Good wine is a necessity of life for me.
Thomas Jefferson had a few good ideas. And then he had some others. Here in the Sierra foothills, an hour east of Sacramento, starts the Great Red North of California, known to some as Jefferson State. A place of gentle beauty and wild ideas, beyond the shale even by Trump standards. This, ladies and gentlemen, is outlaw country.
Hank Beckmeyer and Caroline Hoel live in Somerset. Their neighbors are a small but vocal minority who’ve harbored divergent instincts for over a century (a long-ass time by West Coast standards). They swear allegiance not to California but to the State of Jefferson, a self-styled secession that took root in the 1800s — once named after the president who proposed an independent nation in western North America, now a movement driven by people who feel like they’ve already severed ties. Their seal is two XX’s — double-crossed by the state capital of Sacramento, cut off from the cultural and economic capitals of San Francisco and Los Angeles, dismissing them as so many yuppies stealing their water.
Many of these towns saw their heyday die with the gold rush. Today they’re marked only by pine trees and post offices, interspersed with people who came here to get away from the world and wish to push it still further away.
When Trump was elected five weeks earlier, many Californians started chewing on the notion of Cal-Exit. Many folks here would be happy as a clam to see them go.
Amidst it all sit Hank and Caro, two happy-go-lucky wine heads swirling their glasses and looking past the porch at their goats grazing on La Clarine Farm. They are expats in their own ways, Caro from her childhood home in the French Alps, Hank from his upbringing in Florida, both from their neighbors here. Hank once toured in the band Half Japanese (Kurt Cobain is rumored to have died wearing one of their t-shirts).
He played for Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground and opened for Lou Reed before he went on to settle in Germany, exporting music and importing wine on the side. Caro was in the music biz, too, but had a hankering to start the next chapter. They intersected over beers at Oktoberfest and came to California looking to raise goats and grapes in a place whose terroir reminded them of what they were drinking overseas — wines from the Languedoc in Southern France.
To them, Somerset means soil, not secession.
LA CLARINE FARM
It’s hard to imagine fear and loathing in a place so full of love, but this den of pleasures ain’t too distant from one of Hunter S. Thompson’s best trips. The acid rips, you’ve got purple lips, suddenly the scale tips. You’re hooked on the juice before can say cheese! Our fellow addict Joseph Harper of Elf Café in LA once described these as the gateway drugs to natural wine. He couldn’t be more on the money.
It does a lot to visit a place. When you taste their Tempranillo 2016, you can feel the smokiness of the air we inhaled there. Hank says he recognizes the dusty mineral tannins from the home vineyard — the small stretch of grapes just outside their house. It grips but it’s ethereal. Like a bite of steak that just left your mouth.
When you try their Mourvedre/Marsanne blend, we swear you can taste the forest pixies and wild sage. But maybe that’s just our drug-addled imagination.
Contradictions abound. Here we are in the middle of gun-totin’ bible-thumpin’ territory, yet Caro seems to magically produce trays of comfort food that include exotic meats, cheeses, and other earthly delights. (She’s a damn fine cook.) Also, Hank and Caro actively reject the term natural (“if you define it, you’ll kill it”) and the dogmas that come with it, even though they’re producing some of the most hyper-naturally-made wines in California!
In the cellar, there’s an old label on the wall reading “Methfesseliers” — apparently named after the street in Hamburg where Hank fermented his first batch of wine, in an ice chest. He doesn’t remember the grape. He insists it isn’t meth. But is it? Is any of this real? Does it matter?
What were we doing? What was the meaning of this trip? Were we just wandering around in a frenzy? It’s December 2016 and the whole world seems to be teetering on the verge of an existential explosion. As the U.S. awaits a regime change, we’re launching on a savage journey to the heart of the American dream. We’ve holed up with Hank and Caro in their cozy bunker in the foothills, replacing our bloodstream with wine and scribbling down a gonzo guide to surviving the apocalypse. If the end was ‘nigh at least we’d be seeing stars.
—El Dorado County, California.
December 16, 201