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Published: Verve Magazine, Travel, August 2008

Jazz evenings, vines dripping fruit, cheese on a platter. Verve goes on two languorous road trips


As sleepy as a cat curled up on a furry rug by a crackling fire, as mobile as fresh wine that slowly slithers down a crystal glass, Santa Rosa is a town that is just barely half-awake. Eating an authentic Mexican meal at a local restaurant, the town reminds me of something out of an old Western film. We had just arrived here, driving up from the foggy centre of San Francisco into the hazy dustiness of Santa Rosa, which is the perfect spot from which to navigate wine country, the sprawling wilderness that is absolutely enchanting and completely at one with nature. We start off on the drive with my friend’s Ecuadorian fiancé, our designated driver.

My mind drifting away, I recall Mr. Big from Sex and the City, who randomly buys a vineyard in Napa and leaves NYC to set up shop in sunny California. Or maybe I am thinking of Sideways, the Alexander Payne movie about two middle-aged men who take off on a trip through wine country – drinking a lot of wine and trying to get lucky with the ladies. Wine country has a dramatically different meaning for anyone who has been there, or wants to go there – it stands for a mystical sense of escapism – an alternative to beaches and hills. Expansive flatland stretching longer than the eyes can see, winding roads through vines dripping with fruit that lead to a manufacturing unit for eternal intoxication.

I wonder if it is the lazy meandering or the breathless anticipation for that new flavourful taste that attacks your palate, or the simple desire to unwind in a lengthy road trip that gives wine country a charm that raises eyebrows and nods of approval. Exploring wine country however, takes more than one sunny afternoon. It is possible to consider days, even weeks of enchantment, drifting languorously from one vineyard to another, from one valley to another, polishing off the best cheeses and dining at some of the finest restaurants. Think Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

With sultry sounds of Simon and Garfunkel to take us back to an era beyond the electronica of today, the car rolls smoothly on, zipping past the dusty vineyards, as we sit armed with a map, chocolate-covered pretzels and excited gossip galore. Turning into our first stop we pour out like excited teenagers, dying to get a first look at a real-life winery. Where entertaining visitors and tourists is as much a business as is producing the famous wines.

Our introduction to the art of tasting starts with the Robert Mondavi winery. Opening a ‘fresh’ bottle of Reserve wine, we let the wine breathe to absorb the natural flavours from its first breath of fresh air. As we watch the ruby red liquid slide down the wide-bottom glass, the server, with an artful twist of his wrist, explains the clarity and quality of the wine. Observing it is like knowing the difference between a crystal and diamond – the different grades and the uniqueness of the one with crystal-clear clarity. With a degree of reverence, the glass is held before us, with its splash of precious nectar and we are encouraged to take in its flavours. Is it woody or musky? Cherry or Meaty? Do we sense a dash of burgundy? As our inexperienced noses start to give up and get confused, the knowing demonstrator quickly picks up a petri dish of fresh coffee beans and swishes it before our twitching nostrils. That will break the sense of smell and once we go back to smelling the wine, the aromas start to become sharp and more distinct.

Barely have we reached the starting phase of sensing aromas and mentally tuning into flavours that would hit our senses, is it time to take that first sip. Tentatively, we stand queued up ready for the hit. Holding the first sip while swirling it about with our tongues and breathing in the aromas, we close our eyes to experience the multitude of flavours that flood our palate. It is then that we can actually realise how numb our taste buds are with the daily overdose of packaged foods, condiments and spices that we have forgotten to really appreciate basic tastes.

Back in the car, heady with the rush of excitement with a new sense of awakening, we plot our journey. While the other wineries along the way are more of jolly experiences and a great way to experiment with the crash course on wine tasting, it is the rustic beauty of Rubicon Estate that really takes our breath away. On the way to Rubicon, we encounter the cozy groves of Ravenswood in Sonoma County, where we are encouraged to be bolder – not surprising given their motto of ‘No wimpy wines!’ We come face-to-face with Zinfandels, surrendering to a rich, full-bodied and intense experience, that I don’t think we are ready for, yet!

Ready for the lunch break though, we stop at the family-owned V. Sattui winery, known for their gourmet deli and cheese platters. Refuelling, we decide to take a turn through the gift shop and museum (I succumb to buying a wine country poster) and the chilly barrel aging cellars, getting a taste of the actual process. Italian winemaker Vittorio Sattui arrived in San Francisco in 1882 with his new bride, Kattarina, to begin their life in America. A trade baker, making wine in his spare time, Vittorio’s reputation grew until Prohibition. Daryl Sattui took his great-grandfather’s passion to fruition, and in the late 1900s V. Sattui Winery became a beautiful stone structure amid the venerable 250 year-old oaks, reminiscent of the late 19th century wineries in Italy and France. The walk back in time filled me with a sense of warmth that no amount of wine could.

From the Italian rustic story, we reached that glamourous Italian connection – the Coppola family. Francis Ford Coppola has spent nearly as much time making wines at his Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery (now called the Rubicon Estate) in the Napa Valley as he has making movies. As we walk into the grand estate with creepers and moss-covered stone, we are overwhelmed with a sense of something larger-than-life. Just dropping the name Coppola, leads one to feel in the presence of power, something very different from the quaint homeliness of V. Sattui. As if it is not enough to feel this power, we are thrown amidst a deeper significance of this estate – something that makes this less about wine and more about a marking of history and experiences – a part of a greater sociological significance – about two immigrant families (Gustave Niebaum and the Coppolas) who came together to ‘establish a wine estate rivalling those in France’. As the Godfather of filmmaking put it, he was a part of the two great art forms key to the development of California. The hoity-toity demeanour of the estate’s caretakers make us want to scurry back out into bright sunshine and the reality of everyday life – where crystal chandeliers and grand staircases are left to the reel life rather than real life.

As the hours and the wineries roll by in hazy delirium, we decide that it is about time to turn back to the foggy bay area, where strolling down Fisherman’s Wharf, watching the sun set, we could sit back at a little Italian bistro, replay the day’s escapades over a glass to wine that we have just learnt to appreciate. After all, I think, as the Golden Gate Bridge appears in the horizon, the experience does make one thirsty for more.