Initiation, from “A Funny Thing Happened On My Way To Yountville: Ten Wine-Induced Tales Of A Mystical Journey To The Napa Valley Nexus Of Mind, Body And Sip” by John Cordon. All rights reserved Copyright 2017 John Cordon.
And so the journey of another wine novice begins…
“A journey of a thousand tastings begins with one small sip.”
“What would you like to start with?” asked the tasting room host. He was an older guy with thinning gray hair, probably retired and earning walking-around money pouring sips a few days each week at this small Napa Valley winery. His tone was friendly, but the line was well-rehearsed. He looked me up and down with the steely eyes of a homicide detective, searching for clues that I was a total ignoramus when it came to wine. If that was the charge, I was guilty.
“Give ‘em the whole flight, don’t be cheap,” interjected the middle aged blonde woman in a blue-on-white flower print sun dress a short way down the bar to my right. She was sipping red wine as her husband focused his attention on the back label on a bottle of Merlot. By the way the couple leaned comfortably into the bar, they could have been regular visitors to Napa Valley, maybe even locals.
The tasting room was small and dimly lit, with bare wood floors and walls of dark, rough-hewn lumber that gave it the warm, cozy feel of a frontier saloon. Framed black and white photographs depicting Napa Valley wine production in the late 1800’s and a half dozen gold and blue county fair contest ribbons hung on the wall behind the bar. Through windows strategically placed to let in natural light, I could see the winery’s barn-like production building and beyond it neat rows of carefully tended vines that extended far into the distance. The host looked at the blonde and smiled politely. There was still time to talk her old man into buying a few bottles, he didn’t want to alienate her.
“Let’s start with our Sauvignon Blanc,” he said, pouring a couple ounces of the usual starter wine into my empty glass.
That tasting took place decades ago, when most Napa Valley wine tastings were still complimentary and anyone charging five dollars had damn well better produce wines worth the fee. Today, almost every tasting room in the Valley charges for tastings. Fees start around ten bucks per person, with twenty to thirty dollars per flight common. I’ve seen tasting fees as high as fifty for sips of five premium varietals. Want an ultra-premium tasting? That’ll cost you a hundred bucks – per person. Most tasting rooms waive the fee if you buy a few bottles, but either way you’re going to lay down cash before they let you out the door.
I sipped the Sauvignon Blanc. It was cool and tart with a hint of grapefruit. I took another sip to empty the glass in preparation for tasting the next wine. Pouring that final sip into the chrome plated dump bucket in front of me on the bar would have been a smarter move, but I was a wine tasting novice and ignorant of proper wine tasting techniques, etiquette or mathematics. That was knowledge I would acquire during a wine journey that was initiated with that glass of Sauvignon Blanc and continues to consume a sizeable portion of my life to this day.
The host wandered down the bar to interrogate a half-dozen new suspects, a herd of over-dressed yuppies from The City who wandered in and apologetically inquired if they could pay for a tasting. He handed them off to another host who appeared out of nowhere, then returned with an open bottle of Chardonnay.
“We grow this on the south end of the Valley in an area called Los Carneros,” he explained as he poured. “It’s fermented in stainless steel, then finished in oak. The oak gives the wine its buttery characteristics.”
Huh? I didn’t even know what the dump bucket was for and now he’s pitching me wine jargon like oak and buttery. I could imitate a wine snob and mumble, “ah, yes, absolutely,” but Dick Tracy would see right through it. He watched me sip.
“Sure,” I said, confident that responding with that vague observation cast me as neither snob nor idiot.
“Did you notice the clarity?” he asked as he placed an empty glass on the bar and poured a taste of Chardonnay in it.
The list of wines offered in that day’s tasting flight was printed on a narrow sheet of thick white card stock. He flipped the paper over and held the blank back side behind the glass. The white background was like an x-ray machine that revealed the wine’s true golden color and provided an uncluttered view through the entire glass.
“Some winemakers produce a Chardonnay that contains fine particles of sediment that fall to the bottom of the glass,” he said. “They’re crystals that can be hard to see unless you know how to look.”
I raised my glass toward an incandescent ceiling lamp and examined the small amount of Chardonnay left in it. The color was a shade darker compared to the wine in front of the white card. The busy background of wooden ceiling beams and metal light fixtures was visually distracting and had there been sediment in the glass, it would have been difficult for me to spot.
The blonde in the print dress winked approval at the host as I placed my glass in front of the white card again. The host picked up a bottle of red wine from behind the bar and shuffled off in her direction.
The blonde’s husband emptied his glass into a dump bucket and pointed to an item on the list of wines offered for sale. Educated wine drinkers and potential buyers weren’t limited to sampling just the wines on that day’s tasting flight. If a lucrative sale lay in the balance, the host had the authority to freelance the tasting and bring out the good stuff.
The host was working the husband with the skill and patience of an experienced angler fishing a lake for the first time. Catching big fish is a matter of offering the right bait with an effective presentation. Some fisherman use trial and error, changing baits and lures until they find the one fish are biting on that specific day. The smart fisherman asks around on the dock, seeking advice from locals regarding which baits are currently catching the biggest fish. The tasting host was a smart fisherman.
“What do you like?” he asked the husband.
“Bold reds, mostly.”
The host had a big fish on the line. Bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux-style blends and Merlot were priced two to three times higher than white wines and lighter reds. He had identified the right bait, closing the sale was now a matter of presentation.
The host proceeded with a line of questions and reinforcing statements that loosely resembled Rogerian therapy. He reaffirmed each of the husband’s remarks to keep him saying yes.
“So,” began the host, “you like big red wines like Cabs and Merlots.”
“Sure, those top my list.”
“Oh, you have a list? There are other reds you like?”
“I stick pretty much to Cabs and Merlots and blends that are mostly Cab and Merlot,” replied the husband.
“You like blends with Cab and Merlot? Try this new release we’re offering only here in the tasting room. We haven’t done this blend before. It’s seventy-five percent Cab with twenty percent Merlot and five percent Cabernet Franc. That’s a bold blend you might be interested in, right?”
“Sure, let’s try it.”
The host placed a clean glass in front of the husband and grabbed a bottle from behind the bar. The wine gurgled as two ounces passed through an aerator inserted in the mouth of the bottle and settled into the bottom of the glass. He placed the bottle on the bar so the husband could read the label.
“Nice color,” the husband said as he held the glass up at eye level. He swirled the wine a few times and looked at it again.
“You like the color?” asked the host, speaking loud enough to be heard above the escalating chatter from the San Francisco yuppies down the bar. The group’s conversation grew more animated and exuberant with each additional wine they tasted.
“Yes, nice red brick.”
“Deep red brick, sure. How about the legs?”
Legs, vertical streaks of wine that appear on the inner wall of the glass after a swirl, are believed by some to indicate a wine’s quality. They form when the wine is exposed to air and some of the alcohol evaporates. Wines with higher alcohol content typically display legs that are more distinct, regardless of other measures of the wine’s quality. To an experienced tasting host, if pointing out shapely legs as a positive feature closed a sale – they represented whatever the customer believed.
“Yes, nice legs,” the husband mumbled.
The blonde looked on with a cherub-like grin that suggested this mid-afternoon tasting room visit was not her first sip of the day. The host noticed her glass was empty, popped a fresh one onto the bar and poured a taste of the red blend for her. The husband’s authority to buy expensive wine without his wife’s consent was questionable, so the host hedged his bet by drawing her into the tasting.
The husband was clearly enjoying the red blend and the wife nodded approval after a quick swirl, a pass under her nose, and a slow sip.
“Where is the Cab grown?” she asked.
The host smiled. Her question indicated interest.
“Rutherford, on our estate,” he replied. “You like it?”
“Very nice, overall,” she said evenly.
The host rattled off a few other facts relating to the source of the Merlot and Cabernet Franc, how long the juice had fermented and the type of oak barrels the wine occupied during aging. I took mental note, intent on looking up later what all that meant.
The blonde swirled the small amount of wine remaining in her glass again, then held it under her nose for an extended moment. The husband watched, his facial expression that of a child anxiously seeking permission to buy a new toy. When the wife sipped her glass empty, the host poured them both another splash and told them he’d be right back.
“This Pinot Noir comes from the Sonoma Coast,” the host said as he poured me a tasting and placed the bottle on the bar next to my glass.
He watched me inspect the wine’s color against the white backdrop. When I swirled the wine gently, tipped the glass slightly and held it below my nose to take in the wine’s bouquet, his approving smile seemed to say, you have come a long way, grasshopper.
“Where are you visiting from?” he asked.
“SoCal,” I replied, avoiding potentially incriminating specifics. I was a relatively young mid-level manager in a high-tech company on a long weekend getaway to Napa Valley – just an inquisitive traveler dipping a toe in the shallow end of the pool of wine knowledge. Any information about me was superfluous and could be used by the tasting host to influence my purchase decisions the same way he appeared to be playing the couple down the bar. As nice as he had been so far, I wasn’t about to give up information he could later use against me.
Laughter from The City kids to my left increased as they reached the midway point in their tasting flight. The four or five couples sipped like buffalo grazing on the open range, never leaving the safety of the herd for long. When one pretty, young woman wandered off toward the retail racks, where wine books and polo shirts embroidered with the winery’s logo were displayed, two other ladies broke from the main group to cover her flanks. Curiosity satisfied, they scurried as one to rejoin the group at the bar.
Through the front window I saw in the parking lot a tour driver dressed in a black suit, white shirt and plain black necktie standing next to a shiny black van. He checked his watch and gazed impatiently at the tasting room door, like a baseball umpire considering whether to storm the mound to break up a meeting between pitcher and catcher that was holding up the game. The yuppies at the bar must belong to him.
“Whadda ya think?” the husband asked the blonde, raising his voice loud enough that she could hear him above the constant laughter at the other end of the bar.
“Nice,” she replied softly. She swirled the red wine in her glass again. It was a stalling tactic designed to give her more time to consider if the red blend was worth the steep price.
“One, two?” the husband suggested weakly.
The host watched the blonde from the corner of his eye. I dumped the small amount of Pinot Noir left in my glass into the chrome bucket and the host replaced it with Merlot.
I repeated the process of looking, swirling, smelling and sipping, unable to fully decode all the information coming from the glass, but confident my wine senses would develop with practice. Lots of practice.
“Maybe…” answered the blonde to her anxious husband.
The host sensed the time was approaching for a decisive engagement.
“I’ll be back in a moment,” he told me, leaving behind the bottle of Merlot for me to examine.
As the host stepped toward the wife to commence negotiations, the tasting room’s main door opened and a wide shaft of light crossed the dark floor. The host turned toward the light and froze.
A man and woman stood framed in the doorway, their bodies backlit by the bright afternoon sunlight. The man held a leash with a medium size short hair dog at the end of it.
“Hey, you can’t bring that mutt in here!” the tasting room host announced firmly.
“I’m not bringing him in,” the man replied, obviously agitated. “I’m tying him up under the shade tree.”
“I’m not talking about the dog,” the host snapped back. “I’m talking about your woman.”
I was standing between the door and the host, a position to abandon quickly if the man dropped the dog leash and flew across the bar with clenched fists to avenge the insult. I had two options. To the left, the yuppie herd was a densely packed mass that would be difficult to move if I needed to create space for myself. The husband and wife on the right were lighter and took up less real estate. I would try not to land directly on them if forced to escape the path of the charging dog owner by jumping in their direction.
The host placed his palms on the bar and leaned forward, the bottle of Merlot inches from his left hand. I knew that bottles smashed against bars in movies were merely props made of thin sugar glass with etched scoring that determined precisely where they would break to form a sharp, menacing weapon. Standard glass wine bottles are nearly impossible to break against wood. If the host used the Merlot bottle to defend himself, it would have to be employed as a club or a heavy projectile. I prepared to get the hell out of the way.
“Nice way to talk about your sister,” the man in the doorway snorted with mock disgust.
The host walked around the end of the bar and the two laughed as they shook hands. The woman tied up the dog outside and joined them.
“Thanks, bro,” she said, laughing as she hugged her brother.
The blonde in the print sun dress grinned as her husband sipped the last of the red blend from his wine glass.
“You have the case I ordered ready?” the brother-in-law asked as the host walked back behind the bar.
“You bet, full case of the new red blend,” the host replied as he turned his head so the blonde and her husband couldn’t see him wink.
The sister picked up the signal and said, “Great, how’s it selling?” She looked up and down the bar, trying to guess if the target of her brother’s gambit was the blonde and her husband, the herd of yuppies or me. Perhaps, she might have thought, it was all of us.
“We’re selling out fast,” he told her. “I don’t expect any left in the tasting room by the end of the day.”
Down the bar, the husband’s eyes made a silent plea as the blonde appeared lost in thought. She was contemplating, he hoped, a final decision on how many bottles they would take home.
The host told his sister and her husband, “have a splash of something cold while I get your case from the cellar.” He poured a double taste of Sauvignon Blanc and disappeared through a side door.
“I really like their Cabs,” the sister whispered loud enough for everyone in the tasting room to hear.
“Maybe we should get a couple more cases of the red blend,” the brother-in-law added, confirming he was in on the plot.
The host serving the yuppies dialed a number on the bar telephone and spoke into the receiver, “hey, can you bring me two cases of the red blend while you’re down there?”
The herd migrated out through the front door, leaving two brave souls behind to carry the wine they bought to the waiting van. The black suited driver saw them coming, opened the van’s doors and watched the noisy group pile in.
The host returned from the cellar with a hand cart stacked with three cases of wine. The yuppies grabbed two cases marked as the red blend and nodded goodbye on their way out. The brother-in-law picked up the remaining case, carefully pointing the label identifying it as Chardonnay away from the blonde and her husband as he carried it out to their car.
“Gotta go, sweetie. Take care,” the sister said as she hugged the host and whispered “good luck” in his ear. She retrieved the dog, which jumped into the back seat of their car and stuck its head out the open window as they drove away.
The blonde and her husband huddled to discuss their decision.
The hosts worked together to clear the wine glasses used by the departed City kids and wiped down the bar. The bait having been presented, the host who had been serving me was now content to wait and see how big a bite his fish would take. He wouldn’t make a move in their direction until they called him.
“Try the Cab,” the host said as he poured a sample of the last wine listed on the tasting menu into my glass.
He rested his left forearm on the bar and turned his back toward the blonde.
I again looked, swirled, sniffed and sipped. I could feel my toe dipping a little deeper into the pool of wine knowledge as I realized how truly different the sip tasted when I took the time to expose it properly to all my senses. The Cabernet Sauvignon was excellent.
At that moment, I also realized how mathematics plays a role in wine tasting. Wine math is simple and works like this. Each bottle of wine holds about four glasses. Some people pour smaller portions and try to sneak six glasses from a standard bottle. I try to avoid drinking wine with those people.
The standard serving of wine is a pour of about six or seven ounces, which means the usual two-ounce tasting portion is roughly one third of a glass and one twelfth of one bottle. Sip a tasting flight of six wines and you’ve drunk nearly half a bottle. Stop by two tasting rooms in an afternoon and you’ll probably drink a full bottle – by yourself.
The host presented a new wine glass atop the bar and poured a complimentary tasting of the red blend. He described its components, how it was produced and how long it should be cellared before pulling the cork. I peeked at the price list.
My tolerance for wine with fourteen percent alcohol chose that moment to reveal its lack of development. I was now up to… how many tastings? There was Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and the red blend. I had drunk the equivalent of half a bottle.
Two glasses of wine over dinner isn’t a lot, but in mid-day after skipping lunch, I knew I had reached my limit. I looked over the list of current releases and made mental notes of which wines I liked and which I could afford to buy. As my purchase decision took shape, I saw the blonde raise a finger to attract the host’s attention.
“What’s the case discount?” she asked as he walked toward her.
“Standard case discount is ten percent,” he said.
“What if I buy more than one case?”
“What’s the discount for wine club members?”
The husband cocked his head, looked at the ceiling and moved his lips slightly as he ran the numbers. The reason his wife made their financial decisions was becoming obvious.
“So,” she said, “I could join the wine club and get a fifteen percent discount.”
“That’s about it,” the host said. He congratulated himself for identifying the wife as the likely decision maker from the moment they walked in. He reached beneath the bar and pulled out a folded pamphlet that described wine club benefits.
The host knew the blonde wasn’t going to buy more than one case. Tasting room visitors seldom did. The question was whether she would walk out empty handed, buy a few bottles, take a case at the standard discount or join the wine club and get the best discount.
At that moment, it seemed logical to me that making a sale and signing up a new club member was the best potential outcome for the host. He may or may not have received a commission on sales, I had no way of knowing and wasn’t about to ask. It did seem, from the viewpoint of a casual observer, that the situation had escalated past consideration of mere money. It had become a contest of wills. The host had a fish on the line and was calmly landing it with slow, steady turns of the reel. Allowing slack in the line would give the fish an opportunity to jump off the hook. It was time to apply steady pressure.
“How many cases would you like?” he asked the blonde. The question implied that a decision to buy had been made.
“What if I join the wine club?” she answered.
“You get the member discount on whatever you buy today and – as a bonus – today’s tasting is free.” His answer was a double-barreled blast that penetrated the armor of her indecision. The blonde heard a deal she couldn’t refuse and nodded to her husband. He quickly slapped his credit card onto the bar and began filling out the required membership information on the back of the wine club pamphlet.
“How many cases?” the host repeated.
“Two of the red blend,” she responded.
She took a small calculator from her purse and estimated how much they were saving by joining the wine club. When the host left to enter their information into the computer at the far end of the bar, she showed the numbers on the face of the calculator to her husband.
“Wow!” he exclaimed.
“We got a great deal,” she whispered with a smile.
I picked two bottles to buy and waited for the host to return.
“You like that Sauvignon Blanc, don’t you?” he asked, stopping for a moment on his way back to the couple.
“Sure,” I told him. I wouldn’t admit that I picked the Sauvignon Blanc because it was the cheapest wine on the list. I planned to visit other wineries the next day and was stretching my cash.
The other tasting host arrived with the hand cart stacked with two cases of wine for the blonde and her husband. The blonde winked at me as she and her husband walked out, followed by the other host pushing the hand cart. Sunlight shone in as the front door opened and closed, leaving the tasting room once again dark and quiet.
“One for the road?” the host asked me. He held up a bottle of chilled Sauvignon Blanc covered in a gleaming wet coat of condensation.
“I’m good,” I told him. I laid cash on the bar and he wrapped two bottles in thin paper and placed them in a bag.
I considered the red blend for a moment, still experiencing how smooth it tasted. It might be worth spending a little more at this winery, I had no idea what I’d find at the others. The red blend was a known quantity.
“Could I also get a case of the red blend?” I asked the host.
“Sorry, it just sold out. The last of what we had set aside for the tasting room went home with that couple. I might get more by next weekend.”
There was certainly a bit of gamesmanship used to convince the blonde to sign up for the wine club and buy two cases, but the host told his sister the truth. If there was trickery going on, it was inside my head. What I learned that day, however, was completely true and very real.
“I’ll be back,” I told him.
“Thanks for coming in,” he said. There was a gentle tone to his words, as if he appreciated the opportunity to share something important to him.
“Thank you,” I said. I owed him for the initiation and would have liked to get him the commission on a case of the red blend.
I wrapped the bag of wine in a sweater and set it on the floor in the back seat of my car. There was still a lot of daylight left. I decided to walk along the edge of the vineyard next to the road, perhaps a half mile north and back to work some of the alcohol out of my system. I locked the car and checked my watch. The tasting room would be open another hour, plenty of time for a stroll before they locked the parking lot gate for the night.
A car turned off the road and into the lot. Two young couples got out and looked around, their eyes open wide like excited children.
“Look at this place,” one of the women shrieked. “Right out of a California tour book!”
“Can’t wait to try their wine!” added one of the men as they bounced together toward the tasting room door.
I stepped off the asphalt and onto the dirt.