California Part II – Wine, willingness and wisdom, October 2018
A lot can happen in a decade. Precisely ten years ago, at the time of an American crisis (September 2008, global economic crisis – Lehman Brother’s collapse), two Kiwis and Englishman rekindled their early adult friendships with a 10-day wine exploration of Napa Valley. Now exactly 10 years later, and again right smack in the middle of another American crisis (sexual crisis Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into Judge Kavanaugh, September 2018), we set off to explore the Central Coast Californian wine growing regions of Santa Cruz, Carmel Valley, Santa Barbara, and Paso Robles).
So off we went, without an immediate awareness of how much we had matured or what this new wine holiday was going to become – not stuck in the anxious past and needing to relive our 2009 Napa fun, not needing to fixation on hedonistic days of the Blenheim vineyards circa 1994, or even rigidly adhering the antics of Miles and Jack in the Santa Ynez Valley Sideways movie.
This holiday vacation experience was to become something new, vibrate and refreshingly uncomfortable. In the process of reflecting upon our past 10 years, both the day-to-day existences and to the extremes of family deaths, personal tragedies and significant life changes, we discovered what was of key importance and meaningful for us as individuals and what connected us as friends. We found meaning in the suffering and pain of our daily existences, and this holiday was not an escape from any of this, but a reminder of something beyond the highs of a wine drinking holiday.
The wine tour ‘started’ with a pre-wine weekend of pleasure in Santa Cruz. We drove across the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz mountain range for a hosted visit to the Ridge Vineyard, made famous for its role in the Judgement of Paris wine competition.
Upon collecting Nick from nearby San Francisco airport, we promptly dispelled the cliché that three-is-a-crowd – possibly because the three of us have been a tight group of friends for many years, but also due to the massive roomy interior of our SUV Cadillac, with plenty of room to lounge about as we blatted down the 101 freeway, straight on to the small community of Carmel Valley. Just like the Napa Valley experiences of small town California, we quickly made meaningful connections with the locals and enjoyed immersing ourselves in the village wine tasting houses by day, and then dive bars by night. There was something wonderfully magical about our meeting of strangers in California. We would arrive from a relaxed days of winery tasting to then sit in awesome bars and meet wonderful people like Paul-from-New-Zealands’ brother, underwater photographers with names that were anagrams of Jane Fonda and an influential local designer and architect. One friendly stranger overheard me mouthing off about the highly developed sommelier skills of my good friend Adam – to then produce a Le Nez Du Vin wine aroma kit and challenging us to hours of fun banter as we identified the various aromas from small viles (I correctly identified “mouldy bathroom” from my experiences in my student flats, but struggled to pinpoint the familiar smell of cinnamon). One of the more lasting connections was the chance meeting with Katy – our language guide (correct American pronunciation you don’t say the “T” Monterey or in Katy), entertainment guide (we were intrigued and obsessed night after night with a fast bar-top dice- gambling game), tour guide (good Big Sur cafe sitting in chairs) and wine guide (recommending the essential Carmel Valley wine tasting highlights and the beachside wine tasting houses of Santa Barbara). But Katy also played into Aaron’s irreverence and cynicism by turning the 2am bar conversation to religion and spirituality. Much to Nick and Adam’s shock, Aaron took an early morning challenge to be hosted by the congregation of St Dunstan’s Episcopal Church and received a refreshing spiritual burst at 10am the same morning – probably attending to his wish for adventure, curiosity, and a connection to others, rather than any legitimate religious needs.
There must have been something in the Carmel Valley water, as by the second night in the village Aaron and Nick wandered the streets singing the Pink Floyd classic “Wish You Were Here”. The lyrics are not strictly in keeping with our focus on being present and mindful, but maybe 50 year old holiday makers needed some reminiscing as they deal with too many late nights in a row and the impact of late afternoon caffeinated energy drinks.
Like crossing the Golden Gate Bridge during the Napa trip, no visit to the central coast could miss the tourist highlight of Big Sur – the coastal wildness region and famous narrow cliff side Pacific Coast Highway. The Big Sur drive was made into a key friendship moment by blasting and singing the 1960’s classics such as She’ Not There (the band are not actually from California, but from St Albans where I used to live in the UK!) as the cold sea mist raced up the cliff face and onto the road (this is apparent an important feature of wine growing!).
Our third wine region of Santa Barbara was a mixture of the urban tasting rooms in the inner city centre and then the surrounding rural valley’s making up the six American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) within Santa Barbara County. At this mid-stage of the wine tour, I forgot my commitment to avoid needing to replicate the accomplishments of the Napa trip, anxious that we weren’t going to match the high number of winery visits ten years earlier. It was already day five of the central coast trip and only five formal wine related visits so far and some mysterious inner force was making judgements on our performance and stamina (thanks to Aaron’s competitive mind). But then Adam and Nick in their wisdom introduced me to something that was important to them and took me to the early morning swimming and vigorous exercise at the hotel facilities – and I discovered that this could be an important part of my daily routine if I was willing to make it happen (fast forward 7 months – I have attend the gym regularly, and have connected my need for adventure with becoming physically fit).
We exited the city of Santa Barbara north to the dry wine region valleys, to be hosed at the Margerun Wine Company in the Santa Ynez Valley and then onto the Bien Nacido Vineyards & Solomon Hills Estates in the Santa Maria Valley. The whole time Adam coaching and commenting on the different winemaking philosophies, noting the contrasts between those that achieved incredible balance by expert blending and those that let the purity of the soil express their wine. I was also coaching my friends on a newly discovered approach to wellbeing by being present with the moment (“here we are now, having a time together”), taking action toward what is important (early morning gym workouts) and opening up to unwanted feelings (an especially effective strategic response to feeling ‘homesick’ mid vacation). Nick has a more subtle coaching style, preferring to demonstrate his skills by casually mentioning that he learned to swim in his mid twenties as he swam 40 lengths of the hotel pool and then working hard on his business tax returns during our downtime in the hotel.
After a long day of car travel discussions on wine making, values and life anecdotes we arrived at our fourth and final wine region of Paso Robles. Walking around the small town and village square, we were reminded of Blenheim New Zealand, sharing a history of developing into a major wine growing industry in the 1970s, and then becoming recognised as a specialise region of a grape variety. Blenheim internationally known for Sauvignon blanc, but Paso Robles now known for the Rhône varieties – transforming in the late 1990s by the “Rhone Rangers”. Like Blenheim, there are an intense concentration of vineyards, wineries and tasting cellars within the town and within an easy bike ride of the township. and again, I was invited to join Adam and Nick’s fondness for physical exercise by biking the 30 miles needed as we stepped up to complete our wine tasting requirements on that day. Although assisted by electric bikes that day, I’ve since harnessed the pleasant memories of warm central coast wine vistas to motivate my spin class exercise.
By the second day full day of visits in Paso Robles region, we thought we were at ‘peak wine holiday’ – completing the tour with hosted visits to the Santa Margarita AVA and experiencing and observing some of the theory and winemaking philosophies Adam had spoken about earlier in trip. Seeing some wineries working to stay true to the traditional blends and tastes of Europe, others letting their local soils and climate guide their wine variety, or branching out and blending what you want away from the strict expectations of tradition (producing Bordeaux and Rhône Blends!). The après-wine activities in Paso Robles adding to this sense of a holiday high – more blending with the locals and other tourists playing pool in the dive bars, random introductions to the guitar making legend Gary Kramer, finally discovering real coffee in American at Spearhead Coffee, and being hosted by a winemaker in her boutique shop for after-work-drinks at the shop counter.
The holiday wasn’t the pinnacle of an experience – not ‘peak wine’ or a great holiday memory, but true to the cliché, just part of a journey. We love California and small town California. And meeting people in California. And drinking wine. We loved it the first time and we loved at the second time (I suspect I told many late night bar patrons this many times). But the second time with less attachment to the past or future expectations, well connected with our friends and strangers at that very moment, and with a growing ability to articulate and really know what mattered. And since then returning home to life struggles and tragedies and highs and lows – but now with a great ability to make meaning from these.
This piece is dedicated to my wine loving (hedonistic) mother in-law and the one person in my life who would have taken the most interest in this blog – but died before she could read it. I miss her, but I wrote this for her.
Blog courtesy of Aaron O’Connell