Thursday, February 15, 2007

Whine Tasting

Anyone who has made a trip to Napa – or even Lodi – knows about the peculiar phenomenon called “wine tasting”. In places like Napa, wine tasting is not too different from bar crawling, but instead of staggering from bar to bar on foot, you stumble from winery to winery by means of your three ton, but less than steadily navigated, SUV. I’ve often felt that the more popular wine roads would make easy pickings for the local constabulary, but you never seem to see any police lying in wait. I’m sure the local Chamber of Commerce takes a dim view of tourists, happy on the local joy juice, spending an unhappy evening in the local drunk tank.

Some areas just don’t seem to be good places for tasting rooms. Napa’s mostly OK, since most of the wineries are on the valley floor and the roads are reasonably straight. But if you head up to the Sierra foothills south of Placerville it’s a different story. First of all, it’s all forest, so you have no idea where you are half the time. But the main problem is the windy roads. You have to wonder about the wisdom of promoting regional “wine trails” where fleets of tipsy tourists have to pilot their gleaming Hummers down windy, narrow country roads.

Once you actually get to a winery and manage to park without knocking over the geraniums, you probably enter the tasting room with every intention of leaving even more blotto than you were when you entered. And I think that’s my main problem with wine tasting. Wine tasting is a strange sort of hypocritical ritual. You go up to the fancy bar, ask what they’re pouring and then – if you’re like most people – you just slug down whatever swill they give you. Nobody spits. Few people swirl or smell the wine. They just knock it back, and all the while it’s all presented as some kind of highbrow experience.

As a wine snob, getting hammered on free hooch isn’t really what it’s all about. Us wine snobs are, for some crazy reason, actually interested in wine “appreciation”. Unlike your average wine tourista who seems to just want to get a free buzz, wine snobs want to experience and understand every aspect of a wine, from it’s color and density, to its aromas, and finally to its tastes and textures.

Yeah, I know, you’re playing the world’s smallest violin. I guess I just wish more people would pretend to actually be interested in the wine instead of just it’s alcohol content.

But I do have to say that I truly enjoy wine tasting at winery tasting rooms, particularly in less known – and less crowded – areas like the Sierra foothills or parts of the central coast.

Napa isn’t even on my list of places to visit any more for a number of reasons. It’s too crowded. It’s too glitzy. They charge exorbitant fees for tasting (up to $25 for a “basic” tasting – even more for a “reserve” tasting of their better wines!). The people pouring the wine are usually hired hands who know next to nothing about the wines. To me, that doesn’t add up to a great wine tasting experience.

On the other hand, in many of the lesser-known regions, you might be the only people in the tasting room. Tastings are almost always free. And very often you find your glass being filled by the winemaker him- or herself, instead of some ignorant part-time employee that who only knows whatever spiel they were trained to regurgitate on demand. There’s nothing like learning about a wine from the person who made it. It’s the highlight of the visit to any winery. I’ve met some truly wonderful people at wineries – and tasted some fascinating wines.

If you haven’t been wine tasting at a winery, you must try it. But please remember that there’s no shame in spitting (particularly if you’re driving). In fact, you can claim that you’re a world famous wine expert. Somebody might actually believe you.


I’m going to start a new section to this column: homework. Oh boy!! Each week I’m going to give you something to do. Most weeks, it will be pretty harmless. It will almost always involve drinking wine. How bad could that be?

This week’s homework assignment: Go taste the wines at the New Clairvaux winery in Vina ( The New Clairvaux winery is part of the New Clairvaux Abbey, just off Highway 99, about 15 minutes north of Chico. I’ll probably do an entire column on New Clairvaux sometime, but suffice to say that they are at present the best local winery (yes, there are several). New Clairvaux is absolutely worth a visit. The monks are very nice, and if you’re lucky, winemaker Aimee Sunseri will be there giving tours and barrel tastings.

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