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Tuesday, May 16, 2006
A trip to wine country
I don't like wine and wine doesn't like me.
I don't like the taste. I don't like the culture surrounding it. I don't like sniffing corks, I don't care about bouquets, palettes or rot, noble or otherwise, I think the makers of Sideways each deserve a swift kick in the crotch for drawing so much attention to the snobbery surrounding this befouled grape juice. Some people think wine is divine and they build little altars in their basements (wine cellars they call them) devoted to the stuff. When you get down to it though, wine tastes like vinegar and vinegar tastes like ass.
But wine openers? Those are great. They look like robots and they're fun to play with. I've got nothing against them.
Part of my animosity dates back to 1998, when I participated in a wine tasting for an article that appeared in the Oregon Commentator. But this wasn't just any foo-foo wine tasting. The author purchased a bungload of bottom-shelf wine at a local supermarket and convinced a colleague and I to help him rate each one. By the time we got around to the bottle of Night Train, the room was spinning and I was muttering and scribbling cartoons on my notepad when I should have been noting the brand's "bouquet." I excused myself, hopped on my bike and struggled to make it back to my dorm room. By the time I passed Autzen Stadium, the world around me had become like a silent movie. Everything was choppy and moving at five frames a second.
It took everything I had to make to safety and avoid spending a night being nibbled on by nutrias. Once I landed back in my room, I promptly collapsed on the floor and woke up the next morning in a pool of pink vomit. A turned-over trash can nearby suggested that I had attempted, but failed, to deposit my pastel puke in a proper receptacle.
My vino-phobia has landed me in all sorts of awkward situations since then. While friends and family pour over wine lists, I find myself humbly ordering a Coke or a beer, leaving them to snicker and waiters to roll their eyes. More recently, I've forced myself to drink the stuff, picking glasses in restaurants at random based on whether or not their names sound neat. Lousy social norms. The faces I pull when I mistakingly order a dry wine make the "Bitter Beer Face" guy on those old Keystone ads look like Macho Man Randy Savage.
So along comes Mother's Day last weekend and what does my sister decide to do? She convinces the whole family to make a trip out to wine country for a "tasting." Unbeknownst to me, McMinnville and the surrounding communities have become the Portland Metro equivalent of Napa Valley in recent years. A scattering of farms out there is now broken by a winery every half mile. Places like the Stone Wolf Winery, Wineworks and our destination, a tasting room outside of Amity.
The interior looked like an English tavern as designed by Eddie Bauer and was filled from floor to ceiling with rickety iron racks filled with $50+ bottles. A misstep would inevitably result in disaster. Even more bizarre for a complete novice like myself? The owners actually give samples of the wares away for free. This tasting room sits on the edge of a highway leading to Lincoln City and a hop, skip and jump away from two casinos. The place is one stumbling, liquored-up senior citizen away from financial ruin.
The kindly owner led us and another group over to a stone bar covered in bottles. He lined up a row of glasses and started on his selection of white wines. The deal? Each glass would cost us a buck each unless we bought something. He poured liberally. Around the time I began to feel the effects of the alcohol and realize that I was well on my way to getting rip roaring drunk with my parents and a group of yuppies on a Sunday afternoon, it dawned on me: I was supposed to take only a tiny taste of each selection and dump the rest into a large vat on the bar.
Risking embarrassment, I spent the next hour struggling to suppress my wine face while making an effort to discuss each's flavor. As others nearby broke out terms like "acidity" and "nose," I found myself saying things to my mother like "this one is, uh, quite nice." I was out of my element and a long ways from the Pabst-clogged bars of Portland proper.
Thankfully, everyone else but me fielded the small talk while the owner continued down the line. Would this never end? By the time the tasting finished, we racked up somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 glasses each of gratis spirits. I naturally assumed that we were imposing and taking advantage of the situation but all signs pointed to "this is how they do things at tastings." The owner, my family and the yuppies acted as if this was par for the course so I played along, feeling like a stranger in a strange land filled with icky tasting intoxicants and cheesy Celtic music (compliments of a boom box behind the bar).
I was hoping a Paul Giamatti clone would storm in and start ranting about merlot, anything to break up the monotony and the droning acoustic guitars. The closet thing to a curmudgeonly wine connoisseur we encountered was a guy that impatiently tapped his foot while the owner rang up his purchase. By the end of the tasting, we had consumed or poured out around $60 worth of wine. My sister bought a $25 bottle and my father selected a $30 vintage. I could have purchased one out of guilt but what would I have done with it? For the record, the yuppies that had joined us walked out empty handed.
Maybe the whole place is a front for the mafia.
From there we headed to the Hotel Oregon and ate lunch at the UFO Bar on the roof. While the McMenamins brothers have played a part in the snob-ifying of beer, it's hard to argue with sunny skies, Hammerhead, the White Stripes drifting in from the bar and happy hour corn dogs, especially on the heels of 90 minutes in a wine shop.
As I headed downstairs, I found myself stuck behind a couple that stopped to contemplate a painting of two angelic babies floating in a field. The husband turned to the wife and said "I'm going to have nightmares about this one tonight." While Edgefield may hold the record for the McMenamins with the creepiest murals (see above), I think the Hotel Oregon comes in a close second. Those upper floors must be kick to walk around in after dark.