Last week I finally got around to writing a post about wine. I touched on pairings and varietals, and I was getting ready to delve into the best wine region, but I thought I’d hold off. Because I’ve got quite a few things to say about the wine-producing regions of California. And what should, and should not, be considered “wine country.” And this needs a post of its own.
My curling club is called “Wine Country Curling Club.” We were founded in Vacaville, about 30 miles southeast of Napa. But in 2011, the club moved to a suburb of Sacramento. This has occasionally led to some debate. Sacramento, the argument goes, is nowhere near wine country. Sure, there are a few wineries that dot the landscape in and around Sacramento. You can wine taste for an afternoon in Clarksburg, and maybe the better part of the day in Lodi. Midtown Sacramento has a few tasting rooms but no grapes, and Placer County, where our curling club is actually located, finally threw in the towel and renamed their wine trail a “Wine and Ale Trail,” which includes a microbrew every other block, just like every other city in America these days. It’s great for curlers, who tend more toward beer than wine, anyway.
Some people think we should change our name to avoid confusion or disappointment. And while we’ve unofficially gone with a generic “Curl Sacramento” route, the name that has been floated the most often is “Gold Country Curling Club.” Because gold was discovered in the foothills near here and Sacramento was the main destination for most of the 49ers heading west. The area around highway 49 (named for the gold rushers) from Auburn (about thirty miles northeast of Sacramento) to Placerville (forty miles east of Sacramento) calls itself gold country, and Coloma, where gold was first found, is smack dab in the middle.
But here’s where they lose the argument, and here’s where I get riled up. Because Placerville, old Hangtown, is pretty much the capital of Gold Country. And if we’re naming ourselves after Placerville, then we need to call ourselves Wine Country. Because Placerville is at the north end of what is, in my estimation, one of the best wine regions around. And more than the best wine region, it’s, hands down, the best winery region.
Some people say Amador County is what Napa County was in the eighties. And what Sonoma County was in the nineties. A nice, bucolic masterpiece of rolling hills with wineries who are happy to see you visit and employees who can talk to you about the wine they are pouring beyond the tasting notes that were printed by some conglomerate. Heck, the person pouring your tasting on any particular day might be the winemaker himself.
Last September, we found an out-of-the-way winery near Plymouth, California. Which is a pretty impressive feat, considering that Plymouth itself is already about as out of the way as something can get. You have to go through twelve different dead spots in cell coverage to get there. The town has one restaurant. And, as I found out at my last anniversary, if the one bed and breakfast owner in the town has had a cold in the past month, you’re pretty much sleeping under a tree or hoofing it back to Sacramento for the night.
But this particular winery is even out of the way for Plymouth. It’s not on either of the two or three main winery loops in Amador County. The only reason we found it at all was that we were looking for a back way into Fiddletown. And no, that’s not a euphemism. There’s a town called Fiddletown. Okay, “town” is being generous. There’s a place called Fiddletown. There are only two ways to get there. You can take Fiddletown Road or you can take the back road. And on the back road, way at the top of a hill, hidden from view of just about every human being in existence, is a winery called Distant Cellars. Get it? Distant! As in “no cell service.”
Anyway, when we stopped by this particular winery on a September midday, we were greeted by a spectacle of an employee. Or maybe he was a drifter. Dude was dirty and sweaty, wearing a beat up t-shirt. Wife and I pass a little bit of a look between us. I mean, I don’t need my sommelier to be wearing a tuxedo or anything, especially at a winery that only one customer stumbles upon per day. But Jesus, dude, would it kill you to bathe a little bit before you come into work? We’ve all had those hungover mornings, but you gotta fake it till you make it.
Except this wasn’t a rando employee suffering from too much Friday night. And it wasn’t a hobo, either. This was the owner. Sort of. He was the caretaker, the guy who ran the winery. His sons are firefighters and they bought the winery land as a retirement plan. Only they’re not retired yet, so it’s up to pops to run things in the meantime.
And of course, the reason he was dirty and sweaty and wearing a beater was because it was September, and September is harvest time. He had been up since 5:00 that morning picking two tons of grapes. And now he was preparing for a six-hour stint in the tasting room.
That’s more or less what you can expect from Amador County. Allegedly Napa was this way in the seventies and eighties. I’m not old enough to remember that, but nowadays, the winemaker at a Napa winery is probably housed in some secret bunker behind five layers of computerized and DNA-based security, his child being held at gunpoint until he can verify the proper tannin level of the cabernet-syrah blend.
Oh, and did I mention you don’t pay to taste in Amador? You used to not have to pay in Napa or Sonoma either. I’m old enough to remember that practice, but barely. It started to go by the wayside in the mid-nineties. First it was just a few wineries charging a nominal fee that would be refunded with a purchase. Kinda makes sense. They’d rather have you buy a bottle, but if not, you don’t get something for nothing.
And of course, if you were friendly enough with the pourer, you might not get charged for the tasting fee, anyway. The tasting fee was basically just there to dissuade the people who are only looking to go from winery to winery trying to get a cheap buzz with no interest whatsoever in actually making a purchase. But if you talk to the pourer about wine, or about their lives, or about current events, or pretty much treat them in any way other than, “Hey, fuckface, give me free booze,” then they’d probably “forget” to charge you. Or maybe they’d think you’re purchasing from the other guy. Or maybe they’d legitimately forget, because maybe they’re now splitting their time between you and a group of assholes that have no interest in purchasing.
Regardless, the initial tasting fees were primarily there to discourage douchebags, not a legitimate money-making device. Of course, back then the pourers were usually connoisseurs themselves. They moved to Napa or commuted to the valley for the day, because they wanted to be able to take a sip from time to time and be able to talk to like-minded individuals about oakiness and complexity. Kinda like Amador.
By the turn of the century, a few of the wineries in Napa were starting to charge for tasting whether you purchased any wine or not. I initially assumed they would lose a lot in their wine sales. One of the stories in the original “Freakonomics” book was about a daycare center that started charging people if they picked their kids up late, then were astounded when the number of late pick-ups increased. Because charging took away the guilt of showing up late. Now a parent could justify coming in late. Similarly, I’ve been to plenty of wineries where I thought the wine was mediocre, but bought it anyway out of a general obligation for the hospitality of their few sample pours.
But clearly, bottle sales didn’t drop enough to stop the practice, because by 2005 or so, you couldn’t go anywhere in the Napa Valley without paying for tasting. And they aren’t five dollars anymore. It’s twenty bucks now, and that twenty bucks doesn’t get you closer to purchasing. Not even the fancy cheese they’re all running out of their deli. Sorry, charcuterie. Deli’s aren’t nearly hip enough for Napa.
Now they charge you up front, before they’ve even gotten a glass out for you. Some places, like the Castle, you’re charged by somebody up front before you’ve even met your pourer. And the pourers, in kind, are not interested in making a sale or talking to you about wine or really anything other than pouring the properly-allotted volume of predetermined liquid. Ask them what their favorite is, or how that unopened bottle tastes, and they’ll shrug and tell you it’s not in the script.
In Amador, if you ask how that wine in that bottle back there is, the owner will probably open it right then and there and take a sip of it first before pouring some for you.
And look, I’m not taking anything away from Napa. I mean, if you can charge someone for something or offer it for free and not have your sales impacted enough to matter, then more power to you. And I guess I never realized how many people went wine tasting without purchasing or ever intending to purchase. In my opinion, anyone that gets free tastes with no intention to buy is a piece of shit. If you don’t like their wine, fine. But if you like it, but only want to take it for free, then you’re the one who ruined it for the rest of us.
And Napa absolutely had to do something, because they were becoming a destination for cheap buzzes. Party busses, party limos, party trains. They all descend upon a winery, pushing the rest of the customers off to the side or, more likely, to another winery. Then they spend a half-hour being obnoxious, not engaging the staff nor purchasing any product, then they’re back into the bus or limo or train and on to shill the next winery out of its hard-earned product. Even the Amador wineries have taken to charging these groups, because they are clearly only there for the “experience.” And usually they cost a winery in lost customers. Any time I see a limo out front, I drive to the next winery.
But when a winery charges you to taste, regardless of whether you buy or not, then they’re in the same business as the limo tours. It’s all about the tourists and day trippers, not the wine drinkers. As a result, Napa now markets itself more as an Adult Disneyland experience than a wine region. And the quality of their wine has suffered now that they cater to customers who are there for the experience.
I mentioned the Castello de Amarosa earlier. They are the most egregious and most epitomal example of what Napa has become. It’s a castle. Like, a legitimate castle. Not a replica. The owners purchased a run-down medieval castle from some defunct principality in Germany and paid to move it, brick by brick, to the Napa Valley. It’s… well, I was going to say beautiful, but only fake castles are beautiful. (See above: Disneyland) The real castles were more concerned with “workable for purposes of defense” than beautiful. But the Castello de Amarosa is majestic, if not beautiful.
They charge you to get in. There are a variety of tickets available. One just allows you entrance to see the grounds to peruse on your own. Another ticket will grant you a guided tour, but still no wine. If you want to actually taste the wine, you have to buy a separate ticket and find your own way to the dungeon tasting room. And no, I’m not being facetious. They literally have the wine tasting in the bowels of the castle, with a ceiling that a six-foot tall person would have to duck under. There’s no ventilation and a lot of people being jostled about as an automaton fills their glasses with all the regularity and grace of an assembly line worker. The Model T only comes in black and the castle only pours four tastings.
How was the wine? Well, as wine tasting goes… they have a very nice castle.
I suppose they’ve done a very wise thing to accentuate the winery itself, and not the wine. Because the wine was quite unpleasant. It was very young. They were serving a red wine with a harvest date two years earlier. And I don’t think they were the only Napa wines I saw that were eighteen months past harvest. Four years used to be the minimum, but now it’s all about turn-and-burn, baby.
Then again, I highly doubt the castle wine was going to cellar well. I’ve tasted some young wines, and done some barrel tasting, that age well. They are usually very smooth, probably even more accessible to a random non-wine drinker. The grape is the dominant flavor early on. The complexity comes with age. The Castle wine, on the other hand, tasted a little bit sour. Like maybe it’s best future would be mixed into a sangria. Or like its average customer has partaken in some of the two hundred wineries that lie closer to the Napa Valley entrance than it. And really, nobody’s here for the wine, anyway. Taste the good stuff first, then come look at our snazzy castle.
But hey, at least I got a good idea for a key scene in my novel, which is great, cause I sure as shit didn’t buy any wine. Nice to know the entry fee wasn’t a complete waste.
And that’s why I’ll also put the Amador wine up against most of what’s coming out of Napa these days. It isn’t just the experience and the hospitality that are better. These days, Napa is catering to Bay Area new-money newbies or travelers from afar, neither of which really want good wine. They might want expensive wine, but they want it to be consumed like craft beer. Chug, motherfucker, chug.
The typical winery in Amador County will have more varietals available for tasting and purchase. Napa’s pretty much doubled down on Cabernet and Chardonnay. Go to an Amador winery and you’ll see Barbera and Zinfandel and Primitivo and Syrah and Petit Syrah and Mouverdre and Grenache and Tempranillo. And there are white wines, too.
Their varietals have variety, too. Last September, we went to a Barbera Festival, where over fifty wineries were literally pouring only one varietal. But it didn’t get tiring, because the babera grape can go in a lot of different directions, especially with all of the micro-climates that occur in volcanic foothills. Far from the Napa Valley (and to a lesser extent, the Pinot-rich central coast), where they try to mimic the agreed-upon flavor as much as possible and the only variance is spectacular, good, mediocre, or castle.
So there you have it. My wine post, parts one and two. Now you can all dismiss my well-informed enlightenment and go back to your tannic cabernet and try to pretend it doesn’t feel like someone just scratched your mouth with a brillo pad. Or your buttery chard with its aftertaste of aftertaste. And hey, I didn’t mention it before, but a lot of pinots taste like Band-aids.
And when you’re done doing all that, check out an Alicante Bouchet from the foothills.