The Wine Country Thing

By Greg Fuller

June 21, 2017

One of the dangerous things about living in wine country is proximity. To, you know, all of that wine. I would think years ago it was more of an agricultural experience – enjoy the vineyard vistas, perhaps till the land yourself, maybe get to know a winemaker or two and occasionally be invited to sample their wares. Very bucolic and low key.

But now, between the tours and tasting rooms and special events – all within a few minutes of my doorstep – I can’t sneeze without getting a snootful.

Yesterday was a prime – perhaps I should say premier — example. I was having a bit of the Monday blues, so Irene suggested we go out to lunch. Somewhere Up Valley — because we also had to stop by ZD to replace the absolute killer 2015 Founder’s Reserve Pinot we’d consumed last week – somewhat hastily as it had only been in The Fuller Family Cellar for a week or two since our last lunch excursion. And there was the wine club allocation to pick up in St Helena. One of the great things about the location is not paying shipping costs. So how can you resist?

So – after our ZD stop, and having to carry that booty into the Rutherford Grill with us so as not to cook it in the car during lunch, and then the Markham club pickup, we returned home with the not unusual count of six new bottles to try to stuff into our now totally packed cellar cooler. Even though we’d killed a couple of other bottles from the stock with the ZD over Memorial Day, it was a no go, especially with the oversized pinot bottles that don’t conform to the ‘standard Bordeaux bottle’ sizing that is touted in the manufacturer’s count of 110 bottle capacity. The two bottles of rosé would just have to over-chill in the garage fridge. Those aren’t supposed to age anyway.

Even before we moved to Napa, I discovered the magic of the wine club. At the time, I had just about sworn off much of the domestic wine, and particularly Napa products, since they had become what I perceived as vastly overpriced. Particularly as compared to any number of very drinkable wines from Chile, Argentina, Australia or even France for that matter. I mean – there are any number of very decent French wines at very reasonable prices out there. Who needs a fifty-dollar Napa cab? Surely not on my budget.

But the wine club is sooooo tempting. Just buy a few bottles two to four times a year. At a twenty percent discount. And whenever you stop in to ‘your’ winery, there is free tasting for you and a few friends. Besides, before the move, it was a good excuse to take a drive on a nice day to pickup the latest selection, do a bit of tasting, and enjoy the countryside. Oh – and they invite you to parties. Appetizers, BBQ, full sit down candle light dinners in the wine cave. Accompanied, of course, by additional deals – Cabs at thirty percent off. Cases at fifty percent off. Who can refuse?
Which is why our 110 bottle fridge is packed like the commuters on the Tokyo subway. But – as I said – there’s really not all that many in there. The bigger bottles you know.

Bill, our neighbor across the street, has a business card identifying him as a ‘wine consultant’. The other side of the card touts his expertise at making custom fly rods. Sort of a retirement dual after-career setup. I suppose that if the fish aren’t biting, you go consult on some wine. Or vise versa. Although I’m not sure the relevant seasons are complimentary.

In any case, I was discussing his calling with him one day and he mentioned that he had about four thousand bottles of wine in his collection. One thousand of them here in his garage. “I need to keep up with my clients’ products,” he explained. No doubt.

Also no doubt they are not all ‘standard Bordeaux bottles’. So he has a hell of a fridge in there. It all seemed rather excessive at the time. I mean — he’s not selling the stuff. I suppose the kids could inherit it – that’s what they do at the old Chateaux in France. But it seemed a stretch.

But now, well, I kind of see the logic. Like I said, it seems every time we take a little outing – lunch, a nice drive, a bit of fresh air – we seem to come back with at least half a case of nouveau acquisitions. We’ve piled up a hundred bottles or so in less than a year, so hitting a thousand seems pretty doable. Especially when you get the wine club discount at ‘your’ wineries. And the special deals there too.

It gets worse. Irene was really getting into the Wine Country Thing and took a couple of serious wine education classes at the local Wine Academy. They can lead to certification you know. Or that’s what she told me. Then she started checking the classified towards the end of last year, and with her business background, winning charm and newfound knowledge – taking her beyond Blue Fin and Barefoot – she landed a job ‘in the industry’ as they say here. Working the tasting room and Le Marche gift shop at internationally known Robert Mondavi Winery. Great fun, surrounded by something she enjoys, aka wine. And an hourly rate that isn’t much of a threat to the cap on her Social Security. Sort of like me getting a job in a rib joint. Work what you love.

There are two very serious perks to Irene’s new career. In the first place, ‘RM’ (don’t call him ‘Bob’) was one of the originators of high standards here in The Valley, and as such, his eponymous winery will serve no wine after its time. Which means any bottle opened in the tasting room during the day still not empty at end of day, regardless of price or quality, usually travels home with the staff. Not only does this maintain quality, it’s good marketing. Who’s gonna buy the $300 Cabernet if it was opened yesterday, eh? So the daily ration of Three Dolla Blue Fin has morphed into leftovers of Unoaked Napa Chardonney and PNX Pinot. Condiments in our fridge have given way to clusters of partially consumed Carneros. Fruits to Fumé Blanc. There’s To Kalon Reserve to go with our rib eye. Katie bar the door! Here comes another case!

Quite a perk, as we enjoy the leavings of yet another bottle of Reserve Oakville Cabernet – a major score in the employee end of day sweepstakes. And, you know, it’s gratis. Except of course for the additional short term wine fridge we are considering installing in the kitchen in place of the decorative built in 90’s wine rack, the one now holding a few pre-Mondavi bottles of Barefoot and some cheap spaghetti red.

But, but, but – and this is the insidious seemingly beneficial second perk: Irene gets fifty – Ah said fifty! – percent off most of the wines produced by RM, and a number of other wineries in The Valley owned by their parent, Constellation Brands. And – get this – she gets free tasting as a member of ‘the industry’ at most wineries and tasting rooms here in The Valley. Probably in Sonoma too (which is ‘the other valley’ to us, sort of like ‘the other white meat’), and wait, there’s more! – she gets an ‘industry discount’, usually thirty percent, sometimes a smidgen less, at most of the wineries. Which is pretty irresistible, especially to someone who travels twelve miles to Costco to get a good price on cashews.

So this is why we can’t seem to go on a pleasant drive in the country here without coming back with a significant addition to our stash.

Back when I was a mere Californian – an almost thirty year Marinite – I would have to say I was a pretty frugal wine buyer. Ten bucks for a bottle of red seemed just fine – particularly if I could score something Italian or Spanish. I still have a supply of Trader Joe Albariño that, at six bucks, is a very nice entrée to the evening on a warm day. A fifty dollar cabernet? Perhaps for a really special occasion – and there is a chance that if bought, it would have been squirreled away and perhaps even forgotten – for what occasion was special enough for such a treat?

But what about if you could get that fifty dollar bottle for $37.50? Or even twenty-five dollars? What then? But – stay with me now – what if you could get a hundred dollar bottle for fifty? Would that not loosen up the lock on the cellar for more mundane daily consumption of the sublime? And – as the old saying goes – how you gonna keep ‘em drinking the rot gut now that they’ve tasted a library reserve? Perhaps even from a hundred year old vineyard, as the case may be.

I mean, living here is like the Cookie Monster renting a condo in the Willie Wonka Chocolate Factory – complete with unlimited E Tickets for factory tours. It’s like a pass for unlimited bacon given to the Cable Guy. The wine is everywhere, dammit. What’s a poor oenophile to do?

There are limits, of course. While we don’t rate with the high rolling swells that fly over us in their private jets from time to time and buy $10,000 bottles of Screaming Eagle at the annual Wine Auction, like it or not, our standards have been raised. Much more so than our credit limits. Ain’t it awful?

© 2017 by Greg Fuller

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