PART ONE OF TWO.
When W.A.G. (Wine-Allergic Girlfriend) and I got up, Mendocino was wear-a-scarf-with-your-long-sleeve-shirt sort of weather. But crossing over the hills that separate the coastal towns from the Anderson Valley, watching the digital thermometer in our rental car rise one degree for every mile, we quickly shed scarves and long sleeves and began hydrating. One thing I can confirm about wine country: microclimates are real and they are not messing around.
We pulled into the Navarro Vineyards parking lot (off Highway 128) and made our way through thick heat to the tasting room. Aggressive air-conditioning met us at the door. Sunlight and white stone filled the space. Throughout the room, Doric columns displayed things like olive oil and corkscrews. It felt like a fancy bread shop. The large bar curved smoothly and elegantly, and, though I am not this way, I felt the urge to tap W.A.G., point, and tell her, “Now there is a nice piece of wood.” Behind the bar, three or four younger folks in T-shirts moved between customers, pouring wine, giving information when requested, holding back in that fancy-restaurant-server sort of way. The sound from air-conditioning cushioned the whole room. W.A.G. and I were younger than every customer there by at least 20 years, as were the folks behind the bar, from the look of things. I’m not sure if it was their T-shirts mixed with their fancy-restaurant professionalism, but I imagined that these wine pourers were paying their wine-world dues, that they had ambitions within the wine industry and were here for the same reasons young corporate folks start in sales. They took the wine seriously, but it didn’t look like they took their jobs seriously. It was just a step to a real wine job. One of the young men behind the bar—bearded and balding in an early-30s way—acknowledged us with a nod when we approached. He grabbed two glasses from somewhere underneath and slid a list of wines my way. I told him only one of us would be drinking, and, while he was removing one of the glasses, I inexplicably felt the need to elaborate: “It’s not that she’s the designated driver or anything; it’s an allergy.” He looked at me blankly. W.A.G. bit her lip and shook her head. I sputtered to a stop and looked at the list. It was huge, less a list and more a novella. Unfortunately, our time was limited. We were in town for my brother’s wedding and had some things to do that evening before his rehearsal dinner. This meant that (1) I could choose only two vineyards to visit and (2) W.A.G. was watching the clock. She worried that I was being unrealistic about what could be done in the time we had and that I would end up disappointed and stressed out. I considered this time crunch as I looked at the long wine list. On the one hand, it was my brother’s rehearsal dinner and I was the best man. On the other hand, I was in wine country and I love wine.
Obviously, I knew my brother’s wedding took priority, but being so close to these wineries made me feel responsible to them as well, as if I were in Paris for the first time and hadn’t yet been to the Louvre. I decided to skip the first few on the list and start with a Sauvignon Blanc—a good wine to start a tasting with because of its relative lightness. The man behind the bar nodded, grabbed a bottle from an underbar fridge, and quickly flicked it over my glass as if he were pouring me a glass of hot sauce.
“Thanks,” I said quietly and swirled my glass on the bar. I listened to the air-conditioning.
Unlike a normal bar, where the drinks are second to the socializing, this bar was eerily quiet. Someone broke the silence only to say, “And now the Zinfandel.” Most of the people at the bar looked to be in even more of a rush than W.A.G. and I were in.
“OK,” a very large man in an even larger polo shirt told the guy behind the bar. “I’ll take a case of the Pinot and a case of the Chard.” (Wine PSA, friends: Never, ever, ever refer to Chardonnay as “Chard.”) An older woman stood next to this polo shirt. She wore sunglasses and an outfit that vaguely reminded me of a young boy in a sailor suit. They waited for their cases in the passively impatient silence exclusive to the wealthy. Once the wine appeared, the man paid and they left. This quick and expensive interaction repeated itself up and down the bar a number of times before I’d even moved on to my second wine.
“What do you think?” W.A.G. asked me. I stared at her dumbly and began about four sentences before just nodding my head in silence. The people here who looked most comfortable were those who were buying something. When we left Mendocino that morning, I hadn’t really thought about buying wine. I’d left Mendocino excited about the idea of vineyards, but hadn’t really considered what being at an actual vineyard would be like. Of course people were buying stuff! A man and a woman approached the bar on my right.
“May we have a glass of the Sauvignon Blanc?” he asked. He was a smaller man, older, skinny with curved posture. His face uncannily resembled the face of Harry Anderson from Night Court, but wasn’t as telegenic and was topped with a bad toupee.
“We don’t serve wine by the glass,” the man behind the bar told him. “We’re a tasting room.”
“Well, we would like to sit outside with some wine, and—” He turned to his companion. “Did you want something to snack on?” I looked over at the couple. Did she have two sets of eyebrows? I looked back at W.A.G., who was looking at the couple transfixed. She grabbed my hand and squeezed out an “Ohmigod.” She did have two sets of eyebrows, one set painted on, the other a soft set of stubble, as if she hadn’t had access to a razor for a couple of days. She ignored the older man’s question about snacks and kept her back to the bar. I don’t mean to stereotype, but she looked so much like a young drag-queen prostitute that she could only be one thing: a young drag-queen prostitute. She was much younger than he was and much taller. The older man continued to ask her questions about snacks and wine and whether she wanted to sit outside. She replied with giggles and rolling eyes, and, after a bit, he started to treat her like an unruly child.
“You need to eat something,” he told her. “What would you like? Would you like some crackers?” The drag queen mumbled some reply, but it sounded exhausted and condescending, and the older man quit asking after that.
Eventually, it was decided that the couple could buy a bottle of wine and open it outside in Navarro’s picnic area. The older man dipped into his wallet.
“We’ll also take that Bergenost cheese as well,” he said.
“And those wine crackers.”
W.A.G. was squeezing my arm very hard at this point. It struck me that wine-tasting like this actually shares some fundamental features with prostitution: the quiet awkwardness of an act that sounds romantic when you think about it but is really just a business transaction.
(To be continued.)