We're standing in the tasting room of Lone Buffalo Vineyards on the rolling outskirts of Auburn. It's a tasting room more informative than most because the Phil Maddux family, which founded the winery in 2007, is big into educating consumers about the smells and flavors of wine.
Off to one side this weekend, for example, is a "sensory bar" where visitors can stick their nose into a row of glasses, each containing not wine but a fruit, an herb or some other substance whose distinctive smell often is found in wines. There's a glass with cherries, another with strawberries, one with strips of leather and one with the butt of a cigar.
As I ease back from the tasting counter to see what I can find in the viognier (nectarines!) and the sangiovese (rhubarb!), I notice a large poster called Les Aromes du Vin, a chart of 84 smells commonly associated with wine. Published by the Burgundian wine house Bouchard Aine & Fils, the colorful chart lists the usual suspects lemon, coffee, eucalyptus, truffle, honey, mint and so forth. Each is pictured in a wine glass, just like the lineup at the nearby sensory bar.
But several of the items in the glasses aren't so usual, like meringue, scrub land and moss. The most unusual of them all, however, is "fourrure," or fur. I do a double-take to make sure the example of fur isn't a hamster curled up in the bottom of the bowl, but it's just a hunk of black fur, maybe bear, maybe mink.
It almost surely isn't buffalo. Phil Maddux reveres the buffalo.
"The buffalo's power and resilience in the face of encroaching civilization symbolizes hope and renewal for humanity and harmony among all people," he states on the opening page of his winery's website. In addition to naming the winery in tribute to the buffalo, many of his wines bear proprietary names inspired by the buffalo. A zinfandel is named Thunder Beast, a cabernet sauvignon Noble Beast, a tempranillo Tatonka, from the Lakota Sioux word for bison.
Not the buffalo, but another prairie population, the Pawnee tribe of American Indians, inspired the name for Maddux's dessert wine, his Pawnee Tawny.
"The Pawnees were one of the first tribes to live off the buffalo," Maddux said. "And they shared a fate similar to the buffalo. There's not a lot of Pawnees around today."
Two other factors account for the name. For one, he liked the rhyme. Secondly, vintners in the United States no longer can call their port-style wines "port," which now are to originate only in Portugal. Aside from place of origin, however, that's precisely what Pawnee Tawny is, a luscious dessert wine made with traditional Portuguese grape varieties fermented, fortified and aged with customary Portuguese techniques.
Furthermore, Maddux turned to the pioneering winemaking family largely responsible for showing that convincing emulations of port can be made in California the Ficklins of Madera County. The Ficklins have been making port-style wines since 1948, drawing critical praise for their rich and balanced releases from the start. For Pawnee Tawny, they grew the grapes and made the wine, with input from Maddux, and Madera County is the appellation on the label.
Aged for seven years in mostly American oak barrels, the Pawnee Tawny carries with authority and grace a soothing warmth and layered suggestions of nuts, spice and caramel. It's sweet, naturally, but the sugar has mellowed with time, leaving the wine rich but smooth, with no stickiness.
The long aging that ports made in the tawny style customarily are given before they are released turns their color a deep and brilliant amber, mellows their flavor, rounds their body and tempers their heat. On a wet and windy winter night, they're comforting and saturating, and best accompanied with a good album, movie or book.
Much as I sniffed at the wine, I couldn't find in the glass even a hint of fur, buffalo or otherwise.
It did put me in mind, however, of slipping on a pair of furry slippers with which to savor a glass of Pawnee Tawny in front of the fireplace on a chilly and foggy winter night.
Lone Buffalo Vineyards
Madera County Pawnee Tawny
By the numbers: 19 percent alcohol, 50 cases, $19 per 375-milliliter bottle
Context: Vintner Phil Maddux recommends that the wine be poured with slices of dried pear and a wedge of blue-veined cheese, such as Gorgonzola or Stilton.
Availability: The wine is available only at Lone Buffalo Vineyards, 2682 Burgard Lane, Auburn, where the tasting room is open noon to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.