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Friday, July 30, 2010

Wine Tasting in the City

Most tasting rooms are in the vineyards, but sometimes the wineries want to go to where there's a concentration of people, or sometimes the winery is just too small to have a plot of vineyards and the money to build a visitor center.

Healdsburg is a good example of a town setting for multiple tasting rooms.  If you want to walk and taste there are about a dozen stops in town.   There are also co-op tasting rooms where several smaller operations share a place for you to try wines from several producers.

Image from
A new tasting room is opening in Santa Rosa with four micro-wineries sharing the facility.   It's located in a nondescript commercial / light industrial setting--about the last place you'd look for wine tasting.  If you want to visit they aren't too far from Siduri/Novy and Carol Shelton (call for appts.) plus The Cellars of Sonoma, another micro-winery shared tasting room.
Of the four wineries sharing the facility, Sheldon is the only one I'm familiar with as I have tasted their wines at their old Sebastopol location.  If you are looking for wines you won't find in your local market then these are the kinds of places you want to try.

The Urban Winery Village.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The 2010 grape growing season so far

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While most of the eastern U.S. swelters with heat and humidity California is setting under a dome of cool Pacific air this summer. On the day I write this the high temperature in Santa Rosa ( Sonoma County), CA will be at least 15 degrees below average.

One of the most popular questions from wine country visitors is, "How is the vintage looking this year?"   And the typical answer they'll get is, "Great!"   But when does anyone actually know if it's a "vintage" year?  Realistically, probably about six months after harvest.   However, as the season progresses there are signs.

Note that I'm speaking definitely not as a viticulture expert and I'm speaking for Sonoma County and nearby areas.

Grapes go through steps in their development (dates are approximate):
Bud break - March
Bloom then fruit set - May
Veraison (ripening process begins) - August 1st
Ripe - Oct 1st, plus or minus a few weeks

One key thing grape growers look for is early or late development during the season.   They fear late ripening grapes because the later the harvest the greater chance of rain before the grapes are picked.   Rain and mature grapes don't go together.

Spring was late in 2010 as the weather stayed wetter and cooler than normal.  The summer is cooler so far.  I recently read in the local paper the average highs this summer are about four degrees below normal for Santa Rosa.   Last I saw the growing cycle was running at least two weeks behind normal.

Is this bad?  It depends.   Slow growth is the vineyards can yield excellent fruit.  If heat was all you needed we'd be getting our Cabernet from Fresno!  It's not just ripeness, it's maturity.   There is a sugar and acid balance that takes time.  Though I'm guessing most vineyards folks are praying for a sustained heat wave in August.  Or at least no measurable rain until November.  Or both.

Friday, July 23, 2010

So what's it like to work in a tasting room?

You see your dream job while on vacation.  I've been there. You visit somewhere great like the Kona Coast and you see somebody working the hotel desk with the lobby open to the sea and you say to yourself, "Man, I could do this job!" Really? You get sucked in the the environment and that's great because it means you loved your visit.

Getting your dream job

As an ex-tasting room manager I can't count the number of resumés received from Back East from folks looking for that dream job. Only problem was somehow they all expected a $45,000 starting salary. I don't know where they all got this number and I know California's wine country is an expensive place to live, but I was starting people at $11.50 / hour. Sorry.

Though I did occasionally have someone come to work for me from the snow belt who accepted what the job was and what it paid, but these folks were rare.

If you are comfortable with a competitive sales environment a few tasting rooms work off sales commissions where you can make significantly more.

The not so dreamy tasks

There is menial labor like sweeping floors and dusting. There is heavy work in hauling cases of wine.  You may even get to clean a toilet.

The not so dreamy people

When some people drink they aren't as nice as they are sober. Ask any bartender. Luckily, this is a very small minority of winery visitors. Like any job where you have direct access to customers there is an occasional bump. Ask any help desk agent. You just have to be the type to shake it off and not take anything personally.

Are all tasting rooms alike?

As with any other businesses there are differences.  One is that some are corporate-owned and others are family.  The biggest difference is the smaller out-of-the-way wineries vs. the big guys along Highway 29 in Napa, for instance.    Some only take people by appointment so they have built-in crowd control. Others have people are standing three-deep at the bar on Saturday afternoon.

Some of the larger corp-owned wineries may seem a bit bureaucratic like any large company.  Some of the small ones are run by people with no formal business management training.

If you've ever visited Napa during the busy season you may come away with a feeling that those guys working there are just not very friendly.   I can tell you it's a rare person who can put up with the madness all day long for months on end.  The stress of the crowds and the noise can be tough especially when you throw in the customers who don't believe they are getting the service and attention they deserve.

The importance of the job

The underpaid folks behind the bar are are the face of the winery and the most important asset a winery has for direct-to-consumer sales. They are on the low end of the totem pole because they are considered retail sales help. They are paid like a Penney's store clerk while being expected to act like a Nordstrom's sales associate.

Why it's a great job

People are there to have fun and it's easy to have fun yourself when the customers are having a good time.   Not many retail jobs are like that.  Not many jobs at all really.

Most of the people are great as they're on vacation or at least a weekend trip.  It's certainly a more happy crowd then say the waiting room at the doctor's office.   And you occasionally get to see somebody doing something they wouldn't normally because they are a bit loose and having fun.  I won't be too explicit, but you can use your imagination.

You get to talk about wine with people.  How fun is that?   And they even think you're the expert!!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wine tasting and driving

The wine crowd usually isn't a problem

Visitors and locals alike sometimes wonder if 5 pm on a weekend in the wine country is anything like 2 am everywhere else -- this is when the drunks are on the road.

Wineries generally do a good job of educating their staff to police any potential situations. It's easy to get training by the state alcohol control people and highway patrol in how to recognize intoxication and what to do about it.

Unfortunately, people don't believe in being responsible for their own actions and, realistically, alcohol can make it pretty damned difficult to think about personal responsibility.

There are very few problems with drunkenness related to wine tasting which is why law enforcement has a sort of hands-off approach in looking for people after the wineries shut down for the day. After all, it would be really easy to set up a road block after a big event and throw lots of people in jail. It would also ruin the local industry and destroy the cooperation we enjoy between the wineries and law enforcement. Without this cooperation the situation may actually get worse.

Recent highway deaths

A couple days ago a young lady killed a couple people because she missed a curve in the road and slammed the side of an oncoming car. She was out with a small group wine tasting for the day and was supposed to be their designated driver, but her blood alcohol was over the legal limit. She faces 20 years in prison.

What happens now

What the California Highway Patrol will do is go back over her day's activities to find out if anyone served her alcohol, how much, and when. Can the last winery to serve her be held liable?  Not likely.

Looking for signs of intoxication isn't an exact science. Just being loud, laughing and having a good time isn't considered intoxicated. Winery staff is taught to look for things like being unable to walk, slurred speech and similar obvious signs. Not everyone displays these signs at the same level of intoxication. Since this woman was only slightly over the limit it may be she didn't display any obvious clues.

What I'm guessing will happen is a lot more people will be turned away, especially at the end of the day, if the server has the slightest suspicion of intoxication. This is difficult when your job is in the hospitality field and you've probably just lost a customer for life.

What should happen next

Another thing I hope will happen is regulating tasting room hours. At one time the typical hours were 11 am to 4:30 pm. Wineries began staying open later and became essentially wine bars. Some are open as late as 7 pm. I'm of the opinion no one should be served after 5 pm.

Another possibility that never gets talked about is to encourage spitting rather than swallowing. I've sometimes taken my own plastic cup to winery events so I can try more wines rather than cutting myself off too early. I assume one of the issues is sanitary in dealing with the spit out wine, but they should figure this out.

This has become more of a problem as the number of tasting rooms increases. At one time you had maybe four or five wineries in a given area where there now are 15 or 20. It's much easier to get drunk in a two mile stretch of road.

Personal experience

I have several years experience working in tasting rooms. I've had only one ugly experience myself when a group of guys came in and one was way over the line. I asked them all to leave. The three sober ones were willing, and even a little embarrassed by the situation. The drunk was belligerent as drunks sometimes are. He was in my face and threatening. His friends pulled him away and got him in the car. I took down their license number and called the CHP. Not a good day for me. I don't like being put in the situation of having to be "inhospitable."

I have great respect for what bartenders put up with on a nightly basis. I sure as heck wouldn't do their job.

October 19th update on the drunk driver
The defendant has plea bargined to a lower sentence with a maximum of seven years in prison.  

Dec 18th update
She was sentenced to 3-1/2 years in prison.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Summer Vineyard Photos

Mid-summer in the vineyards.  Photos taken July 19, 2010.  Click on a photo to enlarge.

The grapes are still green as Veraison hasn't started yet.  Veraison is when the grapes stop growing, change color and start producing sugar (ripening).  This should be starting in a couple weeks.

In the Russian River Valley
Deloach Vineyards

Off Olivet Lane just north of Deloach
Head-pruned vines so probably Zinfandel

On Hartman Lane in the same area

The following photos are from St. Francis Vineyards in Sonoma Valley,about 12 miles from the Russian River location in the previous photos.  Even with that short distance between them the climate is different enough to grow different varieties.  In the Russian River location it's a lot of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel.  In northern Sonoma Valley it's Zin again plus Cab and Merlot.

Rows at St. Franics

One bunch didn't quite fill out

This must be what they call low hangin' fruit

Friday, July 9, 2010

Sex, Merlot, and Rock-and-Roll

That got your attention ...

The phrase "Wine, women and song" has been around a long time.  So long that there's probably a Latin translation of it used by the Romans.  That phrase has certainly been around longer than "Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll." For the winos this would actually work better if it was something like "Sex, Merlot, and rock-n-roll."

For guys it comes down to what will get you laid.  Why do you think guys drink Chardonnay?  It's because the woman they're with is drinking it.
See what a couple glasses of wine will do?
Decanter magazine is in tune with sex and wine:

A recent quote:  "Champagne's stiffest competition comes not from Prosecco, Cava, or English sparkling wine--but from Viagra," according to Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger.   Yes, he said "stiffest."

Another from Decanter: Red wine increases the female libido, research has found. According to a study drinking one or two glasses of red wine a day increases female sexual desire.  Only caveat is this test was performed on Italian women in Florence.  What did you expect?  Why do you think the Italians have been growing grapes for thousands of years?  But the bottom line was two glasses of wine leads to better sex for women.  Drink up!

Another Italian (of course) wine maker puts a sexual questionnaire in with his wines to help you decide how masculine (red wine), feminine (white), or undecided (rosé) you are.

A Utah-based Morman decided his religion was a little boring so he's started up Summums which blends wine, sex, and mummification (really).  They call wine "liquid knowledge" as it enhances their seven types of meditation, one being sexual ecstasy.

Lots of the terminology around describing wine is interesting in its origin:   Lush, full-bodied, sexy, legs, voluptuous, fleshy, well-rounded, seductive, foxy, and woody.   I once had a Cabernet described to me as "Like drinking out of Marily Monroe's silk stocking while she's still wearing it."

Wine can take the place of foreplay and you know how guys hate foreplay.  Much easier to go out and get a $30 bottle of a buttery Chardonnay or even better a nice bubbly.   Get a little chocolate while you're at it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sonoma County upcoming events for July

Not a complete list but here's a few fun items ... if you're in the neighborhood.

St Francis free outdoor movie nights on Thursday the 7th and 15th of July.  Bring a blanket and some food and buy a glass of wine.

Dutton-Goldfield grand opening of their new tasting room is July 10th.  These guys make great Syrah though they are actually more well-known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Field Stone barrel sampling on Fridays through August.

Cline Cellar's Dixieland Jazz festival on July 17th along with food and wine, of course.  $25.

Inman's tasting room is now open.  Another good Russian River Pinot house.

Alexander Valley summer open house on July 17th at seven wineries.

A couple non-wine events:

Sonoma County Fair opens July 27th.

NHRA Nationals at Infineon Raceway July 16-18th

Friday, July 2, 2010

What to drink for the Fourth? Zinfandel!

Zinfandel, it's the all-American grape.   Okay, they finally figured out it originated in Croatia of all places, but it's really only grown and made in the USA.   That's because Italian immigrants brought it over beginning in the 1850s right after control of California was wrestled from the Mexicans--something to do with gold.  But I'm still sure this is as American as you get.  I'm sure as heck not suggesting anyone have Norton with their burgers as some will try to tell you Norton is America's true grape.  Personally, I'm not admitting to it.   I'm going for Zinfandel for the Fourth.

So what sort of grilled food goes with Zin?   RIBS and BURGERS!   Actually anything in a spicy tomato-based BBQ sauce is great as is most any grilled beef.   Hamburgers are great because once you throw on the BBQ sauce, onions and mustard it takes a heavy-duty spicy wine like a good Zin to stand up to your burger. I like Zin with grilled chicken and pork when I slather a BBQ sauce all over it in the last few minutes of cooking.   

Find a recipe for Zinfandel glazed ribs.   Mmm.

Of course, don't forget the cold beer.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Reason #217 Sonoma County Rules! (beer)

The readers of the Homebrewers Association magazine voted for the best beers and breweries in America.   I'm guessing they know their beer.

The number one beer is brewed in Sonoma County -- Russian River Brewery's Pliny the Elder (a double IPA).   Ranked number seven is the Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA.  Number 21 is Lagunitas' IPA.    It's looking like the local India Pale Ales are doing all right!

For best breweries Sonoma County takes number five, eleven, and nineteen.

And you thought Sonoma was only about world-class wines (and food)!

The results