Sooner or later, I will stop judging wine.
That isn't a day I look forward to. I will miss the camaraderie, the anticipation of finding new wines to write about, the drama that attends the final round of voting to select a sweepstakes winner.
I will miss the judges' dinners, whether a backyard barbecue in Cloverdale or a multicourse spread at a fancy restaurant in Dallas.
But curiously, I don't think I will miss anything more than the drive to the Calaveras County Fair wine competition just south of Angels Camp.
The pleasure I get from that 100-mile trek from Sacramento derives in part, no doubt, from having grown up in the Sierra foothills, in Sonora just to the south of the Stanislaus River, which separates Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.
It doesn't hurt, either, that the competition is in the spring, when the foothills still are green and the orchards and vineyards of the flatlands just east of Stockton are quickly unfolding. The grass is tall and thick, and rivulets from a spring shower are likely to be coursing down the folds of the hills. It's scenic, lonesome and historic country.
Morning is best for this drive, even though you head directly into the sun. When I turn off Highway 99 and start to mosey east on Highway 4, I instinctively turn off the radio. It isn't because the road is narrow, with several intersecting crossroads that compel attention, but that scenery and the memories it evokes are best savored without distraction.
I like to roll through Farmington. I might stop at Copperopolis for a cup of coffee. From there the road gets steeper, windier and narrower, with the climb varied by an occasional swinging dip. It's exhilarating, taking me back to high school, when four of us would climb into the first car any of us ever had for an afternoon of skylarking and cigarettes on a similarly scenic and rollicking ride.
In recent years, Murphys, not Angels Camp, has been the initial destination. This is where the fair puts us up for the night before the judging. You can spend the day strolling about the town, dropping in to several of the 20 or so winery tasting rooms on and about Main Street. It's important to note that this is likely a Thursday, when tasting-room personnel aren't as swamped with visitors as they are on weekends. The tasting rooms of Murphys, incidentally, are staffed with many of the more engaging people in the trade – knowing, lively, candid and helpful, at least when the counters aren't too congested, as they can get on weekends.
Lots of small towns in North State wine regions boast of having satellite tasting rooms, but Murphys saw the potential early on and capitalized on the trend ambitiously.
On top of that, Murphys has several attractions beyond tasting rooms. It has quite a few imaginative and industrious restaurants with menus that go hand in hand with wine. There are art galleries and fashion boutiques, a fine bakery and the sturdy old Murphys Hotel.
There's the E Clampus Vitus Wall of Comparative Ovations and a branch of Nelson's Columbia Candy Kitchen from the other side of the Stanislaus River, where a hand-dipped chocolate is just the morsel to have in hand while the other holds a glass of port-style dessert wine at the nearby tasting room of Frog's Tooth Winery. There's the funky plumbing house DEA Bathroom Machineries, and the well-stocked and aptly named Sustenance Books.
And there always seems to be a new winery to explore, though I also try to allow time to stop at tasting rooms where I've learned I can count on wines of individuality and authority – Lavender Ridge, Twisted Oak, Black Sheep, La Folia, Milliaire, Hatcher and Hovey, all of them bringing new purpose and affectionate aesthetics to historic structures.
And let's not overlook Newsome-Harlow Wines. Owner-vintner Scott Klann is a Calaveras County native and well-seasoned local winemaker, having worked and consulted for several Sierra foothill wineries over the past two decades.
In 2000, he and his wife, Melanie, with a couple of partners, founded New-some-Harlow Wines in Murphys, producing 150 cases that first harvest.
Today, Newsome-Harlow turns out 7,500 cases a year, and over the past decade Klann has gained a reputation not only for finding and celebrating choice foothill vineyards, but also for making wines that retain the powerful fruit for which the region is recognized while tempering it so his releases come off vivid, balanced and representative of the individual vineyards he exploits.
At Newsome-Harlow's tasting room on the eve of the Calaveras County fair wine competition last spring I found his 2012 sauvignon blanc to be dry, lean, spicy and zesty, with splashes of grapefruit; his 2010 syrah muscular and mouth-filling; and his 2010 petite sirah traditionally floral and juicy but more persistent in the finish than is common.
All that is well and good, but Klann's winemaking is perhaps most distinguished by his way with zinfandel. In that respect, he's something of a throwback and rebel. While many of his brethren on the foothill wine scene talk up the prospects of relative newcomers such as sangiovese, barbera and syrah, Klann is especially keen on zinfandel, the varietal that most established the region's standing for fine wine.
Klann makes six zinfandels each harvest, four of them from individual vineyards. He aims for the character of each vineyard and the nature of each vintage to be faithfully recorded in the final wine. He relishes that diversity, and it is represented in his current lineup by the briary claret-style 2011 Shake Ridge Ranch Zinfandel, the swaggering and minerally 2011 Big John Zinfandel, and the supple and spicy 2011 Herbert Vineyard Zinfandel.
My favorite, however, was the Newsome-Harlow Wines 2011 Calaveras County Dalton Ranch Donner Party Zinfandel. The name is as colorful and as intriguing as the wine, which amounts to a classic foothill zinfandel that is all about wild boysenberry fruit with a few twists of peppery spice. It boasts supportive but not overbearing tannins and a structure of equilibrium and endurance, its acidity invigorating, its oak well integrated. It is one seamless, mature and refreshing zinfandel.
I first wrote of Klann's Donner Party Zinfandel with the release of the 2007 vintage. He explained at the time that the significance of the name was twofold. For one, 2007 was a difficult vintage, full of obstacles that could have resulted in an overblown take on the varietal if he didn't get a quick and astute grip on the challenges. Secondly, he saw the name "Donner Party" as a tribute to survivors of that ill-fated trek, some members of which eventually paused in Murphys.
The 2011 growing season had its own complications – an unusually cool summer, rain in the fall – but Klann worked the wine to retain the fruit, structure and complexity that fans of the Donner Party wine have come to expect. For one, he added a bit more reinforcing petite sirah to the zinfandel than he had in 2007.
The 2007, incidentally, took two high honors at the Calaveras County Fair wine competition in 2009. It not only won the "zinfandel shootout," it subsequently was voted the best red wine.
The 2011, however, never had a chance to see if it could duplicate that coup. Klann overlooked the deadline to enter this year's competition, so none of his wines was under consideration.
If I'm still a judge there next year, I'll look forward once again to that splendid drive, my time in Murphys and a visit to the Newsome-Harlow tasting room, just in case Klann again forgets to enter the next day's competition.
Newsome-Harlow Wines 2011 Calaveras County Dalton Ranch Donner Party Zinfandel
By the numbers: 14.7 percent alcohol, 256 cases, $36
Context: Melanie Klann is an avid cook. The couple owned a restaurant in Murphys until about a year ago, when they closed it after realizing their work week was much longer than they'd like. She continues to develop and post wine-friendly dishes on the winery's website, www.nhvino.com. She recommends the Donner Party wine with the recipe for filet mignon in Gorgonzola cream sauce, but the wine also should work well with the seared duck breasts over creamy white saffron polenta, the agave-glazed flatiron steak with chimichurri, and the Moroccan lamb stew.
Availability: The Klanns are in the enviable wine-trade position of developing such an avid following through their wine club, online sales via their website, and their presence in Murphys that they sell three-quarters of their wine directly, without dealing with the traditional distribution network.
More information: The tasting room at Newsome- Harlow, 403 Main St., Murphys, is open noon-5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.