West Coastin’: Popping Corks

RT4_grapesHaving arrived in Napa, we immediately passed out at the FairField Inn.  Just not from alcohol.  That was the second day.  The first day’s stupor resulted from the combined exhaustion of a long drive through San Francisco traffic, restless night’s sleep in a soggy Monterey motel, and irritation from discovering most hotels in Napa booked or overpriced.  Moreover, the sun seemed stronger in the heart of the valley, and after a busy morning watching fish and eating chowder, we needed a few hours to do absolutely nothing.  And a bathroom.  Again.

“So . . . uh, guys, I may have to use the loo soon,” I said as we left downtown Napa and its collection of occupied over-priced hotels.  “Just so . . . you know.”

“No prob,” Dasad said, now driving.  “Let’s check out Sonoma first.  It shouldn’t be that far away and I’m sure they’ll have something.  Can you hold it?”

“Uh, sure, I’m okay . . . for now.”

“Good.”

Of the many benefits derived from Catholic schooling, learning how to effectively hold one’s bladder ranks near the top of the list.  Leaving the classroom in the midst of lessons would often let loose Sister’s wrath, and so I learned to wait for hours ‘til break or lunch to slip out and do my business.  This skill has come into handy many times since: driving home early in the morning, sitting through organic chemistry lectures just before mid-term, The Lord of the Rings movies.  The trick is to focus your mind away from the body outwards, toward the world around you: simple things that do not require much analysis.  Like road signs.

“Welcome.  To.  Sonoma.  County.  Population.  Four-hundred.  Sixty-six. Thousand.”  Though typically, I only read aloud as a last resort.

“What are you doing?”  Dasad’s short drive to Sonoma after several lights and one slow-moving truck has taken fifteen minutes.

“Reading.  When the pressure gets too high I try to regain focus.  Otherwise . . .”

“Huh, does that really work?”

“. . . yes,” I muttered, calming myself.  We closed in on the truck.  “McDonalds.  Over One Million.  Served.”

“Shoot, okay.  Jay, look out for 12 North.”

“California.  AJ378K.”

“Should we head back?” Jay asked, laughing.  Something about my predicament seemed to humor him.

“Deally Lane.  Domaine Carneros.  Vineyards.  Next. Right.”

“Um . . .,” Dasad paused.  “No, we’ll be alright.  Hang in there Murph.”

“Love. That. Chicken from.  Popeye’s.”

“Better grab an empty Snapple bottle just in case,” Dasad said turning right.

RT4_vineyardFinally veering onto Route 12, we passed through a small town with a few banks and one or two small strip malls.  Dasad turned into an empty gas station.  I nearly tore my seat buckle off and, toppling from the car, walked quickly toward the station office.  The door did not open.  I tried it again.  And again.  Looking inside, I realized no one was there and that the station was probably closed or abandoned.  Unsure of where to go next, my feet carried my swollen body down the sidewalk, much like a sun-soaked legionnaire mindlessly chasing a mirage.  Faintly I heard Dasad yelling after me, but my legs ignored him for the bush in the adjacent yard.  Jay caught me before I drifted into traffic and pushed me back towards the car.

“There’s a Subway on the other side.  Come on!” he said.

“Five.  Dollar.  Foot.  Long.”  I mumbled seconds from exploding.

We parked, and I wandered inside, allowing Jay to order just in case the bathroom was for paying customers only.  Then I feigned nonchalance: “I’m going to use the loo real quick, while you’re ordering guys, okay?”  I stared at the cashier, daring her to stop me before ordering an Italian BMT.  Receiving no challenge, I rushed inside and experienced two minutes of pure bliss.

Dasad and Jay were hunched over, nearly laughing on the floor.  I just smiled and ordered my sub:  ‘Club sandwich, please, and a  large iced tea.’  Sometimes habit trumps wisdom, especially when tea leaves are involved.


The hills and valleys of Napa and Sonoma were rife with unexpected magic and beauty.  They were also hot as Hell, and with our bodies flush with wine, the cool breeze that arrived late in the day, as we toured Cline Vineyards came as a relief.  The cashiers at Cline’s likewise proved quite kind and generous with their samples, offering free tastes and ample volumes.  Walking off to join the tour, our glasses full with a subtle and delicious pinot grigio, Dasad and Jay began to waver some.

“Ugh, I can’t drink anymore, dude,” Dasad sighed.  “Anymore and you’re going to have to drag me to the car.”

We had began the morning at Sterling Vineyards, one of Mom’s favorite vineyards and lying farther up the road near Calistoga, the perfect place to begin our tour of the valleys.  In order to visit the vineyard, visitors must board a gondola which carries them to the hilltop facility and tasting center.  The whole ‘ride’ angle reminded me of Disney World and gave my imagination ample fodder to feed upon: Cask Mountain, Riesling of the Caribbean, and a stationary teacup ride, where you drink merlot until the world spins.

I suggested as much to Dasad, but he was busy practicing his Engrish to pay me any heed.

“Country rooooads, take me hooome . . . To da praaaace I berooooong . . .”

At Sterling, tours are self-guided with tasting stations scattered along the way.  We tasted pinot noir and an unforgettable white wine – whose name at the moment escapes me – taking pictures of steel vats and enormous barrels.  Occasionally we would . . .

“Me no want wahta.  Want ahss cream.”

Ahem, yes so . . . the Engrish. Throughout the drive, we encountered numerous non-native Americans, visiting or working here in the States.  As such, we played at mimicking accents, returning the favor for some sidelong glances at my Baltimore ‘O,’ hon.  Anyway it was a great way of wasting a few minutes, driving through the mostly unremarkable scenery from Monterey.  After several hours of hillsides and sun burnt grass, it grew into an addiction.  Then while walking to our rooms that morning, we passed an aging Asian grandmother in a roller, screaming at her grandchildren for Rocky Road.  It seems humor will always find a home reaffirming stereotypes.

“. . . ahss creeeaam.”

Our combined swag

Our combined swag

Returning to more pertinent matters  . . . between Sterling and Clines, while collecting various bottles of cabernets and merlots, I discovered the great secret behind Napa.  Wine tasting is much like shilling out $30 to knock over milk jugs at a carnival; you’ll win your Kewpie doll but still arrive home $30 lighter.  The scam is flawless.  At the wine bar, samples drizzle into your glass.  You sniff the liquid, taking in the rich bouquet – as instructed by the brochure picked up at the hotel lobby – and then sip, swirling the contents around your tongue.  If you’re naïve and sensible, you’ll swallow then.  Only connoisseurs taste and spit.

Your taste buds detect blueberries, chocolate, and burnt wood, just as the placard before you suggests.  Awesome!  The effects are immediately edifying: you feel intelligent, refined, aware.  Sherlock Holmes could not have detected as much in his first sip as you have.  Your server smiles.  A knowing wink.  No one else here can taste like you can.  In triumph, you buy ten bottles at a hundred dollars a pop to take home and flaunt before friends.

“Brian, taste this.  If you have the talent, you might just detect chocolate-covered cherries, mint and the subtle hint of 100-yr French oak.”

“Ugh, it burns my tongue.”

“That’s the oak!”

I wish we could admit we were not fooled by this shell-game, that we were smarter than these plaid-collared con artists, that we paid for our $5 glass of wine and left instead of filling our three boxes with thirty-six bottles of expensive wine that no one else, not even ourselves, can fully appreciate.

Well, we did not buy thirty-six bottles.  Dasad snuck two extra bottles into his luggage, totaling thirty-eight in full.  California is far richer because of our visit.

Still for all our ‘expertise’ the wine tasted good.  We bought what we liked, which in the end proved the true sounding rod.  Awards and all.

RT4_viewBack at Cline’s Vineyard, Dasad and Jay were pouring wine into my glass, when our tour group arrived.  A bus pulled up to the stone wall where we sat and unloaded.  The eclectic group of tourists mingled among the garden and chatted noisily just as a brisk but welcome blast of air drifted through the valley.  The air refreshed our drowned senses some and we watched the crowd, wondering if anyone here truly understood wine culture.  Judging from the dialects, most of the visitors appeared foreign: British, Australian, Chinese, Italian, and Korean.  Only a few held their glasses by the stem or sniffed subtle rose bouquets before gulping down their samples.  We relaxed.  They were like us: ignorant tourists but diligent alcoholics.

Our hosts circled the wall, filling up our glasses again with a sample of their red wine.  Dasad groaned, took a sip, and filled my glass again.  Jay poured it into the garden.  The tour guide talked for a few minutes about the wine, how it was one of his favorites, and how we could taste the subtle hints of apple and cherry wood, before beckoning us all to follow him through the winery.

Steadying Dasad who wobbled to his feet, I noticed a man walking by himself, a pink sweater tied around his neck, swirling his wine in his mouth and spitting into a large bush.  Ah, a connoisseur.  The man’s curly salt and pepper hair recalled to mind something about Leslie Nelson and Spartacus, slapstick and bare chests.  His locks fell long in the back, a trim but noticeable mullet that more than anything convinced me the man was foreign.

“Dude,” I said nudging Dasad, who was trying to convince the others we were Australian.

“Eh? Wot mate?”

“Take a look at that guy over there?” I pointed.  “The guy in the sandals and pink cardigan.  Doesn’t he look like Ricardo Montalban?”

Dasad stared for a minute or so before cracking up.

“KHAANN!!!”

RT4_cheeseWe stumbled . . . er walked into one of the large warehouses, behind the tasting center; Ricardo sulked off by himself to stare at the ceilings, looking devilish and European like old men in pressed suits and eye patches.  Inside large twenty-foot fermentation barrels lined the walls like giant beehives; stacks of smaller barrels sat idly on racks throughout the rest of the warehouse.  Our host offered us another sampling, merlot this time; Dasad managed to avoid the bottle by taking pictures.  I surreptitiously snapped a few myself of Ricardo, whose eyes never left the rafters: scheming warehouse infiltration and cask burglary perhaps.   Wine theft?!  Is there no end to your infamy, Khan?  From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!

We crawled out to the car – figuratively in my case, literally for the others.  Dasad threw me the keys, nearly falling asleep immediately in the back seat.  Arriving at the hotel, we pass out, our faces red from liquor and sunburn, only to awake hungry a few hours later.  Thus, we return to Sonoma for burgers and fish at Taylors, a California staple apparently.  Best fast food I have ever tasted at least.  Bellies full of fries and milkshakes, we drove back to the hotel to rest up for the Jelly Belly factory and Fisherman’s Warf.  Stay tuned . . .

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Dear John

Nature rarely calls at opportune moments. More so than death or taxes, I know that the moment I near the head of the DMV line, comfortably settle into a chair, or quiet an anxious sibling to sleep nature will call me to the porcelain throne. Tuesday night on the way home from school was no exception. Typically after a long evening of classes, my mind settles down for a long drive home flipping through radio stations for songs, staring out the window, and occasionally avoiding other vehicles. Yet after passing closed department stores or sketchy gas stations, my body begins to feel mild irritation, much like a castle wall immersed in Greek fire. A half-hour of this, my face beading with sweat and my leg bounces up and down like a happy dog being scratched behind the ears. Reluctantly I pull into a gas station and casually . . . ok, frantically run for the stalls while throwing a half-hearted wave to the gas station attendant, who clearly believes I’m up to no good. This belief is further confirmed when I happily leave the bathroom full of relief smiling ear to ear and desiring munchies.

Now most restaurants or well-bred establishments uphold the rule that only paying customers may use the restrooms. This halts the formation of long lines, excessive cleaning, and the strong odor of many D.C. parking garages.* Most gas stations not being well-bred or well-cleaned, the post-peed patrons refuse to consider any toll. Not me. Guilt typically sets in after a visit, coercing me to buy . . . well something. A soda. Slim Jim. WD-40 . . . anything. To me, it’s like tipping your waiter. The door to the bathroom was open, well-lit and free of significant slime; therefore, I will ensure that your business will flourish for another day. I buy $1.45 worth of pretzels and leave, free of bodily pain, giddy with generosity, and anxious to munch on salty dried bread.

*Fun Fact: In truth, many stairwells at D.C. parking garages once existed as lavatories, their signs still etched into the doors but fading and hidden by metallic paint. These new renovations apparently are lost on many members of the commuting populace, who frequently leave watermarks at every corner and terrace after a night of rigorous libations. Cleaning crews of course scour every inch with antiseptic but never truly exorcise the winding stairs from the haunting musk; the result is that most parking garages smell more like a bathroom than many home toilets, which thanks to scented fresheners more typically reek of peppermint and sugar cookies.