An old wine-bibber having been smashed in a railway collision, some wine was poured on his lips to revive him. "Pauillac, 1873," he murmured and died. -- Ambrose Bierce
I t was the first time I'd ever driven past Chino Farms and up the winding hill that leads to the nation's priciest zip code. Before leaving the house, David had Googled directions that included an aerial photo of our destination, a sprawling four-point-something-million-dollar home -- one of many McChateaus shoe-horned into a gated and guarded, faux-Tuscan community. The most striking thing about the neighborhood (aside from the haphazard shape of the roofs, indicative of the Architecture-as-Afterthought school of design) was that there was scarcely 20 feet between each "sprawling estate." The setting sun cast an orange glow on the rolling, admittedly Tuscan-looking hills. I drank in the vision, breathed deeply through my nose, and almost understood why someone might choose to live so far from civilization. I nearly voiced my little insight, but changed my mind as we pulled up to the gate. A uniformed man emerged from a small cottage-like structure. He looked at me and I said, "We're here for the wine tasting." He asked for our names and then disappeared back into his hut to confirm that we were on "the list." Reappearing, he handed us a slip of pink paper, a visitor's pass to display on the dashboard. The pass was dated -- clearly a deterrent to anyone thinking of breaking free from the confines of their welcome.
I parked my car across the street from the house; before I'd even turned off the ignition, three young men approached. I was about to close my electric window, my finger poised above the button, when the one with the deep tan and sun-bleached hair said, "We'll be happy to park it for you." I pointed out the obvious, that I'd already parked, to which he said, "Oh, but they, like, don't really want people parking on this side of the street. So you'd have to, like, turn it around and park on the other side." He looked so eager. I resisted the urge to swing the car around myself, and opened the door. "There you go," I said, "keys are in there." He handed me a ticket and drove off in my '90s vintage, champagne-colored Corolla, presumably to park it as far away as possible from the row of plush Mercedes and BMW luxury sedans.
David and I walked the path to the front door, past a cascading waterfall croaking with live frogs. An imposing doorway opened onto a marble-floored grand foyer with a 20-foot-high ceiling, the entrance to the home-cum-venue for the charity wine tasting. This was David's deal. I appreciate a good sip of fermented grape juice, but I couldn't tell you whether it was fruit forward, backward, or diagonal. Both my beloved wine aficionado and I, however, know what we like, and we do not allow the opinion of some random wino with a newsletter to influence our judgment. Nor do we buy into the nouveau riche belief that "more expensive" equals "better."
Minutes after our arrival, an announcement was made for everyone to gather near the bar that was adjacent to one of four sitting rooms near the glass-fronted wine cellar in which some of the world's most extravagant wines were prominently displayed. A woman thanked us for coming and then launched into an orientation lecture. At the end of her spiel, she said, "And please be nice to the people pouring. They are not just bartenders. They are lawyers and writers and CEOs who have kindly offered to volunteer tonight."
" She did not just say that, " I hissed at David. " In other words, if they were 'just' bartenders, then it would be okay for us to be assholes?"
Before David could respond to my outrage, a couple approached, their right hands extended for shaking. The woman, a fifty-ish, smiley, salon-induced towhead, wore blue jeans on which flowers and butterflies had been painted in white. A shimmery silver blazer covered a matching camisole, and when she removed her glasses, setting them to rest between her breasts, I could see that her colored contacts matched the powdery lavender of her glittering, generously applied eye shadow.
"So how did you find out about this?" she asked. "You know Robin?" The woman eyed us expectantly. I told her we were on a list through the local charity organization. "Oh," she nodded, "Yeah, well, we live in Beverly Hills. We found out about it from Robin. She's doing our cellar. We have 5000 bottles of wine that she's helping us barcode."
"You must like to entertain," I said. "You could never drink that many bottles alone."
"There is nothing wrong with drinking alone. I drink alone all the time," she said.
"Well yeah, I agree with that, I was just saying... Oh, never mind," I said. "So, 5000, huh? Wow. That's a lot of wine."
We wriggled free from the cellar talk and headed to one of the tasting stations, where two men were discussing the terroir of a "hundred-point" bordeaux, meaning a bordeaux that someone with nose insurance declared "top of the vine." Terroir -- a term bandied about by snobbish souses -- is a French word meaning "sense of place," or the soil, weather, and whatnot that contribute to a wine's "personality." David leaned over and, in a mock pompous tone, said, "I would say this is a naive bordeaux, a bit on the impetuous side, but I am certain that its transcendentalism will astound you."
"They may be using wine words," I said, "But do you know what I hear? 'My wallet is much bigger than yours.' 'Oh, yeah? Well, buddy, the girth of your wallet is nothing compared to the sheer immensity of my magnum .' How much you wanna make a bet one of those guys has a Ferrari? Come on," I grabbed David's hand. "All this chest-thumping is boring me. Let's go taste that barolo you donated."
A volunteer sommelier with the image of a corkscrew tattooed on his upper left arm poured two ounces of the Italian red wine into the glass David and I were sharing. We chatted for a bit, learned his name (Woody) and the various places around town that he currently works. Throughout the evening, the most interesting and scintillating conversations were with the volunteers pouring wine or the employees of Urban Kitchen, which was hired to cater the affair. Like all of the others we'd spoken to before him, Woody mentioned something about how "nice" we were.
The consensus of the volunteers was that, regardless of the earlier announcement that the people pouring wine were not "just" bartenders, many tasters had treated them as second-class citizens, not asking, but demanding their pours and stopping just short of impatiently snapping their fingers. Woody, who works in the food-service industry, was not as surprised by the dismissive behavior as some of the other volunteers, one of whom actually said, "I'm not just a bartender, you know. I'm volunteering because I love wine and this happens to be one of my charities. I'm a retired CEO."
Having decided that we were his kind of people, Woody invited David and me to join him for after-drink drinks at Tastes, a restaurant in Encinitas that pairs fine wines with menu selections created by wine-loving chef and owner Sean Fisher.
When we arrived, the restaurant was closed, but staff and friends were gathered around the bar. Once inside, introductions were made, corks let loose, wine was poured, and glasses appeared in our hands. Matthew, the bartender, asked David how the $1500 bottle of Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon had tasted. David smiled and took a sip of Inniskillin's Vidal ice wine. "It was okay," he said. "But I'll tell you this. No matter how good a fifteen-hundred dollar wine is, it will never taste better than a five-dollar milkshake."