread, cheese, salami, slice of lemon and pieces of dark chocolate. We tasted several wines, whites and reds, pairing them with various food items for diverse effects.

We learned about acidity and tannins. In pairing wine with food, seek equilibrium. Sweetness balances mouth-puckering sharpness. Protein mellows tannins. Almost no red wines are drinkable if you’ve just put a sour lemon in your mouth.

We were brand new to the wine world and drank in every detail. Then, because we were drinking, we forgot most of it. The wine educator’s most important lesson, though, was a comforting affirmation we pass along to others.

“The good wine is the wine you like,” he said. That’s Wine Tasting Lesson No. 2. Simple.

I like deep, dark complex red wines. Invariably. Problematically. Wines I enjoy pair best with juicy steaks and zesty ribs, which I rarely eat. Some beloved zins and tempranillos pair nicely with pasta in tomato sauce. That works. But when I eat pasta every night, I get puffy.

Shellfish, steelhead trout? Fish slims. I can get away with a light red grenache or maybe even barbera. Don’t cringe. Salmon pairs well with a barely there pinot noir. All good things.

What about veggies? Salads, overall, taste nasty with red wine. I know this. And yet I drink reds and eat greens.

While writing this column, I’m enjoying some spinach with a dressing made from raspberry and onion. A bottle of Foris Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, purchased on a trip up to the Rogue River Valley in Southern Oregon? It’s open. I swallowed some while cooking. Yum. But that was before the salad. Woe to the forgetful me who washed down the leaves with a sip of cab. Bleagh.

The good news: It takes less than 10 minutes to eat a salad. The wine will wait. Then a bite of cheese will shift the taste atmosphere.

As a matter of fact, in the time it took me to think up the words “taste atmosphere,” I consumed the last of the vegetation. Took a bite of savory Swiss. With proteins coating my palate, I tasted the wine again. Gone are the sharp edges. A sliver of salami, and the wine’s just fine. This one’s a bit chalky, with lots of minerals, and slightly grassy hints of “clover and pine.” We visited the Foris Winery this winter, and all the wines we tasted had an earthiness.

Wait, earthy. Clover? Should not this wine pair with things that grow in the dirt?

Trying to work out the logic, I turned to an expert, award-winning wine writer Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, who says that the rule of serving wines and foods with similar flavors does not apply easily to salads.

“We drink meaty red wines with meaty red meats, and creamy white wines with creamy poultry or shellfish,” Grumdahl writes. “But what exactly do you drink with a nice salad—a shot of gin in a tumbler of wheatgrass juice?”

Grumdahl recommends a few whites that’ll do. But that does not help me, the joiner of reds-only wine clubs.

At home, meh, not a problem. No social pressure. But I also order the wrong wine at restaurants. At one schmancy place, I ordered a glass of red before dinner started. My waiter argued with me: Wouldn’t I prefer the white for the seafood starters? No, I would not prefer the white. This was one of those places that had pre-set the table with wine glasses that match the varietal. The huffy waiter plucked the sauvignon blanc-appropriate glasses off the table and came back with bulbous goblets for my red. He was rolling his eyes on the inside. But it was my dinner.

At one time, I’d make excuses for my ignorant wine choices. So the waiter would understand that I'm not completely ignorant. Lies! “I know,” I’d say, “that this wine isn’t just right for that, and thanks for your fine advice, but I want this wine, and, yeah, I’m going to eat that wrong thing.”

Now I barely bother. I’m polite, and I order what I want, no matter the dirty look from foodie waiter who’s offended I’m not drinking Riesling with the Asian chicken salad. Yes, the merlot won’t be dandy with the citrusy marinade and slivered, lightly charred whatsis. Leave me alone.

And that’s Wine Tasting Lesson No. 3: Judge not that you be not judged. Own your likes and dislikes. Let others own theirs.

This applies when your date thinks the pink zinfandel is glorious. When your dinner guest asks for some Sprite and ice to put in a Napa cabernet. When the pastor dumps Clamato in his beer.

Leave us alone.

Published in Wine