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02 Oct 2013

Sniff the Cap: The Wines of Volcano Country

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Bumpass Hell, one of Lassen's hydrothermal features, features muddy 198-degree lakes that hiss, spit and stink—not unlike many members of the House of Representatives. Bumpass Hell, one of Lassen's hydrothermal features, features muddy 198-degree lakes that hiss, spit and stink—not unlike many members of the House of Representatives. Deidre Pike

“Take me to the volcano!”

—Joe Banks, in Joe Vs. the Volcano.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lassen? A mere 400,000 visitors in 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetness and dark fruits in a bottle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s life like in Manton now?

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

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

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

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

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