CVIndependent

Thu11142019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

“If pinot noir is the next best thing to sex, you must be having really good sex.”

—PinotFile.com

Dave never buys pinot noir at home.

“No balls,” he says.

We know this wine variety can be amazing. We’ve seen the movie Sideways. We’ve tasted good pinot noirs in Washington and Oregon. But we’ve encountered insipid pinot noir far too many times. Cuz insipid pinot noir is cheap.

“I can’t afford to like pinot noir,” says our wine-aficionado friend.

Now here we are, drinking elegant pinot noir and adoring it, eyes rolling back in our head, drool escaping from corners of mouths. We whip out our credit cards for more, more.

We’re drinking on the west end of Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. Locals call this the Deep End. It’s too close to the Pacific, really, to grow grapes. Yet the Deep Enders do.

At Handley Cellars, tasting-room employee Ali Nemo pours a side-by-side tasting of 2011 pinots. One’s a blend of grapes from three appellations, two inland from here. The second pinot is from grapes all grown about 10 miles from the Pacific. Both wines resonate with complex flavors, feature rich color, and offer an outstanding finish that lingers on and on. But the wines differ in texture, acidity and flavor.

In the first, you can taste the sunshine. Pinot No. 2’s flavors are brought to you by fog.

Owner and winemaker Milla Handley, great-great granddaughter of Henry Weinhard, crafts wines from her 29-acre estate vineyard and also buys grapes from Redwood and Potter valleys. The grapes grown closest to the coast develop an “oceanic acidity.” The resulting pinot noirs have more tannins than we’ve come to expect from grocery-store pinots. That's why this wine can be plopped in a cellar (or dark closet) and emerge 15 years later drinking so, so smooth.

To get here, drive north beyond Santa Rosa. Head west on Highway 128 at Cloverdale, and cruise rolling green hills toward the coast. Now you’re in Boonville, population 1,035. Robert Mailer Anderson wrote a best-selling 2003 novel set in this quirky burg where oldsters speak a local dialect called “Boontling.” That’s a real thing. The book casts wine tourists as mere extras. That’s not far from reality, either. Mendocino County anchors the Emerald Triangle, where much weed is grown. We don’t encounter any native speakers of Boontling during our weekend in Anderson Valley but, dude, the grapes are good, good. This is a tucked-away place, south of Fort Bragg and, farther north, the Lost Coast, aka the King Range National Conservation Area.

Dave and I drive through Boonville to Philo (FILE-oh), population 349, where we’ve booked a room at the Anderson Valley Inn. Our first wine stop is Navarro Vineyards, named “Winery of the Year” at the 2014 California State Fair. We could stay here all day and let wine-room worker Nick Johnson pour 15 wines for us. These tastings are complimentary tastings—but we pass on award-winning whites and hit the reds. The 2012 Méthode à l'Ancienne ($29) blends pinots from 16 vines, all in Anderson Valley. Johnson describes low yields and tormented grapes grown near the coast, then pours for us the 2012 Deep End Blend ($49). Navarro won a gold medal, best of class, for this one.

I get it.

In two days, Dave and I drink spectacular pinots at many wineries. Along the way, we encounter a few zinfandels from inland vineyards. My favorites include Edmeades 2005 Perli Vineyard Zinfandel ($40) and its 2012 Gianoli Vineyard Zin ($35). Wine notes suggest “intense notes of blackberries and forest floor.” Who knew dirt paired so well with fruit?

These zins vary wildly from our beloved jammy zins of the Sierra Foothills, Amador and Lodi. Different spices. Blacker fruits. Oh yeah.

Anderson is famous for its whites and sparkling wines, so we sample a few of these. But for us, the pinots are the reds of note. At Drew Family Cellars, a smallish mom-and-pop place, we taste the 2012 Fog-Eater Pinot Noir ($45)—“pomegranate, orange and licorice with floral notes”—that was on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 wine list.

We learn that the term “fog-eater” is a Boontling pejorative for a person who lives too close to the coast, “on the margin.”

You know those bottles of wine that kill you with their luscious beauty? This is one of those. Fortunately, I have not yet hit the limit on my credit card.

Dave’s favorite Anderson Valley pinot noir comes from Harmonique and was crafted by Robert Klindt, a longtime local winemaker and owner of the acclaimed but now-defunct Claudia Springs Winery. Harmonique’s 2006 Oppenlander Vineyard Pinot Noir comes from grapes grown about eight miles from the ocean. Smooth with age, its essence lingers in my mouth for hours, days, weeks. I can still taste it. I have damp dreams about this wine.

Dave and I decide that we’re all about the fog. Blanketed by low stratus clouds, the grapes here strive for survival with testicular fortitude. We taste their anguish in the Deep End pinot noirs. Dave puts it simply: “These have the balls.”

At a newish tasting room for Lichen Estate, we sip a 2012 Pinot Noir ($65), a newly released work of art in a bottle. In the tasting room, we chat with Dan Rivin, who revels in the craftsmanship of small family-owned estates. The foggy wines of Mendocino’s coastal region are gaining popularity. And this makes Rivin oddly glum. He fears the coming influx of large corporate wineries that arrive “with suitcases of cash” and gobble up local estates.

“The secret’s out,” he laments.

There’ll be focus groups. Homogenized pinot noir that no longer pays tribute to the terroir of here. Emasculated flavors. Pinot that tastes like root beer and cotton candy.

Could be. Or perhaps the feisty Deep Enders will prove resistant to invasion.

Rivin pours us a last splash of pinot noir, luxuriously rich, with creamy layers of fruit and spice that taste like here.

We head home in a cloud.

Published in Wine

A bright pink sky glows over trees and rooftops west of Berkeley. In our glasses glows the 2011 Boneshaker zinfandel—a relic of Lodi’s now-closed Cycles Gladiator Wines.

I’m visiting a friend, and she’s enjoying the Boneshaker. She almost always likes zinfandel. I note the grape’s plebian heritage. The grape of the people.

My friend doesn’t drink much these days, she says—a glass or two of wine a month. And she’s selective. An earlier bottle of wine, an average pinot noir from the nearby Berkeley Bowl independent supermarket, didn’t make the cut and sits open and forlorn on the counter.

The Boneshaker is robust, ripe, spicy with a teensy bit of smoke. I’m loving it, knowing I won’t be getting more unless parent company Hahn Family Wines resurrects the brand.

I will miss the Boneshaker zin.

Our conversation turns back to quantities of wine consumed per month. My friend’s dryish habits put her in the midrange of U.S. alcohol consumption, according to Philip J. Cook's book Paying the Tab. Cook’s findings were featured in a Washington Post story, “Think You Drink a Lot?” Catchy title, right?

Bottom line: About 30 percent of adults in the United States don’t drink. Done and done. The next 30 percent drink moderately, like my friend, a glass or two per month or week.

If you drink a glass of wine daily, you’re in the top 30 percent. Two glasses of wine, top 20 percent.

Drum roll, please: To break into the top 10 percent of U.S. adults, you need to drink slightly more than two bottles of wine a day.

I know. It’s wild, right? The top 10 percent of U.S. adults swill down 74 drinks per week—more than 10 drinks per day.

“No way,” my friend says. “I don’t believe that 10 percent of American adults are alcoholics.”

We pull up the statistics that Cook used in his research, which came from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.

The numbers don’t square with my friend’s environment, featuring 30-somethings who simply don’t drink much. They are smart professionals who work hard, relax healthfully and cook organically, on gluten-free or paleo or vegan diets.

“That can’t be accurate,” we conclude. “Something’s missing.”

It’s cool to live in the United States, where we can accept or dismiss scientific evidence based on our own life experiences. (Note to my students: The last sentence exemplifies irony, which is not a black fly in your chardonnay.)

My love of red, red wine puts me in the top 30 percent. I’m comfortable with that. In fact, I’m blissed out about the numbers. At least I am not a two-bottle-a-day’er! Imagine that. I couldn’t afford it, for one thing. Of course, you’d never have a hangover, because you’d just keep drinking.

Perhaps my wine craving is linked to the complexity of its DNA. That’s the theory of Tool’s lead singer, Arizona winemaker Maynard James Keenan. He talks about why people groove on wine in the documentary Blood Into Wine, referencing the movie The Fifth Element. He compares the DNA of grapes to the genetic superiority of the movie’s fictional super-humanish character, Leeloo. “Me fifth element—supreme being. Me protect you.” That’s a cute scene.

Grapes are genetically more complex that other fruit. Hell, wine grapes are genetically more complex than humans. Italian researchers mapped the pinot noir genome and found it to contain significantly more genetic information than the human genome. Vitis vinifera pinot noir has about 30,000 genes in its DNA. Humans have 20,000 to 25,000.

“Wine grapes are so much more evolved and so much more complex … with so much more history,” Keenan says, “which is probably on some level why we respond to (wine) and embrace it.  It’s a supreme being.”

The jury’s out on whether wine, in moderation, is good for you. From aforementioned study: “Given grape's content of resveratrol, quercetin and ellagic acid, grape products may contribute to reducing the incidence of cardiovascular and other diseases.” Then again, one study of dietary resveratrol’s impact on long-term health didn’t confirm a positive link.

I believe in wine’s innate goodness. I dig choosing a bottle of wine from our modest collection, anticipating its genetic complexities as I rotate metal down into the cork. I adore that first whiff of fermented grapes. The color of garnet or plum streaming into my glass. The viscous liquid revolving as I swirl. Inhaled esters. The first sip, savored on my tongue. Texture and flavor. Warmth in my throat. Then the finish, finale, fireworks—suture, catharsis, completion.

I love wine. And with the next sip, it begins again.


The sun’s out there somewhere, drooping over a grey swath of Pacific visible between trees and fog. I’m visiting a winemaker friend and his partner. And guess what we’re talking about? Yup, it’s Cook’s book, and the top 10 percent of U.S. adults downing 10 drinks a day. Here, these stats are met with cool acceptance, shrugs and nods. The numbers fit. We recall relatives and friends who drink a case of beer a day. And that neighbor who downs liter-sized bottles of vodka at an astonishing pace.

My friend’s 2009 nebbiolo is on the table, in our glasses, in my mouth like groovy velvet. It’s one of his finest reds right now and drinking perfectly.

When the Italian researchers mapped the wine grape genome, they found more than 100 genes whose sole purpose was flavor. That’s twice as many as most plants.

“In Italy, I guess a nebbiolo that’s this old would be a Barolo or a Barbaresco,” my friend notes. Indeed, nebbiolo is the noble grape that matures into these bomb-ass wines from either of these regions in Northern Italy.

Genetic complexity. Swirl liquid in glass, inhale, tip to lips.

Wine tastes. So. Ahh. 

Published in Wine

I’ve mentioned wine clubs to folks who don’t spend much time in tasting rooms.

“I think there’s one of those around here,” one woman said.

A wine club, right? A place where like-minded people get together to sniff and sip? Not exactly what I’d meant. At wineries, club membership is more like frequent-buyer programs. It gives wineries a consistent source of income. It gives me a consistent source of wine. Signing up means agreeing to buy something like a case of wine a year, or maybe three or four bottles every three or four months.

The wine shipments are discounted—and that’s the big draw. Some wineries release special bottles, limited-production stuff, only to their members.

As a member, a simple aficionado like me gets to feel like a member of the winery’s extended family—drinking with the homies, at a place where everybody knows your name.

I’ve been a member of as many as nine wine clubs at the same time. My husband Dave is also a joiner. Once, between us, we were in 14 wine clubs. That’s before we maintained two separate households. Now I’m in two clubs.

The trend’s obvious: I join when I’m a little tipsy, usually after I’ve tasted wine at one or two places during a trip to wine country. I can resist the impulse for my first few ounces of wine. But by the third or fourth winery, I’m itching to hand over my credit card.

The process can be accelerated by a trip to a winery’s barrel room. That’s where a prospect gets to taste unbottled wine to identify its potential. Wine out of a barrel is deceptively light, but jam-packed with alcohol. Oh, yes, this is good! I’m fine. I’m fine. Then I’m signing on the line.

I joined a club the first time I went wine-tasting in Amador County. Dave and I barely dented the long list of places to go. The Amador Vintners Association has 40 members, all with tasting rooms. And not all wineries are members.

So much wine. So little lunch. So fast to sloshy am I.

By Winery No. 3, I was ready for the pitch: Do I want to buy the yummy wine I’m drinking for less, less, less? Do I want to drive back to Amador for free pasta? Because I’ve been invited to join Villa Toscano’s Bella Piazza wine club! All I have to do is fill out a card, hand over my credit card information—and I’m one of them.

The thought of a pasta buffet hooked me. Free noodles sounded irresistible to my growling stomach. I imagined coming back for a weekend and dining on linguine dripping with pesto. Sampling wine and more wine.

Over the years, we’ve been back to Amador plenty of times. I never did get to the pasta buffet.

No matter. Wine club wine, it turns out, is the gift that keeps on giving—and the charges on your credit card keep mounting. If you can’t pick up this season’s shipment at the winery, they’ll ship it to you.

You can cancel. But that means a phone call. Or an email. So much work!

These days, I join clubs to buy consistently great wine that’s more affordable to members. As a member of Myka Cellars in the Santa Cruz Mountains, wine crafted by genius winemaker Mica Raas is half-price all the time. That $44 bottle of 2011 Reserve Malbec? It’s $22, any time I want it. Which is basically now.

Locally, Tulip Hill’s September wine-club shipment included four bottles of wine, retail value $132, for $60. That means I basically paid about $15 for the newly released 2010 Tracy Hills Inamorata—a mouth full of flowers and raspberries! (Opened it within days. Drank it. Mmm.) It’s $36 in the tasting room.

Most wine clubs include free tasting flights for self, partner and friends. Some tempt me with winery swag. At one winery, new members were rewarded with a wine glass that holds an entire bottle. Who thinks that’s a good idea? I do.

When we were members of Winery by the Creek in Fair Play, we could sign up to spend a night in the winemaker’s cottage—in the middle of the vineyard—for the cost of cleaning the unit. If we timed it right, we could be there for the sister winery’s all-you-can-eat pizza buffet on Friday nights. So, it was like $40 or $50 to eat, drink and stay in a cute cottage in a field of wine on the vine. Yeah!

Unlike the pasta buffet, we actually made this happen. Twice.

And the Winery by the Creek’s wine kept coming. Shipments of six bottles at a time. Drinkable and affordable. We possessed our own wine jug that we could refill with sfuso—loose wine—from a giant stainless steel tank. Damn, I’m pretty sure we had two refillable wine jugs.

Finally, though, I dashed off the sad email. Consider me cancelled. I did the same with seven or eight other wineries.

Why would I end such beneficial relationships? To save the expense, sure. And the wine was piling up, indeed. But most importantly, the upside of wine clubs is also the downside: We ended up going back to favorite wine regions and spending all our time at member wineries, picking up bottles for which we’d already paid, and tasting loved but now-familiar wines.

It was hard to discover new bottles of bliss.

Sometimes you want to go where everybody does not know your name. But they’re still glad you came. They might even take you into the back and give you some of whatever’s in the barrel.

Below: A perk for members—the pond-side picnic grounds at Indian Rock Vineyards in Murphys, Calif.

Published in Wine

We are in a grape.

Dave and I are in the grape—yes, you heard me right. It's a contemporary wonder of Italian architecture called The Acino, named after an Italian word for grape. We’re looking through its translucent ethylene skin at a steady rain drizzling over acres and acres of Piedmont-region wine grapes.

Nebbiolo, barbera, dolcetto—the important reds. And arneis, a white grape with a loyal following in Northern Italy’s most-prestigious wine region.

The interior of this structure is 500 square meters, large enough for a hearty wine tasting event. And that’s pretty much the purpose of Ceretto Winery’s little building, an addendum to their ancient estate.

I’m reminded of a Napa wine mogul who built a European medieval-style castle just for fun. I write in my notebook: “Napa builds a castle with a view of grapes. Piedmont builds a grape with a view of castles.”

Because we’re in Italy, castles top many nearby hills. The sight of them helps me remember where I am.

For the past two weeks, Dave and I have been drinking our way through Italy. Which is a bit like drinking your way through California—by which I mean impossible. And exactly as much fun as you think it’s going to be.

We knew nothing about Italian wine when we began. Now we know that Tuscany is packed with tourists, but still does amazing things with the sangiovese grape. Dave and I savored the Brunello di Montalcino in Montalcino and the Vino Nobile of Montepulciano in Montepulciano. We drank the wines of the Cinque Terre as we sweated our way over the one-fourth of the famous coastal hiking trail. (Three-fourths of the trail was closed. Which gave us more time to drink wine. Thank you, TrenItalia, for the safe rides between villages.) 

Our favorite wine town, by a far cry, is Alba, Italy, just south of Asti, the famous spumante town, in the Piedmont region. People travel to Alba simply to eat and drink. We have a day between the Cinque Terre and Venice. So we buzz up to eat and drink.

We discover that one day is not long enough to begin to taste Piedmont’s deliciousness, with its black truffles, handmade pastas and artisanal cheeses. We eat veal raviolini in sage and butter, grilled peppers adorned with fresh pesto, and goat cheese laced with vegetative ash served with a reduction made of wine, hazelnuts and frutti di bosco (fruits of the forest). Even the simple sliced salami served as a free aperitivo (appetizer) with our evening wine is saporito (tasty).

In Alba, we visit a handful of enotecas and book a visit to one of the area’s large family-owned wine estates.

This ain’t no Temecula Valley, where a wine-lover can drive from winery to winery, sampling whites and reds. Most Italian wineries don’t have tasting rooms with regular hours. Call or email ahead. Learn survival Italian.

Ceretto is huge, so a visit is relatively easy. The person who answers the phone dissuades me from attempting to use my Italian. Yup, it’s that bad.

The family has four estates. The Acino overlooks the family’s Monsordo Bernardina estate outside of Alba.

Our hostess wine guide, Serena Vaccaro, explains the symbolism in The Acino’s oak floors—“to recall the barrels of the wine”—and the stainless-steel fixtures that hold the grape’s “skin” in place. The outer layer is made from the innovative plastic used for Olympic swimming pools in Beijing. “The material is soft and pliable, frosted like the skin of a grape,” says Ceretto’s website.

Vaccaro pours three wines. The first, a 2013 Langhe Arneis Blange, is light and zingy with grapefruity goodness. “The arneis grape is not well known,” Vaccaro explains. “But instead of a chardonnay or pinot grigio, the brothers decide to stick with the local grape.” Though obscure, imported Ceretto’s Arneis sells in some California wine stores for around $18 to $20.

Then we try what’s described as the “king” and “queen” of the region—the barolo (a 2006 from the Brunate vineyard) and barbaresco (2010, Bernardot vineyard). The latter wine is sharper, more acidic. “It is young,” Vaccaro says. Her English is terrific. “Keep it three to four years, and it will be ready.”

Of the 2006 she says, “This is ready.”

There’s no pressure to buy the wine, though a folder in the tasting room offers the three bottles for the discounted price of 79 euro, which includes the tasting for free. Dave and I pay 10 euro each for the tour and tasting, resisting the urge to begin an Italian wine collection.

We head back to our B&B Casa Bona room for a nap. The place is a great find—within walking distance of about a dozen enotecas, which comes in handy if you plan to try a few glasses of wine.

Which we do that evening. A short walk, and we’re on at a piazza on the other side of town lined with bars selling wines by the glass. At Bar La Brasilera, folks watch the World Cup on a large TV screen. France is playing Germany. On a board, the bar lists the 17 wines open tonight. Five are more than a decade old. I order the most ancient, for a kick, the 1999 Langhe Rosso Sito Moresco Gaja. It’s 9 euro per glass, or 50 euro for a bottle. A glass works for me. The wine arrives, the color of dark-brown bricks, smooth as satin with a soft lingering finish. I’m drinking a wine from the last millennium. Y2K … wine.

Dave, a man newly in love, orders a barolo, and then another barolo.

We could be in any small California wine town, where winemakers congregate to wax eloquently about soil composition, irrigation and barrels. And maybe watch a game. Only these wine aficionados speak Italian. And I can’t think of many Cali restaurants that open 15-year-old bottles to sell by the glass.

Speaking of which: We know almost nothing about soccer. I take an Instagram photo of the game as it appears through my wine glass, feeling surreal.

Which team is which? The guys in white shirts miss a goal. Cheers! And we’re all happy. The wine is complicated, different. Life is simple. Bliss happens.

Tomorrow we head to Venice, to witness its sinking decay. But tonight, we’re in the grape in Alba.

Published in Wine

The night I drink the Montefalco Rosso, Cesarini Sartori Fiorella, 2009—a blend of sangiovese, merlot, cabernet and sagrantino—might more aptly be dubbed Sunday afternoon.

I’ve been napping, dozing between the bells that ring out from a nearby Italian church. The bells clang one long, low DONG for the hour, and a brisker, lighter dong for each 15 minutes incrementally. So 1:30 goes like this: “DONG dong dong.”

That’s when I take a break from the hot day and sprawl out on my mattress.

The power went out for a minute yesterday. The digital clock next to my bed is flashing the wrong time. No matter. The bells keep me on track.

“DONG DONG DONG dong dong dong.”

I roll over and reset the clock to 15:46. Because I’m in Europe. There’s no confusing repetition of a 12-hour cycle here. A girl trucks through life one ’til 24. So it goes. Thankfully, the clock never rings 24 DONGs. Craziness.

I attempt to check Facebook. No luck. I’ve consumed my Internet bandwidth for the month. It will reset on Tuesday—in 48 hours.

I’m cut off from the world. I can’t post my witty, pointless observations about life for folks back home. Like “Q: How many Italian bartenders does it take to kick eight U.S. college students and a professor out of a bar when it’s closing? A: Only one, distractedly flipping the switch that turns off the Wi-Fi.”

I open the wine. The bottle is recommended by Pietra, a young man who owns Vino Symposium, a few labyrinthine blocks from my apartment. Pietra also sells vini sfuzi, “loose wines,” on tap in giant stainless-steel vats. Sfuzi—the original two-buck Chucks—sell for a couple euro per liter. Bring your own bottle; sfuzi go in any container. Last week, I bought a montepulciano/sangiovese blend. Pietra filled my 1.5-liter water bottle for three euro.

It’s OK.

The Cesarini Sartori Fiorella starts out a bit tight, but smoothes out nicely. I’m sipping my first glass as I assemble a pasta sauce. I’d been to the market for onions, a red bell pepper, fat garlic bulbs and several kinds of tomatoes, including half-ripe Sicilians and small Piccadilli that pack a big punch.

Food tastes great in Italy, because the ingredients are fabulous. Extra-virgin olive oil pressed from local family farms. Pastas handmade at a shop just around the cobblestoned corner. Meats, fresh and smoked, sliced thin or fat or diced or spiced, in a thousand varieties. Veggies soaking up the sun in fields of Sicily or Tuscany or right here in Lazio.

I blanch the skins off the tomatoes while I sauté an onion, minced garlic and some red bell pepper in tasty extra-virgin olive oil. When the veggies are getting done, I add a half cup or so of Pietra’s sfuzi.

I’m drinking the Cesarini Sartori Fiorella because this is my week to encounter wines from Italy’s Umbrian region, slightly north and east of the Lazio region in which I’m living for a couple months. Each Italian wine region specializes in some specific kinds of grapes. The rare sagrantino grows in and around the city of Montefalco. I could not find the exact wines listed in my Italian wine bible—Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. The book’s my tour guide. Without Internet, I’ve been poring over its pages. Highlighting and underlining. Starring the wines I’ve samples and the recipes I’ve tried.

The sfuzi bubbles over the veggies, and I add about a tablespoon zucchero (sugar) so the mixture will caramelize. I mashed peeled tomatoes with my hands, thinking about how delicious it must feel to dance around in a vat of grapes.

I stir the whole thing together—and I could eat it just like this! But I don’t. It will be so much tastier when it cooks down, and the flavors meld. The individual elements will lose their distinct characters and become one with the tasty sauce. In the Middle Ages, art was like this, says an architect who’s teaching a class in urban landscape here. Art emerged from the community without any specific artistic ego imposing its brand.

And then along came the Renaissance, and with it, the beginnings of rugged individualism. Religious and humanist pretensions. I digress wildly.

The day I drink the Montefalco Rosso, I chat with hubby Dave via Google chat on my telephone. This doesn’t use too much of my Verizon international data plan, which costs $25 for 100 megabytes of data. (To put this in perspective, I ran through an entire 10 gigabytes of data using Skype on my laptop. If I had to pay Verizon’s rates, that would be $2,500.)

Skype sucks up giant vats of data, which I imagine flowing from a shiny sfuzi-like tank, as precious as wine. I always remember to turn off my Wind (that’s a brand of Italian mobile Internet service provider) when I’m not using it.

My sauce gets tastier. The wine opens up. The two flavors seem molto compatible.

DONG DONG DONG DONG DONG DONG. It’s only 18:00. Too early to cook the pasta, thin coils of capelli d'angelo. I read some stories from a book of women writers on their Italian travels. Here’s Mary Shelley: “The name of Italy has magic in its very syllables.” She digs gondola rides in Venice.

I start boiling salty pasta water around 19:00. Italians use salt in terrifying quantities. And I’m liking it. I pour a second glass of wine with dinner.

Finally, it’s time. But eating is like making love: Describing it, blow by blow, gets weird. To cut to the chase: It’s an exceptional sauce that brings out the best in this blend of Italian grape varietals.

I decide to watch Life Is Beautiful, an award-winning movie about an optimistic Jewish poet in Italy as World War II breaks out. The tale depicts a young family that ends up in a forced labor/death camp. Dad saves his preschool-aged son by transforming the horror of the camp into a game.

My Italian’s almost OK enough that I could watch this movie without subtitles and still get the full-on heartbreak.

Eleven quarter-hour DONGs later, I’m crying in my Montefalco Rosso.

So it goes.

Published in Wine

Some day in the not-too-distant future, I want to make wine. But I don’t want to ruin perfectly good grapes.

So I’m training myself on bread. Sourdough bread, specifically. This spring, I’ve been nurturing a sourdough culture: lactic-acid bacteria and yeast, feeding and reproducing on wheat flour and water. What’s growing looks like gluey carbonated yogurt.

Aptly called starter.

The bread-making process isn’t unlike the wine-making process. Both grapes and wheat undergo chemical changes as bacteria and yeast reproduce, causing fermentation, alcohol and gas production, and the tasty conversion of acids.

To be honest, I started messing with sourdough because friends were baking it. I enjoy gnawing on a tangy bit of bread while I slurp fermented red. So, yum! Sourdough pairs with cabs. With merlot and sangiovese and barbera and aglianico.

A few great pairings:

• An earthy mourvèdre with sourdough and baked brie, drizzled with honey and garnished with pears.

• A jammy zinfandel with sourdough toast smeared with herbed butter.

• A syrah with sourdough crackers, baked with sea salt and flecks of black pepper.

Let the mouths water.

Pairings aside, I’m getting evangelical about the chemistry of sourdough and its health benefits for my intestines, waistline and mood. As I write this, Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” is looping in my brain.

I’ve been calling my sourdough starter yeast. And, yes, the starter has some of the single-cell fungi that make bread rise. But in most sourdough starters, lactic acid bacteria outnumber yeast by about 100 to 1. I love the names of these bacteria—Leuconostoc, Pediococcus, Weissella. And most prevalent, you know her and you love her: Give it up for the multi-talented Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis! Though you’d think that the latter microbe must be endemic to its namesake, San Francisco, it’s been found in sourdough cultures in Belgium, Italy and Germany.

In February, Karen Dixon, who works at the Moonstone Crossing Winery in Trinidad, Calif., gave me a plastic container of gloop—a legacy sourdough starter passed from friend to wino to friend. She sent me to a website, Cultures for Health, with info on the care and feeding of starter and how to make, knead, proof and bake bread.

I’m learning so much, so fast.

Keeping starter alive requires little time—but that little time must be dedicated on a regular, rhythmic basis. To keep it active and ready to make bread, I feed it daily. Because it’s a growing community, the small starter gloop becomes a massive sticky vat kinda fast.

If you don’t want to feed an ever-expanding mass of bacteria and yeast, you can discard some. Since it pains me to slather happy, healthy gloop into the trash, I’ve found recipes for putting this “discard” to good use, making crackers, pizza crust, cinnamon rolls.

I bake. A lot.

At its simplest, sourdough bread is flour, water and gloop—with a sprinkling of sea salt. Some recipes call for milk, fat and sugar. My recipe uses none of these. It’s vegan, lactose-free, sugar-free.

Kneading dough causes the gluten to develop. A byproduct of fermentation is carbon dioxide, and the gluten holds the gas in, making bread fluffy. Because sourdough is a slow-rising bread, the developing acids make the gluten more easily digestible. Some gluten-intolerants have no problem with traditional sourdough bread.

What I’ve learned: Don’t skimp on kneading. My first loaves were tough little dough wads. Not sour. Not fluffy. A good knead takes about 20 minutes, at least. As it turns out, this is the length of a South Park episode.

My second loaves were sourdough geodes—impenetrable rocky spheres inside of which a tasty sponge-like mass resided. The loaves dried out before I baked ’em. Slicing required a chainsaw. But inside … success—springy moist crumbs with the texture of pound cake! And so mouth-puckeringly sour. I cubed this up and ate it with runny eggs for breakfast.

I’m getting better. Warmer weather means my starter is livelier and, to be honest, that makes the kneaded bread rise—double in size—too fast. It takes time for fermentation to turn the bread sour. A few loaves have tasted sweet, bland even.

Clearly, this is an art—and a healthful one. Sourdough makes me feel physically great. Why? I read, um, health journals to find out.

The acids in sourdough activate enzymes that make more nutrients available to your body. Also, studies of bread-eating folks showed lower blood glucose levels after eating sourdough white bread compared to any other bread, including whole wheat. That’s great news for me, since diabetes runs in the family. It’s also a potential weight-loss strategy. I’ve noticed if I eat a piece of sourdough toast in the morning with some protein, I don’t get the mid-morning munchies until around 1 p.m.

Bread is rising as I write at 11 p.m. on a weeknight. I’m enjoying a lovely glass of 2008 Zucca Mountain Sorprendere, a red blend, and watching the sixth season of Mad Men on Netflix. Lovely mounds of dough are rising on baking stones atop my record player and my pellet stove (which is not fired up).

I made the dough around 3 p.m. and kneaded for a half-hour. The loaves have properly doubled, and I’ve punched the dough lightly with my fists so it can rise again without globbing over the edges of the stone.

I could throw the loaves in the oven tonight and watch another episode or finish this column. For full-on sour, though, I’m going to wait. Bread for breakfast! Baked before work! I’m going to have to get up mighty early, but that’s OK.

Have I mentioned how much bread-making helps me value the work that goes into that bottle of fermented grape juice? Thank you, hard-working makers of wine. Someday, I’d like to join your ranks.

Wine Events Coming

It’s Wine Riot time at the California Market Center, two hours away from the Coachella Valley in Los Angeles, at 110 E. Ninth St., on Friday and Saturday, May 9 and 10, featuring a gazillion tastings, temp tattoos, a Bubbly Bar and some Crash Courses in wine education. The Riot “reinvents wine for the thirsty and curious” and runs $60 per each of three sessions—Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Saturday night. Tickets and more info at secondglass.com/event-categories/wineriot.

Published in Wine

An older couple in a BMW drove randomly, stopping in directionless confusion at one busy intersection before zipping illegally around a car parked at a stoplight and lurching up the Highway 101 onramp.

“I’m going to assume everyone on the road is sloshed,” said Dave.

Fair assumption. Drivers might be three sheets to the wine wind anywhere. But Paso Robles—not quite a five-hour drive from Palm Springs, just north of San Luis Obispo—sports 120 wine tasting rooms sprawled over a twisting, hilly maze of country roads.

It’s no wonder the Paso Wines website recommends swishing and spitting when tasting. Or hiring a driver.

Speaking of hired drivers: I must give a shout-out to my extremely responsible husband, who limited himself to tiny tastes so that I could drink. Which is why I was three sheets to the wine as I wrote notes for this column in the front seat of his Honda Civic.

A weekend of delicious fermented goodness! Paso’s Wild Wine Festival weekend, no less! It was close enough to my birthday to qualify as my gift.

Dave booked an ocean-view campsite at Hearst San Simeon State Park. Paying $20 a night for a campsite instead of $200 a night at a bed-and-breakfast meant we could buy more wine to take home.

And the stars were glorious.

Before we hit the road, I created a “zinful itinerary” on the Paso Wine website, focusing on wineries in West Paso, many that specialize in Rhone varietals. Dave also made a Google map with wineries we knew or that were recommended by friends. (Drop me an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and I’ll share the map with you.)

Of course, my smartphone died, and the battery in Dave’s iPad ebbed to almost non-existent. So when Sara Hufferd, serving wine at Cypher Winery, handed us a booklet with a print map, we were grateful. Print on paper—still so useful.

Hufferd introduced us to Cypher’s rule-bending wines, from the 2010 Freakshow Anarchy ZMS ($40, zin-mourvedre-syrah) to the raging 2011 ZinBitch ($30). Dave purchased the 2009 Peasant GSM ($40, grenache-syrah-mourvedre), and we drank it that night by our campfire.

We went back Saturday so I could buy the Bitch.

Paso’s March event once celebrated zinfandel exclusively, but has expanded to include “other wild wines.” Coming soon: Paso’s 32nd Annual Wine Festival, May 15-18, with a Grand Tasting—60 wineries and gourmet food fare—on May 17. This event tends to sell out, so plan ahead.

Festival goodies varied by winery but included free food pairings, barrel tastings, live music, winemaker dinners, vineyard tours—and piles of people.

Some tasting bars were three-deep in sippers. But the Paso folks kept things running remarkably smooth. At many wineries, tasting bars were set up outside or spread out in large sprawling buildings. At Tablas Creek Vineyard, we received plenty of personal attention from Cindy, who took us through the featured wines and food pairings—and even went off-menu, rustling up a delicious 2011 mourvedre ($40) and a fun obscure 2011 tannat ($40). “Because it’s your birthday!” she said.

Everywhere we went, servers were friendly and attentive, even when wildly busy. When we walked into the jam-packed wine bar at Whalebone Winery, Victoria the Temp behind the bar made eye contact, grinned and managed to pass me a taste of Whalebone’s 2012 Ballena Blanca. She gave me tasting notes so that I could read about this tasty white ($28, marsanne, grenache blanc, roussanne). Victoria works in a law office by day. She’s a fan of the 2011 Boneyard ($33, mourvedre and friends), which we buy.

Obviously, Paso also didn’t disappoint on its original promise—zinfandel.

Stand-outs? At Adelaida Winery, one tasting bar was devoted to library zins bottled more than a decade ago. The bar was, again, swarmed, but a kind server walked around the bar to meet me with a bottle of 2002 zinfandel and tasting notes printed on card stock. The aged velvet fruit hit my tongue, and I wrote “holy shit!” at the top of the page, followed by “redolent with zinness.” At age 12, the wine’s tannins have matured, disappeared, leaving smooth fruit and spicy black licorice.

I stood in the shade, enjoying this zin and watching a mass of joyous humanity. A woman played guitar and sang “Wagon Wheel” as the server roamed back around to me and delivered a 2002 reserve zin ($60)—even better than the first. The grapes came from 80-year-old vines in a dry-farmed vineyard nearby.

I tasted three more zins before moving on to the winery’s current release, the 2011 Michael’s Vineyard zin ($36). After so many leathery old wines, this one clambered for attention like an adolescent. No matter: We know what he’s going to be when he grows up.

Speaking of young, Adelaida’s 2012 zinfandel was still in barrels. Inside the winery, a woman dispensed tastes by inserting a phallic glass tube, or “thief,” into the barrel’s bung. Tasters lined up, three or four at a time, and she dispensed an ounce or two in each glass. Barrel tasting excites folks.

We had arrived in Paso Robles on Friday afternoon when the wineries were less populated by swarming hordes. We drove past dozens of tasting rooms, looking for one recommended by several friends. Zin Alley is right off Highway 46 West, next door to Cypher. Inside, a partially lit fellow was drinking and buying a T-shirt with a clever logo: “If found, please return to the nearest winery.”

“I just had to have it!” the man said, face glowing.

“The nearest winery,” I replied, happily, “because any winery will do!”

“Exactly!”

Zin Alley has plenty of such kitsch, including a sign that notes: “Wine is how classy people get shit-faced.”

The guy left, and we had the place and winemaker Frank Nerelli to ourselves.

Nerelli grows grapes, makes small batches of wine and pours for folks in the tasting room. It’s not surprising that he’s a skilled wine-making fiend. His great grandparents Lorenzo and Rena Nerelli owned one of the first vineyards in Paso Robles, which they bought in 1917. Frank Nerelli bought his property from his uncle in the 1970s.

When I cast him as a hard-working guy, though, he shrugged.

“I play quite a bit,” he assured me. “You gotta know how to prioritize.”

On a weekday morning, he might work, say, pruning a row or a row and a half of grapes. “If I start at 6, I’m done at 9,” he said. “Then I can drink beer all day.”

We liked this guy.

Nerelli’s award-winning wines were as amazing as my friends’ rave reviews suggested. Nerelli’s Generation 4 ($47) is a blend of 80 percent syrah with 20 percent grenache. Dry-farmed. Never any pesticides. The grenache balanced the rich, dark syrah expertly.

We liked this wine.

Nerelli looked at my business card. “Sniff the Cap,” he said and chuckled.

Dave and I felt right at home. Paso Robles, we’ll be back.

Published in Wine