Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Oh, the unending pretenses of wine, so vast that I can know nothing about it, but all the same I love drinking the good stuff. I can tell the difference. Anyone can. And everyone's right.

Since Mrs. Ditchman and I are wine enthusiasts (I'm more of a wine drinking enthusiast), we spent some of our anniversary doing some hoity-toity wine-tasting. Where, might you ask? Well since the private jet was being washed, we decided we'd head out to beautiful Temecula Wine Country. It's local. Step out of our house and 40 minutes later you're sipping the finest White Zinfandel you've ever experienced.

Or White Cabernet. Or White Merlot. Such is the rollicking uniqueness that are the Temecula wines, considered to be part of the "South Coast" region of California wines. If you are a believer in the old adage "friends don't let friends drink white zin," then you may be too snobby to appreciate Temecula wines. I won't hold it against you. On the other hand, if you're like me and are willing to try any wine just to say you did, increasing your breadth of knowledge and frame of reference, THEN BY GOD DRINK UP! Temecula Wine Country. Tis a silly place.

How silly? Sufficiently silly. Still worth it, however. Playing it safe, we hit three wineries. First up: Wilson Creek Winery. Home of that perennial Costco favorite, that bottled hit I'm sure you've heard of: Almond Champagne. How does it taste? Well, almondy. What kind of place is it? Well, why do you have to ask? It's like Fantasyland for adults who aren't interested in the details of fine craftsmanship. It's like wandering through a theme park with gum on the bottom of your shoe. It's twelve dollars for six tastings. They give you a ticket and tear off a bit after each taste, like a carnival. There are a million people, all clamoring for the "White Cabernet" which the server, whose knowledge of the wine was summed up with "It's the best one," relayed the information to you with such uninterested displeasure at having to be bothered to work on a Sunday, that you could just tell he'd be drinking a bottle of it when he got home later. In a tumbler. On ice. With Sprite.

They also served a "chocolate port" named "Decadencia," and if by "decadent" you mean "reflecting a state of moral or cultural decline" then, yes. Seriously. It tasted like they bottled the champagne bar spittoon after they dipped it in the days-old chocolate fountain out back in the dirty gazebo. I don't mean to be harsh, this is actually what it tasted like. To me. Just then, I observed a woman with two brimming glasses of the cocoa drool doing the hands-full-and-backing-out-the-door thing. "We must be snobs," Mrs. Ditchman leaned over and whispered, smile on her face, radiant in the light coming through the tinted glass of the tasting room on our anniversary. "WHAT?" I asked. I couldn't hear above the crowd.

So we left. Every wine country has that one winery where everyone goes. It's like a winery hub. All the other "serious" winemakers resent it, I'm sure, but it's that one winery, with their cheap, grapey fluke with the funny name that made a name for itself, that draws folks in. I always go to that place. I figure the wine is just going to get better from there.

Then we went to a place called Leonesse Cellars. Why did we choose Leonesse? Because it was on the free map provided by the Chamber of Commerce. Because we were driving by. Because they had a nice patio cover out in the vineyard. Their hit is the White Merlot. "No one else makes one!" the pourer proclaimed proudly, not understanding that no one makes "Alpaca Manure Wine" either and perhaps there's a reason. How was it? Well, it was better than the white cab we had at the last place. Anyway, there did happen to be a red cab on the tasting list that elicited some interest in the nose of my wife, but it was something of a stretch. (It would have had to age to the point where the bottle itself became vintage glass.) So we laughed our way out to the parking lot, snobs that we are.

I was becoming disappointed. I had held out hope, giving the Temecula Wine Country the benefit of the doubt. Surely there was some good wine in the region, it's just been overlooked! Why, it's a tough business when you've got Napa snubbing you and Paso Robles and Santa Barbara and their Sideways pop-viticulture overpowering your southland mystique. I really wanted to find a nice Temecula wine that I could take to my wine-drinking friends and say, "Oh, you've just got to try this terrific Temecula wine!" and then get laughed out of the room, where I could enjoy its secret goodness all to myself.

In the car, we looked at the map again. There are about two dozen wineries in the region. (Fourteen of them are award-winning!) Where you can spend an entire weekend touring the byways of Napa or Sonoma, you can drive around Temecula wine country in a half hour. The locals here would have you drive slow through their suburb, taking in the sights and sounds of wine country, enjoying the early-in-the-season ripening grapes and the misty mornings that precede the long, dry summers that are so perfect for certain Rhone varietals. Whatever. Don't blink or you'll miss it.

We headed down the highway. I was determined to try one more and I asked Mrs. Ditchman to pick. She mentioned the one we had just passed, as in, "How about that one -let's get this over with." I pulled over and looked at the map. My wife said, "No really. Let's just try it." Many wineries are all about luring you off the road with their irresistible architecture. They build fantastic stone walls with ornate, wrought-iron gates, reminiscent of beautiful Tuscany, or what you suppose beautiful Tuscany might look like. They have impressive signage. They put the tasting room up on a hill, carving a road right through the middle of the precious vineyard, winding up to a landscape flooded with rosemary and sage, roses and lavender. You like the wine already!

So here we had passed a winery that was a steel warehouse, with a vinyl banner out front that read "Cougar". We had strayed off the Temecula Wine Country main strip, if there is one, and found ourselves in the region's backside. I said, "Well, if I was going to make a wine in Temecula, it wouldn't be on this lame map. And it would be off the beaten path." And since it wasn't on the map, Mrs. Ditchman said, "Cougar it is, then" and we turned the car around and headed up to the square, non-descript building -which looked semi-abandoned without any limos, buses or trolleys out in front of it. We parked in the gravel, noticing the two public Port-A-Johns. "Oh, this place looks promising!" Mrs. Ditchman said in all seriousness, which then had us in tears, laughing as we got out of the car because it's typical of us. "No, really! It looks like it's right up our alley!" And we tried to wipe the embarrassing smiles off our faces as we pulled the metal door open and walked in. Alone.

Wine's a funny thing. When you go to the store and you want to try something new, what do you do? Look at the label? Read the description? What moves you to buy it? If a winery is spending a lot of time on a brilliant label design and a spectacular Venetian plaster in the tasting room, are they not trying to distract you from something? So I don't trust labels, appearances, or proverbial book covers. Oh sure, some of the best wines have wonderful labels and lavish winery grounds, but you're paying for it at $50-$90 a cork. I guess you can't blame a winery for dressing up like success, but really, wine is like this: you only know by tasting it. If you have a friend you trust whose taste is similar to yours, it helps. Otherwise, wine is for the blind.

So we found it, the gem of Temecula. The wine was terrific. We weren't drunk. The winemaker came out and met us. He apologized for the bathrooms. He was the only person we had met all day who knew what he was talking about. There were no ticket stubs to tear off. He was most proud of the Sangiovese, but they make a "pink" wine to appeal to the Temecula crowd. (It was the best pink wine we had all day, or, well, ever.) He wants to stick with the Italian varietals and described several grapes that are rare on this side of the world, but that they like to play with -Cortese, Fiano di Avellino, and Greco di Tufo. (They import the grapes from Baja while they're waiting for U.S. customs to allow the vines to be grown here.) I was also impressed with the Arneis and the Vermentino, which I'd never had before. Still, the Sangiovese was the favorite, so we bought a bottle. (We wanted to be sure it actually was good, and we'll try it later, on some day when its worth can be better considered.) Also, we pet their winery dogs.

So Temecula Wine Country is not a total waste of time, and you're just going to have to take our word for it until you brave the region yourself. And it's called Cougar, if you're wondering. They've only been around for a few years. They don't have any pictures on their website. They're still working on the place, but they're no dummies: they're going to make it look like a beautiful Tuscan Villa. We saw the plans.