Tales from the road
When you’re on the road, you can’t be too fussy.
This is an unalterable truth for the itinerant wine critic. You play the cards you’re dealt, and don’t complain. In this case, I’m in Pasco, Washington, at the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, staying at a chain hotel on a strip that could be anywhere in America. There’s nowhere within walking distance to eat or drink, other than the hotel’s bar and dinky little restaurant. I could take a taxi someplace, but evidently the best place in town is P.F. Chang’s, which doesn’t seem worth a cab ride, especially since it’s really cold outside. Besides, the day was a long one: up early to drop Gus off at his dog hotel, then a stopover in Seattle, then on to little Pasco. All I wanted when I got here was some liquid libation and food.
Do I care that the Riesling and Chardonnay—the first two glasses of wine I had at the bar—were indifferent? Nope. That’s what I mean by “you can’t be too fussy.” It was warm and comfortable, my room was 100 yards away, and I was ready for serious relaxation. If you’ve ever been on the road at an event like this—which is basically a trade show—you know what the hotel bar scene is like. On my left, a young winemaker who just started up his Washington winery and is learning the ropes and was eager to share his experiences. On my right, a filtration salesman. A little later, comes a young guy who designs tchatchkies for winery tasting rooms—wine-themed earrings, kooky T-shirts, stuff like that. I asked him how’s business. “Through the roof!” he said, elaborating that it’s “drunk women” who buy his stuff.
I love this part of the industry. This isn’t some high-level cult tasting in a rarified bubble, it’s the real world of hard-working people, with their feet on the ground. They travel thousands of miles a year, staying at chain hotels, eating indifferent food in anonymous chain hotel restaurants, and drinking whatever the bar is serving, often to excess, as the night wears on. There’s plenty of laughter, anecdote-trading and confessions, and you know what? I’d rather be in that company than with some snooty MWs waxing on and on about the latest Burgundy they just had “at the domaine with the proprietor.” That’s just me.
The flight from Seattle over the Cascades to Pasco is gorgeous. I had my nose against the window the whole time. You leave the verdant lushness of the Puget Sound area, flying so low over the snowy mountains the plane’s belly practically scrapes the mountaintops, the suddenly the land levels off and you’re over the flat, brown high desert of eastern Washington, where nothing grows without irrigation, even though the coast is the rainiest, snowiest part of the continental U.S. When I first visited here, 20 years ago, it blew my mind. It still does.
I love meeting these real industry people at the bar. We wine critics tend to live in petrie dish. It’s all about the end product, the wine. What we lose track of is that wine is a collaboration of a huge number of people, from filtration salesmen to barrel purveyors to label designers and distributors. Going to trade shows gets us out of the bubble and reminds us that we’re part of a big family of people loosely known as ‘the wine industry” but in reality composed of thousands of individual stories. All of them are fascinating. I look forward to many more chance encounters at hotel bars with lonely, traveling working people just looking for the chance to unwind and relax and get buzzed with like-minded souls they can share war stories with.