Call that title punetic licence or something. Of course we didn’t spit; we swallowed, like the oenophilic sluts we are. We love wine far too much to squander the lovely stuff on the spittoon so it was case of small sips for the designated driver and sucking down every last drop for the lucky passenger. I’m talking about our recent trip to California wine country.
I like California. The weather in summer manages to be warm, but not too warm. It’s sunny, but not oppressively humid. There’s often a cooling breeze. The beaches are long, open and strewn with patterned pebbles, shattered crabs, surf-smoothed jetsam, and tangled clots of marine plant life that look like a nightmare conglomeration of overcooked lasagne verde and slimy alien birthing pods. It reminds me of parts of the British coast and yet it’s also so different that I never feel at home. The waves swell and heave more impressively. The hills stretch back higher and further. Little terns or petrels or - hell, I don’t know what sort of birds they were - pick frantically at the slick, wet sand exposed by the receding foam and wait until the last second before trotting comically away from the next incoming wave. Gulls wheel and squeal and bully. There are surfers, and they chase away the OC and bring the Beach Boys back.
On the first day we headed south from San Francisco, down to Bonny Doon Vineyard. We made a special detour here because this is the place that initially persuaded me that my previously dismissive attitude to Californian wine needed a serious rethink. About a year ago we visited some friends who insisted we try a bottle of Bonny Doon’s 2002 Cigare Volant. I was sceptical. I am an old-world wine snob. For me, it doesn’t get any better than a damned good Bordeaux or a big, sweaty Rioja. I like the earthiness of old-world reds; the complexity of them. I like that they are not overly laden with sweet fruit and jamminess and all those sickly top-notes which so often swamp new world wines; especially Aussie and Californian ones. Too much fruit flavour in a wine is like too much of any good thing: too much. French wines are subtle and difficult and sleazy and dark and polluted. Californian wines used to strike me as being like candy and gum and Coke and Barbie dolls as opposed to dark chocolate and spices and brandy and sex. And then I tried the 02 Cigare and experienced the revelation of a new breed of Californian wine.
The guy who runs Bonny Doon is an enthusiast and an amiable nut. He has wines called “Big House Red” and “Cardinal Zin” and “Domaine des Blageurs” and (my favourite) “Heart of Darkness”. Some of the labels feature Gerald Scarfe drawings – how cool is that? He is clearly a lover of French wine and the French way of making it, and yet he doesn’t try to slavishly replicate Cotes Du Rhone, Claret and Burgundy. He takes an old-world approach to winemaking and applies it to California grapes and California methods. The results are an absolute bastard crossbreed joy. You get the best of both worlds. You get toppiness and big fruit but undercut with leather and tobacco and pepper. The best Bonny Doon wines are explosive on the palate and leave a lingering afterglow in the mouth. With the hindsight offered by our trip I can say that while they may not be the “best” wines in California, for my taste they’re some of the most inspired, surprising, experimental and original. And the folk in the tasting room are so nice, so enthusiastic, and so keen for you to enjoy their wines it’s really quite touching. None of the rote litany of method and grape combination and vintage comparison you find at so many better-known wineries, just “Woah, you HAVE to try the 03, dude. On a scale of one to damned good it’s… damned good!”
Over the course of the next five or six days we visited over twenty wineries and perhaps four or five other tasting outlets. Fear not: I shall not attempt to describe them all individually.
That first night we stayed in a motel in Santa Cruz. We wandered down to the boardwalk and I went on the roller coaster by the sea. I had to; it’s a rock landmark. Take it away, Jonathan Richman:
“You see I went on the roller coaster last night when I was feeling bad
Down by the sea in Santa Cruz, and I was feeling sad
But we went down, and around, and it knocked me out of my head.”
The next day we drove to Pleasanton in the Livermore valley. We wanted to do this because Livermore is where Ann was raised and she fancied a nostalgia-wallow, and to see how badly the place had been ruined by excessive development. Answer: golf courses and gated estates where ranches and open country used to be, but apart from that it’s a nice little town and the hotel we stayed in was lovely. If there’s one thing better than staying in a good hotel it’s staying in a good hotel with someone you love. I felt like the holiday had really begun.
The next winery we visited was La Rochelle, which was having a special tasting of three Pinot Noir vintages: 2002, ’03 and ’04. These were superb; especially the ’02, which flooded nose and palate with subtle, complex notes of ripe maturity. The ’03 and ’04 were also delicious, if a little more adolescent in character, but they showed enough potential to suggest they’d soon grow up into strapping young adults. So we bought a case: four of each vintage. I began to foresee a serious dent in my credit card balance. Such recklessness, but on the other hand, what the hell?
Then it was a steady run up to Healdsburg for our four-night stay at the delightfully arty Hotel Duchamp. This place was the business. A mere six apartments open onto a long, narrow pool and an outdoor hot tub. The apartments have spacious, comfortable rooms with minimalist but cool décor. It was just the thing for a few days in the heart of wine country, and Healdsburg made an ideal base for our forays into the area’s major regions: Russian River, Napa and Sonoma.
And yes, that bloody well is white wine we were drinking in the last picture. Look, I’ve always said a nice, cold, crisp white is okay for drinking outdoors in warm weather. That Steven Kent Sauvignon Blanc fitted the bill perfectly. But over the course of the next four days it was, of course, mainly the big reds we sampled. We had Pinots Noir and Gris; cunning combinations of Cabernets, Mourvedres, and Nebbiolos; obligatory Zinfandels and even some unexpectedly full-on Merlots.
We were pleasantly surprised by some impertinent dessert wines. We visited one place – Dutch Henry – which not only had some of the best reds we tried but also possibly the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted, anywhere - at over 40 bucks for a half litre!
Ann and I seem to enjoy driving holidays together, and we’ve had a fair few. We’ll listen to CDs for a while, debate directions, cruise in contented silence, make impulsive photo stops… it really is most congenial. Every day we followed a sort-of itinerary – okay, let me be more accurate than that – we had an extremely carefully-planned itinerary, thanks to Ann’s fondness for doing plenty of pre-holiday research and printing out reams of directions from Google Maps. And yet it never felt like we were locked into a rigid timetable. We just had these pre-identified points on the way which we’d probably make sooner or later, you know? The best sort of planning makes your time easier, not more stressful. Before the trip we had noted a number of wineries we definitely wanted to visit but that didn’t stop us more-or-less randomly deciding to add places to the list. On the one day when we didn’t really have a plan, I started calling out the names of nearby places to see if Ann liked the sound of any of them.
“How about Wente?”
“Nah. Too big. Too well known. Let’s do small and cute”
“So, probably not Kendall Jackson or Sutter Home, then.”
“No. Something more like Dutch Henry or Steven Kent”
“Okay. Wow, look at those hills. Damn, I really like California”
“Me too. It’s beautiful. But you know what they say.”
“No. What do they say?”
“They say you should leave California before you get too soft, and you should leave New York before you get too hard”
“Hey – this place sounds cute! “Valley of the Moon Winery”. What do you think?”
“Fuck that. I’m not going to no 'valley of the fucking moon'. That sounds like exactly the sort of granola crap I hate about California.”
“Umm. Okay. I guess you left California before you got too soft. Or maybe it’s time you left New York…”
Somewhere in there we drove to Yountville and had dinner at Bouchon, having predictably failed to snag a booking at the legendary French Laundry. Thomas Keller is the chef behind both, however, and Bouchon aims to be a superior but faithful French bistro rather than simply the best restaurant in the US(a plaudit often given to French Laundry). It succeeds admirably. The food is classic bistro fare but superbly done, and the biggest shock of all is how inexpensive it is for food of such quality. We felt so satisfied at the end of the meal that it was clear that the best way to round off the evening would be to purchase one of their takeaway cigars (what a civilised place!) and share it under the stars as we cruised back to Healdsburg with the top down.
Throughout this period we were steadily accruing a fine collection of wines. A Syrah from this winery, two Cabs from that, a dessert wine here, a Pinot there… and by the time we were ready to move on to San Francisco we were carrying something like two cases of mixed wines, not to mention about five bottles of olive oils, dressings etc. We were planning to ship one of these cases and carry the others home with us so we could get stuck into some of them at the earliest opportunity. And then the Brit terror scare broke and naturally we were overjoyed to learn that no liquids of any kind would be allowed as part of carry-on luggage. Oh well, we thought, no problem. We’ll just ship the lot, from San Francisco.
Much easier said than done. As a Brit I have frequently found it extremely hard to get my head around the mind-boggling irrationality of many US alcohol laws so I suppose I shouldn’t have been as amazed as I was to discover that shipping wine out of state is a highly dicey and unpredictable business, fraught with obscure restrictions and apparently pointless obstacles. So, you might be able to ship one particular winery’s produce to a certain subset of states but that is no guarantee that the same subset will apply at the next winery. Even more annoyingly, things become very difficult indeed when you want to ship a mixed case containing wines from several different places. It turned out that we couldn’t find a single place in San Francisco who would ship such a case. I began to get worried when one of the places I tried told me it was actually illegal to do so. It was a pretty sickening feeling to realise that we might have bought all this lovely and far-from-inexpensive wine and have no way to get it home with us. What would we do? Try to drink as much as we could before falling into an alcoholic stupor and missing our plane?
We ended up driving all the way back to Napa on our final day, because we knew there was a place there which would handle it, having been given the address by one of the winery owners. The drive from SF to Napa is no big deal so it actually made for quite a pleasant morning out, and when we arrived at the place it was clear that the guy did this all the time. Interestingly, we had to sign a form containing a declaration which went something like “I declare that I am not a representative of any law enforcement agency and that in entering into this transaction I am not making any attempt to entrap yada yada…” Was this place run by the Del Boy and Rodney of Napa? Was it strictly legit or just a bit dodgy? We didn’t care; we just needed to get our lovely liquid purchases back east. We signed, boxed up the bottles and gladly left them in his care, then headed back to SF.
It was great to back in San Francisco. I loved the place on my first visit two years ago and I loved it again this time. Our first night there was an almost exact repeat of last time: we settled into the same hotel, walked down to Union Square, jumped on the Mason-Hyde cable car, rode it all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf, grabbed one of the inimitable Irish coffees in the Buena Vista Cafe, had dinner at McCormick and Kuleto’s, had another Irish and then rode the cable home again. A fine way to welcome ourselves back.
The three days we had there zipped by much too fast. On the second evening we had a reservation at Aqua, a highly-regarded restaurant, and I fancied I’d seen they had a “jacket required” dress policy. I had no jacket, so this seemed like a great excuse to buy one. My lamentable excuse for a wardrobe has always lacked “middle clothes”, by which I mean clothing that falls somewhere between the formal suit and the ripped T-shirt and faded jeans. I didn’t want to wear a suit to this place so on Friday morning I hit the shops. And what a painful experience that proved to be. Two hours of fruitless searching resulted in nothing but a feeling of mounting frustration at the fact that the only jackets I liked were either 38s (too small) or 44 and up (too big). In my size – 40 – I hadn’t seen a damned thing that wasn’t either horribly tweedy or way too formal. I returned to the hotel for a breather and then headed out again. I had to find a jacket.
I walked straight into this place, which looked so absurdly old-fashioned and buffery that I had a perverse notion it might yield a surprise. It did. Amidst the endless racks of Harris Tweed and old-boy checks there lurked an absolutely beautiful black number. In my size. I slipped it on and it fitted perfectly, as well as if it had been cut to measure. It was 100% cashmere, soft as a kitten’s ear and it looked both smart and casual. Perfect. I looked at the price tag. When the room had stopped spinning I sadly hung the jacket back up and walked out. Clearly my search was not yet over. I hadn’t gone one block when the devil on my right shoulder (I have one on each – they ganged up and kicked the angel out years ago) started his infernal whispering.
“Don’t be such a jerk. You never spend serious money on clothes. You’re 47 years old and you still dress like a bloody student. A student with no taste and no money. Treat yourself for once. That jacket is perfect, it’s a lovely bit of cloth, it suits you, you can afford it, spend the money for Christ’s – I mean my sake!”
It occurred to me that my little satanic familiar was right. I generally dress like shit. I have no interest in clothes and by golly it shows. I marched back into the place, grabbed the jacket and slapped my credit card down. And walked out feeling like… not a million, but a significantly larger number of dollars than I’m accustomed to.
Back at the hotel I preened in front of the mirror. Damn, this was a seriously cool jacket! I looked the business! I showed it to Ann who agreed whole-heartedly with my assessment and congratulated me on my rare display of good taste in a matter of personal style. Then I turned around and she said, “Wait – what’s that on the back?”
Right over the vent there was a mark. A large, tongue-shaped mark where it appeared some moron had pressed the thing, resulting in this area of slightly smoother material. I hadn’t noticed it in the shop because it was fairly dark in there, but here in the hotel the light clearly revealed this damned mark. It wasn’t that prominent but it was definitely going to show anywhere light. Typical: I finally shell out for a truly nice item of clothing and it turns out to have a flaw. Well, there was no time to take it back that day. We had to get to Aqua. I donned the jacket and we went out for one of the best three meals I’ve had in my life.
We’d read about Aqua’s reputation but frankly our experience surpassed the reviews. This place is right up there with Le Bernardin in New York. We had the seven-course tasting menu with wine pairings and it was pure food porn. No, it was food erotica. I could wax lyrical about each of the courses, about the service, the unorthodox genius of the sommelier… and God, I could lose my mind attempting to communicate the gustatory multiple orgasm of the Parmesan-Black Pepper Soufflé with Dungeness Crab, Sea Urchin and Chive Butter but this piece is long enough already.
As a predictable addendum to this little digression, it turned out that Aqua had no dress policy requiring a jacket. The following morning I returned my imperfect purchase to the shop and received a full refund. So, I wore a great item of clothing for precisely one night and now my wardrobe is once again entirely devoid of class, style or value. I feel like Cinderella, even though I look like an ugly sister.
The flight home turned out to be unexpectedly hassle-free. We returned just over a week ago. It already seems like a month. Good times have that way of receding into the past more swiftly than the bad times, don’t they? Still, we hear that those mixed cases have arrived and I think that unloading those is going to bring the memories back as surely and as enjoyably as looking through holiday photos.