CVIndependent

Mon10142019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Features & Profiles

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

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

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

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

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

We weren’t disappointed.

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

The Merryvale visit was a happy accident.

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

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

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

“I already miss you.”

“Please don’t.”

“I know, I know.”

“Just enjoy what’s in this glass.”

“I’m going to cry.”

“No, you’re going to sneeze.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turned out we were tasting with Sierra Foothills wine aficionados.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love wine writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Take this trick and spin it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Wine

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf.

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf, grmmfthmp.

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

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

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

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf.

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf, grmmfthmp.

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

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

Only one explanation seemed plausible.

“It’s Eleanor!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of all, the bartender knows his spirits.

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

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

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf.

Grmmpppcckkkkfflllppsssttt, boompf, grmmfthmp.

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

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

Published in Wine