The good wine

We barreled down the winding roads of Sonoma and the Russian River Valley with our knowledgeable guide Bruce Conard at the wheel. I watched as vineyard after popular vineyard passed by without even a consideration to hit the brakes. “What about that one?” I suggested hesitantly as we passed yet another label I recognized. “Absolutely not,” shot back Bruce without glancing in my direction. “That wine is crap.”

Over the next few hours, my husband and I got an intense schooling on everything from vineyard soil requirements to the proper way to sip wine. Who knew that the tip of the tongue should not be hidden against the teeth when tasting? Not us. We imbibe but we are no aficionados. We were ripe for the training. And the experience—like a dark purple stain that even Wine Away can’t extract—changed our selection approach for good.

Bruce only took us to privately owned vineyards where the grapes have not been exposed to any pesticides. Here are a few things we learned: 1) Wines that are mass-produced using pesticides have a bitter taste. 2) Buy at least two of every bottle you like so that it won’t be too precious to drink when you get home. 3) Buy what Bruce tells you to buy. 4) Bruce can’t drive.

A month later, I stand in the wine department of Calandro’s with Bruce’s rules in my head and hundreds of bottles from which to choose. I am frozen in fear. European wine is good because there are strict winemaking regulations there. Sonoma on the label does not confirm that all grapes were harvested in Sonoma. Or Napa. Get on mailing lists. Learn more, research more, taste more. I need a glass of wine just to recover from the stress of the wine selection.

Meanwhile, back at home my husband and I have cases that were shipped from our recent excursion. The good wine. But we—meaning my husband—are guarding the good wine in the way a 13-year-old girl with a new boyfriend guards a diary. What occasion is special enough for the good wine in our household? For me, it would be a random Tuesday night when I’ve cooked a decent meal and the kids are in the bathtub. We have at least two bottles of each, after all. For him, it would be Christmas, Thanksgiving and the birth of a child. And we aren’t having any more kids.

Recently, a friend gave me a bottle of wine in return for a minor favor. A few nights later, at my parents’ house, I pulled the bottle out of my car to bring to dinner. “She gave you Caymus?” my mother asked in shock. Glasses were grabbed, and a tasting began. Little had I known that the bottle rolling around the inside of my vehicle held such decadent, chocolaty goodness. My friend—the gifter who had grabbed the bottle from her husband’s collection—didn’t know it either. When he went to open his bottle of Caymus, he found it missing. “I gave it to Ashley,” she told him. “Why? Was it good?” Yes. Yes it was.

There is a difference. Once you taste good wine, really good wine, it’s hard to go back to Two-Buck Chuck, if you were ever there. A bit of Bruce-inspired knowledge is a dangerous but empowering thing. And if you run out of the good wine, never fear. Sonoma is just a plane trip away.