Don’t get ‘Sideways’ or go over the hill — just stay home
by Debra DeAngelo
My favorite son and I have a new Easter weekend tradition — wine tasting in the Central Coast region. The first year we visited Paso Robles, last year it was Avila Beach, and this year Edna Valley. Jimmy is still learning about wine, but me and wine — we’re old pals.
I’m most familiar with the Napa/Sonoma Valleys, and the Central Coast region is new territory. However, I can already detect a huge qualitative difference between the two regions, and I suspect the movie “Sideways” was a huge influence.
In “Sideways,” the main character (from LA) takes his pal on a wine tasting jaunt, telling him that you don’t need to drive all the way to the Napa Valley to go wine tasting, you can head for Paso Robles. This is true, technically, if you just want to say that you went wine tasting and don’t have any frame of reference about wine tasting. While the Paso wine industry is growing by the minute, it’s not in the same league as the Napa Valley. It’s just not.
First off, the Paso region is being shaped by its clientele. Angelinos clearly took the “Sideways” advice to heart. The tasting rooms are packed with them, and yes, they’re just that easy to spot. They dress, talk, and act differently than people from, well, almost anywhere else. Their spending habits give them away. They don’t mind buying grotesquely overpriced items. It’s part of their culture. A hundred bucks for a BeBe tank top? So? The actual cost/value ratio is irrelevant. What matters is that it cost a lot — more than average folks would be able and/or willing to spend — and that other people notice.
In this regard, the Paso winemakers are business-savvy. Their wines don’t have to match up to Napa Valley standards, because their customers don’t know any better. They’ll happily plunk down $35 for a mediocre Sauvignon Blanc that should cost about $10. But the business plan works. You can see it in the size and extravagance of many of the wineries there. However, if your wine tasting experience was shaped in the Napa/Sonoma region, you may come away feeling a bit let down.
Besides the wine being cheekily, unashamedly overpriced, many of the Paso wineries we visited are staffed by 20-somethings who haven’t been alive long enough to have a deep, loving relationship with wine. What they do have is a job in a wine tasting room, and it shows. They’ve memorized scripts about oak-barrel vs. aluminum-barrel aged Chardonnay, but they can’t tell stories about how your friends went nuts over this wine at your dinner party when you paired it with dried pears sprinkled with Gorgonzola, because, frankly, a dinner party with their friends means washing down Domino’s Pizza with some PBR, followed by Jello shots on the balcony until somebody passes out or the cops arrive, whichever comes first.
However, there are worse things than being simply young and inexperienced. At least they’re trying, so I patiently listen to them explain the difference between Merlot and Cabernet. “Young” is preferable to “rude,” and this was highlighted at our recent stop at the Baileyana Winery — hands down, the worst tasting room staff I’ve ever encountered. And folks, that’s a lot of “ever.” I was tasting wine before either of the two guys working the Baileyana counter were born.
These guys weren’t interested in selling wine. They were interested in cute, blond, button-nosed SoCal chickies in short sundresses with Daddy’s MasterCard in their precious Coach handbags. Because neither my son nor I fall into that category, we were pretty much invisible. It was so bad and so blatant, I almost walked out halfway through tasting the flight. It wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten poor service in a Paso region wine tasting room, but it was by far the worst. Baileyana — two thumbs way down.
Contrast this to Rodney Strong or Ferrari-Carano in the Sonoma Valley. Wineries don’t get much bigger or more beautiful than those. Their wine is fabulous, and they’ve earned the right to be snotty. But they aren’t. When you visit, you’re greeted like a long-lost friend, even if it’s your first time there. That’s the difference between a sommelier and a 20-something with a job in a wine tasting room. They understand WHY they’re behind the counter, and that wine tasting isn’t merely a transaction, it’s an experience. THIS is the business plan that works in the Napa region: Treat your customers to a lovely experience, make them feel special, and they’ll buy wine just because they like you as much as they like your wine, maybe more.
My Baileyana visit reemphasized my appreciation for our wine tasting rooms right here in Winters. When I don’t want to head over the hill to taste wine, I head downtown. I don’t really taste, though, because they’re onto my game. They know that I know how their wine tastes, and I know that they know it. So, I just buy a glass so I don’t look like a jerk.
It’s good to get out of town from time to time to remind yourself what you have at home. And $40 goes a lot further here. For what you’d pay for mediocre Paso area wine, you get can two bottles of outstanding wine at Berryessa Gap or Turkovich and get treated like family. Forty bucks will go even further at Rootstock, with change to spare for chocolate and olive oil. Over at Main Street Cellars, for $40 you can explore an eclectic wine collection, while owner Michael “El Fuego” Petersen entertains you in his acerbic Wine Nazi style.
All in all, I’ve decided that you don’t have to get “Sideways” to find great wine, and you don’t need to go over the hill either. You can just stay home.