I watched “Sideways” this weekend, which I appreciate more every time I watch it, partially because I understand wine better with each passing year, but mostly because I myself am technically a failed writer. So I can relate to the Miles character a little bit.
But no matter how much I relate to Miles or how much I learn about wine, it doesn’t change the fact that I will never be refined enough to enjoy the whole wine-tasting experience as much as some of my more distinguished peers. For one, fermented grape juice gives me heartburn, and for two, I really, really don’t care about nutty undertones and effervescent aromas. I’m just not that into it.
My first real experience at a high-class winery occured somewhere in the Wisconsin backwoods (okay, it was like fifteen minutes away from the Dells) and when it came time for the tasting portion of the tour I stood around with my brother and buddy Kevin like yokels at a book club. We were clueless. What is the proper etiquette for this sort of thing?
Everything I knew about the process I had learned from “Sideways,” but that movie was a distant memory when I lifted the glass to my face to initiate the wine-tasting procedure. Cupping my palm around bulb of the glass and raising it to my lips, the lady working at the sampling table stopped me with the look of someone watching a child trying to shovel food into his mouth with the handle-end of a fork. “No,” she said, “You’re not doing it right. Have you ever been to a tasting before?”
Kyle and Kevin, mere bystanders at this point, chuckled heartily at the question, inwardly thankful it was me making the ass of myself instead of them.
“Yes,” I said. “Of course.”
She looked at me skeptically.
“Okay, no,” I corrected, hanging my head, chin-to-chest. “I’m so ashamed.”
Then I cried a little bit and the lady held me in her lap, rocking me and stroking my hair until I calmed down. Then, she showed me the right way to do it. The steps of proper wine-tasting are as follows:
#1 – Hold the glass by the stem and lift it to the light, so you can see the color.
#2 – Turn the glass sideways to see the density of the color.
#3 – Insert your nose into the glass and sniff, getting a full sense of the wine’s aroma.
#4 – Swirl it around to let the oxygen invade the wine. This is called “letting it breathe,” and it’s good for flavor and aroma.
#5 – Smell it again.
#6 – Taste it, but only just a little, and let it swish all over your “palette.” That’s the word wine people use for “tongue.”
#7 – Spit it out into the spittoon. Bonus points if it makes a puh-TING sound.
Before having been straightened out, these were the steps I assumed were to be taken:
#1 – Raise glass to lips and drink contents in their entirety.
#2 – If there is still wine in the bottle, pour more into your glass and repeat step #1. Continue doing so until bottle is empty.
#3 – Pass out on winery lawn.
As you can see, my way would’ve been simpler, but less refined. So I did it the winery lady’s way and was left feeling somehow dirtier. It’s like when the waiter at a really fancy restaurant puts the cloth napkin on my lap for me. Something’s not right about that—there’s just too much pomp involved in the whole process. It’s a napkin for cripe's sake. I can handle it.
Anyway, the wine was tasty enough, but all wine is tasty enough. Church wine is tasty enough. There’s no need to go through all the huffelty-puffelty just to put down a gulp of alcohol. Imagine going to a bar and ordering a black & tan in a long-stemmed glass. The barkeep would laugh at you, and if you tried sniffing at it and swirling like a little girly-person they’d boot your rear end out of the building.
Whatever the case may be, I was glad I’d learned the ins and outs of wine-tasting when my wife and I went to visit my cousin Joanna in San Francisco, because we spent the better part of a full day wandering around Sonoma Valley. Clearly I’ve established that I’m not a wine person, but Wine Country (hell, California in general) is just about as beautiful as America can get.
So riddle me this—how does a guy spend three to four hours at various wineries and experience not so much as a single inebriated giggle from the whole ordeal? Like I said, the scenery was amazing. Rows and rows of grapes wrapping over subtle hills, the whitest, fluffiest clouds even spaced on a perfectly-blue canvas sky. Gorgeous weather, gentle breezes, and clean California air (thank you, Governor Schwarzenegger). It was lovely, but sober.
If you’re looking for a refined, good-natured afternoon at a winery, where you can hold glasses of liquid to the light and sniff to your little heart’s content, then Napa and Sonoma Valleys are a wise vacation destination decision. But if you aren’t the sort of person who eats fancy cheeses not named "Cheddar" or "Mozzarella" or, preferably, "American," and you don't mind living a relatively classless life, I've got the answer to your winery needs...
Here’s my idea: You build a facility with award-winning winemakers behind the scenes so that the wine itself is actually delicious. You've got to have that because you want people to come, but the kick to my dream here is that everybody gets to wear jogging pants and collarless shirts while they drink wine out of plastic sippy cups. There would be a stage at one end of the grounds where awesome bands would come and play, and you could bring tents and grills and just stay all night drinking wine and listening to music in your pajamas. Instead of selling cheeses and summer sausages in the gift shop, there’d be Doritos and a little pizza place like they have at some gas stations. We could set up beanbag games and horseshoe pits somewhere near the camping area, and you’d get in free if you could belch the alphabet. We'd have to call it something audacious, like "Nipple Slip Winery," but I'm not married to that name.
Seriously. That’s a winery I can get on board with.
Less interesting is the hoity-toity environment surrounding all the other wineries. I’d love to enjoy it more, but the process has made me a little bitter. And, someone needs to invent a wine flavor that doesn’t require I ingest 6 TUMS after a glass and a half. Come on, Science. Where you at?