c. 2000 — a wine odyssey

12Apr14

night zone

I just heard the news that my old friend Christopher Sawyer was named Sonoma County’s top sommelier in The Bohemian’s 2014 “Best Of” awards.  Being named top sommelier in one of the most renowned wine-making regions in the world is no small change.  Sonoma County has changed dramatically since Sawyer and I grew up there, primarily due to the influx of new tech money and the astronomical rise of housing prices during the housing boom (although house prices in the region declined slightly after the 2008 crash, they recovered quickly compared with the rest of the country and have never returned to anywhere close to affordable).  There’s now a slickness about Sonoma County that didn’t exist in the 70s and 80s, when vineyards felt more like farmland than high culture, and the snotty Porsche-driving wine snobs were restricted to the counties of Napa and Marin.  You can still find a lot of the old Sonoma County, but it’s interstitial.  Sonoma has become a brand, used to sell high-end kitchenware and GMC trucks.

Growing up in an essentially non-bougie wine-making region cultivates an entirely different relationship to wine than that of the oenophile or connoisseur.  It’s primarily the idea of ‘fanciness’ that drops out of the equation, the idea that it takes a specially trained palate to know good wine or that you’re someone special if you can rattle off the names of a few obscure varietals and have an intimate knowledge of the best years for the best grapes in the best regions.  Instead, what drinking wine means is having several bottles of really, really good wine from a relatively small run that have been given to you by your friend’s uncle’s cousin who works in the wine business and managed to end up with a few spare cases of the stuff that were just lying around somewhere.  You have no idea how much the wine costs, but you drive your 1983 Audi Fox (still smelling of must from that rain leak in the sunroof, balding tires making strange noises at certain speeds) out to the beach on a foggy afternoon with three friends listening to a punk rock mix tape made up of your friend’s older brother’s singles collection (DK, of course, and lots of Crass), and then you get to the beach and it’s all quiet and there are seagulls.  You uncork one or two of those bottles (there’s always a corkscrew handy in Sonoma County), and you bring out the few mostly-clean wine glasses that you brought along because drinking wine out of plastic is one of the deadly sins (the glasses were picked up at a thrift store, naturally), and then you sit in the sand and listen to the waves and you taste some flavors that are new and interesting and, if you’re really lucky, the most amazing taste under the sun that you’re going to taste during that particular month.

Wine and punk rock might sound like two things that should just never meet, but the Sonoma County of the 80s and 90s wasn’t limited to that perpetually lame division of the world into “Budweiser bands” and “Miller bands.”  There were plenty of weed bands, of course, but Nuisance, one of the most under-appreciated bands signed to Lookout Records, often spent time on stage with lead singer Andy Asp downing glasses of red wine between songs.  I think I even remember him giving some kind of mock-snotty tasting review in the middle of a show at the Phoenix Theater and calling out a couple of punks in the audience who were taking him to task for drinking wine.  He made the point that he was drinking local, thank you very much, and that the grape harvest is a part of Sonoma County culture, thank you very much, and that Budweiser and Miller are just giant soul-killing corporations anyhow, and anyways it was none of their business if he liked drinking wine.  Or something like like that.  It was a long time ago.  Great show.

This set of photographs is from sometime around the turn of the millennium, I think, and it embodies just about everything I love about the Sonoma County of the pre-boom era.  It’s late, late at night and we’re drinking wine in Sonoma County’s best top-secret undisclosed location for wine drinking, which just happens to be a basement.  There’s plenty of good wine in the basement, of course, but also a cheap 80s-era plastic turntable and a stash of records (lots of new wave, lots of Brit pop), and those records are playing and because Chris has chosen the wine we’re experiencing some new and interesting flavors — sometimes approximating the best flavors you can imagine under the sun — and it gets later and later but the wine is good, the music is good, and the cats just don’t seem to care.  At some point, glass of wine in hand, I make my way out to the field in the back of the house, set my trusty LOMO LC-A on the top of a fencepost, and count out Mississippis for three minutes while I keep the shutter open by pressing my finger down on the shutter button.  The result is a little bit blurry, but there you can see it — hay bales, a tractor, the smell of three a.m. mist-covered grass.  That’s the Sonoma County I remember, and that’s what wine will always taste like to me.

Whenever I have a glass of wine, no matter what country it’s from, I think about the flavors of the northern California landscape, the flavors of my close friends (some of whom are the most delicious people ever), and of course, all those delicious flavors from outer space that have somehow made their way into the glass in my hand that has been poured for me by that most generous of astronaut-aliens, Chris Sawyer.  And all of it, of course, isn’t even from space at all but instead comes right out of the ground in the place where you grew up, entirely astonishing and entirely everyday.

night of the rampant wine party (5)

night of the rampant wine party (1)

night of the rampant wine party (6)

night of the rampant wine party (7)

night of the rampant wine party (3)

night of the rampant wine party (4)

night of the rampant wine party (2)

 

 



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