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 . . .

Advertisements

The Fool’s Guide to Wine-Tasting

wine_bottle_glassThe first skill of any successful wine connoisseur necessitates the ability to speak the lingo or at least French. I reason that people are more likely to tell you what you’re suppose to taste if can correctly pronounce the label. This in turn allows the fake connoisseur to easily impress his or her friends while still having little to no idea about which you are talking. Take for instance Saturday’s wine tasting party at one of the local colleges, a lavish affair full of wine merchants and connoisseurs alike, the perfect setting to test my use of the vernacular:

“Yes, this particular white possesses a good finish with an oaky flavor, cultured for years by the French who as you well know, know wine,” the attendant laughed, after I had correctly pronounced Viognier. Vee-oh-nay.

“Oh yes, that is oaky,” I tell Mom and Tiff with a sip.  “I can taste the oak.”

“Can you?” Mom asks.  “Is that the sharp bitter taste?  Is that the oak?”

“Uh . . . sure,” I shrug.

“I don’t know about trees,” Tiff scowls, “but this definitely tastes like unwashed Frenchmen. Next table!”

Tiffany’s aim for the evening – apart from making goo-goo eyes at the chocolate fountain – which I had seen first and thus claim dibs – was to locate a brand of white wine as sweet and drinkable as Linganorre’s Mountain White.  In her efforts to locate said brand the countless sampling had induced a fit of intense giggling, which Mom echoed, much like a mother loon cooing over her child’s first manic dive into the water.

Station 5 featured two white wines and a Merlot, which Mom sampled.  Tiff chose the cabernet, while I sought the subtlety of the Pinot Grigio.

“And you sir?”

“Yes, can I have a bit of the Grigio, please?”  I said this nonchalantly, well-practiced in my wine-merchant slang, certain that the attending seller would immediately sense that cultured air – or at least the reek of wino.  Possibly he would proffer a full glass instead of the usual sampling to reward me.

“Excuse me?”

“The Grigio.  The Pinot Grigio,” My use of the vernacular was perfect.  I ordered my wine with suave charm, a Yankee-born Sean Connery introducing himself as the world’s foremost secret agent.  In true Bond style, I tried to straighten my tie but, upon finding none, feigned a neck rash.

“Uh . . . we don’t have any Pinot Grigio here.  Only a Pinot Noir . . . Um, sir, do you need some ointment?”

“Oh no, no, I’m.fine.  Just a bug bite.  You say pinot noir?”

“Yes, would you like a sample?”

“Um, sure,” I fumble.  My eyes glazed a little, refocusing on a spot just to the right of the man’s ear. “Musta’ve read the label . . . wrong.  That’s red, right?”

“Yes, sir,” the server smiled.  “Dry but an excellent wine.  This particular winery has been growing grapes for nearly fifty years in Napa Valley.”  He poured me a hearty glass – perhaps out of pity – and turned his attention to another taster.

Humbled, my feet shuffle me over to the girls, who naively – and effectively – decided their next selection solely on the color.

“What is that you’re have, Murph?” Mom asked while Tiff finished off her sample, coughing.

wine_basket“Oh some pinot noir,” I shrugged sipping slowly, rinsing away the unpleasant taste of humble pie.  “It’s not bad.  Dry though, not a lot of taste.”  That guy in the movie Sideways waxed poetry about pinot noir; therefore, until inspired or drunk, I would uncover its secrets.

“Ugh . . .” Tiff moaned.  “Like sandpaper in the throat.  I think I need a chocolate fountain to wash this down.  If only we had one near . . . oh, there she blows!*”  [NOTE: This last phrase was in truth not uttered at all but is merely the product of interpreting the speaker’s squeals (Kyaaa!) and the author’s latest literary excursion through the works of Herman Melville.]

My sister-in-law scampered off to cavort among the strawberries and pound cake, piled near the fountain.  Pat had joined us again when she returned, her cheeks full with chocolate-dunked fruit, her chin adorned with a chocolate-goatee.

“They turned the fountain off.  It’s just a chocolate pool now.  I had trouble dipping the pound cake without causing any to crumble,” Tiff said, stabbing a piece of chocolate-coated cake with her skewer.  “But if you pierce it lengthwise, directly in the center, all is good . . .”

Pat and I discovered the entrance to the kitchen and positioned ourselves appropriately in front, like roadside bandits lying in ambush.  Quickly we relieved our servers of their dainties: barbequed pineapple-chicken, steamed shrimp and peppers, spinach pasties, and warm asparagus wrapped in prosciutto.  Using complimentary glass clips, we attached our wine glasses to our plates as we walked around, giving Dad the opportunity to talk to some clients.  Mom sampled some cheeses that supposedly enhanced the taste of her merlot.

clip“Hey hon,” Pat said turning to Tiff.  “Do you want some che . . . uh, what are you doing?”  My sister-in-law was sucking on her glass clip.

“Awhaaa,” she laughed, re-attaching her clip.  “Some chocolate fell on it.  I was just cleaning it off.  Hey, Ms. Patty, we should try the other room again.”

Mom walked home with nearly twelve-hundred dollars worth of wine, procured with the wine god’s blessing in raffle.  The prize proved a double-edged sword though as upon discovering the one-hundred dollar per bottle price tag, she vowed to never open any of it.

Humbled I walked out, my head full of wine and empty of all pretension . . . or my precious jargon.

On the way to the car, lumbering under the weight of six bottles of wine and one faux copper-green fiberglass bowls each, Pat and I pleaded with our claustrophobic mother to take the elevator in lieu of walking down the required four flights of stairs.  Under the influence and fearing the safety of her swag she relented, confident that if the machine should fail ample rations – of the liquid variety – would be available until help arrive.

wine_grabAs the doors swung shut, sealing her inside, Mom’s eyes bulged with terror.  Wildly scanning our cell, she screamed: “Oh no!  Does anyone have a corkscrew?!”

We of course did not, but Tiff eased Mom’s panic with a little MacGuyver-ism.  “Don’t worry Ms. Patty, if we need to, we can just break off the neck and drink it that way.  You know, like pirates.”

Somehow this seemed to work, though honestly how she intended to break off the neck without breaking the bottle or worse spilling the wine is beyond me.  Still Mom calmly stood (or wobbled) while the elevator continued its ride down, choosing to breathe again only when the doors opened.  Laughing the girls met the cool night air, and discussed their favorite brands as we walked to the car.  Half-way home I managed to glance back at Mom, as she fallen fast asleep her arms gently embracing the two large tubs of wine, cuddled beside her.