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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Wine Trip

“it's a smile, it's a kiss, it's a sip of wine ... it's summertime!” 

                                ― Kenny Chesney

Although much of my online cocktail reputation is owed to martinis — the pursuit and consumption of them — I am also very much a fan of wine.

I understand wine is a topic which has been approached tens of thousands of times by people much more qualified than I when it comes to tasting and evaluating them. There is not a lot intellectually or authoritatively I could offer that would scoop writers such as Jancis Robinson or Hugh Johnson, but I tend to follow the advice given a novice wine drinker: “Drink what you like, not what someone else says is good.”

And I know what I like. 

As does anyone who has ever sipped a glass. My wife doesn't drink a whole lot of wine...primarily because the only wines she likes seem to cost hundreds of dollars a bottle. (Nobody has ever accused my wife of having any less than discriminating tastes -- excepting her choice of spouses, that is.)

And so we have to recognize that everyone’s taste is different, and while the vast majority of us can differentiate between, say, a dark and chewy Cabernet Sauvignon and a much lighter and gentler Merlot — a nod to the film Sideways here — the vast majority of us would be pretty wine-blind to maybe 17 different brands of oaked midrange Chardonnays. Particularly after the first dozen tastings.

As an authority, I will note the number of Master Sommeliers in the world numbers in the dozens, not millions.

Wine and fun
As such, the activity of wine tasting for the studied professional and the rank amateur alike has become, in the last thirty years, a fun and well established Traveler pastime. Even my wife, who eschews alcohol of every sort (doesn’t like the taste), enjoys wine country outings and the many tastings we’ve attended around the world. As one of my major NO OPPORTUNITY WASTED endeavors*, it’s something we do whenever the opportunity presents itself.

(* A “long game” N.O.W. goal of mine is to have a glass of wine in all of the major wine districts/countries around the world. The definition of “major” is debatable, of course, but more about that later.)

The Napa Valley
On our first trip to the Napa Valley we had decided an important destination had to be the Robert Mondavi winery. At the time Mondavi was the essential “face” of the Napa Valley, and considered to be not only one of its best wine producers, but one of the industry’s strongest advocates. At the time the vineyard also offered a small tour of the wine operations, including a tasting. But our arrival time was a bit off, meaning we would need to kill nearly 40 minutes before it would start.

Napa Cabernet grapes
Off to one side was a wine tasting bar — this was before the very large and ubiquitous tasting rooms sprung up throughout the valley. My wife, herself maybe 28 at the time, apparently made quite the impression on the young-ish (21?) man behind the counter. She told him she really didn’t want a taste, but that I would, and she explained that she tended (at the time) to favor sweeter wines. I got a couple of glasses of wine and we found a small nook to sip, enjoy the view of the vineyard and sit down to wait for the tour to begin.

Sparkling wine pour
A few minutes later the man from the counter found us and proffered a glass to my wife, explaining she might like this better. She smiled, accepted and as soon as he disappeared around the corner she handed the glass to me. I swallowed what was now my third little glass — they were more generous in those days, too — and again we sat back.

A few moments later the young man appeared again, this time with two things for her to try. And as soon as he was around the corner I enjoyed them both. And a third round. For some reason it didn’t bother me in the least that this young guy was evidently smitten with my wife, I was enjoying the fruits of her smile.

Food and wine pairing
By the time the tour started I had a nice little buzz going. To this day I don’t believe I’ve ever enjoyed a winery tour more.

Fortunately for Travelers, the vast majority of established wine districts are also excellent culinary centers — the pairing of wine and food being a fundamental aspect of wine consumption and lifestyle. Cheese, fruits and fresh foods are often found in the accompaniment of a winery. And in many an area, full restaurant service may be on the property or nearby. Wine tends to be more of a “lifestyle” thing, as opposed to, say, beer or whisky tasting areas. 

The Loire Valley
And who among us doesn’t enjoy a nice afternoon in a vineyard, at a table laden with a glass of wine and a cheese plate?

My first real pass-through of a wine district of any heft was in my early twenties. Some friends and I were in northern San Diego county when we saw a few signs indicating the presence of a couple of wineries. Being in our early twenties, this sounded like a perfect location to spend time. Our palates didn’t really match our enthusiasm, but we had a good time.

A few years later my wife and I made our way up to California's famed Napa Valley — an area I had wanted to visit since childhood, having been raised in a wine-conscious family where a heavily watered-down glass of wine was an occasional treat for us kids. It made us feel grown up, and in my case served to create a nascent interest in viniculture (a word I wouldn’t learn for decades…).

Margaret River, Australia
Two of our closest traveling companions are a couple we met on a cruise. They live in Perth, Australia and after that first meeting we’ve remained in touch and have, in fact, toured a good sized portion of the world together. They were the witnesses for our 30th Anniversary recommitment ceremony in London last year.

Wine has always been a mutual interest for us, and our meals together routinely involved a bottle or two as we explored the world. But it wasn’t until a handful of years ago, as we were plying our way through the Mediterranean on Windstar’s MSY Wind Surf, a four masted sailing ship, that I discovered our friends had a small gap in their wine educations.

We were at dinner when our friend, Ray, growled a bit and slapped the wine list down on the table. “Why don’t these people have a legitimate wine list?” I was a a little startled and asked to see the list. It looked pretty good to me and I said so.

The wine pour
He looked a bit abashed and in a kind of embarrassed tone said that he was disappointed that the list had so many American wines on it. There were also French, Italian and one or two Aussie wines, so I couldn’t figure out what the fuss was.

“Look, mate, I don’t mean to be rude, but you’d think they could do better than American wines. I’m sure American wines are decent, but you would expect something a bit more World Class on a trip like this."

Well. I laughed. Probably not the best idea, but I genuinely thought he was kidding. He was not.

Montepulciano, Italy
The evening went along okay, but at a later date I asked him what he’d meant and assured him American wines were quite good, in fact. He didn’t agree, saying that the only ones he’d ever had were adequate at best. In his — completely unbiased — opinion, the French wines and the Australian wines were the standard bearers — and he assured me that even the French were consulting with the Australians.

At this point I got annoyed. “I’m sure that’s all well and good, since they lost to American wines in 1976.”

Turns out that Australians don’t import much American wine, and that the 1976 “Judgment in Paris” wasn’t something terribly well known Down Under.

Australia's Swan Valley
The gauntlet was thrown and we agreed that we would show him around Napa, and he and his wife would show us around the Margaret River area of Australia. (This later increased to include California’s Santa Ynez and Australia’s Hunter Valley districts.)

And by the fourth winery in Napa, he genuinely conceded that, yes, The Americans knew what they were doing…and a couple years later I made the same admission about the locals in his neck of the woods.

Fortunately for wine drinkers worldwide, wine districts have seeded themselves almost everywhere. All fifty U.S. states claim some sort of wine production, as well as dozens of countries in addition to the customary French, German, Italian, South African, Chilean, Australian and California masters of the art. 

In The Veneto
Even if you are not specifically a wine connoisseur…or even drinker (preferring beer, liquor or “none of the above”), wine regions can be a lot of fun. Oftentimes tours are available to learn the wine production process, itself a fascinating topic.

If your interests are more in the range of a Foodie, I am always pleased to discover a close connection between foods and wines. They are, after all, closely connected and mutually complimentary. Wine and chocolate. Wine and cheese. Wine and a thick, juicy steak; or a crisp and delicate fish.

So, for now I continue my pursuit of a glass of wine in every major district. I promised to define that much earlier in this essay, and it is this: a wine region which has had an impact upon other wine regions. A recognized true production center who’s very name indicates a quality product.

In France we have, of course, Burgundy. Bordeaux. Champagne. The Loire Valley.

Napa Valley vines
In Italy it’s Tuscany. Piedmont. Lombardi. The Veneto.

California has its famed Napa and Sonoma Valleys.

And many others. My ambition is to get through them all at some point in the distant future. I’m about halfway there.

Until then, Cheers!

Last note: My sister-in-law and her husband are also fond of both travel and wine consumption. They are part of a group which always does one or two annual get-togethers for the express purpose of conducting what they call the Wine DM…or Death March.

For two days they traipse through a chosen wine district, tasting until their palates fail. Some members of the troop, my sister-in-law, for instance, are more controlled and genuinely trying to find something they like. Others seem along for the ride and more into the imbibing of it all.

To each their own, I guess — as long as no one gets any more hurt than a painful headache the next day. But in general a word to the wise is to know your limit and make the sojourn about the wine, not the drunk.

After all, your hometown bar is considerably closer and likely a whole lot cheaper. Wine tours ought to be memorable events…not memory-challenged ones.

And again: Cheers!


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