Sunday, January 06, 2008

Caught Napa-ing

Those of you who've never been to California may not know this, but it's a non-bailable offense to visit the Bay Area and not visit Napa Valley, even if it's December and the vines are with winter sere. And since I've never much fancied the thought of being in prison (vertical stripes make me look fat) the first thing I did was get Z to take me to visit what shall (to avoid law suits) be called simply The Winery. Here's how that went:

1.45 pm: Arrive at Winery. Go up to woman at reception and ask when the next tour is. Listen to her tell us that we're in luck - she has just two slots left for the 2.00 pm tour. Feel very lucky, and a little proud.

1.55 pm: Hang around reception waiting for tour to start. Hear woman at reception telling family of five that they're very lucky, she has exactly five slots left for the 2.00 pm tour. Feel less lucky, and a little foolish.

2.00 pm: Tour starts. Guide looks like she has a long and passionate acquaintance with wine. Twelve other people going along. Keep eyes trained to the floor, avoid eye contact. Don't want to associate with tourists. Okay, okay, so technically I am one too. All the more reason to reinforce my amateur status.

2.05 pm: Enter the map room. Wonder why we've been brought here. Errr..excuse me, ma'am? We wanted to to see the vineyard, not invade it.

2.06 pm: Look, look, faux-quaint maps. The kind that are titled Ye Vale of Napa in florid writing. Wonder if they show hippogriffs?

2.07 pm: Guide describes history of vineyard. Dude 1 shows up in 1860-something. Place reminds him of the old country. Decides to start a vineyard. Slaves and slaves for years, till he starts producing quality wine. Dies. Half a century later Dude 2 shows up, buys up scattered land-holdings of Dude 1's descendants, consolidates, gets rich, becomes high-flying yacht-owning playboy. There's an Upton Sinclair novel in there somewhere. You know, honest, hard-working, son of the soil types outfoxed by conniving, greedy banker from the East. "It's over, Cynthia, we've lost it all!" "Oh, John!". Or maybe Ondaatje. Grandson of Dude 1 returns wounded from WWII, has passionate affair with nurse who is also his second cousin, gets beaten to pulp by her father, drifts off to Vegas where he joins a group of ex-servicemen who can't decide whether they want to drown their memories or pickle them, but figure they need the alcohol anyway; forgets all about vineyard, which gets snapped up by earnest young entrepreneur type, who also gets the girl. Or for that matter, why not Harold Robbins. Naked women in crushing vats, obligatory comparisons of nipples to grapes. Hmmm. Decisions, decisions.

Meanwhile the guide has moved on to explaining why Napa is the perfect place to grow wine grapes. Bad flashback to 9th grade geography. "The three reasons why wine grapes do well in Napa are a) the fog from the Pacific, which gets trapped between the [illegible scribble] and the [illegible scribble] mountains b) the winds from the [illegible scribble] bay c) the temperature range across the valley and d) the"...oh, dash it!..."The Four reasons why wine grapes do well in Napa are a) the fog from the Pacific b) the winds from the bay c) the temperature range across the valley d) the absence of rain in the crucial months and e) "...sigh..."The Five reasons why wine grapes do well in Napa are a) the fog, b) the winds, c) the temperature, d) no rain and e) the variation in soil types" There. But wait, weren't their six reasons? I'm sure there were six. Dammit! I've forgotten the last one. I should have taken notes. If she really does give us a quiz after this, I'm going to get a B. Again.

I hate Geography.

2.20 pm: Lecture over, out in the vineyard. The guide explains how they care for the vines. Something about pruning. Wasn't there a section in Virgil about this stuff [1]? Try to remember. No luck. Ah, Virgil. The good old days. Now that was grape-growing for you. You sowed your seeds, tended your vines, sacrificed an ox to Jove and a goat to Apollo and drank the odd libation or two to Bacchus, and there you were. None of this new-fangled 'we use genetics, we have pH lab' nonsense. That was the life.

Ok, tune in to guide again. She's explaining how they spare no expense to make sure everything that goes into the wine is just perfect. Sure. Which is why they can charge such high prices. Class, which of Porter's generic strategies would you call this? Oh, for crying out loud!

2.40 pm: Inside the factory. 56 massive barrels, each holding about a thousand bottles worth of wine. And with a nice oak finish too. I have got to get me one of these for my apartment. They'd be just perfect for parties.

2.45 pm: Watch video of manufacturing process. Lots of shabby-looking temp workers running about plucking grapes. That's it, of course. Not Sinclair, not Robbins. Steinbeck! In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath. Long live Tom Joad! Do you have any questions, the guide asks. Sure, I have questions. How much do you pay these people? Do they get health benefits? Do you hire the same people every year, or different ones? Do they have a union? How does it feel to be a cog in this oozing corporate machine, crushing the lives out of your grape-like workers? Start to raise hand. Notice clip of man-sized basket press being used to extract the juices from the dregs left over in the fermenter. Realize they never show you what's actually inside these things. Have vision of being placed inside one of those presses, being slowly crushed to death, blood flowing out like wine. "Welcome to Sweeney Todd Vineyards. We practice transubstantiation, only in reverse". Decide to keep pinko sympathies to oneself. Discretion being better part, etc.

2.55 pm: The wine cellar. Long rows of wine casks, piled one on top of the other. Wonder which one of them has the magic potion.

3.00 pm: At last, the tasting. Must not act like feckless alcoholic. Must try to be suave, sophisticated. Must try to channel Cary Grant. Hmmm...that is a stretch. Okay, okay, must at least try to channel Paul Giamatti. Now that can't be so hard.

3.05 pm: Tasting begins. First wine. Sauvignon Blanc. Nice. Wait till everyone's got their glass filled. Now reach for it. Say what? She wants us to smell it? Oh, all right. Swirl wine under nose. Pay no attention to scent but use movement to surreptitiously see if anyone else has started drinking. Desi software engineer types are guzzling it down. But they don't count. Ah, woman at the foot of the table is sipping at her wine now. And she speaks French. So it must be all right. Okay, taste wine. Aaah!

What's that? What does it taste like? Let's see now. Like rain through autumn woodsmoke, like the clean hands of the river, the soft caress of leafy shadows, like dew that collects in your lover's throat, like.... What did that woman say? Flowers? Flowers! And Berries! And please, please tell me that guy did not just say walnuts. And the guide is agreeing with them! Sigh. What's the use of being a poet? I need a drink.

3.10 pm: Second wine. A rich, full-bodied Cabernet. Ah, "the true, the blushful Hippocrene, / With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, / and purple-stained mouth". "Full of rich, loamy textures and a bouquet of subtle flavoring" the cheat-sheet says. Take sip. Hmmm...a little dry. Take another sip. Tastes vaguely like dark chocolate. Offer this opinion to the guide. She agrees. Well, then, that's good enough for me.

3.15 pm: Begin to realize that guide will say yes to pretty much anything anyone says they taste in the wine. Suppose she has to be nice. What is she going to say - "You taste cinnamon? In this? What are you, some kind of moron?". Consider telling her it tastes like tiger's chaudron, or baboon's blood. Resist.

3.20 pm: Wine no. 3. A dessert wine this time. Ah, nice smell. Could almost be perfume. Sip. It IS perfume. This isn't wine! It tastes like Schnapps with extra sugar. Yuck! yuck! Why didn't I keep some of the Cabernet? I need to get this taste out of my mouth. Anything will do - another wine, coffee, even mouthwash. Anything but this. What's that? She's going to bring us cookies to taste with it? Oh, good. A little chocolate will really hit the spot.

3.22 pm: What the hell is this? Are these supposed to be cookies? But they're the size of quarters! And is that jam on top? Strawberry jam? Ewww. Oh well, at least they're something to nibble on. Cleanse the palate. That sort of thing. Here goes. Hmmm. Not bad. A dainty little snack after all. What's that? Oh, we weren't supposed to eat them all at once? We were supposed to nibble at them, alternating sips of the wine between the nibbles, like Alice trying to decide what size she wants to be? Oops.


Afterword (with photographs [2])

On the plus side, the drive into Napa really was beautiful. The vines themselves were bare, of course, the little bushes standing about like twiggy menorahs, but the December light pouring over the valley made it seem timeless - the stark dignity of the shrubs, the endless geometry of rows striping the fields, so at odds with the gentle parabolas of the land itself, and the sleepy beauty of the houses, burnished to gold by the sun. Plus on the way back we got to see sunset off the Golden Gate bridge (see obligatory photo below), so life was good.

[1] The relevant passage occurs in Georgics II, a translation of which can be found here and here (line 259 onward or thereabouts). As always, Virgil rocks.

[2] So there.


Anonymous said...

I've also done the obligatory Napa and Sonoma tours but never had time to do a wine tour. Your post makes me feel much better.

Is #6 for why wine grapes do well in Napa - The Absence of Goats ? :)

Chevalier said...

"like Alice trying to decide what size she wants to be" - hilarious

Space Bar said...


you mean they no longer have those quaint village wine making ceremonies - the ones where peasants come dressed in their sunday best and clean their feet before they step into one giant vat where they proceed to crush grapes under their bare feet and where the women fall in love with bare-chested manly men who hold on to their writs lest they slip?

sigh. napa valley sure ain't santa vittoria.

Falstaff said...

lekhni: No, no, wasn't trying to suggest that the tour wasn't fun. Just more fun to write about it this way.

And no, it was something else, I'm sure.

chevalier: Thanks

SB: bare feet? Horrors! Do you realize how unhygienic that would be. Not to mention what it would do to the pH balance.

Oh, and love "hold on to their writs lest they slip" - have vision of dozens of bare-chested manly lawyers petitioning away.

Space Bar said...

:D tyop that was.

??! said...

"Dude"? "Dude"?? These trips really do make you blog un-Falsie-lly.

ggop said...

LOL on the tour guide saying yes to everything. I had a similar experience in an art gallery recently when the tour guide asked tourists what they saw in a piece by Georgia O'Keefe.
Must say I wondered what drugs some of the tourists took before the tour.