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Maybe there’s some sort of social network these days for the spirit world—some MyHaunt or Facelessbook for paranormal beings to stay connected, make plans, conspire.

That would explain how we met Eleanor the Ghost on a wine tasting trip to Murphys, Calif.

Maybe you’ve heard of Murphys. Maybe not. It’s a tiny burg in north-central California, miles off the beaten path (10 miles east of Highway 49) on the way to nowhere (aka Arnold, Calif.) in the Sierra foothills. To get me there must have taken the coordinated effort of at least a couple of pranking poltergeists.

The Eleanor story begins and begins again at two haunted hotels about 20 miles apart. The story hasn’t ended yet. Haunting is like that, a lifelong problem or blessing, depending on your perspective. Just when you think you’ve exorcised a ghost, years later, she’s back in your life, making herself known.

The Significant Libertarian and I were driving Highway 49 on our way from There to Here and decided to spend the night at the Historic Sonora Inn. By the way, I’m talking about Sonora, Calif., not Sonoma, Calif., next to NapaLand. Sonora’s in the Sierra foothills between, well, Tuttletown and Soulsbyville. (Both real places.)

We booked the last room in the historic section of the Sonora Inn, built in 1896. The hotel’s claims to visitor fame date back to Grace Kelly, who stayed there during the filming of High Noon (1952), and Drew Barrymore, who stayed there during Bad Girls (1994). Any hotel in California more than 100 years old (or on a dark desert highway) is likely to be haunted, and, therefore, a satisfying place to spend a night. Sure enough, walking past Room 309 sets off the Ghost Radar app on an iPhone. (But to be fair, so does walking through the produce aisle at Vons on Palm Canyon Drive. Ghost Radar sees dead people everywhere, including the artichoke bin.)

We ordered a prix fixe dinner that night at a downtown restaurant. The meal came with appetizers, salad, entrée, dessert—and two glasses of local wine. Any two glasses. From a long delightful list. Happy jumping frogs of Calaveras County!

Now, it didn’t surprise me that Calaveras County had wineries. I’ve visited wineries in more unlikely places. Like New Mexico, where the wines are as dry as everything else, except when they’re not.

What surprised me was the eyes-roll-back-in-my-head deliciousness of one particular wine, the 2006 Milliaire Clockspring zinfandel. Why did I order this wine? The ghost of Sonora Inn’s Room 309 whispered the recommendation in my ear. Thanks, G of R309.

Though most of Milliaire’s wines are made from grapes grown in Calaveras County, the Clockspring was made with Amador grapes. My glass No. 1 of 2006 Clockspring arrived with a forgettable appetizer. I probably ate it. The salad included small tomatoes. The entrée was something Italian. Ho hum.

What I remember perfectly, though, is thrusting—thrusting!—my nose in the bulbous glass and inhaling something fascinating. Something that was, um … OK, let’s pause.

Do you hate Wine Words? You know, the pretentious gibberish that Wine Snobs Who Are Smarter Than You gush when drinking yummy red things in large bulbous glasses?

That’s a bummer. Because I’m now going to give Wine Words a try. Here goes: The wine was dark purple-brown and plummy. Not sweet, but not sucking the life out of my tongue.

I wanted to climb inside the glass. I wanted to slather the wine all over my body. I wanted to sink into a bathtub full of the stuff, let it permeate my pores as another fine way of filling me with its innate rotund ribald robust remarkable remarkableness.

OK, so I’m not good at the Wine Words. You can pick up a full refund at the entrance.

Speaking of refunds and other fiduciary matters, Milliaire’s Clockspring zinfandel is an affordable wine, with the 2010 Clockspring selling for $26.

What I didn’t know when I was snorting that aged grape juice during the prix fixe dinner, even before I’d taken a sip and fallen shamelessly in love, is that the wine had garnered its share of attention. It won a gold medal in a San Francisco Chronicle wine competition in 2010 and raked in awards at six county fairs from Amador to OrangeCounty.

Breaking news: The 2010 Clockspring just won a Double Gold in the SF Chron’s competition this year.

For Glass No. 2 of wine that night, I ordered another 2006 Milliaire Clockspring zinfandel. So did the Significant Libertarian, who’d tasted my Glass No. 1.

Wine can be deeply satisfying, but it’s a fleeting joy. Pleasure is like that, transient. When it happens, you have to crawl inside the glass and savor every drop. Some flavors will be remembered but never recaptured.

Since then, I’ve encountered a few other bottles from Milliaire and other Calaveras County wineries that approach that level of excellence. There’s a distinct flavor that unites them, a vibe that I’m not capable of expressing explicitly. Henceforth, I think I’ll call that indescribable flavor/vibe/wine identity “The Eleanor,” after the ghost of that Murphys historic hotel. Eleanor haunts the Lipton Room, or she had haunted it before she met us. Now I think she might be living in my car. Or my laundry room. We’ll get to that.

I knew if I wanted to taste more of The Eleanor, I’d have to plan a trip to Murphys. Since the town was founded by a couple of Irish gold mining brothers, St. Patrick’s Day seemed an appropriate time to visit. We’d slip inside the Milliaire Winery tasting room, join the cult—by which I mean wine club—and obtain enough zinfandel to bring home and share with friends.

I’ll write about the St. Pat’s Day visit to Murphys Historic Inn in my next storytelling effort, which will land in this news venue a few days before March 17. My tale will include a carnivorous moment shared with friends, a leprechaun on stilts braving spring sleet, and my new buddy Eleanor, who happens to have a visibility disability. In addition to that, she’s alive-deficient. But you can’t hold that against her. She has exceptional taste.

For now, let’s end on a Clockspring note. I opened a bottle of the 2006, months later, to accompany a forgettable meal at my own fun but slightly tipsy house party. I was hoping for some appreciation, but, well, we’d opened a few bottles of amazing already that night. We’d descended into guzzle mode.

Most of us.

A friend sat silently at my dinner table, his nose hanging low over a bulbous glass partly filled with Clockspring. He wasn’t contributing to our earth-shattering discussion of global warming or the preparedness of high school kids for college. In fact, he hadn’t spoken for a while. And he wasn’t drinking. I asked him if something was wrong.

“Smelling this wine is making me a better person,” he said. “I’m afraid to find out what will happen if I drink it.”

He had sensed The Eleanor. He took a sip.

Published in Wine

Get married on Friday the 13th, and you’re tempting fate.

That was our intention.

We woke up that morning in Lone Pine and drove to Kelso Dunes in the Mojave (not quite a three-hour drive from the valley), stopping to hike the Alabama Hills, once a setting for cowboy films starring John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart.

By the time we reached the Mojave, a storm was brewing. Whirling dervishes of sand. Blustery chill in the February air. I couldn’t shake a nagging fear that we’d disappear in the gritty desert—and that it would then snow.

We toughed it out. We’d chosen the doomed date and the desolate location as a metaphor for our decision to marry—or, rather, to renew our vows, to begin a lofty marriage do-over, against the odds, fate be damned.

We didn’t want to do this on Valentine’s Day. Too trendy. We’d made The Plan well before we pulled into the Kelso Dunes parking lot. Under a bleak sky.

As we parked, we stated the obvious, intoning facts as questions.

We could do this tomorrow?

Yeah … we could?

At the last minute, neither of us would be unfaithful to The Plan. We tromped out of the car and faced the trail. Hiked up about a mile. Recited brand-new vows through tears and chattering teeth. We exchanged chocolate peanut butter hearts, declared a thumb war and flew back to our car. For our wedding night, we’d booked a honeymoon suite at a discount hotel in Barstow. With a spa in our room.

A spa that leaked.

We’d brought candles, bubbles, a bottle of Tobin James Ballistic (2007) and the movie Sideways in DVD. It was about the third or fourth time we’d seen the movie. We’re endlessly entertained by the misadventures of wine-tasting Miles and his gauche womanizing friend, Jack.

The movie came out in 2004, which was a bad year for our marriage. George W. Bush’s re-election coincided with frequent urges to get divorced, a theme that recurred during the 2006 midterm elections, and again in 2008. We’d jammed through three marriage counselors during those years, the last of whom told us we’d never make it.

Our differences were deeply political and religious. We’d grown apart. We had nothing in common. We didn’t both like Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

We kept trying, on and off. When our kids were teens, we left town for long weekends, camping and hiking. After spending one such weekend in Lee Vining, putzing around MonoLake and Yosemite, we decided to drive up to Amador County—just to taste winey deliciousness for ourselves.

“Is it possible that wine saved our marriage?”

That’s what I asked my husband, my Significant Libertarian, on our re-wedding night in Barstow. It was Feb. 13, 2009. We had a stack of divorce papers neatly filed away, unsigned, at home. And we’d just recommitted ourselves to another lifetime together. The water had been seeping out of the tub, so we were reclining comfortably in a couple of inches of lukewarm water. We raised our glasses to wine. Ting.

We made it through half the movie. Maybe less.

Which perhaps inspired our decision, the next morning, to spend Valentine’s Day tasting wine in Sideways country. It was tricky getting a room, but we nabbed an opening at a discount motel in downtown Santa Maria, off Main Street. The motel’s apparently closed now (thank you, Google maps), and I can’t figure out why: The guests were marvelously friendly. As the Significant Libertarian unloaded the car, a dozen or so women stood in the doorways of their rooms posing in various costumes not entirely unlike women my SL had encountered seen in Amsterdam’s red-light district.

We checked in and headed out, down the road to our first wine stop, Kenneth Volk Vineyard (5230 Tepusquet Road, Santa Maria). It wasn’t the first stop made by the beloved tragic buddies in the movie (that was Sanford Winery, west of Solvang) but it worked for me. We were early—the first customers, really—so we had the pourmaster’s complete and undivided attention. Another couple later arrived on their Valentine’s Day date. We swapped cameras and took photos for each other. They were on their first date. We told them we were on our first date. We bought a bottle of the best chardonnay we’ve ever tasted. Ever.

As is our habit, we bypassed larger wineries for smaller ones. We drank at Rancho Sisquoc (6600 Foxen Canyon Road), Tres Hermanas (9660 Foxen Canyon Road) and Foxen (7200 Foxen Canyon Road). It’s possible that we tasted at other places, but I can’t remember last weekend, let alone four years ago. The tastings at the wineries I listed above all included keepsake wine glasses. I drank out of the above logo’d glasses for years. (The Foxen glass was my favorite, a Riedel with a subtle foxtail logo. I eventually broke it. Sadness.)

What we remember best is the proliferation of Los Angelenos and pinot noirs—the latter made famous by the movie. “Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression,” Miles tells Maya, the girl he’s hot for in the movie. “Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.”

The SL and I were in more of a bratty Jack mood. Our last stop was a crowded winery, not on the above list, over-priced, slightly pretentious. We began, in low tones, to pronounce the pinot noirs as “a bit young” and “lacking character,” and, my favorite, “Kool-aidy.”

Say Kool-Aid in a snooty voice next time you’re out tasting. I dare you.

I probably began saying “pee-noht” at some point. Which would be an accurate Spanish pronunciation. Which I possibly explained to anyone who’d listen, treating these lucky folks to stories about the semester I taught travel-writing in Chile. The most adorable thing about my Significant Libertarian is that he not only tolerates all of this; he seems to enjoy it.

We realized our tasting trip was about done when one of us asked the pourers if they had any fuckin’ merlot. We considered this original. We thought we were being hilarious.

What we were really being was together.

Deidre Pike is an assistant professor of journalism. She lived in Hawaii for a year but moved back to the Mainland to be closer to the grapes. She and her husband celebrated their 30th/4th anniversary this year. This column appears every other week.

Published in Wine

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