For a few years now I’ve wanted to try my hand at being a wine writer. Not in the traditional sense of a Robert Parker wine critique, or a AAA-style Travel Guide to the Wine Country, but a more personal accounting of my observations and experiences. I’ve had this idea for a column in my home town of Sacramento…here’s the premise: Essentially, life, for us all, is a journey we take with friends, neighbors and family. It is laden with encounters and memories, many of which happen to include the sharing and drinking of wine. There you have it, simple enough, and as such, I’m gonna start putting all this info down in a blog. I want to share thoughts on the communal as well as technical aspects of wine. I’ll throw in some favorite wine recommendations too!
I started my foray into a life of wine about 25 years ago. I am not ashamed to say it all began with a bottle of Boone’s Farm Tickle Pink–the color of cotton candy, screw top, sweet as syrup. There was even a light effervescence in each plastic cup I poured. What could be the more perfect drink for a Southern California girl and her friends; it felt pretty festive–not to mention, it was extremely affordable at just $1.87/bottle. Wine became my go-to social drink, as I’m sure it did for many of you, and no doubt, like you, I did branch out from the Boone’s Farm: I moved on to Blue Nun!
Fortunately for me, I had some older friends, Joe and Colleen, who were far more experienced when it came to drinking wine, and they were perched, waiting to pull me from my oblivion. Unlike here in the Sacramento region, the wine tasting opportunities were slim in my stomping grounds of Orange County. Fortunately, my new friends were big proponents of tasting in a relatively unknown wine region called Temecula. North of San Diego, and located in the southwestern portion of Riverside County, this area was beginning to acquire a reputation as a wine tasting destination in the mid 80’s. In 1984 it was designated an American Viticultural Area (AVA), and in this country, an AVA is essentially a geographic and climate delineated grape growning region. It is similar to the Appellation Controlee system in France. In CA, there are over 60 of these AVAs (i.e., Shenandoah Valley, Alexander Valley, Howell Mountain), and many wineries like to list the AVA on their label for both reference and gravitas purposes. In order to do so, by law, a wine must contain a minimum of 85% grapes grown in that region.
In those early days, Temecula was sparsely populated with wineries, and as memory serves, the area seemed to produce predominantly white wines. Our favorite stops together were Callaway, Baily, and Maurice Car’rie. I was still trending toward the sweet, so I fell passionately in love with muscat canelli at Maurice Car’rie. All this tasting time together helped us to forge a strong bond!
It was on one of those treks that I learned the ins and outs of sparkling wine at Culbertson Winery. I didn’t know at the time that CA didn’t produce champagne, I thought Andre and Korbel were champagne, and they were produced here. Nope, on this side of the pond, technically, we just produce sparkling wine, and the fanciest of it is done in the methode champenoise, meaning in the method of the Champagne region of France. As a matter of fact, international laws exist that forbid the labeling of wines made outside that particular French region as champagne (and trust me, that’s all you want to know…it’s a long, complicated international drama).
The tastings at Culbertson were a communal affair. These sparkling tastings were my favorite. They began with an extensive tour of the winery, where all the steps in the complicated process of sparkling winemaking were on display: the press, the fermentation, the riddling racks, and the sealing…it was all there. After the tour, we sat as a group around a large farm table, and at each seat were five champagne flutes of bubbly. The tasting was a side by side demo of the varying degrees of sweetness of their wines. What an education for everyone–it’s as though we were all having our own Benedictine monk-esque moment, thinking to ourselves “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars”.
Prior to the side by side, the whole labeling of sparkling wines was confounding to me. Brut, extra dry, extra brut….argghh, I never knew what bottle I was going to like off the store shelves. From those tastings sessions I learned that the continuum from least sweet to most sweet went something like this: extra brut, brut, extra dry, sec, demi-sec. And yes, it is still counterintuitive to me that an extra dry “champagne” is less dry than a brut “champagne”…I mean, honestly, shouldn’t something extra dry be the most dry (meaning, of course, least sweet)…enough said!
There was something magical about those first wine tasting experiences for me; the earthy bouquet of pressed and fermented wine, the picnics on the winery grasses with splits just purchased…but most memorable by far, the sharing of those sunny days with friends. Maybe I still enjoy muscat cannelli because of everything sentimental that floods back when I taste or smell it. I think of Colleen and Joe and all they meant to me in those bygone days. Maybe it’s just that unmistakable sweet and honeyed note derived from the botrytis fungus—that distinct flavor that makes it a muscat.
It seemed apropos to begin our journey together with an homage to the sweeter things in life. Locally, in Sacramento, I have found the following to be tasty examples of some of the styles mentioned above. Cheers to Joe and Colleen, who always preferred the demi-secs!
Domaine St. Michelle, Brut NV 33rd Street Bistro $6/glass
Scharffenberger, Brut, NV BevMo $18.99
Bele Casel, Prosecco, Extra Dry Selland’s $16.00
Schramsberg, Cremant, Demi-Sec 05 Corti Bros $38.50