Monday, July 4, 2011
What a Segue: Heading for Healdsburg
Neither Kathy nor I desperately needed another credit card. But when planning a quick overnight wine getaway to Healdsburg in central Sonoma County and searching online for tasting room coupons, she stumbled upon the VISA Signature card offering, among other nonwine-related goodies, complimentary reserve tastings and purchase discounts at some 70 Sonoma winery tasting rooms. Sign us up!
We’d noticed a fair bit of tasting room “fee creep” up in wine country over the last few years. It’s why we virtually never venture over to Napa anymore. I liken the stages of fee creep to the five steps in an actor’s career:
1. Who the hell is Leon Keaton?
2. Get me Leon Keaton!
3. Get me a Leon Keaton type.
4. Get me a young Leon Keaton.
5. Who the hell is Leon Keaton?
We’ve seen fee creep, especially in Napa, devolve as insidiously:
1. Welcome to LK Cellars! Everything on the complimentary tasting sheet is open and available to taste; we also have a few reserves open under the bar.
2. Complimentary tasting list on one side of the carte, Reserve list (for a fee) on the other side. Fee refundable with purchase.
3. No complimentary list. Fee refundable with purchase. Parties of six or more please call ahead.
4. Fees not refundable with purchase of the two wines we are currently pouring 2 ounces of. Buses and limos prohibited.
5. Open by appointment only.
6. Closed to the public.
We’ve started to see a bit of Napa creep work its way over the mountains to Sonoma tasting rooms, and, though not nearly as brutal there, it’s probably only a matter of time before they play catch-up.
That’s what made the idea of the VISA Signature card so intriguing. The idea of merely saying that you’re Signature members to avoid tasting fees is brilliant!
Now Kathy and I do have to admit that we were preparing for a worst-case scenario of blank stares and questions of the “What’s Signature?” variety. Didn’t happen. Or worse, the ever-popular “Oh, we’re not part of that program anymore.” With one exception, that didn’t happen either (and to their credit, that establishment did backtrack to honor it for us).
Our first stop, J Vineyards & Winery, set the civilized Signature tone. I’m tellin’ ya, J’s red carpet must have been out for steam cleaning, because if it was on the premises, it’d surely have been rolled out for us when Kath merely uttered the words “VISA” and “Signature.” We were treated to a Stations of the Cross for oenophiles. First stop, a couple of light summer sippers; next stop, bellying up to the sparkling-wine tasting bar before retreating upstairs to the club lounge for a sampling of food and wine pairings. With the Signature program, J waives the spendy $20-per-person tasting fee. Our first winery stop, and we’re already up $40. Plus, they had a big blowout special on two bottles of their, excuse me, signature bubbly. We walked out the door with virtually free wine.
And so it went. One of our next stops up the road was at Foppiano, an old-skool producer specializing in Petite Sirah, and responsible for turning Kathy and me onto this varietal grape decades ago.
It was also at Foppiano that we engaged in our first of many conversations with strangers who would overhear us mention Signature, then either ask us about the deal, or reply that “Hey, I have a Signature card too; you mean we can taste free?” Foppiano was also the first place that gave us Signature swag.
Oh, and check out K’s photo above: Just as she’s about to press the shutter, more than a dozen wine tourists come skimming through the parking lot. All on Segways! In response to my amazement, one of the lead riders hands me a business card on the fly. Apparently, Segway of Healdsburg does guided tours, parties and, dig this: weddings!
All in all a great start to Day One of our “Tasting Fee, Tasting Free Tour 2011,” though that first day ended with an embarrassing call to Healdsburg 911, certain that our car had been stolen. Ummm, Kathy found it where I had parked it, and I, keeping details to a minimum, called the local authorities back to rescind the report.
After omelets the next morning at the local diner, we headed up to Geyser Peak to re-establish our wine club member bona fides. Nothing like sipping sparkling Shiraz and a flight of super-premium Cabernet in the members’ Reserve Room, which features a picture window overlooking the barrel cellar, all just after 10 a.m.
Funny how over a day of wine tasting, it’s very possible to see the same folks at different wineries, just not in the same order you’re visiting them. Gotta tell you about Sam and Jim, a couple who had driven up from Los Angeles in their Prius a couple of days before. Yesterday afternoon, at Clos du Bois, I spotted a couple of guys, one of whom could have been a dead-ringer for Drew Carey. Flash forward a couple of wineries, and Kath spots them at the end of the tasting bar at Francis Ford Coppola’s outrageously Disneyesque compound. (Is it a winery? A resort? A cocktail lounge? A restaurant? A memorabilia museum? Yes.)
BTW: thank das stars for our Coppola wine pourer, Emily, who, despite the tasting room being a complete zoo, had product savvy, a sense of humor, and uncanny Spidey-sense for an empty glass. I suspect that without her pouring for us, we might have spent our visit worrying that we’d get hit by a Klown Kar. Kathy made sure that her supervisor gave Emily some love on our behalf.
But I digress. So, one of our final stops on our Signature jaunt heads us toward downtown Healdsburg, to Simi. Who walks in but The Boys! Drew immediately remembers us from Clos and Coppola, and all four of us spend the next 45 minutes laughing and talking a mile a minute. Jim opens his wallet, pulling out probably a half-dozen credit cards, looking for the word “Signature” on one of them. No luck.
Then he casually mentions to our pourer that he’s “sort of” in the industry. Dude, you have to know that Kathy and I are totally envious of those in “the industry.” Sommeliers, restaurateurs, retail wine buyers, distributors, writers, sometimes just an assistant manager at the local Booze Castle: We see these cats all the time at tasting rooms, getting the special bottles from under the counter, and the undivided attention of a tasting room manager. Now, in my heart, I know that bloggers are probably considered the red algae bloom of wine writing, but, sometimes, I feel as though I have my nose pressed up against the window looking in.
Jim is House Manager for the frickin’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles. I’m guessing that duties might include ensuring that patrons have something to drink at intermission.