I’m going on a trip to Napa Valley, also known as a bender. I’ve always found it unfair that when rich people drink wine for five days straight it’s a “hobby,” but when I do it it’s a “problem.” So I’m headed to Napa for some state of the art boozing—the kind of binge you can write home about. I like to drink wine but instead of decanting it, swirling it around vigorously, sniffing and taking a tiny sip, my ritual pretty much just consists of ‘gulp.’ Of course the kind of wine I can afford has less notes of ‘black current and truffle’ and more notes of ‘sulfur’ and ‘acetone’ so that could explain it.
My alarm goes off at 8 a.m.: time to start drinking! My boyfriend James and I have an appointment booked at Napa Valley Bike Tours. Apparently drunk biking is as popular as drunk driving around here. James is currently pushing 30 and should be clinging desperately to the last vestiges of his youth, but instead has decided to launch himself headlong into middle age-hood in some sort of reverse mid-life crisis.
Exhibit A: The couch cushions he recently purchased.
As we bike from vineyard to vineyard, I search for the perfect white wine—a classic Napa chard, maybe something with an oaky finish. James goes from vineyard to vineyard asking for heartburn medicine—Pepcid AC or Tums, something with a chalky finish, perhaps? We traverse the rolling hills, crossed with rows of golden vines; I see why people move here. Gorgeous weather, quiet, clean, home to the best restaurants in the world and the only stress these people battle is whether they should pair their lamb with a Syrah or a Pinot. We bike to a couple of wineries and end up at Andretti Winery---which looks like an old Italian villa. We taste a few pretty good wines, but the highlight is definitely when I say, “This Chardonnay has a buttery finish!” and the old Italian guy pouring the wine says to my boyfriend “Has she-a got-a buttery finish, too?” We decide it must be an authentic Italian place and buy a couple bottles of Chianti.
Grape vines at the Andretti Winery along the bike path.
For lunch we head to Goose and Gander in St. Helena, a gourmet burger joint where, apart from our now purple teeth, we fit right in with the beer drinkers. No one is rolling their glass on the table or waxing poetic about it, these freaks are just drinking. I order a burger with their signature melted bone marrow drizzled on top. The first bite breaks the lard surface tension and grease explodes all over my hands, clothes and boyfriend. Neither of us care because we’re in a pleasure coma. I’ve never had sex on ecstasy but i’d imagine it feels something like this—I may be ruined for all future food.
As we head home hours later, the Napa sunshine mercilessly bakes us into an early hangover. By 2 p.m. I have a headache worthy of New Year’s Day. And, probably like the rest of Napa I’m dying for a siesta. The last thing I want right now is to drink six half glasses of wine, but too bad for me because we have tickets to do just that. Suck it up. This is Napa Valley, pussy! This weekend is the Flavor Napa Valley festival and we got tickets for one of the exclusive main events: a blind wine tasting competition. We think we're just going to be watching, but to our horror we discover that we are participants in this contest! Competing against, oh ya know, only the best wine tasters in the world; four of whom are actually master sommeliers. To gain the title of master sommelier one has to pass what Forbes Magazine has called “the most difficult test in the world.” Only 200 people have passed this test since its inception 40 some years ago and several of them must’ve died from cirrhosis of the liver by now, right? So, I estimate we are among 25% of the top wine connaisseurs in the world, (what if this building collapsed omg?!) and these people are our competition.
The participant of the blind wine tasting listen intently to their host and master sommelier, Andrea Robinson. Photo courtesy of Flavor! Napa Valley.
They start with an opening presentation about the various credits of the sommeliers and background of this festival. There are six half-glasses of wine in front of us. Two white, three red and one ‘practice.’ Already bored to tears, I drink the practice one right away and finish, just before realizing it was intended for a guided tasting tutorial. Oops.
Suddenly there’s a kerfuffle because half the sommelier’s feel wine number three has “gone off.” The other half think it’s okay. Nonetheless, they sweep away our glasses, but not before I take a curious swig. It’s the best wine I’ve ever had. “Tasted like a foul 2005 Cotes du Rhone varietal I recall,” says the man seated next to me. If only he could taste my usual Trader Joe’s exclusive varietals—Les Deux Buck Chuck if you will. I want to jump up and rescue the abandoned bottle right now.
The tasting begins. They only give us 20 minutes for five glasses and we have to guess the grape, country of origin and the year. The same man to my left, who happens to be a sommelier from a Michelin star restaurant, starts talking to me for some reason. “This one’s fairly obvious wouldn’t you say? Are you getting the same overpowering note I am?” I rack my taste buds and brain for some poetic answer like ‘Meyer lemon’ or ‘wisteria,’ but all I can come up with is “Vanilla?” He’s not impressed. “Interesting…and what does vanilla connote?” He gives me a reassuring nod as I think. Häagen-Dazs? Shit. “Chardonnay” I say because it’s one of the names I know. He suddenly becomes very interested in a piece of lint on his shirt.
A gong rings alerting us to the fact that we have ten minutes left. Apparently I haven’t been drinking fast enough (a first!) because I only have one answer down. I swirl, sniff, sip and also peek over at my boyfriend’s test. He shifts his weight, shielding his answers like we’re in algebra.
What feels like 20 seconds later, the gong rings again. Time’s up. The wine seems to have done its job because all the sommeliers have suddenly become fun, interesting people. They’re laughing and kissing each other on the cheek.
An official comes over to collect my test, but I still have two answers left. I can’t decide if this red is a merlot or a pinot or a cab or what. She’s demanding I give it to her now, which is obviously unfair to me because everyone else got a head-start in the practice round. The sommeliers glare at me as though I’m cheating. “You’re going to allow this?” one asks, as though this extra 40 seconds is going to clinch the win for me. I scribble down my answers and hand it in. “Don’t you want to put your name on it?” she barks. Not really.
They take inventory and announce the top taster—I got every single one wrong. They do not announce the ‘bottom taster’, thank God. The woman who wins cries; so do many of the devastated runners-up.
Exhausted and humiliated, we head to the hotel for a hard earned nap. I’m thrilled to discover that in an uncharacteristically youthful move my boyfriend has pilfered one of the bottles of wine that had “gone off”.
Enjoying yet another glass of wine.
We drink it later that night in bed, delicately paired with french fries and ketchup. We fall asleep in our clothes.
Six short hours later the alarm blares off—time to start drinking! I gotta get a new hobby.