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The night we drank the 2004 Grandpere, we’d spent the day at our grandson Lathan’s birthday-party carnival. A couple dozen kids, balloon animals, face painting, carnival games.

“Everyone’s a winner!”

Kids raced about collecting candy and filling up bags of popcorn from a rented machine, washing it down with juice drinks in foil pouches.

We’d stayed to watch Lathan—his face painted superhero green—open a giant pile of presents. The booty included many things Hulk, from undies to action figures to two sets of Marvel The Avengers Gamma Green Smash Fists.

We ate cake.

The party was a huge success. And exhausting. We’d planned on going out. I’d looked up some venues with live music. I’d checked the theater schedules.

Then we got in the car. Tired. Hungry. “Wanna stay home and cook?”

I ticked through the stuff in the refrigerator. “Do we have chicken? I can make masala and naan.”

We picked up cilantro on the way home and sent my adult son Jesse, home for a rare night with the ’rents, back for yogurt.

Now: Choose a wine that goes with chicken tikka masala.

I started drinking red wines with Nepalese and Indian food at the Himalayan Kitchen in Kaimuki, Honolulu, during the year I worked in Hawaii. It was a BYOB place. The food was terrific, so I experimented with lighter, gentler red wines: a grenache and a barbera. These were great. But it seems that, with spicy and tangy sauces, a bigger fruit-forward red balances the spice, smoothes the heat. It’s not unheard of for chefs to pair a dark, fruit-forward syrah with a tikka masala dish.

We scanned our wine list, stared at our wall of reds and popped our head into our 40-bottle wine cooler, where we keep the good (for us) stuff.

The time seemed right.

“The Grandpere? It’s a 2004. Probably not getting any better with age at this point.”

We’d purchased the award-winning 2004 Renwood Grandpere at the Amador winery around the time Renwood filed Chapter 11 and was sued for millions regarding contract disputes.

The Grandpere wasn’t crazy expensive, and it had won several awards, including the 2007 Schott Zwiesel Gold at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Robert Parker gave the 2004 vintage 90 points.

The vintage came from a small crop out of a 20-acre vineyard in Plymouth, Calif., which boasts of being “home to the oldest clone of zinfandel in America.”

Our bottle was No. 10. We should have opened it between 2008 and 2011, according to online “when to drink” advice.

I started the naan dough, and Dave opened the bottle to let in some atmosphere. I wrote dates on the cork. These grapes were grown and the wine was made before our granddaughter was born, Dave said.

I thought about 2004, the year that Dave climbed Kilimanjaro. “That was the year you went to Africa,” I said. My husband returned that fall before U.S. voters re-elected George W. Bush. My vote canceled his vote. Now I read in Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column that people are forgiving Bush, forgetting what they didn’t like about him. With time comes balance, transfers of power.

Argentine billionaire oilman Alejandro Pedro Bulgheroni bought Renwood in 2011. Improvements ensued. The brand is getting increased visibility, participating in Hollywood’s Independent Spirit Awards and sponsoring film premieres. I haven’t been back to see the winery’s spiffy new digs, including fireplaces, patios and a “handsome new tasting bar.”

Kneading dough gives me time for reflection.

Jesse peeled pearl onions. I grated fresh ginger and mixed it into the yogurt with cinnamon, cumin and cayenne, then tossed in chicken and veggies to marinate. I picked fresh mint and lemon balm to throw in the blender with the cilantro, lemon juice and spice. My version of hari (green) chutney.

The night we drank the 2004 Grandpere, Dave set Pandora to play “songwriter/folk.” Jack Johnson covered Lennon, telling us to “imagine there’s no heaven.”

Dave decanted the wine. We inhaled some promising esters. But appreciating the smell doesn’t always equate to liking the taste or the tactile sensation of the wine on the tongue. We were reserving judgment ’til all the sensations were in.

“We’ll either be disappointed or not disappointed.”

Dave took out our Schott Zwiesel German crystal glasses.

“I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will live as one,” sang Johnson.

We poured wine, rust-colored with perfect clarity, into the crystal.

Ting.

Long smooth fruit and vanilla flavors didn’t distinguish themselves at first. The 9-year-old wine once was characterized as having “rich generous aromas of raspberry, vanilla and white pepper, with blasts of sweet cocoa and nutmeg.”

Those notes are still there, but not in “blasts.” This is the way the bottle ends, not with a bang, but with a floral bouquet and the calm suggestion that pepper and brown spices exist as Very Good Things. This wine goes quietly into that good night with a long finish of rich plum.

Grandfather Dave downloaded a new constellation app to his iPad. Tonight, we can look at the stars, he said.

“Should I start the grill?”

“Not yet. Just getting on the sauce.”

I showed Jesse how to scald tomatoes to get the skin off. I opened a rose of zinfandel from Mendocino and added a cup to the simmering sauce. Often, I will add the wine we’re drinking to the food we’re cooking. But not the night we drank the Grandpere. Every drop belonged in our mouths.

A pause over the counter. A swirl in the glass. A taste.

“I like it.”

“I like it, too.”

“It’s probably past its time. It hasn’t gone bad, just not what it was.”

We’re past our prime. We don’t taste bad. Just different.”

I like complicated things. Naan rises twice. After it doubles the first time, you pull it apart, make ping-pong balls out of it, and let it rise again. After this, stretch it and put it on the grill. Brush with butter and garlic.

Dave grilled the naan, coming into the house to sip his wine. After a half-hour or so, his happy wine smile was getting happier.

“It’s opening.”

Then onto the grill went the skewered meat and vegetables.

Into the sauce went more spices, more wine, the grilled meat and veggies, a dollop of heavy cream. Decadent.

The smooth fruit of the aged zinfandel was drinking well when we put the first bites of spice in our mouths.

For dessert, we finished off the bottle. We didn’t make it out to look at stars.

Grandparents, we are. Wine makes us sleepy.

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

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

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

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