Discover more from Five O'Clock with Theral Timpson
The Adventure of Drinking Wine in Utah
Say that Again. The Utah Wine What?
Southern Utah has a new wine trail. Popular wine magazine Wine Enthusiast is out with an article featuring our precious five wineries. Not only is this the beginning of something good for those of us less oenologically challenged who live here, but also the five million who visit each year can now taste Utah’s dirt when they hike it. Make no mistake, drinking wine in Utah is for the adventurous at heart, but there’s no more beautiful place on earth to relax and delight in a refined beverage.
Southern Utah is home to five national parks: the big three, Zion, Bryce, and Arches, the vast Canyonlands available mostly to hikers and bikers, and the lesser-known park that everyone forgets, Capitol Reef. It’s a lovely park off to the northeast of Bryce at the end of Highway 12 which must be the most beautiful highway I’ve ever driven. I call Capitol Reef the little Zion, and I highly recommend it if you haven’t been. One advantage is that it’s much less crowded. And then there is that other canyon just across the border into Arizona often referred to as The Grand Canyon. If they didn’t have to compete with so many national parks around here, surely some of the local state parks would have been designated national parks, said one newcomer to me recently whose interview on Five O’Clock goes live next week.
The winemakers here are committed to going where the great Utah terroir takes them and are turning out some exceptional wine. I particularly like the Sangiovese both from Chanela Vineyards and from Water Canyon Winery as well as the Tempranillo from Bold and Delaney Winery. IG Winery has an excellent Riesling. And if you’re at Zion Vineyards in Leeds, try the Grenache Blanc. We have hot summers out here and our latitude and geography are similar to that of Italy.
The biggest challenge for the vintners is the early and late frosts, particularly the first and hard frost. It comes in the third week of October, and it’s truly brutal. Grapes go dormant. They’re ok with frost. But our high desert weather is a drama queen if anything at all. She doesn’t do anything by degrees. Well, by 30 degrees. The fall drop goes from highs in the 80s to highs in the 50s. The low go from 45 to 15. It’s that harsh drop in temperatures that can not only hurt the vines, it can kill them. 2020 was such a year. The wineries out here lost entire vineyards. And they weren’t the only ones. Last year I visited Colorado wine country—Grand Junction and Paonia. They had the same devastation in the same year. Most of the wineries had to buy juice from California. And they all replanted. How does a winery prepare for that? They can’t and don’t. These are some committed and talented people, resilient and in it for the love of bringing their skills to Utah and seeking new delights in the unique combination of sun and soil here.
Along with highlighting the wineries and some of the varietals grown in the Utah desert, the Wine Enthusiast article features some of Utah’s history with wine. The local dominant culture, ahem, those certain followers of monsieur Brigham Young, were not always teetotalers. And I must say, not all Mormons today ignore the beauty of the vine. There is a vibrant wine culture among the Southern Utah so-called Fundamentalist Mormons. I consider it a great cultural as well as viticultural victory to have our own, albeit small wine trail. Microbreweries have flourished in Utah, particularly in the touristy areas of ski-town Park City and hike-town Moab and Springdale, and I’m sure the tourists will soon discover America’s baby wine trail winding between the great parks.
Absence Makes the Heart Go Online
“I’ll take a case, please.”
I’m at Odonata Winery on River Road south of Salinas, California. Odanata is a small, family-owned winery known for being the first stop on the River Road Wine Trail coming north from Santa Cruz. In my several visits to Odonata, I’ve met the occasional party coming from the south, Paso Robles and the central coast, or even from Los Angeles. Today, I’m returning after an absence of two years, no longer a local. Odanata is fashionable these days with the younger crowd—mainly from Santa Cruz. The place serves oysters on Sundays.
Despite some grey curls, the owner and winemaker, Denis Hoey, is relatively young himself and walks around with a bottle pouring without preaching wine. Soft-spoken with the demeanor of a biologist, he’s just explained to me the difference between his 2020 and 2021 Carignan without once mentioning Terroir. Seriously, he’s super cool. No fuddy duddy pretentious Mondavi Opus Popus pompous preaching here.
Who makes a Carignan in California? Carignan is a medium-bodied grape grown mostly in the Languedoc, Southern France, but you can also find it in Northern Spain and Sardinia, Italy. It’s fruit-forward with notes of baking spice but subtle. Both years of what he’s cheekily calling Cotes de Denis Carbon Carignan show up in the glass as full of light as a cathedral and remind me of my favorite Northern Italian wines. It’s got great structure. This comes from the acid. For all their deliciousness, most California vintages can boast of bouquet, of fruit and finish, but they lack the acidic structure to hold this all together. It’s often conjectured this might be because Americans are raised on soft drinks. We tend to go for sweeter wines. But this is changing, thanks to winemakers like Denis.
The new trend in American wine drinking is toward leaner, brighter, lighter wines with less alcohol. Wines that pair well with food. The younger, innovative winemakers in California are responding to the trend. And so I am happily buying up a case of the Cotes de Denis 2020 Carignan. It’s almost as light as a very dark rose and comes in at 11% alcohol. One thing that is still quite unique to California is the isolation of a single varietal. Carignan is a blending grape in the old world.
The case will go into my growing cellar back home in Southern Utah. Prior to moving a few years ago, I didn’t bother with a wine cellar. Living in the Santa Cruz mountains, wine was a way of life. One passed wineries on the way to the local market. One might even stop by. One might pick up a bottle at the market, what a concept.
In Utah, one has to think very deliberately of wine if you want to have any around. It’s a rare commodity, even more rare than water. There’s no wine in the grocery stores. You cannot pick up a bottle of wine when you buy your steak or salmon. So much for the freedom-loving red states! Red is a misnomer. They should be called the grey states, for gunpowder. To buy wine here, you have to drive to one of the depressing state-owned liquor stores and check yourself in. The facilities are usually on the outskirts of town. Our producer here on the show, Ayanna, calls it the “Utah Walk of Shame.” Everyone knows why you’re headed “out there.”
Or you make a wine run to the neighboring state and bootleg it in. Having tasted through the Utah store selection, this has been my habit for several years now. Yes, I feel like a drunken criminal. But I do not let that sink in. That is what the enemy wants me to think.
And yet, despite all this, Utah has made me a better wine drinker, more discriminating. I have developed a cellar of wine, something I never bothered to do in California. I’ve become much more diversified in my selections and, of course, the wine is now aging.
Your turn, enemy.
Perhaps it started with going online to shop. Never having to resort to such a desperate practice before (of course I had heard of the world of online wine shoppers), I have discovered the bounty that the non-Californian American has been privy to these past few decades. It turns out my primary two wine retailers in California themselves have fine online outlets, K & L Wine Merchants and Kermit Lynch.
Still, let us remember. It is not like online shopping at Amazon where the items show up at my house in a day or two. Oh, that this would be the end of it. There is no shipping wine to Utah. I have to drive across the border to a town, a very hot town in Nevada—no shipping from June through September— where I have made arrangements with a small shipping center. One more reason to stock the cellar.
“Here for your wine?” Asks the proprietor. We know each other by name. I know her son by name. Her shop doubles as a U-Haul franchise.
Second, I subscribed to a wine magazine. This subscription was originally not so much to learn about wine—I’ve always been more of an enjoyer than a wine scholar. It was more that I missed being around the culture of wine, and the magazine hanging around the lunch table would take me back to California. But not just there, it’s taken me to Chile, to Spain, to Bordeaux, and, yes, to Piedmont. I’ve learned about new regions around the globe, new regions in California. And so this past trip, I was determined to check some of these places out.
One such stop was Paso Robles, particularly the AVA of the Templeton Gap, which I discovered in the magazine. I’ve never wine tasted in Paso. It is hot, nothing appeared that beautiful when driving through on the 101. And the wines I had picked up that had Paso on the label were just bigger, fruitier, jammier versions of Napa wines—the wrong direction for me. Think J Lohr and Daou. Still, I was determined to visit after reading the article about the Templeton Gap region because it has so much going on temperature-wise. The heat, the cool from the coast, and so forth. So there I am pulling into town on the 101 freeway, and not having the magazine with me, I went online to search. The second winery I see recommended specializes in Italian wines, and it says small family winery. That’s the one for me. I give them a call. Bella Luna Estate Winery. It’s a Wednesday, and a guy with a heavy Australian accent answers, “we don’t have much going on, mate, come on over.”
These wines blow me away. There is no Daou style Cabernets on the list, those heavyweight , alcoholic championship sluggers. Instead this shop is sporting a Nebbiolo which dances around the room like, well like Mohammed Ali if you must know. Before that the Aussie treats me to a San Giovese. Pure sun-drenched classic Tuscan-style wine right here in California. I’m hooked.
And I’m kicking myself for driving past Paso all these years. There is a casualness about the place similar to the feeling I love on River Road south of Salinas. How had I been missing this area before? Bella Luna refers me to a place down the street specializing in lighter wines. And they refer me to another place in “Tin City,” a group of wineries that are just a row of warehouses in downtown Paso. Here I drink some original, old-world style wines that still retain their Californian perfume and essence, that je ne se qua that California has offered the wine world. This is the new center of American winemaking, and it took me living in Utah to find it.
I wonder what the French intellectual Sartre would say about this. His theory was that humans have so much freedom we don’t know what to do with it. This is our challenge. I’m not advocating constraints on our freedom, but when they must be endured—I will continue to wage war against the enemy—we can learn a great deal and improve ourselves. And why do I endure these crazy ass laws, I hear you asking. What is not in short supply here is the natural open and quiet beauty. Smelling, touching, seeing, hearing, and contemplating the Cosmos is the Southern Utah way of life. It is not available for purchase online. Siting out in the Utah desert under the summer stars drinking an Italian--or a new style California --wine is one of the finer experiences in this America the Beautiful. And now, perhaps, a Utah wine.
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