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On the road again


It’s been a heavy travel schedule lately. Santa Barbara ten days ago, in a whirlwind tour that went from early morning breakfast in Los Olivos to dinner at a pizza joint in Los Alamos. Then a hurried trip back home to riot-plagued Oakland and a day of recovery (more or less), followed by a quickie to Napa Valley, and another early morning breakfast (Boon Fly, in Carneros), lunch (Fremont Diner, just over the Sonoma line on the Carneros Highway), then dinner at Rutherford Grill. Well, it was supposed to be dinner, but I was working and never really got the chance to sit down and eat properly. The best I could do was to get some seared Ahi tuna to go. Usually I don’t like to drive home late at night but on this occasion I couldn’t get a place to stay, so there was nothing to do except grit my teeth and head home. You never know what traffic will be like, even at night — one accident can gum up the works — but it was smooth sailing and it was pleasant to be in my own bed by 10:30. Knowing I had to drive home, I hadn’t had a drink all day. Not at Fremont, where some acquaintances, celebrating the last day of harvest, were drinking Gloria Ferrer and some local Pinot Noir and invited me to join them. Not at the dive bar in Yountville where I stopped by, briefly, to meet John Skupny, who treated himself to a 5 p.m. beer or two. And not at Rutherford, where the wine flowed like water. I’ve explained here before how and why I don’t drink and drive. But when I finally made it back to Oakland, I made up for the temporary drought I’d imposed upon myself.

That was last Friday. Now here it is Tuesday morning and it’s another one-day scamper up to Sonoma, to meet some people for lunch in Graton and then dinner at John Ash & Co., which is halfway between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg, or nearly so. I have no idea what I’ll do between the end of lunch and the 8 p.m. hour when I’m to be at Ash (with which my old friend John Ash no longer has any connection; indeed, he jokes that it’s weird to have your name on something you have nothing to do with). Part of the challenge of these road trips is filling in the down time. I suppose I could have arranged visits to wineries, but I like to have some breathing room between engagements, and besides, you never know what serendipity will do.

I’ll get home late tonight, very late, and I’m hoping there won’t be any traffic again, although the forecast — rain showers — dampens that hope a little and gives me some anxiety. Then it’s two days of rest at home (which isn’t really rest at all, since so much work piles up when I’m on the road) before heading off, once again, on a trip this Friday. This time it’s south, to Monterey, for that county’s Great Wine Escape Weekend, which Wine Enthusiast co-sponsors. Every year, I preside (if that’s the right word) over a multi-course dinner arranged by the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association, in which the foods are paired with Monterey wines. My role is to talk a little about the wines and to introduce the winemakers. The first year we did this, the MCVGA asked me to select my highest-scoring Monterey wines of the year; these then were sent to local chefs, who figured out what foods to pair them with. It was not a successful formula. There was one course in particular that involved a super-oaky, super-famous Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay that was impossibly yoked to abalone. I suggested for the next year that the chefs themselves choose which wines to pair with their creations, rather than be limited to Steve’s highest-scoring wines, thus proving once again that a high scorer is not necessarily the most food-friendly wine. That is a truth that can’t be repeated often enough.

I mention my travels not to boast but simply to suggest how the wine writer/critic’s job has many different aspects. A friend of mine, back east, who knows of my career but has never followed it particularly closely (and why should he? I haven’t followed his career, in construction, either) knows that I travel a lot and write articles, but he was surprised to learn that I also review wine. Some who know me and critics like me might suppose that all we do is review wine. It’s not the case. I like getting out and about and meeting new people and discovering new wineries and eyeballing these wine regions — Russian River Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Carneros — and thinking back over the years to what they looked like when I first visited  them, and how much they’ve changed (or not) since. I think it would be a lot harder to live someplace outside of wine country and to write about it with only a visit or two a year. Some famous wine writers do it that way, but I fear they tend to be victims of their schedulers, or of their own stereotypes, visiting only the most famous properties, or the hottest properties, a little garage operation Tanzer or Parker “discovered.” What I like about my job is that I live here right in the middle of the whole megillah (as my father would have said) and can know pretty much everything and everybody (although nobody can literally know everything and everybody in a state as vast as California). It’s  a good job, but sometimes it means driving home late at night on California freeways in the rain, and that’s no fun.

  1. For killing time between lunch and 8, you have all the SR warehouse wineries about 2 miles from John Ash– Pisoni, Inspiration, Carol Shelton, Donelan Family, Siduri, Zepaltas, Salinia, etc.

  2. Flatbread pizza in Los Alamos. What a treat. And one of the best pizza place wine lists anywhere. You don’t mind waiting for a table if you find a seat at the bar.

  3. Feel free to stop by Asti if you’re up around north of Geyserville!

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