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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Whenever I head to the Los Angeles area, I always try to check out a new restaurant or eat at an old favorite—and when it comes to wine, two of my “old” favorites are Bar Covell and Augustine, both of which are among the most loved wine bars in Southern California. In fact, Sherman Oaks’ Augustine was recently named one of America’s Best New Wine Bars by Food and Wine.

Both wine bars are co-owned by Matthew Kaner, one of Los Angeles’ most respected sommeliers. Kaner’s involvement in wine doesn’t stop there; he regularly hosts wine events (he was recently tapped by the German wine industry to host a “Wines of Germany” event) and travels all over the world to learn about wine. On his schedule this summer: Oregon, Italy and Portugal. He’s writing a book about wine, and makes wine in partnership with winemakers in Santa Barbara under his AM/FM label. In other words, the man lives and breathes wine.

I met up with my fellow redhead while Kaner was recently visiting Palm Springs; we shared a bottle of Domaine Sylvain Bailly Sancerre Rosé, “La Louèe,” and chatted about all things wine.

How did you get into wine?

I got into wine first at 7 years old when I stole a glass of champagne at my mom’s friend’s wedding. This is not a joke. … I literally went over and stole a glass of champagne when someone went to the bathroom.

Was it actual champagne?

I don’t know. I never saw the bottle. I’ve always called it champagne. I could be wrong; it could have been Cremant de Loire. (Laughs.) So anyway, I stole a glass of champagne, or sparkling wine, from someone, and then I had to be taken home so I could vomit profusely for hours—as a 7-year-old! That’s how I got into wine first. I took about a 13- or 14-year break. … I’m from Santa Barbara, which is a wine-producing place, and a friend of mine in college … was really into wine through his dad. He didn’t really know much about it, but he was into the culture of it and going to dinners and cooking and things. His dad took a liking to me during my college years, and he inspired me to learn more about it. I actually quit my restaurant job of four years. I didn’t want to be a manager anymore, and I started working at a wine store called the Wine Cask, where I completely faked it ’til I made it.

What’s exciting to you about wine right now?

There’s so much access. There are so many people who wouldn’t have known things existed before, and now people are learning how to ask questions about it. One of the great parts of my job that I really appreciate and that I take very seriously, especially in the Internet age, is when you’re asked a question, you actually have to give the proper answer. There’s accountability now, because there is an iPhone in everyone’s hand.

What is the most exciting part of your job?

Wine is a conversation that never ends. … The narrative is always changing; the information is coming out more and more; things are being redefined; there are new winemakers. … There is a never-ending crop of talent which is really interesting. I’m a storyteller by nature: I write; I write songs; I’m writing a book. Wine, for me, is a synthesis of all my real loves, which are history, maps, geology and what things smell and taste like. The synthesis of all these things is really what’s in the glass. What excites me is that I get to tell these stories every day. I get to show people something they didn’t know about.

You’re writing a book?

I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago to pursue music. I put a lot of time and effort in my life to do music. I quit college to pursue music, and it was what I thought my first path was really going to be. The perspective I’m taking in the book is how the pursuit of music led me to my career in wine. There is a synergy that I’ve felt with a lot of people in the wine industry … people who at one point were record producers, or a famous singer in a band, and then they throw it all away to go move on to a vineyard and make wine, or to start an import company.

Where is the most exciting wine region at the moment?

The Loire Valley (in Central France). For its biodiversity and the fact that (winemakers there) make every style of wine there is, the Loire Valley is a pretty special place.

What was your first wine love?

Burgundy.

Desert Island Wine?

Anything from (French winemaker) Thierry Allemand. It’s also the gentleman whose wine bottle was the impetus for my tattoo on my arm.

Favorite pairing?

Champagne and potato chips.

Your favorite wine book?

The first wine book that I read cover to cover was Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy by Joe Bastianich and David Lynch. It’s a very nice book; I learned a lot. … Italy is basically a country of, like, 20 different countries. I was able to learn about the culinary background and history, why certain grapes work with certain foods from different certain regions, and why they don’t make sense with other things. It had to do with a lot of family tradition and a lot of history. They really did an amazing job with that book.

When did you fall in love with Palm Springs?

The first time I came to Palm Springs was for a romantic getaway with my then-girlfriend. I fell in love with the landscape, the mountains, the weather. It’s hot; it’s dry. You go to a great pool, hang out by the pool, drink by the pool—everything is by the pool.

What’s your favorite thing to do in Palm Springs?

So far, my favorite thing to do in Palm Springs is go to Dead or Alive. (Laughs.) I’m really proud to have the AM/FM pinot noir available there. I’m also a huge fan of going to the Ace Hotel and having room service, and then being in a robe all day or night. I really like Tyler’s. I like the fact that they do what they do, and they do it right. I also like the Palm Springs airport. It’s awesome.

Palm Springs native Christine Soto is a co-owner of Dead or Alive wine bar in Palm Springs. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

Kristin Olszewski is one of the Coachella Valley’s newest sommelier/wine directors. At 28, she’s also one of the youngest.

She joined F10 Creative (Mr. Lyons, Cheeky’s, Birba and Chi Chi at the Avalon) in December, moving to the valley from Massachusetts, where she was born and raised. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she worked in restaurants in Boston and then San Francisco, including Saison and Sweet Woodruff; in fact, she helped open Sweet Woodruff and was the restaurant’s general manager.

After her stint in San Francisco, she decided to make a drastic career change: She moved back to Boston to enter the post-baccalaureate premedical program at Harvard. She then applied to medical school and was accepted. At the time, she was working at Spoke, a popular wine bar in Somerville, Mass. Her love of wine took hold, and instead of medical school, she is now pursuing a career as a sommelier. Before her move to Palm Springs, she was working at Straight Wharf in Nantucket, to which she’ll return in May.

On Thursday, March 10 and 24, Olszewski will be holding special wine dinners at Mr. Lyons; call the restaurant 760-327-1551 for more information.

Over a casual brunch and bottle of Hild Elbling Sekt at Kristin’s apartment, we talked wine.

When did you first start getting into wine?

I didn’t like wine for a really long time, but I was working in restaurants in San Francisco and tasting a lot. My ex-boyfriend was really into wine and had a great palate; we would drink a lot of wine together. One of my friends was the sommelier at Sons and Daughters, and she was the one who really exposed me to wine. I hadn’t thought about wine in the way she thought about it. That was the start. I was really lucky; I worked with great people in San Francisco who knew a lot about wine and were always willing to share.

What was your first wine love?

Cremant du Jura Rosé. I just remember being so amazed that wine could be that bright and mineral-driven. And then I was obsessed with the Jura, and I wanted to try everything I could.

What brought you to Palm Springs?

F10 was looking for a wine director for the season, and my boss in Nantucket mentioned me to Greg Rowan (the general manager at Mr. Lyons)—they used to work together in San Francisco. I needed something to do in the winter: either travel through Europe learning and wine-tasting, or work as a sommelier. So I met with Greg and Tara (Lazar, F10’s owner) one Nantucket morning over black coffee and bacon, casually talking about wine and everything, and it just worked out.

What surprised you most about Southern California?

How much people drink French wine here. (Laughs.)

You had the impression we only drink California wine?

Well, that is what everyone told me. I was thinking Palm Springs, resort town, steakhouse …

What are you loving on your list at Mr. Lyons right now?

I’m loving the 2013 Domaine de la Meuliere 1er Cru Chablis. I’m also really loving the 2012 Cultivar St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon. I cannot believe that I like this fruity California wine so much, but it’s so amazing; I really love it. I like fruit … who would have thought? I get so snobby sometimes that I forget how great fruit is. 

What’s the best part of your job?

I really love my job because I work for people who allow me so much freedom, and trust. And I get to be very playful with my wine lists. I’m really lucky that I got this opportunity. I’ve learned so much more than I even thought I would. When I was re-doing the wine list at Birba, (I was) kind of conceptualizing: What slots do I want to fill? Do I want light-bodied, mineral-driven and acidic? Light-bodied with fruit? What am I filling? I hadn’t really thought about wine in that way, so that was really great.

What’s your sommelier strategy?

I’m basically a hawk, circling the room for people looking at the wine list. I try to find people while they’re looking. The most important thing is listening: I listen to people, first and foremost. A lot of sommeliers get caught up in the ego. I think that’s a benefit of me not having a ton of experience: I really put the time in to listen to what people want, and I try to guide them. I know most people don’t have the vocabulary to describe what they like, even though they know what they like, so I try to help them suss it out. Also, price point is very important. I try to give people three options at different price points so they can choose what they want to spend. I have aggressively priced the wine on my list. I want to sell the wine.

What are you drinking now?

Everything from the Loire Valley (in France). Domaine Philippe Tessier Cour-Cheverny. It’s so good. Always Burgundy. (Laughs.) I wish I didn’t love Burgundy so much, but I do. And I’m getting really into Rhône right now—a lot of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

What’s exciting about wine to you right now?

That more people are drinking good wine, and so many people our age (late 20s) are really into wine and have developed wine palates and want a great bottle of wine when they go out to eat. It’s not just people in the industry who drink great wine.

What made wine more approachable?

I think it’s this whole foodie culture. It’s the next step: People got really into food, and now they’re into wine, cocktails and beer. There are so many affordably priced wines on the market right now; you don’t have to spend a lot to drink great wine.

Your desert island wine?

The 2008 Maison Alex Gambal Puligny-Montrachet.

Favorite food pairing?

Riesling and cheese. (Laughs.) Délice de Bourgogne and riesling.

Favorite wine book?

The Wine Bible, for the organization and cleanliness of the information, but most especially because Karen MacNeil describes syrah as a cowboy in a tuxedo.

Favorite thing to do in the desert?

Go hiking! Hiking here is the best, and you can’t really get that lost. Hiking and thrifting, too. I’m really in love with (Palm Canyon Drive vintage store) Iconic Atomic at the moment.

Palm Springs native Christine Soto is a co-owner of Dead or Alive wine bar in Palm Springs. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

Breakfast turns me into a speed freak. Steak, meanwhile, converts me into a temporary alcoholic.

Put me in front of a greasy or sweet breakfast, and I’m going to drink coffee like it’s oxygen. This is how my body extracts maximum pleasure from the muffin or omelet I’m chewing—by bathing my mouth in coffee. The coffee’s acidic bitterness makes the flavors of the food stand out, and completes the meal. I’ve researched this relationship at many a greasy spoon diner, where servers endlessly circle to keep your cup full. What the coffee lacks in quality, it makes up for in quantity. That’s important when you’re eating with a beverage condiment—because the last thing you want is for that well to dry up.

Later in the day, there are many foods that essentially command me to drink wine. If I’m chewing a succulent piece of meat, I need to be drinking wine at exactly the same time. Otherwise I get distressed, like an addict in withdrawal.

While there are many foods that go well with wine, only one—meat—will make me drink wine like a dehydration victim would drink Gatorade. When meat and wine are available, it is a scientific fact that I will be stuffed and wasted. And that is pretty much the only time you will see me wasted.

Other than producing buzzes, coffee and wine otherwise seem completely different. But if you look beneath the surface, you can see that they are competing for the same niche in the ecosystem of your dining table: the acidic beverage niche.

Acidity serves to enhance the pleasure derived from fatty foods. The fat coats your taste buds, and the acid washes that fat away, exposing and stimulating the taste buds and creating fireworks of juxtaposition. If necessary, you may have to adjust fat levels to achieve this balance. I generally do so with mayonnaise.

This principle of creative tension is at the heart of established pairings—like wine with cheese, coffee with cream, and 10,000 other flavor combinations.

One thing you rarely see, however, is coffee and wine together. One of them often needs to be there, but having both would be like having two alpha males in the same room: potentially rough, and at the very least, awkward and uncomfortable. But it turns out that another one of my favorite foods, chili pepper—aka chile—can smooth over this tension.

Like wine and coffee, chile goes exceptionally well with fat, from the jalapeno popper and its elder the chile relleno, to the requisite squirt of hot sauce upon your big greasy breakfast.

Like coffee and wine, chile produces its own kind of buzz—an adrenaline rush, to be exact. Also like coffee and wine, chile has many proven and suspected medical benefits, including reducing body inflammation and improving lipid levels in the blood. But unlike coffee, wine or fat, there are few apparent reasons not to indulge one’s chile-tooth to its fullest.

For years, I took it as a given coffee and wine simply don’t mix. It’s an either/or situation. But this assumption was categorically discredited when I bit into a piece of pork belly that had been braised with red wine, coffee and red chile.

Amazingly, the coffee and wine were able to join forces and forge a common flavor. This union was mediated by chile, the sharp bitterness and sweetness of which formed a narrow bridge between the normally disparate flavors of wine and coffee. That all this flavor alchemy came together in the context of a succulent piece of pork made the experience all the more mouth melting.

This revelation went down in a magical—and sadly defunct—New Mexico restaurant, where I consumed this dish next to a cackling fire of fragrant desert wood. Since then, I’ve endeavored to re-create this recipe, and somewhere along the line, I think I actually surpassed the original, stealing tricks from similar recipes I found online.

My current version combines pork and venison, but any meat will work, even chicken. Bones, whether in oxtail, osso bucco or ribs, will improve the result. The tougher the meat, the better. If using very lean meat, there needs to be some fat, like bacon or olive oil.

The wine- and coffee-based broth tastes kind of disharmonious when you first combine the ingredients, but it eventually cooks into something special—a flavor that is deep and darkly delicious and thoroughly unique.

Fatty meat cooked in coffee and wine

  • 2 pounds of meat
  • 1 cup wine, of a quality you would drink
  • 1 cup of strong coffee (no greasy spoon brew here)
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons mild red chile powder
  • 2 Santa Fe-style dried mild red chile, seeded and crumbled
  • 2 mild pasilla chile (or more red chile), seeded and crumbled
  • Salt, pepper, and garlic powder
  • Olive oil

Brown the meat in whole chunks under the broiler. In a pan, sauté the onions, garlic and bay leaves in oil. When onions are translucent, add chile. Cook a minute, stirring, then add the coffee and wine. Cook until the volume reduces by half. Season with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Add the meat. Cover meat with stock or water, and slow cook or braise for 4-8 hours, until meat is completely tender. Add water, wine or stock as necessary to replace any evaporated liquid. Season again.

Serve in a bowl with minced onions and a hunk of bread, which will absorb the mysterious broth and deliver it to your mouth, where no further adjustments will be necessary. No hot sauce.

This dish won’t give a caffeine high or a wine buzz, but it provides a kick all of its own. It was, after all, the pursuit of a flavor fix along these lines that got me into coffee and wine to begin with.

Published in Wine

If I were a rich man,

Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.

All day long I'd biddy biddy bum.

If I were a wealthy man.

—Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof 

Text from a friend on Jan. 8: “Just finished post-workout shower. Off to buy Powerball ticket. It’s $800 million. Normally I don’t do lottos but … heck … $800 million. You in? Shall I get one for the two of us?”

Me: “You bet.”

Friend: “Our Powerball A—9, 12, 34, 41, 60 and a Power 11. I feel like such a sucker. But we might as well enjoy the fantasy until tomorrow. How will you spend your half of $800 million?”

Me: “Wine.”

I like to say stuff like, “Life is too short to drink average wine.” But my finances dictate that sometimes I have to drink average wine—so delectable California reds are the first things that come to mind if, if, if I were to win a giant sum of money.

If I were a rich woman—to re-gender Tevye’s song, “ya ha deedle deedle” and all that—I could try some of those bottles I’ve read about: French Bordeaux that sells for thousands and, oh yes, the elite Châteauneuf-du-Pape blends from the Rhone region of France. I feel like I’d prefer the latter, which are basically Old World versions of the grenache-syrah-mourvedre blends I enjoy from Paso Robles.

I don’t know. I’d like to find out. Hypothetical money is the root of much speculation.

We didn’t win that jackpot—go figure. The odds were in 292 million, and it wasn’t us. As you probably know, it wasn’t anybody—so the money rolled over for the next Powerball drawing.

As the jackpot rose to $1.3 billion, the news media went into promotional overdrive. I was staying with my family in southern Wisconsin, and the Madison TV station my parents watch did Powerball stories for three days straight. Predictable bits: How much will the taxes be? What’s your winning fantasy? Tweet it to the station.

And, oh yeah, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hints at running for a third term. You betcha.

The station shared people’s more-charitable spending plans. If they won $1.3 billion, a few viewers claimed to want to end homelessness and feed poor families.

The Wall Street Journal created an interactive graphic that visually depicted the odds of winning: one tiny pixel at the end of many, many scrolling pages of tiny, tiny specks. I watched this while sipping a nondescript Australian malbec, on sale for $8.99 per bottle at a small grocery store in Baraboo, Wis. The next day, at the same grocery store, I bought a Powerball ticket—my first, if you don’t count the one shared with above friend. I texted the numbers for this shared ticket to my friend. The fantasy continued.

I was not the only person to equate lottery winnings to expensive wine acquisition, turns out. The editors of Wine Spectator chimed in with their fondest wine wishes, all of which seem to involve wine from France.

Me? I would build a marvelous climate-controlled wine cellar and enhance my modest collection with some remarkable bottles. But why stop there? With this much money, why not buy a winery in the heart of beautiful Sonoma County? Or on the “deep end” of Anderson Valley, land of complex and lovely pinot noirs? I would walk the green fields, helping to prune the vines, enjoying morning barrel tastings and hosting blending parties with my friends. My sprawling Xanadu would have many guest rooms, a huge kitchen, fireplaces, custom tile and an eclectic art collection featuring the works of artists from the center of my universe—you know, California and Nevada.

In fact, to heck with those schmancy French wines. Let the editors of Wine Spectator compete for Euro-wine-hipster cred. I love the wines of here. I will stock the cellar of my Mendo mansion with this state’s finest: Lodi zinfandels. Barberas from the Sierra foothills. Paso Robles GSMs and cabernet sauvignon from the vineyards near St. Helena.

As it turns out, I already possess many of yummy bottles of the above. Go figure. Actually … pruning grapes? Hanging out with wine geniuses? Blending parties? House guests? None of that is out of reach now, to be honest. Life is pretty good, even if the Australian malbec is meh.

By the way, it’s not true that most lottery winners go broke within a few years of winning large jackpots. Only a couple of lottery winners have gone belly up or worse. That West Virginia man who won the $315 million Powerball jackpot in 2002 made a mess of his life and was quoted, years later, saying that he wished he’d have torn up the winning ticket.

Money can’t buy happiness. But financial security certainly contributes to life satisfaction. If you’re already fairly reasonable when it comes to financial planning, winning a lottery could improve your life in many ways.

I like to tell myself that—if I win, I would be smart about spending.

My first monied moves would not likely involve wine, other than indulging in a celebratory bottle of one of my keeper cabernet sauvignons, like Markham Vineyards 2010 The Altruist, a remarkable birthday gift. By the time Jan. 13 rolled around, the jackpot was $1.5 billion. I hypothesized that I would take the lump sum payout if I won. After taxes, that’s about $600 million-ish. I would invest in varied ways, spending earnings, not touching the principal. That should be plenty to pay off my doctorate-seeking daughter’s student loan. And buy a food truck for my entrepreneurial offspring and a car that runs for my daughter-in-law. Everyone would go to the dentist. I’d get my septic tank replaced and build a treehouse.

The drawing happened. I didn’t even nab a $4 award on any of the five tickets I bought—which, since I added the Power Play option, added up to $15. That’s almost enough for a bottle of 2012 Cinsault from Temecula Valley’s Leoness Cellars, at wine-club prices.

If I were a rich woman, I would join many wine clubs. “Bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.” But, really, I don’t need no stinking Powerball jackpot.

My odds are better with single-deck blackjack.

Published in Wine

I’m leaning back in a comfy bucket seat behind the driver of the Troutmobile—a Ford SUV. My tummy’s full of breakfast: poached duck eggs and mimosas from a wine bar in Arcata, Calif.

This is a fine way to start a quirky Humboldt County wine-tasting tour. I’ve joined an adventure that will end tonight with a private tasting at Coates Vineyards.

The winery is remote—in the Six Rivers National Forest, not far from the bustling unincorporated community of Orleans, which is 12 miles east of Weitchpec. Surely you’ve heard of Weitchpec. No? It’s at the juncture of the Trinity and Klamath rivers in Humboldt County—not far from the Pacific’s Lost Coast. This area is better known for crops other than wine.

The Coates Winery is a 12.5-hour drive north from Palm Springs and a mere 2.5 hours from Humboldt’s largest center of commerce, Eureka. About 15 wineries are listed as members on a Humboldt Wine Association website. Several more listed as nonmembers. Coates is one of the latter.

This is northern Northern California. In my vast 15 minutes of Internet research, I can’t find another California winery further north than Coates. Robin and Norman Coates’ all-organic vineyards are so remote that the grapes can grow on their own rootstock: They don’t have to be grafted to disease-resistant rootstock, as happens pretty much everywhere else. This fact, touted on the Coates Winery website, means that the grapes are “generally more healthy, vigorous, and … can better express their varietal characters.”

As the afternoon begins, we turn inland from the Pacific Coast drive and head into the mountains. Sitka spruce. Second-growth redwood. Invasive pampas grasses.

The Troutmobile slows through a residential area. A familiar smell wafts through the window—pungent, spicy, potentially intoxicating.

“Someone’s burning trim,” observes a co-adventurer.

The sun shines, a rarity. Recent rains have made the hills green alongside Highway 299, a logging road that moves inland from the Pacific Coast to Redding. The drive to Coates takes us off 299 in Willow Creek, well before Redding. We’re driving north toward Hoopa. We’re on the way to Weitchpec, a place written about in Vice magazine’s “War in Weed County.”

Before today, I knew only one person in this van—the journalist who invited me along. No matter. A love of wine makes us all fast friends.

We share memories of remarkable tastings in Amador County, Sonoma, Paso Robles and Southern Washington. Advice is shared, recommendations made. I take notes.

Because the drive is long, and we’re a thirsty bunch, we stop beyond Willow Creek at a private home overlooking the Trinity River. There, we sample local and regional wines—some we’ve brought along, like an award-winning 2009 Moonstone Crossing Barbera. Today’s tour organizers had spent the previous afternoon at the Moonstone tasting room in Trinidad. Moonstone’s Sharon Hanks had poured dozens of tastes of wine made from grapes imported from Amador, Lake and Mendocino counties by local genius winemaker Don Bremm. The winery is among the county’s best known. It’s open to the public and easy to find on Main Street, just off Highway 101.

We drink other fine bottles. Standouts include a Dutcher Crossing Carignane ($36, Sonoma winery and Mendocino grapes) and the 2010 Dogwood Mea Culpa ($65, Humboldt winery and Napa grapes). So tasty.

These are my kind of people.

Our designated driver herds us back into the Troutmobile. Then we’re going north-er and north-er. In Weitchpec, we turn east and drive along the Klamath River to Orleans. The winery isn’t in Orleans, but beyond it, of course—a few more miles up winding narrow roads.

“I forgot how early the sun goes down,” someone says.

Even in the dark, the Coates’ home and vineyards form a lovely oasis. A fire crackles in a woodstove. Robin Coates ushers us into the kitchen where bottles of red wine are lined up on a bar. Robin ladles out lentil soup, which pairs perfectly with the estate’s sangiovese and zinfandel.

A wine connoisseur in our group declares the 2012 Sangiovese ($18) the best he’s tasted all day, which is saying something. The varietal makes me think of Tuscany. Ah, Tuscany.

Our talk turns to wines with which one might start the day, and Norman Coates suggests his trebbiano, the Italian white from grapes he planted in the 1990s.

“If you have to drink wine for breakfast, that’s the one to drink,” he says.

Debate ensues as to whether one drinks the wine before coffee or after it.

My wine journalist friend seems disappointed that she can’t give readers the inside scoop on how to visit the Coates Winery. The winery is not open to the public. The couple prefers that people visit the website and, you know, buy the wine at area stores.

“We’re not as social as some winemakers,” says Norman.

Talk turns to crime in Humboldt County. We crowd into the Coates’ living room and watch the trending YouTube video series featuring a “Boondocking” guy—the Nomadic Fanatic—who makes a stop in Eureka. He encounters a Starbucks-drinking vandal, fends off the theft of his solar panels by a felonious meth-head, and parks a block away from a McDonald’s that is the site of a recent officer-involved shooting.

“Let’s get the hell out of Eureka,” concludes the nomad at the end of the YouTube video.

Laughter ensues. We taste the syrah and a delectable cabernet sauvignon—lighter than many California cabs and superbly drinkable. We eat cheese and pate and sourdough rye baked this morning.

Bliss ensues.

Before leaving, we hike up an unlit road to the Coates’ warehouse, where cases of wine are stacked alongside crates of ripe organic kiwi. Those grow here, too, and this year’s harvest was abundant.

We buy wine and tote two cases down the dark road. Giggling in the moonlight, we climb back into the Troutmobile and head back to the coast.

I seem to remember someone passing around a bag of gummy peach rings. But I might have been dreaming, dozing in the comfy bucket seat.

Ah, Humboldt County.

Published in Wine

You can make tofu taste like Italian sausage. You can toy with the texture, just a speck, so that a person eating your tofu chili will barely notice the curdled soy product.

This works best if the vegetarian grub is served with a seductive red wine—one that holds up to the challenge, complementing chili, cumin, onion and black beans.

Such a wine is the 2011 Twisted Oak Murgatroyd ($25). Yes, the wine’s name references Snagglepuss, the cartoon critter famous for the line: “Heavens to Murgatroyd!”

The Murg wine is a kitchen-sink blend. It has a funky hue I call Barney purple. Sharply acidic nose. Medium body. Tangy zingy zang on the finish.

I don’t know what’s in it. The bottle copy offers no hints; it merely plays on another Snagglepuss catch line, “Exit stage left.” (The label says: “Don’t Exit! Our animated blend is at the Stage where it is drinkable now, or may be Left for a few years.” The underlining and quirky capitalization is original to label text.) Nor does the Twisted Oak website give me clues as to which grape varietals went into this wine.

Wine is complicated, mysterious. So is life. These days, my world is full of intriguing new pairings.

My husband, Dave, and I have lived the commuter-marriage life for five years now. That has translated to weekend honeymoons with hiking, cooking, art, music, movies and wine sipped in languid bliss under star-studded skies.

On a together weekend, Dave might leave Reno early, drive all day and meet me at a wine bar for happy hour. Then we’ll pick up juicy ribeye steaks and grill them on the deck. We’d steam an artichoke for our appetizer. Bake a loaf of fresh bread. Pop open a delectable cabernet sauvignon.

Anyone jealous yet? You should be.

But the times, they are rearrangin’. In recent months, I’ve transitioned from living alone to living with adult children, their dogs and an infant. This has added a hearty dose of reality to honeymoon weekends.

Dave arrived for a recent visit early and headed straight to the house. I was at work. The dogs barked and wagged. He cleaned, did laundry, made my bed. He held our daughter’s newborn baby—pure bliss—while she kept an optometrist appointment.

We met at a bank to do some financial hoo-ha-ing. Finally, we went to the wine bar, a teensy bit exhausted. A 2009 Moonstone Crossing Amador County mourvedre revived us with its earthy fruits.

That night, we ate pumpkin soup and pasta.

The next night, we enjoyed broccoli pizza.

On Day Three, I concocted a giant pot of tofu chili. Did I mention that my adult children are vegetarians? As you might have guessed from the previous mention of steak, Dave and I are not. At least not yet.

Our household’s meals are generally vegetarian-friendly. A meat option is a rare addition to the menu.

No one is stopping us from eating meat. In fact, next time Dave comes, I might buy juicy steaks. But given the influence of my new roomies, I’ve been eating less meat—almost no red meat at all. Dave and I had both been complaining about red meat hangovers—the digestive unpleasantness that lasts for 12 to 18 hours after ingesting seared cow flesh.

Worse than slight intestinal discomfort is the possibility that something far more diabolical is going on in one’s bowels after a red-meat encounter. Cancer experts who rigorously reviewed hundreds of scientific studies have concluded that red meats are strongly linked to colorectal cancer. Red-meat consumption is also linked to lung, esophageal, stomach and pancreatic cancer.

Yeah, I know. Everything causes cancer. We’re all going to die of something. Life is 100 percent fatal.

Changing diet might mean changing a person’s experience of wine. I enjoy bites of juicy red meat between sips of a fine cab. Tannic red wines, with their astringent mouth feel, pair well with meat. One theory explains that the fatty texture of meat is balanced by the dry feel of the wine.

That said, I feel I’ve barely touched the possibilities of meat-free wine pairings. A vegetarian website offers such pairings for even the reddest of reds. A cabernet sauvignon, for example, might pair well with grilled veggies, barbecue sauces, garlicky things, and aged or stinky cheeses.

Still, I’m drooling over Twisted Oak’s website suggestions for Murgatroyd. The list begins with tri-tip marinated in “Murginade!” (That’s soy sauce, ginger and honey.) They also suggest “a nice cigar lamb osso bucco (and) Asian-style marinated flank steak, served over a bed of angel hair pasta with horseradish cream.”

Oh meat, meat, delicious meat.

By the way, I ended up calling the winery to find out what’s in the 2011 Murg. After putting me on hold for research, a friendly wine-room employee parsed the blend out at 60 percent petit verdot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon and 20 petite sirah.

OK, on to the secrets of tofu alteration: To transform tofu from the realm of slices, slabs and cubes, freeze it. This alters the texture of the curdled soy. Thaw it. Squeeze the water out. Break it up into bits and globs that almost resemble ground beef. Season with garlic, soy sauce and any spices that go with what you’re cooking. I used chili sauce, cayenne pepper, thyme, oregano, dried parsley, salt, black pepper, cumin and fennel. Toss this concoction until the tofu bits are evenly coated. Sear the tofu in olive oil until it gets as brown and crispy as you desire.

Then add to soup. I made this batch of chili with tomatoes from Dave’s garden, and beans that I soaked and boiled in salt, pepper, garlic, cumin and Sriracha. I sautéed onions, garlic, bell peppers, jalapeno and two stalks of celery, and tossed those in as well. Until we added cheese and sour cream later, this qualified as vegan chili.

Dave said he enjoyed the batch. “Tofu?” he said. “Not bad.”

The wine paired well with the soup’s heat and spice. Berries, currant and nutmeg are flavors suggested on the wine’s back label, the text of which concludes with one last bit of fun:

“Snaggle your puss anytime. Heavens to Murgatroyd!”

Published in Wine

The Rim of the World was in flames in the late summer and fall of 2013. Dawn came morning after morning with smoldering red-orange skylines.

By the time the conflagration was contained, the Yosemite Rim Fire had burned 400 square miles, making it the third-largest wildfire in California’s history. Wide swaths of charred hills and valleys were left in its wake.

Spared from flames were tempranillo grapes in the Zuni Vineyard, on the canyon’s far edges. Gas and carbon vapors, however, penetrated the grapes’ thin skins for more than 40 days.

Now those grapes are wine.

“You can taste that smoke,” says Lisette Sweetland. She’s pouring the 2013 Tempranillo at Inner Sanctum Cellars. We’re visiting the winery’s tasting room in Jamestown, a few miles west of Yosemite. “It affected the wine in interesting ways.”

You can’t predict the impact of a disaster, manmade or natural. Not for months or years. Maybe not ever.

Sweetland tips the wine into my glass. Folks have nicknamed this the Rim Fire Red, she says.

Her description of smoke gives me pause. I’m not a fan of wine that tastes like the underside of a grill—even if I am pairing that wine with barbecued meat.

Inner Sanctum’s 2013 Torro 3 Tempranillo defies expectations. Notes of charred air are there, yes, but these subtle tones are balanced expertly with brighter eruptions of growing things—savory herbs and brambly berries.

I’m impressed. What does it take to coax this complexity from grapes that spent the weeks before harvest saturated in smoke? A masterful winemaker.

In Tuolumne County, this guru of grapes is Chuck Hovey. My husband, Dave, and I are fans of Hovey’s art.

Hovey, 60, got his start at J. Lohr Winery in San Jose, and made wines at Stevenot Winery in Murphys for more than 20 years. Hovey’s brilliance there translated to more than 500 wine awards in various competitions. In fact, Stevenot’s 2006 Tempranillo was the Pike house wine five or six years ago, notable for its excellence and affordability. We bought it by the case ($99) for ourselves and shared with appreciative friends.

In 2008, Hovey started his own label, Hovey Wine. He’s also the consulting winemaker for Gianelli Vineyards, Inner Sanctum Cellars and Bodega del Sur Winery in Murphys.

Hovey is a legend in Tuolumne and Calaveras county wine-making. Now the legend is facing his own fires. Over the summer, Hovey survived two strokes and had to have a craniectomy. His son Kyle Hovey created a GoFundMe page to help pay for his dad’s medical care. To date, the site has received more than $44,000 in contributions.

While Hovey recovers this fall, his shoes are being filled by wine-making apprentice Cody LaPertche. The apprentice told a local reporter he’s doing his best to stick to what he’s learned from Hovey.

“Every day, coming in, I feel like he’s got his hand on my shoulder,” LaPertche told a reporter for The Union-Democrat (Sonora, Calif.). “Every single day, we come in thinking, ‘What would Chuck do?’”

In the meantime, Hovey’s winemaking influence is widely felt. At Gianelli Vineyards tasting room in Jamestown, Dave and I encounter a dozen award-winning wines that Hovey crafted from grapes grown a few miles out of town.

I’d heard good things about Gianelli. A list of 2013 distinctions includes 11 wines that won a combined 26 awards. Gianelli’s 2010 Aglianico, for example, won Best of Class in the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and Double Gold in the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

Of the wines we taste, Dave and I like ’em all. That’s unusual. Nothing strikes us as bland or acidic or even less than fabulous. Several are so delicious that we roll our eyes back and make happy sighs. Dave buys a few bottles, including the 2011 Aglianico ($27) and a delectable 2010 Dolcetto ($22).

Inner Sanctum’s tasting room is a few doors down from Gianelli. Between the two is a pan-for-nuggets tourist shop. This is gold country, after all.

Gianelli’s 2011 “The Don” Barbera won four awards in 2014, including a Double Gold at the Calaveras Wine Competition, and a silver in Sunset’s International Wine Competition. The “Don,” in this case, is wine-grower Ron Gianelli. And Inner Sanctum’s wine notes describe the wine as “flawlessly created by master winemaker Chuck Hovey.”

While we’re chatting with Sweetland, others pop in to ask about The Don.

“We’re out of the barbera,” Sweetland says, “but you’re more than welcome to come on in!”

Sweetland, though an experienced tasting-room employee, hasn’t worked here long. She’s company manager for the Sierra Repertory Theatre as well. She puts in a plug for a recent production while also talking knowledgeably about the local wine scene.

“This is my fun job,” she says.

Sweetland fell in love with Inner Sanctum because of the Torro 3. On a recent birthday, her partner was cooking up burgers with blue cheese and Portobello mushrooms. Hoping for a spectacular pairing, she brought home the Rim Fire Red. The wine’s vintage recalled the tumult of that fall. Sweetland had been pregnant. Her midwife had advised staying home, and not going out to breathe the dangerous air.

“But I had to work,” she says now. She recalls how the layers of smoke converged, most afternoons, to form a mushroom cloud. “It was apocalyptic,” she says.

And the wine?

“It’s a barbecue in a bottle,” she says. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

Before we leave, Sweetland recommends dinner at The Standard Pour in Sonora, a newish establishment created by veteran area foodies.

Though perhaps more widely known for craft beers, The Standard Pour offers a few Inner Sanctum wines. I order a glass of the Rim Fire Red, pairing it with a tangy brussel sprout and bacon appetizer. Then, because it can’t hurt to ask: Do they possess any of Inner Sanctum’s sold-out barbera? They do!

For dessert, I drink The Don, toasting the fine work of winemaker Hovey, and offering best wishes for his full and speedy recovery.

Gorgeous liquid, this. Salute!

Published in Wine

There’s something spiff-alicious about opening a delectable bottle of wine after drinking low-budget swill for a couple of weeks.

I select a bottle from my wine cellar (read: garage). I break out the fine wine glasses, caress the delicate glass. I touch the bottle, read the label.

Madroña Zinfandel. El Dorado. 2012.

It’s an $18 bottle of wine from mixed vineyards—so no big whoop, right? But I recently jammed through a six-pack of low-end Blackstone cabs, cheap zins made from old vines (the nerve!), and a Yellow Tail merlot that turned out to be palatable with sketti. While cost is not necessarily an indicator of quality in wine—or anything else—it turns out 10 bucks a bottle makes a huge difference.

At my house these days, even the wine-formerly-known-as-average is saved for visitors. Tonight, that’s my husband, Dave, who has made his monthly sojourn from his home in Reno to my place in California.

I pull out the cork and pause, donning glasses to read descriptive text on the bottle’s back: “Situated at 3,000 feet in the El Dorado appellation of the Sierra Foothills, Madroña’s hillside vineyards offer ideal growing conditions.”

Madroña has single vineyard wines in the $50 range, but we love this wine. We’ve had this zinfandel at the winery’s tasting room in Camino, Calif. For the money, it’s excellent. Recently, I spotted this bottle on The New York Times Wine Club website.

I pour, giving the liquid some air, and inhale. Spice and berry balance on the nose. The first sip is nectar of the goddess. Wars might be fought and won for this wine. I’ve never tasted a better zinfandel. At least not in the past two or three weeks. Hence the hyperbole.

“It’s a little young,” suggests Dave. I’m reminded that he lives far away in a grand house with a wider-ranging wine selection.

“It’s perfect,” I argue.

“No, it’s really good,” he says.

“It’s amazing,” I reply, “especially as a change from Three-Buck Chuck.”

Oh yeah. I’m poor. Poor and, I admit, super-duper privileged at the same time. This year, I bought a house, and delectable wine became a luxury.

I was tired of renting and having to move when a landlord decided to sell or move back in. A few years back, I rented a house owned by a man who pocketed my dough and didn’t pay the mortgage. Bank foreclosed. House sold on the courthouse stairs to the highest bidder. Which was not me.

Saving for a house has meant limiting my wine appreciation on behalf of thriftiness.

Sort of. Perhaps I enjoyed fewer wine extravagances. An occasional weekend in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, drinking pinot noirs flavored by fog. And, yes, there was that spring camping trip to Paso Robles. And a handful of sojourns to the wine meccas of Lodi and Murphys.

Still, it took a while to collect enough dough for a down.

Wine connoisseurship gets pricey fast. In August, my daughter and I hit a couple of the tasting rooms on Santa Cruz’s trendy Westside. We’d been camping on a beach north of Monterey. Fires had been built, and marshmallows roasted. Before leaving for home Sunday, we drove up the coast to explore. We wandered into a tasting room while we had sunburns and our hair was smelling of charcoal and sea air—not intending to spend much. A chatty winemaker poured generous quantities of ruby ware, mostly pinot noirs in the $25-$30 range.

My daughter Steph, a doctoral student at Case Western Reserve’s School of Medicine, likes to say she knows little about wine. Yet she consistently identifies the most complex and refined wine in a tasting flight. In this case, the wine she most enjoyed was a new release, a 2012 pinot noir not on the winemaker’s tasting notes—or on his price list.

I had intended to buy a bottle; the $25-$30 range is doable if I’m only buying one bottle. My daughter liked the 2012. “We’ll take it,” I said. The winemaker handed me a credit card receipt for something like $45. The new release of pinot noir was $42, he said.

It’s entirely likely the winemaker wasn’t trying to exploit our inebriation but had merely raised the price of his pinot noir to reflect market demand. And neglected to tell us. I could have asked. I could have said no when I saw the credit card charge.

I did neither. Steph and I have a lovely bottle of $42 pinot noir. We’ll drink it when she graduates in 2018 or so. A well-crafted pinot noir ages nicely. We’ll see how this one holds up.

I have a few other bottles too fine to drink on the average kick-back-and-watch-Scandal sort of night. That said, I enjoy a glass of red wine most evenings. In search of affordable reds, most often I buy cases at wineries during various sales.

An overnight wine run to Murphys in early June netted six bottles of assorted varietals (at about $10 each) from Black Sheep Winery, a $99 case of Stevenot Winery merlot, and a $50 case of 2012 syrah—blowout sale!—from Sobon Estate in Amador County. Now it’s almost all gone. I blame adult children and plenty of parties.

Hence the grocery store six-pack. Think battery acid on the nose, with the mouth-feel of Kool-Aid. I won’t name the worst of the dreck. The Yellow Tail merlot was OK, which snooty me pronounced “not terrible.”

That’s why, tonight, the Madroña zinfandel provides a nice contrast to low-budget liquids. The wine’s complex fruit profile reminds Dave, he says, of the mourvedre varietal.

“Don’t you get that?”

Sure, I get that—and so much more.

The wine reminds me that deliciousness exists, and that I’ve never experienced anything like poverty—not even close. I own this house, in theory. I drive a Prius to shop for organic veggies at the farmers’ market. I have a great job. And family. And friends. And dogs. I have this wine and many other bottles to discover on other nights.

That’s not hard to swallow, not at all. Gratitude ensues.

Published in Wine

Weather report for a dry, summer Friday afternoon in the Temecula Valley: Sunny, light wind, temps in the 90s. A group of visitors to the Frangipani Estate Winery wander outside with glasses of the 2013 Estate Grenache Rosé ($20).

It’s a bone-dry rosé, as tasting-room manager Nick Tavizon describes it.

“A floral nose, hint of strawberry … a touch of minerality,” he says. “A lot of people come in expecting it’s going to be a sweet wine. But it’s not.”

The latest vintage of Frangipani’s popular rosé was released in the spring. In Temecula, the grenache varietal is ideal for the crafting of a complex rosé. The valley’s too hot for pinot noir. Tavizon says the winery has played around with a few varietals for its rosés, but the grenache stands out.

“People are liking it,” Tavizon says. “Rosés are definitely coming back with a new twist, done in a Southern France style.”

That’s satisfying news for folks who like a chilled wine on a hot, hot day. And the weather report for fall? Looks like the heat’s going to stick around for a while.

Not too long ago, I would have snubbed any wine the color of that wine-like substance that gramps buys by the six-pack at Costco. (A Napa winery once countered the white zin craze by printing T-shirts that said: “Zin is red! Zin is red!”)

My thinking changed when my trusted wine-geek buddy—a woman who understood dry rosés before the rest of us—introduced a bottle of coral-tinged French wine at a summer barbecue. Some were dubious. She placed the chilled bottle on a friend’s patio table. Water condensed in the heat, wetting the label. I watched as another guest tipped the bottle to the side and examined the bottle copy. He set the wine down and, instead, polished off a pinot gris.

My wine geek friend opened the bottle of pinkness and poured some for me.

I suspended disbelief. She would not steer me into the land of unpleasant beverages.

“It’s a dry rosé,” she explained. “Try it with the prosciutto-wrapped melon.”

I drank the rosé, ate the melon, drank more rose, polished off the glass, and poured another. It paired nicely with everything from cucumbers to salmon.

Since then, I’ve savored many bottles of rosé. One of my favorites? Twisted Oak’s Calaveras Rosa (the label features a pink skull!), a rosé made with mourvedre.

“Mourvedre?” I said, when my friend handed me this chilled bottle as a birthday present. “You can make rosé from mourvedre?”

You can. And if the Calaveras Rosa is any indication, you should. I’ve lauded the dark mysteries of a delicious mourvedre before. But an encounter with the lighter version of the grape is like meeting Marilyn Manson as an adolescent Brian Hugh Warner: You just know this kid is going to end up seriously interesting.

The Calaveras Rosa is complicated like that, with dark fruits waiting to be discovered behind a crooked smile and clear complexion. We opened the wine that night and drank it with that night’s fusion feast—guacamole and chips, kale salad, boeuf bourguignon.

I’m bummed that the 2012 Calaveras Rosa ($20) was sold out at Twisted Oak’s online store when I last checked. Bring on the 2013.

For award-winning rosés closer to home, there’s Callaway Vineyard and Winery in Temecula. Callaway’s 2013 Special Selection Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) placed in this year’s Rosé Competition, which is open to rosés from across North America.

A standout is Callaway’s Rosé of Sangiovese ($20). The 2012 vintage nabbed a gold in the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and a gold in the 2014 Pacific Rim Wine Competition. Its 2011 Special Selection Rose of Sangiovese won 10 awards.

My idea of a glorious autumn afternoon might include zipping over to Callaway with a picnic basket, attaining a chilled bottle and kicking back in the shade at a table overlooking acres of ripe grapes.

Quick note: Some of my family members and friends do not appreciate dry, aka delicious wine. Gramps, as noted above, lusts for white zin. Mom calls my favorite wines “bitter.” Most recently, a young woman my son brings to dinner has been known to adulterate reds and whites uniformly with various substances, from fresh fruit to sparkling water and, well, spoons full of sugar. “This is so good!” she’ll exclaim, sipping away at her fizzy sangria Kool-Aid.

She is extremely cute and good-natured. I like her lots. It’s not my job to try to change anyone’s tastes, so I choose the indulgent rout. The young woman recently enjoyed Andre’s non-vintage spumante ($6). She added orange-mango juice and made mimosas.

It’s a bit awkward to skulk through a grocery store with cheap pink things in my cart. I keep my head down. Yes, I’m often guilty of being a pretentious wine snob. Bumper sticker/meme idea: “Stay calm and let people drink what they like.”

Preferring sweeter wines, though, doesn’t mean a person lacks appreciation for a delectable, hand-crafted rosé.

Many options exist for, say, a meal that demands a wine with higher residual sugar. Monte De Oro, off Rancho California Road in Temecula, crafts a lovely off-dry rosé from five estate-grown grapes—syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and zinfandel.

“Wine drinkers today understand what a rosé is versus a blush,” says Allan Steward, the tasting-room manager.

The winery educates consumers of rosés at its website, describing how the winemaker uses the saignee style—pulling grape juice from various fermentations after just a few days, allowing only limited contact with red-grape skins. Winemakers who use this style can end up with exquisite roses and also, some argue, more intensely concentrated reds down the road.

At Monte De Oro, the 2014 Synergy 65 Rosé ($22) was released at the end of July. Tasting notes describe the rosé as “youthful (with) appealing aromas of strawberries, currants, cherries, cranberries and raspberries complemented by hints of vanilla bean and fresh rose petals.” Could better flavors exist to pair with the crispness of late summer, harvest around the corner, fall in the air?

Steward says he would serve the Synergy with a spicy Thai dinner—the sweet would balance the heat.

“But I wouldn’t mind having it with a hamburger, either,” he says.

So versatile. That’s what keeps me drinking the pink.

Published in Wine

This is about creeping age and rolling green hills. It’s about interspersed wide patches of California poppies that cause drivers to pull over and take photos—as do acres of vines and vines and vines.

I’m 49 years old, and I could spend every spring on the Central Coast.

Dave and I drive the hybrid to Paso Robles the week before I turn 50. Wining and dining here ain’t no bargain, but we’re still young enough to camp in a tent among the spring-breaking crowd at Hearst San Simeon State Park.

As age advances, though, I sense in myself less barrel-tasting wildness and more smoothness, like velvet syrah cellared with a cool film of crusty particulates forming over a bottle. I feel mildly dusty in Tobin James’ crowded tasting room, when we’re drinking charming, affordable wines and feeling less than enchanted. That bottle of jammy Tobin James Ballistic zinfandel ($18) we loved so much six or seven years ago? Its once-beloved plumishness feels gooey to us now.

We taste and shrug. It’s fine. “Maybe we outgrew the Ballistic,” I speculate, as a perceptive tasting-room employee introduces us to Tobin James’ finer vintages. We walk out with a delectable bottle of 2011 Dusi Vineyard Zinfandel ($38). Dry-farmed. Intense.

Maybe it’s the voice of experience, or tasting the $75 bottle of Jada’s 2012 WCS JackJohn. But I realize this shit’s getting expensive. Not a new epiphany, of course—not the first time Dave and I realize that we could spend serious dough on wine, money we don’t have.

Seems the price of boutique wine is escalating—supply and demand, baby—at the same time as our, you know, palates are improving. Spendy combination, that. Credit card debt looms.

Dave and I arrive at Jada Vineyard and Winery around 10:30 a.m. for my breakfast wine. The winery’s one of more than a dozen on that famed stretch west of Paso Robles—Vineyard Drive, just off Highway 46 West.

Many people are kicking back at tables on the patio already. Knowledgeable servers deliver tastes of wine paired with various cheeses. A person might be here for a couple of hours, sipping, snacking, soaking up the sun—and then buying the 2011 Jersey Girl Estate Syrah ($47) and/or the 2012 Jack of Hearts ($54, petit verdot, cab sauvignon).

Dave and I opt to stand at the bar, and I ask to taste only reds—a few from the “reserve” pairing, and a few from the “signature” pairing. Today, I’m searching for the best GSMs in the land of the Rhone Rangers.

It’s good to have a goal.

A GSM isn’t the meat additive from Chinese restaurants. It’s a red Rhône blend, modeled for wine blends from the Rhône wine region of southern France. Grenache grapes—with bright red berry and spice flavors—most often dominate the blends. Syrah contributes inky depths and structure. Mourvedre gives it the mysterious and ruddy elegance.

For me, it’s all about the mourvedre. I’ve been drooling over the memories of my last year’s Paso GSM finds. I want more.

Fortunately for my pocketbook, Jada’s JackJohn GSM blend disappoints me. It’s nice. I like it. But I don’t adore it to the tune of $75. I don’t want to drown in a vat of it. Or pour it all over my lover and, well, you know. Maybe that’s because the blend features only 9 percent mourvedre. I need more mourvedre.

The Jada wine I want is the 2012 WCS Tannat, also $75. Tasting notes quote wine columnist Anthony Dias Blue, who calls it “dark and lush” and “long and seamless.” High happy five to the tannat. I’ll buy a bottle when I win the lottery.

Jada is one of about 200 member wineries of the Rhone Rangers. Since the 1980s, Central Coast winemakers have riffed on southern Rhone wine styles with creative finesse.

Dave and I won’t make it to more than a handful of wineries over the weekend. That’s OK. Every trip to Paso Robles should include a visit to the Albertsons on Niblick Road. There, we pick up Kenneth Volk’s 2012 Mourvedre, Kukkula’s finely tuned and nicely aging 2007 Sisu (GSM), and Hearst Ranch Winery 2012 Three Sisters Cuvee (GSM). Buy enough wine, and a 30 percent discount kicks in. The tasty $22 Hearst wine ends up less than $16. I will have caps to sniff.

Back on the road, I pick the collective wisdom of tasting-room employees about who’s pouring what, where and when. The kind folks at Tobin James send us to Cass Winery. There, Dave doles out the dough for a 2012 Rockin’ One Red ($43) as my birthday gift. Thanks, sweetie pie. Speaking of pie, the Rockin’ One is 60 percent mourvedre, and I fight the urge to dab some behind my ears and on my wrists to wear as cologne.

The folks at Cass send me to Zenaida Cellars for the 2011 Wanderlust ($35), a wine that pulls off a 50 percent grenache-dominated blend. Also of note: the 2012 Fire Sign ($42), a cab sauvignon-syrah-zin blend that kicks off a burning desire for more.

Someone else recommends the Lone Madrone, where I find much to love in the mourvedre-dominated 2011 Points West Red ($35), a complex Rhone that contains the GSM trio of grapes plus hardy cinsault and the dark-skinned counoise.

We spend the longest time at Whalebone Vineyard, a family winery with excellent everything. There, Travis Hutchinson talks us into joining the club in order to nab a couple bottles of the 2011 Boneyard. Yes. It’s that good. Hutchinson invites us to stay for cheeseburgers. We have other plans, but we appreciate the invite. This is our kind of place, and we’ll be back and back.

A final recommended stop: the new guys on the block, Brecon Estate. Brecon is a teeny outfit with only a few wines released so far. But one of these wines is a 2013 Mourvedre ($42). It’s splendid now, but promises luxury overload in five or six years.

I buy this bottle as a gift to myself for my 55th birthday. I will put it in my “cellar” (read: dark closet) ’til 2020.

If I feel old now, I can’t imagine how I’ll feel then. But the mourvedre will make it all better. Given the rising price of wine, I’m betting it will taste like 100 bucks.

Published in Wine