An Army Travels on its Liver

The true tale of too many days in the wine regions of California.
And hangovers to die for.

First, a note to modern readers: this story was written ten years ago. I have tried to preserve the original text, even where some of it is dated. I've done very little editing to bring it up to date. More recent impressions appear in other tales in this section, and may be pointed to by hyperlinks in the text here.

The ratings that accompanied this article originally are not included here. They are, well, no longer really relevant, since all the wines are now 12-15 years old and made from unobtanium.


When, Where, Why

In the fall of 1985, my wife, Ms. T., my brother, Dave, and I took an extended trip to the wine country of California. We spent our vacation drinking our way through northern California's finest vineyards and wineries and restaurants and gutters. And what do we have to show for it? A cellar full of wonderful, precious liquids and several empty bank accounts. Oh, yes, and great if spotty memories. And probably some liver damage.

You know what it's like to have a buzz on for ten days? I stop drinking the day we fly back East, and I feel terrible the whole day, on the plane, at dinner in Boston, all the way home. Ms. T., always a clever child, samples the airline's hospitality to keep her blood alcohol level up in the normal range, so she doesn't feel awful until the next day, at home.

Remember the old vaudeville joke?

Patient (gesticulating): Doctor, Doctor! It hurts when I do this!
Doctor: Don't do that.

Lesson learned: the hangover comes when you stop drinking. Don't stop drinking.

The Disclaimer

Now let's get this straight: this is NOT a learned commentary on wine. This is more in the nature of a travelogue. It's filled with unsupported opinion, raves and raspberries where I care to dispense them. I do not claim to "know a lot about wine." I claim only to have opinions when I taste wine. I don't even claim that these opinions are consistent from year to year, day to day, or glass to glass. But at least I write them down for the amusement of others. If you find that some of my judgments match your own, then maybe they will be useful to you. If you find that they don't match, well, at least you didn't pay much for this book.

The Plan

We fly to San Francisco and rent a station wagon. Yes, I figure that three people and luggage and a few cases of wine might overcrowd the average Avismobile, so for a few extra bucks we get the extra space. Good thing, as it turns out. We spend time every day trying to make all the crap fit into the station wagon. A mere car would be a disaster, with cases of booze strapped to the roof.

Our plan is simple: if we know the name of a winery and like their stuff, check it out. If we don't know the name of a winery, check it out. This eliminates only about ten wineries in the state, so we have a lot of work to do.

The main wine regions in California are in Napa and Sonoma counties north of San Francisco, primarily in the Napa Valley, which most Americans know through Falconcrest, and the Russian River, Sonoma, and Alexander Valleys just to the west of Napa. We spend several days at a delightful inn in St. Helena in the middle of the Napa region, then a few at an inn in Cloverdale in the Russian River area, then a few in Sonoma. We're aiming for a thorough sampling rather than a thorough survey. A real survey would require a couple weeks in each region.

Yes, there are other wine regions in California, but we didn't get to those on this trip. Frankly, I don't care about the other regions. I like the wines from Napa, Philistine that I am, and they occupy most of my attention.

[There, now the cognoscenti will have stopped reading, so you and I, the normal folk, can continue. They would only raise the prices, anyway.]

Every morning, we try over breakfast to decide on an approximate route for the day, then load up the car, the cameras, the maps, the crackers, the breads, the aspirin, the antacids, and off we go. Ms. T. and I had been to Napa many times before, and to Sonoma once, so we knew the drill. Dave was there for the first time, relatively a wine virgin.

We usually do fairly well with our projected routes. Of course, everything takes longer than you expect, so the things planned for the end of the day rarely make it on the first try. If they are really important, they get moved to early the next day. If not, they get moved to the next trip. "Save something for next time!" is the cry of the overplanned traveler.

We get lunch at a specialty food store several days, find scenic picnic spots up in the hills, and enjoy our quiches, cheeses, sausages, chardonnays, and general decadence.

One of the ways to taste a lot of wines, especially those from wineries we can't get to, is to get a basket full of half bottles to take out with lunch. That way we can have several different wines with lunch and still be able to drive again before winter comes.

Of course, to keep those lunch foods and drinks chilled, we need a cheapo Styrofoam cooler and bag of ice in the trunk. Not surprisingly, coolers and ice are easy to come by in a region where the local economy depends on alcoholic liquids. Even if we don't want to chill the wines, an insulated cooler keeps the sun from baking our cabernet during the heat of the day.

And of course we have to drink before and during dinner. One of the places we stay has a wine tasting every evening before dinner. Two or three bottles and a selection of breads, fruits, and cheeses. For five people plus the owner. We try to test a bottle every evening before dinner anyway, even if there is no organized tasting.

By plan, it is fall in the valley, harvest time, "the crush." The vines are heavy with tasty little grapes. After a few cool evenings, there are fall colors in the vines, spectacular yellows and reds, like midget maples. I'm told that grapes are quite delicious at harvest, though I would never, ever think myself of stopping by the road to reach out and taste them. No, never? Well, hardly ever.

Picking and crushing are going on constantly. The smell of fermenting, like rotting fruit, is all over the valley. After a week, I learn to hate the smell. But a day after leaving, I would love to smell it again. Some of the winery tours are more interesting because of the activity. You get to see -- and smell -- huge vats boiling over with purple foam, for instance. Amazing how much gas and heat and general violence little yeast things can cause when they are working on ten thousand gallons of liquid all at once.

The Protocol

You go to a winery and there is a list of wines to be tasted, usually progressing from white to red and from dry to sweet. A few wineries have crackers or bread available to clear your palate between wines. Yes, it really works. We keep nice, dull crackers such as Bremner Wafers, or wonderful San Francisco region sourdough bread in the car for clearing and for general munching. Sometimes I'm smart enough to put a couple crackers into my shirt pocket before going into a tasting room.

Dave turns out to be a bread fanatic. Every type of bread loaf, brioche, baguette, batard, or roll that we pass for two weeks, he samples. Most of them he pays for. One or more of each finds its way into the collection in the back seat. Some of them are wonderful. Some are very peculiar; I am thinking particularly of the fennel pretzel loaf, which sounds less awful than it tastes.

In the tasting room, you get, generally, one glass. The person behind the bar pours you successive tastes of several different wines. A taste is one to two ounces. Most places, you taste three or four different wines. You go to about ten wineries a day. Multiply it out. Two bottles a day, maybe three. Per person. Every day. Cirrhosis city.

After the first couple days, I try to cut down by

  1. limiting myself to a few types of wine, specifically Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc. If there is nothing else to drink, I'll have the Champagne. I'm easy. And I can always be talked into an exceptional Merlot or a Johannesburg Riesling. But wild horses can't drag me to a Zinfandel.

    Zinfandel is like anti-freeze, only drier. Ever wonder why they spell Zerex with a Z? A great zinfandel compares poorly with a mediocre cabernet. White zin compares poorly with Listerine.

    [Now I've really got rid of the aficionados. Only an ignorant, crass, asbestos-tongued bungler like me would admit that he doesn't like zinfandel. Putrid stuff. Someday someone will skewer me with a blind tasting, but until then I will exercise my freedom of speech slandering the swill.]

  2. stopping after two sips unless I really like the wine. I find that my opinion rarely changes after the first couple sips and sniffs. If it's ordinary, or worse, don't bother to finish the taste. Pour the rest of the taste out into the spittoon usually thoughtfully provided. (Oh, the waste!)

    If I like the stuff, on the other hand, I don't have the heart to throw it away, so drink it all. If it's really good, lick out the inside of the glass.

Having thus minimized my consumption, I then have the wit to write down my impressions of the various wines. Well, actually, I write down something about only the ones I might be tempted to order again. If I am forced to sample something outside my areas of concentration, I don't bother to record an opinion unless the wine was exceptionally good or bad.

I buy one of the standard Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wine books and scribble in the margins alongside the descriptions of the wineries. By the time the trip is over, a surprising number of pages are stained with pencil and other substances.

The Impression

My overall impression of the crop of wines being tasted is that the whites are good to great, the reds are not so hot. For the most part, we are tasting 81-83 chardonnays, 83-84 sauvignon blancs, and 80-82 cabernets. The best of the whites are among the best I have ever tasted. The cabs, however, are very heavy and very tannic, and just don't compare with the 78s in particular or the 77-79s in general.

Here's some of the subjectivity: I like light, clear Bordeaux wines, not the typical three-ton California cabernet. You know, more like St. Julien or St. Estephe, rather than St. Emilion or Pomerol. Good thing, too: they're cheaper. So I think that the 78 California cabs, like Beaulieu, Sterling, Rutherford, Phelps, et al., are the best things I've ever tasted. Maybe they won't last forever. (They sure won't in my cellar, because I'll drink them.) Another great vintage is bound to come along some year.

[There, we finally got rid of the last of the wine snobs. Liking light, fruity wines that can be drunk young is the last sure sign of ignorance beneath contempt.]

It's really strange. I have this one friend with whom I disagree fairly often on wines. He swears that the wines he prefers taste like fruit, and the wines I prefer taste like kitty litter. And yet I think that I prefer wines that are more like fruit than like dirt. I admit that I like dry wines with deep flavor, but that flavor should contain berries and wood and chocolate. Oh, well.

The Commercial Purpose

Back to the mainstream of this evening's symposium, I ought to mention that the purpose of a tasting room, as far as the winery is concerned, is to sell the product. They give away free samples in the hope that you'll buy their wines. They particularly hope that you'll buy it there at the winery so they can eliminate the profit of the middle man.

Now, if you come from some other part of the continent, e.g., New England in my case, which is about as far away as you can get, then buying wine to take home with you is simply not practical. It is heavy, bulky, and fragile. Aha. Two recent innovations come to the rescue.

  1. There is wonderful, klutz-proof packaging available at most large wine stores in the area. Big Styrofoam inserts in sturdy cardboard cartons, taped up with indestructible plastic. The manufacturer's goal is that a six foot drop onto concrete will not spill a drop. Seems to work, too, because the airlines regularly test the cartons this way. If you are buying a case of wine, most stores will throw in the carton, which otherwise would cost, oh, six bucks.

    Now personally I would never, ever think of avoiding the liquor taxes of the great state I live in by carrying cases of wine back with me from trips such as this, but I am reliably informed that these cartons actually can survive being checked as baggage on most major airlines.

    You worry about not being allowed to check several of these large boxes in addition to your two suitcases per person? Again, I would never, ever think of doing this, but I am reliably informed that a ten or twenty dollar bill used correctly at the curbside check-in often results in unusual arithmetic, such as, "One, two, three, four, four, four, four."

  2. If you live in California, the stores can ship the cartons to your home by UPS. Shipping across state lines is another matter entirely.

    It appears that most of the large stores and wineries in the Napa Valley have worked out an arrangement with an express shipping service to ship cartons of stuff all over the country. Funny, the stores in Sonoma have never heard of this arrangement. In any case, for the outrageous sum of about $36 per case, based entirely on weight, an express service will ship this box to your front door. Of course, I would never, ever consider doing such a thing myself, so they don't have to ship any to my front door.

There are a couple spectacularly good wine stores in Napa Valley: The Oakville Grocery Store (owned by the Phelps family, I'm told) and the St. Helena Wine Merchants (formerly Ernie's Wine Shop). There are probably others, too, but I have done business with these. Their selections include HUNDREDS of different wines. Mostly local, of course, but Formerly Ernie's has a significant French and German selection as well. The Oakville Grocery is also one of the neatest, and most expensive, gourmet food shops around, a great place to select a picnic lunch.

The Listing

Some small number of other people might be interested in the impressions I record about the taste of all these wines. Being a computer person, I naturally want to record my impressions in machine-readable form. So I enter my opinions of 109 different wines into a database. The result is "Rick's Picks," a listing of which follows.

Another note to modern readers: never mind. Who would seriously want to see a list of 100 wines that you can't find anymore? These things were on the market ten years ago, so they're not even in people's cellars anymore. However, I have been recording similar impression for the last few years, too, on occasion, and those will be posted here instead.

I have tried to record enough data to enable one to identify the wine unambiguously. For instance, if there is a vineyard name, such as "Martha's Vineyard" (no joke), or a source designation, such as "Napa Valley," I have tried to note that in the listing. If the wine is not attributed to a particular vintage, then the listing shows year 00. Now I am sorry that I didn't always record the prices, too. Oops.

The rating system is totally subjective, but an explanation of the approximate thought process is included. Happy imbibing!

Comments and flames to the author:
"Why use logic when there's a flame-thrower handy?" Hey, go ahead. I didn't exactly leave the gloves on when I wrote this.

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All contents copyright (C) 1985,1995,2001, Richard Landau. All rights reserved.
Revised: 2001/01/29