One of the things I like to do is visit wineries. Wine tasting, in particular, is a fun and wonderful way to spend a day whether you're in the storied vineyards of Bordeaux or just visiting a wine tasting room you see along the roadside in New Mexico. With just a little bit of caution and self-restraint, wine tasting is a social activity in which you not only get a chance to sample and learn, but also compare notes with other patrons and the people behind the counter. It's a social event what has a really fun and exploratory aspect to it.
Most true wine aficionados know about a wine-culture earth-shattering event in 1976 known by the nickname "Judgment of Paris", in which the California wine industry shocked the world by capturing the top slots in both the red and white wine categories.
It was the beginning of California's emergence as one of the top wine regions of the world.
(California's status is an amusingly "guarded secret" in some countries. I was genuinely startled to learn that Australians, in particular, are largely unaware of the state's reputation for excellence. Heck, even the French were impressed enough...over time...that French winemakers now own several of the valley's best vineyards.)
Mike Grgich (pronounced as a lion-like "grr", followed by gich...as in rich) was the winemaker for the winner of the white category, a chardonnay from the California-based Chateau Montelena. Subsequent to winning the category for Montelena, he opened his own self-branded winery.
Of all of the wineries in the Napa Valley, Grgich Hills is my favorite -- and not just because it becomes easier to pronounce the more wines you taste. As you might expect the white wines it produces are uniformly excellent and not terribly expensive for the mid-level consumer. In particular I love their Chardonnay and Fume Blanc. Grgich makes terrific reds of course, but unlike virtually every other of my favorite wineries it's the white varietals I prefer here.
(The Fume Blanc is a light and crisp, fruity wine which pairs nicely with lighter fare and cheeses. The Chardonnay is a bolder, gently oaked wine which is terrific for sipping on its own or with cream-based pastas, chicken and fish plates, and the more strongly flavored cheeses.)
(Yes, I like cheese with my white wine...)
Best of all, they are in the usually-accessible range if you purchase at places such as Costco or BevMo. On sale the Fume can be found for $20-25, while the Chardonnay is about $10 more per bottle. Certainly not an everyday expense, but it's terrific as a special splurge. They also frequently appear on your local grocery store's "promotional discount" displays, so keep an eye out.
Speaking of which, the Ralphs Grocery chain has a nice write-up on the 1976 competition, as well as some great suggestions for the pairings of wine and foods, found here.