Jason Cowan
The Union Democrat

If this were any other year, Chuck Hovey would be evaluating his wines, looking at the aging qualities from vintages of prior years, before he would begin the bottling process.

This year, he normally begins each day with a set of rigorous therapy sessions — speech, occupational and physical.

Once finished, sometime in the early afternoon, he’ll relax to a series of songs from his Apple TV playlist of 3,300 tracks or watch his beloved 49ers.

The local winemaking icon suffered a stroke on June 18. Since then, he’s been through various medical centers at University of California, Davis, to a nursing facility in Modesto to a transitional care unit in Sonora. Hovey returned to his home in Murphys on Nov. 2.

Sitting in a recliner at his residence Wednesday, he looked frail. He gingerly extended his right leg and said how his muscles have tightened. But he is doing better.

Part of his skull that was removed in a craniectomy — resulting in Hovey wearing a snowboarding helmet to cover the soft spot — was put back in on Dec. 28.

He said the helmet made him look like a speed racer.

Communication-wise, he said his speaking abilities have improved 75 percent. He has regained the ability to swallow, an obstacle that he had to overcome early on in the recovery process when his tongue was not working well.

Hovey said it has been a challenge. He is not as independent as he normally would be. He is under regular caregiver supervision. Unable to walk freely yet on his own, he uses a wheelchair to get from one place to the next.

“I’m working on it,” Hovey said.

Like anyone overcoming a traumatic event, Hovey has both “down” and “up” days. “Down” days are ones in which he feels fatigued or is frustrated due to his temporary limitations. Days considered “up” are correlated to significant steps made in the recovery process.

“Today is kind of a ‘down’ day,” Hovey said Wednesday. “I’m just tired.”

Despite how he felt Wednesday, Hovey said he has ambitious recovery goals. He wants to climb the stairs in his house — probably no more than 15 steps — by the summer. He wants to physically return to work, even if he cannot walk yet, by the 2016 grape harvest.

“I’m pretty impatient right now,” Hovey said. “I want to get better sooner, quicker.”

For the past five to six months, Hovey has been working remotely — honing his craft from his home in the more recent months — in a consulting capacity for his brand. Recently he said he has spent evenings sampling both wines in production and varietals he could elect to put his label on.

“My sense of taste has enhanced,” Hovey said. “I’ve noticed certain characters in the wine are more pronounced than ever before.”

Prior to the stroke, Hovey was in the best shape of his life. One week prior he had completed the AIDS Lifecycle, a seven-day bicycle ride, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, to raise money and awareness for HIV/AIDS. The stroke, called an aortic dissection, flooded the right side of his brain with blood.

“It’s a kind of stroke that occurs with incredibly active athletes,” said Brian Klassen, Hovey’s caregiver as well as friend for over 20 years.

Hovey said he is lucky to be alive. At the time of the stroke, he was vacationing in Lake Pillsbury, an isolated resort north of Clear Lake, with a friend who is a trauma surgeon with Kaiser.

“He diagnosed what was going on. He made the phone calls to get a helicopter,” Hovey said. “It was very reassuring. He kept telling me what was going on.”

Thus far in the recovery process, Hovey said he has accumulated $100,000 in medical bills, despite his insurance. To help combat the accruing costs, his son, Kyle Hovey, established a recovery fund, through GoFundMe.com, that has raised $44,281 in six months toward the expenses.

“I am just overwhelmed by the support,” Hovey said. “There’s something about this town. It’s very special.”

On Jan. 7, Hovey took gold for his 2013 barbera varietal in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, which had 7,162 entries. In addition to the gold, he also took silver at the competition for his 2013 tempranillo, his 2013 petite sirah and his 2013 zinfandel.

“I had a big hand in making these wines,” Hovey said. “It feels very good. It’s a nice little pat on the back.”

The 2013 barbera varietal will be released at the Hovey Winery Tasting Room, on Main Street in Murphys, starting Friday. Hovey will also be at the tasting room on Friday to celebrate the gold medal.

“Literally, we’ll roll in,” said Hovey, referring to his entrance on wheelchair.

Working in the tasting room is Hovey’s most immediate goal on his road to recovery. He said he does not need to be able to walk to realize the accomplishment and added that he hopes to work once or twice a week.

“I’m maybe a couple of weeks away from that,” Hovey said.

Contact Calaveras County reporter Jason Cowan at jcowan@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4531. Follow him on Twitter at @UDJasonCowan.