wine shop About 30 years ago, I made my first tasting trip to California’s wine country. Parking near the Sonoma town square, wearing cutoffs and Converse sneakers, a couple of friends and I rode our bikes to Sebastiani, Buena Vista, and Gundlach Bundschu, continued into the hills of Carneros, and got back to our car after dark, disoriented and exhausted.
Somehow the experience had a positive effect: In the decades following, I’ve made a living partly by writing about both wine and cycling. But if I never ride my bike to a winery again, it won’t break my heart. Alcohol dissipates energy, and thirst warps the palate—blend wine and exercise and you have a healthy modus vivendi, but combine them within the same hour and you’re defining “counterproductive.”
Even if I weren’t a cyclist, I would view tasting bars the same way I do traffic jams. As wine has become a regular part of my life, I now drink it only with meals. In fact, evaluated in the absence of food (or worse, in competition with other wines in a noisy, crowded atmosphere), wine is a completely different beverage from the one consumed with dinner. That’s also why I sidestep the advice of critics, newsletters, and blogs, most of which judge wines in culinary isolation. Instead I go to a shop, tell the clerk what I’m planning to eat, and try something that he or she recommends. In the East Bay, where I live, there’s an alphabet soup of shops with qualified wine sellers, from Kermit Lynch to North Berkeley Wine to Oddlots to Paul Marcus to Solano Cellars to Vino! to Vintage Berkeley to the Wine Mine.
Admittedly, my old-fashioned approach works only part of the time. Sometimes I don’t care for the results, but even then it’s no more expensive—and certainly much less time consuming—than getting drunk on a beautiful day when I could be riding my bike.
vineyard stop I learned to love wine long before I was old enough to drink. Among stacked casks in the cavernous barrel room of a winery off a Napa highway stood a rustic wooden counter where two families bellied up after felling their Christmas trees. I remember inhaling the barrels’ sweet vanilla scent and the headier flush of what vintners call the “angels’ share”—the alcoholic vapors that seep through the oak staves. I can hear the squeak of cork exiting bottle, the trickle of red into waiting glasses, the murmur of assessment, muted laughter. The mood wavered between studious and indulgent, in an atmosphere in which curiosity, discernment, and pleasure merited equal standing.
Never mind that so many tasting rooms have now gone glam, that the person pouring may not be a winemaker, and that as likely as not the short pours cost serious money. That rush of optimism—that sense of signing up for a mini-adventure along a twisting trail of aromas and tastes and peculiar lingo—seizes me every time I step up and nod yes to a tasting.
Been there, done that? Of course. The serving sequence might as well be holy writ: Thou shalt pour from white to pink to red to sweet. Yet that ritual lets me find the cracks. That one was too tart; this is too floral. That one had odd smells; this has aromas of raspberry, plum, pepper, and chaparral and tastes of blackberry and vanilla. OK, I lifted that last description from the winemaker’s notes on the 2008 Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs, a blend of zinfandel, petite sirah, and carignane. Mmm, exactly.
I drove there and sipped that wine, among others. And if I wasn’t sure, swirling the glass, that I smelled chaparral—the manzanita, sage, and other shrubs that clothe California’s Coast Range—I was smitten. I even bought a bottle to take to dinner with friends, telling them over pasta of gazing out from the tasting room onto row upon row of crooked century-old zinfandel vines. Somehow, that same magic doesn’t happen at wine shops in the city.
This article was first published in July 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.