The pleasures of the road
One of the most satisfying parts of my job is traveling. I love hitting the road and spending time in California’s various wine regions. I nearly always have, at the outset of a journey, a childlike sense of impending adventure, as though anything could happen.
We all have our little traveling rituals, I suppose. Mine begins with a sheet of paper I have held to my refrigerator door by a magnet. The paper is entitled “Steve’s traveling shit” and consists of a list of things to bring, or to not forget to do, before I walk out that front door. It’s been growing lengthier over the years. One entry reads “be sure which road you’re taking” because, once, I set out for Santa Rosa, only to find myself on the way to Stockton because I was sleepy and not paying attention.
The word “clothes” is also on there, hastily penned in, after a trip I made to the Central Coast, two years ago. On arriving, I discovered, to my horror, that I’d left my packed suitcase on my bed, at home; I was forced to go to a local K-Mart and buy myself 3 days of shirts, pants and underwear. Also on the list are headphones (for airplanes), hand sanitizer and sunglasses. I’m always forgetting my sunglasses, and have about 6 pairs of those clip-ons I’ve had to buy over the years.
I like to leave Oakland after rush hour, around 10 a.m. or so, depending on where I’m driving. Napa is about an hour away; the Russian River Valley, 1-1/2 hours. Paso Robles is a solid 3 hours or even longer. There are certain bottlenecks that always threaten to slow down the trip. I-80, through Emeryville and Berkeley, is one; there’s no way of avoiding it; you just have to keep your fingers crossed. The 101 approaches to Santa Rosa are dependably jammed. Heading south, toward the Central Coast, the problem spot is the “Nasty Nimitz,” once voted the Bay Area’s most hated freeway. Once you break through to 101 South, at San Jose, things even out. But you can run into the odd jam anywhere.
I like the anonymity of travel, of being thrown, temporarily, off my routine. There’s something to be said for not knowing anyone around you, and vice versa. I guess there’s an element of fantasy. Freed from regularity, you can experience the irregular, with all its tantalizing possibilities. But a wine writer never is completely alone on his travels. You meet with winemakers or P.R. people or the heads of regional wine associations, and of course with many other people, from chefs to mayors. You go to lunches and dinners or, alternatively, try to avoid them, because on such a trip it would be easy to find yourself invited to 4 lunches and 8 dinners each day, and there’s neither time, nor room in my stomach, for such grueling gastronomic gluttony. Sometimes, all I want is a supermarket broiled chicken, which I’ll devour holed up in my hotel room, watching TV. At Wine Enthusiast, I’m known as a “cheap” traveler, because of the frugality of my spending habits, acquired over a lifetime. This, of course, suits management.
I mentioned regional winery associations, and now I want to praise them. I’ve always heard criticisms of them, but for myself have to say how helpful they’ve been, in so many ways. From Temecula and Santa Barbara northward through Paso Robles, Monterey, Napa, Sonoma, Lake County and up into Anderson Valley, you need only to pick up a phone or email the association chief, and your needs will be met: wines set up to taste, wineries made aware of your visit, meetings arranged, itineraries established. Thank you to the wine country regional associations from a grateful writer!
Sure, I’ve seen a million vineyards and bottling lines and barrel storage rooms, and have crushers and destemmers coming out of my ears. I’ve gotten mud in my sneakers in winter and dust on my boots during dry, parched summer. I’ve had the intricacies of cluster thinning and pumping over explained to me ad infinitum by an endless line of winemakers. Sometimes my eyes glaze over. But not always or even usually, for there is always something new to learn, some new personal connection to be made, and, of course, new wines to taste.
It’s with these thoughts that I set off this morning for three days in Paso Robles, where the Vintners & Growers Association is kindly arranging a large tasting, blind, of currently released red wines. I will try to blog from the road, not always an easy thing to do.
R.I.P. Ed McMahon