make your moment: my morning in healdsburg, and all you really need to know about wine

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The morning I woke up in Sonoma County, I re-read the email Aimee, from La Crema Wines, sent me:

Please have breakfast on your own on Thursday morning – I recommend something on the heartier side as we’ll jump right into wine tasting.

Well, alrighty then.

Since I had a few hours to myself, and there's very little I love better than a good breakfast, I quickly got dressed and ran down to the lobby. 

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H2 Hotel, where I was staying, was fantastic -- one of the best night's sleep I'd had in while -- but their complimentary breakfast consisted of solely of pastries and coffee, and I was on the hunt for something bigger.  The staff person behind the desk didn't even hesitate:  "Costeaux French Bakery," he said.  "Best breakfast in town. Out our doors, turn left, and walk for about 5 minutes.  You can't miss it."

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It was a beautiful morning so it was a lovely walk, and the restaurant definitely didn't disappoint: it was light and airy, and I had an omelette as big as my head, filled with  spinach and sundried tomatoes and -- wait for it -- brie.   Magnificent.

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I settled in with my book and my journal, and passed a very agreeable few hours, before heading back up the streets of Healdsburg toward the La Crema tasting room near my hotel.

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Now, I will admit to you that I was really nervous about this wine tasting.  I mean, I drink wine, and I think I can taste the difference between a good wine and a bad one, but that's where my knowledge really stops -- I'm not a wine connoisseur by any stretch.  And if the La Crema folk were expecting me to wax poetic, like this description (of a non-La Crema-wine) ...

The wine exhibits a thick-looking, ruby/purple color, and a knock-out nose of lead pencil, minerals, flowers, and black currant scents. Extremely powerful and full-bodied, with remarkable complexity for such a young wine, this huge Lafite is oozing with extract and richness, yet has managed to preserve its quintessentially elegant personality.

... they were going to be sincerely disappointed.  I mean, seriously?  "A knock-out nose"? "Minerals"?!  "Lead pencil"!?!  This was a joke, right?  There was no way I was going to be able to put my face inside a glass of wine and come up with that

Turns out I was in for an education.

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The La Crema tasting room in Healdsburg is sort of like a really specialized wine bar:  you can walk in at any time, and for a range of different prices, they'll give you a taste of four wines that they make in limited production -- wines of theirs that are probably hard to come by in your local stores.  If you like any one (or more!) of them, then you can buy a bottle (or more!) to take home with you. 

The space has recently been expanded and renovated, with tasting stations strategically placed around the room. And wine. Lots and lots of wine.

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For my tasting experience, though, I was taken to a smaller, more private room in the back.  No pressure.

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Aimee (the woman who warned me to eat the hearty breakfast, who was also my handler for the day and is now definitely a new friend) and Annette walked in.  I would've called Annette a sommelier,* but apparently obtaining the title "sommelier" is extremely difficult, requiring extensive, expensive education, and resulting in only about 20 people in the country actually having the title "master sommelier."  Whatever, man:  Annette's knowledge of wine seemed positively limitless from where I sat, so in my book (and on my blog) "sommelier" she shall be.

I sat down in front of my wine with my journal, ready to learn.  (Incidentally, if you're already an oenophile, the following might be old hat for you, and you might want to just look at the pretty pictures, lest you be disturbed by how little I know; however, for those of you who really don't know much about wine and you'd like to develop a decent beginner's understanding, get ready:  I'm about to drop a little knowledge on you.)

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(Yes, for those of you who are counting, there are nine glasses of wine in front of me.   To avoid getting drunk, there was also that red plastic cup on my left for me to spit my wine into after I sipped it, but personally, I think it's a sin to spit wine.  So even though I was very careful not to drink entire glasses, let's just say I was very happy for that head-sized omelette I'd had for breakfast.)

Annette told me that we would be tasting from left to right (as opposed to if this were a wine pairing -- having wine with various courses of foods -- where we'd be tasting from right to left.  I assume this is because it's easier for the waiters to take away plates and glasses after the courses).  She also told me about appellations, which is the word used to identify the regions where the grapes come from.  And the reason you'd want to identify the regions is because climates and soils vary wildly.

For example: in California, the regions most people are familiar with are Napa Valley and Sonoma County.  Napa Valley is more inland than Sonoma County, and behind some mountains, so it tends to have a warmer climate.  Sonoma, on the other hand (which is where we were) tends to feel the effects of the winds off the cold, northern Pacific Ocean, so the climate is cooler.  Sonoma County is further divided up into regions (or "appellations"), with names like Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and so on. (You can see a map of the Sonoma County appellations here.)  Each of these appellations, in turn, have different micro-climates and soils that affect how the grapes taste.  La Crema makes wines from chardonnay grapes and pinot noir grapes grown in various vineyards in Sonoma County, and are therefore "cool-climate wines."

Wild, right?

"Okay, let's start with our leftmost glass," began Annette, indicating to my first glass.  "And here's how it's done."

The proper way to taste wine, apparently, is to follow the 5 S's:

1.  See -- Take a look at the wine, and note its colour.  In white wine, it could go from almost clear to deep golden; in reds, it can go from a pale, transparent red to a deep, dark opaque, maroon.

2.  Swirl -- Swirl the wine around in the glass, so that the wine's aroma fills the glass, enabling you to move on to the next step.

This is Aimee, swirling.  Girlfriend's got her swirl down.

This is Aimee, swirling.  Girlfriend's got her swirl down.

3.  Sniff -- Put your entire nose in the glass, and take a series of short sniffs.  More on this sniffing thing later, because I had a bit of an epiphany about this.

This is Aimee, sniffing.  One day I will sniff as well as Aimee.

This is Aimee, sniffing.  One day I will sniff as well as Aimee.

4.  Sip -- Take a healthy sip of wine -- more than a dainty sip, but less than the kind of gulp of water you'd take after an intense workout.

5.  Savour -- Roll the wine around in your mouth a bit, and notice the taste, and any sensations you feel as it moves.  Then swallow, and notice if there's any aftertaste, or how the flavour changes.

"So this first one," Annette continued, as I was swirling, sniffing and sipping,  "is from the Sonoma Coast appellation.  You'll notice that it's an approachable and interesting chardonnay, vibrant, with a citrusy, creamy ..."

"Okay, wait," I interrupted.  "Forgive me, but I don't even know what this means.  What do you mean it's 'vibrant'?  And how can a wine be 'citrusy'?  There are no lemons or grapefruits in wine ... how can a wine possibly be 'citrusy'?"

Annette smiled, in the most awesomely kind way possible -- and I loved her immediately.  "I know," she said, nodding.  "Here's the thing:  those of us who live in the wine business have developed a language so that we can talk to each other about differences in wine.  But it's so not necessary to speak in that language to enjoy and appreciate wine.  The only thing you should notice is how you feel when you drink it, and what you notice, and whether you like it or not. 

"Here, let's do an experiment.  Put down that glass, take a sip of water, and then pick up the second one."

I did as she suggested.

"Okay, swirl it around a bit, close your eyes, put your nose in the glass, and take a few sniffs.  Let the scent invoke an image in your mind.  What do you see?'

I swirled, closed my eyes, and sniffed.  Instantly an image came to mind, and just as immediately, I became shy.

"What do you see?" she asked, gently.  "Did anything come to mind?"

"Well ... yes ..." I hesitated.  "But it's crazy.  I'm not sure I want to tell you."

"I promise, it's not silly," she encouraged.  "What is it?"

"Well, honestly?  I thought of weathered wood," I admitted.  "Like the planks on the side of an old cabin, or shack.  Wind-worn."

She beamed.  "That's the cedar," she said.  "We describe this wine as having cedar notes.  See?  You've got it!"

People, it was like a light went off.  For the each of the glasses of white wine, I would close my eyes and sniff, and see what images came to mind.  Only after I had an image would I check the official tasting notes of the wine, to see how close I came.  At one point, I sniffed a glass, and an image of my grandmother's old jewelry box came to mind.  I looked at the notes, and whaddya know:  "velvet" was written on the paper.  Another time, I sniffed, and immediately thought of the beach.  "Minerality," appeared on the wine's notes.  Sometimes I would smell things that had no relation whatsoever to what was written in the tasting notes (for example, at one point during the day, I had the overwhelming sense of fresh mint, but it appeared the person who wrote the wine's tasting notes didn't feel the same).  Whenever I was this far off the tasting notes' mark, Annette assured me that it didn't mean I was wrong, but rather, it just meant that I experienced the wine differently. 

Finally, I sniffed a glass.

"Lemons!" I exclaimed.

"And now you know what 'citrusy' means," smiled Annette. 

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"Okay, so now, I want you to try the first glass again, and the last glass, just to compare."

I did as I was told.  "Wow," I said.  "You know, all these wines are great, and even though I liked the first glass, I see now I really like the last glass.  It tastes like it has more flavour."

"Okay, you find the last glass more full-bodied," she nodded, "so that's your preference.  But here's the thing:  all these wines you've had so far are all made by La Crema, and they're all from chardonnay grapes.  The difference is that the first glass is from the Sonoma Coast appellation, and the last glass is from Russian River Valley."

"So wait," I said, suddenly understanding.  "Same grapes, same winery -- so the difference I'm tasting is the climate?"

"Yes, exactly," she nodded.  "You're tasting the climate.  Well, and soil differences, and that sort of thing.  But yes, you're tasting the different regions."

"Holy moly," I breathed, sitting back in my seat.  "I'm tasting the climate."

Eventually we moved on to the reds -- the pinot noirs -- and rest of my wine-tasting education went swimmingly:  once I started ignoring the fancy words describing the wine, and just concentrated on the flavours and the images that came to mind as I tried them, wine started to become emotional, almost nostalgic for me.  It turns out wine appreciation isn't about knowing what the experts are saying, so much as it's about knowing which wines you really enjoy; not just because of the flavour, but because of what all your senses tell you about the wine as you savour it.  And the best part?

You get to decide what good wine is.  It's completely subjective.  And that's the beauty of different, baby.

So from now on, whenever I have a glass of wine, I will remember that wine appreciation is really all about being an exercise in mindfulness:  that the five S's are about making sure I slow down long enough to experience the emotion of drinking wine.  And while a sommelier might suggest a wine to go with whatever meal I'm having in a restaurant, I'll remember that her job really is just to narrow down my choices, but the decision on whether the wine is good or not is mine, and mine alone.

On that (incredibly long) note, cheers, friends. Incidentally, I'd love if you'd share your thoughts about wine:  do you drink it?  Why or why not?  If you do drink wine, do you consider yourself a connoisseur, or do you just drink it because you like the taste?  And if you don't call yourself a connoisseur (as I clearly am not) do you wish you knew more about wine, or are you comfortable with your knowledge?

Let me know in the comments.  In my next post, I'll share the images of the vineyards and the winery, and my new insights about wine culture, so stay tuned for much more.

SongWine safari, from the soundtrack of the movie Sideways (a great movie, by the way, set in the California wine country)


*  My new vocabulary words:

  • sommelier -- an expert in wine service and wine pairings (which is knowing which wine works with which foods).  A sommelier usually works in fine restaurants, but not always.  In fact, I think they can work in fine tasting rooms, and not be certified "master sommelier."  Annette, I'm looking at you.
  • oenophile -- someone who loves wine, with a solid appreciation for it.  After this trip, I totally get where oenophiles are coming from.
  • enologist (or oenologist)-- someone who has a formal education in the study of winemaking (as opposed to the grape-growing).  The University of California at Davis apparently has an excellent enology program, where you can graduate with a 4-year Bachelor of Science degree.
  • viticulturalist -- someone who is versed in the study of growing grapes, specifically for wine.
  • winemaker -- a person who makes wine. 
  • winery -- the facility where wine is made.
  • vineyard -- the fields where grapes are grown.  A winery might have a vineyard, or it might not (it might get its grapes from local vineyards).  Similarly, a vineyard might have a winery, but it might not.


This post and my trip to Sonoma are kindly sponsored by the awesome folks at La Crema Wines, as part of their new Make Your Moment campaign.  La Crema celebrates the deliberate decision to create something fantastic, and invites everyone everywhere to create meaningful moments each day (something that I'm obviously very fond of doing).  Over the next few months, I'll be sharing some of my favourite ways to inject awesome, joy-filled moments to your life, so I hope you'll read along. 

But first, the continuing story of my trip to their vineyards -- so stay tuned, friends.