Matt Rudd solves the drink-drive prob­lem on a chauf­feured Sonoma Val­ley win­ery tour

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.pure­lux­u­ry­wine­ www.stfran­ www.lox­ton­

Pic­ture: Robert Janover

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