Gaining an appreciation for nuances of toast


RECENTLY I SPENT several days touring the California wine country, and I must say that it was a wonderful experience that I will remember until long after I get this mud out of my ears.

I'll explain the mud in a moment, but first I should explain that the wine country is an area near San Francisco that is abundantly blessed with the crucial natural ingredient that you need to have a successful wine country: tourists. There are thousands and thousands of them, forming a dense, continuous stream of rental cars creeping up and down the Napa Valley, where you apparently cannot be a legal resident unless you own a winery named after yourself. Roughly every 45 feet you pass a sign that says something like "The Earl A. Frebblemunster And His Sons Earl Jr. And Bud, But Not Fred, Who Went Into The Insurance Business, Winery."

When you see a winery that you like, you go inside for wine-related activities, which are mainly (1) tasting wine, and (2) trying to adopt thoughtful facial expressions so as to appear as though you have some clue as to what you are tasting. Some wineries also give guided tours wherein they show you how wine is made. The process starts with the grapes, which ripen on vines under the watchful eyes of the head wine person (or "poisson de la tete") until exactly the right moment, at which point they form a huge swarm and follow the queen to the new hive location.

No, wait, I'm thinking of bees. When the grapes are ripe, they're harvested and stomped on barefoot by skilled stompers until they (the grapes) form a pulpy mass (called the "fromage") which is then discarded. Then the head wine person drives to the supermarket and buys some nice hygienic bunches of unstomped grapes, which are placed in containers with yeast -- a small but sexually active fungus -- and together they form wine.

The wine is then bottled and transported to the Pretentious Phrase Room, where professional wine snobs perform the most critical part of the whole operation: thinking of ways to make fermented grape juice sound more complex than nuclear physics. For example, at one winery I sampled a pinot noir (from the French words "pinot," meaning "type of," and "noir," meaning "wine"), and they handed me a sheet of paper giving many facts about the wine, including something called the "Average Brix at Harvest"; the pH of the grapes; a detailed discussion of the fermentation (among other things, it was "malolactic"); the type of barrels used for aging ("100 percent French tight-grained oak from the Vosges and Allier forests"); the type of filtration (it was "a light egg-white fining"); and the actual nature of the wine itself, which is described -- and this is only part of the description -- as having "classical Burgundian aromas of earth, bark and mushrooms; dried leaves, cherries; subtle hints of spice and French oak"; and the flavor of "blackberry, allspice, cloves, vanilla with nuances of plums and toast."

Yes! Nuances of toast! I bet they exchanged high fives in the Pretentious Phrase Room when they came up with that one!

At another winery, I stood next to some young men -- they couldn't have been older than 22 -- who were tasting wine and asking a winery employee questions such as: "Was '93 a good year for the cabernets?" I wanted to shake them and shout, "What's wrong with you!? When I was your age, I was drinking Sunshine Premium brand beer (motto: 'Made From Ingredients') at $2.39 a case!"

Anyway, the other major tourist thing to do in wine country is to go to a town called Calistoga and take a mud bath, which is an activity that I believe would be popular only in an area where people have been drinking wine. My wife and I took one at a combination spa and motel, where we were met by a woman who said, I swear, "Hi, I'm Marcie, and I'll be your mud attendant."

Marcie led us into a room containing two large tubs filled to the brim with what smelled like cow poop heated to 104 degrees. We paid good money to be allowed to climb into these things and lie there sweating like professional wrestlers for 15 minutes. Marcie -- who later admitted that she had done this only once herself -- said it was supposed to get rid of our bodily toxins, but my feeling is that if I have to choose between toxins and hot cow poop, I'm going with the toxins.

But I have to say that after I got out of the mud, I felt a great deal better than when I was in the mud, and I am confident that one day, if I take enough showers, people will stop edging away from me on the elevator. So let me close by saying that, although I have made some fun of the wine-country experience here, I really do feel, in all sincerity, that "Pinot Noir and his Nuances of Toast" would be a good name for a band.

Pub Date: 8/24/97

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