Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Hey guys, sorry if it sounds like I’m shilling for VISA, but Kathy and I had a great excuse to wear a few numerals off of her new VISA Signature card this past weekend. We’d had such a great experience up north in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, with program-participating tasting rooms up there welcoming us with open bottles, that we thought we’d check out the Signature program wineries a bit farther south in the county.
Good thing we didn’t run into some of these joints the first time, a few weeks ago, that we mentioned Signature; we’d have blown off the whole program and demanded our annual VISA fee back.
I think I wrote last time about Kath and I preparing a script, fully expecting that we’d get blank stares when we mentioned that the Sig program entitles us to waivers of normal tasting fees and, in some cases, purchase discounts (“Well, we have the VISA brochure, and you’re listed as being a part of the program. We’re going to buy, so can you honor it?). Our first stop last time, in Healdsburg, was J Vineyards, and they not only knew the program, but treated us as if we owned a San Francisco wine distributorship. VIP ASAP all the way. In fact, we visited dozens of joints that weekend, and all but one threw open the doors to the Chamber of Secrets.
Last Sunday, not so much.
It all started with an e-mail notification from Cline in Sonoma that our quarterly wine club mix&match selection was available for pick-up. Last year, about this time, we’d divested ourselves of all our wine club memberships, and only recently $tarted tru$ting our finance$ to local fave$ we loved, and which would give us an excuse to avoid shipping charges as an excuse to take road tasting trips. Gotta love Northern Cali; that’s what I’m talking about.
So Kath had this cool idea to pick up our Cline (one of the two bottles was the Live Oak Zin from an Oakley vineyard located, interestingly enough, off Live Oak Avenue; that’s what made vineyard sleuthing so easy from Cline when we first started this blog thang), and then check out the fewer southernmost Signature-participating wineries that we hadn’t hooked up with when we went north last time.
Now, some of the VISA Signature joints listed close to Cline are notorious tourist traps. You know, capacious buses and super-stretch limousines full of bachelorette-party attendees sipping Cosmos from plastic cups in the back seats after they deep-throat that Viognier. So it’s no surprise that the closest Sig participant après Cline is a winery that seems more interested in trying to move merch than mouthfeel. Hey, it’s all good; even if Homes de Tasting Room sounded like he’d just awakened 20 minutes before his shift, he knew The Program. We bought our bottle of summer white big gulp and bailed before a sea of strapless sandals beat us up getting to the Lisa Marie.
It was actually a fun afternoon of tasting and touring in this Southee end up to the Sonoma Valley. But it wasn’t until, midway through the afternoon that we hit the emotional jackpot. OK, the setup probably promises more than it delivers, but, in wine tasting terms, this is dot, dot, dot.
OK, Kath and I dig. There are discrepancies. We got to Gloria Ferrer, but they were having a special event: tasting room closed. Dude, apologetically, offered us a coupon for a glass of wine on our next visit, even though our card SHOULD OFFER US MULTIPLE GLASSES OF WINE. All caps, so wrong; I’m sorry right now. But check out Kathy’s groovy, oh-so-centered-Diane-Arbus-like photo above. OK, Arbus-ish, but without the hairy dude. So, this is an “I Love You, I Hate You” winery joint, like that one hurdle in Healdsburg. It’s listed in VISA’s brochure; it’s absent from their web site. It’s listed as “Appointment Only,” And then, there are “We’re Open” balloons on a sandwich board. And they’re on our Sig list! If you can’t read the sign on the right, ZOOM in. Oh, this is not right.
“Tasting in the Barrel Room” point the arrows on the sandwich boards. We get to the front doors and walk through this great walkway lined with French oak barrels, culminating in a groovy, literally cool, lounge with couches and a tasting bar. Manager is regaling a party of six at the sofas. Homes at the tasting bar, talking to one person, tell us, as one winery (personified) did two weeks ago, that they have been trying to extricate themselves from Signature.
FYI, Homes at the bar made no effort to engage manager for our query. Manager finally stopped schmoozing party o’six, got the dope on the whole VISA Signature thing. He offered us a 2-for-1 tasting, saying something like, “Staffing and until we get the remodeling done.”
Declined. Oh, not by credit; by us.
But ya gotta know, we worked north to St. Francis from East CoCo County in Oakley. Rony Francisco Perez is a star. He pours at St. Francis but pours out more knowledge than wine. Homes can hook you up with Sonoma restaurants, and dude does not have to read a cheat-sheet.
Funny how you leave a region, a state, a province, or a country based on who you met. And that’s what tasting rooms are all about.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Hey, so the other day, Kath and I gassed up the Lisa Marie and motored over to our eastern county neighbor for a wine-and-food fundraiser for Alameda County’s Meals on Wheels program, held in the cavernous barrel room of our good winery pals, Rock Wall.
We’d never yet been able to visit Rock Wall, which occupies one of the many buildings on the vast, decommissioned Alameda military base site. Last December, the week before Christmas, Kathy and I ventured to San Fran for fresh oysters on the half at the Ferry Building, then hopped said vehicle for the jaunt over to Alameda and Rosenblum Cellars, a few steps from the ferry terminus. We got a bit more ambitious back then, walking miles to Hangar One distillery (well worth the blisters), but couldn’t bring ourselves to complete the circuit to Rock Wall in the distance.
This time, we eschewed eastbound water transport in favor of westbound asphalt for this amazing event. And obscure it was not: Hundreds of people paid the suggested $20 donation to get their drink/graze on. All ages, too, though we seemed to run into a gamut of seniors at our first few tasting stations of the cross; Kath said something along the lines of “There are more canes here than in an unpruned vineyard.”
What made this tasting such a standout was the mix of big boys and boutique, and the food fare that was several steps above the usual Dixie Cup/plastic spoon offerings. I mean, no one expects Kettle Korn at a wine tasting, but seviche? Son of a vich, it was good. One local restaurant was serving a tasty seasonal salad, and had a “balsamic girl” dress it for you if you so pleased. The best.
The wineries were an absolute revelation. I think that Kathy signed up for more mailing lists than ever in one session. Small producers who own no vineyards, but contract out to growers up and down the huge state of Cali. Obviously, with arrangements such as these, varietals, yields and maybe even survival will vary year-to-year. But it sure was exciting to taste some juice from a producer who got some Pinot from Paso Robles and vinifies same in a concrete bunker in Alameda. That’s putting the “b” in “subtle.”
Cool story, at least for me: One winery that was pouring their juice was one that had signage that Kathy would see every day when she was commuting on BART from Oakley to San Francisco. Although they were one of the small ones buying grapes on contract, their crush and production facility is located in gritty Oakland. Turns out that the winery owner had timed how long their winery signage was visible when BART daylighted out of a tunnel — four minutes — and that was enough for them to choose the locale. Market research and/or gut instinct: East Bay is incubating some exciting winestuff.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Every year our neighboring city of Brentwood holds CornFest, a fundraiser for local service organizations. It’s a big deal around these parts, with literally thousands of people attending the three-day event, a combination of carnival midway, beer and wine tents, exhibits, food and the usual laundry list of vendors, artists and retailers hawking their wares.
Agriculture is still a huge part of our region of CoCo County, and Brentwood corn is considered a true delicacy with its small, white kernels packing a super-sweetness that’s made it famous and sought-after around the state. Safeway even touts it in its advertising every season.
This year, Kathy and I decided to attend CornFest for the first time, at its new location just down the main drag from our house. We went on Saturday, though we were able to enjoy Friday night’s fireworks show from our driveway. It was a beautiful sunny day, and, after loading up on tokens, made our way to one of the corn booths for a delicious roasted ear slathered in butter. The adjacent condiment table was laden with everything from garlic salt, sea salt, chili powder, hot sauce — even a spray bottle of lemon juice. Kath and I dressed our corn, and then wandered over to the grandstand to listen to the cover band. Life is good.
One of the joys of these affairs is the small town vibe. In the wine tent, over a (plastic) glass of vino, we chatted for a good half-hour with a complete stranger. In another tent, a local dance school was presenting a student recital featuring some of the most adorable little girls doing their very best to keep to the choreography.
I guess that this “small town” thing is especially fitting since, at the end of this month, Kathy and I are heading north to Washington state to attend her 30-year high school reunion in the tiny town of Omak, located in the northeast corner of the state, near the Canadian border. It’ll be a trek, but should be fun to attend, once again, this low-key affair celebrating a part of Kathy’s life in the town where she spent many of her formative years.
We’ll fly into Seattle, and then rent a car for the five-hour drive to Omak, passing through the Lake Chelan wine region along the way.
BTW: The wine that we enjoyed at CornFest just so happened to be Cline’s Oakley Four Whites, a blend of a quartet of grape varietals grown in our own little burg. It was slightly crisp, with a nice round quality and a perceptible tropicality and apricot notes. Nicely chilled, this local juice was perfect on a hot July afternoon.
Monday, July 4, 2011
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.