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A Single Rule for Wine Tasting

It was 2009, and I thought Yellow Tail produced a great wine. When it was up to me to choose wine for a party, I would instinctively pick up a bottle of their Shiraz/Cabernet blend, noting its “spicy, but floral” notes and recommending that everybody give it a try. It was always a hit with our small group of inexperienced wine-os, so why spend more than $7.99 when I could get a liter and a half of Yellow Tail for that price at the local grocer?

That all changed in October, when my friend Ron and I decided to spend a weekend in the Santa Ynez valley, near Santa Barbara, CA, and recreate the famous trip taken by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in Sideways—a movie I hadn’t seen at the time, but because of Ron’s constant recitation of the line, made me wary of trying or liking any of the region’s “f***ing merlot.”

Unfortunately we didn’t have the cash to stay at a hotel right next to or on one of the vineyards, so we stayed nearby in Solvang. A small Danish settlement that looks like something out of a Hans Christian Andersen storybook and feels slightly out of place in the middle of central California. Chock-full of restaurants cooking up schnitzel, and boutiques selling an endless array of cuckoo-clocks and other interesting-but-useless knick-knacks, the ornamental decoration and old world temperament of Solvang makes for an interesting contrast to Santa Ynez’s serenity.

Ron and I spent our afternoon in Solvang wandering aimlessly, looking for cheese and cigars. Eventually, after a few random stops for aebleskivers and beer (because why not?), we found the mother of all cheese shops and spent an hour or so sampling as many as we could. After we were sure we had eaten enough bite-sized cheese that we wouldn’t need to spend money on dinner, we walked out with an asiago blend, brie, crackers, and a bottle of wine—because even though we were going wine tasting all day the next day, we weren’t going allow ourselves to hang out in wine country for too long without keeping a decent buzz going.

We spent the rest of the evening sitting at a broken table outside our hotel room with some French wine we couldn’t pronounce, smoking cigars, and solving the world’s problems.

You’re welcome.

The drive over the mountain into the valley is beautiful. Winding roads, tall trees, expensive private homes, and spots to look back over Santa Barbara. (The fact that you can also see the ocean is an added bonus. California, for the win.) There are farms everywhere and cows, goats and sheep seem to roam free. Once you’re over the tallest portion of the mountains, going north, cell reception is scarce, leaving you and your friends alone with your conversation.

Ron and I were obviously great friends, or we wouldn’t have gone on a random trip like this. But we were working together on a start-up at the time and did have a bit of a strained relationship because of some conflicting interests. We were both hoping that having the opportunity to get away from the grind would give us a chance to reconnect and work some things out.

Our first stop was Firestone Vineyards at the edge of Zaca Station Road. Firestone is a larger company, you can find most of their wines just about anywhere and they’re modestly priced. Not quite $7.99 per liter, but you’ll pay less than $20 for a decent bottle. It was a Saturday, so the tasting counter was a bit crowded. We elbowed our way in and got the attention of the tasting room host.

“How are you, gentlemen?”

“Good, you?”

“Great. Two tastings?”

“Yes. But before we get started, can you give us some advice about how to do this right? We’re newbies. Never been wine tasting before. What are some things we should we keep in mind?”

“Just don’t become a snob. Too many people take this too seriously. Sure, there are some wines that are inherently ‘better’ than others but, really, it just boils down to whether you like it or you don’t. Don’t let anybody guilt you into ‘liking’ a wine that’s ‘great’ just because they read something in Wine Spectator.”

We blinked. That was not the answer we were expecting. We were expecting some hard and fast rules about how to properly hold the glass and aerate the wine. We were expecting to be told that wines aged in oak were better than wines aged in steel and that we should question anybody’s credentials were they to say otherwise. We were expecting at least a little bit of snobbery, and we got just the opposite.

We were relieved.

His first pour was a 2007 Chardonnay. We didn’t like it, and, thankfully, didn’t feel the need to pretend to. Of course, we still didn’t pour it out—as is recommended when tasting wines you don’t like—because that’s wasting wine, and just silly.

After stopping at two or three other decent-but-not-so-memorable wineries, we ended up at Foxen 7200 to close out the day. Foxen is, quite literally, a shack. They’ve since built out a full tasting room, but in 2009 they were still building and the room was just a little bit bigger than an outhouse (I’m sure that conjures up the wrong image, but you get the picture). We’ve been culturally conditioned to take food and drink establishments that look unassuming a bit more seriously—let’s call it “Food Network Syndrome.” Symptoms include thinking any place that looks like a “dive” has to be better because it’s obviously more “honest.”

Foxen’s 7200 location embodies the “dive” description perfectly—at least from the outside.

Except it’s no joke. And you won’t have to enjoy it ironically. Their wines are amazing. Even for newbies like Ron and I, we could taste a huge difference in their then-small-batch productions (they’ve since expanded quite a bit). Every wine was full, rich and complex. Even varietals we disliked at other wineries were great at Foxen.

So we bought a bottle and found a table on their patio to close out the day with the cheese we bought in Solvang, a vintage 2007 Foxen Pinot Noir, and some cigars.

Instead of solving the world’s problems though, we talked honestly with one another about how we disagreed. We were candid. No punches were pulled. We got angry with one another, and we laughed. We said things that were hurtful to each other’s face and we eventually came to terms with where we were wrong about one another, and where the other person was right about a flaw that we were unable to see in ourselves.

Wine tasting is an exercise in having an opinion, and letting others have theirs. It isn’t just something to sip on, it’s a conversation piece. Two people can have two extremely different views on the same wine—one person may declare it the greatest thing they’ve ever tasted (“Imma let you finish, but this 2007 Pinot Noir from the Santa Ynez region is the greatest varietal of all time.”), while the person next to them thinks it tastes like dirt.

Neither person is wrong, neither person is right. And that’s what makes wine tasting so interesting. Rarely—especially in this climate of hyper-partisanship (concerning just about every subject from politics and religion, to YouTube videos of cats)—do you get the opportunity to disagree with somebody about something so unimportant so passionately, and come to the conclusion that… well, it really doesn’t matter.

It’s an opportunity to let your guard down. To pass out ever-so-slightly-buzzed on a lawn on a summer day while your friends laugh in the background, tossing a frisbee and eating a picnic lunch. It’s an opportunity to honestly disagree about something as trivial as Chardonnay, and something as important as the very nature of your friendship.

So, go ahead: agree or disagree. Just don’t be a snob.

Photography by Benjamin Hunter and Amanda Ryan.

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