Matt Rudd solves the drink-drive problem on a chauffeured Sonoma Valley winery tour
WHERE’S the fun in going on a wine tour and not having a drink? I know it’s terribly inelegant to gulp your way through the tastings, but it just seems such a waste, so environmentally unfriendly, to spit out a perfectly decent mouthful of wine. If you’re unsophisticated enough to feel the same way, then you’ll know about the great wine tour quandary.
If you do your own wine tour, you can’t drink because you’re driving. Which means you have to sign up for a group tour. This involves lots of discussion about how wine is made and being trapped on a minibus with six wine buffs, and is, therefore, worse than being sandpapered to death.
But, my fellow oeno-philistines, I have a solution. A third way. And it’s so simple you’ll want to celebrate by immediately necking a nice grand cru.
What is it, you gargle? It’s a chauffeurdriven limo, of course. A private car, but someone else does the driving. He’ll know about wines, of course, but he’ll speak only when spoken to. It’s perfect.
Of course, you’re not going to find anything as declasse as a chauffeur-driven limo in the traditionalist hills of Bordeaux. No, for this you have to go to Sonoma, California, where everything is more comfortingly gauche. Where the driver of my transfer bus is a great fan of the electric chair (‘‘because hanging’s too darn good fer ’ em’’) and where my low-carb hotel breakfast consists of three eggs, ham, maple pecan sausage, bacon, sauteed spinach, mushrooms, coffee, tea and juice.
The latter explains why Phillip the chauffeur and his cool, black Lincoln are on time but I and my equally laden friends are not. He doesn’t mind, though: he’s the chauffeur. And by way of introduction he says we can go where we want and do what we want. No, he won’t be taking us to any of the theme park wineries as featured in the movie Sideways . Yes, he would look after us if we drank too much. No, he’s never known anyone to miss their flight home. And yes, he was once ordered by a couple halfway through an intensive day’s tasting to drive them to Reno to get married.
Fortunately, their story didn’t end happily. They passed out in Sacramento and called the whole thing off when they woke up, hungover, in Applegate.
Clear of the tourist traps: There’s nothing posh or wimpy about the lush wine country of Sonoma
We start at the boutique winery of Ravenswood, suffer the quickest of tours (even when you’re not on a group tour, the vineyard owners can spring one on you), then start drinking. Our vineyard guide, Bruce, is an amiable chap with perfect teeth and the vestiges of an English accent, and he’s keen to show off his wines, which are anything but wimpy. The phrase originates from whimper, as in the sound you make when you drink a wimpy wine. I always thought subtlety was good, but the big zinfandels are delicious and not at all wimpy.
Bruce recommends a couple of vineyards and discourages us from a couple more: ‘‘ Don’t go there . . . you can buy a suit in their gift shop. A suit, for goodness sake. It’s like being in Macy’s. Ridiculous.’’
As we bid still-sober farewells to Bruce, Phillip is there, boot popped to take our purchases, door open, standing to attention. I feel ever so slightly presidential. If only Phillip were called Parker or Jeeves.
Our next stop is the Wine Room (‘‘the best damned tasting room in the valley’’), where a hairy man in an intimidating heavymetal T-shirt is hunched over the counter as we enter. Because I’ve watched too many episodes of America’s Most Extreme Police Death Killer Maniac videos, my immediate thought as our eyes meet is that I’ve disturbed an armed robbery.
The hairy T-shirt guy is clearly a convict on the run. When he makes good his escape, we’ll find a posh wine guy bound and gagged in the back room. Turns out the hairy T-shirt guy is the wine guy, and he’s called David. In the first five minutes of tasting we also establish that Republicans are disgusting, that he’s proud of all his wines but not his daughters (‘‘Well, I’m proud of one of ’ em’’), and that he thinks Sonoma is a much more genuine valley than Napa, its more famous neighbour (‘‘where the vineyards charge you $25 for valet parking’’).
Twenty minutes later, I’ve bought a bottle of Eeyore Barbera 2004, which David kindly signs. It has a picture of a dog on the label but is, I can subsequently report, amazing.
Drinking in the morning is always more effective than drinking at more socially acceptable times of day, such as the evening. You stick out more. So I’m increasingly grateful for the low-carb breakfast as Phillip whisks us off to St Francis, another reputable winery, where Big Tom serves us Big Reds, aided by an assistant armed with Big Canapes. My companions are becoming a bit giggly and our flight out of San Francisco is looming, so we neck the port Tom offers as a finale and zigzag out into the parking lot.
‘‘ One more, Parker, then you must take us home without sparing the horses, what,’’ I say. ‘‘ Take us somewhere special.’’
‘‘ Righto,’’ replies Parker and hits the turbocharger. Our last vineyard for the road is my favourite, run by a down-to-earth Aussie called Chris Loxton, a former astrophysicist whose father and grandfather made wine down under. He displays the slightly mad, slightly obsessive, slightly tannic quality of a devoted winemaker. His winery consists of him, a big shed and a couple of fields. And once he’s established that we aren’t as poncey as our chauffeur-driven arrival would suggest, he is delighted to show off the fruits of his labours, and we are delighted to drink them.
During our four hours with Phillip, we avoid the tourist traps, drink to our hearts’ content without fear of a drink-driving charge, and have to listen to only one explanation of how soil pH affects grapes. I don’t even wake up in Reno with a strange woman next to me and a marriage certificate on the dressing table. The Sunday Times www.pureluxurywinetours.com www.ravenswood-wine.com www.the-wine-room.com www.stfranciswine.com www.loxtonwines.com