Just back from my semi-annual trip to Santa Barbara County, where I tasted through a boatload of new Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noirs, various Santa Maria Valley wines, and Santa Barbara County Syrahs, in 3 different flights stretched across 3 days.
For a writer, hitting the road is a mixed blessing. It’s a pleasure to get away from the craziness of the city to the quiet, rural pleasures of wine country. Wine regions are always gorgeous, with their hills and dales, rivers and rolling vineyards, and in the case of Santa Barbara County, the pleasure is double because the tourist infrastructure of the North Coast is largely missing. Or hasn’t yet metastisized. During this trip, some of the locals, particularly the Santa Marians, solicited my advice as to how they could draw more attention to their valley, which is a fantastic source of wine, but is largely unknown to the public. You may be hearing more about this. There’s talk of establishing a symposium to celebrate Chardonnay, which is a great idea: It’s the country’s top white wine, but has no big public venue, unlike various “celebrations” of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel.
But hitting the road isn’t pure pleasure. It’s hard work. I suppose another wine writer could eat and loaf his way through, spending a few hours at a winery, then relaxing in the hotel jacuzzi for the rest of the day before hitting the bar at happy hour. Not me. My Calvinist work ethic makes me feel guilty for wasting a minute, so I was tasting from early in the morning until nighttime. Tasting can be hard work, particularly in a 48-degree cellar freezing your butt off and wishing you’d remembered the gloves. I actually “hit the wall” after about 200 wines. At my final stop, they’d opened another 40 bottles for me to taste with the winemaker, but I suddenly realized I had nothing left. The tasting machine was out of gas. The palate needed some down time. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. It happens, and you don’t want to fake it, because your brain is in no shape to properly evaluate the wines. I explained my dilemma; the winemaker thoroughly understood. Winemakers taste a lot, too. There’s a lot of empathy between winemakers and writers.
My trip was put together by my friend, the P.R. person, Sao Anash, of Muse Management. She used to run the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association before going out on her own. She does a terrific job for visiting writers and doesn’t ask for a thing, except friendship and for us to do a good job. At one of our dinners, I toasted Sao. I told our group that P.R. people frequently don’t get the respect they deserve. The writers and winemakers receive all the fame and glory; the P.R. folks are lube that keep the gears of the machine running smoothly. Here’s to the P.R. pros.
Got back to Oakland just as the city was mourning the deaths of the 4 cops murdered by a paroled thug. Put me in a philosophic frame of mind. How can America be home both to the Santa Ynez Valley with its restaurants and thoroughbreds and contented cows and peaceful villages with cottages and gardens, as well as to a city wracked with pain and poverty and people determined to wreck themselves and others and a government helpless in the face of such anarchy? I don’t know. Tonight, while I’m drinking some Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, maybe an answer will come.