My wife and I just returned from the left coast. California, to be exact. The Bay Area to be even more exact and San Francisco, to be exactly exact. Oh: and a few extra days in wine country—Sonoma and Napa—if you’re expecting the unredacted version of this report.
We were in San Francisco as wedding guests. We were in wine country doing research. I say “research” but I’m guessing you know what I really mean.
The legendary California valleys and their equally legendary wineries are a world unto themselves. I didn’t pretend or presume to understand much about wine before we went out to the wine country and I’m not sure I understand much more after having sampled so much of their product. But I did lean a few things. There is, for example, an entire language devoted to wine. I learned a few new words, but I’m far from fluent. Palette problems, I guess. I also learned that there is a business side to the wine industry that is completely separate from the drinking side of the wine industry. It’s a little like fly fishing; I know because I watched a friend of mine get hooked like a trout. He now owns a few cases of current vintages, a few cases of future vintages, an empty barrel of wine, and some measure of a share in a winery that bears a passing resemblance to his surname. That kind of thing can happen when one is in the throes of a good tasting. The next day, I thought his cheek looked a little sore from where he took the hook.
But that flesh wound will heal soon enough. All those bottles and barrels will arrive on his doorstep long before his credit card bill and we’ll relive the experience—the pleasure and the pain.
I imagine that what I’m about to say next is either heresy or blasphemy or both to an oenophile, but I’ve come to the conclusion that apart from the different productions and different vintages and the different vistas or views, the game at one winery is pretty much the same as the game at every other winery: make the tasting last just long enough in order for the taster to select several bottles of wine for purchase or better yet, to join that particular winery’s club. That’s when the fly is taken and the hook gets set.
I understand that each vintner or winemaker grows slightly different types of grapes and produces completely different varieties of wine and that a few extra feet of elevation here, or the amount of clay in the soil on a given hillside over there, or a barely distinguishable micro-climate on the other side of the valley can account for subtle variations in the color, texture, or taste of the finished product. Furthermore, it makes sense to me that one year is never exactly like the next and that variations of a few degrees of temperature or the amount or timing of rainfall can affect all those grapes clinging to all those vines and that as a result, the vintages that those grapes are destined to become are more like kissing cousins or maybe even distant relatives than identical twins. But here is my personal in vino veritas truth: I may like some wines better than others but they’re all awfully good.
I know that variety is supposed to be the spice of life and I’m guessing the same is probably true for wine. But now that I can parse the lingo of my own wine appreciation probably at the level of a first grader, I know I prefer red to white, but I really prefer rosé to both. Drier is better than sweeter. Age matters and price does make a difference. I probably won’t ever buy a $100+ bottle of wine (the wine I do buy is less, not more, in case you were wondering), but those pricey bottles are smoother, richer, have a more pleasant nose, and can make you feel like a king.
Or a pauper.
Or a trout. I should know: my cheek is a little sore, too.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com