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Jul 2, 2008 02:25 PM

Wine tasting experiences that linger in your memory

The "A Great Night of Wine Tasting " thread reminded me of tasting room memories. In the late 70s there wasn't a lot of traffic in the Sonoma Valley. I lived in Navy housing at Hamilton AFB (the slums of Marin) and a cheap Sunday was a drive up to Geyserville and work our way back south. Being introduced to wine taught me more than school. Some things I will never forget:

Ringing the bell at the tiny tasting room at Foppiano so someone would come out of the house and help you. It was right in the middle of the garden and when you left you had to take some zucchini with you.

Hanging pictures for Dr Marty Griffin at Hop Kiln, very soon after they opened. I was tall enough to hammer in the nails without a ladder.

Watching in amazement as Manny Held entertained people in the garage tasting room at Davis Bynum. The guy was incredible. High motor and explained a couple of wine names to a Chinese friend of mine like this..."Charbonno. Not Cher Bono." and "Beaujolais. Think of it like this 'It's not the boys you date. It's the boys you lay." Later worked at Inglenook (Coppola the last time I was out there).

John Soule at Pedroncelli's tasting room. Class guy. He was in his 70s then and still drove a Porsche like a maniac. Used to fly his little plane over the valley and drop toilet paper bombs on his neighbors. Could tell stories and pour wine for hours at a time. Had to help him wash glasses more than once.

Great memories...

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  1. Wonderful stories. Laughing now. I love characters. That Beaujolais line, unforgettable.

    1. My wife was attending a meeting in Yountville and I was on my own. It was a cool, foggy and drizzley Feb day, so golf was not on my slate. I headed up 29 in the fog and light rain. No traffic was on the highway - none! I do not think that I saw any traffic all the way up to just south of Rutherford. I was alone. The fog waifted over the pavement, and everything was encapsulated. Me and the highway. We were one, but alone. I spotted St. Clement. This was before Beringer-Blas bought them. A few busses and cars occupied the parking lot at Beringer, but the house on the hill appeared empty. I turned in and parked. I grabbed my parka, and walked up to the steps. St. Clement. I had heard of it, but could not recall the wines. I entered, and the dog was sleeping by the fire near the front of the house. I stepped over him and entered a tiny tasting room - still alone, as the dog did not even bother with me. I stood, and looked around. I waited. About then, the UPS guy came up to the side door. He had some sort of delivery, and the person, who delt with him, noticed me - alone in the tasting room, trying to dry off, and warm up. She acknowledged my presence, and asked me to wait a moment, while she logged in the UPS shipment. In a moment, she joined me and we began the "normal" tasting. Nice wines, so far. She frowned, and asked that I wait a moment longer. She disappeared through the door at the back of the tasting room. The dog had not moved from the fire. She came back into the room with a case of wine. "The boss isn't here, so I thought we could enjoy some of these," she said, almost in a whisper. I looked around for microphones, or cameras. "Sure, I'd love that," I muttered. She began to open bottle, after bottle. We talked and we tasted. Wine after wine was poured. More talk, and the dog still had not moved. I had begun about 10:00Am, and it was now going on 3:00PM. We had reservations at 6:30 at the French Laundry. Finally, I had to leave. I reached down to scratch the dog's ears, and he barely acknowledged me, not wishing to move from the fire.

      Six months later, we were back, but it was Summer. Wife had meetings, but had a half-day free. We drove up to St. Clement. The parking lot was full, and I saw folk walking over from Beringer. We entered and the tasting room was filled to the max. We stood for a few moments, and when some others left, entered the back room. The dog was no where to be seen. The bar was about 4 deep, and it appeared that a bachlorette party was tasting. They were laughing, and screaming. Must have been 20 of them. We waited for our turn to start the tasting. Finally, it was our turn. My eyes met those of the same lady, behind the tasting bar. She poured us a glass each, and then did a quick top-up for most of the room. The noise was over the top. Laughing and screaming was the course of the room. She looked into my eyes and shouted, "hey, hold it down in here, we're doing some serious wine tasting!" Silence. Stone-cold silence. In a few minutes, the bachlorette party left, probably heading to Beringer, or Mondavi. I did not watch them. There were still a dozen people in the room, but the noise level was down by 30db. We could speak in a normal tone. Our hostess departed, and then returned with another case of wine. "This is the good stuff," she offered. "Even better than what we had in February." She had remembered me. The folk in the room had no idea what was about to happen, but most stood by silently, glasses outstreched. The "good stuff," was poured, once again. We all talked and sipped. The afternoon turned into early evening, and we continued to taste. Some folk left, and others came in. Each was invited to join in. No one spoke above a whisper for hours. I had promised my wife a trip to J. Phelps, where we had a membership and had experienced some great tastings over the years. She was not disappointed that we spent the entire afternoon at St. Clement. Finally, we had to leave due to reservations back in Yountville. As we left, we had to step over the dog on the porch.

      Though this is two visits, they are both something that I will never forget.


      1 Reply
      1. re: Bill Hunt

        When I was 12, my friend and I stole some of his dad's Yugoslavian wine, at least I think it was wine, from this very large glass urn thing-y. It tasted of alcohol, gasoline, and vomit. We drank it for the sake of getting smashed. It produced an extremely persistent and pressing headache that lasted at least 24 hours. I will never forget that. Sadly, this ritual was conducted on more than one occasion:)

      2. There are too many to count, and not enough time to recount them in . . .

        Tasting wine with Alexis Lichine in the courtyard of his chateau . . . having 1953 Château Pétrus "with" Michael Broadbent . . . visiting Martin Ray Winery in Saratoga for the first time, and having him send his white German shepherd after me . . . tasting my first "serious" wine at age 10 and being confused because of the swastika . . . .

        And on and on and on . . . .


        1 Reply
        1. re: zin1953

          Has to be my first trip to Burgundy, I was on an Importers buying trip, just along to learn. I had little to no experience with Burgundy and expected to just coast through our 6 days there, buying time until we headed to the Loire Valley......that was until one chilly afternoon when we were tasting in the cellar with Dominique Lafon. I had heard the name but had no idea what I was tasting, (honestly had never even seen a bottle of his wines so no clue how rare they were...if I only knew then) and when he poured the deeply concentrated almost honey colored liquid in my glass and I brought it to my lips, the aromatics leaping from the glass so much I could almost taste the wine before it reached my mouth, oh but when it did spill across my palate I was speechless..."What is this?" I asked to which Dominique replied, "That is Montrachet". Remember I knew nothing so I smiled and said, "Wow, that is really good!".....needless to say he and the importer got quite a chuckle at my expense. I have had more than my fair share of Lafon's wines since that day but that wine will be with me and my palate forever! When I returned from my trip I was in love with Burgundy and took over buying for that department of our store, sometimes feels like I am chasing a ghost.

        2. My wife and I have been visiting wineries in Napa/Sonoma since the early 70's (when you could visit all the Napa public tasting rooms in one day). We introduced our daughter to wine country within weeeks of her 21st birthday (in 1996) and she is now the brand manager for a large Sonoma winery. Our son turned 21 in 2001 and it was his turn.

          We made an appointment to taste at Stony Hill (in St. Helena) as our first stop upon arriving in the valley on a Friday in the late afternoon. Peter McCrea was standing under the portico between their home and office as we drove up. Within seconds his wife Willinda appeared. We thought we would be shown into the office area for tatsing, but were delighted to be ushered through the front door of their lovely home and taken to the rear garden patio (overlooking their vineyards and much of the Napa Valley).

          Willinda excused herself and returned shortly with glasses and several bottles of their famous wines. She poured, spoke with us for a while and then went back into the house. At that moment some friends of the McCreas arrived to visit and pick up some cases they had purchased at a charity event the night before. The friends sat down with us and kept pouring for all of us for what seemed like an hour. We finally found Willinda and Peter, said our goodbyes and ended what had to be one of the most recountable wine tasting experiences we've ever had.

          Our son was totally blown away and, to be sure he got a balanced perspective of Napa wine tasting, we did stop by V. Sattui on the way back to our B&B. We still forcefully recommend appointment-only tastings to people who are looking for a less commercial experience, though I doubt we could ever duplicate that special afternoon.

          1. I went to a wine tasting at a hotel in Seattle that was exclusively for Syrah from Washington state. It blew my mind to see how all of these different wine makers were able to take the same grape, from the same state each turn it into something drastically different. I experienced every flavor profile from blueberry, vanilla, oak all the way to eucalyptis. I enjoyed syrah before this adventure but I fell in love with it that night.